Studies in the Gospel of Matthew

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112
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1. The Origins of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-25)

Introduction1

We are all familiar with these wonderful words from the pen of the Apostle Paul:

16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).2

It is when we come to texts like Matthew 1:1-17 that our belief in Paul’s words are put to the test. How many of us really find the genealogies of the Bible “useful” or “profitable”? I’ll be honest with you; when I come to a genealogy, I am tempted to pass over it. And even when I do read them (when I am reading through the Bible) I find my mind wanders, and I really don’t get much out of it.

In the light of my bias that genealogies are “boring” and “less profitable” than other Scriptures, I find Matthew’s introduction simply amazing. Think of it: The Gospel of Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, and his genealogy of Jesus Christ is found at the very beginning of this gospel. This means that we have a genealogy here which serves as the introduction to the Book of Matthew, and which also serves as the introduction to the entire New Testament.

I have agonized over the introduction of nearly every one of my sermons. I try to tell a story that somehow captures the interest of the audience and prompts them to pay attention to the Scripture text and sermon that will follow. In all of my years of preaching, it has never once occurred to me to use a genealogy as the introduction to one of my messages.

Since Matthew and I see things differently, it is surely safe to assume that it is I who have failed here, and not the inspired writer of this magnificent gospel. I must therefore give some careful thought as to why Matthew believes a genealogy makes a good introduction, while I have thought otherwise. In this lesson, I will seek to show why Matthew began his gospel with the genealogy of our Lord. I will also attempt to demonstrate the “usefulness” of this genealogy, not only for the first readers of this gospel, but also for us.

Reading the “Sermon on the Mount” or one of Matthew’s parables certainly appears to be more interesting than reading this genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17, but is it possible that what may not seem to be interesting actually proves to be profitable? In real life, most of us do believe that genealogies are profitable. When I decide that I want to pay a good price to purchase a full-blooded dog, I automatically become interested in the animal’s pedigree (or genealogy). I want to know what champions are in this dog’s bloodlines. If I were to read in the newspaper that a wealthy man named Deffinbaugh had died, and that no heirs had been found, I could get very interested in genealogies. A number of people have gone to considerable effort to trace their own genealogy because they want to know who their ancestors were. There are many reasons for people to be interested in genealogies.

Genealogies were especially important to the Jewish people. Israel’s king had to be a Jew, and not a foreigner (Deuteronomy 17:15). Later on it was revealed that he must be a descendant of David (see 2 Samuel 7:12-16). When the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity, it was important for these returned exiles to show that their roots were Jewish and could be traced through the genealogies. No one could serve as priest whose name could not be found in the genealogical records (Ezra 2:62). Bruner writes that the famous rabbi Hillel was proud that he could trace his genealogy all the way back to King David. He further indicates that Josephus began his autobiography with his own pedigree. Then there was Herod the Great, who was half-Jew and half-Edomite. Obviously his name was not in the official genealogies, and thus he ordered that the records be destroyed. If he couldn’t be found there, he did not want to be upstaged by anyone else.3

Dealing With Differences in the Genealogies of Christ

We know that there are two genealogies of our Lord in the Gospels. The first we immediately encounter in Matthew 1; the second is found later on in Luke 3:23-38. Matthew’s genealogy has three divisions. It begins with Abraham and goes forward, ending with the Lord Jesus Christ. Luke’s genealogy begins with Jesus, and then going backward takes us to Adam, the “son of God.”

The differences so far are merely matters of style. But these two Gospel genealogies also differ over some of those who are named in the genealogy:

The difficulty comes in Luke’s first section, in which the names are different from those found in Matthew. This would be all right if we were dealing with the ancestries of two entirely different people, but these are both genealogies of Jesus. What is more, while both books trace Jesus’ line through his adopted father Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom our Lord was born, Matthew says that Joseph was the son of Jacob who descended from David through David’s son and successor King Solomon (Matt. 1:16), and Luke states that Joseph was the son of Heli who had descended from David through Nathan, who was also David’s son but Solomon’s brother (Luke 3:23).4

While some have concluded that there is no solution to this problem, many have thought otherwise. James Montgomery Boice outlines the two most likely solutions. The first is that which was posed years ago by J. Gresham Machen:

Reconciliation might conceivably be effected in a number of different ways. But on the whole we are inclined to think that the true key to a solution to the problem … is to be found in the fact that Matthew, in an intentionally incomplete way, gives a list of incumbents (actual or potential) of the kingly David throne, whereas Luke traces the descent of Joseph back through Nathan to David. Thus the genealogies cannot properly be used to exhibit contradiction between the Matthean and the Lukan accounts of the birth and infancy of our Lord.5

I am inclined to follow Boice, who opts for a second solution, namely that Matthew’s genealogy is of Joseph’s family lineage, while Luke’s genealogy provides us with Mary’s ancestry.

In my judgment, a better solution involves viewing the two lines as the lines of Joseph and Mary respectively, each thereby identified as a descendant of King David… . According to this view, the distinction between the two lines of descent is not between the ‘legal’ line and the ‘paternal’ line, as Machen suggests, but between the ‘royal’ line of those who actually sat on the throne and the ‘legal’ line of descent from the one oldest son to the next, even though these did not actually rule as kings.6

It is not my intention to offer a dogmatic solution to this problem, but only to point out that there is a discrepancy in the two genealogies, and that sound, evangelical scholars have posed some reasonable solutions. My purpose is to show that Matthew’s genealogy is very carefully crafted to teach us some very important truths, truths which are foundational to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and thus to our lives.

Lessons to be Learned From Matthew’s Genealogy
Matthew 1:1-17

The format for this portion of the lesson will be in the form of observations and conclusions. I will begin by making an observation from the genealogy in verses 1-17, and then I will attempt to draw some conclusions from this observation.

Observation one: Matthew begins, “This is the record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). The expression, “the record of the genealogy” in the Greek text reads, somewhat literally, “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ.” It is nearly identical with the Greek translations of Genesis 2:4 and 5:1:7

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created—when the Lord God made the earth and heavens (Genesis 2:4).

(More literally from the Greek: “This is the book of the genesis of the heavens and the earth … .”)

This is the record of the family line of Adam. When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God (Genesis 5:1).

(More literally from the Greek: “This is the book of the genesis/generations of mankind/Adam … .”)

Conclusion: I find these similarities just a little too “coincidental.” This seems very similar to John’s introduction to his Gospel in the first verse of chapter 1: “In the beginning was the Word… .” Surely John is linking the beginning of his Gospel (and, more importantly, our Lord) with Genesis 1 and the creation. Here in our text, Matthew’s words appear to point us to the first genealogy in the Bible which is recorded in Genesis 5. In Genesis 5, Adam has just sinned. God warned Adam that if he (they) ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he (they) would die (Genesis 2:17). One purpose of the first genealogy, then, is to dramatically underscore the truthfulness of God’s Word. Everyone in Adam’s genealogy died, just as God said. Now, in almost identical words, Matthew introduces his Gospel with the first genealogy of the New Testament. Not only are we reminded that all in this genealogy died; Matthew’s words seem to hint that in Jesus there begins a whole new race of people who will never die. Genealogies almost always contain the record of those who have died. Our Lord’s genealogy is that, but it begins a new line, the line of all who are “in Christ” by faith, who thereby possess the gift of eternal life. Here is an exciting genealogy indeed! Who would not want to be included in our Lord’s lineage?

Observation two: Many of the names in this genealogy are names that we recognize. These are the names of real people, people who lived many years ago, but real people nevertheless.

Conclusion: Jesus was a human being (as well as divine), a real person, born of a line of real people. The fact of our Lord’s humanity is essential. It separates those who hold to the truth from those who are heretics:

1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God (1 John 4:1-2, emphasis mine).

Observation three: All those listed in Matthew’s Gospel were sinners, and some were just plain skunks! Here is one of the problems with genealogies – they inform us that some of our forefathers were not such fine people. You and I may find some skeletons in our genealogical closets. Even the best of those listed in this genealogy were far from perfect. We only need to remind ourselves of the lives of these folks. David and Solomon were great men, but they also failed miserably. Wittingly or not, some of these people actually worked to oppose God’s promises and purposes. Abraham first sought to convince God that the son of one of his servants must be his heir (Genesis 15:1-3). He and Sarah then sought to produce an heir through Hagar, the Egyptian slave (Genesis 16). Even after God told Abraham (technically Abram at this point in time) that the promised seed would be the offspring of both he and Sarai/Sarah (Genesis 17:19), Abraham passed off his wife as his sister, making her available for marriage. He did this not only with Pharaoh (Genesis 12:10-20), but also with Abimelech (Genesis 20). And when Abimelech rebuked Abraham for his actions, he told Abimelech that he and Sarah did this wherever they went (Genesis 20:13). Isaac, Abraham’s son, did the same thing with his wife, Rebekah (Genesis 26:7). There are many skeletons in this genealogical closet!

Conclusion: The blessings of God on His people had nothing to do with the good works of men, but can only be explained in terms of the mercy and grace of God. God’s blessings would be poured out on sinful men, in spite of their deeds, based upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The genealogy of our Lord underscores the doctrine of the depravity of man. I like the way Frederick Bruner summarizes this:

One gets the impression that Matthew pored over his Old Testament records until he could find the most questionable ancestors of Jesus available in order, in turn, to insert them into his record and so, it seems, to preach the gospel – the gospel, that is, that God can overcome and forgive sin, and can use soiled but repentant persons for his great purposes in history (for Judah’s repentance, cf. Gen 38:26; for David’s, 2 Sam 12:13 and traditionally, Ps 51).8

Observation four: Matthew includes four women in his genealogy. This is indeed a rare thing, especially for a Jewish genealogy. One would be more likely to expect women to be included in Luke’s genealogy, knowing that Luke is much more likely to put a woman in the spotlight. But it is in Matthew’s much more Jewish Gospel that we find these four women. These women would not generally be regarded as the most noble women of the Old Testament. Three of them were Gentiles by birth, and the fourth – Bathsheba – was a virtual Gentile by her marriage to Uriah the Hittite (Matthew 1:6; 2 Samuel 11:3). All of these women might not have been considered “pure as the driven snow” by some self-righteous Jews.9

Conclusion: God’s promise of salvation through the Messiah was for unworthy sinners, including Gentiles.

The four model matriarchs of Jewish history were Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, the wives, respectively, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These four women are conspicuous by their absence here. Their husbands are all here, and so there was opportunity for Matthew to include the good wives. But Matthew gives the church four new matriarchs, and all of them preach the gospel of the deep and wide mercy of God.

These four scandals in their way preach the gospel of divine mercy, which is Matthew’s whole mission to proclaim. Matthew will later teach us that Jesus came ‘not for the righteous, but for sinners’ (Matt 9:13); but already in his genealogy Matthew is teaching us that Jesus came not only for, but through, sinners. God did not begin to stoop into our sordid human story at Christmas only; he was stooping all the way through the Old Testament. The mercy of God is the deepest fact Matthew finds in his Hebrew Scriptures and in Jesus (cf. 9:13; 12:7), and so through the four women he highlights this mercy in the first line of his genealogy.

But this first genealogy in the New Testament has the surprising office of teaching us that the line that led from Abraham to Jesus, the Son of David, was intersected again and again by gentile blood. King David himself had a Canaanite great-great-great-grandmother, a Jerichoite great-great-grandmother, a Moabite great-grandmother, and a Hittite ‘wife.’ Matthew wants the church to know that from the start, and not just from the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), God’s work has been interracial, and that God is no narrow nationalist or racist.10

Observation five: Matthew is careful to show that our Lord’s lineage makes Him both a “son of David,” and a “son of Abraham”:

This is the record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1, emphasis mine).

Abraham and David are the two Old Testament men with whom God made the most important covenants of all time, so far as the coming Messiah was concerned.

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. 2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, in order that you might be a prime example of divine blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name” (Genesis 12:1-3).

The Lord declares to you that he himself will build a house for you. 12 When the time comes for you to die, I will raise up your descendant, one of your own sons, to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He [Solomon] will build a house for my name, and I will make his dynasty permanent. 14 I will become his father and he will become my son. When he sins, I will correct him with the rod of men and with wounds inflicted by human beings. 15 But my loyal love will not be removed from him as I removed it from Saul, whom I removed from before you (2 Samuel 7:11b-15).

In the first of these covenants, the Abrahamic Covenant, God promises the then childless Abram a son. Through the seed of Abraham, God promised to make a great nation. And through this “seed” God covenants not only to bless Abraham, but also the nations. This promised “seed,” the source of all blessings, is ultimately our Lord Jesus Christ:

15 Brothers and sisters, I offer an example from everyday life: When a covenant has been ratified, even though it is only a human contract, no one can set it aside or add anything to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ (Galatians 3:15-16).

In the second covenant, the Davidic Covenant, God promises David that his dynasty will be eternal. It is through David’s “seed” that Messiah’s reign will be forever. And so it is that our Lord is referred to as the “son of David” (Matthew 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30, 31; 21:9, 15; see also 22:42-46).

Conclusions: (1) Jesus is both the “son of Abraham” and the “son of David.” Jesus is the fulfillment of both the Abrahamic (see Galatians 3:15-16) and the Davidic (see Matthew 22:42-46) covenants. Jesus is the legitimate heir to the throne of David; He is the king of Israel.11 (2) When we see that the covenant promises to Abraham and David were fully and finally fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, we are once again assured by God’s Word that God always keeps His promises. What He says, He will do. On the cross of Calvary our Lord cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30). God always finishes what He starts (Philippians 1:6).

Observation six:12

1. Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, ends with a prophecy which looks ahead to the coming of Jesus Christ and His forerunner, John the Baptist:

5 Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 He will encourage fathers and their children to return to me, so that I will not come and strike the earth with judgment” (Malachi 4:5-6).

2. Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, begins by looking back to the Old Testament by means of a genealogy.

3. Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus Christ.

4. Matthew’s genealogy covers the entire history of Israel, from Abraham to Christ.

5. Matthew’s Gospel, more than any other, emphasizes the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies:

Matthew contains at least forty formal quotations from the Old Testament, and the formal introductory formula ‘all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying…’ occurs no less than sixteen times.13

Conclusion: Matthew’s genealogy goes beyond the author’s claims elsewhere in this Gospel that Jesus’ incarnation and ministry fulfills individual Old Testament prophecies and even the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. This genealogy informs us that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament. No matter where we turn in the Old Testament, Christ is there.

1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1-4, emphasis mine).

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days 17 that are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ (Colossians 2:16-17).

What an amazing way to start a Gospel – with a great long list of names! But for the Jew that was not surprising at all, as we shall see. It sets Jesus of Nazareth in the context of what God had been doing for his people from the earliest days. It ushers in the theme of fulfilment which is so prominent in this Gospel. The climax of God’s work for mankind throughout the centuries is – Jesus.14

… All such critical considerations apart, however, is it not clear as noonday that Matthew properly leads our four Gospels? As none of the others, he links the New with the Old, showing our Lord’s fulfilling of the Hebrew Scriptures. He has more Old Testament quotations and allusions than Mark and Luke together. Moreover, since Matthew (and only he) writes primarily for the Jews, is he not the true leader-in of the New, as well as the obvious link-back with the Old? – for even the New is ‘to the Jew first.’ Forgive us, therefore, if we keep Matthew first and stay out of fashion!15

It is well known that Matthew loves to show how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament; Matthew often writes: ‘this happened so that what the Lord said through the prophet might be fulfilled’ (see especially chapters 1 and 2 of the Gospel). In his genealogy, however, Matthew shows fulfillment not only of particular passages in the Old Testament but of the Old Testament as a whole. Jesus is the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament story and of all its events taken together in their totality.16

Observation seven: Matthew’s genealogy has been carefully crafted, with a very precise order and arrangement:

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to Christ, fourteen generations (Matthew 1:17).

Matthew’s genealogy is divided into three sections, each consisting of 14 names.17 In order for Matthew to achieve this order, he had to omit some of the names. This poses no problem because the Greek term (rendered “the son of”) refers to one’s descendants, who might therefore be sons, grandsons, great-grandsons, etc. The point I wish to make here is that Matthew wanted us to view his genealogy as very neat and orderly.

I find Bruner’s comments on the structure and organization of this genealogy very insightful:

We will understand this three-times-fourteen formation best if we picture a kind of leaning capital N, an N in which the first fourteen generations head upward from Father Abraham to King David like this (/), the second fourteen generations plummet downward from King Solomon to the Babylonian Exile (), and then finally the last fourteen generations move upward again from exile to the Christ (/).18

Bruner suggests that the first section, from Abraham to David, is an upwardly ascending order. Things just seem to get better and better. David, followed by his son Solomon, are as good as it gets in this genealogical sequence. And thus Bruner (p. 5) believes that this section portrays the grace and mercy of God. We see this, for example, in the inclusion of the Gentile women in the genealogy.

The second section plummets from the kingdom at its best (under David and Solomon) to the very depths – Israel’s Babylonian captivity. After Solomon the United Kingdom is divided. The northern kings are consistently evil, and the kings of Judah are a mixture of good and bad. The Babylonian captivity is the consequence of Judah’s persistent rebellion. From a human point of view it looks as if Israel’s hopes for the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament covenants have been dashed on the rocks of reality.

The third section is once again ascending. God delivers His people from Babylon and brings a remnant back to the land of Israel. There are dangers and disappointments, but Israel has good cause for hope.

Conclusions: The Sovereign God is in complete control of history, assuring that His purposes and promises will be fulfilled. When I read through the Old Testament, I find myself in awe that as messed up as men are God’s promises are always kept. Even the best of the bunch are miserable sinners, who fall far short of God’s standards. David and Solomon were great kings, but their lives were a mess. Their sins caused much trouble for Israel. If the fulfillment of God’s purposes and promises depended upon their faithfulness, we of all men would be most miserable.

When I read through the Bible, I remember those passages which remind us that the angels are watching what is going on (1 Corinthians 11:10; Ephesians 3:10; 1 Peter 1:10-12). The angels must have been breathless as they watched Abraham pass off his wife as his sister, and then give her to Pharaoh for a wife (Genesis 12:10-20), and then do the same thing with Abimelech later on, just after God had told Abraham that the promised child would be his child through Sarah (Genesis 17:15-21; 20:1-18). Judah was the one through whom the Messiah would come (Genesis 49:8-12), and yet Judah nearly had no heir, due to his own sin (Genesis 38). Over and over again the angels must have been breathless, wondering if God’s covenant promises would ever be fulfilled. From a human point of view, it was pure chaos.

By the way Matthew structures this genealogy, everything appears to be neat and tidy, precise and orderly. There are three sections, each with 14 generations. Does this not convey to the reader a picture of a calm, precise, and orderly administration? Things may have looked chaotic when viewed from a human perspective, but the outcome was certain. God is in complete control. His purposes and promises are always fulfilled.

For Matthew this three times fourteen said order, harmony, and meaning. When Matthew looks back over the history of the old people of God and sees fourteen generations between key periods in the people’s history – between Abraham, David, Exile, and the Christ – he is impressed, in a word, with the sovereignty of God. Behind, under, above, and through all the chaos, sin, and rebellion of Israel’s up-and-down history, God was working his purpose out as year succeeds to year. To the human participants in this history, things didn’t look too orderly. But when one looks back on Old Testament history through the lens that the history of Jesus Christ offers, one sees that God’s hand was steady and sure, … Three times fourteen means the sovereignty of God.19

Observation eight: Matthew’s genealogy does not always follow the normal pattern one might expect. For example, the genealogical line flows from Isaac to Jacob, and then to Judah (Matthew 1:2). Normally, the genealogical line would pass on to the next generation through the oldest son. We know that Esau was the first-born son of Isaac, and not Jacob. Nevertheless, the genealogical line was carried on through Jacob. The way that this happened is not a pretty story, but it fulfills the promise of God:

21 Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 But the children struggled inside her, and she said, “If it is going to be like this, I’m not so sure I want to be pregnant!” So she asked the Lord 23 and the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be separated from within you. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:21-23).

Conclusion: Matthew’s genealogy testifies to the doctrine of divine election. Even though Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob (and he gave him the double portion of the first-born through adopting his two sons – Genesis 48), it was Judah through whom the messianic line would pass. Judah was not the first-born; Reuben was, followed by Simeon. Reuben lost his place when he sought to possess the concubine of his father (Genesis 29:3-4). Simeon and Levi violently killed the people of Shechem (Genesis 34), and thus the line would not pass through Simeon (Genesis 49:5-7). As Paul points out in Romans 9, the genealogical line of promise is evidence of divine election:

6 It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel, 7 nor are all the children Abraham’s true descendants; rather “through Isaac will your descendants be traced.” 8 This means it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God; rather, the children of promise are counted as descendants. 9 For this is what the promise declared: “About a year from now I will return and Sarah will have a son.” 10 Not only that, but when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our ancestor Isaac— 11 even before they were born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling)— 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger,” 13 just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:6-13, emphasis mine).

Although Jacob was always striving, both with God and with men (see Genesis 32:28), he finally came to see that it was God who elevated men and put one above another. He indicates this in his dying days:

12 So Joseph moved them from Israel’s knees and bowed down with his face to the ground. 13 Joseph positioned them; he put Ephraim on his right hand across from Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh on his left hand across from Israel’s right hand. Then Joseph brought them closer to his father. 14 Israel stretched out his right hand and placed it on Ephraim’s head, although he was the younger. Crossing his hands, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, for Manasseh was the firstborn. 15 Then he blessed Joseph and said, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked— the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day— 16 the Angel who has protected me from all harm— bless these boys. May my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac. May they grow into a multitude on the earth.” 17 When Joseph saw that his father placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, it displeased him. So he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. 18 Joseph said to his father, “Not so, my father, for this is the firstborn. Put your right hand on his head.” 19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a nation and he too will become great. In spite of this, his younger brother will be even greater and his descendants will become a multitude of nations.” 20 So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you will Israel bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” So he put Ephraim before Manasseh (Genesis 48:12-20).

Joseph was perturbed that his father was seemingly confused about which of his sons was the oldest, and thus the one to be given preeminence. He tried to place his father’s hands in such a way as to give the greater blessing to the oldest, but Jacob would have none of it. He knew exactly what he was doing, and in reversing his hands he was, I believe, giving testimony to the fact that God sovereignly chooses (elects) one above another. It is His doing, because He is a sovereign God. The genealogy of Matthew testifies to divine election.

The Divine Origin of Messiah
Matthew 1:18-25

The genealogy of verses 1-17 demonstrates the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew shows that our Lord is the descendant of Abraham and of David, and thus the fulfillment of the covenants God made with each. Having proved the humanity of Jesus (and the right human pedigree), he must now disclose the divine origin of the Messiah. The Messiah was not only human; He must also be divine – God with us. Verses 18-25 describe the process by which Mary became pregnant, not by Joseph, but by the Holy Spirit:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately. 20 When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep he did what the angel of the Lord told him. He took his wife, 25 but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus (emphasis mine).

Time does not allow for a full exposition of these marvelously rich verses, but I do want to make a few observations.

First, notice how Matthew focuses the reader’s attention on Joseph, while Luke places the spotlight on Mary. The end result is a very balanced account of our Lord’s conception and birth. But why would Matthew feel it necessary to draw our attention to Joseph? For one thing, it is through Joseph that the legal line passes from David to Jesus. While Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, he was the legal father, and thus Jesus was the “Son of David” through him.

Matthew makes a point of emphasizing the fact that Joseph was a “righteous” man (1:19). He was indeed. I fear that we may fail to grasp the important role that Joseph played in the early life of our Lord. While we cannot be dogmatic about this, it seems to be generally accepted that Mary was quite young when she had Jesus – probably a teenager. It is usually thought that Joseph was somewhat older (it seems that he must have died before Jesus began His public ministry). I believe that Joseph was righteous when he purposed to divorce Mary privately, rather than to seek the full penalty of the law. Last month Governor George Ryan of Illinois pardoned four men on death row, and he commuted the death sentence of many others to a life sentence. He did this because a careful investigation had proven the innocence of some, and called into question the guilty verdict pronounced upon others. Ryan noted that while some called it “the courageous thing to do,” it was simply “the right thing to do.”

Joseph must have known Mary well; he knew her character, her purity, and her honesty. She had to have told Joseph that she was not guilty of sexual immorality, and no doubt she reported the words of the angel, and the response of Elizabeth. Mary’s story was incredible, and yet somehow Joseph could not help but wonder… . In his righteousness, he chose not to seek the death penalty of the law. Putting Mary away privately allowed for time to pass, so that perhaps the truth of her testimony could be confirmed. Is this speculative? Yes it is, but I would remind you that Matthew has been careful to inform us that Joseph was a righteous man. Because of this, I am of the opinion that Joseph’s actions in response to Mary’s pregnancy are those prompted by righteousness.

It took a righteous man, a man of faith, to believe the angel’s words to Joseph in his dream, informing him that Mary had become pregnant through the Holy Spirit. It would take a righteous man to marry this young woman even though she was already pregnant, knowing that everyone would wrongly conclude that he was the father. He knew that people would conclude that he and Mary had sinned. It took a calm and stable man to deal with the traumatic circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus (having to travel to Bethlehem, having no place to stay). Joseph was able and willing to pull up stakes, leave Israel, and take his family to safety in Egypt. He acted with wisdom, and he obeyed the guidance God gave him through a sequence of several dreams. What a gracious provision of God Joseph was to Mary, to assure and comfort her, to share her secret, and to protect her and her baby!

Second, notice how careful Matthew is to clearly declare the virginal conception of our Lord. In verses 1-17, Matthew demonstrated the human origins of our Lord, as well as His genealogical relationship to Abraham and David. Now, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is not only human, He is also divine. The deity of our Lord is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 7:14, cited in Matthew 1:23). The deity of our Lord is also declared by the angel. Mary became pregnant, the angel insisted, not by any human agency, but by the Holy Spirit (verses 20-21). We are clearly but delicately informed that there was no way that Joseph could have been the father of Jesus.

Third, in these verses, Matthew describes the person and work of our Lord by the two names He is given in this passage. In the genealogy of verses 1-17, Matthew links Jesus with two major Old Testament personalities: Abraham and David. Jesus is shown to be “the son of David” and the “son of Abraham,” and thus the fulfillment of both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. Now, in verses 18-25, Matthew describes the person and work of our Lord by means of two of the names He was given: (1) Jesus (Joshua = Yahweh saves); and, (2) Emmanuel (“God with us”).

What’s in a name? Plenty! One’s name was much more significant for a Jew than it is for us. “Abram” meant “exalted father,” while “Abraham” meant “father of a multitude.” Jesus renamed Simon “Peter,” or “Petros,” the rock. The names of our Lord depict His character and His work. Jesus comes from the Hebrew word Joshua, which means “Jehovah is salvation.” As the angel informed Joseph, the child that would be born to Mary would be named “Jesus,” “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus is God’s salvation, the One by whom God would accomplish salvation for lost sinners. He alone was qualified to accomplish salvation because He was both God and man. He was without sin, and thus the perfect “Lamb of God,” without blemish. His death on the cross of Calvary was not for His sins, but for ours. Every time we celebrate communion, we worship Jesus as our Savior, as the One who saved us from our sins.

Jesus was also to be called “Emmanuel,” based in part on the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. Time does not permit us to consider this prophecy in detail. It is likely that Isaiah did not understand his words here to refer to the Messiah who was to come in the future (see 1 Peter 1:10-12). As with other Old Testament texts that Matthew cites, there is a veiled, future reference to the work of the Messiah, which goes beyond the immediate, literal, meaning of the text. This veiled meaning was not usually made known until after its fulfillment in Christ, and that by the Holy Spirit. “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” In the incarnation, God came to earth in human flesh, to dwell among men. John says this beautifully:

14 Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. 15 John testified about him and cried out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’” 16 For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in the presence of the Father, has made God known (John 1:14-18).

God’s presence with us was not just for the few years that our Lord walked on this earth. The very last words of Matthew’s Gospel assure the reader that He will be present with us until the end:

18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).

The reason that our Lord is still “with us” is that He has sent His Spirit, to dwell among us and in us:

16 “Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).

How easy it is for us to lose sight of the significance of “Emmanuel!” In the past couple of weeks, I have been reading through the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. I was struck with how different it is for the New Testament saint, who can experience the joy and comfort of “God with us” in a way that no Old Testament saint could ever do. Consider how different it was for the Old Testament saint. For example, notice the “distance” those who lived in Old Testament times had to keep:

20 And the Lord came down on Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain; and the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and solemnly warn the people, lest they force their way through to the Lord to look, and many of them perish. 22 And let the priests also, who draw near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break through against them.” 23 And Moses said to the Lord, “The people are not able to come up to Mount Sinai, because you solemnly warned us, ‘Set boundaries for the mountain and set it apart.’” 24 And the Lord said to him, “Go, get down. And you will come up, and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people force their way through to come up to the Lord, lest he break through against them.” 25 So Moses went down to the people and spoke to them (Exodus 19:20-25).

In Exodus 32, the Israelites sinned greatly in Moses’ absence. They convinced Aaron to make a golden calf, and then they began to worship it. God threatened to wipe out the Israelites and to start a whole new nation through Moses. When Moses interceded for the people, God consented to send an angel to lead the Israelites into the land, but indicated that He would not go along with them. Notice the reason:

2 And I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, and I might destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:2-3).

God did consent to go with His people. God would dwell in the midst of His people in the holiest place in the tabernacle. Nevertheless there were always barriers between men and God, from the veil of the tabernacle to the priests who separated the Israelite community from God’s presence:

52 “And the Israelites will camp according to their divisions, each man in his camp, and each man by his standard. 53 But the Levites must camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that divine anger will not fall on the Israelite community. The Levites are responsible for the care of the tabernacle of the testimony” (Numbers 1:52-53).

Men could not approach God without a sacrifice, and then with very clear boundaries. How different it was after the incarnation of our Lord:

1 This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life— 2 and the life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us) (1 John 1:1-2).

We come to church, assured that He is present with us. We do not have to offer animal sacrifices. We do not have to keep our distance. And while God is with us when we meet as a church, He is always dwelling within us by His Spirit. He is with us always, even to the end of this age. The One who saved us is the One who abides with us. He promised that He will never forsake us:

5 Your conduct must be free from the love of money and you must be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you and I will never abandon you.” 6 So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, and I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6, emphasis mine)

We do not have to fear coming too close to our Lord, as the Old Testament saints did, and rightly so. In Christ, we have access to God, whom we may approach boldly:

19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near.

Think of it. He who came to save men from their sins promises to dwell with us and in us. How does this happen? How can one experience God’s salvation and God’s presence? Only in Christ. We must confess our sins and trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. We must trust in Him as our righteousness. It is then that He will save us and dwell with us and in us. Is He your Savior? Does He dwell with you and in you? That is what He came to do. I pray that you will come to know Him as your Savior and constant companion.


1 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 1 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on February 16, 2003. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

3 Michael Green, Matthew For Today: Expository Study of Matthew (Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing, 1989), p. 37.

4 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001), vol. 1, p. 16.

5 Boice, p. 16, citing J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930; reprint, London: James Clarke, 1958), p. 209.

6 Boice, p. 17.

7 My friend, Tom Wright, pointed this observation out to me after I had preached this lesson.

8 Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), vol. 1, p. 6.

9 Let us not forget, however, that Judah confessed Tamar was “more righteous than he” (Genesis 38:26), Bathsheba seems to be much more the victim than the seductress (2 Samuel 12:1-4), and Rahab is included in the “hall of faith” (Hebrews 11:31).

10 Bruner, p. 6.

11 As Nathanael further notes (and as Matthew is soon to point out), Jesus is also the “son of God,” and thus the “King of Israel” (John 1:49).

12 It will be obvious to the reader that I am “clustering” this group of observations, which together lead to my sixth conclusion.

13 James Montgomery Boice, vol. 1, p. 15.

14 Michael Green, p. 37.

15 J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960), Six volumes in one, vol. 5, p. 148.

16 Bruner, p. 13.

17 I am grateful for Bruner’s observations on this point. He also points out that in the third section there appear to be only 13 names, not 14. I would have to part ways with Bruner when he seeks to convince us that Matthew, after all, is only human, and thus he could make mistakes like the rest of us. My view of inspiration and inerrancy doesn’t leave room for his conclusion. John Maurer, a good friend, aptly commented: “Good grief! Matthew was a tax collector. Does anyone really think he couldn’t count?” I believe there are solutions to this matter which don’t include Matthew being mistaken.

18 Bruner, p. 4.

19 Bruner, p. 13.

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2. Two Incredible Journeys (Matthew 2:1-23)

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem 2 saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no way least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod privately summoned the wise men and determined from them when the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and look carefully for the child. When you find him, inform me so that I can go and worship him as well.” 9 After listening to the king they left, and once again the star they saw when it rose led them until it stopped above the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star they shouted joyfully. 11 As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 After being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back by another route to their own country. 13 After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother at night, and went to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.” 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and nearby from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone.” 19 After Herod had died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up and took the child and his mother and returned to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. After being warned in a dream, he went to the regions of Galilee. 23 He came to a town called Nazareth and lived there. Then what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.21

Introduction

Several years ago I was conducting a funeral for an older woman (who we will call Sarah) who grew up in Oklahoma. Before they met and married, both her mother and her father took part in the great land rush in Oklahoma. In those days, there was still hostility between some Native Americans and the new settlers. Although it has been several years now since this woman died, I can still remember this story I was told by Sarah’s sister.

In those days at the end of the 19th century, people still traveled by wagon. Sarah had an adventurous uncle who wanted to see Pike’s Peak in Colorado, so he loaded up his family, and Sarah, and headed for Colorado. As I recall, this adventure lasted nearly a year. Can you imagine setting out for Colorado in a covered wagon, with hostile Indians, and a long, dangerous journey ahead? I can hardly visualize in my mind’s eye what it would have been like climbing Pike’s Peak in a covered wagon. What is even worse, I can’t imagine what it would have been like coming down the mountain from Pike’s Peak.

For me, this story from the late 1800’s is the closest approximation I can think of to the “incredible journey” the magi took from their far-away home in the East to Bethlehem and back. It would seem that this journey took the better part of a year, one way. These adventurous men left home and family and braved the dangers of travel, which surely included robbers. These were apparently wealthy men, and they must have looked the part, as they formed a caravan. They certainly had items that would be of interest to robbers: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They were following a mysterious star, and they would have to enter territory ruled by Herod, a very powerful and violent man.

This is not the only incredible journey, for Matthew 2 also includes a brief account of the journey Joseph, Mary and the Holy Child took from Bethlehem to Egypt. There was no time for advanced planning and preparation. They hurriedly packed up what few possessions they had and fled from Herod, who sought to kill the Christ Child. And then, of course, came the return trip.

It is the account of these two incredible journeys which takes up the greater portion of Matthew 2. The problem most of us face is that these accounts are so familiar to us we hardly stop to think about them. Nevertheless, there is much here worthy of our careful attention. We will begin by making a few observations about Matthew’s account, and then we will focus on the three major characters in this chapter: the Magi, Herod and the Jews of Jerusalem, and the Christ Child.

Observations

(1) Matthew carefully avoids any sensationalism. Matthew would not do well as a journalist in today’s marketplace. He just doesn’t seem able to sensationalize his material. Not only does he fail to embellish his account by stretching the truth, he even refuses to dramatize his account by including all that is true. For example, other accounts of our Lord’s journey to Egypt contain many miraculous embellishments:

Tradition, and the apocryphal gospels written many years later, tell many absurd and fanciful things about the flight of the family and their entrance into Egypt. The flowers were said to spring up in their steps as they entered the land; the palm trees to bow down in homage, and wild animals to come near in friendly approach.22

(2) Matthew omits much historical information that we would love to have known. Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t know how many Magi came to worship the Lord Jesus. We would certainly like to have been given more information about the Magi. Precisely where did they come from? What did they believe? What was the “star” that appeared, and just how did it guide them? How long was the journey, and what became of them later on? We would like to know how many babies Herod slaughtered, and we would very much enjoy reading a more graphic account of his death. How interesting it would be to read more of the time Jesus and His parents spent in Egypt! Matthew, like the other Gospel writers,23 was very selective in what he chose to include in his Gospel.

(3) Matthew’s choice of which Scriptures he chooses to cite or refer to is interesting, to say the least. We all know that Matthew cites the Old Testament more than any other Gospel writer. We should realize, however, that Matthew did not exhaust his Old Testament sources. Matthew did not quote every available Old Testament passage. Some of the passages Matthew cites are perplexing, to say the least. He cites Old Testament Scripture four times in chapter 2, and only one of these is what we might call a “direct” quotation. This would be his reference to Micah 5:2 in verse 6. The question Herod asked the chief priests and experts in the law was, “Where will the Christ be born?” Their answer came directly from Micah 5:2 – the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

But the three other “quotations” in chapter 2 are far less direct. No one would have considered these texts to be prophecy. Neither Hosea 11:1 (cited in verse 15) nor Jeremiah 31:15 (cited in verse 18) would have been understood as a prophecy that would be fulfilled in relation to the coming Messiah. Matthew’s reference to “what was spoken by the prophets” being fulfilled is even more obscure. Matthew’s use of these “obscure” prophecies is even more puzzling in the light of the fact that there were other texts which Matthew could have cited that would be much more readily understood as fulfilled prophecies. Note these passages, for example:

Balaam’s Star
Numbers 24:14-19

14 “And now, I am about to go to my people. Come now, and I will advise you as to what this people will do to your people in the future.” 15 And he took up his oracle, and said: “The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eyes are open; 16 the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and who knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees a vision from the Almighty, although falling flat on the ground with eyes open: 17 ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not close at hand; A star will march forth out of Jacob, and a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the skulls of Moab, and the heads of all the sons of Sheth. 18 And Edom will be a possession, Seir, his enemies, will also be a possession; but Israel will act valiantly. 19 A ruler will be established from Jacob, and will destroy the remains of the city’” (Numbers 24:14-19, emphasis mine).

Israel’s Light to the Nations
Isaiah 60:1-14

1 “Arise! Shine! For your light arrives! The splendor of the Lord shines on you! 2 For, look, darkness covers the earth and deep darkness covers the nations, but the Lord shines on you; his splendor appears over you. 3 Nations come to your light, kings to your bright light. 4 Look all around you! They all gather and come to you—your sons come from far away and your daughters are escorted by guardians. 5 Then you will look and smile, you will be excited and your heart will swell with pride. For the riches of distant lands will belong to you and the wealth of nations will come to you. 6 Camel caravans will cover your roads, young camels from Midian and Ephah. All the merchants of Sheba will come, bringing gold and [frank]incense and praising the Lord. 7 All the sheep of Kedar will be gathered to you; the rams of Nebaioth will be available to you as sacrifices. They will be offered as acceptable sacrifices on my altar, and I will bestow honor on my majestic temple. 8 Who are these who float along like a cloud, who fly like doves to their shelters? 9 Indeed, the coastlands look eagerly for me, the large ships are in the lead, bringing your sons from far away, along with their silver and gold, to honor the Lord your God, the sovereign king of Israel, for he has bestowed honor on you. 10 Foreigners will rebuild your walls; their kings will serve you. Even though I struck you down in my anger, I will restore my favor and have compassion on you. 11 Your gates will remain open at all times; they will not be shut during the day or at night, so that the wealth of nations may be delivered, with their kings leading the way. 12 Indeed, nations or kingdoms that do not serve you will perish; such nations will be totally destroyed. 13 The splendor of Lebanon will come to you, its evergreens, firs, and cypresses together, to beautify my palace; I will bestow honor on my throne room. 14 The children of your oppressors will come bowing to you; all who treated you with disrespect will bow down at your feet. They will call you, ‘The City of the Lord, Zion of Israel’s Sovereign King’ (Isaiah 60:1-14, emphasis mine).

Psalm 72:8-17

8 May he rule from sea to sea, and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth! 9 Before him the coastlands will bow down, and his enemies will lick the dust. 10 The kings of Tarshish and the coastlands will offer gifts; the kings of Sheba and Seba will bring tribute. 11 All kings will bow down to him; all nations will serve him. 12 For he will rescue the needy when they cry out for help, and the oppressed who have no defender. 13 He will take pity on the poor and needy; the lives of the needy he will save. 14 From harm and violence he will defend them; he will value their lives. 15 May he live! May they offer him gold from Sheba! May they continually pray for him! May they pronounce blessings on him all day long! 16 May there be an abundance of grain in the earth; on the tops of the mountains may it sway! May its fruit trees flourish like the forests of Lebanon! May its crops be as abundant as the grass of the earth! 17 May his fame endure! May his dynasty last as long as the sun remains in the sky! May they use his name when they formulate their blessings! May all nations consider him to be favored by God! (Psalm 72:8-17, emphasis mine)

Matthew has not selected (or ignored) Old Testament texts at random; he has carefully chosen each text for a specific purpose. We will attempt to look at Matthew’s use of Scripture more in our next lesson. For now, we will move on to consider the three main personalities in Matthew 2.

(4) Matthew gives the sequence of events that took place in Jerusalem. It seems to me that when we come to Matthew’s account we tend to read far too much in between the lines, and thereby make some false assumptions. The way most of us read this account, the magi arrive in Jerusalem and go immediately to Herod’s palace (where else would one find the “King of the Jews”?). They ask Herod where the newly-born “King of the Jews” can be found. Herod is deeply troubled by this news, but conceals his feelings. He then calls the chief priests and experts in the law, and they tell Herod (along with the magi) about Micah’s prophecy. Sending everyone else away, Herod has a private meeting with the magi, at which time he questions them specifically about the time of the star’s appearing, thus determining the age of the Child. Then Herod sends the magi on their way to Bethlehem with the stipulation that they return and tell him exactly where the baby can be found. In my mind, this sequence of events does not square with what Matthew has actually told us.

Based solely on what Matthew does tell us, here is the way I understand the sequence of events that took place in Jerusalem:

(a) Jesus is born in Bethlehem, perhaps a year or so earlier.24

(b) The star leads the magi as far as Jerusalem, and then disappears.25

(c) Once in Jerusalem, the magi begin to inquire where the Christ Child can be found by asking the people of the city.

(d) Word reaches Herod that the magi have come to town seeking to find a newly-born “King of the Jews” so that they may worship Him.

(e) Herod is greatly troubled by this news, and consequently so are all those in Jerusalem.

(f) Herod summons the chief priests and experts in the law, inquiring of them where the Messiah was to be born. This gathering did not, in my opinion, include the magi. The religious elite inform Herod that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, citing as proof the prophecy of Micah 5:2.

(g) Herod then privately summons the magi and has a meeting with them (alone). He asks them when the “star” appeared, thus fixing the birth date of the Holy Child, and therefore His age.

(h) Herod then sends the magi to Bethlehem to find the Messiah, instructing them to return and inform him of the location of this Child, so that he can worship the Child.

(i) As the magi leave Jerusalem headed toward Bethlehem, the “star” appears once again, and the magi rejoice greatly because their divinely-provided guidance has returned.

(j) The “star” then leads the magi to the exact location of the Child, where they worship Him.

Are these two accounts all that different? Perhaps not, but it does not hurt to be precise. Observing this revised sequence of events has forced me to revise some statements that I have made in the next portion of this lesson.26

The Three Main Personalities of Chapter 2

The Magi

The “magi” or “wise men from the East” are fascinating fellows indeed. Matthew does not tell us how many of them arrived in Jerusalem, and he does not make any great effort to describe them. Frederick Bruner does provide us with some helpful background information from outside of Matthew’s account:

“The magoi (the plural of the Greek magos) to whom Matthew refers were, first of all, to be sure, wise men, scholars of the stars in (probably) Persia and the land of the two rivers. At the root of the ancient study of the stars was the conviction that the microcosm of humanity is in a magnetic-symbiotic relationship with the macrocosm of the heavenly bodies. Astronomy (“astral nomos or law”) was the study of the laws or movements of the stars; astrology (“astral logos or word”) was the study of the message or meaning of the stars’ movements for earthly life… . The two disciplines, now rightly separated, were combined in the same persons in the ancient world. Because of their skill in deciphering the meanings or messages of the stars, the magi were widely considered ‘wise men.’”27

While these magi may have been considered “wise men” in many parts of the world, they would most likely be viewed quite differently by the Jews. To begin with, they were Gentiles. In and of itself, this is nearly enough to condemn them. If this is not bad enough, “magi” are not well spoken of in the Scriptures. We find them, for example, in the Book of Daniel:

The king issued an order to summon the magicians, conjurers, sorcerers, and Chaldeans in order to explain his dreams to him. So they came and awaited the king’s instructions (Daniel 2:2, emphasis mine).

Babylon’s “wise men” were not very good company for a Jew. All these folks were unable to tell king Nebuchadnezzar his dream. Consider the way the Old Testament prophets speak of the heathen who seek to discern divine guidance by pagan means:

For the king of Babylon stands at the fork of the road—at the head of the two routes—to use divination; he shakes the arrows, he consults the teraphim, he inspects the liver (Ezekiel 21:21).

You are tired out from listening to so much advice. Let them take their stand— the ones who see omens in the sky, who gaze at the stars, who make monthly predictions— let them rescue you from the disaster that is coming upon you! (Isaiah 47:13).

Things do not get better in the New Testament. We find Simon the magician in Acts 8:9-13 who, like Balaam, wanted to exploit God’s power to make money. In Acts 13:6-11, we find a magician named Elymas (also known as Bar-Jesus), who sought to turn the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, away from the faith. The magi would not have been looked upon with favor or respect. They would have been disdained as heathen idolaters.28

Was it some kind of social blunder for Matthew to inform us that these “magi” had been invited to celebrate the birth of the Messiah? You should remember that Matthew himself was a tax collector, and one could hardly get any lower than that.

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. 13 Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).

I believe that Matthew celebrates the fact that these Gentiles were divinely called to worship the Christ Child. While Matthew may have been a Jew, writing to Jews, he would not distort the gospel of Jesus Christ. We should remember the way this Gospel of Matthew ends:

18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).

Someone might venture to say, “Yes, I can see that God intended the work of Jesus Christ to accomplish salvation for both Jews and Gentiles. I can see how God would purpose to have Gentiles participate in the celebration of Jesus’ birth. But why would God choose to reveal the coming of the Christ Child through this means, through the stars?”

Let us not forget that God has chosen to reveal Himself to men through nature:

1 The heavens declare God’s glory;

the sky displays his handiwork.

2 Day after day it speaks out;

night after night it reveals his greatness.

3 There is no actual speech or word,

nor is its voice literally heard.

4 Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth;

its words carry to the distant horizon.

In the sky he has pitched a tent for the sun (Psalm 19:1-4; compare Romans 11:18).

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, 19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse (Romans 1:18-20).

You will remember the account of our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds were crying out in praise to our Lord:

39 But some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the very stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:39-40)

I am inclined to understand the leading of the star in a similar manner. Israel was to be a “light to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6), but they failed to do so. They did not take the good news of Messiah’s birth to the Gentiles; rather, the Gentiles brought the good news to them. When God’s people were “silent,” the “stars” (as it were, or the star) cried out, leading the magi to the Savior.

I see these magi as men like Balaam. Both were pagans, it would seem, but they were given divine revelation. While Balaam rejected God’s Word to his own destruction, the magi promptly obeyed God’s guidance to Jerusalem and then to the Christ Child in Bethlehem.

What are we to make of “the star”? There are many who are intent on finding some human explanation for it.29 Some suggest that it was Halley’s Comet; others, a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. I must confess that I do not find these explanations satisfactory or sufficient. First of all, if this were a known and predictable phenomenon, then why would the magi follow it? It would not have been that unusual at all. And how could it possibly lead the magi to the very house where Jesus and His parents were living?

Secondly, why is it so important to find a human explanation for a miracle, other than to avoid the fact that it was a miracle? Why is it, for example, that some commentators on the Book of Jonah (even some very good ones) find it profitable to produce examples of men who were swallowed by “great fish” and rescued alive? God may very well use natural means to accomplish His purposes, but He does not always do so. Sometimes God uses extraordinary measures, measures that have no counterpart in nature, so that the supernatural hand of God is undeniable. I am therefore inclined to the view that this “star” may have been a manifestation of the Shekinah Glory, which we sometimes find in the Old Testament.30

The gifts of the magi – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – were certainly very expensive items. I am of the opinion, along with others, that God provided these gifts to finance the sojourn of our Lord and His parents in Egypt. Some have sought to further spiritualize these gifts:

  • Gold – a gift worthy of kings
  • Frankincense – used by the priests in worship
  • Myrrh – used to embalm the dead

This may be in Matthew’s mind here, but it’s just a bit too much of a reach for me.

The magi, Matthew informs us, “went home by another route” (2:12). Bruner spiritualizes here, suggesting that everyone who comes to Jesus in saving faith leaves, walking in another way. I’m not sure that Matthew wanted us to understand any more than the fact that God divinely directed the magi to return home a different way so as to avoid Herod and thus to facilitate the Holy Child’s escape to Egypt. It should be obvious, however, that this involved considerable risk for the magi. If Herod had been able, I’m reasonably certain he would have made the magi pay for outwitting him in this way.

The magi remind me of Abraham. It may well be that Abraham and the magi came from the same area. Both were “gentiles” at the time God summoned them to the Holy Land. Neither knew exactly where they were going when they left their homeland. Both obeyed God (though the magi did so more promptly) and saw the Savior (see John 8:56). Both, incidentally, were instructed by the stars:

1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram! I am your shield and the one who will reward you in great abundance.” 2 But Abram said, “O Sovereign Lord, what will you give me since I continue to be childless, and my heir is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 Abram added, “Since you have not given me a descendant, then look, one born in my house will be my heir!” 4 But look, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but instead a son who comes from your own body will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Gaze into the sky and count the stars—if you are able to count them!” Then he said to him, “So will your descendants be.” 6 Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord considered his response of faith worthy of a reward (Genesis 15:1-6).

Herod and All Jerusalem

At the beginning of this lesson, I made some observations about the sequence of events in Jerusalem. I noted that Matthew gives no indication that the magi went first to Herod. If they knew anything about Herod, they would probably have made every effort to keep their distance from him. Herod seems to have indirectly learned about the magi, who were inquiring of the people of Jerusalem where the “King of the Jews” could be found so that they could worship Him.

I am grateful to Bruner for pointing out a most interesting fact about the way Matthew refers to Herod. In a very subtle way, Bruner indicates, Matthew “dethrones” Herod in this account.

The second major figure in Matthew’s cast of characters in this chapter is the person Matthew consistently calls “King” Herod until significantly, the magi worship Christ. For immediately after their worship, Herod is symbolically dethroned and is never again called king. The magi’s worship is Jesus’ coronation. In the words of the Christmas folk song, ‘a new king’s born today.’31

When word finally reached Herod that the magi were asking where the newborn King could be found, he quickly called for the Old Testament experts in the law. Surely they would know of any prophecies revealing the birthplace of the Messiah. And so they did. They pointed out Micah 5:2 and confidently informed Herod that this would be the birthplace of the promised Son of David.

It is easy to understand why Herod would be greatly disturbed by news of the birth of the “King of the Jews.” Herod wanted no rivals to the throne, even if he was an old man.32 Herod was not a legitimate heir to the throne. He was not even a full-blooded Jew. The fear of the majority of those in Jerusalem is also easily explained. If Herod is uneasy about his throne, then no one close to him would be safe, including his family:

He slaughtered the last remnants of the Hasmonean dynasty. He executed more than half the Sanhedrin. He killed three hundred court officers out of hand. He executed his own wife, Mariamne, her mother Alexandra, his sons Antipater, Aristobulus and Alexander. Finally, as he lay dying, he arranged for all the notable men of Jerusalem to be assembled in the hippodrome and killed the moment his own death was announced. A man of ruthless cruelty and with a fanatical neurosis about any competition, it is quite in character that he should order the execution of the male children in Bethlehem.33

But why were the religious clergy of Jerusalem – the chief priests and experts in the law – alarmed? There were other Old Testament prophecies which may well have been known to them – texts related to the coming of Messiah – which were far from comforting:

1 The Lord says, “The leaders of my people are sure to be judged. They were supposed to watch over my people like shepherds watch over their sheep. But they are causing my people to be destroyed and scattered. 2 So the Lord God of Israel has this to say about the leaders who are ruling over his people: “You have caused my people to be dispersed and driven into exile. You have not taken care of them. So I will punish you for the evil that you have done. I, the Lord, affirm it. 3 Then I myself will regather those of my people who are still left alive from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their homeland. They will greatly increase in number. 4 I will install rulers over them who will care for them. Then they will no longer need to fear or be terrified. None of them will turn up missing. I, the Lord, promise it. 5 “I, the Lord, promise that a new time will certainly come when I will raise up for them a righteous descendant of David. He will rule over them with wisdom and understanding and will do what is just and right in the land. 6 Under his rule Judah will enjoy safety and Israel will live in security. This is the name he will go by: ‘The Lord has provided us with justice.’ 7 “So I, the Lord, say, ‘A new time will certainly come. People now affirm their oaths with “I swear as surely as the Lord lives who delivered the people of Israel out of Egypt.” 8 But at that time they will affirm them with “I swear as surely as the Lord lives who delivered the descendants of the former nation of Israel from the land of the north and from all the other lands where he had banished them.” At that time they will live in their own land’” (Jeremiah 23:1-8).

The coming of Israel’s King, the “King of the Jews,” meant a whole new regime, a whole new administration. After hearing of the magi, who were looking for Him who was born “King of the Jews,” the mood in Jerusalem was something like Washington D.C. after a landslide victory for the opposing political party.

We will certainly have more to say about the death of the innocent infants in our next lesson, but for the moment, suffice it to say that Herod was a cruel and calculating killer. This execution was premeditated murder of the worst kind. From the time he sought to learn when the star first appeared, Herod must have had this slaughter of the innocent in his mind. He instructs the magi to return to Jerusalem, so that he might know where the child is, so that he can worship Him. Perhaps worst of all, he appears to leave himself a margin for error. I can almost hear Herod say to himself, “Let’s see now, the star appeared about a year ago. That would make this “King” a year old. Just to be safe, let’s kill all the babies of the region up to two years old.”

What restraint we see in Matthew, who does not provide his readers with the gory details of Herod’s death, not long afterward! If it were not for the certainty of the resurrection of the wicked to eternal punishment, death for this man would seem unjust.

The Christ Child

We happily leave Herod behind, and close this lesson by focusing on the Lord Jesus. Who better to dominate our thoughts in this chapter, or any other? The first thing Matthew has told us about this Child is that He is human. We see this from the genealogy of 1:1-17. In addition to this, Jesus is divine. He is, as His name indicates, God with us. How could this child be both human and divine? By means of His virginal conception. The Child conceived in Mary’s womb was not conceived by a man, but by the Holy Spirit (1:18-25). Because of His unique identity, this Child will “save His people from their sins” (1:21).

Four times in chapter 2, Matthew claims Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. We will talk about this in greater detail in our next lesson. Let us dwell momentarily on several aspects of our Lord’s identity in this chapter.

First, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This seems like such a trivial point, but let us not lose its significance, not only in Matthew, but in the other Gospels. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (2:1), just as Micah had prophesied (2:6). This seems so obvious to us, but later events in this chapter will cause our Lord to grow up in Nazareth of Galilee, and thus our Lord will be known as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Matthew 2:23, etc.).

It was the false but commonly held assumption in Jesus’ day that He was merely a Nazarene:

45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied, “Come and see” (John 1:45-46).

40 When they heard these words, some of the crowd began to say, “This really is the Prophet!” 41 Others said, “This is the Christ!” But still others said, “No, for the Christ doesn’t come from Galilee, does he? 42 Don’t the scriptures say that the Christ is a descendant of David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (John 7:40-42)

50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before and who was one of the rulers, said, 51 “Our law doesn’t condemn a man unless it first hears from him and learns what he is doing, does it?” 52 They replied, “You aren’t from Galilee too, are you? Investigate carefully and you will see that no prophet comes from Galilee!” (John 7:50-52)

Matthew, along with Luke, makes it very clear that while Jesus was truly a “Nazarene” and a “Galilean,” He was also born in Bethlehem. In this way, Jesus fulfills all the prophecies concerning His geographical associations.

Second, Jesus exhibits a certain “weakness,” but this “weakness” is stronger than men.34 Apocryphal documents contain all kinds of fanciful “miraculous” events surrounding the Christ Child:

The baby does not, as in the apocryphal Gospels and even in the Koran, speak precocious wisdom or do miracles from the crib. He is a baby. No halos are in evidence, no great glory. And reverence is given exclusively to the child (… , not Mary).35

In Matthew 2, we once again are reminded of Jesus’ humanity, and thus of a kind of frailty as an infant. This Holy Child needed parents to feed and clothe Him and to protect Him from the clutches of Herod, who was intent on killing Him. He had to be carried off to Egypt and then brought back to Israel. It was Joseph to whom God spoke by dreams and who acted to save this child from His enemies. And yet in the midst of events which underscore His humanity, there are other events which indicate that He is much more than just human. He is the One who is born “King of the Jews” (2:2). His birth is proclaimed through the miraculous appearance and guidance of a star. Wealthy Gentiles come from afar to worship Him, offering Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (2:11).36 This Child is so unique, so threatening, that He has Herod in a dither.

This Child, for all His humanity and weakness, was the living God. Nothing could keep Him from fulfilling God’s purposes. Who would have thought that God would have sent the Savior into the world as a tiny, helpless Child?

Third, Jesus was despised and rejected by men, particularly His fellow Jews. The “prophecy” of Matthew 2:23 troubles many:

He came to a town called Nazareth and lived there. Then what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

It has been noted by nearly all Bible scholars that there is no one text which says, “Jesus will be called a Nazarene.” James Montgomery Boice calls attention to two key observations:

First, we should note that Matthew introduces the verse by referring to prophets (plural, ‘through the prophets’), rather than saying, as he does in other instances, ‘This took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet’ (Matt. 1:22) or ‘For this is what the prophet has written’ (Matt. 2:5). This seems to indicate a general rather than a specific Old Testament reference.37

Further, he replaces the verb he usually uses in such introductory formulas (‘said’) with the conjunction hoti, which means ‘that.’ This is the only place such a substitution occurs in the Gospel. Matthew is probably not citing a specific Old Testament text but instead is referring only to a general teaching of Scripture. A right rendering of his words might be, ‘This was to fulfill the teaching of the prophets that he would be called a Nazarene.’38

Boice then shows that nowhere in the Old Testament do we find a prophecy which states that Jesus shall be called a Nazarene. How then can this problem be solved? In my mind, Boice provides us with the best explanation:

A better explanation is probably found in the fact that Nazareth was a despised place, the kind of village we might refer to disparagingly as ‘Podunk’ or ‘Endsville.’ It would have had that immediate ring to any Jew of that day who heard the name. What Matthew seems to be saying is that the prophets predicted the Messiah would be a despised person, the victim of slurs such as this.39

Bruner seems to reach the same conclusion:

For theological reasons I like to consider the … possibility, and it is no more than a possibility, that for Matthew a person from Nazareth, a Nazorean, was considered a nobody and that this, too, is what prophets had often predicted the Christ would at first be considered and become for us.40

“He shall be called a Nazorean,” then, may mean at least this: “he shall be considered a nobody.”41

I find the explanations of Boice and Bruner most satisfying and most consistent with the prophecies that do pertain to the Messiah. Thus we find a number of prophecies which speak of a despised Savior:

3 He was despised and rejected by people,

one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness;

people hid their faces from him;

he was despised, and we considered him insignificant (Isaiah 53:3).42

Fourth, Jesus is the New Israel. In chapter 1, Matthew linked our Lord with Abraham and David (1:1-17). In chapter 2, Matthew establishes some broader connections. First, we see Jesus somewhat subtly linked with Moses. Moses was the “deliverer” God had appointed to deliver His people, and thus his life was sought by the King (Pharaoh) even in his infancy.43 God rescued Moses just as He did Jesus.

Matthew also links Jesus with the nation Israel. We are somewhat surprised to find this “prophecy” in Hosea 11:1 fulfilled by our Lord:

13 After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother at night, and went to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt” (Matthew 2:13-15).

How in the world would any Jew of Jesus’ day have considered Hosea 11:1 a prophecy? This fulfilled prophecy catches us all off guard, does it not? And yet we can see Matthew’s logic here. Israel left the land of Canaan and sojourned in Egypt for around 400 years. At the end of this time, God sent Moses to deliver His people and to lead them back into the Promised Land (compare Genesis 15:12-21). In Matthew’s account, Jesus virtually retraces the steps of Israel. In His infancy, Jesus is taken down to Egypt (where God providentially protects His people, just as He protects the Lord Jesus). After His sojourn in Egypt, Jesus returns from Egypt to the Promised Land, just as Israel returned from Egypt to Canaan.

God promised Abraham that He would bless the nations through his (Abraham’s) seed (Genesis 12:1-3). Because of their sins, no Israelite was righteous enough to become the source of blessing for the nations. Jesus is the perfect Israelite, the perfect replacement for the nation. Jesus was this “seed,” the One through whom the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant would be poured out:

15 Brothers and sisters, I offer an example from everyday life: When a covenant has been ratified, even though it is only a human contract, no one can set it aside or add anything to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ (Galatians 3:15-16).

Israel as a nation was a stubborn and rebellious people. Even their finest leaders like Moses and David and Solomon were sinners. Only Jesus, the “Son of Abraham,” and the “Son of David,” was also the “Son of God.” He alone fulfilled Israel’s destiny. He is the source of every spiritual blessing. And so it is that Matthew depicts Jesus as the fulfillment of all of God’s promised blessings and Israel’s hopes:

On closer investigation, interpreters have discovered that Jesus’ career in chapter 2 retraces the career of Old Israel almost exactly. Jesus goes from the promised land in Israel to the classic land of escape, Egypt, just as all the patriarchs (from Abraham to Joseph) had done in the beginning. Then, like a second Moses in a kind of second Exodus, Jesus is called up out of Egypt to return to the land of promise again (‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’). By means of his itinerary, Matthew is saying: “Look, the New Israel!”44

As Matthew 1 taught the New Genesis given history by the birth of the promised Son of Abraham, Son of David, so Matthew 2 teaches the New Exodus in the migration in and out of Egypt of Jesus the New Moses (cf. Brown). Jesus fulfills the accepted scriptural requirements for messiahship: Matthew chapter 1 shows this in the persons from whom Jesus descended (Abraham and David); Matthew chapter 2 shows this in the places Jesus touches (Bethlehem, Egypt, Israel) … .45

… Jesus takes up into himself the whole of Israel’s (and so, representatively, the whole of humanity’s) experience, drinks it to the dregs, and “fulfills” it. “What Israel was has now been absorbed into the person of Jesus” (Meier, Vis., 55, n. 19). In the singular career of the New Israel who is Jesus, Israel finally does everything predicted of her in Scripture. All of Isaiah’s promises come true in Jesus. Israel comes through in one Israelite. It is the biblical principle of what Oscar Cullmann called “progressive reduction.” When all humanity failed (Gen 1-11), Israel was recruited to be the way of salvation for all humanity (Gen 12ff). When Israel failed, Jesus of Nazareth, the Israelite, succeeded in the name and for the sake of Israel (Matt 1ff). Then in “progressive expansion” Jesus forms his church, the new people of God, to be the salt, light, and discipler of all nations (Matt 5;13-16; 28:18-20) until his return for the consummation of the ages. Jesus recapitulates in his person and reinaugurates in his church Israel’s history of salvation in the world.46

Conclusion

Let me close with a few thoughts to ponder.

First, Jesus is the great divider of men. The contrast is clearly evident in Matthew 2. On the one side, there are the magi, who came from afar (and at great sacrifice) to find and to worship the King of the Jews. On the other side are Herod, the religious clergy, and the people of Jerusalem. Herod, at the extreme, seeks to kill the baby Jesus. The others merely appear to ignore Him. Whenever men come face to face with Jesus, they must decide whether they will fall down before Him as God’s promised Savior, or whether they will reject Him. As you have considered this chapter, my friend, you have been confronted by a choice: Will you receive Jesus as the promised Savior, or will you reject Him? There is no middle ground. There never has been. Whose side will you take, Herod’s or the magi’s?

Second, this chapter reminds us that possessing scriptural knowledge about Jesus is not enough. One must act upon the knowledge they have in order to be saved. The Gentile magi did not have as much knowledge about Jesus as the religious clergy in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, they acted on the knowledge they had. They found the Christ Child and worshipped Him. They found salvation; by and large, the people of Jerusalem did not.

Is this not the “bottom line” that Jesus put before His audience at the Sermon on the Mount?

24 “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock. 26 Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed!” (Matthew 7:24-27)

Having heard these words about Jesus, have you acted on them? Knowledge is not enough.

Third, these early chapters in Matthew serve to prepare us for all that will follow in the later chapters of this book. We have learned that Jesus is both the “Son of God” and the “Son of Man.” Jesus is both man and God. Everything Jesus says and does later in this Gospel leads us to the same conclusion. In His birth, Jesus was rejected by some and believed in by others. Nothing will change as time passes. Jesus was rejected by His own people (John 1:11-12), and yet He was believed in by heathen Gentiles. Jesus is the true Israel, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises and of Israel’s hopes. Matthew’s introduction to this great Gospel prepares us for what lies ahead in it.

Fourth, Matthew should revolutionize our reading of the Old Testament. Matthew sees Jesus in the Old Testament where we would never have expected to see Him. This is because Jesus is, in many ways, the new Israel. He sums up God’s promises and Israel’s hopes. He can see Jesus in the exodus from Egypt (Hosea 11:1). He sees Jesus where we do not. Perhaps this tells us that we should look more carefully for Jesus in the Old Testament, and expect to see Him more often. We should not be surprised when we read this from the pen of the Apostle Paul:

3 And all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:3-4).

Let us look for Jesus when we read the Old Testament. He is there much more often than we might think.

Fifth, Matthew is “missions minded,” not just at the end of his Gospel (28:18-20), but from the very outset of this Gospel. Why does a Jewish author, writing primarily to a Jewish audience, write of Gentiles as he does in chapter 1 and 2? It is because an essential part of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that God has provided salvation and blessing for people of every nation, and not just for Israel. The Abrahamic Covenant was the promise of blessing for both Israel and the nations. This is why Jesus quickly made the Gentile factor clear in Luke 4:16-30, and why Matthew included Gentiles in his genealogy and now again in chapter 2. We, as Gentiles, should see that we have a choice to make concerning our sin and Christ’s offer of forgiveness through His blood. Also, the Jews must own up to their rebellion and rejection of Jesus. Matthew is a Gospel; it is the proclamation of the good news that God has offered the gift of eternal life and the forgiveness of sins to all men.

This is a Gospel which ends with the command that we take the good news to every nation. This we should do. But let us also learn from our text that even when men fail to carry out their God-given responsibility to be a “light to the nations,” God is able to bring those He has chosen to Himself. Even when the people of Israel failed to be a “light to the Gentiles” God was able to reach out to the magi and to draw them to the worship of His Son. This is not an excuse for us to disobey our command to evangelize; it is an encouragement that God will never allow any of His chosen to slip away, whether due to our sin, or to our human inability to reach certain people who are far away.

As we think of the divine “calling” of the magi, one cannot help but be reminded of Paul’s words to the Ephesians which speak of God’s love and grace in calling Gentiles to Himself:

11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed in the body by hands— 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-13).


20 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 2 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on February 23, 2003.

21 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

22 J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels, p. 41. Everett Harrison, in his book, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), summarizes on page 118 the Apocryphal Gospel of Thomas:

“This famous writing, known at least as early as the time of Origin, presents the boy Jesus in the light of a wonder worker. It does not seem to matter that he works harm as well as good by his miraculous power. Here the thaumaturgic element has outrun any ethical norm. Jesus molds clay pigeons on the Sabbath. When objection is raised he claps his hands, whereupon the pigeons take to the air and fly away. When a child running through the village bumps him on the shoulder, he cries, ‘Thou shalt not finish thy course,’ and forthwith the child drops dead. When the parents come to expostulate with Joseph, they are smitten with blindness. A certain teacher, desiring to have Jesus as a pupil, soon regrets the arrangement, for when he is asked by the child to explain the letter Alpha and is unable to do so, Jesus elaborates its meaning and makes fun of his teacher, to the great discomfort of the latter. This incident reflects an esoteric interest and may be a Gnostic touch in the childhood tradition.”

23 See John 21:25

24 Note verse 1: “After Jesus was born in Jerusalem… .” Further notice the age of the children who are slaughtered, and the fact that the baby Jesus is not in a manger, but in a house (2:11).

25 Why else would Matthew tell us the “star” once again appeared, and that the magi greatly rejoiced when they saw it (2:9-10)?

26 Frederick Bruner seeks to get God “off the hook” for leading the magi by the stars, rather than by His revealed Word: “The despised and pagan astrologers who have nothing but their natural idols are led to Israel who has the written Word, and, when this Word is heard (by both groups!), it is the pagans who eagerly follow it, while the leadership of the people of God sits complacently (or conspiratorially) at home. The despised believe the Word, the devout ignore it. This was exactly the situation Matthew found in the late first century, too.” (Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary, Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987, vol. 1, pp. 47-48). If my sequence of events is accurate, the magi may or may not have been informed about the prophecy of Micah 5:2. They may only have been told that the “King of the Jews” would be born in Bethlehem.

27 Bruner, p. 45.

28 “In Israel’s conviction the magi were idolaters, short and simple. This conviction is carried over into the New Testament where every other reference to a magos is unfavorable (see, e.g., Acts 8:9-24 for Simon the magos, and Acts 13:6-11 for Elymas or Bar-Jesus, the magos or false prophet). The magi were held to be people who looked, and who taught others to look, to beggarly creatures rather than to the Creator for guidance; they looked to their own calculations, ‘wisdom,’ and mental creations (to zodiacs, for example), for delivering the meaning of things. Israel cordially despised the magicians and astrologers of the gentile world and felt that God had decisively rescued his people from the tyranny of the stars and from those who claimed to know their secrets.” Bruner, p. 45.

29 For an overview of some of the astronomical expectations of that day, read Michael Green, Matthew For Today: Expository Study of Matthew (Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing, 1989), pp. 49-50.

30 For this view, see James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001), vol. 1, p. 30.

31 Bruner, p. 50. As I read the text, Bruner is not precisely correct. It is not after the magi worship Christ that the term “king” is dropped, but rather after the citation of Micah 5:2. The simple expression “Herod” occurs in 2:7, before the magi have even left Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Bruner’s observation is noteworthy.

32 If my information is correct, Herod was 33 at his inauguration (Green, p. 48). He was inaugurated in 40 B.C. and reigned until 4 B.C. He would thus have been very close to 70 years old at the time of his death. How could a man this old fear a baby? Perhaps Herod was like most of us, assuming his death was at some distant point in time.

33 Green, p. 52.

34 See 1 Corinthians 1:25

35 Bruner, p. 49.

36 “Jesus is ‘worshipped’ in Mark’s Gospel only once, but in Matthew ten times; … .” Bruner, p. 49.

37 Boice, vol. 1, p. 42.

38 Bruner, vol. 1, p. 42.

39 Ibid, vol. 1, p. 42.

40 Ibid, p. 62.

41 Ibid, p. 62.

42 See also Psalm 22:6-8, 13, 17; 69:9, 19-21; Isaiah 49:7; 50:6; Daniel 9:26.

43 One might even see a link between Jesus and David. David, who had been anointed by Samuel as the new king of Israel, often had to flee from Saul, the current king of Israel, who was seeking to kill his successor.

44 Bruner, p. 57.

45 Ibid, p. 59.

46 Bruner, p. 60.

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3. The Slaughter of the Infants and Innocent Suffering (Matthew 2:13-18)

Introduction

Matthew presents the student of Scripture with several interpretive problems in the second chapter of his Gospel. As we pointed out in lesson 2 of this series, Matthew refers to the Old Testament Scriptures four times in chapter 2. Only one of these references can be viewed as a direct prophecy which is fulfilled by the events surrounding our Lord’s birth. That would be Matthew’s reference to the prophecy of Micah 5:2 in Matthew 2:6. Micah’s prophecy that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messiah was so clear and direct that even the unbelieving religious scholars in Jerusalem recognized it for what it was.

The other three references to the Old Testament in Matthew 2 are not direct prophecy as we would expect. For example, the reference to Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 is not regarded as a direct prophecy/fulfillment. Matthew regards the return of Jesus from His “exile” in Egypt as the “fulfillment” of Hosea’s words, “I called my Son out of Egypt.” Matthew 2:23 is perhaps the most perplexing Old Testament reference because there is no Old Testament text that indicates Jesus “would be called a Nazarene.” The text we have chosen to focus upon is that of Jeremiah 31:15, cited as being fulfilled by the events of Matthew 2:16-18:48

13 After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother at night, and went to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.” 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and nearby from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone” (Matthew 2:13-18).49

Several questions emerge from Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31:15 in relation to Herod’s slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem. Some of these concentrate upon Matthew’s use of the Old Testament Scriptures. Other questions arise regarding God’s sovereignty and human suffering. How do we explain the suffering that occurred in connection with our Lord’s birth and escape to Egypt? Was this a necessity? Why did God allow it, when it could have been prevented?

How did Matthew intend for his readers to understand the connection between Herod’s slaughter of the infants in 2:16-18 and Jeremiah’s words in 31:15? In some ways, these infants would seem to be about as “innocent” as a person could be. Why, then, did Matthew describe this atrocity as an event that was destined to take place, because God purposed it would happen?

This lesson, while occasioned by the events of Matthew 2:16-18, will seek to find an answer to the problem our text poses from a broader scriptural and theological base. The purpose of this lesson will be to gain a better perspective of suffering and particularly what might be called “innocent suffering.” We shall seek to learn how and why God chooses to include “innocent suffering” in His sovereign will. We will therefore begin our study by looking at other biblical texts, and end by coming back to Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:18.

Suffering is a Part of our Human Experience
Romans 8:18-27

18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will.

Paul has demonstrated that man is sinful and deserving of God’s eternal wrath, whether the standard men fail is the revelation of God in nature (Romans 1), or the revelation of God in the Law of Moses (Romans 2). The Law does not save anyone, but only establishes man’s guilt, because no one is able to live up to the Law’s demands (Romans 3:1-20). Since man cannot earn salvation by his works, God has provided salvation apart from works, through faith in Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death for those who trust in Him (Romans 3:21-31). Salvation by faith is nothing new; it is the way Abraham and every other Old Testament saint was saved (Romans 4).

In Romans 5, Paul spells out some of the benefits of the salvation God brought about in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ. It is noteworthy that the first benefit Paul mentions is related to suffering:

1 Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. 3 Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance, character, and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. 6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.) 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life? 11 Not only this, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation (Romans 5:1-11, emphasis mine).

God’s salvation in Jesus Christ endures all adversity; indeed, we can rejoice in our adversity, knowing that it will only strengthen our faith and assurance of eternal life. This salvation in Christ accomplishes the reversal of Adam’s fall and the curse for every believer. What Adam did, God undid in Christ, and more (5:12-21).

God’s salvation in Christ is no license to sin; indeed, it is the motivation and the basis for godly living. After all, we who have been identified with Christ by faith have thereby died to sin, and thus should no longer live in sin (Romans 6:1-14). We should not only understand that we are free from sins’ former bondage, we should realize that the wages of sin is death, so we certainly don’t wish to continue on that path (6:15-23). In Christ, we have not only died to sin, we have died to the Law, which frees us to live in liberty through the Holy Spirit (7:1-7). The Law is not the root problem, however; sin is. Our flesh (our natural human strength) is not sufficient to overpower sin, so sin always gets the best of us when we strive in our own efforts (7:8-25).

The solution to the power of sin is the power of the Holy Spirit. Those who have trusted in Jesus Christ are no longer under condemnation, and they are no longer to be dominated by sin. They have the power to achieve what could not be done in the flesh (the righteous requirements of the Law being fulfilled in us) but can be done through the Spirit. The very same Spirit that raised the dead body of our Lord from the grave now lives in us, and He can give life to our mortal bodies. Everyone who is a true believer in Christ has the Spirit of God living in him, and furthermore He assures us that we are the “sons of God” (8:1-17).

One might think that when we come to Romans 8:18, Paul is about to tell us that all of life will now be a “bed of roses,” that having the Holy Spirit in us assures us that all pain and suffering will end. Such is not the case. In verses 18-30, Paul does exactly the opposite. He assures us that every human being will experience “suffering and groaning” in this life because of the fall of man and the curse that resulted. The “whole creation groans and suffers together till now,” Paul writes (8:22). The chaos and the curse that came as a result of Adam’s sin will not be removed until the return of our Lord and “the revelation of the sons of God” (8:19). At this time, God will “redeem our bodies and adopt us as sons” (8:23). At that time we will, with all creation, be fully and finally freed from our bondage to corruption (8:21).

If the whole world suffers and groans, the Christian does so even more. It is the Christian who has tasted of eternal life, and who already have “the firstfruits of the Spirit” (8:22). We not only long for the time when God will make all things new, but we agonize over the sin-broken world in which we now live. Nevertheless we are to wait for this day with eagerness and endurance (8:25).

Salvation in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit do not keep us from suffering; they keep us through suffering. The Spirit strengthens and sustains us, assuring us of our sonship. The Spirit communicates for us, when we cannot put words to our groanings (8:26-27). The same God who delivered us from the penalty and the power of sin will someday deliver us from the presence of sin. Until that day, His Spirit sustains us in suffering.

To summarize, suffering is the common experience of man, because we live in a sin-cursed world. God has given us all the resources we need to endure the sufferings of life and to bring us to His predetermined goal for our lives. We can endure suffering because God has given us His Holy Spirit, to comfort and to assure us that we are His sons, and to communicate to us and for us. Christians are not exempt from suffering, but because of our new life and eternal hope, we agonize as we “suffer and groan” with all creation, waiting for the day of our Lord’s return. If this kind of suffering does anything for us, it makes us hunger for heaven:

16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

Not All Suffering is the Direct Result of Personal Sin
John 9:1-7

1 Now as Jesus was passing by, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who committed the sin that caused him to be born blind, this man or his parents?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but he was born blind so that the acts of God may be revealed through what happens to him. 4 We must perform the deeds of the one who sent me as long as it is daytime. Night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 Having said this, he spat on the ground and made some mud with the saliva. He smeared the mud on the blind man’s eyes 7 and said to him, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated “sent”). So the blind man went away and washed, and came back seeing.

We all remember the story of Job and his “comfortless friends.” They counseled Job on the basis of a false assumption: that suffering is always the direct result of sin. Even our Lord’s disciples seemed to buy into this false thinking. As they were walking along, Jesus saw a man who had been blind from birth. I doubt that the disciples would have noticed him if Jesus hadn’t first taken note of this man.50 The disciples asked Jesus who had sinned, this man or his parents.51 It never seems to have occurred to them that this man might not have been suffering because of some sin in his life, or in the lives of his parents.

This was a tempting explanation for human suffering, and perhaps this is why it was so commonly accepted. On the one hand, it made suffering explainable, even tolerable. It is relatively easy to embrace the explanation that says people suffer because they get what they deserve. It rules out the possibility of innocent suffering, the most difficult kind of suffering to explain. On the other hand, it is an easy explanation to accept because it relieves us of the responsibility to help those who are suffering. If those who suffer do so because they have sinned, then suffering is divine judgment for sin. If God is imposing divine punishment on the afflicted, who am I to come to their aid? I would be resisting God’s purposes.

It is hard to imagine how this blind man must have felt, being the subject of this conversation. How well he knew that most people made the same assumption. Jesus responded to His disciples’ question in a way that must have shocked them. He told them that this man’s blindness from birth was not due to sin, not his personal sin, nor the sin of his parents. Instead, Jesus declared that this man’s blindness provided the occasion for God’s works to be revealed through him.52 If I was that blind man, my ears would be straining to hear what would happen next. After declaring that He was the “light of the world,” Jesus spit on the ground and took some of this “mud” and placed it on the blind man’s eyes, instructing him to wash in the pool of Siloam. He did just that and came away with his sight.

Let this miracle be a word of instruction and of caution to all of us. Suffering is not always the direct result of personal sin. We certainly know of many instances where sin and suffering go hand-in-hand. This seems to be the case with the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda in John 5. Jesus took the initiative in healing this fellow, and then slipped away. The paralytic made his way home with his mat, thus technically violating the Sabbath. For this he was accosted by the “religious police,” who accused him of breaking the law. When he told them about his healing, they insisted on knowing who had done this – that, too, was “breaking the Sabbath” in their minds. The man did not know who it was who had healed him, so he could not tell them. Jesus then found this man, and said to him,

“Look, you have become well. Don’t sin any more, lest anything worse happen to you.” 15 The man went away and informed the Jewish authorities that Jesus was the one who had made him well (John 5:14b-15).

The man immediately went to the “Jewish authorities” and reported to them that it was Jesus who had healed him. Apparently this man’s suffering was due to sin, and thus our Lord’s warning to him not to persist in his sin. Instead of taking heed and forsaking his sin, he compounded it by reporting that Jesus had healed him.

Sin-related sickness is also mentioned in James 5, where James instructs the one who is sick to call for the elders of the church and to confess his sins (James 5:14-16). Sin is sometimes the cause of our suffering,53 but not always. In the case of the man born blind, suffering provided the occasion for God’s works to be displayed.

God Uses Our Suffering For Our Own Good
2 Corinthians 12:1-10; Philippians 3:7-11; Psalm 119:65-72, 92

1 It is necessary to go on boasting. Though it is not profitable, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know that this man (whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows) 4 was caught up into paradise and heard things too sacred to be put into words, things that a person is not permitted to speak. 5 On behalf of such an individual I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except about my weaknesses. 6 For even if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I would be telling the truth, but I refrain from this so that no one may regard me beyond what he sees in me or what he hears from me, 7 even because of the extraordinary character of the revelations. Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me—so that I would not become arrogant. 8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).

The Scriptures contain many examples of how God uses suffering in the lives of men for their good. We can see how God used the suffering of the man born blind to bring him to faith (see John 9:35-38). A number of those who came to our Lord for healing went away believing. God also uses suffering in the life of the believer, for his or her good.

In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul continues to wage war against the “false apostles” (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13) by reluctantly comparing himself with them (see 2 Corinthians 11:21-29). In chapter 12, Paul speaks of being “caught up to the third heaven” (12:2), to paradise, where he heard “things too sacred to put into words” (12:4). These are the kinds of things in which one might glory and come to take pride in, so God gave Paul a “thorn in the flesh.” This affliction ultimately came from God, but was administered through a “messenger of Satan” (12:7). Paul appealed to God, asking three times to be delivered. Each time, God refused Paul’s request, reminding him that “His grace was enough,” because His “power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).

Paul’s thorn in the flesh not only kept him humble, it kept him humanly weak, so that God’s power would be evident in his life. Suffering kept Paul from the sin of spiritual pride and kept him dependent on the power of Christ through His Spirit. This gave Paul a very different view of his afflictions:

10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).

In Philippians 3, Paul speaks of another blessing that God brought him through suffering:

7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I might gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because of having my own righteousness derived from the law, but because of having the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-11).

Paul had once been a Jewish legalist, a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” and a zealous Pharisee (3:5). His experience on the road to Damascus and subsequent conversion showed him his sin of self-righteousness and his need for salvation by faith, apart from religious works. As a child of God, Paul now had a completely different outlook. He came to see that all the things in which he took pride were really useless – or to use his words, “dung” (verse 9). While he once viewed suffering as God’s curse on the sinner (much like the disciples did in John 9), he now saw suffering as a blessing. Paul now experienced in his sufferings for Christ a fellowship with Christ which enabled him to know Christ more intimately. How many Christians have testified the same thing about their sufferings? They have found in suffering a greater intimacy with Christ, a greater faith, a greater joy than they had previously known in physical ease. Suffering in the life of the saint is designed to draw us nearer to God because of our enhanced fellowship with Christ, whose suffering brought us to God.

Old Testament saints likewise found comfort and growth in their sufferings. We see this in Psalm 119:

65 You are good to your servant,

O Lord, just as you promised.

66 Teach me proper discernment and understanding!

For I consider your commands to be reliable.

67 I used to suffer because I would stray off,

but now I keep your instructions.

68 You are good and you do good.

Teach me your statutes!

69 Arrogant people smear my reputation with lies,

but I observe your precepts with all my heart.

70 They are calloused,

but I find delight in your law.

71 It was good for me to suffer,

so that I might learn your statutes.

72 The law you have revealed is more important to me

than thousands of gold and silver shekels. (Yod)

.

92 If I had not found encouragement in your law,

I would have died in my sorrow (Psalm 119:65-72, 92).

The psalmist found that his suffering was a form of divine discipline in his life, which caused him to give closer heed to God’s Word. This psalmist was not an exception. Asaph testified that his suffering drew him nearer to God, while prosperity only made the wicked arrogant and proud (Psalm 73). Job learned much about God in his affliction. Above all, he learned to trust in God’s wisdom and sovereignty. The writer to the Hebrews informs us that the suffering of divine discipline is evidence that we are His sons (Hebrews 12:1-13).

God Uses Our Suffering for the Good of Others
Genesis 41:46-52; 45:7-11; 50:18-21

We all remember the story of how Joseph’s brothers, prompted by jealousy and hatred toward this favorite son of Jacob, sold their brother into slavery in Egypt. There in Egypt, Joseph continued to experience suffering at the hand of others, not because of sin on his part, but because of his faithfulness to God. When Joseph was elevated to power in Egypt, he named his sons in such a way as to indicate that he saw the good hand of God in his life (Genesis 41:46-52). Thus, when his brothers came to Egypt seeking grain, Joseph was free to deal kindly with them, even though it did not appear this way in the beginning.54 When Joseph’s brothers repented of their sin, he revealed his true identity to them. Quite naturally, they were frightened, assuming that he would use his power to get even with them for their sin against him. His brothers did not yet understand God’s good purposes in suffering, even “innocent suffering,” but Joseph did:

7 God sent me ahead of you to preserve you on the earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8 So now, it is not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me an adviser to Pharaoh, lord over all his household, and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Now go up to my father quickly and tell him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: “God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not delay. 10 You will live in the land of Goshen, and you will be near me—you, your children, your grandchildren, your flocks, your herds, and everything you have. 11 I will provide you with food there, because there will be five more years of famine. Otherwise you would become poor—you, your household, and everyone who belongs to you”‘ (Genesis 45:7-11, emphasis mine).

18 Then his brothers also came and threw themselves down before him; they said, “Here we are; we are your slaves.” 19 But Joseph answered them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day. 21 So now, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your little children.” Then he consoled them and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:18-21, emphasis mine).

Therefore, innocent suffering is not only for our good, but also for the good of others.55

Some Suffering is Due to the Sin of Others
1 Samuel 21:1—22:11-23; 2 Samuel 12:1-23

In 1 Samuel 21, David is fleeing from King Saul, who is seeking to kill him. David and his men were in need of food so David went to Nob, where Ahimelech the priest was staying. Ahimelech sensed that something must be wrong when David came to him alone. David deceived the priest, telling him that he had come on a secret mission from King Saul, and that no one was to know about it (21:1-2). David asked Ahimelech for bread, and he was given some of the holy bread. Ahimelech also gave David Goliath’s sword, which he had taken from him when he killed him. It so happened that Doeg the Edomite, one of Saul’s men, was there that day and observed what took place. Later, Doeg reported to Saul what he had seen, and as a result, Saul ordered the death of many priests and their families:

16 But the king said, “You will surely die, Ahimelech, you and all your father’s house! 17 Then the king said to the messengers who were stationed beside him, “Turn and kill the priests of the Lord. For they too have sided with David. They knew he was fleeing, but they did not inform me.” But the king’s servants refused to harm the priests of the Lord. 18 Then the king said to Doeg, “You turn and strike down the priests.” So Doeg the Edomite turned and struck down the priests. He killed on that day eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod. 19 As for Nob, the city of the priests, he struck down with the sword men and women, children and infants, oxen, donkeys, and sheep—all with the sword (1 Samuel 22:16-19).

We know from David’s response to this tragedy that he felt responsible for the deaths of the priests and their families (1 Samuel 22:21-23). The guilt was not due to David asking Ahimelech for bread, for our Lord seems to have indicated this was legitimate (see Matthew 12:3-4). It is unclear whether David’s lie was a factor in this tragedy, but it is clear that all these people ultimately died because of Saul’s jealousy. The sin of one man (Saul) and the attempt of another (David) to feed his men led to the death of many “innocent” people.56

While David may have been guiltless in the death of the priests of Nob, his sin was the cause of the death of his child in 2 Samuel 11 and 12. While the army of Israel went to war, David stayed at home in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 11:1). As a result, David happened to look down on a young woman while she was bathing and then inquired about her. Even after David learned she was married to one of his faithful soldiers, David summoned her to his palace and slept with her. He then sought to cover his sin by ordering Joab, his commander, to put Uriah in the hottest part of the battle, and then to draw back from him. David was confronted by Nathan for his sin and was told that the child conceived through this illicit union would die. In spite of David’s repentance and petitions, God did take the life of this child. This “innocent” child died as the result of David’s sin. Innocent people sometimes suffer because of the sins of others.

Suffering is Often Due to a Combination of Causes
2 Samuel 24:1-25; 1 Chronicles 21:1-30

I would briefly point out that it is not always possible to assess a single cause of suffering. Life is not that simple, and neither is sin. In 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21, we read of the plague that is sent upon the Israelites because David foolishly numbered the people, even against the counsel of his trusted servants, Joab and the commanders of his army (2 Samuel 24:3-4). On the one hand, we see that 70,000 of David’s men died because of his folly (2 Samuel 24:15). We see also from the account in 1 Chronicles 21 (verse 1) that Satan stood up against Israel, moving David to number Israel. So Satan, too, plays a role in this disaster. But from 2 Samuel 24:1, we learn that the situation was even more complicated than that:

The Lord’s anger again raged against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go count Israel and Judah” (2 Samuel 24:1).

From these words, we see that God was behind this entire event, which should come as no surprise to the Christian. But what we also learn is that God “incited David” because He was angry with Israel. Thus, the Israelites were not really innocent; they were guilty, and God brought this about to chasten the nation for its sin. Suffering is often the result of a complex set of causes, all of which eventually are rooted in man’s sin.

There Is Only One Innocent Person

It should probably be noted at this point that no one, not even babies, are truly “innocent” in the sense that they are completely free of sin. David said it long ago:

Look, I was prone to do wrong from birth;

I was a sinner the moment my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5).

Paul reaffirms this by citing Old Testament texts in Romans 3:

10 just as it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one,

11 there is no one who understands,

there is no one who seeks God.

12 All have turned away,

together they have become worthless;

there is no one who shows kindness, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).

The only man who has ever been born free from sin and who has lived a perfect life is our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone could say,

Who among you can prove me guilty of any sin? If I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? (John 8:46)

He alone was the spotless, unblemished Lamb of God, whose shed blood cleanses men of their sins:

17 And if you address as Father the one who impartially judges according to each one’s work, live out the time of your temporary residence here in reverence. 18 You know that from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors, you were ransomed—not by perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but by precious blood like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb, namely Christ. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was manifested in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you now trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God (1 Peter 1:17-21).

When we speak of “innocent suffering,” we must therefore do so in a qualified way. Only our Lord suffered innocently. Everyone else who suffers does so as a sinner. When we speak of “innocent suffering,” then, we speak of suffering that is not directly due to personal sin, but sin that is due to the sin of others.

Our Comfort:
God’s Punishment is Just, and He does Not Punish the Innocent
Genesis 18:16-33; Jonah 4:1-11

When it comes to those who suffer in relative innocence, we find great comfort in God’s Word. Consider the conversation between Abraham and God, in reference to the impending judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah:

16 When the men got up to leave, they looked out over Sodom. (Now Abraham was walking with them to see them on their way.) 17 Then the Lord said, “Should I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 After all, Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations on the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using his name. 19 I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. Then the Lord will give to Abraham what he promised him.” 20 So the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so blatant 21 that I must go down and see if they are as wicked as the outcry suggests. If not, I want to know.” 22 The two men turned and headed toward Sodom, but Abraham was still standing before the Lord. 23 Abraham approached and said, “Will you sweep away the godly along with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty godly people in the city? Will you really wipe it out and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty godly people who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the godly with the wicked, treating the godly and the wicked alike! Far be it from you! Will not the judge of the whole earth do what is right?” 26 So the Lord replied, “If I find in the city of Sodom fifty godly people, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27 Then Abraham asked, “Since I have undertaken to speak to the Lord (although I am but dust and ashes), 28 what if there are five less than the fifty godly people? Will you destroy the whole city because five are lacking? He replied, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Abraham spoke to him again, “What if forty are found there?” He replied, “I will not do it for the sake of the forty.” 30 Then Abraham said, “May the Lord not be angry so that I may speak! What if thirty are found there?” He replied, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” 31 Abraham said, “Since I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty are found there?” He replied, “I will not destroy it for the sake of the twenty.” 32 Finally Abraham said, “May the Lord not be angry so that I may speak just once more. What if ten are found there?” He replied, “I will not destroy it for the sake of the ten.” 33 The Lord went on his way when he had finished speaking to Abraham. Then Abraham returned home (Genesis 18:16-33, emphasis mine).

God was about to punish Sodom and Gomorrah, but He wanted to share this with Abraham. When Abraham heard that these cities were to be destroyed, he was greatly concerned that there would be no righteous who were punished along with the wicked. He argued that His God would do what is right, and that this would preclude treating the godly and the wicked alike (18:23-25). In the end, he bargained that if there were but ten righteous remaining in the city, God would spare it. We know, of course, that there were not ten left. But even so, God was true to His character. Before God brought down fire upon these wicked cities, He removed Lot and his family (Genesis 19:12-26). Our God is just, and He does not punish the righteous along with the wicked.

This same truth57 is also taught in the fourth chapter of Jonah:

3:10 When God saw their actions—they turned from their evil way of living!—God relented concerning the judgment he had threatened them with and he did not destroy them. 4:1 This terribly displeased Jonah and he became very angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “Oh, Lord, this is just what I thought would happen when I was in my own country. This is what I tried to prevent by trying to escape to Tarshish!—because I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment. 3 So now, Lord, kill me instead, because I would rather die than live!” 4 The Lord said, “Are you really so very angry?” 5 Jonah left the city, sat down east of the city, made a shelter for himself there, and sat down under it in the shade to see what would happen to the city. 6 The Lord God appointed a little plant and caused it to grow up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to rescue him from his misery. Now Jonah was very delighted about the little plant. 7 So God sent a worm at dawn the next day, and it attacked the little plant so that it dried up. 8 When the sun began to shine, God sent a hot east wind. So the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he grew faint. So he despaired of life, and said, “ I would rather die than live!” 9 God said to Jonah, “Are you really so very angry about the little plant?” And he said, “ I am as angry as I could possibly be!” 10 The Lord said, “You were upset about this little plant, something for which you have not worked nor did you do anything to make it grow. It grew up overnight and died the next day. 11 Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!” (Jonah 3:10—4:11, emphasis mine)

When Nineveh repented, God relented, and Jonah vented. He was hopping mad! The very thing for which others praised God (“you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment,” verse 2 above)58 Jonah protested against. Jonah hated grace,59 without seeming to notice that it was the only thing that kept him alive. Jonah wanted to see these guilty sinners pay; he wanted to sit and watch while God poured out His wrath on them, even though they had repented. Jonah failed to see the shade plant as a gift of grace, and he was angry when it was taken away, as though he somehow deserved it.

The depth of Jonah’s sin is seen in relation to the children of Nineveh. He wanted to watch (in the words of Abraham) God “sweep away the innocent60 along with the wicked.” God’s justice is seen in contrast to Jonah’s self-righteous anger. It mattered not to Jonah that Nineveh had repented; he wanted to see them all perish. God not only delights to save repentant sinners, God cares about innocent children. He would not punish them even though their parents were evil.

God’s Salvation and the Slaughter of the Infants
Matthew 2:13-18; Jeremiah 31:15

God’s words to Jonah lead us to our problem passage in Matthew 2, verses 13-18:

13 After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother at night, and went to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.” 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and nearby from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone(Matthew 2:13-18).

The magi had been divinely instructed to go home another way, and they obeyed (2:12). God then instructed Joseph to take the child and Mary and flee to Egypt because Herod was seeking to kill Jesus. Joseph likewise obeyed. When Herod realized that his plans to kill the infant king had been foiled, he was furious. Having learned the time when the star first appeared to the magi and where the child was born from the experts in the law, Herod knew the age and location of the child, even though he did not know his identity. While Jesus could hardly be two years old, Herod thought that was a good, round number at which to destroy all of the boy babies in Bethlehem. And so, at Herod’s instructions, all boy babies in the Bethlehem vicinity who were two and under were slaughtered.

While estimates of the number of babies killed have sometimes been exaggerated, it is generally thought that no more than 20 or 30 babies actually died. This in no way minimizes Herod’s guilt, or the grief suffered by the parents of these children. One must ask why Matthew chose to include this detail about the slaughter of these infants when he did not go into detail about the death of Herod himself. The reader would tend to find a kind of satisfaction in Herod’s painful death but is distressed at the report of the slaughter of these infant boys. What purpose does this account serve in the Gospel of Matthew?

First, the story of the slaughter of the innocent infants serves to cast a certain dark cloud over the otherwise joyous occasion of Jesus’ birth. We should remember that Jesus came to die at the hands of unbelieving Jews and Gentiles. We encountered the name Jesus in Matthew 1:

She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

The way Jesus would “save His people from their sins” was by dying as an innocent sacrifice, on the cross of Calvary. The birth of our Lord was a joyous occasion, as most Christmas cards convey, but it was the birth of a Savior who would die in Jerusalem. Thus, Matthew sets the scene for his readers early in his Gospel. The people of Jerusalem and its ruler were deeply troubled by the report that “the King of the Jews” had been born in Bethlehem.

We would do well to compare Matthew’s account of the birth of our Lord with that of Luke. While each author chose different occasions, events, and personalities, both prepared the reader for the fact that the One who was born in Bethlehem would die for the sins of His people. Matthew prepares us by reporting the slaughter of the infants; Luke does so through the words of Simeon to Mary:

34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “Listen carefully: this child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. 35 Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!” (Luke 2:34-35, emphasis mine)

If the events of our Lord’s birth were intended to foreshadow the later events of our Lord’s life, and death, then somewhere in the birth account the reader needed to be alerted to the fact that Jesus would die.

There is yet another dimension to the account of the slaughter of the infants that I believe we should at least consider. Some may find my connection a bit of a reach, but I am not entirely alone in my approach. I had to ask myself a very simple question: What was the reason why Herod had the boy babies put to death? The answer, I believe, is both simple and obvious: Herod had these boy babies slaughtered because of their identification with Jesus. Herod did not kill all the 12-year-old girls in Jerusalem; he killed all the boy babies 2 years old and younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Why? Because Herod was trying to kill Jesus, the “King of the Jews.” Herod had only those killed who were born where the Messiah was prophesied to be born, and those of the approximate age that the magi gave by telling him when the star first appeared. In one sense, these infants were the first martyrs for Christ.

We must now ask the question: What is the connection Matthew is seeking to draw between the slaughter of these infants and Jeremiah 31:15? Let me begin with several observations about the passage Matthew cites from Jeremiah 31.

(1) The context of Jeremiah 31 is Israel’s captivity and subsequent return and restoration. In particular, God is assuring the Northern Kingdom of Israel of their restoration after their Assyrian bondage. Notice these comments in the Bible Knowledge Commentary on verses 2-6:

God assured the Northern Kingdom that He will restore her. Those who had survived the sword (probably Assyria’s destruction of Israel) will yet experience God’s favor as He leads them into the desert for their new Exodus 16:14-15; 23:7-8; Hosea 2:14-15). The turmoil of their long years of exile will cease when God intervenes to give rest to the nation Israel. 61

Now notice the comments of the Bible Knowledge Commentary on verses 7-9:

As God leads these people on their new Exodus into Israel He will provide for their every need. He will guide the people beside streams of water (cf. Ex. 15:22-25; Num. 20:2-13; Ps. 23:2) and they will travel on a level path so they will not stumble. God will do all this because of His special relationship to Israel. He is Israel’s father (cf. Deut. 32:6), and Ephraim (emphasizing the Northern tribes of Israel) is his firstborn son (cf. Ex. 4:22). Jeremiah used the image of a father/son relationship to show God’s deep love for His people (cf. Hosea 11:1, 8).62

The “captivity” may very well include the later Babylonian captivity as well. Ramah, we are told, was the staging point from which the people of Judah were sent on their way to Babylon:

Thus Jeremiah was picturing the weeping of the women of the Northern Kingdom as they watched their children being carried into exile in 722 b.c. However, Jeremiah could also have had the 586 b.c. deportation of Judah in view because Ramah was the staging point for Nebuchadnezzar’s deportation (cf. 40:1).63

(2) The mood of this chapter is joyful celebration, because God will bring His people back to the land and restore them, showering His blessings upon them. In this sense, those who weep should weep no longer.

10 Hear what the Lord has to say, O nations.

And proclaim it in the faraway lands along the sea.

Say, “The one who scattered Israel will regather them.

He will watch over his people like a shepherd watches over his flock.”

11 For the Lord will set the descendants of Jacob free.

He will secure their release from those who had overpowered them.

12 They will come and shout for joy on Mount Zion.

They will be radiant with joy over the good things the Lord provides,

the grain, the fresh wine, the olive oil,

the young sheep and calves he has given to them.

They will be like a well-watered garden and will not grow faint and weary any more.

13 The Lord says, “At that time young women will dance and be glad.

Young men and old men will rejoice.

I will turn their grief into gladness.

I will give them comfort and joy in place of their sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:10-13).

(3) The place referred to in Jeremiah 31:15 is Ramah, and the person is Rachel, weeping over her children. We are first of all reminded of the death of Rachel, recorded in Genesis 35:16-19. Rachel has great difficultly giving birth to her son, whom she names, Ben-oni, “son of my sorrow.” In the end, Benjamin (“son of my right hand”) is born, but Rachel dies in childbirth. Rachel is the mother of Joseph (whose sons were Ephraim and Manasseh) and Benjamin. She was looked upon as the “mother of Israel.” She would be very closely associated with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. How easy it was to describe the mourning of the mothers of the Northern Kingdom as “Rachel weeping for her children” when the Assyrians led them away in captivity. The same words would be an apt description of the mothers of the Southern Kingdom mourning as they watched their sons carried off to Babylon.

(4) The context of Jeremiah 31 is also the “new covenant”:

27 “Indeed, a time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will cause people and animals to sprout up in the lands of Israel and Judah. 28 In the past I saw to it that they were uprooted and torn down, that they were destroyed and demolished. At that time I will see to it that they are built up and firmly planted. I, the Lord, affirm it. 29 “When that time comes, people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, but the children’s teeth have grown numb.’ 30 Rather, each person will die for his own sins. The teeth of the person who eats the sour grapes will themselves grow numb. 31 “Indeed, a time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new agreement with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It will not be like the old agreement that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. For they violated that agreement, even though I was a faithful husband to them,” says the Lord. 33 “But I will make a new agreement with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. And I will be their God and they will be my people. 34 “People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. That is because all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,” says the Lord. “All of this is based on the fact that I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done” (Jeremiah 31:27-34, emphasis mine).

I find it especially significant how Jeremiah describes the effect of the New Covenant in verses 29 and 30. His point seems to be that while, under the Old Covenant, children bore the penalty for their parents’ sins, this would no longer be true under the New Covenant. Given these words in such close proximity to Jeremiah 31:15, I would find it difficult to say that the innocent suffering of the baby boys of Bethlehem was due to the sins of their parents. Given the results of our study earlier in this lesson I would also find it difficult to conclude that these infants were somehow under divine condemnation as a result of the death, in a way little different from that of Herod, who also dies in Matthew 2.

How do all these “dots” connect? I believe Matthew is telling us that Jesus is the new Israel. Jesus was subtly linked with Moses, whose life (among others) was sought by Pharaoh, but who God spared. Jesus was like David, who jealous King Saul sought to kill because he was a rival to his throne. Jesus was all that Israel failed to be, so that His journey to Egypt and back could be likened to the exodus, as Hosea referred to it in Hosea 11:1.

Jesus’ journey to Egypt and back was like Israel’s captivity (both the Assyrian captivity of the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonian captivity of the Southern Kingdom). Thus Matthew draws the connection between Rachel’s weeping over the departure of her children. Though she wept, thinking they would never again return, God had promised they would return and would be restored to blessing. Does this not imply that the weeping of the mothers (and fathers) of Bethlehem, whose sons were slaughtered by Herod, would be short-lived as well? And all of this because of Jesus, the new Israel. As these infants were identified with Christ in their death, so I believe they are going to be identified with Christ in His resurrection and return in glory.64 Herod died, opposing the “King of the Jews;” these infants died because of their identification with the “King of the Jews.” How different their destinies will be.

Final Thoughts on Suffering From Romans 8

In this lesson, we have seen that there are various causes of human suffering, and there are also varied effects. While we may wish for simple answers to our questions regarding suffering (answers like that of the disciples in John 9, or by Job’s friends), such answers are often not to be found. It was many years before the man born blind learned the reason for his suffering, and he certainly must have concluded that it was worth it all. Job was not given the answer to his suffering. He was simply reminded of who God is, and that was enough for him. While simple, easy answers to our questions regarding suffering may not be available, there are some assurances which enable us to endure in faith. For a summary of these assurances, I would like to return to Romans 8.

(1) Suffering is part of our common experience as human beings (Romans 8:18-25). In 1 Corinthians 10, the Apostle Paul wrote:

13 No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried too much, but with the trial will also provide a way through it so that you may be able to endure (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Living in a fallen world means that we must experience some of the after-effects of the fall, and thus suffering is a part of our lot, not just as Christians, but as human beings.

(2) Our Lord is always with us through His Holy Spirit. He assures us that we are God’s children and that we have the certain hope of eternal life. He also communicates for us in our times of suffering. Jesus assured us that He would be with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). He told us that He would never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). We are never alone in our suffering. Indeed, God often draws us near to Himself through our sufferings (see Psalm 73:21-28).

(3) Christians are assured that any suffering that comes their way has come from the hand of their loving God, for their good, and for His glory:

28 And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, 29 because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).

(4) We can triumphantly face our sufferings, in the light of the fact that Christ, our Savior, suffered infinitely for us, that we might have eternal life:

31 What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 Indeed, he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is the one who will condemn? Christ is the one who died (and more than that, he was raised), who is at the right hand of God, and who also is interceding for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we encounter death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).

Praise God that we have a loving, sovereign God, who administers our afflictions for our good and for His glory!


47 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 3 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 2, 2003.

48 I have included verses 13-15 to supply some needed context.

49 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

50 I had an experience in India which helps me understand the way many people look at those who are blind or in some other way are infirmed. I was just entering India with my blind friend, Craig Nelson. We were being interviewed by a customs official when he seemed to take note of my friend’s handicap. Turning to me, the official asked, “Is he a sick man?” My friend Craig responded, “I’m not sick; I’m blind.” From that moment on the official refused to look at or to talk with my friend; he only talked to me. It was just as if a blind person did not even exist. No wonder the lame beggar outside the temple in Acts 3 expected to receive something, once he noticed Peter and John looking at him.

51 This man was born blind, so it would have been hard for him to sin first, and then experience blindness as divine punishment.

52 See Luke 4:18-19.

53 See, for example, the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda. Jesus returned to this man and said, “Look, you have become well. Don’t sin any more, lest anything worse happen to you” (John 5:14).

54 Joseph’s harshness was a disguise (Genesis 42:7). His true feelings are revealed by his private tears (42:24; 43:30).

55 Note also 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, where Paul teaches that the comfort which we gain in our suffering enables us to comfort others in their affliction.

56 It should be noted that the death of these priests may also be related to the curse on Eli’s family, found in 1 Samuel 2:27-36.

57 In Genesis, Abraham argued on behalf of the righteous; in Jonah, God argues on behalf of the “innocent” – children and animals.

58 See Exodus 34:6; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 116:5.

59 The one thing self-righteousness despises is grace.

60 The reader will note that I have exchanged the word “innocent” for the word “godly,” which Abraham used (Genesis 8:23). The situation here is not identical with Sodom and Gomorrah, but it is similar.

61 Walvoord, J. F. Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. 1983-c1985. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Victor Books: Wheaton, IL. Emphasis mine.

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid.

64 This conclusion is very closely related to my understanding that babies who die go to heaven, a view which I deal with in much greater detail in my sermon on 2 Samuel 12:

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4. John the Baptist and Jesus (Matthew 3:1-17)

Introduction

A few days ago, my wife and I watched a special televised broadcast of Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaign in Dallas, Texas, last Fall. There was some great music by Michael W. Smith and the Gaither Vocal Band. Then, when it came time for Billy Graham to speak, he was introduced by former President George Bush. What a wonderful compliment to Mr. Graham and to his faithfulness in preaching the gospel to many presidents and their families over the years.

If Jesus were to preach at a football stadium in Dallas, Texas, who would you expect to introduce Him? I can assure you that John the Baptist would not be at the top of the list. Indeed, I doubt that John would have been on the list at all. In a sense, one could say that John’s mission in life was to introduce Jesus as God’s promised Messiah, the hope of all the ages. But who would have ever thought that God would have chosen a man like John the Baptist for this task? To say that John was “unique” would be an understatement. He was a “wilderness man,” a man who from childhood had lived “in the wilderness until the day he was revealed to Israel” (Luke 1:80).66 He wore clothing made of camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). His message was not polished, but blunt and to the point. Rather than receiving all who would come, he verbally attacked some of those in his audience. And yet this was the man whom God had chosen to introduce His Son, the Messiah.

Whatever some might think about John, no one would dare to deny his success. Almost in spite of himself, John attracted large crowds. His message had a great impact on many, just as the angel had told his father, Zacharias:

13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son; you will name him John. 14 Joy and gladness will come to you, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go as forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him” (Luke 1:13-17).

John’s greatness cannot be denied. Every one of the four Gospels begins their account of the ministry of our Lord by recording some of John’s words of introduction. Jesus Himself spoke very highly of John:

“I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is” (Matthew 11:11).

Even a man like Herod was reluctant to harm John. On the one hand, Herod was afraid of the crowds, because they revered John (Matthew 14:5), but on the other hand, Herod himself feared John (Mark 6:20). John may not have been much of a fashion statement, and he may not even have been a great public speaker, but he certainly attracted a large hearing, a number of whom followed his teaching. Although John does not seem to have traveled a great deal we know that he had followers as far away from Judea as Ephesus:

24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, arrived in Ephesus. He was an eloquent speaker, well-versed in the scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and with great enthusiasm he spoke and taught accurately the facts about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak out fearlessly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately (Acts 18:24-26).

1 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul went through the inland regions and came to Ephesus. He found some disciples there 2 and said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 So Paul said, “Into what then were you baptized?” “Into John’s baptism,” they replied. 4 Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, 6 and when Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. 7 (Now there were about twelve men in all.) (Acts 19:1-7)

As a prophet, John the Baptist was a novelty in Israel at this time. For nearly 400 years God had not spoken through the prophets (see Isaiah 29:10). Suddenly, from the Judean wilderness a voice began to cry out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). People began to make their way out to the wilderness to see and to hear John. Some came out of mere curiosity, perhaps, while others came to repent, confess their sins, and be baptized. Others (like the Sadducees and the Pharisees – Matthew 3:7) may have come because they may have wanted to size up the competition.

Our study will focus on John the Baptist, his mission, his message, and his methods. While every gospel writer has his own emphasis and perspective, my intention in this lesson is to consider John the Baptist from Matthew’s point of view.

Observations

We should begin by making some observations regarding John the Baptist.

(1) John the Baptist was a unique individual, a man who definitely stood apart from the crowd. It was God’s will that John not be contaminated by the corrupt religious system of his day. He was a Nazarite from birth and was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in the womb (Luke 1:15). As already mentioned, his dress and diet were “off the charts” as well. From childhood he lived in the desert or wilderness regions of Judea. While he was born into a priestly family, he did not take his father’s name, nor his work (Luke 1:59-63, 80). And although John was a prophet, he did not perform any miraculous signs:

41 Many came to him and began to say, “John performed no miraculous sign, but everything John said about this man was true!” (John 10:41)

It is hard for me to imagine, but John did not even know that Jesus was the promised Messiah until he baptized Him:

29 On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ 31 I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33 And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining, this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God” (John 1:29-34).67

(2) Matthew (along with the rest of the Gospel writers) carefully links John with the Old Testament. In each of the four Gospels, John the Baptist is identified with the “voice who cries out” in Isaiah 40:

A voice cries out,

“In the desert clear a way for the Lord;

construct in the wilderness a road for our God” (Isaiah 40:3, cited in Matthew 3:3; see also Mark 1:3;

Luke 3:4-6; John 1:23).

More subtly, Matthew also links John the Baptist with Elijah,68 especially in relation to his appearance. In 2 Kings 1, Ahaziah, the son of Ahab, had fallen through a lattice and had been injured. He wanted to know if he would recover, and so he sent messengers to inquire of Baal Zebub. Elijah intercepted these messengers and sent them back to Ahaziah with a word of rebuke. Note Ahaziah’s response to these returning messengers:

5 When the messengers returned to the king [Ahaziah], he asked them, “Why have you returned?” 6 They said to him, “A man came up to meet us. He told us, “Go back to the king who sent you and tell him, ‘This is what the Lord says, “You must think there is no God in Israel! That explains why you are sending for an oracle from Baal Zebub, the god of Ekron. Therefore you will not leave the bed on which you lie, for you will certainly die.”‘‘ 7 The king asked them, “Describe the appearance of this man who came up to meet you and told you these things.” 8 They said to him, “He was a hairy man and had a leather belt tied around his waist.” The king said, “He is Elijah the Tishbite” (2 Kings 1:5-8).

Why Elijah? The first and most obvious answer is because that is what Malachi prophesied (3:1; 4:5). Elijah, like John, was a kind of “wilderness man,” a man who lived on the run, out of the mainstream of society. But Elijah was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom and not Judah. This is true, but I believe it is also purposeful. Elijah also ministered during the days when a “pretender” – Ahab -- was on the throne, a man who was not a rightful heir to the throne of David. In John’s day, the “pretender” was Herod, a half-breed (compare Deuteronomy 17:15). As Ahab’s wicked wife Jezebel (the idol-worshipping daughter of a Sidonian king) sought to kill Elijah, so Herod’s wicked and ill-gotten wife Herodias sought to kill John (Matthew 14:1-12). Athaliah, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, was a very wicked woman, who married Jehoram, king of Judah (2 Kings 8:16-19, 26), and thus contributed to his corruption. The daughter of Herodias was likewise instrumental in the downfall of King Herod and the death of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12). As Elijah stood against the king and queen of Israel, so John the Baptist confronted King Herod and his wife, Herodias.

Elijah called the adulterous Northern Kingdom to repentance because they had departed from worshipping God to worshipping the gods of the heathen. John the Baptist called the Jews of Judah to repentance because they had corrupted true religion as well. As Ezekiel 16 clearly states, Jerusalem and Judah sinned in a manner that was worse than apostate Israel. Judah was twice the harlot Israel was, and thus received greater punishment.

As Elijah mistakenly perceived that he had failed in his ministry (1 Kings 19), so John the Baptist wrongly questioned whether he had failed in naming Jesus as the Messiah (Matthew 11:2ff.). In Elijah’s case, the fulfillment of his ministry came as he appointed Hazael king over Syria and Jehu king over Israel (1 Kings 19:15-16). Furthermore, Elijah appointed Elisha in his place (1 Kings 19:16). Elisha was to Elijah what Jesus was to John the Baptist. It is not at all surprising that just as John was divinely called to introduce Israel’s true King, he would also denounce the pretender (Herod) who currently occupied the throne.

(3) Matthew’s account of John’s ministry depicts a distinctive thrust of his ministry. As one should expect, the Gospels convey many points in common concerning John the Baptist and his ministry. But each Gospel has its own unique argument and emphases. Mark’s Gospel contains no negative response of John to any who come to him for baptism. In Luke’s account, John the Baptist addresses the whole crowd who comes to him. He warns those who trust in their biological link to Abraham. He gives specific examples of what “fruits worthy of repentance” should look like. The one who has two tunics should share one with the person who has none (Luke 3:11).69 The tax collector should not collect more than that which is required (3:12-13). Soldiers should not use their power to extort money from people, but rather be content with their wages (3:14).

Matthew’s Gospel has a different focus when it comes to John’s response to those who came to him:

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:7-12, emphasis mine).

Matthew’s Gospel focuses on one segment of the crowd that came to observe John. He calls the reader’s attention to the “Pharisees and Sadducees” who came, not to be baptized, but on account of his baptism. While some translations choose to make it appear that these religious leaders came to be baptized, Luke’s account makes it very clear that the scribes and Pharisees left without being baptized:

24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? Look, those who wear fancy clothes and live in luxury are in kings’ courts! 26 What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28 I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he is.” 29 (Now all the people who heard this, even the tax collectors, acknowledged God’s justice, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. 30 However, the Pharisees and the experts in religious law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.) (Luke 7:14-30, underscoring mine)

Matthew was a Jew, writing to a Jewish audience. He makes a point of the fact that the Jewish leaders receive a strong word of rebuke from John the Baptist. He does not receive them as those who are truly repentant, but as hypocrites. We have already seen that the religious scholars in Jerusalem seemed oblivious to the birth of Messiah in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-6). Now, we are told that John the Baptist strongly rebuked the Jewish leaders who came merely out of curiosity or self-interest. We are thus prepared to hear these strong words from our Lord:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

We are likewise prepared for the strong opposition of the Jewish leaders to Jesus, whom they perceive to be a threat to their “empire.”

(4) John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). John’s message was an announcement that the kingdom of heaven was near at hand. This meant that the King was soon to appear. John was careful to contrast his ministry with that of the Messiah. John was merely a voice, crying in the wilderness; the Messiah was much greater. John did not even consider himself to be worthy to carry His sandals (3:11). John baptized with water, but the Messiah’s baptism was far greater.

The news that Messiah would soon appear was also a warning. In Matthew’s Gospel, John’s announcement was a warning to the Jewish leaders, including the Pharisees, those who were generally regarded to be the most zealous of the religious leaders.70 John’s message was a warning of coming judgment:

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10).

The Messiah came to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). It was necessary, therefore, for his people to reckon with their sin. If men persisted in their sin, the Messiah’s coming would be for judgment, not salvation.

It is my personal opinion that John the Baptist, like most of the prophets, did not clearly distinguish between the first and second coming of the Messiah. He did not seem to grasp the fact that the Messiah would come twice, the first time to die as a perfect sacrifice for sinners, and the second time to defeat His enemies and establish His kingdom. Indeed, John’s message would appear to focus more on our Lord’s second coming than on his first. This should come as no surprise to us, for such was the dilemma of all the Old Testament prophets:

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. 11 They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. 12 They were shown that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things now announced to you through those who evangelized you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things angels long to catch a glimpse of (1 Peter 1:10-12).

It is likewise my opinion that this blurring of the first and second comings of our Lord may very well explain some of John’s doubts, which will be described later in Matthew 11:

2 Now when John in prison heard about the deeds Christ had done, he sent a question by his disciples: 3 “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2-3)

Jesus was performing many miracles of healing. The blind received their sight and the lame were made to walk; some were even raised from the dead (Matthew11:5). The problem is that these miraculous healings were not acts of judgment, but rather of deliverance. John’s emphasis had fallen on divine judgment. Jesus sent word to John that he should take note of the miracles He was performing, and then compare them with what the prophets indicated that Messiah would do at His coming. One such prophecy can be found in Luke 4:

16 Now Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lords favor” (Luke 4:16-19).

Was John’s preaching out of sync with that of Jesus? Hardly. When Jesus began to preach, His message was virtually a repetition of John’s words:

From that time Jesus began to preach this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17).

If men are to be saved, there must be something from which they are saved. Men are saved from the wrath of God, which He will justly pour out on sinners.

16 For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God (John 3:16-18).

Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath (Romans 5:9).

John’s preaching was not only the warning of impending judgment, it was a call to action. John called upon men to repent and to be baptized. What does John mean by the term “repent”? It means to have a change of mind, to turn around. By repentance John means much more than just a change of one’s thinking. It includes this, but it also involves more. I believe that there is an element of sorrow or remorse. Repentance is also a change of heart and mind that results in a change of course, a change in lifestyle. Matthew does not have our Lord go into detail as to how one’s life should change as a result of true repentance. In Matthew, Jesus merely lays down the general requirement: “Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance” (3:8). Luke goes into much greater detail on this, giving specific examples for various walks of life, including tax collectors and soldiers (Luke 3:11-14).

As I read the various passages in the Gospels which describe the preaching of John the Baptist, I am inclined to conclude that John is not merely requiring that men repent of individual sins. I think John is calling upon his audience to repent by renouncing and forsaking any human systems other than faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. In Matthew’s account of John’s ministry, we note that he focuses on the false religious system of the religious Jews (primarily Pharisees).

8 “Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:8-10).

The Jews trusted in their ancestry for salvation. They thought that because they were descendants of Abraham, they were assured of having 50 yard-line tickets in the kingdom of heaven. As Paul powerfully demonstrates in Romans 9, being a Christian is not synonymous with being a physical descendant of Abraham. John the Baptist also forcefully rejects salvation based upon one’s ancestry. “God can raise up children to Abraham from the rocks” (3:9). The Gentiles had their own systems for getting by, and Luke’s Gospel addresses some of these. Repentance, then, is not merely forsaking specific sins; it is forsaking any system which relies on human effort, rather than faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

We should be very clear here that John is not suggesting that the coming of the kingdom is dependent upon man’s actions. Men are not to repent so that the kingdom of heaven will come; rather, men are to repent because the kingdom of heaven is coming:

“What is important to appreciate is that the human responsibility – repentance, turning around, changing – is not urged in order that the government of God may come but, explicitly, ‘because’ God’s government is coming, whether we change or not. That is to say, we do not bring in the kingdom by our changes; we ‘suffer’ the kingdom’s coming, either blessedly by going to our knees or banefully by turning our backs. ‘Here comes God’s government: Move!’ Indeed, the divine coming and its message enables the human moving and its change.”71

The outward symbol of repentance was baptism. The only baptism the Jews of that day knew about was proselyte baptism. In such baptisms, the believer would baptize himself and then (if it was a male) he would be circumcised. The self-baptized and circumcised Gentile thus embraced Judaism and placed himself under the Old Testament Law. You can imagine the humility that baptism required of a Jew. The inference was clear: if the Jew had to repent in anticipation of the Messiah’s coming, he must thereby confess the inadequacy of Judaism to save him from his sins. And by embracing baptism he likewise placed himself on the same (lower) level as a Gentile. Both Jews and Gentiles alike were required to prepare for Messiah’s appearance in the same manner: (1) repent of the false system in which they had formerly trusted; (2) confess their sins; and, (3) be baptized, like the Gentiles who became Jewish proselytes. No wonder the Pharisees did not want to be baptized!

Our Lord’s message differed little from that of John in that it declared Judaism (even its “highest” form, Pharisaism) to be insufficient to save one from one’s sins and to gain him or her entrance into heaven:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do this will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).

John’s preaching does raise a question in my mind: “Just why was John’s preaching so negative?” Having given this some thought, I would respond with the following answers.

First, remember who John the Baptist was. He was a prophet; in fact he was the last of the Old Testament prophets. His task, as a prophet, was to call men’s attention to the way that they had failed to keep God’s law, and to declare that they had thus come under divine condemnation. What else could the law do, other than to condemn, and to point forward to a future salvation that came through faith, not law-works?

Second, look who John was talking to. He was talking to sinners – Jewish sinners who trusted in their physical relationship to Abraham, and Gentile sinners like tax collectors who collected more than they should, and soldiers who used their power to extort money from the powerless. If sinners are to be saved, they must first realize that they are sinners, justly under the divine sentence of death.

Third, John’s preaching on coming judgment was entirely consistent with what would soon happen to our Lord. Many who heard John’s preaching would reject Jesus as the promised Messiah, and thus come under divine condemnation. The negative emphasis of John’s preaching reminds me of the emphasis of Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 28. Moses is reiterating God’s Old Testament (Mosaic) Covenant with Israel. He promises divine blessing for those who keep God’s commandments. He promises divine judgment for all who disobey. In chapter 28, his section on divine blessings is 15 verses in length; his section on judgment takes up the remainder of the chapter, 54 verses in length. Moses, by divine inspiration, emphasized judgment, because he knew what was going to happen after his death:

14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Your day of death is near. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting so that I can commission him.” So Moses and Joshua presented themselves in the tent of meeting. 15 The Lord appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud that stood above the door of the tent. 16 And the Lord said to Moses, “You are about to die, and then these people will begin to prostitute themselves with the foreign gods of the land into which they are going. They will leave me and break my covenant that I have made with them. 17 On that day my anger will flare up against them and I will leave them and hide myself from them until they are devoured. Many hurts and distresses will overcome them so that they will say at that time, ‘Have not these difficulties overcome us because God is not among us?’ 18 But I will certainly hide myself on that day because of all the wickedness they will have done by turning to other gods. 19 Now compose for yourselves the following song and teach it to the Israelites—put it into their very mouths!—so that this song may serve me as a witness against the Israelites. 20 For after I have brought them to the land I promised to their ancestors—one flowing with milk and honey—and they eat and become satisfied and fat, then they will turn to other gods to worship them and will reject me and break my covenant. 21 Then when many hurts and distresses overcome them this song will become a witness against them, for their descendants will not forget it. I know the intentions they have in mind today, even before I bring them to the land I have promised.” 22 Therefore on that day Moses wrote this song and taught it to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 31:14-22).

Fourth, John’s preaching, and men’s response to it, served to foreshadow the Lord’s preaching, and men’s response to it. Matthew chose to focus on John’s response to the Jewish religious leaders who came to hear him (or rather, to check him out). John spoke very strong words of rebuke and admonition to the religious leaders, who had not come to repent, but rather to resist and reject his message. Jesus, too, had some strong words to say to His opponents – the very same religious leaders. These were the smugly self-righteous religious leaders, who resisted anyone who threatened to take away any of their “turf.” These men seemed to feel confident that they had 50-yard-line tickets in the kingdom of heaven. Just as John had particularly strong words for the religious elite, so did Jesus.

(5) John’s message was transitional and preparatory. If we are to understand John’s message, we must first recognize the unique time period in which John lived, and thus the unique role which John played, straddling the gap, as it were, between the Old Covenant and the New.

On the one hand, John’s preaching was the “beginning of the gospel.” When the disciples decided to replace Judas with another apostle, they discussed the qualifications his replacement must meet:

21 Thus one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time the Lord Jesus associated with us, 22 beginning from the baptism by John until the day he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness of his resurrection together with us” (Acts 1:21-22; see also 10:37; 13:23-25).

In the Gospels, the proclamation of the gospel commences with the preaching of John the Baptist.

Having said this, we must call attention to the fact that the message which John the Baptist proclaimed was not the complete gospel. To begin with, John was still a part of the old dispensation:

11 “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come (Matthew 11:11-14, emphasis mine).

John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. His message was intended to prepare men for the coming of the Messiah, and for the message of salvation that would be proclaimed after our Lord’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus and the apostles made it clear that there was more to the gospel than what John proclaimed, as good as that was:

For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5).

24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, arrived in Ephesus. He was an eloquent speaker, well-versed in the scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and with great enthusiasm he spoke and taught accurately the facts about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak out fearlessly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately (Acts 18:24-26).

1 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul went through the inland regions and came to Ephesus. He found some disciples there 2 and said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 So Paul said, “Into what then were you baptized?” “Into John’s baptism,” they replied. 4 Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, 6 and when Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. 7 (Now there were about twelve men in all.) (Acts 19:1-7)

Through John’s ministry, God introduced Jesus as the promised and long-awaited Messiah, much like God used Samuel to designate Saul (1 Samuel 10), and then David (1 Samuel 16) as Israel’s king. As John put it, his role was to be the “friend of the bridegroom,” whose privilege it was to hear the voice of the bridegroom and rejoice (John 3:29).

Conclusion

John played a vital role in the commencement of our Lord’s ministry. He called upon men to be prepared for the coming of the Messiah. His message is far from obsolete: the Lord Jesus Christ is coming again, for the second time, and this time it will be to judge men.

He commanded us to preach to the people and to warn them that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42).

Because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31; see also 2 Timothy 4:1).

At His first coming, Jesus came to take our sins upon Himself, to bear the punishment for our sin. When He returns, Jesus will judge sinners and rid the world of sin. Our task as Christians is to proclaim the good news that Jesus has come to forgive sinners, and to warn men that the day of judgment draws near for those who have rejected Christ. Repentance, like faith, is not a work that we accomplish; it is ultimately the gift of God. Repentance is something that God produces in us. Nevertheless, we are called upon to repent and believe.

14 Now after John was imprisoned, Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God. 15 He said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:14-15)

18 When they arrived, he said to them, “You yourselves know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, and with the trials that happened to me because of the plots of the Jews. 20 You know that I did not hold back from proclaiming to you anything that would be helpful, and from teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21 testifying to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus (Acts 20:18-21, emphasis mine).

We, like John the Baptist, should seek to turn people from their sin to faith in Jesus Christ. This will prepare men for the return of our Lord, a return when the judgment John promised will come:

10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:10-12).

30 Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

19 “Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but I declared to those in Damascus first, and then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds consistent with repentance (Acts 26:19-20).

Repentance is sadly omitted in much preaching today. I was very pleased to hear Billy Graham call for men and women to repent and to believe in Jesus Christ in his recent mission in Dallas, Texas. Turning to Jesus Christ for salvation is simultaneously turning from our sin. Often, in an effort to make the gospel more palatable, the requirement for repentance is omitted or minimized. The gospel is sometimes presented as though you can simply add the work of Jesus to your “portfolio,” as though you were just adding another investment. You do not need to forsake anything, but simply to add something. The truth is that you must empty your portfolio (of anything other than Christ, in which you place your trust), and let Christ alone fill it. The rich young ruler was not allowed the option of keeping his riches (which were his “god” – see Matthew 6:19-34; 19:16-22). He had to forsake them to follow Christ. If we would preach the gospel, we must include the call to repentance, as well as to faith. These two elements are not contradictory, but rather are two sides of the same coin.

John’s preaching reminds us of the important role that the law plays in what we might call pre-evangelism. While grace is opposed to law (see Romans 4:16; 6:14; 7:6; Galatians 2:22; 5:1-4), law does point us toward grace:

23 Now before faith came we were held in custody under the law, being kept as prisoners until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 Thus the law had become our guardian until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian (Galatians 3:23-25).

The law prepares us for grace by showing us our sin, and the impossibility of pleasing God through good works. Thus, the law requires us to look to God for salvation by grace, and not to ourselves:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed— 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:19-24).

Frederick Bruner puts it this way:

“Without law there is no gospel (without Old Testament, no New), and without John the Baptist preceding we do not rightly hear Jesus following. Thus it is no accident that in all four Gospels John the Baptist’s ministry does indeed precede Jesus’ own. John belongs to the substance of the story of Jesus and is not a mere introduction to it. In John, in fact, ‘holy history starts all over again’ (Bonn., 31) after a long quiescence. John comes on like that last great prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures and like a walking, breathing law of God, full of doom and holiness and ultimacy. John the Baptist is in the front of our New Testament four times (once in each of the four Gospels) in order to put the law of God in front of us four times just before Jesus comes to us four times with gospel. John is the law of God in person; Jesus is the gospel of God in person.”72

John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He did not urge men to “try harder” to please God, but rather to confess their sins and trust in the Messiah who was coming to save them. If men are to be saved, they must first see that they are condemned because they are sinners. The evangelistic function of the law is to condemn men as sinners, desperately in need of grace. Let us be careful not to cast the law aside, as though it no longer has a role to play. It has a number of roles to play,73 and one of these roles is to establish God’s standard of righteousness, a standard which no man can meet. Let us use the law to reveal sin. Surely the Ten Commandments condemn us all. John the Baptist spoke from the law to reveal man’s sin, and also to show that Jesus was the Messiah the law had promised would come.

Let me give you a very specific way that parents can use the law evangelistically. They can use the law to show their children that they are sinners, in need of the salvation that is found only in the saving work of Jesus Christ on Calvary. All too often the Old Testament is used to tell children exciting stories like “Jonah and the whale” or “Daniel in the lion’s den.” This is not bad, but all too often this use of the Old Testament does not expose children to the holiness of God or to the magnitude of their sin. Indeed, some seem to think the Bible should be used to develop “self-esteem” in children. Children do not need to feel better about themselves; they need to realize that they are sinners, who cannot stand in the presence of a holy God. They need to see their sins so that they understand that they need to be saved. The message of John the Baptist (not to mention Jesus and the apostles) is what children need to hear as well.

Parents who do not discipline their children do them a great disservice. We need to correct our children and not look the other way or make excuses for them. Children need to know by experience that sin must and will be punished. They need to see how sinful they are. And when they come to grasp their sin, then John’s message will be music to their ears, if God brings them to repentance. To fail (or refuse) to discipline our children is to deny the message of the gospel that all men are sinners, in need of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.

The preaching and practice of John the Baptist underscores the importance of Christian baptism. I realize that John’s baptism was preparatory, and that when John’s followers became Christians they had to be re-baptized. But baptism was a very important part of John’s preaching and practice. Those who truly repented were baptized (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:5); those who did not repent were not (Luke 7:30). Those who followed Christ were baptized (Matthew 28:19; John 3:22, 26; 4:1; Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12, 38; 10:47; 19:35). Baptism symbolized repentance and faith, as it does today. Those who have not been baptized would do well to ask themselves why they have not.

John’s preaching was truly “prophetic preaching.” Now I would suggest that while John’s prophetic preaching may have been unique, John does have something to teach us all about preaching. John’s message was straight from the Scriptures. John’s preaching first called attention to man’s sin and then pointed to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. It was hardly “seeker-friendly.” Its aim was not to entertain men nor to win man’s approval. Its purpose was to expose man’s sin and need for the Savior. When asked for specifics, John could give specific examples (this is particularly true in Luke’s account). In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist focused particularly on the sins of the self-righteous religious leaders. While Jesus may not have been as “rough around the edges” as John the Baptist, Jesus was straightforward about sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11), and thus the need for repentance as well. While John was a unique man, with a unique roll to play in his day, he is also a man who can teach us a great deal about the proclamation of the truth.

I am sure that most of us think of John as somewhat weird when we read about him. He was certainly unique, and this was probably a factor in the way he seized men’s attention, even though he performed no miracles (John 10:41). John surely exemplifies “separation” in a very dramatic way. Now we are not all called to wear a hairy garment, nor are we required to live in the desert and eat locusts and wild honey. But we are all called to be a unique people, to be distinct from the world. John is a man who knew how to stand alone, something most of us know too little about.

May we learn to live in the world, and yet avoid worldliness. Let us seek to prepare men and women for the return of our Lord by teaching about sin, and by calling on men to repent of their sin and turn to Christ for salvation. Let us be like John in finding our joy in pointing others to Christ, rather than seeking the spotlight ourselves.


65 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 4 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 9, 2003.

66 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

67 I realize that because Jesus and John were distant relatives (Luke 1:36), many assume that John knew Jesus was the Messiah at an early age. John the Baptist’s own words preclude this, and so we would do well to take John at his word.

68 It should be noted that in Matthew 11:9-14, Jesus very clearly links John the Baptist with the ministry of Elijah, citing Malachi 3:1 (see also Malachi 4:5). Also, the angel of the Lord told Zacharias that the son who would be born to him and his wife Elizabeth would “go as a forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just” (Luke 1:17).

69 This applies to food as well. The one who has food should share with the one who does not (Luke 3:11).

70 Compare Philippians 3:5.

71 Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), vol. 1, p. 71.

72 Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), vol. 1, p. 70.

73 See, for example, Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 9:9; 10:1-13; 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

Biblical Topics: 
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5. The Temptation of Jesus, Part I (Matthew 3:13—4:4)

Introduction

Life provides us with defining moments, moments which set the course of our lives, whether for good or evil. The events of 9-11-2001 were a defining moment for our President, George W. Bush. During his presidential campaign, Mr. Bush advocated a “hands off” international policy. I can remember him saying something like this in his debate with Al Gore: “We are not the world’s policeman.” George W. Bush suffered from a very marginal election victory. One could hardly say that his election provided him with a popular mandate. But the September 11th terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers changed all that. Our President suddenly became “presidential,” and his leadership during our time of crisis has propelled him to a prominent place in history.

We can see defining moments in the lives of men and women in the Bible. Joseph experienced a defining moment when he chose to reject the advances of his master’s wife. Another defining moment came when Joseph grasped his God-given responsibility toward his family. Daniel’s defining moment seems to be described in the first chapter of the Book of Daniel, where he purposes, along with his three friends, not to be defiled by the king’s choice food. Peter’s “great confession” was one of his defining moments. Even Judas had his defining moments (John 12:1-8; 13:18-30).

I believe that our Lord’s baptism and temptation was a defining moment in His life and ministry. Here, the course of His life and ministry was proclaimed, tested, and confirmed. Every one of the Synoptic Gospels includes an account of our Lord’s baptism and temptation. John’s Gospel also includes an account of our Lord’s baptism, but does not mention His temptation. This may be due to the fact that John emphasizes the deity of our Lord, beginning in the very first verses of his Gospel. Who needs to be convinced that God cannot be tempted (see James 1:13)?

Let us give careful attention to the baptism and temptation of our Lord. Not only do these events provide a defining moment in the life of our Lord, they are a crucial prerequisite to the saving work of our Lord. In addition, we will learn much about Satan and how to deal with temptation in our lives. Let us listen well, then, to the words of Scripture, and look to the Spirit of God to make these words come to life in our lives. As our Lord Himself says in our text, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” These verses in Matthew, including the words spoken by our Lord, are “words that have come from the mouth of God.” Therefore, they are life-giving words.

Jesus’ Baptism
Matthew 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John to be baptized by him in the Jordan River. 14 But John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” 15 So Jesus replied to him, “Let it happen now, for it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John yielded to him. 16 After Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight” (Matthew 3:13-17).75

Jesus’ baptism appears to be more private than public. Jesus first arrives at the Jordan River to be baptized. It appears from Luke’s account that Jesus comes on the scene after everyone else had been baptized for the day:

Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus also was baptized. And while he was praying, the heavens opened (Luke 3:21, emphasis mine).

From this I get the impression that there were no large crowds standing around watching when Jesus was baptized.76 I am inclined to think that Jesus arrived late in the day, after everyone else who was there for baptism had been baptized and then left to go home.77

Furthermore, if I am reading each account correctly, the heavenly witness actually came after John had baptized Jesus:

After Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him (Matthew 3:16, so also Mark 1:9).

Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus also was baptized. And while he was praying, the heavens opened (Luke 3:21, emphasis mine).

The sequence of our Lord’s baptism thus seems as follows: Jesus came to the Jordan, convinced John that He should be baptized, and then was baptized by John in the middle of the Jordan River. Jesus then made His way to shore. It seems as though He paused there for prayer, and it is at this time that the heavens opened,78 the Spirit descended on Him, and God spoke from heaven.

The baptism of our Lord was initiated by Him, not by John. Jesus came to John, requesting to be baptized. John was reluctant to baptize Jesus, a fact that only Matthew points out. We should call attention to the fact that while John’s Gospel informs the reader that John the Baptist did not know with certainty that Jesus was the promised Messiah until His baptism (John 1:29-34), Matthew’s account indicates that John the Baptist was familiar with Jesus, and may at least have suspected that He could be the Messiah. When Jesus came to John to be baptized, John resisted. His response would indicate that he recognized Jesus to be someone who was superior to him.79 John not only realized that Jesus was greater than him; he also knew that Jesus’ baptism was superior to his (Matthew 3:11). John baptized with water; Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John’s baptism was one of repentance. People who came for baptism confessed their sins (Matthew 3:6). What did Jesus have to repent of? John must have recognized that Jesus was more righteous than him.

In spite of John’s reluctance, our Lord insisted that He be baptized by John. The only reason Jesus gave for this was that “they must fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Note that “fulfilling all righteousness” was something that both John and Jesus (see “us” in 3:15) were to do, and not just Jesus. Just what does our Lord mean here? In the baptism of Jesus, John and Jesus were doing something of great symbolic importance – they were fulfilling all righteousness. The term fulfill means, among other things, “to bring about,” “to bring to completion,” “to finish,” “to make fully known.”

I am inclined to understand our Lord’s words in this manner. The Old Testament established a standard of righteousness (the law), which no one was able to meet. The Old Testament also promised that God would provide righteousness to those who believed in Him. Jesus and John were carrying out God’s mission to provide this righteousness or salvation by commencing our Lord’s public ministry with His baptism. The words which our Lord spoke to John the Baptist anticipate, I believe, what our Lord is about to say to the crowds in His Sermon on the Mount:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do this will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20, emphasis mine).

To “fulfill all righteousness” is to bring about or bring to completion the promised righteousness which was foretold in the Old Testament, and which was accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ. The baptism of our Lord set in motion the final phase necessary to provide righteousness to lost, unworthy sinners. Therefore the baptism of Jesus set in motion the process of fulfilling God’s promise of righteousness for unworthy sinners.

Our Lord’s baptism identified Jesus with John, his ministry, and his message. As John endorsed Jesus as the promised Messiah, so Jesus endorsed John and his ministry.

Furthermore, Jesus’ baptism identified Jesus to John as the Messiah:

31 “I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33 And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining, this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God” (John 1:31-34).

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was divinely designated as the promised Messiah by the pronouncement of the Father and by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Here is one of those texts where we are compelled to acknowledge the Trinity. 80 Father, Son, and Spirit are all present at our Lord’s baptism.

The words of the Father must be compared with several Old Testament texts in order to understand their meaning:

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight” (Matthew 3:17).

12 When the time comes for you to die, I will raise up your descendant, one of your own sons, to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He will build a house for my name, and I will make his dynasty permanent. I will become his father and he will become my son. When he sins, I will correct him with the rod of men and with wounds inflicted by human beings (2 Samuel 7:12-14, emphasis mine).

4 The one enthroned in heaven laughs in disgust;
the sovereign Master taunts them.
5 Then he angrily speaks to them
and terrifies them in his rage.
6 He says, “I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 The king says, “I will tell you what the Lord decreed.
He said to me: ‘You are my son!
This very day I have become your father!
8 You have only to ask me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,
the ends of the earth as your personal property.
9 You will break them with an iron scepter;
you will smash them as if they were a potter’s jar’” (Psalm 2:4-9).

This is a very important statement, and one that we must understand correctly. “You are my son” was not an admission of paternity, a statement concerning biological ancestry. It was the formula by which a king was installed on the throne. In Psalm 2, the kings of the earth who are conspiring against heaven are warned that God will install Israel’s king, the Messiah, and He will defeat all his foes and rule over them. The writer to the Hebrews draws these two Old Testament texts together to make an important point:

3 The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things by his powerful word, and so when he had accomplished cleansing for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. 4 Thus he became so far better than the angels as he has inherited a name superior to theirs. 5 For to which of the angels did God ever say,

“You are my son!
Today I have fathered you”?

And in another place he says,
“I will be his father
and he will be my son”
(Hebrews 1:3-5).81

In 2 Samuel 7, we find the Davidic Covenant. In the preceding context, David has just expressed his desire to build a house (a temple) for God. God counters with a promise, a covenant, that he will make a house (a dynasty) for David. He promises that a descendant of David will be the eternal king of Israel. That is why our Lord is so often referred to as the “Son of David,”82 or “the one who will sit on the throne of his father, David” (Luke 1:32). The point of the Father’s words is clear: Jesus is the One whom God the Father has appointed to rule over Israel as His Son, that is, as His designated king.

Being the Messiah meant more than just becoming Israel’s king, as important as that was. Being the Messiah meant Jesus would die as a sacrifice for our sins. I am greatly indebted to James Montgomery Boice for calling this second aspect of the Father’s affirmation to my attention:

The second part of the sentence (“with him I am well pleased”) comes from Isaiah 42;1, at the beginning of the prophecies of God’s suffering servant who would atone for Israel’s sin (Isa. 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:1-11; and 52:13-53:12).83

Jesus was therefore officially designated (by God the Father, and God the Spirit) as the Messiah, who would first offer up Himself as the Suffering Servant, and then would later establish His rule on the earth at His second coming.

At His baptism, Jesus is endued with the power of the Holy Spirit. When Israel’s kings were designated by God’s prophet, they were endued with the power of the Holy Spirit.84 It was in this power that the kings were to rule over Israel. Our Lord’s baptism by the Spirit was made visible by means of a dove,85 who descended upon the Savior and remained. This was the sign that confirmed the identity of Jesus as the Messiah to John the Baptist (John 1:29-34). It is my understanding that while our Lord, as God, had power of His own, He voluntarily chose not to exercise that power, but determined rather to carry out his mission and ministry in submission to the Father’s will through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit was very closely related to our Lord’s sacrifice as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). It was through the Spirit that this sacrifice was accomplished:

13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow sprinkled on those who are defiled consecrated them and provided ritual purity, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God (Hebrews 9:13-14, emphasis mine).

At His baptism, our Lord symbolically expressed His commitment to obey the Father in His earthly ministry, particularly by making atonement for the sins of guilty men. Today, believer’s baptism looks back to the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. By baptism, one not only publicly professes their identification with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection, they also indicate their intention of following Christ by obeying His commands:

18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

While believer’s baptism looks back to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11), our Lord’s baptism by John looks forward, anticipating His death, burial, and resurrection on behalf of guilty sinners. Our Lord’s baptism cannot include his repentance and confession of sin for He had no sin (as His temptation and subsequent conduct will verify). It may be that He was baptized in order to identify with sinners, but not to identify Himself as a sinner. Based on our Lord’s own words to John, it seems not to have focused as much on sin as on the righteousness that would be accomplished by our Lord’s ministry, in which John the Baptist was a partner.86

It was only after our Lord’s baptism that He was led into the wilderness by the Spirit. He appears to have been baptized only moments before He was driven into the wilderness to be tested for 40 days. When we come to the temptation of our Lord in the wilderness, notice that it is our Lord’s baptism that provides the basis for Satan’s temptations. Thus, the baptism of Jesus is the basis for our Lord’s temptation and subsequent ministry.

The Setting of the Temptation
Matthew 4:1-2

Let us begin by calling attention to several important observations about the wilderness, the setting for our Lord’s temptation.

First of all our Lord’s wilderness experience identified Him with the nation Israel.

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After he fasted forty days and forty nights he was famished (Matthew 4:1-2).

Our Lord’s ordeal in the wilderness for 40 days and nights certainly links Him with the nation Israel, just as Matthew has already done earlier (see Matthew 1:1-17; 2:15). Israel first underwent its “baptism” and then was led into the wilderness for 40 years, where God tested them:

1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).

1 You must keep carefully the entire commandment I am giving you today so that you may live, multiply, and go in and occupy the land that the Lord promised to your ancestors. 2 Remember the whole way by which he has brought87 you these forty years through the desert so that he might, by humbling you, test to see whether deep within yourselves you would keep his commandments or not. 3 So he humbled you by making you hungry and feeding you with unfamiliar manna to make you understand that mankind cannot live by food alone, but also by everything that comes from the Lord’s mouth (Deuteronomy 8:1-3).

Jesus was baptized by John and the Holy Spirit, and then He immediately went into the wilderness, where He fasted for 40 days and nights and was tempted by Satan. Jesus is the “true Israel,” the “true Son of God,” which is evident by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him, and by His victory over the temptations of the devil. Whereas Israel failed their testing, Jesus was victorious, which shows Him to be qualified for the atoning work that He had been appointed to accomplish at Calvary.

Second, the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).

The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness (Mark 1:12).

It would seem, then, that the Gospel writers wish us to understand that the first prompting of the Spirit was to direct Him to the wilderness, where He would be tempted. Mark goes further than Matthew, adding the significant detail that the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. It was no mere impression Jesus received; it was a compelling directive.

Third, the Spirit led Jesus through the wilderness:

Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness (Luke 4:1, emphasis mine).

It is one thing to be sent out to the wilderness by the Spirit; it is quite another for the Spirit to have guided Jesus day-by-day in the wilderness. The Spirit did both. The reason will be obvious in a moment.

Fourth, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for the entire 40 day period. It would be easy to assume that Jesus was led into the wilderness for 40 days and nights and then was tempted at the end of this period. We might come to this conclusion based upon Matthew’s Gospel alone. But we dare not overlook the words of Mark and Luke:

13 He was in the wilderness forty days, enduring temptations from Satan. He was with wild animals, and angels were ministering to his needs (Mark 1:13, emphasis mine).

1 Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he endured temptations from the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were completed, he was famished (Luke 4:1-2, emphasis mine).

Luke is particularly clear on this point: Our Lord endured Satan’s temptations for the entire 40 day period and not just at the end of 40 days. The three temptations that Matthew and Luke record took place at the end of 40 days, but if we are to take Luke’s words seriously, we must also conclude that there were other earlier temptations as well.

I would understand Matthew to be informing us that the Holy Spirit played a significant role in the life of our Lord during the 40 days of fasting and temptation. Yes, Jesus did rely on the Word of God for His strength and guidance during His temptation. But Luke also makes it clear that Jesus was Spirit-directed during those 40 days. Thus, it was both the Word of God and the Spirit of God that guided and enabled our Lord as He prevailed over Satan in His temptation. It is, after all, the Spirit of God who enables us to comprehend and apply the Word of God (see 1 Corinthians 2; John 14:25-26; 16:12-15).

Fifth, the wilderness itself was a part of our Lord’s testing. I’m a “country boy” and always will be. I grew up in the country, and sometimes I would have to ride my bicycle in the dark to a friend’s house several miles away. (I also have had to walk some distance in the woods in the dark of night.) I have to tell you that there are wild animals in the woods and in the wilderness. How often I have wondered if I would happen to meet a bear or a deer (or some other creature, even a cougar), in one of my night walks!88 From Deuteronomy 8 and Mark 1, we learn that Israel and Jesus were in the wilderness with wild animals:

15 And who brought you through the great, fearful desert of venomous serpents and scorpions, a thirsty place of no water, bringing forth for you water from flint rock and 16 feeding you in the desert with manna (which your ancestors had never before known) so that he might test you and eventually bring good to you (Deuteronomy 8:15-16, emphasis mine).

12 The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, enduring temptations from Satan. He was with wild animals, and angels were ministering to his needs (Mark 1:12-13).89

Just try to imagine what it would have been like to have been alone in the wilderness with all those wild animals around, especially if you have already committed yourself to relying on God the Father rather than on your own strength? (If Jesus would not act on His own to feed Himself, why would we think He would use His divine powers to defend Himself from these wild creatures?)

Sixth, during His 40 days and nights in the wilderness, Jesus voluntarily fasted. Nowhere are we specifically told that Jesus refrained from drinking any water, but we are told that He refrained from eating any food.

After he fasted forty days and forty nights he was famished (Matthew 4:2).

This is not because there was no food at all in the wilderness. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness for a long while, sustained by locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4).

There are two different views concerning our Lord’s “fasting” in the wilderness. There are those like Chrysostom90 and John Piper91 who believe that Jesus’ fasting gave Him spiritual strength, preparing Him to be victorious over Satan’s temptations. And then there are others, like Calvin and Luther,92 who do not see our Lord’s fasting as strengthening, but as weakening. I include myself in this latter group. I believe that God is contrasting the temptation of Eve with that of our Lord. Adam and Eve had no lack of food or water in the garden, and they fell by choosing to eat the one forbidden food. Jesus had no food, and yet He resisted Satan’s temptations. Matthew is endeavoring to show that our Lord withstood Satan’s temptations, and thus he focuses on our Lord’s victory at His weakest moment rather than at His strongest moment.

The First Temptation of Jesus
Matthew 4:3-4

3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:3-4).

Notice that Matthew refers to Satan here as “the tempter.” Mark calls him “Satan” (1:13), while Luke calls him “the devil” (4:2). Matthew is doing more than merely identifying our Lord’s opponent; he is describing his nature and his character. This is who Satan is; this is what Satan does. He is the “tempter,” and then, if he is successful, he becomes the “accuser” (see Revelation 12:10; Zechariah 3:1). Satan finds his joy in tempting, deceiving, and ultimately destroying men (he is both a liar and a murderer – John 8:44). This is who Satan is, but notice carefully how Satan presents himself when he tempts (both at the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, and here). He comes alongside as an objective, helpful “friend.” He discloses no conflict of interest. He appears to have nothing to gain. No wonder Eve can say (and Paul agrees – 1 Timothy 2:14) that the devil deceived her (Genesis 3:13).

I need to pause to offer a word of caution here. Some of the very worst counsel you will ever receive will be from well-meaning friends. Job’s “friends,” for example, felt they were being helpful, and that their counsel was right. But in the end, they were wrong (see Job 42:7-9). Peter thought he was being a “friend” to Jesus when he rebuked the Savior for talking about His death on the cross, but Jesus makes it clear where Peter’s “counsel” was coming from:

20 Then he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. 21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s” (Matthew 16:20-23, emphasis mine).

The first recorded temptation of our Lord actually sounds tempting to me. In some ways, it seems very logical for our Lord to command stones to become bread. Let’s imagine that you were hiking in the mountains of Colorado, far from civilization, when you fell and broke your leg. You are out of supplies, you cannot walk, and help is far away. Then you realize that you have your cell phone with you. Doesn’t it make sense that you would use the cell phone to call for help? What could be wrong with using any available resources to save your life?

In my opinion, the reasoning Satan employs in the first temptation of our Lord goes something like this:

“Here you are, Jesus, out in the wilderness where there is no food. Forty days have passed already, and if you don’t do something soon you will be dead. Now what good could you possibly be to anyone if you are dead? Save yourself by commanding that these stones become bread. And, after all, you are the Messiah are you not, so you have the power to do this.”

On the surface, it may seem that this first temptation has little correspondence to Satan’s temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eden was the perfect place, a lush and fruitful garden, with a vast selection of delicious foods. It had plenty of water as well, and no wild beasts to fear. While the settings of these two temptations (in the Garden of Eden and in the wilderness) may be very different, the temptations themselves have a number of points of similarity. Consider the following:

(1) The tempter is the same person – Satan.

(2) Both cases involve eating food which should not be eaten. In the Garden, Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat of the one tree. In the wilderness, the Holy Spirit had led Jesus to fast, and thus eating anything would be wrong, until God indicated that the time of fasting had ended.

(3) Both temptations were a direct attack on the right to rule of the ones divinely appointed to do so. Adam and Eve were commissioned to rule over God’s creation (Genesis 1:26-28), and so was our Lord (Matthew 3:13-17).

(4) The temptation of both is based upon the Satan’s insinuation that God does not have their best interest in mind. In the case of the deception of Eve, Satan implied that God withheld a good thing from them when He forbade them to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the case of our Lord, Satan implies that Jesus is about to die of starvation.

(5) In both cases, Satan seeks to entice those who are to be in submission to God to act independently of God, seeking to achieve what Satan has declared to be in their best interest.

(6) In both cases, Satan solicits individuals to rebel against the revealed will of God. In the case of Adam and Eve, they rebelled by disobeying a direct command of God which forbade them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the case of our Lord, Satan sought to persuade Him to act in a way that rebelled against the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit, who had “driven” (Mark 1:12; “led,” Matthew 4:1) Jesus into the wilderness, and who was leading Him not to eat.93

Understanding the First Temptation

I must admit that I initially allowed myself to get sidetracked by the fact that food was involved in this first temptation. Needless to say, Jesus was famished because He had not eaten for 40 days. Satan attempted to convince Jesus to create food for Himself out of the stones. But in the end, it is not really food that is at issue, but life. Let me illustrate this by calling your attention to the story of Jacob and Esau in the Book of Genesis:

27 When the boys grew up, Esau became a skilled hunter, a man of the open fields, but Jacob was an even-tempered man, living in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for fresh game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Now Jacob cooked some stew, and when Esau came in from the open fields, he was famished. 30 So Esau said to Jacob, “Feed me some of the red stuff—yes, this red stuff—because I’m starving!” (That is why he was also called Edom.) 31 But Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 “Look,” said Esau, “I’m about to die! What use is the birthright to me?” 33 But Jacob said, “Swear an oath to me now.” So Esau swore an oath to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and lentil stew; Esau ate and drank, then got up and went out. So Esau despised his birthright (Genesis 24:27-34, emphasis mine).

Like Jesus, Esau was famished when he came in from the fields. (One hardly gets the impression that he is really about to starve to death, even though he is very hungry.) Jacob had made some tasty stew, and Esau wanted some of it. Rather than give his brother some stew, Jacob used it to obtain his brother’s birthright. When Moses records this story, he does not tell us that Esau justified selling his birthright merely because the stew was so tempting; he tells us that Esau gave up his birthright because he was, in his words, “about to die.” What good would his birthright do Esau if he died of hunger?

We have a saying, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” Esau justified his actions because he convinced himself that he was about to die. Saving his life became Esau’s justification for selling off his birthright. I think the truth is more on the side that Esau despised his birthright than it is on the side that his life was really at risk.

In our Lord’s wilderness temptation, Satan is playing the part of Jacob as it has been described in the Genesis text above. Jesus has fasted for 40 days, and He is now famished. Humanly speaking, death may not have been all that far away had Jesus not eaten soon. Since our Lord’s life was at risk, why shouldn’t He take whatever steps were necessary to save it? Since He was the Son of God, He had the power to turn stone into bread.94 Yet in order to preserve His life, He would have to give up His “birthright,” the right to rule.

Our Lord’s response to Satan’s temptation is the key to understanding what the first temptation was all about:

But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).

This response is drawn from the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 8, where Moses is speaking to the Israelites concerning the lessons they should have learned from their 40-year wilderness journey:

1 You must keep carefully the entire commandment I am giving you today so that you may live, multiply, and go in and occupy the land that the Lord promised to your ancestors. 2 Remember the whole way by which he has brought you these forty years through the desert so that he might, by humbling you, test to see whether deep within yourselves you would keep his commandments or not. 3 So he humbled you by making you hungry and feeding you with unfamiliar manna to make you understand that mankind cannot live by food alone, but also by everything [every utterance] that comes from the Lord’s mouth (Deuteronomy 8:1-3, emphasis mine).

We know that God sustained the Israelites for 40 years by providing manna and water for them. It was not for lack of food that any died. So far as I can tell from the Old Testament, not one Israelite died of thirst or hunger in the wilderness. God’s supernatural provision for the Israelites while in the wilderness became a symbol of His faithfulness:

15 You provided bread from heaven for them in their time of hunger, and you brought forth water from the rock for them in their time of thirst. You told them to enter in order to possess the land that you had sworn to give them. 16 “But they—our ancestors—behaved presumptuously; they rebelled and did not obey your commandments. 17 They refused to obey and did not recall your miracles that you had performed among them. Instead, they rebelled and appointed a leader to return to their bondage in Egypt. But you are a God of forgiveness, merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and unfailing in your loyal love. You did not abandon them, 18 even when they made a cast image of a calf for themselves and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up from Egypt,’ or when they committed atrocious blasphemies. 19 “Due to your great compassion you did not abandon them in the desert. The pillar of cloud did not stop guiding them in the path by day, nor did the pillar of fire stop illuminating for them by night the path on which they should travel. 20 You imparted your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths; you provided water for their thirst. 21 For forty years you sustained them. Even in the desert they did not go wanting. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell (Nehemiah 9:15-21).

10 They did not keep their covenant with God,
and they refused to obey his law.
11 They forgot what he had done,
the amazing things he had shown them.
12 He did amazing things in the sight of their ancestors,
in the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan.
13 He divided the sea and led them across it;
he made the water stand in a heap.
14 He led them with a cloud by day,
and with the light of a fire all night long.
15 He broke open rocks in the wilderness,
and gave them enough water to fill the depths of the sea.
16 He caused streams to flow from the rock,
and made the water flow like rivers.
17 Yet they continued to sin against him,
and rebelled against the Sovereign One in the desert.
18 They willfully challenged God
by asking for food to satisfy their appetite.
19 They insulted God,
saying, “Is God really able to give us food in the wilderness?
20 Yes, he struck a rock and water flowed out,
streams gushed forth.
But can he also give us food?
Will he provide meat for his people?”
21 When the Lord heard this, he was furious.
A fire broke out against Jacob,
and his anger flared up against Israel,
22 because they did not have faith in God,
and did not trust his ability to deliver them.
23 He gave a command to the clouds above,
and opened the doors in the sky.
24 He rained down manna for them to eat;
he gave them the grain of heaven.
25 Man ate the food of the mighty ones.
He sent them more than enough to eat (Psalm 78:10-25).
37 He brought his people out enriched with silver and gold;
none of his tribes stumbled.
38 Egypt was happy when they left,
for they were afraid of them.
39 He spread out a cloud for a cover,
and provided a fire to light up the night.
40 They asked for food, and he sent quails;
he satisfied them with food from the sky.
41 He opened up a rock and water flowed out;
a river ran through dry regions (Psalm 105:37-41).

God’s “salvation” of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery included their “baptism” (1 Corinthians 10:2), being divinely led into and through the wilderness, instruction by the Spirit, and the provision of food and water (Nehemiah 9:19-20; see also Psalm 78:10-25). It also included the divine revelation of God’s Word, the giving of the law through Moses, which Israel was to obey and by which Israel was to live.

God’s provision for Israel’s needs at the exodus became a prototype of the provisions of God in future times of salvation:95

8 This is what the Lord says: “At the time I decide to show my favor, I will respond to you; in the day of deliverance I will help you; I will protect you and make you a covenant mediator for people, to rebuild the land and to reassign the desolate property. 9 You will say to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ and to those who are in dark dungeons, ‘Emerge.’ They will graze beside the roads; on all the slopes they will find pasture. 10 They will not be hungry or thirsty; the sun’s oppressive heat will not beat down on them, for one who has compassion on them will guide them; he will lead them to springs of water. 11 I will make all my mountains into a road; I will construct my roadways.” 12 Look, they come from far away! Look, some come from the north and west, and others from the land of Sinim! 13 Shout for joy, O sky! Rejoice, O earth! Let the mountains give a joyful shout! For the Lord consoles his people and shows compassion to the oppressed (Isaiah 49:8-13, emphasis mine).

10 They were shouting out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels stood there in a circle around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they threw themselves down with their faces to the ground before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Praise and glory, and wisdom and thanksgiving, and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” 13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These dressed in long white robes—who are they and where have they come from?” 14 So I said to him, “My lord, you know the answer.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb! 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will never go hungry or be thirsty again, and the sun will not beat down on them, nor any burning heat,96 17 because the Lamb in the middle of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:10-16).

Coming back to our Lord’s response to Satan, I believe that He is making this argument:

(1) “Life” certainly includes physical existence, but it also involves much more. Life has a spiritual dimension, which transcends the physical dimension. Let’s go back to the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. God told Adam that in the day he (or Eve) ate of the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die (Genesis 2:17). They did eat, but they also lived on physically for many years. The “death” they first experienced was spiritual death – separation from God. Life is much more than mere physical survival; it is living in fellowship with God.

(2) Spiritual life takes precedence over physical life. Spiritual life is eternal; it endures after physical death. Thus, Spiritual life is more important than physical life.

(3) Food sustains physical life, but the Word of God commences and sustains spiritual life.

22 You have purified your souls by obeying the truth in order to show sincere mutual love. So love one another earnestly from a pure heart. 23 You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of the grass; the grass withers and the flower falls off, 25 but the word of the Lord endures forever. And this is the word that was preached to you (1 Peter 1:22-25; see also Romans 10:17).

46 He said to them, “Instill in your mind all the things I am testifying to you today, things you must command your children to observe, all the words of this law. 47 For this is no idle word for you—it is your life! By this word you will live a long time in the land you are about to cross the Jordan River to possess” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47).

(4) Following Satan’s suggestion (temptation) would require Jesus to disregard and disobey God’s guidance through the Spirit and to submit Himself to the devil’s leadership. It was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness, and even to fast. If Jesus were to break His fast before the Spirit directed Him to do so, He would not only disobey God’s leading through the Spirit, but He would also act independently of God; He would act in accordance with Satan’s “leading.”

Will our Lord entrust His life to the Father’s care? Will He endure physical death, if need be, in order to live in obedience to the will of His Father? This strikes at the very center of God’s purpose for our Lord. This will not be the last time our Lord will have to deal with the suggestion that He save Himself while disobeying the will of the Father:

21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what does it benefit a person if he gains the whole world but forfeits his life? Or what can a person give in exchange for his life?” (Matthew 16:21-26)

Notice how our Lord contrasts physical life with spiritual life. The one who seeks to save his (physical) life will lose it, while the one who loses his (physical life) for our Lord’s sake will find it (spiritual, eternal life).

On the cross, our Lord will once again be challenged to save His physical life:

35 The people also stood there watching, but the rulers ridiculed him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, his chosen one!” 37 and saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the king of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who was hanging there railed at him, saying, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:35-39, emphasis mine)

I believe that at His baptism Jesus publicly identified Himself with God’s eternal purpose of providing righteousness for undeserving sinners. He committed Himself to do what His act of baptism would come to symbolize – His death, burial, and resurrection. At His temptation in the wilderness, He reaffirmed His resolve to die in the sinner’s place. Throughout His earthly ministry, He continued to press toward Jerusalem and His sacrificial death.

Did Jesus understand the significance of what He was symbolically saying at His baptism and during His first temptation? I am convinced that He did. Notice the words our Lord spoke in John 4:

10 Jesus answered her, “If you had known the gift of God and who it is who said to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 “Sir,” the woman said to him, “you have no bucket and the well is deep; where then do you get this living water? 12 Surely you’re not greater than our ancestor Jacob, are you? For he gave us this well and drank from it himself, along with his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus replied, “Everyone who drinks some of this water will be thirsty again. 14 But whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life.” … 31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” 33 So the disciples began to say to one another, “No one brought him anything to eat, did they?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:10-14, 31-34, emphasis mine).

Literal water temporarily preserves life and quenches thirst. Our Lord’s “water” (salvation) gives eternal life and gives permanent satisfaction. Literal food is not as important to our Lord as His spiritual food – doing the will of the Father.

Jesus was in a wilderness, a deserted place, when He fed the 5,000. The crowds wanted Jesus to keep the meals coming. Notice how the principles which undergirded our Lord at His temptation are now central to our Lord’s teaching in John 6:

24 So when the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” 26 Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate all the loaves of bread you wanted. 27 Do not work for the food that disappears, but for the food that remains to eternal life—the food that the Son of Man will give to you. For God the Father has put his seal of approval on him.” 28 So then they said to him, “What must we do to accomplish the deeds God requires?” 29 Jesus replied, “This is the deed God requires—to believe in the one whom he sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what miraculous sign will you perform, so that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the solemn truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but my Father is giving you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I told you that you have seen me and still do not believe. 37 Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. 39 Now this is the will of the one who sent me—that I should not lose one person of every one he has given me, but raise them all up at the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father—for every one who looks on the Son and believes in him to have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:24-40).

Jesus was the “true water” and the “true bread.” His “water” sustains life and permanently satisfies thirst. He is likewise the “true bread” (6:32). The bread that God gave Israel sustained physical life, but it did not grant eternal life. Jesus, the “true bread,” does provide eternal life. He therefore warns His audience not to seek physical bread, but rather to seek the heavenly bread – Jesus Himself, and not just Jesus, but Jesus crucified, sacrificed for sinners.

Conclusion

Our Lord’s baptism and temptation have many practical implications and applications to Christians today.

(1) The Lord’s baptism and victory in temptation proved Him to be qualified for His saving work on the cross of Calvary. Our Lord alone has triumphed over temptation, sin, and Satan. He alone is qualified to die in the sinner’s place as the spotless Lamb of God. His victory in the midst of His temptations is crucial to His work as the Lamb of God.

(2) Our Lord’s testing not only qualified Him for His saving work at Calvary, it qualified Him to be our sympathetic High Priest.

14 Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help (Hebrews 4:14-16).

7 During his earthly life Christ offered both requests and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his devotion. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered. 9 And by being perfected in this way, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 and he was designated by God as high priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:7-10).

(3) Our Lord’s victory over this temptation qualified our Lord to teach on these matters with authority. Jesus had no tolerance for hypocrites, those who taught one thing and lived in a manner that was inconsistent with their teaching:

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and his disciples, 2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:1-3).

The apostle Paul placed a great deal of emphasis on consistency between one’s teaching and one’s conduct:

16 I encourage you, then, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason, I have sent Timothy to you, who is my dear and faithful son in the Lord. He will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church (1 Corinthians 4:16-17).

17 Be imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and watch carefully those who are living this way, just as you have us as an example. 18 For many live (about whom I often told you, and now say even with tears) as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, they exult in their shame, and they think about earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven—and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself.

Our words and our works should be consistent, or otherwise we are hypocrites.

Only two chapters removed from the account of our Lord’s temptation, we find these words on the subject of eating and drinking, and life:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food and more to the body than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the sky: they do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you more valuable than they are? 27 And which of you by worrying can add even one hour to his life? 28 Why do you worry about clothing? Think about how the flowers of the field grow; they do not work or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these! 30 And if this is how God clothes the wild grass, which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into the fire to heat the oven, won’t he clothe you even more, you people of little faith? 31 So then, don’t worry saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For the unconverted pursue these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But above all pursue his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 So then, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:25-34).

We will wait till we come to the text to expound it carefully, but for the time being allow me to call this text to your attention. In the first temptation, Satan certainly sought to cause our Lord to worry about what He ate and drank. He urged Jesus to set aside His worries by commanding stones to become bread. But Jesus knew that the Father cared for Him and would provide from Him in His time, and in His way. He knew that life was more than food; it was depending on every Word of God. Jesus applies the lesson He learned in His temptation to everyone.

(4) Suffering, adversity, and testing are not contrary to God’s favor, or the presence and power of His Spirit. At the baptism of Jesus, the Father indicated that He was well pleased with the Son. Also at His baptism, the Holy Spirit came upon our Lord and remained on Him. In other words, He was indwelt with the Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit who led Jesus into temptation. It was the Holy Spirit who guided our Lord while in the wilderness and through His temptations. The point I wish to emphasize is that while Jesus was in favor with the Father and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, He found Himself in the wilderness, without food and water, threatened by wild animals, and tempted by the devil.

There are those who would seem to find this difficult to believe. There are those who tell us that if we trust in God and are filled with His Spirit, we will avoid suffering and adversity, and will experience only God’s blessings. Our text calls this assumption into question. The apostle Paul informs us that we may sometimes experience abundance, and at other times, we may do without:

11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content in any circumstance. 12 I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. 13 I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13).

Job’s friends were all too quick to find Job to blame for his trials, and yet God pointed Job out to Satan as a devout man, whose faith was in God (Job 1:1-8). Job’s suffering was not due to his sin; it was a divine test. How tragic to suggest to one who is suffering that his affliction is a sure sign of sin! It could be so, but it is not necessarily so, as in the case of Job or Paul. Those who are truly spiritual may very well suffer for the sake of Christ.

Suffering and affliction may be an indication of divine favor:

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, 2 keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed in your struggle against sin. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons? “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline or give up when he corrects you. 6 “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts.” 7 Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and not sons. 9 Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life? 10 For they disciplined us for a little while as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share his holiness. 11 Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but healed (Hebrews 12:1-13).

In my years of prison ministry, I have watched work crews hoeing fields and raising food for the prison. We have seen such men performing all kinds of hard labor. What they are doing is a consequence of the crime(s) they have committed. But I have seen similar work being done at a military base. Particularly in boot camp, new recruits are put through all kinds of adversity. Is their adversity an indication of some wrong they have done? Not at all! The adversity they face is an indication of the missions they will be given and of the substantial tasks that they will perform. Israel’s afflictions in Egypt prepared them for the difficulties they would soon face on the other side of the Red Sea. Affliction may not be punishment at all, but rather preparation.

(5) Times of extreme difficulty and danger are not an excuse for disobedience, but an occasion in which our faith is proven by our obedience to God’s Word. For all too many people, times of extreme danger or difficulty become their “lion in the road,”97 their occasion for what I call a “moral mulligan.”98 King Saul failed because he viewed a crisis situation as his excuse to disobey God’s Word:

5 For the battle with Israel the Philistines had amassed three thousand chariots, six thousand horsemen, and an army as numerous as the sand on the seashore. They went up and camped at Micmash, east of Beth Aven. 6 The men of Israel realized they had a problem because their army was hard pressed. So the army hid in caves, thickets, cliffs, strongholds, and cisterns. 7 Some of the Hebrews crossed over the Jordan River to the land of Gad and Gilead. But Saul stayed at Gilgal; the entire army that was with him was terrified. 8 He waited for seven days, the time period indicated by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the army began to abandon Saul. 9 So Saul said, “Bring me the burnt offering and the peace offerings.” Then he offered a burnt offering. 10 When he had finished offering the burnt offering, Samuel appeared on the scene. Saul went out to meet him and to greet him. 11 But Samuel said, “What have you done?” Saul replied, “When I saw that the army had started to abandon me and that you didn’t come at the appointed time and that the Philistines had assembled at Micmash, 12 I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down on me at Gilgal and I have not sought the Lord’s favor.’ So I was compelled to offer the burnt offering.” 13 Then Samuel said to Saul, “You have made a foolish choice! You have not obeyed the commandment that the Lord your God gave you. Had you done that, the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom will not continue. The Lord has sought out for himself a man who is loyal to him and the Lord has appointed him to be leader over his people, for you have not obeyed what the Lord commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:5-14, emphasis mine).

Sadly, Saul did not learn his lesson here. When commanded to utterly destroy the Amalekites and every living creature, Saul and his army held back the most prized spoil on the pretext that it was to be sacrificed to God. Listen to what God says in response to this sin:

2 Here is what the Lord of hosts says: ‘I carefully observed how the Amalekites opposed Israel along the way when Israel came up from Egypt. 3 So go now and strike down the Amalekites. Destroy everything that they have. Don’t spare them. Put them to death—man, woman, child, infant, ox, sheep, camel, and donkey alike.’” … 9 However, Saul and the army spared Agag, and the best of the flock, the cattle, the fatlings, and the lambs, as well as everything else that was of value. They were not willing to slaughter them. But they did slaughter everything that was despised and worthless… .

20 Then Saul said to Samuel, “But I have obeyed the Lord! I went on the campaign the Lord sent me on. I brought back King Agag of the Amalekites, after exterminating the Amalekites. 21 But the army took from the plunder some of the sheep and cattle—the best of what was to be slaughtered—to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.” 22 Then Samuel said, “Does the Lord take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as he does in obedience? Certainly, obedience is better than sacrifice; paying attention is better than the fat of rams. 23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and presumption is like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king” (1 Samuel 15:2-3, 9, 20-23).

David was confronted with a similar test, and thankfully he did not fail.99 Saul was actively seeking to kill David. David fled from Saul’s presence and lived his life in remote places as a fugitive. Twice God put Saul’s life in David’s hands, and twice David was urged to take advantage of this situation by killing Saul. Although David’s life was in grave danger, David refused to remove Saul by taking his life (1 Samuel 24:1-7; 26:6-12). David entrusted his life to God and refused to do the wrong thing just because his life was in danger.

It is no test for me to hand one of my granddaughters a five dollar bill and instruct her to buy an ice cream cone. It is a test to take her to the doctor and tell her to allow the doctor to give her a shot. Adverse circumstances provide the context whereby our faith and obedience are put to the test.

(6) The strongest of all human instincts is that of self-preservation, and yet Christian faith calls upon us to “die to self” and to “mortify the flesh.” One could spend a great deal of time here. “Self” is by far the dominant theme of the fleshly life. Whether it is the preservation of one’s life (“Better Red than dead,” it was once said), or the preservation of one’s self-esteem, when self is threatened most people are willing to set aside the written Word of God. What a tragedy it would be if there were not some who believed that some things are more important than physical life! Soldiers go out to war knowing that their lives will be at risk, but assured that their cause is worth dying for.

How much more true this should be for Christians! We desperately need men, women, and children who value obedience to God’s Word more than the preservation of their physical lives. We need people who have Paul’s attitude toward life and death:

20 My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: 23 I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, 24 but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body. 25 And since I am sure of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for the sake of your progress and joy in the faith (Philippians 1:20-25).

6 Therefore we are always full of courage, and we know that as long as we are alive here on earth we are absent from the Lord— 7 for we live by faith, not by sight. 8 Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So then whether we are alive or away, we make it our ambition to please him (2 Corinthians 5:6-9).

We need people who are not afraid to die, who see the cause of the gospel as more important than personal comfort or safety. Thank God for men like David, who willingly stood up to Goliath when others (including Saul) feared for their lives. Praise God for those in the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11, who did not shrink back from suffering and death, but who remained faithful to God and to His Word. Praise God for the many in our time who have set aside “playing it safe” for the sake of the gospel. Many more like this are needed. Those who set personal comfort, safety, and self-preservation above the gospel will never know the joy of “living on the edge,” nor will they ever hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

Praise God that our Lord set His face toward Jerusalem from the very outset of His earthly ministry, and that He would not be turned aside from His mission for reasons of personal comfort or safety.

(7) What about, “Lead us not into temptation”? I know there are those who are wondering about these words, which our Lord instructed us to pray:

“And do not lead us into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13).

The Spirit of God led Jesus into temptation, did He not? Why then, did our Lord instruct us to pray that God would not lead us into temptation? We could point out that the Greek word peirazo can mean “tempt” (solicit to do evil) or “test” (test, with the hope of being approved). That really offers us no help here.

We must begin with the boundaries that other Scriptures set. We are told, for example,

13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. 15 Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death (James 1:13-15).

Therefore we know that while God may test us for our good (Deuteronomy 8:16), He never tempts us. When He allows Satan to tempt us, it is really a test from God’s point of view (as in the case of the temptation of our Lord by Satan).

We do not have to convince God to refrain from tempting us. I believe that when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” we are asking God to give us the desire not to be tempted. If we don’t wish to sin, then we surely should not wish to be tempted. I fear that sometimes we want to enjoy the temptation without falling into the sin. Our desire should be to avoid temptation altogether. This is what Joseph did when Mrs. Potiphar tried to seduce him. He fled. He fled not only the sin, but the temptation. This should be our attitude as well. We should pray that temptation may not come our way, and that our desire would be to escape temptation. Thus, it should also be our prayer.

May God grant that when temptation does come our way, we may see it for what it is (through the Word of God and the Spirit of God), and respond accordingly.

(8) Let us close by noting that our Lord’s victory over temptation was His victory over Satan. This is the first “face-off” between Satan and the Savior, though it will not be the last. But in this encounter with His arch enemy, Jesus prevailed. Matthew is informing his readers, I believe, that this is a foretaste of “things to come.” He lets us know early in his Gospel that Jesus always wins over Satan. Our Lord’s victory in the wilderness is the “first fruits” of the greater victory which our Lord will win on the cross of Calvary, the very thing Satan’s success in temptation would have prevented. Studies in the Gospel of Matthew


74 This is the edited manuscript of Lessons 5 & 6 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 16 & 23, 2003

75 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

76 We should first take note that Jesus has not yet called His disciples. That happens after His baptism, in Matthew 4:18-22. Peter was present at our Lord’s transfiguration, when he heard the Father speak virtually the same words, and he mentions this fact in 2 Peter 1:17-18. But Peter never speaks of overhearing the Father speak to Jesus at His baptism.

77 Assuming for the moment that there were people standing nearby when Jesus was baptized, I’m not sure that they would have understood what was taking place. It may well have been something like John 12:27-30 where the Father spoke from heaven for the benefit of those standing around. Even so, they do not appear to have understood what God said. Likewise with those who were with Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 22:9).

78 Compare Isaiah 63:15; 64:1; see also Isaiah 11:1-2.

79 The argument here is similar to what we find in Hebrews 7:1-10, where the author reasons that the lesser offers tithes to the one who is greater. Thus, when Abraham gave tithes to Melchizedek, he unwittingly indicated that Melchizedek was greater than he, and thus the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek was superior to the Aaronic priesthood, which descended from Abraham.

80 In Matthew, the Trinity is seen at the baptism of Jesus and is also referred to in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19).

81 See also Hebrews 5:5. Note incidentally, that when the writer of Hebrews uses these two Old Testament texts, he does so in relation to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. At His baptism, Jesus was introduced as the One who would rule over Israel, seated on the throne of David. On the mount of transfiguration, the three disciples were given a preview of the coming reign of our Lord (Luke 9:27). The writer to the Hebrews then brings the whole thing home. He argues that, in order for Jesus to reign eternally on the throne of David, He must first be resurrected from the dead.

82 See for example Matthew 1:1, 20; 9:29; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31, etc.

83 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001), vol. 1, p. 51.

84 When Samuel designated Saul as Israel’s first king, the Spirit of God came over him (1 Samuel 10:1-13; see also 11:6). In 1 Samuel 16:13, the same thing happened to David when Samuel anointed him as Israel’s king.

85 My friend, Tony Emge, suggested that the dove here provides a symbolic link the Noah and the waters of the flood. The dove returned (the second time) with a freshly picked olive leaf, a sign that new life would emerge from the destruction of the flood. Is the dove in our Lord’s baptism a sign that out of the waters of God’s judgment of Christ (which His baptism symbolized), new life would emerge?

86 This partnership would explain the “us” in Matthew 3:15.

87 The NASB, KJV, NKJV, and NIV all render this word “led.”

88 Deer were a probability; bears and cougars were remote possibilities, but that gave me little comfort as I whistled my way through my night walk.

89 It is interesting to note that Mark does not call attention to the fact that Jesus fasted those 40 days.

90 See Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), vol. 1, p. 103.

91 nhttp://www.desiringgod.org/cgi-bin/print.cgi?http://www.desiringgod.org/library/sermons/95/011595.html

92 Luther had never seen a right fasting or a fasting that did not encourage trust in good works; right fasting is to accept God-sent hardships … Calvin, 1:124-135, points out that neither Jesus nor Moses fasted every year, but only once in their lives according to the biblical records.” Bruner, p. 104.

Actually I think Calvin is wrong here. Jesus did “fast” on several occasions (see Mark 3:20-21; John 4:31-34); Moses also fasted more than one time – it is mentioned 3 times in Deuteronomy, and this refers to at least 2 different occasions: the initial giving of the Law, and Moses’ intercession after Israel’s sin with the golden calf (see Deuteronomy 9:9, 11, 18, 25; 10:10).

93 Just as Jesus would not act independently of God by making a meal for himself, I doubt that He would have determined, independently of God, not to eat in the first place.

94 I cannot overlook the fact that Jesus was “the rock that followed Israel” according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:4. Jesus was not just aware of what took place in the wilderness those 40 days because He read about it in the Scriptures; He was actually there. He was the stone that produced water. How easy it would be for Him to turn stone into bread!

95 The more I think about this, the more I am inclined to see an important prophetic theme here. The prophets, especially Isaiah, use the symbolism and terminology of the exodus (God’s first great act of salvation) to describe the salvation He will provide in the future (more immediately from Babylonian captivity; ultimately from the captivity to sin, through Christ). When I look at texts like Isaiah 35:6-7; 44:3-4, I see a play on exodus terminology. The last salvation is far greater than the first. When Israel was in the wilderness, God caused water to flow from the rock. But in the greater salvation, God will create rivers in the wilderness. God will literally turn the wilderness into a watered garden.

96 Revelation thus quotes Isaiah 49:10. The salvation our Lord accomplishes is the fulfillment of Isaiah 49:10, and its antitype, the exodus. I’m inclined to understand the reference to the sun not beating down on the people, with all its heat, to be an indication that this final salvation is far better than the earlier deliverance from Egypt, because the Israelites did have to endure the heat of the wilderness.

97 See Proverbs 22:13; 26:13. The sluggard’s “lion in the road” is his compelling excuse for avoiding that which he is too lazy to do. After all, who would leave the safety of their home to go on and work in the fields if there actually was a lion in the road? We all look for compelling reasons to avoid what we dislike or what is unpleasant. A neighbor and I used to run on the high school track nearby. If it began to rain lightly, he (it may have been me, come to think of it) would stick his head out the door and shout across the street to me, “We can’t run in this storm.”

98 Trust me, I know a lot about “mulligans” from the little bit of golf I have played. It is my excuse to kick the ball out of the rough and back onto the fairway, or to hit a second ball after my first drive fell short.

99 Though he certainly did fail some other tests.

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6. The Second Temptation of Jesus Satan’s “Leap of Faith” (Matthew 4:5-7)

Introduction

The temptation of our Lord has a number of links with the Old Testament. We can see a correspondence between the first temptation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 and the temptation of our Lord in Matthew 4. Matthew highlights the link between the temptation of our Lord in the wilderness and the testing of Israel in the wilderness, as emphasized in the early chapters of Deuteronomy. But there is another link between our Lord’s temptation and Deuteronomy that I had not noticed until this study, the link with these words regarding Israel’s king in Deuteronomy 17:

14 When you come to the land the Lord your God is giving you and take it over and live in it and then say, “I will appoint a king over me like all the nations surrounding me,” 15 you must without fail select over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. From among your fellow citizens you must appoint a king—you may not designate a foreigner who is not one of your fellow Israelites. 16 Moreover, he must not accumulate horses for himself or allow the people to return to Egypt to do so, for the Lord has said you must never again return that way. 17 Furthermore, he must not marry many wives lest his affections turn aside, and he must not accumulate much silver and gold. 18 When he sits on his royal throne he must make a copy of this instruction on a scroll given to him by the Levitical priests. 19 It must be with him constantly and he must read it as long as he lives, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and observe all the words of this instruction and these statutes in order to carry them out, 20 so that he will not exalt himself above his fellow citizens and turn from the commandment right or left, and so that he and his descendants may enjoy many years ruling over his kingdom in Israel (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).101

Through Moses, God looks forward to that time when Israel will ask for102 a king. He sets down several qualifications for this king:

(1) The first qualification is that Israel’s king must be an Israelite, and not a foreigner (Deuteronomy 17:15). Jesus certainly met this qualification and more, as we see in Matthew’s genealogy. Jesus was both a “son of Abraham” and a “son of David” (Matthew 1:1).

(2) The second qualification for Israel’s king is that he must be divinely chosen (Deuteronomy 17:15). This is precisely the situation with Jesus. Initially, John the Baptist did not know for certain who the Messiah was (John 1:26-34). Jesus was divinely designated as the Messiah. Initially, this was done through the angel of the Lord, speaking to Joseph (Matthew 1:20-23), and then later through the star and the testimony of the magi (Matthew 2:1-12). At His baptism, Jesus was divinely designated as the Messiah, Israel’s King, through the witness of the Spirit and of the Father and the designation of John the Baptist (Matthew 3).

(3) The third qualification has to do with the accumulation of things: horses, silver, gold, wives. Horses, silver, and gold are things which give one the false impression of power and control. Wives were often the seal of a political alliance. While it is not clearly stated in Deuteronomy 17, I believe that the king was to trust in God for military victory and not in “the arm of the flesh.”

A horse is prepared for the day of battle,

but the victory is from the Lord (Proverbs 21:31).

1 Those who go down to Egypt for help are as good as dead,

those who rely on war horses, and trust in Egypt’s many chariots and in their many, many horsemen.

But they do not rely on the sovereign king of Israel and do not seek help from the Lord (Isaiah 31:1).

In addition, foreign wives would turn the heart of the king from God to other gods (Deuteronomy 17:17). This was certainly the case in the life of Solomon (see 1 Kings 11:1-8).

Our Lord could never be accused of accumulating anything. He did not accumulate money, nor clothes, nor houses, nor land. He had to be buried in a borrowed grave. Jesus had His trust in the Father alone. Jesus surely met this qualification regarding the accumulation of worldly goods.

(4) A fourth requirement was that the king was to write out for himself a copy of the law, which was always to be with him (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). Since the king could not carry the law with him as he went about his daily affairs, and certainly not when he went to war, he could only have the law “with him” if he had it in his heart. Several qualifications emerged related to the Old Testament law. The king must observe “all the words of this instruction” (17:19). Furthermore, the king must not exalt himself above his fellow citizens, “turning from the commandment right or left” (17:20). I take it that this means the king must not see himself as “above the law,” and thus exempt from its requirements.

How obvious it is to Matthew that our Lord met these requirements! Jesus certainly “had the law with Him” in the wilderness. Each time He was tempted, He responded by quoting from the law. Jesus rejected Satan’s temptations because by doing as he suggested our Lord would have disobeyed the law.

All of this is to say that our Lord, and only our Lord, precisely fulfilled the requirements for Israel’s king as set down by God in Deuteronomy 17. Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

The Relationship between the First and Second Temptations of Jesus

In the first temptation, Satan sought to prompt our Lord to act independently of the Father, and contrary to the leading of the Holy Spirit, saving His life by commanding stones to become bread. Satan seems to have believed the saying, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” After forty days and nights in the wilderness without food, Jesus’ life seemed to be fading away. Following God’s leading seemed to be leading to our Lord’s death. Jesus had the power to convert stones into bread, so why should He not do so? Such was Satan’s reasoning.

Jesus knew better. In the Book of Deuteronomy, God told the Israelites that He was testing them in the wilderness to see what was in their hearts:

1 You must keep carefully the entire commandment I am giving you today so that you may live, multiply, and go in and occupy the land that the Lord promised to your ancestors. 2 Remember the whole way by which he has brought you these forty years through the desert so that he might, by humbling you, test to see whether deep within yourselves you would keep his commandments or not. 3 So he humbled you by making you hungry and feeding you with unfamiliar manna to make you understand that mankind cannot live by food alone, but also by everything that comes from the Lord’s mouth (Deuteronomy 8:1-3).

In the closing chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses once again points out that true life comes from obedience to God’s Word:

46 He said to them, “Instill in your mind all the things I am testifying to you today, things you must command your children to observe, all the words of this law. 47 For this is no idle word for you—it is your life! By this word you will live a long time in the land you are about to cross the Jordan River to possess” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47).

God led the Israelites into a situation where they would be hungry and where they would thirst to see if they trusted in Him. God fed them in a miraculous way103 so that they would come to understand that life is much more than mere physical survival; life is found by trusting in God and obeying His every word. How, then, could our Lord fail to trust the God who had led Him into the wilderness, who had caused Him to hunger and perhaps to thirst? He must trust in God and not seek His own solutions.

The first temptation was about life and faith. Satan wanted our Lord to doubt God’s goodness and guidance, fearing that He might die if He trusted and obeyed the Father. Satan wanted the Lord to act independently of the Father, saving His life by making bread from stones. Jesus knew that true life came from trusting God’s Word; it came by faith.

Satan takes his cue from our Lord’s words. He learns that Jesus is committed to trusting in God’s Word. He sees that Jesus has entrusted His life into His Father’s hands. Satan now seeks to twist our Lord’s trust in the Father by tempting Him to act in a way that will put His Father to the test, all in the name of faith. We might paraphrase Satan’s second temptation in this way:

“So, you have entrusted your life to God, have you? That’s good. I can see that you really are a man of faith. I know that you have purposed to live by faith. I can also see that you have a deep respect for God’s Word. You trust in God and in His Word. That, too, is good. So let me call your attention to a Scripture of particular relevance:

11 For he will order his angels to protect you in all you do.

12 They will lift you up in their hands,

so you will not slip and fall on a stone (Psalm 91:11-12).

“This Scripture says exactly what you believe, that God will protect your life. I know you believe this passage and that you would stake your life on it, just as you have entrusted your life to God with regard to your hunger and thirst. You have every assurance that God will employ His angels to protect your life, so why not put your faith to the test? Why not show just how much you trust God and His Word by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple?”

A Change in Setting

Before we consider our Lord’s answer, let me point out that the setting has changed. Our Lord is not in the wilderness at this moment of testing. He is in Jerusalem, at the temple, on the pinnacle of the temple. I will not attempt to explain how our Lord got there, but I do believe that Jesus is actually there, in Jerusalem on the pinnacle of the temple. Otherwise, how could Satan challenge Jesus to jump?

The setting is very strategic to the temptation, in my opinion. Just as the wilderness and our Lord’s hunger was foundational to Satan’s solicitation to turn stone into bread, so Jerusalem and the temple are vitally important to Satan’s second temptation.

So what is the connection? In what way does Jerusalem and the temple serve to buttress or support Satan’s temptation? Bear with me here. In the first temptation, Satan was seeking to persuade Jesus that God was far off. He tried to convince Jesus that He would die because He had no food. Even today we call places like that wilderness “God forsaken.” In that “God forsaken” wilderness, Satan argued that our Lord would die unless He acted on His own to save Himself by making “stone bread”. Now, in the second temptation, Satan is not arguing that God is remote and that Jesus must therefore act on His own; Satan takes Jesus to the place where God has chosen to dwell. Over and over in the Old Testament law, God spoke of the place where God would choose to dwell. In time, we saw that this place was Jerusalem, and more specifically, the temple:

13 Certainly the Lord has chosen Zion;

he decided to make it his home.

14 He said, “This will be my resting place forever;

I will live here, for I have chosen it” (Psalm 132:13-14).104

Satan takes our Lord to the one place where God could not (in Satan’s mind, at least) be nearer to Him. If Satan could not prompt Jesus to act independently of God’s Word by thinking God had abandoned Him (in the wilderness), then Satan would try to prompt Jesus to act presumptuously, convinced that His Father was ever so near. How could God let Jesus fall to His death right there at the temple, in Jerusalem? Thus, Jerusalem and the temple were Satan’s props, which he believed would give credence to his assurance of divine deliverance.

What’s in this for Satan?

As I was thinking about this passage and this temptation, it occurred to me that “angels” seem to play an important part in our Lord’s temptation. Satan himself is an angel, a fallen angel for sure. The text which Satan cites from Psalm 91 is about angels. God’s angels will protect the one whose trust is in Him. And when this period of testing and temptation is over, the angels are again involved:

Then the devil left him, and angels came and began ministering to his needs (Matthew 4:11).

“So what’s in this for Satan?” I asked myself. What does he hope to gain? I think it is safe to say that Satan believes he will prevail if he can somehow kill Jesus. This is what he will seek to do through Judas. Satan did not understand that our Lord’s death (and resurrection) would be his downfall. Jesus’ death, then, seems to be Satan’s victory. How, then, could Satan expect to kill Jesus?

Here’s where I climb way out to the end of the limb. I’m warning you, this is something you won’t find in any commentary – none that I’ve read at least. But it does make sense to me, as I think it did to Satan. Satan is a fallen angel, and he has at his beck and call a host of fallen angels who do his bidding. Satan cites a psalm that promises angelic protection for the one who trusts in God. Surely this promise of protection would apply to the Lord Jesus. So how does Satan think he can bring about our Lord’s death?

I was reminded of this text in Daniel that has to do with fallen and unfallen angels:

1 In the third year of King Cyrus of Persia a message was revealed to Daniel (who was also called Belteshazzar). This message was true and concerned a great war. He understood the message and gained insight by the vision. 2 In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three whole weeks. 3 I ate no choice food; no meat or wine came to my lips, nor did I anoint myself with oil until the end of those three weeks. 4 On the twenty-fourth day of the first month I was beside the great river, the Tigris. 5 I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen; around his waist was a belt made of gold from Upaz. 6 His body resembled yellow jasper, and his face was like lightning. His eyes were like blazing torches; his arms and feet had the gleam of polished bronze. His voice thundered forth like the sound of a large crowd. 7 Only I, Daniel, saw the vision; the men who were with me did not see it. On the contrary, they were overcome with fright and ran away to hide. 8 I alone was left to see this great vision. My strength drained from me, and my vigor dissipated; I was without energy. 9 I listened to his voice, and as I did so I fell into a trance-like sleep with my face to the ground. 10 Then a hand touched me and set me on my hands and knees. 11 He said to me, “Daniel, you are a treasured person. Understand the words that I am about to speak to you. So stand up, for I have now been sent to you.” When he said this to me, I stood up shaking. 12 Then he said to me, “Don’t be afraid, Daniel, for from the very first day you applied your mind to understand and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard. I have come in response to your words. 13 However, the prince of the kingdom of Persia was opposing me for twenty-one days. But Michael, one of the leading princes, came to help me, because I was left there with the kings of Persia. 14 Now I have come to enable you to understand what will happen to your people in the latter days, for the vision pertains to future days (Daniel 10:1-14, emphasis mine).

Here it is, proof that Satan’s fallen angels can resist and oppose God’s angels, resulting in a delay. Did Satan thwart God’s purposes here? Not at all! Had the timing of the angel’s appearance been crucial, God could easily have employed various means of getting the angel there immediately. But from Satan’s point of view, he believed he was able to oppose God’s (unfallen) angels in such a way as to delay them.

Satan sits there on the pinnacle of the temple, looking down as much as several hundred feet (opinions as to just how many feet down it was may vary, but most all would agree that a fall from this height would have been fatal). I can see him looking at his stopwatch as he casts a stone over the side, timing its descent. Suppose that it took four seconds for the stone to make its descent. I believe Satan was convinced that if Jesus jumped and God’s angels attempted to come to His rescue, he and his angels could delay them just long enough to bring about Jesus’ death. Fanciful? Perhaps, but remember that Satan is a schemer, who seeks in any way possible to bring about our Lord’s death.

Jesus’ Response: The Key to the Explanation of this Temptation

A very common explanation of this temptation goes something like this: The Jews expected the Messiah to appear in some very dramatic way. By leaping from the pinnacle of the temple and then being rescued in a spectacular manner, Jesus would fulfill Jewish expectations and thus convince those who witnessed this dramatic display of power that He was the Messiah. In other words, Satan was tempting Jesus to act in such a way as to gain a following by forcing God to save Him.

While there may be an element of truth in this explanation, I do not find it satisfying. Its basis comes not from the Bible, and certainly not from the context, but from a perception of Jewish messianic expectations in those days. I see the explanation being more simple and direct than that. In the first temptation, Jesus refused to save Himself because He trusted in God, and in His every word. Jesus knew from the law that life was far more than mere physical preservation. Life came from God, from trusting and obeying His Word. Picking up on Jesus’ response to the first temptation, Satan modifies his approach, tailoring his temptation to Jesus’ strengths.

Jesus did not fear physical death as the most dreaded possibility. Satan thus tempted Jesus to live dangerously. Jesus trusted in God’s every word. Satan calls Jesus’ attention to Psalm 91:11-12, which speaks of divine protection. Jesus proclaimed His faith in God. Satan challenges Jesus to put His faith to the test. From Satan’s grasp of what Jesus had already spoken, he felt that this temptation would be truly tempting: Jesus should prove His faith in God, and in God’s Word, by leaping from the pinnacle of the temple. If He was God’s Son, surely God would save Him, especially right there where God chose to abide, in His temple.

From the Book of Deuteronomy,105 Jesus knew that He, like Israel, was being tested in the wilderness. God was testing His Son, the Messiah, to see whether He would obey His commandments, as given in the law (see Deuteronomy 8:2). Jesus responded to Satan by citing a text from Deuteronomy 6:

You must not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah (Deuteronomy 6:16).

Just how did the Israelites “put the Lord to the test” at Massah? Let us take a look at that incident to see just how they “tested God.”

1 And all the community of the Israelites traveled on their journey from the Desert of Sin according to the instruction of the Lord, and they pitched camp in Rephidim. Now there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So the people strove with Moses, and they said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you strive with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water, and they murmured against Moses and said, “Why in the world did you bring us up out of Egypt—to kill us and our sons and our cattle with thirst?” 4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What will I do with this people?—a little more and they will stone me!” 5 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go over before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand your rod with which you struck the Nile and go. 6 I will be standing before you there on the rock in Horeb, and you will strike the rock, and water will come out of it so that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in plain view of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the striving of the Israelites, and because of their testing the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” (Exodus 17:1-7)

The Israelite’s situation was much like that of our Lord in the wilderness. They lacked water to drink. They failed to trust God and concluded that God had led them into the wilderness to kill them (Exodus 17:3). They were about to overthrow Moses, God’s appointed leader. Our Lord was now in the wilderness as well, and He lacked food (I’m not really sure whether He lacked water as well).106 Satan sought to convince Jesus that He was about to die. He challenged Jesus to act independently of the Father and create food (bread) from stones. Jesus refused to believe that God had led Him to the wilderness to die, but was willing to entrust Himself to the Father, in obedience to His Word. He believed that obedience to God’s Word was the deciding factor between life and death.

Now in the second temptation, Satan urged Jesus to put His faith and God’s Word to the test by leaping from the pinnacle of the temple. Satan’s use of Psalm 91 was a clear case of “Scripture twisting.” The psalm assures the one who trusts in God of divine protection, but from what? It assures the faithful believer of God’s protection from the attacks of those who are determined to destroy him:

1 As for you, the one who lives in the shelter of the Sovereign One,

and resides in the protective shadow of the mighty king—

2 I say this about the Lord, my shelter and my stronghold,

my God in whom I trust—

3 he will certainly rescue you from the snare of the hunter

and from the destructive plague.

4 He will shelter you with his wings;

you will find safety under his wings.

His faithfulness is like a shield or a protective wall.

5 You need not fear the terrors of the night,

the arrow that flies by day,

6 the plague that comes in the darkness,

or the disease that comes at noon.

7 Though a thousand may fall beside you,

and a multitude on your right side,

it will not reach you.

8 Certainly you will see it with your very own eyes—

you will see the wicked paid back.

9 For you have taken refuge in the Lord,

my shelter, the Sovereign One.

10 No harm will overtake you;

no illness will come near your home.

11 For he will order his angels

to protect you in all you do.

12 They will lift you up in their hands,

so you will not slip and fall on a stone.

13 You will subdue a lion and a snake;

you will trample underfoot a young lion and a serpent.

14 The Lord says, “Because he is devoted to me, I will deliver him;

I will protect him because he is loyal to me.

15 When he calls out to me, I will answer him.

I will be with him when he is in trouble;

I will rescue him and bring him honor.

16 I will satisfy him with long life,

and will let him see my salvation (Psalm 91:1-16).

This psalm promises protection from the destruction that others would bring on us. I am inclined to think that it assures the true believer that he or she will not undergo the outpouring of God’s wrath upon sinners (verses 3-7). The believer is protected, while others suffer (verse 7). In fact, the believer will look on as God’s wrath falls upon the wicked (verse 8). The righteous are protected because they have taken refuge in God (verses 9-10). God tasks His angels to watch over His own. They will intervene, even to the point of preventing one from stumbling and falling upon a stone. He will enable the saint to subdue dangerous foes. (Isn’t it interesting that God promises victory over the lion and the serpent, both of which are symbols of Satan? See 1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 20:2.)

Satan seems to gloss over the fact that God’s protection is for those who are devoted to Him, who are loyal to Him. God’s protection is for those who trust and obey. Satan urges Jesus to step out on His own, out from under divine protection. Satan would have Jesus disobey Deuteronomy 6:16 by putting God to the test. I would suggest that Jesus could have refuted Satan by simply expounding Psalm 91, but instead He turned to Deuteronomy 6:16, which forbids men from “putting God to the test,” as the Israelites did at Massah. Satan’s temptation was, once again, deceptive. It was not our Lord who was putting His faith to the test; by following Satan’s suggestion, our Lord would have put God to the test, something no man is to do. God has every right to put our faith to the test; we have no right to put God to the test, especially in the manner Satan suggested. Testing God is not trusting God.

Let me make just one more observation. The assurance of Psalm 91 was that God would not allow His faithful one to stumble over a stone. That is a far cry from leaping from a great height. A stumble is a far cry from a leap.

Conclusion

Satan may have thought that this was a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation. If Jesus jumped from the temple and Satan was successful in hindering the angels who came to His rescue, then Jesus would be dead, and in Satan’s mind, it would all have been over. But if Jesus jumped from the temple and God used His angels to rescue Him, then Satan would have succeeded in prompting Jesus to act in a way that sets aside His submission to the will of the Father. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus emphasized that He did nothing on His own initiative, but rather He acted on the initiative of the Father:

28 Then Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and I do nothing on my own initiative, but I speak just what the Father taught me” (John 8:28).

42 Jesus replied, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come from God and am now here. I have not come on my own initiative, but he sent me” (John 8:42; see also John 5:20; 12:49; 14:10).

Jesus submitted Himself to the Father’s will. He did not act or speak independently, but rather He said and did those things which were prompted by the Father. Satan’s fall resulted from his rebellion against God, so that he sought to elevate himself to a position equal with God (Isaiah 14:13-14). Satan also successfully tempted Eve and Adam to act in rebellion to God’s Word in order to be like God (Genesis 3:1-7). Every sin since the fall has involved rebellion against submission to God’s authority. Jesus alone has passed the test and has remained in submission to the will of the Father. Jesus refused to force the Father to act, by which He would have renounced His submission to the Father.

Our Lord’s victory over Satan’s schemes meant that He and He alone was qualified to die for our sins. Jesus would not put the Father to the test by leaping from the temple, but He would obey the Father by going to the cross. He knew that the Father would not keep Him from death, but that He would deliver Him through death, by raising Him from the dead.

What does this second temptation and our Lord’s response have to teach us? There are a number of lessons for us to learn.

First, we should learn that Satan will employ a wide range of tactics in his efforts to tempt us to sin. We should recall that there were many more temptations than just the three that Matthew and Luke have recorded (Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2). We should also note that the temptations did not end here:

So when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him until a more opportune time (Luke 4:13).

If Satan does not succeed with one approach, we can expect that he will simply move on to another. With the first temptation, Satan seeks to attack our Lord at the point of his “weakness” – His hunger and waning physical strength. When this fails, Satan moves on to attack Jesus at the point of His strength – His trust in the Father and His commitment to obey God’s Word. Satan tests us in every point, as He did our Lord:

For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).

Second, Satan’s temptations almost always promise us some benefit, without really describing the cost. In the first temptation (really first, that of Adam and Eve), Satan promised Eve that they would be “like God, knowing good and evil.” He also promised her that they would surely not die. They did die, and the knowledge of good and evil that they obtained was no blessing. In Satan’s second temptation of our Lord, it seemed as though Jesus’ actions would have no negative repercussions and would produce only good. It was simply not true. As I have said before, sin is like the ride in an amusement part: the ride is short, and the price is high.

Third, the primary incentive for the first two temptations has been self-service. Satan sought to convince Jesus that He was about to die. He inferred that God’s leading was responsible, and thus appealed to Jesus to act independently of God (that is, in rebellion against God) in order to save Himself. The second temptation is similar. Self-seeking leads to rebellion and sin; submission leads to self-sacrifice and servanthood. Satan sought to entice our Lord to make God the Father His servant by forcing Him to come to His aid.

One of the most foolproof tests of our actions is to answer a very simple question: “Who is serving whom?” Am I trusting God and seeking to serve Him, or am I demanding that God serve me? Some evangelism fails the test here. Sometimes people are “tempted” to trust in Christ because of all that He can and will do for them. Some promise potential converts that God will make them happy, prosperous, and popular. That is not what Jesus said, nor is it what Paul preached:

25 Now large crowds were accompanying Jesus, and turning to them he said, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn’t sit down first and compute the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish the tower, all who see it will begin to make fun of him. 30 They will say, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish!’ 31 Or what king, going out to confront another king in battle, will not sit down first and determine whether he is able with ten thousand to face the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot succeed, he will send a representative while the other is still a long way off and ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way therefore not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions (Luke 14:25-33).

21 After they had proclaimed the good news in that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch. 22 They strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions” (Acts 14:21-22).

10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, my faith, my patience, my love, my endurance, 11 as well as the persecutions and sufferings that happened to me in Antioch, in Iconium, and in Lystra. I endured these persecutions and the Lord delivered me from them all. 12 Now in fact all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:10-12).

The Christian faith is not about us making God our servant; it is about us becoming His servants. The gospel should be presented honestly. As lost sinners, we are enemies of God, destined for God’s eternal wrath (hell). The work of Christ on the cross of Calvary can save us from our sins, but it does not promise us a life of comfort and ease. If we are faithful servants of Christ, we will suffer persecution. While we look forward to the blessings of heaven, there will be “suffering and groaning” in this life (Romans 8:18-25). There will be peace, joy, hope, faith, love, and much more, but there will also be suffering and adversity. Salvation is not about making God our servant, but about us becoming His servants.

Fourth, we should beware of the spectacular. If Satan was seeking to tempt our Lord to “bring on a spectacular rescue,” we should note that such a rescue would not have been a good thing. I believe that many Christians are attracted to (and enticed by) the spectacular because it has the appearance of success. God does work in a spectacular way at times, but not always. If God wishes to act in such a way, that is well and good. But we dare not seek to force Him to do so by reckless and foolish actions on our part. Elijah seems to have been overly concerned with the spectacular, such as the event on Mount Carmel. But God had to instruct this prophet that He often speaks in a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:9-18).

Many foolish things have been done by Christians, who claim to be acting in faith, but who are really seeking to put God to the test. We purchase something we cannot afford, “trusting God to provide.” We make a foolish commitment, knowing that we do not have the means to fulfill it, thereby demanding God to intervene. Let us keep in mind that Satan’s “leap of faith” was really just “jumping to the wrong conclusion.” How often our acts of folly are labeled as acts of faith. Satan seems to take special pleasure in enticing us to sin by appealing to our “spiritual” side.

Fifth, we should learn a lesson in the use and the abuse of Scripture. Satan’s first temptation did not appeal to Scripture, but when our Lord refuted this temptation by quoting Scripture, Satan then resorted to using Scripture. Do not assume that just because someone quotes Scripture they are right. Satan is the master “Scripture twister.” First, we should be certain that our interpretation of any Scripture text conforms to the teaching of the Bible as a whole. Jesus refuted Satan’s use of Scripture by quoting another Scripture. One Scripture, rightly interpreted, will not contradict another Scripture. We should always seek to interpret Scripture with Scripture. Satan used the Scriptures, but only to validate his own error.

Note, too, that Satan’s error was one pertaining to the application of Scripture. Some of the greatest abuses of the Bible are found in the misapplication of the Bible. In Paul’s writings, the expression “God forbid” or “may it never be” (NET Bible renders it, “absolutely not!”) indicates a false application drawn from a proper premise:

1 What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase? 2 Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2).

God’s Word is never a pretext for sin; it is a preventative for sin.

Finally, we should note that the very passage Satan used to promote sin is one that promises victory over Satan, sin, and judgment. This psalm promises eternal safety and blessing for the one who abides in the protective shadow of the almighty (Psalm 91:1-4f.). As I understand it, the psalm promises the true believer protection from divine judgment upon sinners. It did not promise that God will deliver every saint from danger or even death, but rather from divine wrath. It also assures the believer that God will not allow His enemies (and thus ours) to harm us in any way He did not intend for our good and His glory. In the final analysis, I believe this psalm assures the Messiah and His servants of victory over the arch enemy, Satan. In the life of our Lord, this psalm was not fulfilled by God delivering Jesus from death, but by delivering Him out of death by His resurrection. The very text that Satan misused to tempt our Lord was one that assured our Lord of victory over Satan, sin, and death.

Do you know the Savior, my friend? Do you have this kind of security? It is offered to all those who acknowledge their sin and place their trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. While Satan will always tempt you to sin, Jesus Christ calls you to turn from your sin to His salvation. Will you trust in Him?


100 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 7 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 30, 2003.

101 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

102 “Ask for” is probably too bland; “demand” is more accurate, as we can see from 1 Samuel 8, and even Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 17:14. The Israelites wanted a king for all the wrong reasons. God had Moses warn the Israelites concerning the high price they would pay for having a king, but they would not listen. Even the best of Israel’s kings had their problems. There would be only one ideal king and that was Messiah.

103 Let us not forget that our Lord was personally involved in the testing of Israel in the wilderness. He was the One who provided the water for the thirsty Israelites (1 Corinthians 10:3-4).

104 See also Deuteronomy 12:11; 2 Samuel 7:2; 1 Kings 6:12-14; 14:21; Ezra 6:12; Nehemiah 1:9; Psalm 65:5; 68:16.

105 I would not want to say that Jesus knew this only from Deuteronomy, but this would have been a very primary source by which He would have understood and interpreted His wilderness experience.

106 A friend of mine reasons that since Moses went 40 days without food or water (Exodus 34:28), our Lord must have done without both as well. This may well be, but our text does not say so clearly.

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7. The Third Temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:8-10)

I. Introduction.

A. Background. We have come in our study of Matthew to the devil’s third temptation of Christ in the wilderness. The Old Testament background of Jesus’ temptations is Israel’s experience in the wilderness. A new nation had been born, which God called his “son” (Exodus 4:22).108 After being miraculously delivered out of Egypt, the people were tested by God in the wilderness to see what was in their heart (Deuteronomy 8:2). Often they failed. They grumbled and would not submit willingly to God’s testing (See Exodus 16:2; 17:3; Numbers 14:2; 16:11, 41). They presumed to test God by demanding water and food (Exodus 15:22 – 17:7). And they worshiped the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain receiving the law (Exodus 32:1-35). Finally they refused to enter the land of Canaan that God had promised them because of fear of its inhabitants. For treating Him with contempt, God made them wander in the desert for 40 years until the generation of people that were adults when they left Egypt had died (Numbers 13:1–14:45). In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses recounted the wilderness experience to the second generation of Israelites as they were at last about to enter the land. From that book – Deuteronomy – came every answer of Jesus to the temptations He would face from the devil.109

At His baptism Jesus also was identified as God’s Son (Matthew 3:17), but in a very special sense – as the King of Israel, the Messiah that had been promised in the Old Testament. The Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove (Matthew 3:16). Like Israel, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested (Matthew 4:1; Mark 1:12). The devil came to Jesus after He had fasted 40 days and nights and tried to get Jesus to use His miraculous powers wrongly. “If you are the Son of God,” said the devil, “tell these stones to become bread” (Matthew 4:3). In other words, “Jesus, you’re about to die. Take care of yourself. Save your life!” But Jesus replied from Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). He knew that life was more than physical life. He also knew that fasting was part of the test that had been prescribed by God. So He would not use His powers to cut short the test, but trusted that God would provide for Him.

When the devil saw how Jesus countered the first temptation with God’s Word, he decided to use Scripture too. After taking Jesus to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem, he said,

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” (Matthew 4:6, with the devil referring to Psalm 91:11-12).

Surely, the devil implied, you of all people will be protected! But Jesus saw the evil in that proposal. Forcing God to rescue Him by unnecessarily exposing Himself to danger would be making God obey Him. He would be saying, in effect, “I’m jumping, God. Save Me!” Jesus would not do it, but again turned to Deuteronomy, this time Deuteronomy 6:16. “It is also written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7). Testing God is counterfeit faith. God may test us because He is God. He may require us to trust His faithfulness and obey. For us to test God is doubt, not trust; presumption, not obedience.110

In Matthew’s account, the first two temptations set the stage for the third one. It is the devil’s final and perhaps most deceptive effort to trap Jesus into disloyalty to God. Let us try to understand this temptation and how Jesus successfully dealt with it.

B. Illustration. In his 1954 novel, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,111 Douglass Wallop tells a funny story about an overweight, out of shape, middle aged man who is an avid major league baseball fan. The team he roots for is the Washington Senators, who can’t ever beat the New York Yankees for the American League pennant. One summer, when the Senators are again trailing the Yankees badly, a stranger offers him an incredible deal: he will be transformed into a major league baseball player and lead the Senators to victory over the Yankees.112

Who is the stranger? None other than the devil himself. And what is the price for giving our fan what he wants? There’s a lot of dodging and shuffling by the stranger, but eventually it becomes clear: he must trade his soul to the devil.

He agrees, of course. The rest of the book is a hilarious account of the experiences of our middle aged man after he has been transformed into Joe Hardy, a 21-year-old baseball phenomenon. In two months, Joe hits 48 home runs, bats .545, and becomes a nationally known star. Every sports page in the United States follows his feats. He gets a fat contract from the Senators. Women chase him. As we might expect, he keeps bumping into his wife, who doesn’t recognize him after his transformation.

Is Joe able to get out of his deal with the devil? I won’t give it away – that’s part of what makes the book funny. Check it out of the library, and read it for yourself.

One of the amusing aspects of the book is that you discover many people who have made the same deal with the devil. Not to beat the Yankees, but to do what they want to do – be a beautiful woman, a millionaire, or a psychoanalyst. It’s a deal the devil will make anytime with anybody. “You can do what you want,” he will say. “And it can be something good, like beating the Yankees. Just sell me your soul.”

II. The Devil’s Temptation.

The devil offered that deal to Jesus, too. Jesus had demonstrated His commitment to be an obedient Son of God by His answers to the first two temptations. Then the devil shifted his strategy. The third temptation did not begin like the first two with the words, “If you are the Son of God … .” As we will see, the devil seems to have conceded for the moment that Jesus wanted to be obedient. So the thrust of the third temptation was this: What would Jesus the Son be willing to do to establish the kingdom of God on earth?113

Although Matthew does not say so, I wonder if Jesus and the devil both had Psalm 2 in mind. That Psalm talks about the Son, the Messiah, ruling the kingdoms.114 Part of it reads:

I will proclaim the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery” (Psalm 2:7-9).

How kingly do you think Jesus looked after 40 days and nights of fasting in the wilderness? He was alone, tired, dirty, hungry, and thirsty. Being king over God’s kingdom must have seemed a long way off. The devil seized the opportunity. In essence, he said, “Let me show you a way to fulfill your heart’s desire.” He took Jesus to a high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.115 That would have included Rome! At that moment their splendor and Jesus’ appearance would have been quite a contrast. “‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’

There are several things to note here.

A. The appeal. Consider the appeal of the offer from the devil’s viewpoint.

Jesus’ Condition

The Devil’s Offer

Deprived – tired, hungry

Splendor, not suffering

Alone with the wild animals116

Significance, not obscurity

Waiting indefinitely

Instant results, not delayed

Nothing accomplished

Power to do what He wanted

To each condition of Jesus the devil offered a solution. The last one is the key to this temptation. In answering the first two temptations, Jesus had already resisted the first three aspects of the devil’s third temptation. He would not turn stones into bread to stop His suffering from hunger. He would not jump off the highest point of the temple to get instant notoriety. In neither temptation would He succumb to the lure of a shortcut to get instant results. The devil then added another element to make up a new and enticing package: “You can have splendor, significance and instant results, AND you can serve God while you do it. That’s what you want to do, isn’t it? Serve God? What have you done with your life so far, Jesus? Been a carpenter’s son, huh? Look, I’ll give you the kingdoms, and you may do with them as you wish. You’re a king, aren’t you? Inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth, if that’s what you want to do. Free Israel from Roman rule. Establish justice in the world. Take care of the poor. Bring about world peace. Wouldn’t that please God? Do it without suffering! Do it successfully! Do it now! YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL!”117

B. The trap. There is always a catch with an offer like that. What is the catch here? The devil also said, “If you will bow down and worship me … .”

The act of prostrating oneself in worship is a symbolic gesture. It appears that the devil attempted to minimize the significance of that act. He did not ask that it be done in public. Apparently the devil would have been satisfied if Jesus had bowed down to him privately on the mountain. There is also the suggestion that the devil presented it as a one time event.118 And the devil did not ask that worship of him be exclusive. Knowing that Jesus wanted to establish a kingdom for God, he could scarcely have asked up front to be worshiped exclusively.

The devil would have liked for Jesus to believe that after bowing down before him, He would be finished with him. Worship signifies several things, however:

  • allegiance to the one who is worshiped (there is a duty of loyalty);
  • the superiority of the one who is worshiped (worship flows from inferior to superior);
  • dependence of the worshiper on the one who is worshiped (the worshiper acknowledges that he is not sufficient without the one who is worshiped).

Jesus realized that the symbolic act of bowing down and worshiping the devil would also carry with it a continuing obligation.

C. Could the devil deliver on his offer? Some think that the devil was lying about being able to give the kingdoms to Jesus.119 After all, we know that God ultimately rules over all things. And we know that the devil is a liar – Jesus called him a murderer and a liar (John 8:44).

Just because the devil is a liar, however, does not mean that he cannot make true statements. To say that the devil must lie at all times makes him a caricature, almost a cartoon character.120 He is in business. You cannot do business if you lie all of the time. While the devil is not committed to the truth, he will make a true statement if it suits his purposes. That seems to be the case here. In Luke’s account of the temptations, the devil claimed that God had given him the kingdoms, and that he could in turn give them to whomever he wished (Luke 4:6). Jesus seemed to accept this. Later on, in John 12:31 and in John 16:11, Jesus called the devil “the prince of this world.” Therefore I take the devil’s statement to be true, as far as it goes. There is more to be said, which we will cover later.

Furthermore, if the devil’s claim had not been true, would not Jesus have just said so? That would have been the easy answer: “Come on, Satan, you know you can’t deliver the kingdoms to me!” Significantly, Jesus did not answer the devil that way.

III. Jesus’ Response.

Jesus’ answer to the devil was simple and to the point. As he did in answering the first two temptations, Jesus referred to the Book of Deuteronomy. He said, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matthew 4:10). (The quotation, at least in part, is from Deuteronomy 6:13.)

It is easy to get caught up in the details and implications of the third temptation and miss the central issue. Jesus did not miss it: God alone is worthy of our worship.

As we have already observed, the devil did not ask Jesus to worship him exclusively. That was his tactic with Israel, too. We read in 2 Kings 17:35-40a:

When the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites, he commanded them: “Do not worship any other gods or bow down to them, serve them or sacrifice to them. But the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt with mighty power and outstretched arm, is the one you must worship… .” They would not listen, however, but persisted in their former practices. Even while these people were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols (emphasis added).

For that reason, the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians and scattered among the nations.

What happens to our concept of God when we worship Him other than as He has commanded? Adding another god, or worshiping an image of God, makes Him in our minds something other than He is – sovereign, one, transcendent. So even if we continue to worship God at the same time as we worship something else, really we are not worshiping the true God. We may still call Him God, but we have reduced God in our minds so that He is just like the idols – a creature of our own imaginations. 121

Other gods need not be idols in the form of images. Money can be an object of worship, as can our families, our jobs, and our nation. Although Israel by the time of Christ had ceased worshiping idols in the form of images, it had not stopped worshiping money. Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, “You cannot serve both God and Money.”

As the last quote indicates, Jesus also recognized that worship includes service. The devil did not use the word “serve.” But it is important that Jesus did. Whatever we revere, or to whatever we attribute the power to accomplish what we want, will be served by us. And while we may persist in worshiping God and other things for a while, eventually there will be a conflict. We have to make a choice.

IV. Observations and Applications.

What can we learn from the account of the third temptation?

A. Jesus is the faithful Son of God. Unlike Israel the son of God, Jesus is the obedient Son. He did not resent the testing and try to get out of it. He did not test the Father’s love by demanding that it be shown to Him in a certain way. He would not depend upon anything other than God to accomplish the ministry that God had given Him.122

Furthermore, His victory over the temptations demonstrated that Jesus is perfectly qualified for the offices and ministries to which He has been appointed.123 Here are some of His most significant qualifications.

1. He is the rightful King in the line of David. Like no other king of Israel, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the requirements of Deuteronomy 17:14-20. He subjected Himself to God and to His Word in going to the wilderness. He knew the law well and was able to apply it to defeat Satan. And He did not consider Himself above temptation, but suffered through it just like all in the human race must do. He is indeed the King of kings (Revelation 17:14).

2. He is the spotless Lamb of God. Jesus’ moral perfection was manifested by emerging from the temptations unscathed by sin. He therefore perfectly fulfilled the type of the sacrificial Lamb that makes atonement for sin (Exodus 12:5; Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:18-19). He is a worthy Savior.

3. He is the sympathetic High Priest. The author to the Hebrews says this:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace in our time of need (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Jesus said, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Jesus was offered the whole world, and resisted successfully. None of us has ever been or ever will be tempted to that extent. He is an understanding and compassionate High Priest.

B. Satan is a Liar. Although Satan sometimes tells the truth, he is always opposed to the truth. The Apostle John especially makes use of the word “truth.” In John 14:6, Jesus said, “ I am the way, and the truth and the life.” In 2 John 4, “truth” is the message of the gospel given to the apostles. Satan will always oppose truth in these senses: Jesus and the gospel. That above all else makes him the “Liar.” Even if he sometimes makes true statements, they will always be packaged in a way that is designed to deceive us and to lead us into error, not truth.

C. The seduction of the third temptation is ministry. The third temptation will include things such as control, self-interest, pride, glory and power, to name a few. But they may appear cloaked in the context of ministry, as they did to Jesus. In an article that appeared not long ago in The Dallas Morning News, J.I. Packer said, “Satan seeks to trap God’s servants into doing evil, thinking it to be good… .” 124 The third temptation is one to which those who have demonstrated the desire to do God’s will may be especially vulnerable. The devil tried to disguise the temptation to Jesus by appealing to His desire to establish God’s kingdom. He may disguise the temptation to us by appealing to our ministry dreams. Perhaps it will come in the form of an opportunity for service we have longed for, or the chance to see our spiritual gift have terrific results. The devil will tell us that all we need to do is compromise a little bit. We must always be watchful that we do not unwittingly bow the knee to Satan thinking that we are ministering for God. Eric Graham expresses it like this:

There can be no divided allegiance in spiritual things; so our Lord teaches us. We cannot serve God and Mammon, or God and Satan, or God and any principle independent of him and therefore contrary to his will. Only too often ecclesiastical authorities have failed here; trying to combine the service of the secular power or of their own temporalities or ecclesiastical politics with their service of God. They have employed even against fellow-Christians these methods of force and diplomacy which our Lord in his third temptation set aside so definitely; they have thought that the devil’s weapons could be used on behalf of God; they have even failed to distinguish between God’s ways and the devil’s. They have not been content to serve God alone; it seemed too slow and uncertain a method of achieving results which they were sure – often quite mistakenly – were according to his will. Yet all the time they professed, and indeed believed themselves, to be serving him.

Hence this third temptation – the temptation to leave God out of account just here and there, half unintentionally and for good practical reasons, when we are planning methods by which his kingdom may be set forward – this temptation is the most dangerous, the most frequently and easily fatal to those who call themselves by the name of Christ, and especially to those who hold positions of authority in the Church, or exercise great influence by the strength of their personality, just because it tempts us on our best side – our zeal for the glory of God, and so often goes undetected, unless we are watching and praying and fasting like our Lord in the wilderness, and sensitive, like him, to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.125

D. Beware of offers that promise things that God has not promised.

1. Super results. “Follow these methods,” a youth leader is told, “and the size of your youth group will triple.” “Raise your family this way,” parents are told, “and your children will be obedient and follow Christ.” “Use our fundraising plan,” church leaders are told, “and you will raise so much money that your building fund goal will be exceeded.”

2. Instant results. “Your ministry doesn’t have to take years to develop,” a seminary graduate is told. “Get a successful ministry now! Not later!”

3. Recognition and importance. “Be significant for God,” we are told. “Be a leader in your church. Have impact for Christ. That’s what successful Christians do.”

4. No suffering. “God wants you to be blessed,” Christians everywhere are being told. “Expect happiness and prosperity.” Perhaps the most popular form this message takes in our circles today is fulfillment. “Enter this ministry,” we are told, “and find fulfillment like you’ve never had before.” Anytime you are offered a fulfilling ministry in this church or anywhere else, watch out! Somebody is trying to sell you something.

Last week we were asked to read the Book of 2 Timothy, a letter that Paul wrote from a Roman prison where his life may have ended. He was alone, except for Luke. Many were ashamed to be associated with him. He was forced to ask Timothy to bring him a cloak. Many of the churches he had established were struggling. False teachers were popping up everywhere, denying key aspects of the gospel.

Every month we get letters from the missionaries Community Bible Chapel supports. If we got a letter from one of them like 2 Timothy, I wonder if we would continue to support that missionary!

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that the persecuted for His sake are blessed (Matthew 5:10-12). He told His disciples that in the world they would have tribulation (John 16:33). Paul exhorted Timothy to suffer hardship as a good soldier would (2 Timothy 2:3). These are the things on which we can count when we are serious about ministry. Carefully examine ministry opportunities that come to you without the prospect of any of these difficulties. Possibly you are being tempted with the third temptation.

E. We cannot serve two masters. As Jesus said, we will hate one and love the other (Matthew 6:24). Anyone or anything that rivals God for our worship demands our service also. Jesus knew what bowing the knee to Satan and accepting Satan’s gift of the kingdoms would mean. Jesus could not serve God alone if He accepted the kingdoms from Satan. Once He gave recognition to Satan and received his help, He would have to serve him. Maybe not immediately, or in the way we might expect. But the day would come.

The Godfather126 is a novel about the Corleone family and their allies, who together formed a fictional crime syndicate. An Academy Award winning movie was based on the book, as were a couple of sequels. One of the episodes in the book is about an undertaker who secretly seeks help from the head of the family, Don Corleone. First the undertaker must pledge allegiance to him. When he does, he gets the help he asks for. Then he does not hear from Don Corleone for a year. One day Don Corleone’s son is killed by a rival crime syndicate. In the middle of the night, the undertaker is called. Don Corleone asks the undertaker to handle the burial. He is petrified with fear. Suddenly it will be known to everybody – his neighbors, his customers, the police, the rival crime syndicate – that the undertaker serves Don Corleone, the mobster. But he has no choice. Failing to honor the request at that point would cost him his life.

That is the way it is with Satan, too. There are no trivial deals with Satan or the things he controls – the world, the world system, the things in the world (1 John 2:15-16). If we bow the knee for an instant to earthly things like our families, our nation, or our ministries – anything we allow to rival God – then one day, sooner or later, we will be required to serve them. And do not be deceived. We will not be able to serve God at the same time. Like the undertaker, we will find that we have already made the choice.127

F. Satan cannot match God. Satan can only deliver that which he has been given. He claimed to Jesus that he had been given all of the kingdoms of the world and that he could give them to Jesus. But think about what that means. The kingdoms of the earth are, obviously, earthly. When asked by Pilate if He was a king, Jesus replied that His kingdom is not of this world. It is heavenly (John 18:36). Plus the kingdoms of earth are temporary. Their splendor will not endure forever and will not compare with the splendor of the kingdom of God. (See the description of the new heaven and the new earth in Revelation 21:1 – 22:5.)

Of course, to us the world looks very, very attractive. How difficult it is for us to think beyond the circumstances in which we live, bound by space and time as we are. But that is how we must think – with a heavenly and eternal perspective. See how the author of Hebrews describes faithful people in Hebrews 11:13-16:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth… . Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.

We should exhibit faith like that, too, and not settle for the earthly and the temporary.

G. Temptation may come from a source that we do not expect. Look how Satan presented himself to Jesus. He accepted Jesus as God’s Son. He believed Jesus could do miracles. He quoted Scripture with approval. He came to Jesus in His time of trial. He seemed to encourage faith in God (although it was really testing God that he encouraged). He offered Jesus a way to fulfill His ministry. He appeared orthodox in his beliefs and very helpful.

That looks like a good Christian friend, does it not? Or a religious leader who can be trusted. In the church, sadly, those are the two likeliest sources of temptation. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, Satan will appear as an angel of light, not as a hairy demon with a pitchfork tail. He is a false friend and a false teacher.

H. The end does not justify the means. Recently we have seen more corporate scandals in the United States than we have in many years. Transactions have been accounted for in a way that inflated profits. The justification has been that increasing stock prices are good for the shareholders. But once the knee was bowed to financial success and honesty was ignored, there was no turning back. The demand of stockholders for ever increasing stock prices had to be satisfied. When the fraud was discovered, the financial house of cards crumbled and many innocent people got hurt.

As our church and other churches face financial shortfalls, there will be pressure to cut biblical corners to meet the budget requirements. Be on guard that we do not value successful ministry as a church over obedience to God and thus yield to the third temptation.

I. Worship is not for what we receive in return. Worship is the latest “hot button” of the Christian church in the Western world. In many churches, it is a “celebration” with lively songs and staged excitement. In our own church, people have based their decisions about whether to attend the worship services on what they will get out of it.

The devil tried to make worship a purchase and sale transaction. “Worship me,” he said to Jesus, “and then I will give you the kingdoms of the world.” That is not how we are to approach worship.

Worship of God alone is our highest privilege and our highest duty.128 We should worship Him because of what He has already done for us. Israel was to worship God because He had delivered the nation from captivity in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:6-7). In the same manner, we are to worship God because of the blessings of salvation that we have in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3-14).

V. Conclusion.

A. Did Satan understand the cross? It seems unlikely. The cross would be his undoing (Colossians 2:15). If Satan knew that, why did he incite Judas to betray Jesus? Would Satan knowingly hasten his own destruction?

But Jesus did understand the cross. At His baptism, He was identified by God’s voice from heaven and the Spirit in the form of the dove not only as a King, but also as a Servant who would suffer for the sins of His people.129 Therefore the third temptation presented itself to Him a little differently than Satan intended. Would Jesus bypass the cross to establish God’s kingdom? That was the real appeal of the third temptation to Jesus. R.G.V. Tasker writes:

To escape the way of the cross by being disobedient to the vocation of the suffering Servant despised and rejected by men, upon whom was to be laid the iniquity of us all, was Jesus’ greatest and most persistent temptation… . Jesus was in effect tempted to subscribe to the diabolical doctrine that the end justifies the means; that, so long as He obtained universal sovereignty in the end, it mattered not how that sovereignty was reached… .130

Jesus was always on the path to the cross (Matthew 20:20-28). While He was in the wilderness before His public ministry began, Satan unintentionally tempted Him to avoid it. That He continued on His journey to the end is why He is worthy of our worship.

B. Do we understand the cross? Jesus taught the cost of following Him in this manner:

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).

Jesus has not left us to wonder what following Him will be like, but has given us the example. Writing about the account of Jesus’ temptation in the Book of Matthew, Donald A. Hagner explains:

In this pericope we encounter a theme that is vital in the theology of the Gospels. The goal of obedience to the Father is accomplished, not by triumphant self-assertion, not by the exercise of power and authority, but paradoxically by the way of humility, service and suffering. Therein lies true greatness (cf. 20:26-28). In fulfilling his commission by obedience to the will of the Father, Jesus demonstrates the rightness of the great commandment (Deut. 6:5) as well as his own submission to it. In his faithful adherence to the teaching of the law, he reveals the fundamental consistency of his own teaching and ministry with the law rightly understood (cf. 5:17) and serves as a paradigm of conduct for the early Church. The sonship of Christians, too, must be expressed in full obedience to the will of God, involving, as it will, difficulties and testings (cf. 10:22,24). Those testings will not be the same as those faced by Jesus, which relate to his unique identity and mission. But they will in principle be similar in that Christians too are called to self-sacrifice, and for them, too, obedience to the will of the Father alone is the measure of true discipleship.131

The cross is a symbol of suffering and death. The cost of being a disciple of Jesus is that we must take up our cross and follow Him down the same path He took. The devil will tempt us to deviate from that path; to avoid the cost of discipleship; to think that we need not die to ourselves and live for Jesus. As he did with Jesus, he may offer us the splendor of the world at his disposal to use as we wish, even for ministry, if we will only acknowledge him. When faced with that temptation, like Jesus we must remember, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.


107 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 8 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Hugh Blevins on April 13, 2003.

108 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved. The “NIV” and “New International Version” trademarks are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by International Bible Society. Use of either trademark requires the permission of International Bible Society.

109 See the discussion of the points in this paragraph in Sydney H.T. Page, Powers of Evil, A Biblical Study of Satan and Demons (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1995), pp. 94-95.

110 For elaboration of the points in the foregoing paragraphs, see Robert L. Deffinbaugh, Studies in the Gospel of Matthew, Lessons 5 & 6: “The First Temptation of Jesus” and Lesson 7: “The Second Temptation of Jesus.”

111 Douglass Wallop, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1954).

112 Right now there isn’t a Washington Senators baseball team. Many of you may not remember what happened. The team moved to Texas and became the Texas Rangers. And they still can’t beat the Yankees!

113 See the analysis of the third temptation by Eric Graham, “The Temptation in the Wilderness,” Church Quarterly Review, Vol. 162 (1961), pp. 25-27.

114 Discussed more extensively in a previous manuscript by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, Studies in the Gospel of Matthew, Lessons 5 & 6: “The First Temptation of Jesus,” pp. 4-5.

115 As Jesus was in poor physical shape to climb a high mountain, and in any event there is no mountain from which one may see all of the world’s kingdoms, some conclude that these details should not be taken literally. For example, see Donald A. Hagner, “Matthew,” Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 33A (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1993), p. 68. But the devil is an angel, and we cannot be certain what power the devil possesses to transport a person and expand his field of vision. D.A. Carson’s explanation is, “Standing on a high mountain (v.8) would not itself provide a glimpse of ‘all the kingdoms of the world’; some supernatural vision is presupposed. Moreover a forty-day fast is scarcely the ideal background for a trek to … rugged sites. When we remember that Paul was not always sure whether his visions were ‘in the body or out of the body’ (2 Cur 12:2), we may be cautious about dogmatizing here. But there is no reason to think the framework of the story is purely symbolic … .” D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), p. 111.

116 Mark 1:12.

117 In his commentary on Luke, Norval Geldenhuys remarks, “The devil knows that Jesus came to the world to found the Messianic kingdom and to be the Head thereof. Now he declares that if only Jesus will worship him, he will give Him all the kingdoms of the world with all their glory. So he proposes that Jesus should found the Messianic kingdom by making a compromise with him. Then He will be able to achieve His aim without any struggle and suffering.” Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), p. 160.

118 G. Campbell Morgan, The Crises of the Christ (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1936), p. 191.

119 S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. writes, “Question has sometimes been raised over this offer by Satan. It has been thought that he had no real right to offer the kingdoms to Jesus Christ. Billy Bray used to say, in his quaint way, that the devil was wrong, adding: ‘The old rascal, to offer Christ the kingdoms of the world, why he never possessed so much as a ‘tater skin.’ But, as Denney points out: ‘This saying, which in Luke is put into the lips of Satan, is not meant to be regarded as untrue. There would be no temptation in it if it was untrue.’ (James Denny, Jesus and the Gospel, p. 189). The right apparently belonged to him by virtue of his victory over man, the rightful heir to creation, in Eden.” S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., “The Temptation of Christ,” Bibliotheca Sacra, (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Theological Seminary, October 1966), p. 349.

120 Such exaggerations about the devil get dangerously close to reviling him, a practice characteristic of false teachers that Peter and Jude warned against (2 Peter 2:1-11; Jude 8-10).

121 “The Pharisees, who would never have dreamed of turning to a god of a foreign religion, in fact transformed the god of their own tradition into something quite foreign to what the true God had revealed of Himself.” Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory,” No God But God, Os Guinness and John Seel, Editors (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), p. 43.

122 D.A. Carson writes, “The parallels with historic Israel continue. Jesus’ fast…of forty days and nights reflected Israel’s forty-year wandering (Deut. 8:3); both spent time in the desert preparatory to their respective tasks… . The main point is that both ‘sons’ were tested by God’s design… ., the one after being redeemed from Egypt and the other after his baptism, to prove their obedience and loyalty in preparation for their appointed work. The one ‘son’ failed but pointed to the ‘Son’ who would never fail… . In this sense the temptations legitimized Jesus as God’s true Son… . . D.A. Carson, op. cit., p. 112.

123 S. Johnson, op. cit., pp. 351-352. These points about Jesus, or points similar to these, also were made in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series in the messages and manuscripts on the first two temptations. See Robert L. Deffinbaugh, Lessons 5 & 6: “The First Temptation of Jesus,” pp. 16-17, and Lesson 7: “The Second Temptation of Jesus,” pp. 1-2. They can hardly be overemphasized, however.

124 J.I. Packer, “Coming to grips with Satan requires knowing God first,” The Dallas Morning News, April 20, 2002, p. 4G.

125 E. Graham, op. cit., p. 27.

126 Mario Puzo, The Godfather (New York: G. Putnam’s Sons, 1969).

127 To avoid idolizing them, we should submit to God’s authorities appointed over us as if performing a service unto Him (Ephesians 5:22-6:9).

128 Transcribed message by John Piper, “You Shall Worship the Lord Your God” (Desiring God Ministries, 1985), http://www.desiringgod.org/library/sermons/85/090885.html

129 R.G.V. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 50. D.A. Carson says, “In other words Jesus had in mind from the very beginning of his earthly ministry the combination of royal kingship and suffering servanthood attested at his baptism and essential to his mission.” D.A. Carson, op. cit., p. 114.

130 R.V.G. Tasker, op. cit., p. 54.

131 Donald A. Hagner, op. cit., p. 70.

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8. The Commencement of Jesus’ Ministry (Matthew 4:12-25)

As I preach this message, it is Easter Sunday. Some may very well wonder what a text like this has to do with Easter, and I hope to demonstrate that in due time. Some have even expressed some concern about how this passage, sandwiched between the temptation of our Lord and the Sermon on the Mount, can be preached. Believe me, I think about these things as well, especially as Sunday morning draws near. The truth is that this is a very significant text, which serves as a kind of key to Matthew’s Gospel, and indeed to all the Gospels.

Up to this point in Matthew, Jesus has not yet preached nor has He performed any miracle.133 Let’s briefly review where Matthew has taken us thus far. In chapter 1, Matthew’s genealogy shows that Jesus is qualified to be King of Israel because He is both a “son of Abraham” and a “son of David” (Matthew 1:1, 2-17). It is also emphasized that several women in the messianic line were Gentiles. In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus (1:18—2:12), he provides an angelic witness to the virgin birth and testimony from Gentile magi that Jesus is the “king of the Jews” (2:2).

I believe the remainder of chapter 2 (2:13-23) is closely related to our text. In 2:13-18, Matthew records the flight of Joseph and his family to Egypt, along with an account of the slaughter of the innocent infants. I take these verses as an early indication of the fact that Jesus will be rejected, opposed, and eventually put to death. The final verses of chapter 2 (2:19-23) contain a similar theme. When Joseph is given the angelic instruction to take his family back to the land of Israel, he is providentially guided to Nazareth in Galilee, and not to Judah. As a result, Matthew informs us, prophecy is fulfilled, prophecy that indicated Jesus would be called a Nazarene. Since there is no Old Testament text that we can directly link with this reference to prophecy in Matthew 2:23, we must give this matter more thought, realizing that good students of the Bible will differ as to Matthew’s meaning.

For myself, I am inclined to the view of Frederick Bruner and others:

For theological reasons I like to consider the … possibility, and it is no more than a possibility, that for Matthew a person from Nazareth, a Nazorean, was considered a nobody and that this, too, is what prophets had often predicted the Christ would at first be considered and become for us… . One likes to think that the Nazorean divinely promised through the prophets was the suffering Messiah, the Servant of God whose roots were transplanted first from Bethlehem to Egypt, and then from Egypt into the parched ground of Nazareth… . “He shall be called a Nazorean,” then, may mean at least this: “he shall be considered a nobody.”134

Let us leave this matter here for the moment, and take it up when we consider the text of this lesson.

In Matthew 3, our author introduces us to John the Baptist and his ministry, leading up to the baptism of our Lord by John. It is at this baptism that God declares (through the voice of the Father, the actions of the Spirit, and the testimony of John the Baptist) that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, Israel’s King. It is also at His baptism that Jesus commits Himself to the mission of the Messiah, which will lead Him to offer up His life as a sacrifice for sinners on the cross of Calvary.

The baptism of our Lord and His identification as the Messiah is followed by the temptation of our Lord by Satan in Matthew 4:1-11. Here, Satan concludes 40 days of temptation with his three final efforts (for the time being). By His victory over these temptations, Jesus proved that He and He alone was qualified as Messiah to fulfill the work the Father had given Him to do, the work of providing salvation for guilty sinners, by grace through faith.

The Structure of Our Text

Our passage contains three paragraphs:

Verses 12-17 Jesus withdraws to Galilee

Verses 18-22 Jesus chooses four disciples

Verses 23-25 Jesus teaches, preaches, and heals

As we will demonstrate, each of these paragraphs has something in common with the other two, and it is that connection which provides the key to this entire passage and its contribution to the Gospel of Matthew.

Jesus Withdraws to Galilee
Matthew 4:12-17

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been imprisoned, he went into Galilee. 13 While in Galilee, he moved from Nazareth to make his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way by the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, and on those sitting in the region and the shadow of death a light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”135

The casual reader would hardly realize that nearly a year has passed between Matthew 4:11 and 4:12:

Matthew passes over many things from the earlier work of Jesus in Judea and Galilee that could have been included. We are told about some of these things in John. Before returning to Galilee (which John records in 4:43), Jesus met and called the first disciples, turned the water to wine at Cana, resided for a short while in Capernaum, returned to Jerusalem for an early Passover, drove the money changers from the temple, talked to Nicodemus, conducted an early teaching ministry in the Judean countryside, and had his encounter with the woman of Samaria on his way north again (see John 1:19—4:42). It is at this point that Matthew seems to pick up the story (Matt. 4:12-25)… . In verse 11, Jesus was in the desert near the Jordan. Now Matthew says only that “when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee” (v. 12). This would have been about a year later.136

While John’s Gospel finds Jesus in Jerusalem quite early (John 2:13—3:36), the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) pass by this early Jerusalem ministry and present our Lord’s ministry as commencing in Galilee. Matthew and Mark specifically indicate that Jesus left Judea and went to Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist. The arrest of John was therefore a kind of turning point in our Lord’s ministry.

I am inclined to agree with a number of translations which indicate that Jesus “withdrew” into Galilee. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that Jesus was somehow going into hiding, as if out of fear. For one thing, Herod ruled over Galilee, as well as over Judea, so Jesus was not escaping from Herod. And it should be self-evident that Jesus was not trying to remain incognito in Galilee. He traveled widely, ministered publicly, and attracted a very large following.137

The mystery is why Jesus would go to Galilee in the first place. I like the way Bruner puts it:

“Therefore when Jesus ‘retreated to Galilee’ he did more than head north, he seemed to go wrong.”138

As one of my friends put it, “When Jesus went north, to all appearances He had ‘gone south’” (somehow lost His bearings).

We need to remind ourselves about Galilee before we can understand why Jesus’ withdrawal to Galilee is so perplexing. Galilee was north of Judea. As partial payment for the assistance Hiram, King of Tyre, had given Solomon in the building of the temple, Solomon gave Hiram 20 cities in Galilee. The interesting thing about this is Hiram’s response:

11 King Solomon gave King Hiram of Tyre twenty cities in the region of Galilee, because Hiram had supplied Solomon with cedars, evergreens, and all the gold he wanted. 12 When Hiram went out from Tyre to inspect the cities Solomon had given him, he was not pleased with them (1 Kings 9:11-12).

When the United Kingdom was divided during the reign of Rehoboam, Galilee became a part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Southern Kingdom was Judah, which continued to be ruled by the descendants of David. The Northern Kingdom, under Jeroboam and subsequent ungodly kings, turned to false worship. Israel did not do much better, although some of her kings were godly men. When both kingdoms became corrupt, God began to warn of a coming day of judgment, a day when God would use the Assyrians as His instrument of judgment, carrying the people of the Northern Kingdom into captivity. The Assyrians would threaten Judah and Jerusalem but would not succeed in sacking that city:

1 The Lord told me, “Take a large tablet and inscribe these words on it with an ordinary stylus: ‘Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.’ 2 Then I will summon as my reliable witnesses Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah.” 3 I then had sexual relations with the prophetess; she conceived and gave birth to a son. The Lord told me, “Name him Maher Shalal Hash Baz, 4 for before the child knows how to cry out, ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.” 5 The Lord spoke to me again: 6 “These people have rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah and melt in fear over Rezin and the son of Remaliah. 7 So look, the sovereign master is bringing up against them the turbulent and mighty waters of the Euphrates River—the king of Assyria and all his majestic power. It will reach flood stage and overflow its banks. 8 It will spill into Judah, flooding and engulfing, as it reaches the necks of its victims. He will spread his wings out over your entire land, O Immanuel” (Isaiah 8:1-8).

Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, did just as God had forewarned (see 2 Kings 15:29). When the Assyrians sacked the Northern Kingdom, they carried the people to Assyria. Later, Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, would once again march against Israel and would carry the Israelites into exile in Assyria (2 Kings 17:1-6). The Assyrians then brought captives from other places to live in the Northern Kingdom (2 Kings 17:24). As a result, the Northern Kingdom (which included Galilee) became diluted (the people of Judah would probably say polluted) ethnically and spiritually. Over time the Jewish population in the Northern Kingdom increased somewhat. Nevertheless, for the Jews of Judah and Jerusalem, Galilee was not considered a place of status. As Bruner put it,

Galilee is a strange place for a Messiah to work. There is no early rabbinic reference to the Messiah’s appearing or working in Galilee. Galilee was not just geographically far from Jerusalem; it was considered spiritually and politically far, too. Galilee was the most pagan of the Jewish provinces, located as it was at the northernmost tier of Palestine. This distance from Zion was not only geographic; Galileans were considered by Judaeans to sit rather loosely to the law and to be less biblically pure than those in or near Jerusalem. Finally, Galilee was notorious for being the nest of revolution and the haunt of Zealot revolutionary movements. Just a few years before Jesus’ birth, Sephoris, capital city of Galilee, had been led in revolt by Judas of Galilee against the Roman government and had brought Galilee into defeat and many of the people of God into shame.139

Matthew very cryptically informs his readers that Jesus left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum “by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 4:12). Because this was our Lord’s home base, a number of miracles were performed there, including the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13), and of Simon’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-17), exorcising the man with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:23-28), and the healing of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof (Mark 2:1-12). No wonder Jesus could say that Capernaum was worthy of greater condemnation:

23 “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be thrown down to Hades! For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day. 24 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!” (Matthew 11:23-24)

Capernaum may have its military garrison, and a tax-collector’s office, where Matthew was seated (Matthew 9:1, 9), but it was hardly the kind of town one would expect the Messiah to make his headquarters:

Little is known about Capernaum, but Matthew tells us that it occupied a seaside position and that it was in the general area of Zebulon and Naphtali (These tribes are mentioned again in the New Testament only in v. 15 and Rev. 7:6-8). The name Capernaum means “Nahum’s village,” but this does not help us because it is not known who the Nahum in question was. It is generally accepted that the site of the city is that known as “Tell Hum” at the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. It was of fair size (J. P. Kane says that its area was c. 800 by 250 m.), but it was not a great city and there are few references to it outside the Gospels. For whatever reason, Jesus made Capernaum the center of his ministry rather than his hometown; JB’s “settled in Capernaum” bring this out (cf. 9:1).140

What is so important about Capernaum and Galilee that Matthew makes such a point of telling us about these places? Matthew wants his readers to know that Jesus’ withdrawal to Galilee was no mistake; it was, in fact, the fulfillment of prophecy, another proof that Jesus is the promised Messiah.

1 The gloom will be dispelled for those who were anxious. In earlier times he humiliated the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali; but now he brings honor to the way of the sea, the region beyond the Jordan, and Galilee of the nations. 2 The people walking in darkness see a bright light; light shines on those who live in a land of deep darkness (Isaiah 9:1-2).

With some variations from the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, Matthew cites the first two verses of Isaiah 9. In chapter 8, Isaiah warned of the coming invasion of the Assyrians, which would sack the Northern Kingdom and threaten Judah. Now in chapter 9, Isaiah speaks of a coming day of salvation and deliverance. While the more immediate deliverance will be a return to the land of Israel, Matthew sees the ultimate deliverance in the coming of Messiah. It is Matthew alone who points to our Lord’s withdrawal into Galilee as the fulfillment of prophecy. It is noteworthy, as R.V.G. Tasker points out that,

The expressions by the way of the sea (i.e. towards the Mediterranean) and beyond Jordan (i.e. west of Jordan) depict the district from the viewpoint of the Assyrian invaders.141

As the Assyrians (followed by the Babylonians) made their destructive assault on the Northern Kingdom, as they made their way toward Judah, so Jesus made His saving assault first in Galilee, and then later in Judah. Matthew’s reference to Isaiah 9 indicates that it was his belief that the prophet Isaiah foretold (perhaps unwittingly) the geographical sequence of our Lord’s coming to save His people.142

Jesus Calls Four of His Disciples
Matthew 4:18-22

18 As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon (called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea (for they were fishermen). 19 He said to them, “Follow me, and I will turn you into fishers of people.” 20 They left their nets143 immediately and followed him. 21 Going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in a boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. Then he called them. 22 They immediately left the boat and their father and followed him.

Every student of the New Testament recognizes that there are several “callings” of the disciples. These take place over a period of time. The initial calling is to be found in John 1:

35 Again the next day John was standing there with two of his disciples. 36 Gazing at Jesus as he walked by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When his two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned around and saw them following and said to them, “What do you want?” So they said to him, “Rabbi” (which is translated Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 Jesus answered, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. Now it was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus. 41 He found first his own brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah!” (which is translated Christ). 42 Andrew brought Simon to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, the son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). 43 On the next day Jesus wanted to set out for Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 (Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter.) 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and exclaimed, “Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?” Jesus replied, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel!” 50 Jesus said to him, “Because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 He continued, “I tell all of you the solemn truth—you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

It seems that shortly after our Lord’s baptism by John two of his disciples (one of whom we know was Andrew144 – see verse 40) left John to follow Jesus. These two followed Jesus that day (verse 39). Andrew then recruited his brother Peter. Philip was added as well, and he recruited Nathanael. The calling that Matthew describes in 4:18-22 is a later one, perhaps associated with the calling in Luke 5:1-11. Matthew’s calling involves only four disciples, two sets of brothers: Simon and Andrew (Matthew 4:18-20), and James and John (4:21-22). The account of Matthew’s will not be recorded until Matthew 9:9.

It seems that this calling of the disciples is a permanent one. This time these disciples leave their fishing business to accompany Jesus full time. Several factors point us in this direction. First, from Matthew’s point of view, this is the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry. What better time for the disciples to follow Jesus full time? Second, both sets of brothers are said to have “left their nets.” Matthew tells us that James and John also left “the boat” and their father (4:22). Third, Jesus’ words, “Follow me, and I will turn you into fishers of people” (Matthew 4:19) would seem to indicate a change of profession. While these disciples have left their fishing business before, this seems to be a more permanent departure, and thus a major turning point in their lives.

Matthew’s use of the word “immediately,” should not be overlooked.145 He tells us that immediately after these four men were called to follow Jesus, they left their nets and joined Him. I realize that while this is not the first time these men have been called, it is the first time they have been called to follow Jesus permanently. When called by Jesus, they responded immediately. I believe this is recorded to inform the reader that Jesus was a man of authority. Not only did He teach with authority (Matthew 7:28-29), He called with authority. When Jesus spoke, His sheep responded (see John 10:27-29).

Normally, disciples chose their master, but here it was Jesus who chose His disciples. He did not choose men who could put up a good fight (though Peter was willing to give it a try); He called men who would learn what He had to teach them about the kingdom of heaven. This is surely a clue to the kind of ministry our Lord came to carry out. He selected those whom He would empower and leave behind to proclaim the message of the Gospel. And in the end, He would instruct these men to make disciples of others (Matthew 28:18-20). The coming of His kingdom was not immediate, but would come over some period of time.

Jesus Heals, Preaches, and Teaches in Galilee
Matthew 4:23-25

23 Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of disease and sickness among the people. 24 So a report about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all who suffered with various illnesses and afflictions, epileptics, paralytics, and those possessed by demons, and he healed them. 25 And large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan River.

We should keep in mind that the greater portion of our Lord’s earthly ministry occurred in Galilee. Here, Matthew describes the commencement of Jesus’ Galilean ministry as starting out with a bang. It was an instant success. It could not have been otherwise. Jesus went “throughout all Galilee,” teaching, preaching, and healing (verse 23). You can imagine how word must have spread. Matthew gives us a general, overall description of our Lord’s success in Galilee. Let’s take a look at a specific example of His success:

14 Now when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying down, sick with a fever. 15 He touched her hand, and the fever left her. Then she got up and began to serve them. 16 When it was evening, many demon-possessed people were brought to him. He drove out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. 17 In this way what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet was fulfilled: “He took our weaknesses, and carried our diseases” (Matthew 8:14-17).

Imagine what it would have been like to have witnessed Jesus at work. The rumor spreads that Peter’s mother-in-law had just been healed. You rush to her home to see for yourself. A large crowd has already gathered. Those with every kind of malady have been brought to Jesus, and He has healed every infirmity. Not one ailing person has been left unhealed, and this included those who were demon-possessed. It included those who were hopelessly sick. If it were today, terminally-ill cancer patients would have been lined up, waiting for healing.

Our Lord’s ministry was not only extensive, it was taxing and time consuming, as D.A. Carson indicates:

Jesus’ ministry included teaching, preaching, and healing. Galilee, the district covered, is small (approximately seventy by forty miles); but according to Josephus (Life 235[45]; War III, 41-43(iii.2), writing one generation later, Galilee had 204 cities and villages, each with no fewer than fifteen thousand persons. Even if this figure refers only to the walled cities and not to the villages (which is not what Josephus says), a most conservative estimate points to a large population, even if less than Josephus’s three million. At the rate of two villages or towns per day, three months would be required to visit all of them, with no time off for the Sabbath.146

The variety of maladies cured, and the fact that no ailment was too difficult for Jesus to heal, underscored His authority. Jesus gathered a following from a wide geographical range, which included Syria,147 Decapolis, Jerusalem and Judea, and also from beyond the Jordan.148 Jesus’ withdrawal to Galilee did not destine Him to obscurity; rather, it propelled Him to prominence.

Conclusion

And so we now come to the place where we must ask ourselves, “What is the point of this passage?” Why did Matthew place this passage between the temptation of our Lord and the Sermon on the Mount? What are we supposed to learn here?

The first thing we should observe is what I call “the Galilean connection.” The thing that links these three paragraphs is that they all occur in Galilee. This may sound like an insignificant point, but I assure you that it is much more important than it may seem at first glance. Consider the significance of our Lord’s association with Galilee in His ministry.

Jesus began His ministry in Galilee.149 We see this, of course, here in Matthew and also in Mark (1:14ff.). What I had not noticed before is that this fact is emphasized elsewhere in the New Testament:

34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all)— 37 you know what happened throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 with respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of all the things he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree (Acts 10:34-39, emphasis mine).

29 When they had accomplished everything that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and placed him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he appeared to those who had accompanied him from Galilee to Jerusalem. These are now his witnesses to the people (Acts 13:29-31, emphasis mine).

Herod’s party included leading Galileans. I have never noticed this fact before, but Mark informs us that some of those who attended Herod’s birthday party were Galilean leaders:

21 But a day of opportunity came, when Herod gave a banquet on his birthday for his court officials, military commanders, and leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you” (Mark 6:21-22, emphasis mine).

If Herod’s friends and associates were Galileans, this would only serve to make Galileans more despicable to the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea.

Jesus’ disciples were Galileans. In our text, we read the account of Jesus calling four men to follow Him. What we should notice here is that he did so along the Sea of Galilee. These four men were Galileans, and so were the rest of His disciples:

69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A slave girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it in front of them all: “I don’t know what you are talking about” (Matthew 26:69-70, emphasis mine).

69 When the slave girl saw him, she began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But he denied it again. A short time later the bystanders again said to Peter, “You must be one of them, because you are also a Galilean” (Mark 14:69-70, emphasis mine).

10 As they were still staring into the sky while he was going, suddenly two men in white clothing stood near them 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10-11, emphasis mine).

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven residing in Jerusalem. 6 When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Completely baffled, they said, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language? (Acts 2:5-8, emphasis mine)

I may not be able to prove it, but I am inclined to think that because the disciples of our Lord were Galileans, this caused the Jerusalem Jews to look down upon them. The following text in Acts may thus reflect the Galilean origins of the disciples:

12 “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved.” 13 When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus. 14 And because they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say against this (Acts 4:12-14, emphasis mine).

The women who followed Jesus were Galileans. It was not just the disciples who were Galileans; the women who accompanied Jesus were also from Galilee:

55 Many women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and given him support were also there, watching from a distance. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27:55-56, emphasis mine).

55 The women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 56 Then they returned and prepared aromatic spices and perfumes. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment (Luke 23:55-56).

Galileans were not highly regarded, but rather were looked upon with contempt. Even Nathanael had his doubts about Galileans:150

45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied, “Come and see” (John 1:45-46, emphasis mine).

40 When they heard these words, some of the crowd began to say, “This really is the Prophet!” 41 Others said, “This is the Christ!” But still others said, “No, for the Christ doesn’t come from Galilee, does he? 42 Don’t the scriptures say that the Christ is a descendant of David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (John 7:40-42, emphasis mine)

50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before and who was one of the rulers, said, 51 “Our law doesn’t condemn a man unless it first hears from him and learns what he is doing, does it?” 52 They replied, “You aren’t from Galilee too, are you? Investigate carefully and you will see that no prophet comes from Galilee!” 53 And each one departed to his own house (John 7:50-53, emphasis mine).

Even at the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus continues to identify Himself with Galilee:

“But after I am raised, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” (Matthew 26:32).

Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead. He is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there.” Listen, I have told you (Matthew 28:7).

Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. They will see me there” (Matthew 28:10).

So the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain Jesus had designated (Matthew 28:16).

I believe that Matthew has gone to considerable effort to underscore the relationship Jesus had to Galilee.

Jesus’ parents were from Galilee, and He would have been born there other than the providential guidance of God (in order to fulfill the prophecy that He would be born in Bethlehem of Judea).

Jesus was raised in Galilee. God directed Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt, and then to Nazareth of Galilee. Jesus was a Galilean in that this was His home.

Jesus began His earthly ministry in Galilee. He went from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Many Galileans followed Jesus to Jerusalem, particularly His disciples and the women who accompanied Him.

Most of Jesus’ earthly ministry was in Galilee.

Jesus met His disciples in Galilee, after His resurrection.

Matthew makes a point of letting His readers know that Jesus was from Galilee. He informs us that after His baptism and some preliminary ministry in Judea, Jesus withdrew to Galilee and from there He commenced His public teaching ministry, which would take Him to Jerusalem. He lets his readers know that Jesus not only went to Galilee, but that He was from Galilee – that is, He was a Galilean, as were His disciples. So what is the point or the purpose of this emphasis on Galilee?

First of all, I believe that His association with Galilee was part of His humiliation as the Messiah. Jesus humbled Himself to come to this earth in human flesh (Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:14-16; 5:7-10). Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be rejected by men:

1 Who would have believed what we just heard?
When was the Lord’s power revealed through him?
2 He sprouted up like a twig before God,
like a root out of parched soil;
he had no stately form or majesty
that might catch our attention,
no special appearance that we should want to follow him.
3 He was despised and rejected by people,
one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness;
people hid their faces from him; he was despised,
and we considered him insignificant (Isaiah 53:1-3).

I believe the events of Matthew 2 contribute to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Jesus was born in the humblest of circumstances. He was rejected by the people of Jerusalem and opposed by Herod, who sought to kill Him. When His parents returned from Egypt, God led Joseph and his family to Nazareth of Galilee, and Matthew tells us that this fulfilled the (unspecified151) prophecy that Jesus would be called a Nazarene (2:23). Jesus and His disciples were rejected (or at least looked upon with some measure of disdain) by many, solely on the basis of His association with Galilee (e.g. John 7:40-41).

Second, I believe our Lord’s association with Galilee is consistent with our Lord’s saving purpose. As Isaiah 9 described it, Galilee not only had a higher concentration of Gentiles than did Jerusalem or Judea, it was also a place of great spiritual need. The people were living in darkness. It was a place where people sat in the shadow of death. Upon such a needy place and people, the Light dawned. This is not to say that the people of Judea were more spiritual, or that they were less in need. It is to say that they did not perceive it to be this way. The people of Jerusalem and Judea saw themselves as those who were spiritually enlightened, those who were not in need. They were certainly wrong.

Matthew, perhaps above all of the other disciples, could appreciate our Lord’s compassion toward those in spiritual darkness and need:

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. 13 Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).

I call this “the principle of inversion.” Jesus is drawn to those who are most aware of their need and those who are most despised by those who think themselves spiritual. By seeking out sinners, Jesus manifests divine grace, and thereby brings great glory to Himself. Paul puts it this way:

26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were members of the upper class. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

My wife Jeannette read a book recently which she had to tell me about. The book was about Gladys Aylward, a woman who God greatly blessed in China.152 This woman was born in England in 1902. One day she happened to see a church with a banner announcing that special missionary meetings were going on inside. Although she regularly attended another church, she was prompted to go in and to hear the man who was speaking about China. She was convinced from that time on that God wanted her to serve as a missionary to China. She attended a China Inland Mission training school, but she was not a great student and was informed that she was not suited for ministry in China.

Gladys Aylward was not convinced. She went to China on her own and sought out a woman she had heard about who managed an inn. With difficulty, Gladys reached this inn and began to minister there. When the woman she served under died, there were no finances to keep the inn going. Gladys was forced to find some kind of employment to support herself and the inn. A Chinese government official sought her out. A law had been passed, forbidding the practice of binding the feet of girl babies. They needed a woman who could speak Chinese and who would go from house to house and from village to village, inspecting the feet of the children and seeing to it that the foot binding ceased. Gladys took the job, but only after making it clear that she would be duty bound to share her faith with every home that she entered. And that she did. She visited every home in every village in that district, and each time she came to a home she shared the gospel. People were saved in each village, and then churches emerged. What an amazing ministry!

A movie was later made about Gladys Aylward entitled, “The Inn of Sixth Happiness,” starring Ingrid Bergman. I have heard that after making this movie, Ingrid Bergman was so strongly impacted that she looked up Gladys Aylward, and Gladys led her to faith in Christ.

This story has a very special significance to me. I heard the story years ago, but only remembered it after my wife reminded me. It was at a time when I wondered about myself and the contribution I would make to the cause of Christ. That story was told by a preacher I have never seen nor heard of since, but he linked it with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1, verses 26-31. It was the most encouraging message I had ever heard. Thank God that Jesus not only went to Galilee, but that He chose Galileans to be His disciples. God does choose the foolish things of this world (that is, in this world’s eyes) to confound the wisdom of men, and to bring glory to Himself. It is not that Galilee is such a great place, but that He is such a great and gracious God.

The Contextual Connection

Our text, Matthew 2:12-25, falls between the account of our Lord’s temptation and the Sermon on the Mount. How fitting it is that this passage would serve as the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. On the one hand, Jesus displayed His power by healing every kind of malady that He confronted in Galilee. He also demonstrated His authority by casting out demons and by calling His disciples (who immediately left their nets and followed Him). No wonder people marveled at His teaching “with authority” (Matthew 7:28-29).

On the other hand, our Lord demonstrated His compassion toward those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. It is not a surprise at all to learn that Jesus’ teaching would begin,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4-5).

It is just like Jesus to seek and to save those who are in great need.

The Easter Connection

At the outset of this message, I indicated that this sermon is being delivered on Easter Sunday. I also said that this text is related to Easter and the resurrection of our Lord. In Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord’s ministry begins in Galilee with the performance of many miracles. It is Jesus’ works that give impact and authority to His words. When John the Baptist entertained some doubts about Jesus’ identity, our Lord reminded John of His words and His works, which fulfilled God’s Word and testified to His identity:

18 John’s disciples informed him about all these things. So John called two of his disciples 19 and sent them to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 20 When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” 21 At that very time Jesus cured many people of diseases, sicknesses, and evil spirits, and granted sight to many who were blind. 22 So he answered them, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news proclaimed to them. 23 Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7:18-23).

From the outset of His public ministry, Jesus validated His message with His miracles. That is what our text in Matthew 4 is all about. As the conclusion of our Lord’s ministry began to draw near, Jesus spoke of one final confirmation of His identity and authority – His resurrection from the dead:

38 Then some of the experts in the law along with some Pharisees answered him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. 41 The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them—and now, something greater than Jonah is here!” (Matthew 12:38-41)

In a sense, Jesus staked His entire ministry on His ability to demonstrate His divine power and authority. He did not leave us without sufficient proof of His power. As our text precedes our Lord’s teaching, so the resurrection punctuates it. The beginning and the conclusion of our Lord’s earthly ministry are authenticated, not only by fulfilled prophecy, but by manifestations of divine power. It is not for lack of evidence that men refuse to believe; it is out of the hardness of their hearts.

I dare not let this day go by without reminding you of the gospel which our Lord provided and proclaimed. You and I, like the people of Galilee, live in darkness, under the shadow of death. That is because God is holy, and we are sinners. We all rightly deserve God’s eternal wrath. But God in His mercy sent His Son to seek and to save needy sinners. Jesus lived a perfect life, unstained by sin. This we see, for example, in His victory over Satan’s temptations. Jesus died on the cross of Calvary, not for any sins of His own, but in order to bear the penalty for our sins. God raised Jesus from the dead as proof that His sacrifice for sins was satisfactory. Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father, waiting for the day of His return. He is coming to establish His throne on earth and to punish those who oppose Him. Have you trusted in the work of Jesus Christ? The resurrection is God’s proof of the righteousness of Jesus Christ:

8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment— 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned (John 16:8-11).


132 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 9 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on April 20, 2003.

133 This is not to say that no miracles have been performed and no message has been preached. It is only to say that Matthew has not reported either up to this point in his Gospel.

134 Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), vol. 1, p. 62.

135 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

136 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001), vol. 1, p. 62.

137 Leon Morris quotes Filson: “When Jesus went to Galilee, his move was an answer to Herod; he took up in Herod’s territory the work which Herod had tried to stop by arresting John; he began his ministry with a challenge rather than with a retreat.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 80, fn. 37.

138 Bruner, p. 118.

139 Bruner, p. 118.

140 Morris, pp. 80-81.

141 R.V.G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), p. 56.

142 “‘The prophet, after prophesying judgment and doom, proclaimed the dawn of a new hope in the birth of a descendant of David who would establish a kingdom of Peace. Yet not in Jerusalem and Judah will the light first dawn, but in the northernmost part of the land of Israel, a region which lay in darkness and death at the time Jesus came to fulfil the ancient prophecy, and which even the Baptist had not been able to reach by his call to repentance.’” Levertoff, as cited by Tasker, p. 56.

143 “The word this time is diktuon; it is a general word for ‘net’ and not the specific hand net of verse 18. The plural covers all the nets they would have used in their profession as fishermen. They now left them all.” Morris, p. 86, fn. 60.

144 I am inclined to think that the other disciple of John the Baptist was John, the brother of James and the author of the Gospel of John.

145 This term is found 80 times in the Gospels. Mark likes it best of all for it is found 40 times in his Gospel. Matthew uses it 18 times, while Luke uses it 16 times, and John 6 times.

146 D.A. Carson, Matthew, Chapters 1 Through 12 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), pp. 120-121.

147 “The geographical extent of ‘Syria’ is uncertain. From the perspective of Jesus in Galilee, Syria was to the north. From the Roman viewpoint Syria was a Roman province embracing all Palestine (cf. Luke 2:2; Acts 15:23, 41; Gal 1:21), Galilee excepted, since it was under the independent administration of Herod Antipas at this time. The term ‘Syria’ reflects the extent of the excitement aroused by Jesus’ ministry; if the Roman use of the term is here presumed, it shows his effect on people far beyond the borders of Israel.” Carson, p. 121.

148 “Jesus’ reputation at this point extended far beyond Galilee, even though that is where the light ‘dawned’ (v.16). Two of the named areas, the region across the Jordan (east bank? See on v.15) and the Decapolis, were mostly made up of Gentiles, a fact already emphasized (see on 1:3-5; 2:1-12, 22-23; 3:9; 4:8, 15-16). The Decapolis (lit., ‘Ten Cities’) refers to a region east of Galilee extending from Damascus in the north to Philadelphia in the south, ten cities (under varied reckonings) making up the count (cf. S. Thomas Parker, ‘The Decapolis Reviewed,’ JBL 94 [1975]: 437-41).” Carson, p. 122.

149 In John’s Gospel, the first two signs are specifically designated as signs that Jesus performed in Galilee (see John 2:11; 4:54).

150 Granted, Nathanael does not mention the fact that Jesus was a Galilean. Nevertheless, Nazareth was a Galilean town or village, and thus I believe its location in Galilee is a good part of the reason why Nathanael has his doubts about Jesus being the Messiah.

151 By “unspecified,” I mean that there is no specific Old Testament passage to which Matthew refers in Matthew 2:23.

152 I confess that as of this writing I have not yet read the book. I am reporting my understanding of the book from my wife’s reading. I do hope to read the book soon, and would encourage you to do likewise.

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9. “Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit” (Matthew 5:1-13)

April 27, 2003154

Introduction

We are beginning the Sermon on the Mount, probably one of the most famous texts of the New Testament in the Bible. Its importance can hardly be overstated. If you were to go into the library, and if I hadn’t snitched most of the commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount, you would discover that almost all of the great students of Scripture have devoted a commentary to the Sermon on the Mount alone. Even a number of those who have written commentaries on the Book of Matthew have written a particular commentary on the Sermon on the Mount itself.

Augustine was said to have described the Sermon on the Mount as a perfect standard of the Christian life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer based his classic book The Cost of Discipleship on an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. Even unbelievers like Gandhi were greatly impressed and impacted by the message of the Sermon on the Mount. Other unbelievers have also been impacted. I was thinking of the statement Nikita Krushchev made a number of years ago while in the United States, when he said, “I’ll tell you what the difference between Christians and me is, and that is if you slap me on the face, I’ll hit you back so hard your head will fall off.” He was impacted by the Sermon on the Mount. He knew what it said, and he didn’t like it at all. The truth is that the natural man does not like its message. This is not the message one would take to write a best selling book—even a Christian book. The message of the Sermon on the Mount is not one that sells. You only have to look on the shelves at the bookstores to discover that for yourself.

R. Kent Hughes, in his excellent commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, says this is the greatest sermon ever preached:

The Sermon on the Mount is the compacted, congealed theology of Christ and as such is perhaps the most profound section of the entire New Testament and the whole Bible. Every phrase can bare exhaustive exposition and yet never be completely plumbed… . It shows us exactly where we stand in relation to the kingdom and eternal life. As we expose ourselves to the X-rays of Christ’s words, we see whether we truly are believers; and if believers, the degree of the authenticity of our lives. No other section of Scripture makes us face ourselves like the Sermon on the Mount. 155

Let’s just make a couple of introductory comments about the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, and we will deal with some of these issues as time goes on. You remember the occasion for the Sermon on the Mount comes after the commencement of our Lord Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. He had departed, withdrawn from Judea, at the news of the arrest of John the Baptist. In His time in Galilee, He had been healing all kinds of diseases and gathering a large following of people—not just from within Galilee, but from without—from Decapolis, from outside, from Judea, from Jerusalem, and from Syria. So you had a very large following, and it says at the end of Matthew 4 that during this time Jesus had been teaching and preaching in the synagogue.

So these people had definitely heard something about Jesus, and they had heard something from Jesus. But it seems to me that when you come to the Sermon on the Mount, you get the whole thing in a summary fashion: “Here’s what Jesus’ message is about.” So the Sermon on the Mount is recorded by Matthew, and there is a similar sermon in Luke 6 that seems to sum up the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ in many, many ways. I think it proves to be the basis for our Lord’s future teaching and ministry as He goes about. Those who were there include the disciples and a large crowd that is listening as well; it seems to me you have to say He is speaking to both. Jesus later will say, “Let him, who has ears to hear, hear what I am saying.” There were those amongst the crowd who did have ears to hear, and there were those who did not, but He was speaking to His disciples and to the crowds as well.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about the kingdom of heaven, and in the other Gospels, one reads about the kingdom of God. Some would distinguish between those. There are those who would then say because it is our Lord’s teaching about the kingdom of God, it is teaching about the kingdom of God that is yet to come. Some dispensationalists say that while there is some derivative (a secondary application of this passage of these texts), the primary application is for the kingdom days.

I can remember in seminary, for example, hearing Dr. Charles Ryrie say, “If a businessman today practiced the Sermon on the Mount, he would go broke.” I thought to myself, “That’s exactly right.” And if a church today followed New Testament principles, there are many who would say you couldn’t exist; you couldn’t exist doing the things the New Testament says churches are to do. But that’s exactly what Christianity is about. It’s about God doing the impossible through those who obey Him, and mainly through His Spirit and His grace as He works in us. I am not very inclined to set aside pieces even of this passage and say, “This is the future.” In fact, you will notice that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, He talks both in future and present terms. Jesus is talking about the character of those who are in the kingdom of God, and He is talking about the character of those who are true believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a certain pattern in the Beatitudes. For instance, if you look at verse 3 of chapter 5, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them,”—present tense. Then, when you come down to verse 10, He says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” So you have this present tense—the kingdom is theirs—and in between, in verses 4 through 9, they’re all future tenses:

5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.

5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”

I think, as most commentators would say, that we have to conclude there is a present dimension and a future dimension to what Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. There are things yet to come, but there are foretastes (firstfruits) with us that we presently possess as well, and those are dealt with in the Sermon on the Mount.

One of the key words we must deal with is the word “blessed” because it occurs over and over and over again. You will find that in a number of translations, the word is rendered “happy,” and there is a sense in which that is probably true. But, I think you have to say that the word “happy,” just because of the meaning we give to it today, is probably not the best word. In fact, you would have to say that those who mourn are not really happy. It’s hard to be both, so I reject as a preference making the emphasis on happiness, although there certainly is that. If you want to be more “Piperian,”156 you would say that there is a sense in which there is always joy and delight—that’s always there, and I would certainly be willing to see that in this text. I’m with Hughes in his commentary when he says that probably the primary sense of the word “blessed” here is the sense of approval. It is saying that God has expressed His approval on these people. To be blessed is to be approved by God, and I think that probably fits my view as well.

Now, let’s consider the expression “poor in spirit.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (verse 3). I think the word “poor” here is one that seems to speak of abject poverty. The word, as a number of scholars have pointed out, seems to almost indicate a cringing or a stooping down. It is a sort of beggarly kind of poverty. Now, there are lots of people who consider themselves poor in this world who wouldn’t qualify for this kind of poor. There are those who, by government standards, have an income that is lower than a certain amount, but I would say a very high percentage of those people who qualify as poor probably have televisions and a number of other things that would not exactly, in our minds, be in the category of the trappings of the poor.

I remember a story one of the men on the staff at the seminary told me years ago. It was one of those good-old-days stories. He was talking about the days when Howard Hendricks and some of the other guys were there as students and had trailers and all those kinds of things. One of the students began to talk to his fellow students: “Boy, it’s just over. We’re just flat broke; we’re just poor. I don’t know what we’re going to do.” And a fellow student began to think about what he could do. He had very little means, and the other people there didn’t either, so they started thinking about taking up a collection of some canned goods and whatever. They were just about ready to present this idea when this first fellow said, “Boy, it’s so hard; I’m afraid I may have to cash in my last CD.” All of a sudden you say, “This guy’s definition of poverty just doesn’t quite make it.”

The poverty Matthew is talking about is abject poverty, and it is poverty in spirit. Now I understand that Luke’s Gospel says “poor” and leaves it at that. Let’s stay with the terms Matthew uses, and that is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Let me just say one thing about material poverty and its relationship. We want to be very careful that we do not equate poverty with piety. There are the righteous poor who some talk about in the Old Testament. I was thinking about poverty as seen in Iraq. There are the poor and the oppressed. Take the lid off the can, and all of sudden these poor people are stealing everything in sight—computer monitors, hard drives, whatever they can get their hands on, things they couldn’t even use. We need to be careful that we don’t impute to the poor some kind of righteousness based upon their negative bank account. Proverbs talks a lot about poverty and wealth, and oftentimes it talks about the poor as those who are sluggardly or foolish. It is not pious at all. In fact in Proverbs, those who are prosperous are often those who have worked hard and wisely. Proverbs 30: 8-9 says:

“Remove falsehood and lies far from me. Do not give me poverty or riches. Feed me with my allotted bread lest I become satisfied and act deceptively and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I become poor and steal and harm in the name of my God.”

This text tells us that both poverty and wealth have their own Achilles heels. They have their own flaws, their own temptations, their own problems, so that the rich, as Paul warns in 1 Timothy 6, must be warned not to place their trust in the uncertainty of riches. But the poor need to be careful that they do not set aside God’s standards of righteousness and justice to steal and try to solve their poverty problems in a wrong way. You cannot say that it is just wealth or just poverty. I love the way Max Lucado puts it in his sort-of commentary on the Sermon on the Mount when he says it isn’t the big bucks of the rich that get him in trouble; it’s the big heads of the rich.157 I think that’s the point. It is not money; it is one’s sense of assurance and confidence that may go with it that could be a problem.

Jesus talks about the poverty of spirit. He’s talking spiritual bankruptcy. The problem with the word “bankruptcy” and the concept of bankruptcy is that you’re not really broke at all. Currently, American Airlines is losing money, but the reason they talk about filing for bankruptcy is to protect their assets. That’s not spiritual bankruptcy. When we declare spiritual bankruptcy, there is nothing left in the bank. There are no airplanes on the field; there are no pilots; there is no retirement fund; there is nothing. When we recognize our spiritual poverty, there is nothing there to protect or preserve. It’s gone, and indeed to be more accurate, there would be a huge debt. There would be this monumental debt with no resources to repay. This is the kind of poverty we have. Theologically, we’re talking about the doctrine of the depravity of man. Man has nothing to offer God that will equal, earn, or merit God’s righteousness. We read in Romans 3:9,

3:9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin, 3:10 just as it is written:

There is no one righteous, not even one,

3:11 there is no one who understands,

there is no one who seeks God.

3:12 All have turned away,

together they have become worthless;

there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.

3:13 “Their throats are open graves,

they deceive with their tongues,

the poison of asps is under their lips.

3:14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.

3:15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,

3:16 ruin and misery are in their paths,

3:17 and the way of peace they have not known.

3:18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.

3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 3:20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.

Here are people who have lived (essentially most all of them are Jewish) under the Jewish law, under Jewish teaching, and things are even worse for them than what they could have been. Remember in Matthew 23, Jesus talks about the Pharisees and their hypocrisy. He says they load huge burdens on the backs of the people, and they don’t do so much as lift a finger to help them carry it. So whatever burden the Law placed upon men, and it was a big one, Pharisaism added more. It added extra qualifications, and so people were under this tremendous burden of all these requirements they could not meet. They were flat broke. What Jesus comes to say is, “The good news is for you. The Law has done its work. If it has shown you you’re broke, the Law has done its job. Now you’re at the place where God’s blessings can come upon you.” The doctrine of total depravity says, “Everyone is flat broke. There is none righteous, no, not one. There is none who seeks after God, not one. Everyone is spiritually bankrupt—spiritually broke.”

When Jesus talks about the poor in spirit, He’s talking about a select group, a subset of all those who are totally depraved, and that subset (that smaller group) is the group who knows it. It’s one thing to be broke; it’s one thing to be depraved; it’s one thing to have a load of sin and to be under God’s wrath. But is is quite another thing to recognize that we, apart from God’s grace and His mercy, are hopelessly lost in our sins and spiritual debt. These are the people who are not only spiritually bankrupt, but well aware of it.

I want to give you a couple of examples in Scripture. The first comes from 2 Kings 5 in the healing of Naaman, the Syrian. Jesus refers to it in Luke. Chapter 4 talks about the Gentile who came into the kingdom of God. I want you to notice the process by which God took this man, who was arrogant and opposed to God, turned him around, and brought him to the point of utter desperation where he had no hope apart from the grace of God.

Think about it; here is a man who is a Syrian. He is not an Israelite, so he is one who in a sense was outside the band width of the covenant of God and certainly of his knowledge of God. He worships other gods as we see, and certainly with his master, he did. He’s an enemy of Israel. He’s not just apart from Israel; he is opposed to Israel. In fact, he is the commander of the Syrian Army, which means not only is he opposed to Israel, he is the one who is taking Israelite lives. Here is a man who is outside of any hope at all it would seem. Notice, he has to be told about deliverance that comes from Israel by a little Israelite girl—a little slave girl–and God graced this man with leprosy. Here’s a man who is at the top, as it were, of his field—a right-hand man for the king —and now he’s a leper. It couldn’t get much worse than that—hopeless you would think. But God informs him through the little slave girl that there is a prophet in Israel who can give deliverance, who is able to bring the cure.

In the natural flow of things, how would one go about getting deliverance? Politics, power, and influence—all of those things we need to declare ourselves bankrupt of—he is going to use. So Naaman goes to the king of Syria, the king of Syria writes a letter, and now he arrives in Samaria with the letter and presents it to the king of Israel. The essence is: “Here’s my right-hand man; you’d better fix him, or else.” The king of Israel realizes he’s in big trouble and says, “What am I supposed to do?” The fact was, he could do nothing, and so word reaches Elisha, and Elisha sends the message, “Tell him that there is a God in Israel and that God can heal him.”

So he comes to Israel seeking help, doesn’t get it from the king, and now he arrives at the door of Elisha’s house. You can imagine this entourage as they come up to the prophet’s door. Remember they’ve got all of this load of goods, and instead of the red carpet being rolled out of the prophetic door and Elisha coming out to deal with him as a man of stature and standing, Elisha sends his servant out. His servant says, “Go jump in the Jordan seven times.”

People here in the South have never known the rivers of the Northwest; rivers there are actually clear. For example, remember the story when the axe head falls into the Jordan River? In the Northwest, we would reach down and pick it up because we could see it! But these are the muddy waters of the Jordan, and this guy says, “Look, you’re telling me to go jump in this muddy, mucky creek? I don’t want to get in there. It won’t make me clean; it will make me dirty. He’s angry because he says, “If I wanted to get into the water, I have lots of water better than this. This is below my standards of cleanliness and healing.” Some of his servants say to him, “You know, if he’d asked you some great thing, you’d have done it. He’s not asking you to do anything other than to get in that river. What can you lose?” So the king gets in the Jordan River, setting aside, I suspect, not only his clothes, but his dignity. His skin, it says, is like a baby’s skin as he comes out.

He’s on his way, but he’s not quite there yet. He really does not grasp what grace is. So he comes back to the house of Elisha. Notice this time that Elisha comes out, and he says to Elisha, “Am I obliged to you? I need to make payment for the services you performed.” He wants to leave all of the loot he’s given him, and Elisha says, “No way,” because he could contribute nothing to the work of God or the grace of God in his life before or after. He doesn’t want him to leave thinking he has played a part. He must see his spiritual bankruptcy, and so he says to Elisha, “If you won’t take what I’ve got, could I have something of yours?” Get this—a load of Israel’s dirt. Can you imagine that? He’s going to have a couple of donkey loads of Israel’s dirt because he has now come to understand that God has somehow identified himself with this place, just as we could say God has identified himself with Christ. He’s identified himself with this place, and when he worships now, he’s going to worship on Israeli soil. He’s finally come to the point where he has recognized he has nothing to give; he can only receive. That is spiritual poverty. God was gracious to bring him to it.

Luke 18 is the classic New Testament text that demonstrates spiritual poverty. It is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Beginning at verse 9:

18:9 Jesus also told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. 18:10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 18:11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 18:12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ 18:13 The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’ 18:14 I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

I say to you, the tax collector was spiritually broke, and he was blessed because he went away justified.

A text in Matthew 11 may relate to what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Remember, the first part of Matthew 11 has to do with John the Baptist. Some of His disciples come to Jesus and ask whether Jesus is really the one who is to come or not. Jesus deals with that, and then He makes this statement in verses 11 and 12:

“I tell you the truth, among these born among women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it” (Matthew 5:11-12).

I must confess that I have never really felt like I’ve had a handle on what that means. But is it not the spiritually rich who think it is their right, their birthright if you would, to possess the kingdom of God? Is there not a sense in which these people literally try to take it by force? Picture the tax collector, who recognizes he has no claim on God, that he is a miserable sinner who is under God’s curse, and all he can do is plead for mercy. He’s not storming the gates of heaven trying to force his way in. People do try to storm their way into the kingdom, with the sense that “I deserve this. This is mine; all I have to do is reach out and take it.” That is the exact opposite of what Jesus is talking about. It is not that kind of spiritual affluence; it is spiritual absolute, abject poverty that must simply cling to God for grace, mercy, and salvation. In Matthew 11, Jesus says that it is like little children.

“To what should I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to one another. ‘We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance. We wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep. You didn’t dance to our tune’” (Matthew 11:16-17).

Isn’t that a picture of Judaism’s response to Jesus? Isn’t this a picture of those who are spiritually rich who say, in effect, “You have come proclaiming yourself to be the Messiah. If you’re Messiah, You will dance to our tune. You will talk about things the way we want them to be heard”? “That’s not the way it is at all,” Jesus says. He comes, and He doesn’t fit, and neither did John the Baptist.

Last of all in verses 25 and following:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent, and you have revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal him” (Matthew 11:25-27).

This is an image similar to spiritual poverty only what you see is that children are powerless. They don’t have strength; they don’t have force; they can’t compel anything. And Jesus says, “You revealed it to them,” as though they were spiritually poor. He then makes it clear at the end of verse 27 that it’s only those to whom He reveals Himself who will know.

Now we come to another text I’ve always loved, but do not think I have ever had a handle on it:

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from Me because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy to bear, and My load is not hard to carry” (Matthew 11:16-17).

Is this not the same theme we see in the Sermon on the Mount? Aren’t those who are spiritually broke the ones under the burden of Judaism and all of its legalism who are simply crushed by them? Jesus says, “Come to Me, come to Me.” I think He’s talking to the same group of people, not to a specific group of hard-pressed people. He’s talking to all of those who are spiritually poor, using other imagery that says the same thing.

Let’s talk about the implications of this for the gospel. As many commentators have noted, Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is the foundation for all that is said in the Beatitudes. It is the foundation because spiritual poverty is the prerequisite for eternal life. Nobody gets into heaven who thinks they have cause to be there, other than Christ. Your hands have to be empty before they can be filled by Him. There must be nothing there. This is not something that we do in and of ourselves. We do not empty ourselves; we do not make ourselves poor. We don’t even, in and of ourselves, recognize our poverty. That too is a work of God’s grace. It is evidence of God’s work in us that we see ourselves for who we are and therefore are willing to turn to Him because He has turned our hearts toward Him. We have nothing to bring to Him. We have nothing to lay claim to Him. We have nothing to cause God to act graciously in our behalf. It is all of His mercy; it is all of His grace.

What does God use to bring that to pass? How does it happen? We talked about Naaman in 2 Kings 5. God uses a variety of ways. If we had the time, we could go about, and each of you could tell the time when God pulled the rug out from under you, and all of a sudden, you came to realize you had nothing to bring to God. Somehow, God has done that in your life. He does that through the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Sometimes He does it through a sin in your life that becomes glaringly apparent for some reason, through a tragedy in your life, through a crisis in your family or somewhere else, through sickness, through economic loss. Whatever it is, God uses those events to bring us to Himself.

Think about depression. I wonder if what happens at that crucial moment when depression comes is that this is the time you realize the emptiness of everything but God? I was thinking about David saying, “Why are you cast down, oh my soul?158 A little self talk says, “Man, why are you so depressed? Look to God; look to God!” One of the dangers is that we must reach this point of utter brokenness, of utter emptiness, before we turn to Christ. For some of us as parents or friends or neighbors, the risk is that sometimes we’re out there reupholstering the pigpen, putting in cable TV, and spicing up the pods to help people because we don’t want them to hit bottom, when in reality it is God’s gracious work. Now, there has to be a lot of discernment here because the danger for most of us is that it is very easy to use that as an excuse for never ministering to the poor at all. Why would I interfere with God’s working in their lives? But we must be careful to recognize that God may be bringing someone to the end of themselves; it may be that God is bringing them to Himself so that we ought to be careful in how we respond to what God may be doing in that life.

What are the implications for evangelism? It seems to me we ought to look very carefully at the gospel we proclaim. Years ago, I offended somebody, and a Christian brother whom I respected said, “If you’re going to win him to Christ (this man is a very proud man), you must appeal to his pride.” I don’t think so. We need to be very careful in our presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ that we do not appeal to the very things that God is telling men to let go of. Don’t appeal to their greed. Don’t tell them that if they come to Christ, their life is going to become prosperous, and everything is going to get better. It may not. Christ offers forgiveness for sins and the gift of eternal life. We must be careful with the gospel that we proclaim.

I have said that acknowledging our spiritual bankruptcy is a prerequisite for salvation, but I also need to say that it is a prerequisite to Christian living. We need to be very careful that we don’t say to ourselves, “All right, I’m already saved. I’ve already acknowledged my bankruptcy, my deficit, so it’s all over for me in that sense.” It’s not. In the Book of Deuteronomy, God says to the Israelites, “When you come into the land [having been slaves], now all of a sudden, you who own no land now own the hacienda.” Isn’t there a sense in which you say to yourself, “Whoa, this is really cool?” The problem with that, God says, is that after a while, when you’re eating the fruits of those orchards you didn’t plant, and you’re eating the crops you really had nothing to do with—all of these things given to you as an act of grace—there will come a point where you say to yourself, “You know, it was because of my righteousness that God did this. It was really me.” All of a sudden you look at things differently.

That’s the way it can be for the Christian, who begins to say, “It’s because of my righteousness.” God says, “No, it isn’t. It is because of your sin. You were more wicked, and I tossed you out.” There is a way in which we begin to take the gifts God has given and begin to claim the glory for ourselves. This is where worship is very, very important. Worship continually brings us back and tells us how we got the blessings we received from God.

The same thing happens with spiritual gifts. This has been a struggle for me because I’ve always wrestled with the conflict between the fact that spiritual gifts are God-given strengths, and the fact that Paul says that when we are weak, then we are strong. How do you reconcile those? I think one must say that when we acknowledge we are spiritually bankrupt as Christians, to live the Christian life, to win other people to Christ, to live a victorious life—that we are inadequate, then we must trust in Him and His provision. When we cease to recall our poverty and begin to feel rich, then we take a “Don’t call me; I’ll call You” approach to God. It seems that what God says to Israel, He says to us. He said to Israel, “Let Me just remind you of one thing (Leviticus makes this very clear). The land is not yours.” When the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, God didn’t give them a title deed and say, “Okay, it’s your land now.” He says, “It’s My land. You’ll live on this land as long as you follow My rules, and when you cease to do that, you’re out. It’s My land.”

When we come to spiritual gifts in the New Testament, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “What do you have that you have not received?” Everything you have in which you may boast (as the Corinthians did) is a gift of God’s grace. The key term here is stewardship. A steward recognizes that what he has has been given to him; it has been placed in his care, but he doesn’t own it. Our spiritual gifts, our spiritual inheritance, all of the blessings God has given to us, He has put into our hands as a stewardship. They still belong to Him, not to us, and, therefore, we cannot boast in them. We must boast, rather, in God.

What does this say about self-esteem? I’ve heard even Christians say, “The problem in our prisons is poor self-esteem.” I’ve got to tell you, folks, we must assess this kind of thinking by the Word of God. The Word of God does not say, “Blessed are those with healthy self-esteem.” I do not remember where in John Piper’s writings I heard him say this, but paraphrased, he essentially said when speaking to a group at a Sunday school conference, “We don’t need to produce self-esteem. Our kids have plenty of that. It’s called ego; they’ve got lots of it—self-will, lots of it. They’re born with it.” “But,” he said, “when we train our children, we need to teach them about God. We need to talk to them about the holiness of God, and they need to understand who they are in relationship to God.” You see, there are many things in which we may trust – our appearance, our success, our associations—the reality is that we often find our value in these things. Why do you think Paul has to tell us to associate with the lowly? It is because there is no status in that, and yet, these are the ones Jesus sought out. If the poor in spirit are the ones who are blessed, then those are the ones to whom we ought to be going with the good news of the gospel.

All of these things in which we may place our trust—athletic abilities, popularity, all of these kinds of things, are the things we need to set aside. They are also the things that appear to work in life. You look, for example, at the statistics about executives of companies. Oftentimes, they tend to be tall and handsome. Why? Because those kinds of people make that kind of impression on men. We have to be careful that we don’t live out our lives before God on the same principles that appear to work in our relationships with men. We must reassess everything we do in the light of what our Lord has said in His Word.

We have come to our time of worship. It is a time where we remember where all that we have comes from, who God is, and who we are. It is no wonder we need to do that every week as a body. It is no wonder we need to do that every day as Christians. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” I must say one last thing. There may be someone who is at the very bottom of their life, and they wonder if it is worth going on. The good news is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” If God has brought you to the point of seeing that there is nothing in yourself that is good or that you can give to God, then you are at the best place you have ever been, and I simply urge you to trust in Christ, and Him alone, for salvation.


153 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

154 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 10 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on April 27, 2003.

155 R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom (Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway Books, 2001), p. 16.

156 A reference to one of the prominent themes of John Piper’s writings (see Desiring God Ministries http://www.desiringgod.org) http://desiringgod.org/library/sermons/86/021686.html

157 Max Lucado, The Applause of Heaven, (Dallas, Texas, Word Publishing, 1990) p. 31.

158 Psalm 42:11, Psalm 43:5, The Holy Bible, New International Version (Colorado Springs, Colorado, Internationl Bible Scociety, 1984).

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10. Blessed Are Those who Mourn (Matthew 5:4)

May 4, 2003159

Introduction

I must confess that I had boyhood fears about death as an unbeliever. My grandparents lived right past a huge cemetery, and I found it possible not to see that cemetery every time we went to visit them. I was fascinated by what was on the other side of the road, but the reality is that I, like most of us, do not really like mourning. When I was in junior high school, a Christian schoolteacher died suddenly, and I was elected as a representative of our class to go to his funeral. I still recall attempting to introduce levity into that event because I couldn’t handle the grief. It was another way of avoiding something the Bible tells us we ought to deal with and, in fact, we ought to practice.

Our text is in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”160 How is it possible for mourners to be blessed and comforted? That is the Good News that only the gospel brings. It is one of the reasons why over the years I have said repeatedly I would far rather do a funeral than a wedding because the reality is, apart from the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is no comfort. So we come to this text assured that there is comfort, and that comfort has to be related to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It would be good for us to begin by asking the question, “What does the Bible mean by mourning?” Let’s look at some examples of mourning given us in the Bible.

In Genesis, you find a lot of mourning always over death, and that shouldn’t be a surprise because when God told Adam and Eve that they should not partake of the fruit of that forbidden tree (I should say Adam and, then through him, Eve), He said that in the day you partake of it, you will surely die. The Book of Genesis is filled with death; we would not then be surprised that it is filled with mourning because of that death. In Genesis 23, we see Abraham mourns for Sarah. Jacob, in a sense, erroneously mourns on account of the death of his son Joseph—he is not dead, but he rightly mourns at least his loss. The Egyptians mourned for Jacob at the time of his death, and David in 2 Samuel 1 mourned greatly over the death of Saul and his beloved friend, Saul’s son, Jonathan. We see mourning throughout the Bible on the occasion of death, but not only death. For example, when Absalom is responsible for murder and flees from Israel to escape any possible consequences, David mourns his absence.

In Numbers 14:39, when the Israelites come to Kadesh-Barnea and fail to go in and possess the land, they are told that that generation will die and will not enter into the land, and the people mourned; they mourned the loss of the benefits of the blessings that were literally within their grasp and were lost. They mourned deeply. You remember the outcome of that mourning was not good because they then tried to go into the land and were defeated.

In Psalm 119:136, you find the psalmist mourning over the sins of God’s people. He says, “Tears stream down from my eyes, because they do not keep Your law.” Hosea 4:3 tells us that the land mourns because of Israel’s sin and because of the consequences that have come upon the land as a result of that. There are countless examples, and there is a transition in the Scriptures from the beginning in Genesis, where the mourning is focused on the loss of one who is loved (mourning that comes as a result of death), to mourning that has a more direct relationship to sin and its consequences. Let’s make an effort to come to some kind of definition by looking at some of the essential elements of mourning.

1) Mourning is an emotional response. All you have to do is to read the Scriptures to see this. For us, in our rather subdued culture and society, that is not quite as self-evident as it may be in some other cultures. In the Eastern culture of Bible times, mourning was done very dramatically, maybe sometimes too dramatically, where mourners were hired literally to weep and carry on. There are other parts of the world that do the same thing today. When we look, for example, at the news pictures in the Middle East and see people mourning the death of their families in a bombing or tragedy, we see a very external, emotional expression of grief in their mourning. I say this because some of us tend to be rather cerebral in what we do. I would say that within my family, nobody really said, “Big boys don’t cry.”

I remember when our son died my dad going outside and starting the rototiller. He just rototilled the whole back garden because he needed some way to let it out. But it wasn’t the kind of emotional mourning we often see in Scripture. It involves our emotions, not just our intellect, and I would say it involves intense emotion. This is not some modest effort we go through; it is not something we try to work up. Mourning is, in reality, intense grief, and you feel that when you are there. It is an emotional response to loss. Someone may prove me wrong on this, but as I understand it, every time I see mourning in the Scriptures, I see a deep sense of loss of something. It isn’t always the loss of someone’s life or fellowship, although it may well be; that is the most obvious mourning. It may be loss of benefits, for example, as Israel mourns at Kadesh-Barnea the fact that they will not enter into the land. There is a loss that is experienced and felt deeply. David has the loss of Absalom when he flees the country and goes to stay with relatives. David feels that loss deeply.

2) We should also say that mourning is not always good; that is, every expression of mourning is not necessarily proper. When David mourned over Absalom’s death, that was a very negative thing. Remember, Joab has to literally come along and slap, if you would, his king on the side of the head. You don’t really do that with kings, but as gently and graciously as he can, Joab essentially says, “David, get your head on straight. What you are doing is wrong; people here sense you are mourning. They feel it would have been better for you had all of them died and Absalom lived. Your sense of loss is wrong. Absalom’s death was the salvation of the kingdom, so get it together, David. Your mourning is improper.”

Amnon wrongfully mourned because he could not have Tamar, his sister. Ahab mourned because he could not have Naboth’s vineyard. Samuel mourned because of Saul’s loss of the kingdom. Those expressions of mourning were inappropriate, and so not all mourning is good. I think we therefore must say, “Not all mourners will be comforted.” Is that not valid? When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4), He is talking about certain people and certain kinds of mourning.

3) There is not universal comfort for all mourners. I’ve been at many funerals, as you probably have, where countless unbelievers are present; they mourn, but there is no comfort for them apart from Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel. When we look at this section of the Beatitudes, we are talking about those who mourn, and we are also talking about those who are poor in spirit, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. I don’t think that you can withdraw one segment of the Beatitudes and say that all mourners are comforted. Rather, you have to say, “All mourners who are poor in spirit and hunger and thirst for righteousness will find comfort.” So there is comfort for some but not for all.

4) We need to understand what it is to mourn properly. This is what I would call the core of my message, and it seems to me as I’ve agonized about this (and I must confess to you I have agonized a lot), I got into “Blessed are the meek,” not because there is any affinity in my spirit necessarily to that, but it was more comforting to me than mourning. I have agonized a lot about this mourning and how we come to terms with it, and it seems to me that if we’re going to understand and apply this passage correctly, we have to understand what it is to mourn properly. I’ve tried to isolate several elements that distinguish biblical mourning—the kind of mourning that results in godly comfort.

Let me ask a few questions that are tests for pious mourning.

A. Is this something for which the righteous mourn? Is our mourning something for which we find the righteous in the Bible mourning? Surely that must start with our Lord Jesus. As I understand the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, the things that God calls blessed are those things that characterize God and that ought to be evident in the lives of those who are His saints. You know, WWJD161 applies to mourning. Would Jesus mourn for this? There is a lot of mourning today with which Jesus probably would not concur. But there are two major instances of our Lord’s mourning—the one found in John 11:35-36 at the grave of Lazarus, and the world’s most famous Bible memory verse, John 11:35—“Jesus wept.” The people responded and essentially said, “See how Jesus loved him.”

I am not sure I have the answer to this question, but I am going to raise it anyway. Were they right? Not about Jesus loving Lazarus—of course, Jesus loved him. Were they right in reaching the conclusion that Jesus’ mourning was really tied to and a direct result of His love for Lazarus? It is a little hard when we know the whole story that literally within seconds, Lazarus is going to come out of that tomb in his grave clothes. It is a little difficult to see Jesus totally overwhelmed in sorrow; it may almost be better to say, “See how Jesus loves Mary and Martha,” sisters of Lazarus. At least, we have a biblical text for “Weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice.” Jesus identifies with those who are mourning the loss of Lazarus. It seems to me that there must be the element of sin and its consequences. When one looks in the face of death, should he not see the connection between that death and sin that produced it in the ultimate sense?

I was talking with someone the other day about cremation and whether or not it is a legitimate form of dealing with the bodies of people who died. There are various opinions. I will tell you that I have been involved in funerals where there was cremation, and I did not have any deep agony of soul about that. But I would say this: one thing is important at a funeral where a body is present—when that casket is right there, and families come by, and fathers lift up their children to look at the body—there is something visually communicated by death. Without a body, the full message of death somehow does not really come home.

I am inclined to say that Jesus wept, at least in part, because of the sin and the devastating consequences of sin involved. In Luke 19:41-44, Jesus approaches the city of Jerusalem and weeps over it. He weeps over it because He has presented Himself to Israel as the Messiah, and they have rejected Him, and that city and those people are going to be destroyed and devastated. Again, Jesus’ mourning is over the effects of sin, or I should say more accurately, His mourning is over sin and its effects in the lives of people, and even as it relates to Him.

Two critical texts are key to understanding Matthew 5:4. I put these under a broad category when I say, “Do the righteous mourn for this?” and, “Do the prophets mourn for the things that we are mourning for?” There are a lot of instances of that. The two key texts are Isaiah 61 and Isaiah 40. I cannot read Matthew 5:4 without saying to myself, “He is pointing to Isaiah 61.” I can’t get away from that. Now, if you think I’m fishing a little bit, remember in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus comes to Nazareth and presents Himself there in the synagogue, He takes the scroll, and He reads these verses (Luke 4:18,19). I’ll grant you, He stops because it talks about the Day of Judgment, and He doesn’t go all the way down and emphasize the mourning element, but the reality is that this is a part of the text Jesus chose as a pointer to Himself. So, surely when Jesus is talking here, we can safely say it is a part of what He is about and what He says. Let’s look at it:

61:1 The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me,

because the Lord has chosen me.

He has commissioned me to encourage the poor,

to help the brokenhearted,

to decree the release of captives,

and the freeing of prisoners,

61:2 to announce the year when the Lord will show his favor (Isaiah 61:1-2a).

There’s an imaginary line because that’s where in Luke 4:19 Jesus stops, but let’s read on.

the day when our God will seek vengeance,

to console all who mourn,

61:3 to strengthen those who mourn in Zion,

by giving them a turban, instead of ashes,

oil symbolizing joy, instead of mourning,

a garment symbolizing praise, instead of discouragement.

They will be called godly oaks,

trees planted by the Lord to reveal his splendor (Isaiah 61:2b-3).

As I read Matthew 5:4, I say to myself, “Those who mourn must surely be defined by this text.” Remember that in the context of Isaiah 61, we have been told about Israel’s sin. We have been told about the judgment that is going to come upon the nation Israel, and now we are being told about the deliverance that will come. The comfort we find is comfort that comes for those who acknowledge their sin, who acknowledge that God’s judgment has been exercised. We would say in the fullest sense of that, while Isaiah is looking immediately at Israel’s sin and their captivity and their restoration, ultimately He is looking at man’s sin, Christ’s punishment on the cross of Calvary, and the redemption that comes for all of us. That’s a sermon in and of itself, so let us move to Isaiah 40:1.

“Comfort my people,” says your God.

“Speak kindly to Jerusalem;

And tell her that her time of warfare is over, that her punishment is completed,

For the Lord has made her pay double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).

The context is Israel’s chastening for sin in the captivity, but looking beyond that, again, is the chastening that falls upon our Lord (Isaiah 53), so that our sins may be forgiven and that He may restore and bless us. Isaiah 40:3 and following (again, a text which should be familiar to the readers of Matthew) says, “A voice cries out, ‘In the desert clear a way for the Lord; construct in the wilderness a road for our God.’” What is that? John the Baptist is speaking about the announcement that Messiah has come. So it seems that the center of the bulls-eye of what mourning is about is sin. It is about God’s judgment. The comfort, therefore, must be the comfort that comes in Messiah, where He bears man’s punishment and where He provides the deliverance and the rescue so that our comfort is in Jesus ultimately, and in His sacrifice for us. The first test for godly mourning then is “What do the prophets and, more importantly, what does Jesus mourn about?” They mourn about sin, and the comfort is the gospel and salvation.

B. The relationship between mourning and laughter. What is the opposite of mourning? The opposite of mourning is rejoicing; is it not? But Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will rejoice.” Matthew doesn’t say that. Jesus says they will be comforted. That means He’s not promising that all of the pain will go away. He’s saying that in this circumstance of mourning, comfort will be brought to bear—not necessarily that you will escape the things for which you mourn, but rather that you will find God’s comfort.

Somebody is going to say, “What about Luke?” That is why I mentioned laughter.

“Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21).

Now verse 25 of Luke 6:

“Woe to you who are well satisfied with food now, for you will be hungry;

“Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25).

I think it was Martyn Lloyd-Jones who made a heavy point of saying (and I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say), “Jesus had a great sense of humor.” I think I’ve said it, and it may well be true, but Martyn Lloyd-Jones says we have a lot of instances where Jesus wept. We have no recorded instances where Jesus laughed. We ought to at least take note of that, and we ought to be careful that we don’t somehow minimize this element in Jesus’ life of sobriety. By that I mean especially soberness in response to sin. I would suggest to you that Satan has a fantastic sense of humor. I love humor, but I’m saying Satan loves to turn things inside out, and he wants us to laugh when we should be mourning.

I told you the story about my response to Mr. Davidson’s death and his funeral. I was trying to laugh because I didn’t really want to mourn, especially with my peers there. How would it look to shed tears and to show grief over the loss of this one? So I found my consolation in humor, which was inappropriate. Satan wants us to do that. Proverbs 14:9: “Fools mock at sin.” Now mockery may include more than that, but it seems to me it’s often there. I was thinking of Ham in Genesis 9. It is a little difficult to figure out all of the elements of that story, but the story in general is that Noah plants a vineyard, the grapes grow, the grapes turn into wine, Noah had too much, and he is now lying naked in his tent. Somehow Ham shows up, and it seems as though Canaan may be involved in that (because the curse falls upon him). One thing that ought to be very apparent is that somehow Ham does not have the appropriate sense of sobriety and sense of grief at that occasion. I get the impression he is looking straight on, pointing, and saying to his brothers, “What do you think of this?” And his brothers come in backwards, carrying the garment, covering their father’s nakedness so that they don’t even look upon it.

I would say to you there is today a great deal of laughter at sin, and Satan loves it. We are to mourn at the presence and the consequences of sin, but we laugh at it. Let me give you some examples. I normally don’t watch the late night talk shows, but I’ve got to tell you, from what little I’ve seen passing by, there’s a whole lot of laughing going on about things that we shouldn’t be laughing about. Let me give you another example: Mrs. Doubtfire. As parents, we look at that movie, and we say, “Oh, my goodness, this is Robin Williams. He’s a funny guy, and you know, it’s kind of a kid’s/family program.” But do you notice how they carefully orchestrate the movie so that we laugh at perversion? I can’t remember those two guys’ names, but you know Aunt One and Uncle Two, and we laugh at that, and we come away feeling pretty good because we didn’t see any nasty scenes.

The reality is Satan has won a victory because we have laughed at sin where we should have mourned at it. That happens over and over again in dirty jokes and other ways. If Satan can get us to laugh about sin first, we’re one step down that path—one long step down that path toward the acceptance of sin. So I say to you that we ought to be very, very careful. I’m going down this path because Luke opens the door and says we have to beware of levity when it comes in relationship to mourning. Sometimes laughter unloads an issue that we shouldn’t feel better about; we should be mourning about.

C. Is there a sense of loss or gain? I mentioned in my definition of mourning that mourning has a deep sense of loss. A number of texts point us in this direction. For example, I mentioned David wrongly mourning the loss of his son, Absalom, when he died. What Joab was trying to say to him was, “You have lost your perspective. This day is not a day of mourning; it is a day of rejoicing. You are going to lose your kingdom if you don’t get your mind straightened out. You have gained your kingdom; yes, you have lost some. You have GAINED your kingdom. Get a perspective on whether you are losing or whether you are gaining.” Samuel mourns the loss of Saul. In 1 Samuel 15:35: “. . .Samuel did, however, mourn for Saul.” God is basically saying to Samuel, “You need to really get this figured out.” Was it a loss for Israel to lose Saul and to gain David? Was that loss? Samuel was the prophet who anointed David. Is that not gain rather than loss?

Inappropriate mourning is sensing a loss where we should feel a gain. The interesting thing about 1 Samuel 16, when God tells him to go and anoint David, is that Samuel’s first response is, “He’ll kill me. Not David—Saul. If Saul finds out I’m going there, he’ll kill me.” And you want to say, “So what was it, Samuel, you felt such a loss about? This man over whom you are grieving is the man who will kill you if you go to anoint another king?” I think there is a loss of focus here.

Think of Philippians 3 where Paul says, “Those things that I considered gain, I now view as loss.” The things he once looked at—all of the Pharisaism, all of his position, all of that stuff—he now understands was really his Achilles’ heel. It was that which he had to forsake. Satan has a way of trying to reverse things. Look at the temptations. When Satan tempts, he tells you that you’re going to gain; you’re going to be like God, knowing good and evil; you’re going to save your life; you’re going to have this ministry for God. He always presents loss as gain, and the reality is, every time men succumb to Satan’s temptations, they lose.

Another thing to notice is the turning around of loss and gain. Youth today feel that virginity is a scourge. It is something they need to set aside. It is not a beautiful, wonderful thing that they present not only to God but also to their mates when they marry. It is a scourge to be shaken off as quickly as possible. Satan turns loss and gain around—modesty, being unique, and many other things. What do we find in the youth culture? Conformity. We shake off uniqueness like the plague. When God calls us to uniqueness, to be distinct, to be salt and light as believers, we shed it because we want to fit into the culture in which we find ourselves.

D. Humility or Humiliation vs. Arrogance and Pride. In 1 Corinthians 5:1-2, Paul says:

It is actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you, the kind of immorality that is not permitted even among the Gentiles, so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you have been deeply sorrowful instead . . . ? (1 Corinthians 5:1-2a)

“Shouldn’t you have mourned?” And the church is sitting there smugly proud. Is our mourning that of humility and humiliation? Regarding humiliation, what do mourners look like? They look terrible; they tear their clothes; they put dust ashes on their heads; they’re a mess. You don’t make the fashion section of the paper when you are mourning because when you are mourning, you are not trying to look good; you are humbling yourself in your grief. Yet Satan would rather have us exchange that. When you look at the mourning that’s going to come in the Sermon on the Mount, what do the Scribes and the Pharisees do with mourning? They don’t go around with ragged clothes and filthy dust all over them. They probably have some dust, but that’s a symbol, and they proudly wear it as a badge. Thus, in our mourning, is it characterized by humility and humiliation over sin?

In Romans 1:32, the irony is when you get to the bottom rung of the ladder, so to speak, Paul says, “And they not only practice these things, but they actually encourage others to do it.” Look at Hollywood, folks—and not just Hollywood. They wear their sin with pride; they don’t just practice sin in some dark, murky closet. They practice it in public, and they’re proud of it. People sometimes buy their work because of it.

E. Last, does mourning produce repentance? If it is genuine mourning, then, in my estimation, it is the prerequisite to, and the motivation for, repentance. It is what precedes repentance. If repent means to turn around, then it seems to me that we have to acknowledge that the first thing we must see is not only that the direction we are going is wrong, but that it is ugly, and it is something we loathe. It is like we think we are on the road to the beach, and we realize as we approach it that we are on the way to the city sewage processing plant, and you say to yourself, “Yuk, I do not want to be going in this direction; I must turn around.” If you like what’s down at the end of that path, you’re going to keep going. Mourning is that prerequisite where you recognize, and not only intellectually, cognitively say, “God calls it sin,” but you, in your emotions, loathe it so that you turn from it. In 2 Corinthians 7:5-10, we read:

For even when we came to Macedonia, our body had no rest at all, but we were troubled in every way – struggles from the outside, fears from within. But God, who encourages [the word comforted is the word encourages] the downhearted, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus. We were encouraged not only by his arrival, but also by the encouragement you gave him, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your deep concern for me, so that I rejoiced even more than ever. For even if I had made you sad by my letter, I do not regret having written it (even though I did regret it, for I see that my letter made you sad, though only for a short time). Now I rejoice, not because you were made sad, but because you were made sad to the point of repentance. For you were made sad as God intended, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For sadness as intended by God produces a repentance that leads to salvation, leaving no regret, but worldly sadness brings about death (2 Corinthians 7:5-10).

There is a kind of worldly mourning that does not result in righteousness. I don’t mean that our mourning produces it. In fact, ungodly mourning is actually selfish. You will find that some people who mourn become very introverted, and they look only within and think about themselves and their loss. The more they mourn, the more self-centered they become. The mourning we are talking about is the mourning when you come to an emotional realization, as well as an intellectual one, of the ugliness and the filthiness of sin, and you turn from it. You turn to Christ for the comfort that He alone can give.

In conclusion, mourning is a part of life. If you notice, this verse “Blessed are those who mourn,” is very emphatically present tense and ongoing. It is not just those who, from time to time, have an experience of mourning; there is an ongoing sense. This is consistent with Romans 8:18 and following, where Paul talks about the sufferings and the groanings of life exist because we are a part of a fallen world. My friend, we ought never to get over our warning, and I fear for others and myself as we become accustomed to the sin. We become accustomed. Take abortion, for instance. Here we are at war over in Iraq because “x” number of people have been killed by Sadam Hussein. Somehow we have gotten used to the fact that this goes on, and we’re not mourning it as we first were. Something’s wrong with that; mourning ought to be an ongoing part of life, as Paul says in Roman 8.

Consider one last thing. Mourning is the appropriate response to sin, and the appropriate manifestation of mourning is repentance. But there is the other side of the coin. Just as mourning is the appropriate response to sin, so worship is the appropriate response to the perfections of God. It would be wrong to experience and confront sin and not mourn, but it is just as wrong to come face to face with the perfections of God and not worship. I think it is interesting because we are considering mourning in our text but yet there is a very prominent theme today about joy and rejoicing, and you say, “Well, isn’t that sort of schizophrenic?” You know the answer? It probably is. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”. Those both go on at the same time, and the reality is, as I understand it, we would not rejoice and praise God as we ought apart from the mourning that comes in response to sin. As I understand it, our mourning because of the occasion of sin is what makes our joy and our rejoicing greater because our salvation takes us from its consequences. We are coming to the time this morning for our worship service when we are to worship our Lord, and I say to you, “Don’t lose the mourning dimension, but as we think about our Lord, it is only appropriate that we praise and rejoice in Him.”


159 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 11 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on May 4, 2003.

160 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

161 WWJD stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” which has become a popular phrase and motif for jewelry worn by many young people.

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11. Hungering and Thirsting after Righteousness (Matthew 5:6)

Introduction

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled (Matthew 5:6).154

We begin our study of this great beatitude with a quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

This Beatitude again follows logically from the previous ones; it is a statement to which all the others lead. It is the logical conclusion to which they come, and it is something for which we should all be profoundly thankful and grateful to God. I do not know of a better test that anyone can apply to himself or herself in this whole matter of the Christian profession than a verse like this. If this verse is to you one of the most blessed statements of the whole of Scripture, you can be quite certain you are a Christian. If it is not, then you had better examine the foundations again.155

This one short verse of Scripture brings to us an incredible message of hope, and a message that should spark a deep sense of joy in all of us who are believers and those who may be seeking Christ. Satisfaction is available, but only through Christ.

In one sense, we can all relate to this passage of Scripture – we all hunger. We may not be able to know the depth of hunger the people of this time were going through, but we experience a daily hunger that comes back and needs to be satisfied. I can remember times in my life where I longed for certain foods and hungered and thirsted to a great degree. I remember times in other countries such as Indonesia where I went on a six-day trek through the jungles of Irian Jaya. All we had to eat was bland Indo-Mi, which is a type of ramen noodle; after six days of that, I had many visions of hamburgers and steak and other such foods. I literally longed and hungered for those foods. On our way back from Russia two summers ago, our missions team had a 24-hour layover in Seoul, Korea; we asked the students with us what they wanted to eat for lunch, assuming they might want to try some authentic Korean food. But they insisted on having McDonald’s or Baskin-Robbins because they had not had American food in six whole weeks. They were tired of eating things they were not used to, and they hungered after things they had not had in a while. We can all relate to this concept of hunger; that is why this is such a great illustration that Jesus uses here in the Sermon on the Mount.

Let’s read this verse in the context of Matthew 5:1-12.

And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:1-12).

Evangelistic Message of Hope!

Why is hungering and thirsting such a good illustration? Because as water and food is to the body, so righteousness is to the spiritual life. We as humans hunger and thirst not only for food but for satisfaction in life. We search in all kinds of different areas to be filled, to be satisfied, but we always end up falling short.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

John Piper states: “God has put eternity in our hearts and we have an inconsolable longing.”156 Blaise Pascal said that we all have a “God-shaped void” in our lives. All men are hungry and thirsty; the problem is that we try to fill that emptiness, that hunger, with things other than the righteousness of God. Some of you reading this message are empty; you have not been satisfied. You are trying to fill that “God-shaped void” in your life with all kinds of things, but you are left empty, unsatisfied. There is an incredible message of hope for you if you are searching for the answer.

Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance (Isaiah 55:1-2).

Has a nation changed its gods, which are not gods? But my people have changed their glory for what does not profit. Be astonished, O heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid; Be very desolate, says the Lord. For My people have committed two evils. They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn for themselves cisterns – broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:11- 13).

These two sets of verses are very powerful. We are spending our money on things that do not satisfy; we are drinking from cisterns that can hold no water. Our satisfaction is not being met in the things of this world. We try to satisfy ourselves with money and power, education, sex, pornography, boyfriends and girlfriends, toys and earthly possessions that allow us fun and entertainment for a time, but yet all these things lead to a deeper sense of need, a deeper longing for satisfaction, because they do not fill that need. C.S. Lewis states:

We are half hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea, we are far too easily pleased.157

What a powerful quote by C.S. Lewis! We as human beings are far too easily pleased. We fool around with so many things that do not satisfy, things that do not, and cannot, fill that void and emptiness, all because we are far too easily pleased. We think so often that the things of this world will satisfy, when we always end up falling short of what we desire, and a lot of it is because we are not seeking the right things. The joy that is offered to us, the peace that is offered to us, the satisfaction that is offered to us, is unbelievable if we would only grab hold of Jesus and His offer to be our satisfaction.

A great illustration of this is the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. He took the inheritance his father had given him, left home, and went to a far-off country where he squandered his inheritance money on riotous living, on things that would not satisfy. He was far too easily pleased and fooled into thinking that this was what life was all about, only to fall short. When he had a lot of money, he had a lot of friends and parties. But when the money was gone, so were his friends. At this point in time, he begins to “go down hill” in a major way, to the point of living with pigs and eating the slop they ate. Martyn Lloyd-Jones quotes J.N. Darby:

To be hungry is not enough; I must be really starving to know what is in His heart towards me. When the prodigal son was hungry he went to feed upon husks, but when he was starving, he turned to his father.158

In Matthew 5:6, Jesus is not just talking about mere hunger, but about starving after righteousness.

Picture the audience listening to Jesus. They were Galileans, not well liked by the rest of the Jewish community; they were lower class citizens; they were viewed similarly to the way the Jews looked at the Samaritans. Weeks ago, you may recall Bob Deffinbaugh’s reference in his lesson in this series to what he calls the “I.P.,” the “Inversion Principle.” 159 I challenge you to take a look at his notes on this subject to see who exactly the Galileans were.

Looking at the crowd surrounding Jesus, what do you think their view of righteousness was? I can guarantee you their view of righteousness was a skewed view, a wrong view, due to the portrayal of righteousness by the religious leaders. When reading and studying Matthew 5:6, you must look over to Matthew 5:20 to see the connection Jesus is making. The view these people had of righteousness was an incorrect view; Jesus was correcting that view and showing them that it was an issue of the heart.

For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).

I can see this as being the picture of righteousness the audience has, a picture of the religious leaders who are outwardly righteous and pious but inwardly sinful, corrupt men. They look and see the judgmental attitude of the Pharisees, the hypocritical nature of these men. They may in some way look good on the outside, but inwardly they are missing the point of doing the things they are doing. The Pharisees are feeling as though by their actions they are gaining righteousness and doing right in the eyes of God. Here in this passage Jesus is lengthening the distance between God and man and addressing the self-righteousness of the Pharisees, as well as the issue of the heart of the people in the crowd. Here Jesus is raising the bar and addressing the issues of the heart. Jesus is presenting to the crowd that He is that true Righteousness; He is the One they have been hungering and thirsting after, and the only One who can fill that emptiness inside them. He is saying He is the good news, the gospel. The gospel has come, and it has come in Him. He is presenting Himself as the means to satisfaction.

If we look at other passages, we see Him making this same point. Jesus is the only way to righteousness, and His righteousness satisfies.

The Woman at the Well - Jesus answered and said unto her, whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life (John 14:13-14).

Feeding the 5000 – Jesus answered them and said, most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him (John 6:26-27).

Jesus Christ is the only one who can satisfy, and here in this verse in Matthew, He is presenting this point to the audience before Him. To some, this message brings refreshment because they see the Pharisees and the self-righteousness of the Pharisees and are “turned off;” now they are given a new perspective in Christ, an offer of satisfaction through Him, the true Righteousness. Others in the audience are radically “turned off;” I am sure there were religious leaders in the crowd who were angered and bothered because they were being told they could not achieve favor with God through the law and through their own righteousness. God’s favor could only be met in Christ’s righteousness.

This truly is a message of hope to those who are lost and perishing, to those in Jesus’ day and in our day. The emptiness that fills their lives, and ours, can only be satisfied in Christ, the true Righteousness. Only by hungering and thirsting after Christ can that void, that emptiness, be filled. The things of this world will not satisfy; only Jesus Christ satisfies. This is the message, then and now, to those who do not already have a relationship with Jesus, a message of hope. So why keep “messing around” with things that will only cause more pain and emptiness? An offer of joy, peace, and satisfaction among many other things is made to you in Christ – and in Christ alone.

To Believers

This message is one of hope to unbelievers, but what is this saying to believers? I truly believe there is a big, important message to us as believers. The first question is simple: In your life right now, what are you hungering and thirsting after? Where is your heart? In one sense, it is easy for us as believers to see that we are filled and satisfied when we accept the free gift of salvation, but too often that is where hungering and thirsting stops. Many believers struggle with big areas of sin, and they try to fill a hole with something other than Jesus Christ. Many pastors have fallen to the tragedy of pornography; many families have been destroyed through not hungering and thirsting after righteousness only to end up in divorce. Some of us sit week after week in the pews at church longing for a day in and day out satisfaction. Do we as believers hunger and thirst after righteousness?

Hungering and thirsting is continual. Every day I get hungry; around 11:00 a.m. or sometimes earlier, my stomach starts to growl, and I feel like I am going to digest myself if I don’t get food. This is a daily pattern we go through, each one of us, because our body needs food; it is the same with thirst. This is the same in the spiritual realm of life. We need to hunger and thirst, actually starve, for righteousness in our lives; it is a day-by-day thing that is a continual part of our lives. It is like going to a nice steak restaurant and eating a big steak and baked potato or French fries with a side salad. You eat dinner and are full that night, but you long for the same meal again the next day, and the next. With righteousness, once we get a taste of it and hunger for it, that hunger for righteousness grows, and we should want to keep feeding that desire to satisfy our lives with righteousness. We are called to holy living as believers. We are called to live lives of holiness to our God, which is a sweet smelling aroma to Him.

Let’s look at a couple of Old Testament examples of those who hungered after righteousness.

Psalm 63:1-11

O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.
So I have looked for You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory.
Because Your loving-kindness is better than life,
My lips shall praise You.
Thus I will bless You while I live;
I will lift up my hands in Your name.
My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness,
And my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips.
When I remember You on my bed,
I meditate on You in the night watches.
Because You have been my help,
Therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice.
My soul follows close behind You;
Your right hand upholds me.
But those who seek my life, to destroy it,
Shall go into the lower parts of the earth.
They shall fall by the sword;
They shall be a portion for jackals.
But the king shall rejoice in God;
Everyone who swears by Him shall glory;
But the mouth of those who speak lies shall be stopped.

Psalm 42:1-11

As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
While they continually say to me,
“Where is your God?”
When I remember these things,
I pour out my soul within me
For I used to go with the multitude;
I went with them to the house of God,
With the voice of joy and praise,
With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.

Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
For the help of His countenance.
O my God, my soul is cast down within me;
Therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan,
And from the heights of Hermon,
From the Hill Mizar.
Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime,
And in the night His song shall be with me—
A prayer to the God of my life.
I will say to God my Rock,
“Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
As with a breaking of my bones,
My enemies reproach me,
While they say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God;
For I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.

In these passages, the psalmist exemplifies what it means to long for and hunger and thirst for righteousness. “Early will I seek You; My soul thirsts for You; My flesh longs for You.” “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God.” Do you have this longing, this passion, this deep sense of need for hungering and thirsting after righteousness? Is this something you cannot live without? I tell you that this is what we as believers ought to be hungering after. We need to hunger after God on a daily basis, every second of every day. Hungering and thirsting need to be vital parts of our lives, such that we cannot live without satisfying that hunger and thirst. So many things that we do we think will not affect our relationship with Christ, but they do. Why do we find enjoyment as believers in going to movies that are geared toward and based upon adultery, divorce, violence, cursing the Lord’s name, mockery, the degrading of human life? Why do we put into our minds those images, those lyrics to songs, those television shows that are based upon trickery and lies? These things hinder our walk with the Lord; they distract us from true righteousness. Hungering and thirsting after righteousness is not easy; in fact, in a lot of ways it is extremely difficult, because we have to make the tough decision, the decisions to be different, to not always do what other people are doing, to be willing as Daniel was to stand alone in the midst of our peers both old and young. There is no doubt that we in our lifetimes will always battle against the flesh and against sin, but as the writer of Hebrews states in 12:3-4:

For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.

This does not mean that we take ourselves out of the world – it means that we live in the world, and that we live righteous lives amongst our co-workers, friends, peers, and enemies whose lives may not be characterized by righteousness. It means that we are that salt and light who show the love of Christ both through our actions and through our words. Is this a passion of your life? The men who wrote these psalms truly had a passion for Christ and that is what captivated their lives, that is what they longed for, because He is the only thing that satisfied.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul exemplifies this in Philippians 3:1-21, as we see in verses 8-12 of this passage:

Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.

Here the Apostle Paul is showing that it is: (a) not a righteousness of His own, but of faith in Jesus Christ, and (b) that he is pressing on to lay hold of that which Christ has laid hold of him. He lays all the cares of the world aside and strives after righteousness in His walk with the Lord. He desires above all else to know Christ and the power of His resurrection. Do we count the things of this world as rubbish that we may know Christ? Are we striving to live lives that are godly and righteous? We are not talking here about the outward appearance of righteousness, but about the heart. What things does your heart long after? For what things does your heart hunger? Lord willing, it is as Paul says, “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10).

Conclusion

Matthew 5:6 is a powerful passage, a passage that exudes hope all through it. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled.” We are blessed if we hunger and thirst after righteousness. How? Because we are filled; we don’t hunger any longer as the world hungers because our satisfaction has been met in Christ. Hungering and thirsting after righteousness has both an evangelistic message for those who do not know Christ, as well as a message to those who are in Christ. I conclude with a simple question: What are you hungering and thirsting after in your life? I pray that all of us can answer, “Righteousness.”


153 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 13 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Lenny Correll on May 18, 2003.

154 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New King James Version. Copyright 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee. All rights reserved.

155 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapid, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishers, 1971), Vol. 1, pp. 73-74.

156 John Piper, “Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness,” (Desiring God Ministries, 1986),

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12. Blessed Are the Pure in Heart (Matthew 5:8)

Introduction

The admissions committee of a private Christian college was interviewing candidates. The committee asked all the candidates a certain set of questions, and the replies were much the same. “What will you do after you gain admission into this college?” “I will endeavor to gain the best education I can.” “What will you do after you have earned your degree?” “I will secure a good job.” “After that?” “Well, I will earn a good deal of money and have a happy life.” “After that?” “Enjoy my retirement.” “And what’s after that?” No response! Usually this was the end of the conversation.

That expresses the typical mentality of college students today. That is what the majority of the people in the world are living for – getting a good education, having a good job, and living happily ever after! They have no thought of anything after that. Their idea of long-term planning ends with their 401K and other retirement savings.

But forget about the college students and their goals in life. Forget about the people out there, those who live for the here-and-now, “… their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19).161

Let us think about ourselves, those of us who claim to have believed in Jesus Christ and have dedicated our lives to God. Are our long-term plans and goals any different than those of college students today? What do we desire the most? What are we living for? That is the most significant question of the Christian life, of any life. That is the question this beatitude we are studying in Matthew 5:8 answers in the most explicit terms.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). That’s it! That’s the goal of the Christian life! That’s what we are living for – that we may live our life in such a way that we see God. If we see God, that will open up the treasure trove of all the blessings, not only for eternity, but also for life here and now. And the key to open that treasure trove is a pure heart!

This is the most central and the most significant of all the beatitudes mentioned in this fifth chapter of Matthew. You cannot be poor in spirit without having a pure heart. You cannot mourn for the things that displease God without having a pure heart. You cannot be meek, you cannot hunger and thirst for righteousness, you cannot be merciful, you cannot be a peacemaker or be prepared to stand persecution for the name of Christ without having a pure heart. Actually, this is one of the most central principles of the Christian life that we see in the whole Bible. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.

What Is It to Have a Pure Heart?

1. Living by the rule of God, living a life that is pleasing to God.

2. Living for the purpose of God, having a single-minded devotion to God.

Having a pure heart first of all means living by the rules of God that bring moral purity. The initial use of the word “pure” in the Bible was in the sense of “clean” as opposed to “unclean” – clean or unclean animals, clean or unclean foods, the clean or unclean condition of a person. What do you think the basis was for determining what (or who) was “clean” or “unclean”? It was God’s arbitrary decision. In some instance, we may be able to see a logical reason. For example, crows are unclean because they eat dead, rotten flesh. A person with leprosy is unclean because leprosy is an infectious disease. However, there is not always a logical reason why the flesh of some animals was considered clean and others unclean. If man was commanded to be fruitful and multiply and if sex was a gift from God, we do not know why semen discharge made a person unclean. If childbirth is an occasion of great joy, we do not know why it made the mother unclean. And if there was something medically bad in eating pork, the United States Department of Agriculture would have long ago prohibited raising pigs for food, and the Food and Drug Administration would have banned the sale of this meat.

That this was God’s arbitrary decision is also seen from the fact that what was at one time considered unclean, God can declare clean at another time, as He does in Peter’s vision (Acts 10), where Peter is asked to eat some of the things that were considered unclean. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). Paul also declared, “As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food [or thing] is unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14).

If so, why do you think God made these distinctions of “clean” and “unclean”? What was His purpose behind that? God wanted His people to know that He is a holy God, and He expects His people to live life according to the standard He has set for them.

“For this will be a sign between me and you for generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord who makes you holy” (Exodus 31:13b).

“‘Among those who approach me
I will show myself holy;
in the sight of all the people
I will be honored’” (Leviticus 10:3).

That is why it is repeatedly said, “Be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44, 45).

Also, by making the arbitrary distinction between clean and unclean, God wanted His people to know that He was God; He made the rules, and they were to live by these rules. “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, NAS), by the rules that He has set for us. It is not for us to understand everything God does, but it is for us to obey. Moses, while reiterating the law, makes a very significant comment:

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29).

You see, from the very beginning, it has not been the matter of outward observance of some rules and regulations; it has been the attitude of the heart toward God that was in focus. In the law, Moses said, “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Samuel asked Saul:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22).

It is easier to follow rules and forget the matter of the heart. We are more careful to keep everything clean that is seen by others and forget about the things that only God can see. If my hands are muddy, nobody would want to shake hands with me, so I better keep them clean. If I were wearing a dirty shirt this morning, you would give more attention to my shirt and not hear what I am saying. We want to keep up appearances before man, but we forget about keeping straight before God.

That is why Jesus’ harshest and most scathing rebuke was reserved for the scribes and Pharisees, who thought themselves the purest of all people. They were extremely careful to keep their outward appearance clean before men, but they did not worry about their relationship with God. Jesus told them:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:25-28).

“You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

Quoting Isaiah, Jesus said,

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men’” (Matthew 15:8-9).

Explaining to the disciples, He said,

“Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’…” (Matthew 15:19-20).

This is the impure heart.

To have a pure heart means to have a heart that is committed to living a life that is totally pleasing to God, because “… the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts” (1 Chronicles 28:9). That is why David’s prayer was:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24).

So a pure heart means living by the rules of God, living a life that is pleasing to God. There are certain physical or natural laws that man cannot break without consequences, but God can. For example, you cannot put your hand in the fire and not get burned. That is the law of thermodynamics. Also, you have to have lots of food to feed five thousand people. But God can break these laws. He can let people walk through fire and not even get their clothes singed. He can feed five thousand people with just a couple of loaves of bread. We call these miracles. The word “miracle” means something happens that cannot be explained by natural laws.

Then there are moral laws that man can break but God cannot. Do you know there are certain things I can do that God cannot? I can lie. I can commit adultery. I can cheat. I can steal. But God cannot break the moral laws, nor can He ignore them when they are broken. We are extremely careful to observe the natural laws because they have immediate consequences, but many times, we ignore the moral laws that have far more serious consequences. Having a pure heart means keeping God’s moral laws.

So, first, having a pure heart means living by the rule of God, living a life that is pleasing to God. Secondly, having a pure heart means living for the sole purpose of God, to have a heart that is fully devoted to God. It means single-minded devotion and commitment to God, doing anything and everything in our life for the sole purpose of glorifying God (1 Corinthians 10:31). “Pure” in this sense means unadulterated.

Let me ask you, what is adultery? When we think of adultery, we think of it in the physical sense, having a sexual relation outside the marriage bonds. The Bible does talk about this kind of adultery and certainly prohibits that. However, the Bible talks about spiritual adultery far more than physical adultery. There is a whole book written to deal with the issue of the spiritual adultery of the people of God, the Book of Hosea. There are many chapters in the Old Testament that deal with the spiritual adultery of the people of God, for example, Ezekiel 16 and 22.

In the New Testament, Jesus said you cannot worship God and mammon. When we devote our hearts to anything that is other than the cause of God, we commit spiritual adultery. As James said:

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God … . Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded (James 4:4, 8).

Both the Old and New Testaments say,

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. This is the first and the greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38; also Deuteronomy 6:5).

This is a pure heart in the spiritual sense.

How Can We Have a Pure Heart?

Now the question is how can we have a pure heart, a heart that is morally clean? A heart that is fully devoted to God?

First of all, we have to realize that we, in and of ourselves, cannot attain a heart that is morally pure and fully devoted to God. As the Bible repeatedly tells us, “The Lord saw … that every inclination of the thoughts of his [man’s] heart was evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). As the prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9). And,

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil (Jeremiah 13:23).

In his book, The Sermon on the Mount, Kent Hughes quotes a nineteenth-century Russian novelist, Ivan Turgenev:

“I do not know what the heart of a bad man is like. But I do know what the heart of a good man is like. And it is terrible.”162

We Can Have a Pure Heart

Although it is impossible for us to have a pure heart in and of ourselves, we can have a pure heart by the grace of God. What is impossible for man is possible for God. A pure heart is a gift from God, and it comes by a new birth, by a new creation, and by the Spirit living in us.

God had promised in the Old Testament through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33), and “I will give them singleness of heart and action” (Jeremiah 32:39). This was finally fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ, Who makes us a new creation with a new heart (2 Corinthians 5:17).

There are ways we can maintain the purity of our heart, and one of the most primary is our time in the Word of God. As the psalmist said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word” (Psalm 119:9), and, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).

A second way to maintain the purity of our heart is through fellowship with the people of God. It helps to be accountable to one another. Solomon said:

Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their work:
If one falls down,
his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls
and has no one to help him up! (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

That is why the author of the Book of Hebrews exhorts us, “Let us consider how we can spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

Thirdly, we can train our heart for pure living by doing the works of God. As we are involved in His service and as God uses us for the blessing of others, we are encouraged towards our devotion to God and to keeping our hearts morally pure.

A Pure Heart Is Evidenced by the Way We Live

How do we know if someone has a pure heart? The pure heart is evidenced by the way we live. As Peter says, a person devoted to the Lord “does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2).

And Now the Blessing Promised

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” is without a doubt the most comprehensive of all the blessings, just as being pure in heart is the most comprehensive requirement of a believer’s life. Nothing but the sight of God will satisfy the longings of the disciple’s heart.

What Does It Mean to See God?

Of course, it means seeing Him literally when we will be with Him for eternity, as John the Apostle says, “We know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

… .The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads (Revelation 22:3-4).

That is what we are looking forward to – beyond college degrees, beyond good jobs and the happy life here on earth, beyond secured retirement.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you (1 Peter 1:3-4).

The Ultimate Blessing this Beatitude Promises

The last words in the beatitude passage, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,” summarize all of the beatitudes.

The only way anyone can see God in this sense and be with Him for eternity is to have established a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

But How about this Life?

The Christian life is not just “pie in the sky.” It is pie in my hand right now. If we live with a pure heart, a life that is morally pleasing to God and fully devoted to Him, we will enjoy God’s presence in our life right here, right now. Peter says:

Though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an expressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:8).

Job saw God. “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). David experienced God’s presence in his life.

How priceless is your unfailing love!
Both high and low among men
find refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house;
you give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light (Psalm 36:7-9).

The greatest blessing and the noblest goal of the Christian life is to know God, to experience His presence in our daily life, and to live for His glory. Paul made this the goal for his life, as he said:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him … I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3:7-10).

If we have this goal for our life, the outcome will be a daily walk with God that delights God, blesses us, and fills our life with joy until the time we go to be with Him forever. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”


160 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 15 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Imanuel Christian on June 1, 2003.

161 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by The International Bible Society. Used by permission.

162 R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2001), p. 56.

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13. A Pinch of Salt in the Recipe for Persecution (Matthew 5:13-16)

Introduction

When a foreign national lives in our country, but is as an employee of his home government, when he gathers information and builds relationships here for the benefit of his home government, and when he acts as a public representative of his home government, what do we call him?

When he does all these things but keeps his foreign allegiance secret, what do we call him?

The one guest is an ambassador, while the other guest is a spy. Now which guest would you prefer to have as your neighbor?

Outline of Matthew’s Gospel

Outline of Matthew’s Gospel from the standpoint of discipling the nations

    1. First hinge: Matthew 4:18-5:1 – Jesus called together His disciples, then He demonstrated His ministry style (4:23); when He saw the multitudes, He sat down and taught the disciples (5:1).

    2. Second hinge: Matthew 9:35-10:5a – Jesus demonstrated His ministry style (9:35); when He saw the multitudes He felt compassion for them, then He called together His disciples and gave them authority (10:1) and taught them (10:5ff).

    3. Third hinge: Matthew 28:16-20 – Jesus called together His disciples, and by implication gave them authority to make disciples of all nations in His name.

The progression seems to be that Jesus made disciples through teaching by example and by word; then He sent His disciples to teach by example and by word, and finally He sent His disciples to make disciples. Jesus made disciples and ministered, then Jesus sent the disciples to minister, then Jesus sent the disciples to make disciples.

Our text comes just after this first hinge in the Gospel of Matthew. We are listening to Jesus give instruction to new disciples, disciples who have seen His works but now need to hear His message. The message commences with a description not of outward works that should characterize disciples, but with beatitudes that describe a fundamental change of heart. There is so much to be noticed in the beatitudes, but I want us to begin reading them now asking ourselves, “Why would anyone suffer persecution for living out these heart attitudes?”

Matthew 5:3-12

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are those who mourn,

For they shall be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek,

For they shall inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

For they shall be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful,

For they shall obtain mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart,

For they shall see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers,

For they shall be called sons of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”164

Notice that there is nothing objectionable in the beatitudes that would lead to persecution.165 The cause of persecution is made specific in Matthew 5:11, “because of Me.” Persecution of itself does not bring blessing, but persecution for the cause of righteousness in Christ Jesus carries the promise of blessing.

Notice in Matthew 5:12 that the persecution of the prophets is mentioned. What makes a prophet a prophet – what he does or what he says? What got the Old Testament prophets into trouble and persecution – their actions or their words? In the New Testament, what caused John the Baptist to suffer persecution and death – his actions (baptizing Jesus, for instance) or his words? It was not their actions but their prophetic words. “Because of Me” assumes a vocal witness to Jesus, otherwise how could the disciples be said to suffer on His account?

Salt and Light

As we approach our text, we cannot help but be influenced by the temperature of the culture around us. We are being told that our calling as salt and light primarily references good works. The world would like for Christians to remain in our corner doing good and to stay out of the arena of public speech. The world is very happy to honor Christians who live lives of superior goodness, as long as we keep our mouths shut about sin and righteousness and judgment. I am sure that names immediately spring to mind of Christians who are honored by the world for their good works, primarily because those Christians have not been bold about proclaiming Christ.

I was very interested to see that Time magazine’s cover this week features “Missionaries Under Cover.” When I read Time, I feel as though I am reading the very spirit of this world, and so it impressed me greatly to find that some missionaries are looked upon favorably by the world. One of them, Edward Miller, is presently in Iraq trying to provide food for Iraqi psychiatric patients, but Time reports:

One thing is not on his to-do list: evangelizing …

Back in Baghdad, Mennonite Committee employee Miller feels no impulse at all to share his faith with his clients … he says, “You have to realize that Christianity has been part of the Middle East for 2,000 years. People here know all about my religion and don’t need me to explain it. I don’t feel I have anything more to teach the Muslims than they have to teach me.”166

Missionary Miller is in no danger of being persecuted for Jesus’ sake. So long as he neglects the testimony of the gospel, he may even win the world’s applause, but can he really be salty or bright? Let us look at these three verses again.

13 You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. 14 You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

In both proverbs, Jesus makes His true disciples the subject and the fallen world the setting:you are the salt of the earth … . you are the light of the world.” There is much speculation in scholarly literature about the points of similarity between the nature of salt and the nature of the disciples of Jesus, but the main point is abundantly clear: we are in marked contrast to the world. Salt contrasts with bland food and light with darkness. Wherever light enters, darkness is automatically dispelled. Paul asks in 2 Corinthians 6:14, “what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?” Light and darkness cannot abide together because they are antithetical to one another.

The second point of similarity is that we are not only in contrast with the world, we are a marked improvement. Salt contrasts with bland food for the benefit of the eater; light contrasts with darkness for the benefit of those who are in darkness. Just as very little salt goes a long way to flavoring a recipe and as very little light is necessary to penetrate darkness, even so just a few genuine Christians in a community improves greatly the morale of the whole society. When my wife and I were planting churches in East Africa, we found that even when two per cent of the members in a village were abiding in Christ, the pagans began to feel uncomfortable doing their acts of wickedness in public. People began to feel the need to find a place away from the community center in order to indulge themselves in their sins.

But notice that the light is not equated with good works. In verse 16, the light illumines the good works in such a way that men notice them and give glory to our Father in heaven. What is it that lights up our works to the glory of God? The longer I studied this passage, the more I came to believe that it is our verbal testimony to Jesus Christ that illumines the works and causes them to be for the praise of His glory. Many are doing works that the world calls good but that do not cause the world to glorify God; in fact, such works often have the unintended effect of glorifying the worker! Good works by themselves are not light; they must be illuminated by words that direct attention and tribute to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Salt also, as it is used elsewhere in the New Testament, is a word picture for speech rather than for works.

3 meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, 4 that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. 5 Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. 6 Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one (Colossians 4:3-6).

In Colossians 4:6, Paul calls for gracious speech, seasoned with salt. The context is speech that makes manifest the mystery of Christ’s gospel. It was his speech that got Paul chained and put in prison. You would think that Paul would be asking prayer for deliverance from prison, but for him it was far more important that he make manifest the gospel and that the Colossians also have a vocal and effectual apologetic. It is salty speech that results in persecution for Christ’s sake even today.

A third point that both proverbs have in common is irony. In my opinion, the scholars work too hard to uncover the reason for the salt losing its flavor, etc.167 The fact is that salt should never lose its flavor, any more than light should lose its light. Salt is salty; light is light. How could it be otherwise? It is ironic, totally unexpected, to find salt without saltiness and light without light. So also is it unthinkable that a follower of Jesus would be without a clear testimony to His glory.

Who Is the Light of the World?

Even though the context of these proverbs convinces me that Jesus is primarily exhorting us to confess His name rather than to do good works, the grammar forces me to go deeper. Throughout John’s Gospel, the “Light of the world” is Jesus. John describes Jesus with these words: “He was the true Light which coming into the world enlightens every man” (John 1:9). Jesus Himself says in John 8:12: “I am the Light of the world.”

If Jesus is the Light of the world, why does He say in Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world”? We can’t all be the light of the world, because John is very explicit about saying that John the Baptist “was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of the Light” (John 1:8).

Jesus answered this question for us in John 8:12 when He said, “He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.” The disciple of Jesus has light in himself because he is in Christ, who is the “Light” of the world. You are the light of the world because Christ is in you, and He is Light.

The sad converse of this truth that Jesus’ disciples are the light of the world is that the world is in darkness. How is it possible for someone to go from darkness into “having the light of life”? Jesus calls you and me to place our faith in Him, because He died for our sins according to the Scripture, and was buried and rose again on the third day according to the Scripture, and was seen of many witnesses. When you place your faith in Jesus and His death on the cross for you, Jesus promises you eternal life in Him. Then you too will have the light of life. The followers of Jesus are in Christ, and because we are in Christ, we are the light of the world.

Words or Works?

Now in Matthew 5:13-16 when we are described as salt and light, is Jesus describing our words as being salt and light, or our works? Neither. The longer we study this passage, the more we are forced to the conclusion that Jesus is not strictly describing either words or works. Just as He did so powerfully in the beatitudes, Jesus is describing an inward character transformation that precedes and motivates both the words and the works.

Listen carefully to these statements, Christian: “You are the salt of the earth … you are the light of the world [emphasis mine].” Not what you say, not what you do, but who you are in Christ. When Jesus says, “Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works,” He cannot mean that we should do our works visibly before men. Because in the same sermon at Matthew 6:1-4, He says, “do not do your charitable deeds before men to be seen by them … that your charitable deed may be in secret [emphasis mine].” Not what you do, but what you are in Christ will illuminate all of your actions, so that when men see your good works, they will glorify your Father in heaven.

Notice that the cults and man-made religions follow a philosophy of ministry that is directly opposed to the teaching of Jesus. Mormonism and Islam both teach that charitable deeds should be done publicly as a way to promote the religion, but they do not permit the testimony of Jesus to be taught. Jesus’ doctrine, however, is rather to hide the charitable deeds and make manifest His testimony. His own example bears out this same remarkable philosophy, because whenever He did a great miracle or act of mercy, His practice was to instruct the people to keep His works quiet, but to proclaim boldly the kingdom of God. When we follow His doctrine and example, we make our works inconspicuous and His testimony manifest, and that is how people who see our good works will end up glorifying our Father.

When we are at our saltiest and our brightest, men must either persecute us for Christ’s sake or else glorify our Father. In John 10, there was a division among the Jews because of Jesus’ sayings (10:19), and some took up stones to kill him. Jesus asked them, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?” But they answered, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy and because You, being a man, make Yourself God” (10:32-33). The question was not what Jesus did or what He said, but who He was. Not words, and not works. Essential character.

An Inward and On-going Transformation

We have passed through three levels of gradually deepening understanding of Jesus’ proverbs of salt and light, but I do not want to go on before cracking open the window on a fourth level of understanding that continues to elude me. This truth that is so difficult to comprehend is that we are the light of the world, not only because Christ abides in us and we in Him, but also because we are being transformed into His image who is the Light of the world. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 3:15-18, says this:

15 But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. 16 Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.

There was a veil laid upon my heart between the Word of God and my mind, such that I could not receive its truth (2 Corinthians 3:14). But when I turned to the Lord, that veil was taken away so that I could gaze deeply into the Word. That Word is now for me not veiled but bright as a mirror in which I see, not the image I expected to see, but the glory of the Lord. It dawns upon me as I gaze into His glorious image that I am seeing the reflection of my own unveiled face. Because of the Spirit of God dwelling in me, my face glows even more gloriously than the face of Moses did (2 Corinthians 3:7-8). The longer I continue to look into the mirror of the Word, the more I recognize that there is a transformation taking place deep within me that will continue until Christ is fully formed in me, and I am like Him because I see Him as He is.

Paul goes on to say in chapter 4:

3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. 5 For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.

The fourth level of understanding the salt and light proverbs of Jesus focuses not on works or words but a character that is being transformed more and more into the image of Jesus Himself. Our hearts contain more and more the light of the knowledge of the glory of God; our faces shine more and more with the face of Jesus Christ. But withal, the treasure is in a most unlikely clay jar, so that when the world sees it they will glorify our Father who is in heaven, since they must recognize that the excelling power is of God and not of us.

No Room for Hypocrisy

Jesus had complete integrity. All that He said and all that He did flowed out of His character as the Son of God. This is what made Him the Light of the world, and this is why He becomes so angry at the hypocrisy of those around Him. This is why it is crucial for believers to move beyond the interpretation of His proverbs as primarily having to do with outward acts of righteousness rather than an inward transformation.

Nicodemus is typical of those who do the works but are afraid to name the name of Jesus. He is remembered as the one “who came by night.” Or how about “Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38-39)? They did the good work of burying Jesus, and they did their good work in secret – not because of humility but because of cowardice. These are lighted lamps with cast-iron lampshades, and Nicodemus and Joseph were not alone in their hypocrisy. John makes this observation on the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:42-43):

42 Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.

I realize that there are many hypocrites today (as in Jesus’ day) who are only too happy to confess Him, but by their actions, they deny Him. Nevertheless, that type of hypocrisy does not seem to be His focus here with the proverbs of salt and light.

Nick and Joe Today

In our day, Americans are especially susceptible to the hypocrisy of Nicodemus and Joseph. We find it easier to go about our own business than to represent our true homeland. We say, “Well, if I do my business with excellence, God will know that I intend it for His glory.” Sure, but then you will not be an ambassador for Christ but a spy. “I don’t have the gift of evangelism.” Sure, but at least you know the gospel. How hard is it to say, “Jesus died for my sins according to the Scripture”? “Well, but I could lose my job.” On the contrary, it is highly unlikely that any American could lose his job for saying, “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God who rose from the dead.” If you do lose your job for your testimony, you have grounds for a lawsuit. What we really mean when we say, “I’m not allowed to give the gospel at work,” is that we might lose our opportunities for promotion – in fact, we might be persecuted for Jesus’ name’s sake.168

A zealous Christian woman once came to her small group for prayer. She was a healthcare professional working in a public school where one of the students had terminal cancer. Here was a child who needed the Light of the world desperately, but she was a public employee and not permitted to evangelize. We prayed for her and gave the only advice the Bible gives, “When they tell you to speak no more in this name, speak anyway.” Her courageous witness had much to do with young Harry trusting in Jesus. But it did not stop there. Whenever Patty would encourage Harry with words of Scripture, Patty’s two co-workers would listen; Harry himself began to be a bold witness among his friends and once even shared his faith in a public meeting. Patty got invited to his home and was able to meet his Buddhist parents. And to this day, Patty has never been fired, demoted, or reprimanded. But what if she had? Wouldn’t Harry on his way to heaven be worth it?

Patty, you are the light of the world. Not just because of your work of mercy, nor yet because of your faithful witness, but because Christ Jesus, the Light of the world, lives in you and has made you His ambassador. And you refuse to hide it.


163 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 19 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Colin McDougall on June 29, 2003.

164 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New King James Version. Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee. All rights reserved.

165 Peter makes this point when he quotes the persecution beatitude in 1 Peter 3:13-14. Notice that Peter references this beatitude in the context of vocal apologetics (3:15). We will see more of this later.

166 David Van Biema, “Keeping the Faith Without Preaching It,” Time 161.26 (June 30, 2003), p. 40.

167 The fact that this is a third class condition in Greek has led scholars on something of a goose chase to discover instances where salt loses its savor. Norman Hillyer is correct when he recognizes, “The stability of sodium chloride as a chemical compound has raised a problem about salt being said to be liable to lose its quality of saltness.” But then he goes on to list four colorful accounts of how salt reportedly lost its savor in New Testament Palestine. “Salt” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1986), p. 446.

168 Some feel that bold statements of the gospel in public are unwise or unproductive. We would do well to notice that the armor of God is intended for all believers to put on (Ephesians 6:10-17) so that they may engage in the spiritual warfare of prayer (Ephesians 6:19), praying especially that we may boldly proclaim the gospel (Ephesians 6:19-20). Notice that Paul’s preaching cost him his job advancement as a lawyer, his social position as a Pharisee, and landed him in jail. His concern was not that he was unproductive or unwise but that he might not be speaking boldly enough!

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14. Not to Abolish But to Fulfill (Matthew 5:17-20)

Matthew 5:17-20

Introduction172

People are experts at justifying themselves. Let me repeat that. People are experts at justifying themselves. Human beings have a unique ability to convince themselves that no matter what they have done they are “okay.” Think about it. How many times have you heard, “Well it wasn’t the best choice, but it will be okay.” Or “Yes I know I shouldn’t have done such and so, but it’s okay. It’s not like I do that all the time.” God has given people creative minds, and we tend to use our powers for evil and not good.

It seems we are most creative when we are convincing ourselves that we are good enough.

  • enough for a company that turned us down for a job.
  • enough for a college that rejected us.
  • enough for a guy that never called us back.
  • enough for a girl that said, “no thanks.”

It seems that no matter what happens to us, most people have this keen ability to make themselves feel better. But if you notice carefully, the self-delusional part always has to do with one thing. When people excuse themselves or justify the things that happen to them or their behavior, they are refusing to recognize that someone else has a standard that they didn’t measure up to.

When the college turns you down – hey, face it, you didn’t meet their standard. When the swim team cut you – hey, you weren’t fast enough. When you didn’t get the promotion – hey, you weren’t expert enough. When you failed the proficiency exam – face it, you didn’t understand the material well enough. When you were denied the loan – maybe you do have bad credit. But we hate that. It’s too painful to deal with, so we justify ourselves. “Oh, she doesn’t know what good is.” “Oh, they just don’t like technical managers.” “The test just asked the wrong questions.” “Everyone has a lot of debt these days.”

The Spiritual Transition

Sadly, the way people justify themselves in their public lives, they also justify themselves in their spiritual and personal lives. When you examine their justifications for their lack of personal righteousness, you find that the standard of these justifications are as individual as the people making them. It seems at times that we are living in the days of the judges again, and we can say that “everyone does what is right in his own eyes.” We could add “and is convinced that it is the right thing to do!” People have taken their own ideas about what righteousness and godliness are and have decided that they will live as consistently as possible with them.

One of the major problems of the post-modern mindset is that people have lost the desire to appeal to a standard outside of themselves for personal righteousness. Those that have the desire are not able because no one wants to set up a standard for fear of imposing on anyone else. And so people drift. They make up their own standard, compare themselves to it, and surprise, surprise, they usually measure up! That’s one of the best features of your own personal standard of righteousness; it is custom-made to fit your idiosyncrasies. We could better say “idiot-syncrasies” because it is plain lunacy to think we can come up with our own standard and that it is of any significant value.

List Keeping

Why are our standards for personal righteousness flawed? One reason is because we are flawed. But another reason has to do with the way we practice our standard. Human beings tend to like lists of rules. Why? Because they can be checked off. We like lists of rules because we can put them in our “Franklin Planner” or our “Palm device,” and when we have done them, it feels good to check them off. Nothing feels better than checking off a good deed. The problem is that lists of righteousness are dangerous because a list has the uncanny ability to make me feel righteous simply because I’ve checked off something. Hear that again. The simple act of checking something off of a list makes me feel like I’ve arrived, if only for a moment.

Think about it. No one writes on their list, “Love my wife today.” Why? Because it violates one of the basic time management principles for task making. A task must be measurable. Well, how do I measure love? As soon as I ask that question, my mind says, “Well, maybe you should do the dishes.” So I do the dishes, and my wife doesn’t feel more loved. I tell her I love her as I’m walking out the door. But she doesn’t look more loved when I come back home. So I change the task. Instead of saying, “Love my wife,” it says, “Give Julie flowers.” Aha! I can measure that. I can DO that, and when I do it, I tell myself I love her. Love is a good example because there are many things a husband can do for his wife simply because he has to, but without doing them because he loves her and vice versa. Why do these things consistently fail to produce the expected results? It comes down to the heart. If the heart is not in it, love is not kindled. Flowers wilt, and dishes get dirty again, so unless these activities are done from a loving heart, their effect is minimal. Likewise in the spiritual arena, if the heart is not in it, obedience to God’s standard for personal righteousness rather than our own righteousness is not attained. We can always find a way to excuse ourselves.

When it comes to personal righteousness, when it comes to living a life that is pleasing to God, when it comes to following Jesus Christ, it is the heart that matters. Remember this: Checklists flatter, but it’s the heart that matters. As we consider Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, we see that He is focusing His divine spotlight on the behavior of those who would follow Him. In verses 5:17-20, the text for this lesson, He zeros in on their motivation for following.

The Beatitudes

Let’s take a brief look at the context of our passage, Matthew 5:17-20. The Beatitudes come before in verses 1-12, and they summarize the characteristic attitudes of those who would follow Jesus. They represent ideals to strive for: spiritual (physical poverty), grief, meekness, starving for righteousness, mercy, pure, peacemakers, persecuted. Some of the people following Jesus already had those attitudes, while others were being encouraged to take them up. These are attitudes and behaviors that will characterize the life of a follower of Christ.

Salt and Light
Matthew 5:13-16

These attitudes immediately raise a question. Why live like this? Let’s face it. Who really wants to be meek? One reason is that it makes us salty in a bland world. Too often, we taste just like the world, and folks, the world doesn’t taste very good. Oh, it looks good, but like bad BBQ, the sauce can only cover so much.

So Jesus gave His disciples the justification for a salty life. Live this way so people can taste it. Why be salty; why be bright? “So that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven173 (Matthew 5:16). Notice our good deeds are an opportunity to gain honor for our father in heaven! Why be merciful? For God’s honor. Why be pure? For God’s honor. Why make a million bucks, but live like you make $50,000? For God’s honor. Why be meek in a world that says, “Hey, you have the right!”? For God’s honor! Paul echoes this theme in Titus when he says:

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. 12 It trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 as we wait for the happy fulfillment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. 14 He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good (Titus 2:11-14).

In the next chapter, Paul goes on to say:

This saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on such truths, so that those who have placed their faith in God may be intent on engaging in good works. These things are good and beneficial for all people (Titus 3:8).

The teaching of our Lord is that the life of someone who claims to follow God should be characterized by these attitudes and behaviors. The problem was that Jesus didn’t quite teach like others around Him, and it shocked people. All this talk about meekness, poverty, and persecution seems to have provoked a question in the minds of Jesus’ listeners:

  • this something new?
  • You teaching something novel, Jesus?
  • did You get this?
  • You an iconoclast?
  • You trying to remove all that our people have believed and taught for centuries?
  • You stand against Moses and the Prophets?

Jesus’ answer is very clear. In verse 17, He says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.

When Jesus says, “Do not think … ,” we can assume that there are people who were thinking exactly that, that He was bringing something entirely new. His teaching was so radical, so antithetical to what they had come to believe that Jesus seemed to be turning established tradition on its ear. The people believed that the Law of Moses was the unique possession of the Jews. To repeal it would have seemed to be blasphemy.

These people would have appreciated nothing more than for Jesus to be teaching some kind of new, wild-eyed doctrine so that they could characterize it as “new” and then dismiss it. But Jesus doesn’t allow them this option. Instead, He teaches then that He stands directly in line with the Law and the Prophets. How does He stand in line with them? He fulfills them.

If you’re thinking with an inquisitive mind, you should immediately ask yourself, “Okay, that sounds clear, but what does ‘fulfill’ mean?” The interpretations of the meaning of “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 basically fall into three categories.174

1) Some understand that Jesus came to do the Law, and this is a statement that His actions fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law. The problem is that Jesus’ teaching is in view here, not His actions. Notice at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the people were “amazed by his teaching because he taught them like one who had authority, not like their experts in the law” (Matthew 7:28b-29).

2) Others understand that Jesus fulfills the Law in that He completes it. This is to say they understand the word translated “fulfill” to mean complete in the sense of revealing its true intentions. This option is certainly there, but there is more to “fulfill” in Matthew than just explaining the Law.175

3) Others suggest that Jesus came to support the Law, that is, to tell people to obey it.

4) A fourth and preferable option becomes clear as we look at how Matthew has used the idea of fulfillment up to this point.

Beginning in the first chapter of his Gospel, Matthew has taken great pains to point to Jesus as the Christ, who came in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Jesus did not descend from heaven unannounced to a people who had no inkling of His appearance. No! For Matthew, the birth and early life of Christ were predicted centuries before His arrival, and when He appeared, He fulfilled all that was spoken of Him.

Look carefully at the first four chapters of Matthew:

1. 1:22-23. “This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: ‘Look a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel…’” [a quotation from Isaiah 7:14].

2. 2:4-6. Speaking of Herod the Great: “After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the Law he asked them where the Christ was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem of Judea,’ they said, ‘for it is written this way by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no way least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’” [a quotation from Micah 5:2].

3. 2:15. “Then he got up, took the child and his mother at night, and went to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: ‘I called my Son out of Egypt’” [a quotation from Hosea 11:1].

4. 2:17. “Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone’” [a quotation from Jeremiah 31:15].

5. 3:3. Speaking of John the Baptist: “For he is the one who was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight’” [a quotation from Isaiah 40:3].

6. 4:12-16. “Now when Jesus heard that John had been imprisoned, he went into Galilee. While in Galilee, he moved from Nazareth to make his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way by the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, and on those sitting in the region and the shadow of death a light has dawned’” [a quotation from Isaiah 9:1-2].

Notice that Matthew has been laying the foundation for this fulfillment theme throughout the first four chapters, so when Jesus says He came to fulfill, Matthew wants us to understand the statement in light of what has come before. That is to say that the Law and the Prophets pointed to Him prophetically. So how could people think that He came to get rid of the Law and the Prophets? They point to Christ, and Jesus is aware that His ministry fulfills all that was spoken before. Remember Luke 24:44:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).

How long do you think that conversation was? Three minutes? Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a sound bite from that conversation! Imagine, to hear Jesus, the Messiah Himself, open the Old Testament and say, “See here, I’m the Man!”

Now it is true that often in Scripture, words have more than one meaning and may carry additional significance, and this passage is no different. Yes, without a doubt, the Law and the Prophets point to Jesus. But there is more here because the focus in the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ authority to teach and make claims on the lives of His followers. In doing so, He explains to them precisely what the Law and the Prophets intended. Our passage today functions as a preamble to Matthew 5:27-48, where Jesus lays out in clear fashion what the Law expected all along. You know those passages: “You have heard it said … but I say to you.” The emphasis there is on Jesus’ authoritative teaching in contrast to the teaching of the day, which depended heavily on evaluating what others before them had said. Instead, Jesus comes and declares what the Word of God means and appeals to no one but Himself. But a careful look will show that He is not really teaching anything novel; rather He stands in line with what Moses and the Prophets taught. And what did they teach? They taught that a life lived righteously before God must be lived in heartfelt obedience.

I agree with a teacher friend of mine who has said that the righteousness Jesus is primarily talking about here is the righteousness followers of Jesus are to live out. Jesus is not discussing the righteousness imputed to us because of His work on the cross. We find that theme in other places, but here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ primary focus is on those who claim to be His disciples. And His point, as in the Book of James, is simple: if you would follow Me, your lifestyle matters!

Notice please the emphasis on proper living in the Sermon on the Mount. We call the first 12 verses the beatitudes because we expect Christians to strive to “be” like them. Notice verses 5:13-16, the passage Colin McDougal will teach in the next lesson. As we’ve mentioned already, the theme is summarized in verse 16: “Let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.” Notice the passages that follow verse 20. There the focus will be on avoiding murder, not committing adultery, not getting divorced, not swearing, not retaliating, and loving your enemies. All of these are behaviors Jesus is commending – no, commanding – to His audience.

Matthew 6 opens with the statement: “Be careful about not living righteously merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you will have no reward with your father in heaven.” Matthew 7 ends with the injunction: “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Notice many people will come to Him having “done” many things in His name, but what is Jesus’ response? “I never knew you. Go away from me you law breakers!” (Matthew 7:23). He then goes on to say, “Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man… [but] who ever hears these words and does not do them is like a foolish man” (emphasis mine). The entire Sermon on the Mount is taken up largely with the theme of how followers of Jesus should live. My teacher friend pleads with us to remove the barriers to obedience. I would add my voice to that plea and say, “Do not think to yourself that you are already righteous enough. Yes, of course, positionally the Christ has become your righteousness, BUT Jesus is calling you to live that righteousness out in your life.” Paul echoes this theme when he answers the ridiculous question, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (referring to Romans 6:1). Of course not.

So let’s be clear that neither Jesus nor I are teaching a works salvation. Instead, and I think the witness of Scripture is clear here, the life of the follower of Jesus will reflect the righteousness of the Savior.

Jots and Tittles

After declaring that He came to fulfill, or in fulfillment of the Law, Jesus proceeds to affirm the value of the Law. Notice carefully verse 18: “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.” This statement confirms the fact that Jesus came in fulfillment of the Law. We don’t often think about the Law as prefiguring Christ, but the writer of Hebrews shows us that it does. In addition, there are prophecies in the Law that look forward to the coming of Messiah and His work. What’s more, the Law contains prophecies about the punishment and restoration of Israel. All these things must take place.

We have the idea that only the prophets could prophesy. We look at the Law of Moses and see a piece of legal material that only a lawyer could love. We see a text as “dry as toast and only half as tasty.” But I plead with you, look carefully at the revelation of God to Moses, and you will see that it points to Christ.

It is easy for us to see how the prophets point to Him, but it is a little harder for us to see how the Law does the same thing. There are three ways in which the Law points to Christ:

1. There are prophecies in the Torah about the Coming One (Genesis 3:15; Genesis 49:10; Numbers 24:17; Deuteronomy 18:18). These passages function like words of the commonly recognized prophets.

2. Another way the Law points to Jesus is in the symbols and ritual of the Israelite religious system. This can most clearly be seen in the sacrifices. I don’t think anyone would doubt that when John said in John 1:29, “[Behold] the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” that he was thinking about anything other than the pure, spotless lambs that Israel sacrificed over, and over, and over.

3. But there is a third way that people neglect. The teaching function of the Law also points to Christ’s teaching ministry. Notice the end of the Sermon on the Mount. The people were amazed at His teaching. Notice throughout the Sermon that Jesus doesn’t appeal to the authority of the Law. He appeals to His own authority as One who speaks the words of God. In many respects, the scene of the Sermon on the Mount was prefigured by the events at Sinai. There Moses went up, came down, and taught Israel. Here Jesus also ascends a mountain and teaches Israel gathered at His feet.

If it seems difficult that events which are not prophetic can be understood as “foreshadowing” events in the life of Christ, look at Matthew 2:15 and see how a statement of historical fact in Hosea can be construed by Matthew to be a prophetic statement.

It is not only prophecies that look forward, but events do as well. Perhaps the greatest “prophetic event” is the Exodus. That great deliverance prefigures the salvation that we have experienced and will experience completely in heaven. On the day when the redeemed gather together before the throne, they will sing an old, old song. The Song of Moses!176

So Jesus the Christ stands here before His disciples and proclaims the enduring quality of the Law by saying that all of it must come to pass. Please don’t get distracted by the little bits of the letters – the jots, or titles. It is true that Jesus is referring to the smallest letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the smallest portion of a letter, but these are simply illustrations, hyperbole, exaggeration, to make His point. What is His point? “God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai points to Me, and every last bit of it will be fulfilled!” It’s like Maxwell House coffee, “Good to the last drop.”

Therefore, He says in verses 19-20:

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do this will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19-20).

What is Jesus doing here? Is He taking us back to some kind of obedience to the Law as a means of salvation? No! But He is focusing His lens on the connection between faithful, heartfelt obedience and those who assume they will have a position in the kingdom because of their own home-made, self-justifying righteousness.

If His disciples believed that they could earn a place in the kingdom by legalistic, self-justification, instead of with heartfelt obedience to God, they were wrong. That attitude has no part in the kingdom. Instead, kingdom righteousness requires what the Law itself required. It requires heartfelt obedience characterized by the love of God.

Now pay careful attention here. Let me say it again. Please do not put words in my mouth or attribute things to me which I am not saying. JESUS IS NOT SAYING THAT YOU MUST EARN YOUR WAY INTO THE KINGDOM BY BEING MORE RIGHTEOUS THAN THE SCRIBES AND PHARISEES. INSTEAD, HIS FOCUS IS ON THOSE WHO THOUGHT THAT THEIR RIGHTEOUSNESS, HOME-MADE AS IT WAS, COULD GAIN THEM ENTRANCE SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY DID SOME WORKS. JESUS’ POINT IS THAT, ON THE CONTRARY, RIGHTEOUSNESS CHARACTERIZED BY HEARTFELT OBEDIENCE IS THE ONLY KIND THAT IS WORTH ANYTHING AT ALL.

Jesus’ point is not to talk about the imputed righteousness that we are so familiar with from Romans and Galatians. Instead, Jesus speaks in the context of the covenant between God and Israel. That covenant demanded heartfelt obedience just like Jesus does:

Please notice Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which became one, if not the central, passage in Israel’s religion: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one, and your shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength” (NKJV).

So realize that the LORD your God is the true God, the faithful God who keeps covenant faithfully with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:9).

Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you except to revere him, to obey all his commandments, to love him, to serve him with all your mind and being (Deuteronomy 10:12).

19 Today I invoke heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set life and death, blessing and curse, before you. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live! 20 I also call on you to love the LORD your God, to obey him and be loyal to him, for he gives you life and enables you to live continually in the land the LORD promised to give to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).

But Israel didn’t really love God from the heart. Instead, they quickly turned from Him and from His standard of righteousness to their own. Oh, it looked like it was God’s righteousness, but major surgery had been performed on it. Its heart had been removed! And as the nation justified itself and changed God’s standard from one of heartfelt obedience to a set of things Israel could do like so many items on a checklist, they fell further and further away from the Lord. When God sent the Prophets to them, their consistent theme was, “Tear your hearts, not your garments!”

Notice the charge of the Prophets, that “religion” is not the same thing as living righteously before the Lord. You cannot make up your own standard and then present that before the Lord as a righteous life.

10 Listen to the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom! Pay attention to our God’s rebuke, people of Gomorrah! 11 “Of what importance to me are your many sacrifices?” says the LORD. “I am stuffed with burnt sacrifices of rams and the fat from steers. The blood of bulls, lambs, and goats I do not want. 12 When you enter my presence, do you actually think I want this – animals trampling on my courtyards? 13 Do not bring any more meaningless offerings; I consider your incense detestable. You observe new moon festivals, Sabbaths, and convocations, but I cannot tolerate sin-stained celebrations. 14 I hate your new moon festivals and assemblies; they are a burden that I am tired of carrying. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I look the other way; when you offer your many prayers, I do not listen, because your hands are covered with blood. 16 Wash! Cleanse yourselves! Remove your sinful deeds from my sight. Stop sinning! 17 Learn to do what is right! Promote justice! Give the oppressed reason to celebrate! Take up the cause of the orphan! Defend the rights of the widow! (Isaiah 1:10-17).

13 The sovereign master says, “These people say they are loyal to me; they say wonderful things about me, but they are not really loyal to me. Their worship consists of nothing but man-made ritual. 14 Therefore I will again do an amazing thing for these people – an absolutely extraordinary deed. Wise men will have nothing to say, the sages will have no explanations” (Isaiah 29:13, 14).

6 With what should I enter the LORD’s presence? With what should I bow before the sovereign God? Should I enter his presence with burnt offerings, with year-old calves? 7 Will the LORD accept a thousand rams, or ten thousand streams of olive oil? Should I give him my firstborn child as payment for my rebellion, my own flesh and blood descendant for my sin? 8 He has told you, O man, what is proper, and what the LORD really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before your God (Micah 6:6-8).

21 “I absolutely despise your festivals. I get no pleasure from your religious assemblies. 22 Even if you offer me burnt and grain offerings, I will not be satisfied; I will not look with favor on your peace offerings of fattened calves. 23 Take away from me your noisy songs; I don’t want to hear the music of your stringed instruments. 24 Justice must flow like water, right actions like a stream that never dries up. 25 You did not bring me sacrifices and grain offerings during the forty years you spent in the wilderness, family of Israel. 26 You will pick up your images of Sikkuth, your king, and Kiyyun, your star god, which you made for yourselves, 27 and I will drive you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD. He is called the God who leads armies! (Amos 5:21-27).

“I wish that one of you would close the temple doors, so that you no longer would light useless fires on my altar. I am not pleased with you,” says the sovereign LORD, “and I will no longer accept an offering from you (Malachi 1:10).

The heart cry of these verses shows us that God always intended Israel to obey Him out of their love for Him. Please do not misunderstand me here. God intended Israel to obey Him out of their love for Him. He never expected them to simply adhere to the letter of the Law. As the testimony of the prophets shows us, when they tried that number, they inevitably began to believe they were genuinely righteous SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY HAD DONE THE LETTER OF THE LAW. So Malachi can say to them, “You hate the Lord’s table.” And they respond, “How? We keep the food on it.” And Malachi responds, “In your hearts you believe it is a weariness.” They were keeping the commandments, but their hearts had been sold on the black market.

Sadly, decades in exile did not cure the nation of this sin. In fact, although it cured them of rank idolatry, it only forced them deeper into ritualistic law keeping. They completely ignored the true message of Malachi. They recognized that God punished them for not keeping the Law, so they elevated it to the level of God and began keeping it according to their own standard.

The issue is not that they made the Law more doable. The Law was already doable. Note carefully now. Perfection through personal effort was not attainable. But God had provided WITHIN the Law a means for the imperfections of Israel to be covered by grace – the sacrifices. That’s why Moses can say in Deuteronomy 30:11-14:

11 This commandment I am giving you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it too remote. 12 It is not in heaven, as though one must say, “Who will go up to heaven to get it for us and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 And it is not across the sea, as though one must say, “Who will cross over to the other side of the sea and get it for us and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 For the thing is very near you--it is in your mouth and mind so that you can do it (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

God intended the Israelites to keep the Law. And that meant striving for the standard of the Father, humbly offering sacrifices, and calling on the grace of God for forgiveness when the inevitable sins were committed.

No, the problem was not that the Pharisees made the Law more doable, but that they changed the standard by which righteousness was evaluated. Whereas, in the Law, the standard was God the Father (Leviticus 19:2): “You must be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”177 The Pharisees said, “No, we will decide what holiness means, and we decide that keeping the rules will suffice!”

We see hints of this in the New Testament. Notice Jesus’ words in Luke 18:9: “Jesus also told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else.”

These people justified themselves. The greatest treatise on these folks is Matthew 23. The point is that they had taken the law of Moses and elevated keeping it to the standard of righteousness. In addition, rather than keeping it, they created a body of tradition around it that allowed them to actually avoid doing what the Law commanded.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the Corban controversy in Mark 7:5-11:

5 The Pharisees and the experts in the law asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with unwashed hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. 7 They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’ 8 Having no regard for the command of God, you hold fast to human tradition.” 9 He also said to them, “You neatly reject the commandment of God in order to set up your tradition. 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you would have received from me is corban’ (that is, a gift for God)” (Mark 7:5-11).

What was the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? It was a self-justifying righteousness. It was righteousness on human terms. It was God’s righteousness watered down and doctored with a non-sugar substitute. Oh, it was sweet, but it rotted your spiritual teeth.

So what does Jesus do? He forces His disciples to learn that the righteousness that must characterize His followers must be a different kind of “righteousness.” It must be better than that of the scribes and Pharisees. How must it be better? It must spring from the heart.

Jesus told the young lawyer in Matthew 22:37: “Jesus said to him, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” Jesus identified this as the greatest commandment. Why? Because if the heart was right, out of it would flow a life that would be pleasing to God. For as Jesus said in Matthew 15:18, it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out of the heart.

James, Jesus’ brother, is going to pick up this theme in his short book when he discusses the relationship between faith and works.

But also notice this was the cry of the prophets as well:

31 “Indeed, a time is coming,” says the LORD, “when I will make a new agreement with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It will not be like the old agreement that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. For they violated that agreement, even though I was a faithful husband to them,” says the LORD. 33 But I will make a new agreement with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the LORD. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. And I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

“I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes19 and carefully observe my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26, 27).

Praise the Lord that when it comes to our salvation, Christ accomplished that work on the cross. And now He calls believers to follow Him and let our good works shine before men so that God might get the glory.

We must ask ourselves, as believers here today who claim to follow Jesus, are our lives characterized by righteousness that comes from the heart, or are we justifying ourselves and lowering God’s standard to simple law keeping?

When we give thanks to God for our food, does that thanksgiving come from a heart that is genuinely thankful for the provision God has given, or are we doing something Christians should do to avoid choking?

When we break bread together, are we really remembering Christ, or are we doing what people who go to churches like ours do on Sunday morning?

When we give, do we give with a genuine sense that all that we have belongs to the Lord? When I give, I’m not giving back to Him a part of what He has given me. No, when I give, I am managing His money the way a banker manages an account.

When I refuse to give that homeless person five dollars because he might spend it on liquor but then use that as an excuse to never give to the poor, I have to ask myself, am I falling into the same trap as the Pharisees?

When I can’t seem to find very many sins in my life to confess because I am ignorant of my own sinfulness, but I confess anyway just in case, does that really demonstrate heartfelt contrition?

Do I pat myself on the back for not killing my brother, but nurse hatred against him anyway? Do I refuse to go speak with him as Scripture commands, but tell myself it’s okay because I haven’t killed him?

Do I justify dishonesty in my business dealings because that customer is not a Christian? Or because I go to church? Or because I’ll confess it later?

Do I justify my lack of engagement with the world or the body of Christ because my family comes first? Do I neglect my family because the “work of the Lord” comes first?

What does righteousness look like at the university? Do I justify my wild behavior by saying, “Well, I’m doing this to get to know them better, so I can witness to them?”

Brothers and sisters, we could come up with many, many more questions to ask, but they all would find their center in one question: Am I loving the Lord my God with all my heart and soul and strength? That life will bring great glory to Him. That is better righteousness.

In closing, one commentator writes:

“The righteousness of which Christ speaks is not the righteousness of life over against the righteousness of faith but the righteousness of life as manifesting the righteousness of faith. The Sermon on the Mount sets forth the genuine works of faith in Christ in contrast with all other so-called works.”178


172 Copyright © 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 18 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Steven H. Sanchez on June 22, 2003. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

173 All Scripture from the NET Bible, BETA 2, Biblical Studies Press, 1994, unless otherwise noted.

174 See D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Zondervan Corp., 1984), p 143, for a nice breakdown. He takes the view that Jesus fulfills the law in that it points to Him like so much prophecy.

175 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) p. 108.

176 Isaiah 2:3; Psalms 25:4-5, 12; 27:11; 32:8; 34:11; 45:4; 51:13; 86:11; 90:12; 94:12; 105:22, 119; 132:12; 143:10; Jeremiah 31:34; Micah 4:2.

177 Leviticus 20:7, 26; 1 Peter 1:15-16.

178 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943).

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15. Avoiding the Sin of Adultery (Matthew 5:27-30)

Introduction179

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell. 30 If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell (Matthew 5:27-30).

One of the things we did on vacation was to have a reunion with some of my college roommates and their wives on Priest’s Lake in Idaho, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. We had not all been together for a number of years, and one of the things that seems to always happen is the retelling of old college stories. One of those was the story of the golf class I took in college.

I decided that golf would be an easy P. E. course. I had played a few games of golf with my dad, and while I never claimed to be great, I thought at least I wasn’t a novice. The golf coach wanted us to practice our pitching using a practice ball – a little plastic ball with holes in it that couldn’t do much damage no matter how hard you hit it. Of course, I, the “old pro,” thought, “Who needs a practice ball when you are as good as I am?” So down went the old hard ball, and as you might guess, there in somewhat downtown Seattle, I hit the ball, topping it, so that it hit the hubcap of a car and then beaned the coach. I found myself retrieving my non-practice ball at his feet. But that wasn’t the end of it! We were practicing our driving, and the drivers had been laid on the grass so that the handles were wet. The only time in my life it has ever happened, I let go with an incredible swing, now with a real practice ball. The driver flew out of my hand and sailed onto the roof of the student union building! Now I had to go up on the roof to retrieve my club!

All that is to say that while I felt confident, it didn’t do any good. I obviously was not good at golf, and my confidence got me into trouble. I believe the scribes and the Pharisees were very much like I was, when I was confident about my golfing skills, only they were confident regarding the Old Testament Law.

When Jesus talks about murder, as we saw in our last lesson, and now about adultery, I can just see these fellows saying to themselves, “These are our strong points. This ought to be good. This ought to be easy.” It is amazing how the Lord takes them at what appears to be their strongest point and shows them to be guilty.

The Context of our Text

Before we begin, we should make a few observations about the context of Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount. As I look at the Sermon on the Mount, a fairly significant factor is the way Jesus interprets the Law, as opposed to the interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees. In many ways, the Sermon on the Mount is a face-off between Jesus and Judaism. You see this confrontation in a number of places, such as in Matthew 5:20, where Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you are not going to make it into the kingdom of God” (my paraphrase). These are pretty strong words, especially for the scribes and Pharisees who thought they had 50-yard line tickets to the kingdom of God. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, you may remember that the people came away saying, “Wow!” They were amazed and said, “This man teaches with authority and not like the scribes.” And so the Sermon on the Mount is a confrontation between Jesus and the scribes and the Pharisees, who will be His most aggressive opponents in the Gospels.

One cannot fully grasp the things Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount without a fairly careful reading of Matthew 23. In Matthew 5 and 6, Jesus is dealing with many of the weaknesses of Judaism, but the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees is somewhat veiled. When you come to Matthew 23, the veil is torn off. Nothing is concealed; there is nothing subtle about Jesus saying, “Woe to you, hypocrites!” Wow! He really lays it on the scribes and the Pharisees. The very things Jesus is dealing with in a more subtle way in the Sermon on the Mount are in neon lights in Matthew 23. One has to understand the Sermon on the Mount against the backdrop of legalistic, Pharisaical Judaism, and how it viewed the Law and righteousness.

When you come to the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-16, Jesus does an end-run on Judaism and the Pharisees. Rather than bringing words of condemnation to Judaism and to the scribes and Pharisees, He brings words of commendation or blessing to those people who are the very ones that Judaism looked down upon.

When Jesus pronounces the blessings of the Beatitudes, in a backwards way, He is reversing the whole value system of Pharisaism. When He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3a), isn’t that the opposite of the scribes and Pharisees? In Matthew 23, they loved the chief places and loved to be called by the chief titles, to throw their weight around and ask Jesus who He thinks He is. They are arrogant!

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” That is not the kind of people who the scribes and Pharisees think are blessed. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4), in particular those who mourn over “sin.” The scribes and the Pharisees didn’t have any reason to mourn over sin; in their minds they were righteous! What was there to mourn about? Mourners should be scorned!

Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5a). Jesus says that after John the Baptist came, men were trying to force their way into the kingdom of God (Matthew 11:12). They were trying to muscle their way in. They weren’t “meek.” Over and over in the Beatitudes, in a backhanded way, Jesus is addressing the weaknesses and the fallacies of their religious, Judaistic system.

Jesus finds it necessary after the introductory section on the Beatitudes to speak about the Law. He has come as the One who is the fulfillment of the Law. Matthew has made that especially emphatic. In the early chapters, Matthew tells us that these things happened in order that the Scriptures might be fulfilled, even some Scriptures we wouldn’t have thought of as being fulfilled: “Out of Egypt have I called my Son” (Matthew 2:15, citing Hosea 11:1). But the point is that Jesus came in fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. When you come to the temptation of the Lord, we see our Lord’s whole mindset is that of the Law. He keeps the Law, and He does not allow Satan to tempt Him to set aside or disregard the Law; He even answers Satan from the Law. If anybody is committed to the Scriptures, it is Jesus! But that is not so of the scribes and the Pharisees!

They began to wonder why Jesus did not use all their buzzwords. He didn’t talk in terms they were accustomed to using. Early on in his ministry, Jesus began to butt heads with them over the interpretation and application of the Law. A case in point is the Sabbath. Why is it that Jesus found it permissible to heal on the Sabbath, as He does over and over again? They, on the other hand, looked at Jesus as a Law-breaker. Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law, and yet from the Pharisees point of view, He is the One who is setting the Law aside. He is the One who is soft on sin.

Another case in point would be the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:2ff). “In the law Moses commanded us,” they say, “to stone to death such women” (John 8:5). That was the Law. Jesus found it necessary in the early phases of His ministry to declare how He stood in regard to the Law, and we see that proclaimed in Matthew 5:17-48. This whole chapter is really about Jesus and the Law. He makes a general statement about that in verses 17-20. Jesus claimed He had not come to set aside the Law, to abolish it. He came to fulfill the Law. Not one jot, not one tittle of the Law, not one dot over an “i” is to be set-aside until all these things have been fulfilled. Jesus is not anti-Law. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law.

When you come to verses 21 and following, we have specific examples of how Jesus demonstrates that He is pro-Law in the sense that He is not abolishing the Law, and in fact, He enhances the Law. He takes it farther than anybody would have expected – or wanted – Him to do. That is where we find ourselves in our lesson.

The Law and Jesus

First, let me just say a word about anger and murder as we see it in Matthew 5:21. Jesus starts where they all start and that is that the Law and the commandments forbid murder. Everybody agrees; murder is wrong, and capital punishment, in this instance, is right. It is wrong to commit murder. Jesus makes the statement of the Law, especially in these first two sections. The one we are addressing here is the commandment about adultery. These are a part of the Ten Commandments. The first commandment is stated. Jesus says, “But I say… .” He does not diminish the Law; He goes beyond and extends the Law. Now this is where some might differ. The question is whether Jesus is just giving the interpretation of the Law that always should have been, or is He actually extending the Law beyond that which anyone in the Old Testament saw it to be?

My sense is that while Jesus is giving us the proper interpretation of the Law, He is also taking us beyond that which anyone thought it to be. We’ll see that further in our next lesson, when we talk about divorce. When Jesus gets through teaching about divorce, no one, not even the conservatives, were willing to go where Jesus went on the matter of adultery and divorce. Nobody! The disciples were saying, “My goodness, Lord. If that is the case, we shouldn’t even marry!” (Matthew 19) Everybody is shocked at where Jesus takes us on this matter. Jesus brings us to the heart of the matter, to the root of sin, but I think there is a sense in which He goes beyond it. One of the battles Jesus had with the scribes and Pharisees was about Moses. Jesus says in Matthew 23:2, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses.”180 Moses was their man. Moses was their hero, and the Law was their turf! They think they are the champions of Moses. What Jesus does is say to them, “You have heard it said … But I say … .” These words grab everybody by the ears. When Jesus talks, He says, “Here is what the Law says, but I say… .” We get the distinct impression that Jesus has more authority than Moses. And He does! It is not surprising that Jesus would take the Law even beyond Moses, and thus raise the standard of righteousness even higher than where the Law took it.

Jesus and the Law

A few observations will help us as Jesus deals with the Law in Matthew 5:21-48, which is all about the Law. Jesus makes a general statement in 5:17-20 that He has come to uphold and fulfill the Law, and not to abolish it. He is pro-Law, not anti-Law. Then we are given specific examples to illustrate the point. The first two are out of the Ten Commandments. There is no dispute that these are the things the Law clearly teaches, but as you progress through these examples, you will find that by the time you reach the end of the section in Matthew 5:43-48, we do not find a clear Old Testament command. Instead Jesus cites an inference drawn from the Law by the Pharisees. They infer that the Law says you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy. You won’t find that in any verse of the Old Testament (or the New) because it is an inference that has been improperly drawn. Jesus begins with the Law straight out, and He ends with the Law as it has been torqued and twisted by the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus begins with what we might call “pure Law” to the “law in its perversions” as Judaism had distorted it.

There is a fairly clear pattern here. Jesus states the Law, then He adds His enhancement (raising the bar), and finally He gives an illustrative application. The first two applications have to do with murder and adultery. When Jesus talked about murder, the scribes and Pharisees were saying to themselves, “Boy, we are on safe ground here. This is our turf.” Let’s face it; when you look at this and see, “Thou shalt not murder” (Exodus 20:13), don’t you feel a sense of relief? Who among us has killed somebody? Not me! Until Jesus says, “If you hate your brother, if you judge him to be worthless, thinking that the world is a better place without him, then you already have the attitude which lies at the heart of murder.” What is the big problem? It is the mindset which thinks, “Raca [empty one] … You fool!” (Matthew 5:22)

So Jesus now applies verse 23 by giving two illustrations. In the first, we are on our way to church, and in the second, we are on our way to court. On the way to church, where you will present your offering, you realize that your brother has something against you. Now here is the twist. Jesus goes from the act to the motive. One would think that Jesus would say, “Therefore, if you are angry toward your brother, go to him and be reconciled.” But He doesn’t say that. He says if you realize that your brother is angry with you. If anger is wrong, it is wrong for me. If anger is wrong, it is wrong for you! I am my brother’s keeper. If you are angry toward me, it is my obligation to reconcile and to deal with that anger. Jesus says we are to seek that person out and go to them so that we can be reconciled.

Why do you think it would come to your mind in church that your brother is angry with you? Why church? One example is found in 1 Peter 3, which concerns husbands and wives. Husbands are instructed to live with their wives in an understanding way. What does it say? “… lest your prayers be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7b). Do you want to know if you and your wife have a problem going on in your marriage? Try praying with her. You will find it is very difficult to engage in worship and prayer when you are at odds with one another. I would suggest that it is when we come together in corporate worship that we really sense where fellowship has been hindered, and I think that is what Jesus is saying. Go to your brother, deal with your fractured relationship, and then move on to worship.

The second illustration has us “on the way to court” (Matthew 5:25). It seems that no one loves to go to court more than legalists. The Pharisees were the ones who loved the nit picky rules. They loved to go to court. We sometimes hear people say, “I’ll see you in court!” Jesus says, “On your way to court, you’d better settle up quickly.” I have never seen a court of law solve a problem of the heart. Going to court doesn’t facilitate reconciliation. It is interesting that from time to time someone will enter the courtroom with a gun, to kill those he thinks have wronged him, including the judge and jury. Courts may declare guilt or innocence, but they don’t reconcile. To avoid murder, deal with anger, and do this by seeking reconciliation, not by seeking vindication in court.

Jesus and Adultery

Now we come to the issue of adultery in Matthew 5:27-30. Verses 31-32 deal with divorce and will be addressed in our next lesson. Various Bible translations may include verses 27-32 in one paragraph, while other versions may divide these verses into two paragraphs. We must understand that these two sections are closely related, and that the reason divorce is viewed as being so evil in verses 31 and 32 is because it often results in adultery. So understand that while I have chosen to end this lesson at verse 30, we will address the relationship between adultery and divorce in our next lesson. Divorce and adultery are very closely related in this text, so do not think that it all ends at verse 30, since our teaching here focuses on the sin of adultery.

We come now to the second reference to one of the Ten Commandments. Jesus first dealt with murder in verses 21-26; now He turns to adultery in verses 27-32. It is very interesting that when they come to these verses, some of my favorite commentaries immediately discuss sexual immorality in a general sense. But Jesus is not talking about sexual immorality in a general sense here. Adultery is a very specific sin. Adultery is a sin that is committed by a married person who engages in an illicit intimate relationship outside that marriage. Adultery is a very specific sexual sin (Greek = moicheuo). Porneia is another Greek term, used more broadly for sexual immorality. We will discuss porneia later, but it is not what we are talking about here. This is a marital sin; it is a sin that is to be taken very seriously.

When you look at the sexual sins listed in Deuteronomy 22 it says that if a married man is illicitly involved with another woman, then they are both to be stoned. That is the end of it! Adultery is a grave (no pun intended) sin that requires capital punishment. Yet in the same chapter, it talks about a woman who is a virgin who is not engaged. It says that if a man forcibly takes her, this man is to pay the dowry and, if the father consents, he is to marry her, and he can never divorce her! But we say, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Why is it that one can do this terrible thing to an unmarried woman and get what appears to be a slap on the wrist, while a married person who commits adultery is given the death penalty? What is the difference?” The difference is very significant. This is the breaking of a marital covenant, as Malachi 2:13-16 indicates. And breaking one’s marriage covenant defiles one’s marriage. If you understand from the Old Testament that God is going to preserve a seed, and that Messiah will come from this line, then breaking the marriage vow is a MOST, SERIOUS OFFENSE! It is clearly set apart as a very, very serious offense, both by our Lord and the Law.

This text is directed toward men and seems male oriented. Does that mean that somehow the instructions concerning adultery don’t relate to women? I don’t think so. Let me tell you why I think it is specifically male-oriented. One, when you look at the issue of divorce, you don’t see divorce described in the Old Testament, other than the man getting a divorce. You don’t read about a woman getting a divorce in the Old Testament. In my opinion, Jesus is focusing on this “maleness” because of His target. He is aiming His huge cannon right at the scribes and Pharisees. Now as I understand the Sanhedrin (the Jewish council), if you were on the Sanhedrin, you had to be married. So when you look at this situation, you are talking about men, marriage, and adultery. It seems that Jesus is zeroing in on those who felt safe. The scribes and Pharisees think they have the home field advantage when it comes to dealing with Jesus. They are smugly confident. Jesus is accused frequently in His ministry of associating with sinners. Jesus associates with sinners, including those who are sexually immoral, and when He does so, the scribes and Pharisees are incensed (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus is at dinner at Simon’s house (not Simon Peter), and this woman who is immoral comes and begins to anoint the feet of our Lord with tears running down her face. They assumed Jesus did not know who she was, or He wouldn’t be having anything to do with her. Jesus makes it very clear that He does know who she is and that He has come to seek and to save sinners. But from the Pharisees’ point of view, Jesus was soft on sin, particularly sexual sins. He wouldn’t stone the woman caught in the act of adultery, though Moses commanded that she be stoned. What is wrong with Jesus?

Not only do they believe Jesus is soft on sin, they have even implied elsewhere that Jesus is the result of sin (see John 8:41). They really feel safe. When Jesus talks about sexual immorality, they think, “Let it come!! We’re ready for Him! On this point, we have all the advantages. We haven’t committed adultery. We think Jesus is soft on adultery, and we are even wondering how Jesus’ birth came about in the first place.” Well, Jesus has something to say to them, and He is going to find them guilty on three counts.

In our text, He finds them guilty of mental adultery. Everybody is guilty of this. Nobody gets off the hook on this charge of mental adultery. If this is the standard Jesus sets, we are all sunk. Then there is spiritual adultery. In Matthew 12, they began to demand a sign from Jesus, and He calls them an adulterous generation. All the way along, you think that Jesus got them on mental adultery but that they were actually innocent when it came to literal adultery. But this is not so if you understand Jesus’ words on divorce. Do you remember Matthew 19:3? “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” Even the most conservative person among the Jews never dreamed Jesus would go as far as He does in what actually constitutes adultery.

My guess is (and I understand I am climbing out on a limb here) that they not only sanctioned it, (remember that Jesus talked about what the scribes and Pharisees practiced and what they taught), but that among the Pharisaical community, a lot of people were divorced, and their divorces were not biblical. If Jesus’ words are true, and unbiblical divorce constitutes adultery, they were literal adulterers!

Can you imagine that! Jesus does an end run with the scribes and Pharisees in an area where they felt safe, and then all of a sudden, He finds them guilty on every single dimension of adultery as He defines it. So here they are very confident. The Law forbade it. That is clear. Jesus refers to that in verse 27, and then Jesus presses on to the next level, saying, “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27). One commentator makes a point that the form of this word, “looks” emphasizes not just a look, but much more than a look. Someone else translated it as “leering,” though the aforementioned commentator translates it as “staring.” It is not just making a mental observation. The fact is, some may catch the eye more quickly, and the eye notices that. But it is that stopping, that going back, and that “locking on” that Jesus is speaking about. Also He says it is not just a lustful look; it is looking to lust. It is a very purposeful act. It is the same form found in Matthew 6:1, where Jesus says, “Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people.” There your outward acts of righteousness are for the purpose of getting men’s applause. Here the look is a lingering look that has lust as its purpose and goal.

Jesus now has everybody’s attention. Who of us, male or female, does not find ourselves under condemnation here? In verses 29 and 30, He now comes to the actions we ought to take in response to that. When you look at His words, you have to say, “Is this not radical to talk about plucking out eyes and chopping off hands?” It surely is radical! There are some countries in our world where if you steal, they cut off your hand. We think that is pretty radical. Let’s all admit our depravity, our total depravity!!

I have a great left eye, and if I pluck out my right eye, my left eye takes over! Jesus says take out your right eye. For most of us, our right eye is our dominant eye. We have two hands. He says, “Cut off your right hand.” But would you not agree that if we plucked out both eyes and cut off both hands that we would not solve the problem of mental immorality? It would still be there!

I remember reading in church history years ago about one of the monastic orders. A man tried to get away from the sinful lusts of the world so he secluded himself in a cave, and I don’t remember whether he lay on a bed of nails or what, but the dancing girls were still there in his mind! He could not get away from them. So plucking out our eyes and cutting off our hands won’t do it! What, then, does Jesus mean?

I do not think Jesus has randomly chosen these members of our body. Looking and touching – our eyes and our hands, would you not agree, are big elements in the realm of immorality, in the realm of adultery? So what He said is not that we stop the looks by plucking out our eyes or the touch by cutting off our hands, but that we must stop it no matter what it takes! We must stop looking that way. And we must be drastic with ourselves in how we do that. We must take drastic steps not to see it! In our culture, you almost have to wear blinders because it is in magazines, on billboards, or wherever you turn. It is seeking to grab you! Technologically, lust is now promoted in ways that it has never been before.

Immorality is an amazing, incredible thing. When I traveled in Asia, some women were completely covered. But every culture finds a way to solicit and to entice, because the reality is that we had better sew our lips shut, plug our ears, and turn off all of our senses. We still have what is going on in our heart and our head! There is a way in which men find occasion to do that which is evil. But our Lord is telling us in this text that if indeed we are all guilty, we are to notice where our sin leads us. If we have any sense that Jesus is soft on sin, we had better look again.

When Jesus speaks to the woman caught in the act of adultery, He says, “Go and sin no more.” It is sin, and it is worthy of death. We need to understand that when Jesus says it is better to lose one member of your body than have the whole body thrown in hell, He is talking about eternal destruction. Committing adultery will surely make you guilty of sin and will condemn you to hell! He is saying you have to take this sin seriously, and do whatever it takes to remedy it! Remember that Paul talks in Romans 6 about taking the members of our bodies and presenting them as instruments of unrighteousness. These members that we seek to gain pleasure from, that we actually serve, are the very things that we ought to put to death for the sake of eternal life and the kingdom of God. He is not saying indulge the flesh, as many did. He is saying mortify the flesh, and do it in the most dramatic way possible. Take sin seriously! It kills!

Is this not the same principle that underlies church discipline? (See, for example, 1 Corinthians 5.) The body of Christ is made up of individual members. What happens when a member of that body, as in 1 Corinthians 5, is living with his father’s wife? What is the church to do when such a man has been rebuked for such sin but refuses to repent? You are to “cut off” that member. It is radical! It is drastic! But the principle that applies to individuals applies to churches as well. You must sever the member or whatever it is that causes us to commit the sin which is damnable.

By way of application, Jesus is not against the pleasures of marriage. Jesus is not against sexual pleasure within marriage. Hebrews 13:4 says the marriage bed is to be kept undefiled. God has given this gift to us to enjoy. It is illicit pleasure that is forbidden. Take sin seriously! Respond to sin drastically! In my experience, when we have had to deal with sexual immorality as a church, in virtually every case I can recall, the individuals involved all said, “I know this is sin; I know what God says about it; and I know what I ought to do about it.” The problem is they just never do it! This text is really strong. It says, “Cut it off! Pluck it out! Deal quickly and deal decisively with that which can destroy you!” I do not know how to say it any more emphatically than our Lord Jesus did.

One thing dawned on me that I’ve never thought of before. Do you remember the text in James 2?

10 For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For He who said, “Do not commit adultery” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a violator of the law (James 2:10-11).

I have to confess that I always thought of myself in this way. I always thought of myself in sort of a Pharisaical way. I look at the various commands of Scripture and say to myself, “There are some commands where I’m clean, and there are other commands where I’m not clean.” If I am really arrogant about it, I would say to myself, “Well, maybe I get caught up in one or two, and I fail in those points. But because of what James says, if I violate the Law in one picky point, then I am guilty of breaking the Law in all points!”

But in this text in Matthew, Jesus tells me that when I sin, I don’t just break the Law in this one point; I break the Law in every point! Think of it! Here are the scribes and Pharisees saying, “Murder and adultery! On these we are clean. This is going to be a cake walk!” But before Jesus gets done, they are guilty across the board. That is total depravity, folks! If you take sin the way Jesus does, and you go to the heart of it, there is no sin of which you and I are not guilty! I’m guilty at every point! Not because I failed at one point, but because I failed at every point! This is hopeless. Jesus talks in these dark terms about sin and the consequences of it.

What Jesus is saying is evangelistic! What Jesus is saying is exactly what Paul says! The Law’s purpose was not to make us perfect so we could get to heaven by good works. The Law’s purpose is to show us that our hearts and our hands are unclean, that we have nothing to commend us before God. The reason that Jesus appears to be soft on the woman caught in adultery is because He came not only to show us we are sinners, but He came to bear the penalty of our sin. That’s what this is about! That’s what the Lord’s Table is about! He died for sinners! He bore the penalty for all of our guilt! He bore that penalty, and He offers to us the gift of salvation! That’s why He appears soft: it’s because Jesus wants to save! He offers salvation through His work on the cross of Calvary.

A strong word of caution is required here: Whatever you do, do not come away saying, “Well, I’m guilty of mental adultery so I might as well just follow through.” Don’t go there, folks! You are guilty of mental adultery, but it is an adultery that does not defile two people but only one. It does not produce illegitimate children, and it does not do a whole bunch of things that are wrong. As James says, “If you allow that lust to brew, it’s headed there. Stop it!!” That is the point! Cut it out! Pluck it out! Stop it! Do not go there!

Proverbs has a lot to say about women in relationship to adultery. One of the things it says is, “Don’t be a provocative woman.” I am not talking just about the way you dress. The provocative woman in Proverbs is provocative by the way she talks, and in the way she looks at you. There are all kinds of provocations, and the way you dress is just one of them. Women, do not be provocative! It seems to me that women are just as guilty as men in this area. The triggers may be different, the mechanism may be different, but I think that it is possible that women are often seduced more by what they hear, by warmth and affection, and tenderness and kindness, than they are by the physical. The truth is we are all guilty.

What about young, single people? Don’t you feel safe like the scribes and the Pharisees? Watch out! Don’t you feel safe and say to yourself, “I’m young, and I’m single, and I’m not married so I guess I get a pass on this one.” Not in Proverbs you don’t. When you come to the Book of Proverbs and start reading your way through as I just did again, I am amazed at the percentage of the material addressed to the young, who are not married, about adultery! If there is ever a time in your life to set your minds to obedience and purity, it is now! Not then! Now! That’s what Proverbs is saying.

My last point addresses adultery and married people! I know that there are probably people listening or reading, beyond my knowledge, for which this literal sin is a reality. There is healing and forgiveness, but you absolutely must forsake your sin. You must deal with it radically and drastically. My fear is that some of you are engaged in adultery in the making. It doesn’t often happen quickly. It happens slowly. I have this theory that there is a relationship between anger and adultery. I think a fair bit of adultery is the result of anger. Paul says to husbands, “… do not be embittered against [your wives]” (Colossians 3:19). I am not saying anger is the only reason, but I’m saying it is one factor. I think these two can be interrelated. But I say to you, if your marriage relationship is not healthy, you are on your way to trouble. If there is something lacking in your walk with God, if there is something that is amiss in your heart, you are on your way. And Jesus says in this text, “STOP NOW!!” Recognize your sin! Recognize your inability! Come to Christ for grace, for forgiveness, for power. He will help you now.


178 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

179 Normally Bob Deffinbaugh’s messages are manuscripted after the sermon is preached. Unfortunately, some manuscripts were not completed. This lesson is an edited transcription of Bob’s sermon, as it was delivered, and not a full manuscript.

180 The New American Standard Bible. Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973 by Foundation Press Publications: La Habra, California.

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16. Yes or No Is Enough (Matthew 5:33-37)

Introduction181

Matthew 5:33-37, the passage we are considering, is about oaths and vows. It may seem a little anticlimactic after all the discussion in 5:21-32 about murder, adultery, eye-plucking and hand-lopping. But the issue Jesus is addressing here goes to the very core of a person’s character – to the heart of what it means to live as a child of God.

We live in a culture in which the truth is often the first casualty of interactions between men. We have an incredibly elaborate system of lawyers and contracts and notaries and binding signatures to ensure that we do what we say we will do, at least when it’s perceived to be important enough. And none of it makes people any more truthful. In fact, most people don’t even believe truth is an objective reality!

A recent study by Barna Research182 found that only 22% of adults in America believe there is even such a thing as absolute moral truth. But the real kicker was what the study found related to those who profess to be “born again” Christians. They defined “born again” Christians as “people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus as their savior.” Among that specific group, only 32% of adults and only 9% of teenagers said they believe moral truth is unchanging or absolute.

We wonder why people have such a hard time telling the truth to each other. Well, apparently, the majority of them can’t even identify what the truth is in the first place!

The words we are considering were spoken by the One who declared Himself to be the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6) – The One whose Word IS TRUTH (Psalm 119:160). And He presents us with a standard of truthfulness that is infinitely higher than the standards of men.

“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord. But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil” (Matthew 5:33-37).183

James seems to echo the words of our Lord in his epistle, and he puts special emphasis on this command, introducing it with the words, “above all.”

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no, no; so that you may not fall under judgment (James 5:12).

As with Jesus’ previous commands in the Sermon on the Mount dealing with murder, adultery, and divorce, the Law of Moses had already spoken to this issue, but the scribes and Pharisees had perverted the teaching of the Law and had chronically missed the spirit of the Law. Throughout this sermon, Jesus is zeroing in on the spirit of the Law in keeping with its purpose as the reflection of God’s holy character.

Our Lord’s approach to teaching does not often hand us His essential point without any mental effort on our part. Jesus uses forceful words – words that pierce into us and turn our traditions and assumptions on their heads, and He makes us think about things as we would never think about them apart from the influence of His Word. As the writer of Hebrews says, God’s Word is,

… able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do (Hebrews 4:12-13).

Some Christians have taken Matthew 5:33-37 to teach that we must not, under any circumstances, utter an oath or vow. So they refuse to take an oath in a court of law, in a marriage ceremony, or in any other situation. Is that our Lord’s point here – to create a new prohibition that didn’t exist under the Law of Moses and thereby to overcome men’s tendency to be untruthful?

Part of me would love for it to be that simple, but I do not think it is.

Oaths and vows show up remarkably often in both testaments, and the Law addresses them a great many times. It is strikingly consistent that, aside from this passage and James 5:12, the rest of the Scriptures does not prohibit oaths. Indeed, the Law specifically commanded God’s people to swear their oaths in His name.

Deuteronomy 6:13-14 (the “Hear, O Israel” passage):

“You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you” (emphasis mine).

Deuteronomy 10:20:

“You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name.”

Notice the verbs used in these two verses: You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall worship Him, serve Him, cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name.

These commands have in view the first and second commandments of the Ten Commandments.

Then God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exodus 20:1-5).

God’s people were to worship and serve Him alone, and were to swear by His name alone, because He is the One True God.

God’s people were never to create or bow down to any image in the form of any created thing, because God alone is sovereign over all. To worship or serve anyone or anything except YAHWEH, the One True God, is to put that person or thing in God’s place. And to swear by any created thing is to make it an idol. Leviticus 19:12 says, “And you shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.”

This prohibition against swearing falsely by the name of God is critically tied to the third commandment of the Ten Commandments.

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain (Exodus 20:7).

To take His name in vain means to invoke His name emptily, lightly, or profanely – to use it without humbly acknowledging the holy character of the One whose name you are invoking. To invoke the name of God in an oath or vow when your statement is false or when you do not intend to honor your words is a direct violation of the third commandment. And to invoke the name of God over a trivial or inconsequential matter is also a violation of the third commandment, because taking the name of the Lord in vain includes taking it lightly – treating it as common or trivial.

So, in the Old Testament, oaths were to be sworn in God’s name only; they were to be used for affirming important matters, not trivial matters, and they were to be true.

Oaths were used to resolve disputes, to seal agreements or covenants, or simply to affirm the truthfulness of important declarations.

Hebrews 6:16 speaks of the first purpose of oaths, saying that with men, “an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute.

The oaths exchanged between Abraham and Abimelech at Beersheba in Genesis 21 served both to end a dispute and to establish a covenant. They were used to resolve a dispute over ownership of certain wells, and to seal a covenant to perpetuate the agreement about the wells (see Genesis 21:22-34). In that covenant, Abimelech said to Abraham,

“God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, or with my offspring, or with my posterity; but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me, and to the land in which you have sojourned. And Abraham said, ‘I swear it’” (Genesis 21:22b-24, emphasis mine).

Later, Isaac and Abimelech reaffirmed the same essential covenant by exchanging oaths once again (see Genesis 26:26-33).

There are many, many other examples of oaths in the Old Testament.

A vow is a specific kind of oath in which the person making the vow solemnly swears to pay something to God in return for God’s favor or blessing in a certain matter. In the Law of Moses, there is a very strong connection between vows and votive offerings. A votive offering was a special form of the peace offerings (Leviticus 7:16). It is an offering made in fulfillment of a vow.

In 1 Samuel 1, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, vowed that if God would grant her a son, seeing that she was barren, she would devote her son to God as a Nazirite. God did give her a son, and she fulfilled her vow, bringing Samuel to the temple and giving him over to Eli, the high priest.

There are numerous other examples of vows in the Old Testament, some frivolous, some foolish, such as Jephthah’s rash vow, and some admirable.

In Matthew 5:33, Jesus said,

You have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.”

This statement in itself was not a distortion of the Law. It was derived from the Law as surely as were the first two “you have heard” statements in His sermon, “You shall not commit murder” and “You shall not commit adultery.”

Deuteronomy 23:21-23:

21 “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the L ord your God will surely require it of you.

22 “However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you.

23 “You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the L ord your God, what you have promised.”

Ecclesiastes 5:4-5:

4 When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow!

5 It is better that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay!

God didn’t take this lightly. He still doesn’t.

I find nothing in Matthew 5:33 that fails to match up with clear statements contained in the Law. The error of the Pharisees that Jesus is addressing here was not in misstating the Law; it is in mishandling the Law. They missed the point of the Law. We will come back to that shortly.

“But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black” (Matthew 5:34-36).

What is the significance of swearing “by” someone or something?

In the Old Testament, when you swore by someone, you were invoking that person as: (1) a corroborating witness to attest to your words; and (2) a judge against you if your words were found to be untrue. You were invoking the name of one whose witness is reliable and trustworthy, to testify to the trustworthiness of your words. At the same time, you were acknowledging your accountability to that person, agreeing that you expected to be judged by Him if you were found to be speaking falsely. This is why, as Hebrews 6:16 says, “men swear by one greater than themselves” – i.e., one to whom they are accountable.

Indeed, as we have seen, the Law said that God’s people were to swear by Him alone – not by any other God and not by any created thing.

Genesis 31:43-55 records the covenant between Jacob and Laban. After serving Laban for over 14 years, Jacob departed Aram with his wives, concubines, children and flocks. Laban pursued Jacob and caught up with him at the place that would be named Mizpah (watchtower). After some serious verbal sparring, Jacob and Laban made a covenant with each other to respect one another’s people and possessions. They erected a heap of stones, and said that it would be a “witness” between them. But in verses 50 and 53, they explicitly declare that it is God who is both their witness and their judge. The heap of stones is ultimately just a physical memorial to their covenant, but God is the One whose name they invoke as witness and to whom they are accountable for honoring their words.

The Jews of Jesus’ day had put an interesting twist on all of this. They had trouble telling the truth consistently, just like you and I do, so in order to guard themselves against being found guilty of swearing falsely by the name of God, it seems that they had firmly established the habit of swearing by everything EXCEPT God. They wanted to add some kind of force to their promises to make their words more credible, but they didn’t want to incur the judgment of God by swearing something in His name when they didn’t fully intend to make it good or when it was not entirely true. They wanted to have their moldy cake and eat it, too. So they created what was in effect a lesser class of oaths – oaths that were bound to various parts of God’s creation rather than to God Himself. James Montgomery Boice refers to this practice as “evasive swearing.”184

As Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:34-36 point out, instead of swearing by God, they swore by “the heaven,” or by “the earth,” or by Jerusalem, or even by their own heads. Apparently, it got pretty silly. Oaths became like contests to see who could bind the most impressive object to his statements to give them the greatest force.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 show how absurd this all had become:

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’

17 “You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold?

18 “And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering up on it, he is obligated.’

19 “You blind men, which is more important, the offering or the altar that sanctifies the offering?

20 “Therefore, he who swears, swears both by the altar and by everything on it.

21 “And he who swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it.

22 “And he who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.”

Do you see where the scribes and Pharisees had taken this, and how Jesus stands their foolish logic on its head? They were coming up with all sorts of mental acrobatics to insulate themselves from accountability to God, and Jesus told them you cannot get away from your accountability to God by invoking things, because God is sovereign over all things!

You think that in swearing by the temple you avoid accountability to God to speak words of truth? It is the shekinah glory of God that makes the temple what it is – the dwelling place of God! You think that in swearing by heaven you insulate yourself from being seen by God in your lies? Heaven is the very throne of God!

Read Psalm 139 if you think you can get away from being seen by God.

When Abraham sent his servant to choose a bride for Isaac, he got it right. He said to his servant in Genesis 24:3:

“I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live” (emphasis mine).

You don’t swear by the heavens or the earth! You swear by the God of heaven and the God of earth.

It is noteworthy that the One who is able to legitimately call created things to witness with Him is God Himself.

“When you become the father of children and children’s children and have remained long in the land, and act corruptly, and make an idol in the form of anything, and do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord your God so as to provoke Him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you shall surely perish quickly from the land where you are going over the Jordan to possess it. You shall not live long on it, but shall be utterly destroyed” (Deuteronomy 4:25-26).

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You shall not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).

God alone can call creation to witness with Him because He alone is sovereign over that creation! Men have no place to do so, because men control NOTHING! Jesus told us that we can’t even swear by our own heads because we can’t make a single hair on our heads white or black!

In Isaiah 66:1-2, God declared:

“Heaven is My throne, and the earth is my footstool.
Where then is a house you could build for Me?
And where is a place that I may rest?
For My hand made all these things,
Thus all these things came into being,” declares the Lord.
“But to this one I will look,
To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (emphasis mine).

Jesus is pointing to this same reality in Matthew 5:34-36.

Look for a minute at the examples Jesus gives here of witnesses that don’t pass muster. There is one witness who is glaringly missing. Which witness is it? The only one that matters – God!

That brings me to how oaths are used in the New Testament, particularly by Paul.

In 2 Corinthians 1:15–2:11, Paul is explaining to the Corinthians that he had genuinely intended to come to them twice, first on his way from Ephesus to Macedonia, and again on the return trip (1 Corinthians 16:5ff). His plans had changed, and according to 1:23–2:2, he changed his plans very deliberately because he did not want to add to their sorrow over a matter that had required their discipline of a wayward saint.

This is a fascinating passage in light of Matthew 5:33-37, because in it, Paul acknowledges that our “yes” must be “yes” and our “no” must be “no,” and yet, he employs an oath to affirm the genuineness of his motivation for changing his plans. From 2 Corinthians 1:

17 Therefore, I was not vacillating when I intended to do this, was I? Or that which I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that with me there should be yes, yes and no, no at the same time?

18 But as God is faithful, our word to you is not yes and no.

23 But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth (emphasis mine).

Verse 23 very much follows the pattern of the Old Testament oaths.

Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying (Galatians 1:20, emphasis mine).

For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:8, emphasis mine).

Paul repeatedly invokes God as his witness to emphasize the solemnity and the truthfulness of the things he is declaring, and he does so under the superintending of the Holy Spirit.

Was Paul violating the teaching of Jesus?

I don’t believe Jesus’ point in Matthew 5 is that oaths are evil or that an oath can never be legitimate. I believe His point is that the swearing of oaths as practiced by the scribes and Pharisees was evil, in its entirety – because they deliberately swore their oaths by everything EXCEPT God in a foolish effort to sidestep their accountability TO God!

Our Lord emphatically points out in Matthew 5 that God alone is sovereign over all things – heaven, earth, Jerusalem, even the hairs on your head. And you – you are sovereign over nothing, not even your own hair. No matter what you choose to swear by, it is God to whom you and I and every other created thing are accountable, and you’re accountable to Him whether you swear an oath or don’t swear an oath. You’re accountable to Him every time you open your mouth.

It would be better to swear no oath at all than to think you can contrive a way to avoid accountability before God to be a truthful person.

Look back at Jesus’ approach earlier in this Sermon – Is there something inherently bad about the human eye or the human hand? No. Can they be used to the glory of God? Yes. Was Jesus’ point in the passage on adultery to create a new practice among His followers of plucking out their right eyes and cutting off their right hands, considering that they were ALL guilty in their hearts of the sin He was addressing? Would that have cured what is wrong with the hearts of men? No! But if removing an eye would eradicate the adultery from our hearts, then it would be worth all the pain!

Hebrews 12:4 says, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin!

Holiness at all costs! The outworking of the character of God in us trumps all other considerations.

Is it the presence of formal oaths that makes us untruthful? No! No more than it is the presence of my right eye that makes me adulterous.

There is a strong parallel here with the sacrifices. God instituted the sacrificial system and the tabernacle worship. Exodus makes it exceedingly clear that these things explicitly came from the mind of God and not from the minds of men. The earthly way of access that He designed was a picture of the heavenly reality of entering into the very Presence of God – it was a gracious gift to His people that set them apart from every other nation on the face of the earth. But when Israel corrupted the sacrifices, and treated them as a means to manipulate God, as a way to assert their merit before God – to buy His favor while they ignored the heart of His Law (justice, mercy, righteousness) – then, those very same sacrifices became an abomination to God!

The heart of the matter in our passage has nothing to do with the formality of an oath or vow. The heart of the matter is the heart. In concluding His statement about oaths in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,

Let your statement be, “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; and anything beyond these is of evil {or, of the evil one} (Matthew 5:37).

If we reserve truthfulness only for declarations that take the form of oaths or vows, and we neglect truthfulness the rest of the time, that is Phariseeism, and it is evil – and it makes oaths an instrument of evil.

Oaths must not become devices for lowering the standard of truthfulness that applies to us at all times as children of God.

Throughout Matthew 23, Jesus starts each of His accusations with, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites… .” A hypocrite is someone who makes the appearance of being what he is not.

How did they demonstrate hypocrisy in their use of oaths? They used oaths to add credibility to their statements, but their statements came from untruthful hearts. Notice I didn’t say, “Their statements were untrue” (even though that was often the case). I said, “Their statements came from untruthful hearts.” You may think that’s a subtle distinction, but it goes directly to the “heart” of what Jesus is saying.

The Pharisees had systematically reduced righteousness to a set of external behaviors. And those behaviors were nothing but filthy rags in the sight of God. Their oaths were no more reliable than the statement of a child who has his fingers crossed behind his back, because in their hearts, they were more interested in being believed than they were in being truthful. More to the point, they were more interested in being believed than they were in being GODLY! This is about character!

Everything that Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount comes back to the reality that God sees straight into our hearts. He sees the malice and murder in our hearts when we cling to anger toward a brother or sister. He sees the adultery in our hearts when we gaze longingly at another woman. He is the only lie detector with 100% accuracy! The righteousness that comes from God cares infinitely more about what God sees than about what man sees!

Our “Yes” must be yes and our “No” must be no. No oath can make that so. Being believed is nothing. Being a truthful person in the eyes of our heavenly Father is everything.

God says to His people in every age, “You be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Jesus makes the same appeal in the Sermon on the Mount, saying, “You are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Will we perfectly achieve His holiness this side of heaven – surely NOT. John tells us that it won’t be until we see Him as He truly is that we will be like Him (1 John 3:2). But God’s holy character, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is to be our rule of life – right here, right now!

We are children of God. Rules are not our rule of life. HE IS OUR RULE OF LIFE!! Oh, what blessedness there would be in this life if we would fully lay hold of that!

When I was 16 years old and still an unbeliever, my Christian friends who would soon become my brothers and sisters for eternity, kept saying to me, “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship!” I think I am just beginning to grasp the profound significance of that statement. Relationship with God has always been the foundation of true righteousness.

“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it. Yet on your fathers did the Lord set His affection to love them, and He chose their descendants after them, even you above all peoples, as it is this day. Circumcise then your heart, and stiffen your neck no more. For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality, nor take a bribe” (Deuteronomy 10:12-17).

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45a).

“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Relationship has always been the foundation of righteousness. The Father/son relationship in Scripture is not some cute analogy – it is the very substance of what it means to be the redeemed of the Lord!

It would be easy for us to wag our finger at the Pharisees of old, seeing how ridiculous their reasoning was, then pat ourselves on the back for not being as foolish as they. But that would be a crime, because we are as foolish as they are.

Psalm 15:1 poses the question, “O LORD, who may abide in Thy tent? Who may dwell on Thy holy hill?

Verse 2 answers, “He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, And speaks truth in his heart. Verse 4 continues the answer, saying, “He swears to his own hurt, and does not change.” “He speaks truth in his heart.” “He swears to his own hurt, and does not change” (emphasis mine).

I don’t know about you, but my heart needs some exercise in light of that standard, and I encourage you to consider whether your heart does, too.

I could spend the rest of this message proposing examples of how we fall short of God’s standard of truthfulness, and I wouldn’t even be scratching the surface, but I do believe it is constructive for us to think about it. I’m going to mention just a couple of areas. I’ll use the word “you,” but please understand that I’m talking to myself as well.

I believe that one of the relationships in which we do the worst with this is the one that probably has the greatest impact of all – and that’s in our relationship with our children. It has a great impact because our children learn a lot about what God is like from watching us – and they DO watch us! When you say “Yes” to your child, can he count on what you’ve said, or does your child sense that you’re not accountable to him because you to treat your word to him casually? When you say “No” to your son or daughter, how many times do you have to say it before you show that you really mean it? Do you allow your “No” to be pecked to death by baby chicks until it gets turned into a “Yes?”

One of the most beautiful things in all of human experience is a child who accepts “No” from his mother or father the FIRST TIME, then scurries off to do whatever he was doing before because he knows the matter has been settled. THAT is a child who has a good head start on understanding the character of God!

If it is a fact that roughly 90% of professing Christian teenagers have trouble accepting the idea of absolute truth, isn’t it possible that a good part of that is because their parents don’t often seem to mean what they say?

I have to comment briefly on marriage. The marriage covenant is an exceedingly sacred matter. It’s one of the few formal covenants that we practice in our culture. God singles it out over and over in His Word as a covenant unlike any other. He is the One who declares it to be a picture of the relationship between Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:22-33). He is the One who declares it to be a sacred bonding of two into one flesh in His eyes (Genesis 2:18-25). He is the One who said, “What God has joined together, let no man tear asunder” (Matthew 19:6). If godliness compels us to honor our statements even when they seem trivial, what does godliness compel us to do when we have solemnly vowed before God and God’s people to remain faithful to our spouses until death?! Does His character compel us to do what we have sworn even if it is to our own hurt? YES!

Is that a tough standard? YES, but it is what God calls us to. And it’s not so tough if we lay hold of the promise that He has already blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3), that the same power that raised Christ from the dead dwells within us in the Person of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:18-23), and that He is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all we ask or think according to that power that is at work within us (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Lastly, a word of caution: Is this passage telling us to be diligent to hold our brother’s feet to the fire if he changes anything he has said? Is it telling us to raise doubts about his character if he asks for our forbearance because he has a conflict with something he intended to do? If you take this passage as ammunition to hold against your brother or sister, you’ve sunk right back down to the level of the Pharisees, who habitually failed to notice the log in their own eye because they were so focused on the speck in someone else’s. The same goes for all the issues of Christian life that Jesus raised previously in His great sermon. As Bob Deffinbaugh pointed out in Lesson 22 of this series, Jesus’ accusations in this sermon leave every one of us guilty of all.

The standard of righteousness in this passage is God’s own righteousness (see Matthew 5:48). If you are reading this and you do not stand before God knowing that you are justified as a free gift by His grace through faith in His Son, then this passage can only serve to condemn you, because there is no way you can meet God’s standard of truthfulness by your own devices. And if that is you, I pray that you will simply humble yourself before our Holy God, agree with Him that you are lost in your sin, and take Him at His Word – believe in His Son as the One and only sacrifice who died on the cross to pay the eternal penalty of your sin, believe that He rose from the dead and sits even now at the right hand of the Father. Believe that in Him alone you have forgiveness and eternal life.

For us who are His children, our Father’s words show us how to live. May we desire to turn the light of His truth upon our own hearts first and foremost.

As you contemplate our Lord’s teaching regarding oaths and vows, I ask that you won’t focus exclusively on hashing out examples of how we fall short of God’s standard of truthfulness. I ask that you devote some time and thought to consideration of how we become truthful people – truthful from the heart. I’m not saying our behavior doesn’t count. As children, we all start by learning how we are required to behave, then we hopefully learn to internalize the principles we have been taught. So the behavior can feed the heart, and the heart certainly feeds the behavior. But let’s focus on the goal of godly lives from godly hearts. We will not speak truth in our hearts if we are not in love with the One who is Truth.

Brothers and sisters, let us be truthful people because we hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Let us be truthful people because God re-created us to be pure in heart.

Let us be truthful people because we desire to be salt and light in a world that desperately needs our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Let us be truthful people because we long to live out the lovely character of the One who gave us life at the cost of His own life’s blood.

Let us be truthful people because we are our Father’s children.

That’s reason enough.


181 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 23 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Tom Wright on July 27, 2003.

182 Online article at www.barna.org – “Americans Are Most Likely to Base Truth on Feelings,” published February 12, 2002.

183 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible. Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975 by Lockman Foundation.

184 James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2002), p. 131.

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17. Jesus and the Law of Retaliation [Lex Talionis] (Matthew 5:38-42)

I. Introduction.185

A few months ago, I read the following all-too-typical news report on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict:

“Israel sent helicopters to kill a senior Hamas political leader in the crowded streets of Gaza on Tuesday but failed, leaving two other Palestinians dead and 27 wounded. The missile attack threatened to rekindle a cycle of violence and wreck the peace effort. The strike against Abdel Rantisi drew vows of vengeance from the Islamic militant group, which threatened new suicide bombings and attacks on Israeli political leaders.

“Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made clear Israel would not restrain its troops from retaliating against militants, despite U.S. efforts to push forward the peace plan. Rantisi was the most high-profile Hamas political leader to be targeted by Israel, and the violence threatened a return to the spiral of attack and retaliation that has ruined past peace plans.

“Israel insisted Rantisi is an ‘arch terrorist’ whom the Palestinians should have moved against earlier. ‘He is an enemy of peace, an enemy of everyone who seeks peace in the Middle East,’ a Sharon aide said. ‘We actually are saving the peace process by trying to take out such people.’

“Thousands of Hamas supporters crowded the courtyard outside Shifa Hospital, chanting slogans against Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. ‘Abu Mazen, we want resistance,’ the crowded shouted.

“A Hamas leader, said there would be quick retaliation: ‘The Hamas response will be like an earthquake.’ ‘An eye for an eye … a politician for a politician,’ he said.”186

In another setting in the Middle East, there was an interfaith dialogue going on between a Christian leader and a Muslim cleric. They were discussing the differences between Islam and Christianity. The cleric stated that the difference is simple: “Christianity teaches that when struck you should turn the other cheek; however, Islam teaches than when you are struck you strike him back – this is better for you and him.”187

To bring the issue a little closer to home, one night my family and I were sitting at the dinner table. My daughter Keilah asked a thought-provoking question. She said, “If my brother hits me, is it okay if I hit him back?” Of course, our answer was that she come to appropriate authorities on the matter – Mom or Dad.

Too much of the world’s ethic is to: 1) strike back; 2) get even; 3) do unto others like they do to you. Many times the justification for retaliation is that ancient law, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.188 I have to admit that this retaliatory ethic to right an injustice is appealing to part of me, especially initially when I feel I have been wronged.

But Jesus says “No” to using “an eye for an eye” as justification for personal revenge. Instead, He says “turn the other cheek,” “go the extra mile,” “turn over two garments if sued for one,” and “give to the one who asks from you.” Jesus’ teaching is not merely legal and technical, but extends deeply and profoundly into the practical situations of conflict, oppression, and the needs of everyday life.

Matthew 5:38-42 reads:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. 41 And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”

These verses have been described by many in the following ways:

1. The hard sayings of Jesus

2. The most difficult verses in the Bible

3. Hyperbole and impossible

4. Commands for another world

Jesus’ teaching here is confronting the popular misuse and abuse of the Old Testament law, known as the law of retaliation, in Latin, “the Lex Talionis.” The law of “life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” etc.

II. Three Questions to Ask.

Jesus’ instruction on this passage raises several questions for us to consider.

First, what is the relationship between Jesus’ teaching and the Old Testament law of an eye for an eye?

Second, what is the contrast between His teaching and that of the Jewish leadership and populace? Jesus stated earlier that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. And we are in the fifth antithesis or contrasting formula, “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you” in the Sermon on the Mount.

Third, what does Jesus require of His disciples? Does the teaching go beyond what we as Christians are able to realistically do? Does it push us to our ethical limits? Does it take us to the “edge of the possible”?

III. The Law of Eye for Eye in the Old Testament.

So let’s start with looking at this law in the Old Testament.

Imagine yourself for a moment in an ancient situation where you and your family lived in a place with no police force, no courts, no local, state, or federal government – no king or other authority ruling over you or the people around you. Then one day as you are going about your business, you are shocked with the news that one of your neighbors had intentionally and maliciously hit your daughter so hard that four of her teeth are permanently knocked out. What would you do? There is no authority to report it to – to seek justice. What if the situation was worse, and your child was intentionally killed? You would probably want to take the matter into your own hands and seek retribution, maybe even to the point of blood revenge. Perhaps you would try to impose the same type of injury on the attacker that he imposed. Maybe you would even want to punish him in greater degree than his offense. After you take revenge, the attacker’s family may feel that they have been mistreated and may want to respond, setting up a cycle of retaliation and revenge between you and them – the Hatfields and the McCoys so to speak.

Genesis 34 records an actual incident like this between Jacob’s family and the family of Shechem. After Jacob’s daughter Dinah is physically abused, Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, seek revenge by first deceiving Shechem’s family into getting men circumcised, and then they take the retaliatory action of killing all the males. Of course, it is clear from later in Genesis 49:5-7 that God did not approve of this action.

So the institution of the lex talionis into the Mosaic law for the nation of Israel and the ruling authorities was, I believe, a real advancement for the cause of justice designed to prevent personal actions of retaliation and revenge. The injured person or relative of the injured person could go to the governing judicial authority in Israel to seek justice. But what should the appropriate punishment be in the case of murder or maiming? This is where the law comes into play: “a life for a life,” “an eye for an eye,” “a tooth for a tooth.” The punishment must fit the crime – no more than the crime but also no less. It was strict but fair. It was also designed to prevent and deter such crimes. It was there to remove punitive actions for crimes from the hands of the victim and his family and put them into the hands of the governing judicial system. It was designed as a principle of proportional justice. It was also designed to appropriately punish the offender.

This is the irony and abuse of how people misunderstand this law. It is misunderstood now the same way it was misunderstood at the time of Jesus. A law that was designed to prevent actions of personal retaliatory revenge is used to justify it!

The misunderstanding of the law would say if someone slaps you on the cheek, slap him back (after all “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”). If someone sues you, sue him back. If you are forced to go a mile by a Roman soldier, resist and fight back. Jesus is trying to confront that type of teaching and mindset.

Let me be clear that God wants us to take actions of personal revenge out of our hands. We can turn them over to the governmental authorities if appropriate, and even if that doesn’t work, we need to turn them over to God Himself. As Paul states in Romans:

Repay no one evil for evil… . Beloved do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (Romans 12:17, 19).

The lex talionis is stated explicitly three times in the Old Testament. First, in Exodus 21:22-25, it is cited in a way that protected a pregnant woman and her child from death or injury that might occur if two men were in a fight.

Second, in Leviticus 24:17-22, it is applied generally to any case where a crime of murder or intentional maiming occurred. To me, this text is the most clear that for the judicial authorities, the law applied to both capital punishment and maiming punishments to be carried out in kind.

“‘Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death. 18 Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, animal for animal. 19 If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him – 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him. 21 And whoever kills an animal shall restore it; but whoever kills a man shall be put to death’” (Leviticus 24:17-22).

There are numerous examples of capital punishment in the Old Testament, but the only example of a maiming punishment of which I am aware is Judges 1:6-7:

Then Adoni-Bezek fled, and they pursued him and caught him and cut off his thumbs and big toes. 7 And Adoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off used to gather scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has repaid me.”

Even Adoni-Bezek, who gets maimed here, recognizes the justice of his penalty – “thumb for thumb and toe for toe.”

Third, in Deuteronomy 19:15-21, it occurs in a passage to prevent perjury and using the court to execute or punish an otherwise innocent individual.

“One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established. 16 If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, 17 then both men in the controversy shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. 18 And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother, 19 then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you. 20 And those who remain shall hear and fear, and hereafter they shall not again commit such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity: life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:15-21).

Seven crimes called for capital punishment in the Old Testament law (false prophet - Deuteronomy 13:5; idolatry - Deuteronomy 17:7; disobedience to authority - Deuteronomy 17:12; stubborn and rebellious son - Deuteronomy 21:21; harlotry - Deuteronomy 22:21; adultery - Deuteronomy 22:22-24; and kidnapping - Deuteronomy 24:7). One law called for flogging (Deuteronomy 25:1-4). Potentially, a witness could intentionally and falsely accuse someone of a capital crime and try to use the court system to execute an individual not guilty of the crime. However, there were two safeguards: 1) one testimony would not be sufficient in the court, it would have to be two or three witnesses; and 2) there had to be a careful investigation by the priests and judges. And if it was proven that the witness was false, that he was intentionally trying to harm someone, then the punishment that would have fallen on the innocent party would fall on the false witness according to the lex talionis. To me, this is clear because of the phrases, “do to him as he thought to do to his brother” and “you shall put away the evil from among you,” which always occurs in contexts of capital punishment in Deuteronomy. Also, there is the statement of “Your eye shall not pity” and “the life for life” law.

IV. Jesus and the Eye for Eye Law.

Let us now go to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:38: “You have heard that it was said.” This suggests discussion and likely debate in the Jewish community on the Old Testament law and the interpretation given to it by the scribes and Pharisees. That Jesus is contrasting His teaching with theirs is further indicated by the phrases not found in the Old Testament cited on murder, “whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment” in Matthew 5:21, and “hate your enemy” in 5:43. Jesus’ thrust in His teaching is not to give the details of the views of the Jewish leadership, but to give His own teaching since His audience generally knew what He was contrasting it with. But based on my study of some of the ancient Jewish literature, a personal retaliatory ethic had popular support, and the Jewish religious leadership was having major debates on this law (i.e., on whether or not in the court system literal maiming penalties were required or whether financial compensation could be substituted instead).

Notice that unlike the three Old Testament passages, the first part of the formula “life for life” is not cited; rather “eye for eye” is the first element. The Jewish discussion had separated the clause related to capital punishment to focus on the issue of the maiming penalty. These maiming clauses then became for some the justification for personal revenge.

So what does Jesus have to say about it? “But I tell you … ” (Matthew 5:39). Notice first that the cases Jesus is dealing with do not really have anything to do with life-threatening crimes or crimes of bodily maiming. Rather, they are issues of insult, offense, inconvenience, and bother.

Jesus says “not to resist the evil person.” The translation could also easily be rendered do not retaliate against the evil person. However, I do not think the passage says, “Do not resist evil” (like the KJV) or “Do not resist the evil one (that is, the Devil),” since these interpretations would be contradicted elsewhere in Scripture and do not fit this context well. Instead, it is the “evil person.”

What does Jesus mean? Who is the evil person? The following four examples clarify this. The evil person is the person who: 1) slaps you on the cheek; 2) sues you for your clothes; 3) asks you to go a mile; or 4) asks you for money.

Notice also the change in perspective Jesus is giving compared to the Old Testament law. The Old Testament law addressed what the judges should do to the person who committed a criminal offense related to murder or maiming. Jesus has a different perspective. He addresses the issue on what you should do if offenses of conflict or insult happen to you. Jesus, in my view, addresses not what the court or government should do, but what a disciple should do when he or she is offended.

What should the disciple do? Do not resist or retaliate? Yes, but Jesus’ call to discipleship goes beyond a passive response. He further calls us to take a positive action: 1) turn the other cheek; 2) give your cloak as well as your tunic; 3) go the extra mile; and 4) give or lend to the person who asks you. These are four First Century examples of real life situations of conflict and potential response. Let’s look at them a little more closely.

Example 1: Whoever slaps you on the right cheek. Now I do not mean to slight anyone who is left-handed. My youngest son Nathanael happens to be a lefty, but Jesus’ example is addressed specifically to a right-handed slapper. If you are right-handed, and you slap someone on the right cheek, what have you done? You have given them a backhanded slap. The Jews considered a backhanded slap twice as insulting as a slap with the palm of the hand.

Now suppose this happens to you. One day you are going about your business and someone you know walks up to you and unjustly insults you by giving you a backhanded slap across the face. Your first instinct may be to strike back. In the talionic jargon, “a slap for a slap.” The Jewish Rabbis had a law based on oral tradition found in what is called the Mishnah that said you could seek restitution in court. The offending party would be required to pay 200 zuz (a monetary unit) for a fronthanded slap and 400 for a backhanded one. So in that culture, you could take him to court and sue him for insult.

But remember that Jesus is contrasting his system of righteousness with that of the scribes and Pharisees. Not only do you not strike back, take the person to court or just walk away, or even just stand there and say with a raised voice, “Why did you do that?” – Jesus teaches none of these. But He does say to actively and voluntarily turn the other cheek, exposing it to a further strike. Amazing!

Example 2: If anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic. Now why would anyone want to sue someone for a piece of clothing? It is hard to understand this one without some Old Testament background, so let’s look at two passages.

The first is Exodus 22:25-27, which reads:

“If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him; you shall not charge him interest. 26 If you ever take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge [i.e. collateral] you shall return it to him before the sun goes down. 27 For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What will he sleep in? And it will be that when he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am gracious” (Exodus 22:25-27).

The second is Deuteronomy 24:10-13:

“When you lend your brother anything, you shall not go into his house to get his pledge. 11 You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you lend shall bring the pledge out to you. 12 And if the man is poor, you shall not keep his pledge overnight. 13 You shall in any case return the pledge to him again when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his own garment and bless you; and it shall be righteousness to you before the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 24:10-13).

Under the Old Testament borrowing laws, a poor person who borrowed money could provide a garment as a pledge or collateral to help ensure that he would pay the loan back. Normal practice at the time would be that people would wear a lighter inner tunic and also a heavier outer garment or cloak to be used in colder conditions. So why would a person give such a piece of clothing for collateral? Well, if he was really poor, that may be all that he had. But it gets awfully cold at night sometimes even in the desert depending on the time of year, so the Old Testament had a provision that required that the garment be returned to the poor person every night for warmth. So let’s say that the poor person took out a 30-day loan (loan time periods were much shorter back then). No interest would be charged and the pledge, the garment, would have to exchange hands between borrower and lender every day twice a day for 30 days. The lender was not allowed to go into the borrower’s house and had to return the garment every night. The borrower was to turn the garment back to the lender each morning until the loan was paid back.

But what if one of the parties violated one of these provisions? What if the lender came, stood outside the house, and asked for the garment and the borrower refused? What if the poor person felt rightly that the loan was already paid off and the exchange of garment was no longer required? This is where a lawsuit and court injunction might come into play, and the Pharisees had detailed rules for using the court system as the tool for dealing with the problem.

Jesus, however, has a bold and radical approach. “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.” He doesn’t say sue him back; He doesn’t say use the courts to prove you are correct; He doesn’t even say just go ahead rightly or wrongly and give him the garment. After all, Deuteronomy said if the one garment was returned according to the law, that was enough. But Jesus says give him BOTH garments! Amazing again.

In my view then, Jesus here is not only setting a standard of righteousness different than that of the scribes and Pharisees, but He is also going beyond the specific standard set forth in the Mosaic law. He is not inconsistent with it, but it is not the same either. As one writer put it, Jesus’ teaching is running in deeper channels.

Example 3: Whoever compels you to go one mile. The historical background to this situation is the Roman law that required an individual from a conquered country to carry a load or pack up to one mile on foot if asked by a Roman. It was compulsory service. It was not popular; it was hated; it was done grudgingly. The scribes and the Pharisees particularly despised these laws being used by the ruling powers. There is a New Testament example in Matthew 27:32 to carry a load, which was forced on Simon of Cyrene: “Now as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to carry His cross.”

To try to apply this to a modern situation, what would happen if the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq decided to pass laws that required Iraqi citizens to work for the U.S.-occupying troops? What if the Iraqis had to do things like dig ditches, carry equipment, clear rubble for limited duration, but all for no pay? I would expect a huge outcry of unfairness and probably more active widespread resistance.

Let’s be clear that many of the Jews despised the Roman occupation. In 66/67 A.D., they started a futile revolt only to be crushed and killed. The temple would be destroyed. Many of them wanted a Messiah like Judas Maccabeus who would overthrow the Roman occupation, set up Israel as an independent nation once again, and restore their national hopes. This must have made Jesus’ teaching on compulsory service all the more jarring and astonishing to His audience.

Now suppose a Roman soldier comes along and says carry my pack for a mile. What should you do?

1. Actively retaliate, physical retaliation in a likely futile attempt at combat?

2. Resist, verbally deny the request, and run like the dickens?

3. Comply with the request, meet the legal requirement, and go with him the mile, no more and no less? Maybe you mumble and complain the whole way.

4. Yet Jesus teaches none of these; He says “Go with him two.” Amazing a third time!

I ask this rhetorical question: “What might the response of the Roman soldier be who has just witnessed an unexpected and powerful testimony of Christian discipleship?”

Example 4: The person asking you for money. The Old Testament text of Deuteronomy 15:7-10 provides a good backdrop on Jesus’ teaching. It states:

“If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs… . 10 You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand” (Deuteronomy 15:7-10).

Now the Old Testament has a strong ethic of promoting loans and gifts to those in need. The scribes and Pharisees also did, but much of it was enveloped in a system of regulations and rules predicated on ensuring repayment. But going to Jesus’ teaching on this subject cited in Luke gives a little more information.

“And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:34-35).

The key phrase here is “hoping for nothing in return.” In other words, make the loan to the person in need, but expect nothing in return; if he can’t or doesn’t repay, consider it a gift! Don’t you get the feeling that Jesus would never be hired by a mortgage company?

So what should we do? Go broke and comply with every request? The only guideline I can give you is that the teaching seems to apply to a fellow brother in need.

Let’s say you know someone in the church who has lost their job. They ask you for a loan. What should we do?

1. We could say “No.” We might think, “Why is this guy bothering me?”

2. We could say “Okay” but draw up a contract that has stiff penalties for late repayment or nonpayment that may put the brother further and further in debt.

3. Or we could say “Yes,” let the brother repay it, but if he can’t, our attitude as Jesus says is to “expect nothing in return.” Amazing a fourth time!

But someone might say “No one has ever given me a backhanded slap, sued for my clothes, forced me to carry a pack for a mile, or asked me for a loan as a really needy person.” But the point is these are just examples of offending situations. You have to plug in the particular situation that is offending you, and apply the principle of not only foregoing retaliation, but taking a stunning action that gives your offender a blessing.

Let me give a modern example. This one happens to be a negative one. One day quite a few years ago, my roommate and I were driving in Washington D.C. going home from work on a four-lane interstate during the afternoon rush hour. He was at the wheel, and we were in a bulky 1970’s edition Ford Thunderbird. The traffic was heavy, but we were moving consistently at about 20-30 miles an hour. All of a sudden, this car came whizzing alongside and quickly cut in front of us to the point that my friend had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting him. We jolted forward with our seat belts on and briefly stopped; I was relieved we weren’t hurt, and the cars didn’t collide. After the initial shock, I looked at my roommate, and I saw in his eyes and face that he was starting to get mad. The next thing I know he floors the gas pedal, zooms forward, catches the guy who cut us off, and starts to tailgate. Then after about a minute of that, my roommate zooms around the car and cuts him off. All the while, I am asking him to stop it for fear that I’m going to get hurt.

When we are confronted with situations like this, when we are offended, when we are insulted, we have two choices: we can escalate the conflict with retaliation, or we can de-escalate the conflict. We can be a “warmaker” or a peacemaker. Jesus said in the beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). We are peacemakers when we de-escalate these situations of conflict and extend a blessing instead.

When we turn the other cheek, we are a peacemaker.

When we forego the lawsuit, we are a peacemaker.

When we go the extra mile, we are a peacemaker.

When we give to our brother in need, we are a peacemaker.

The difficult part of applying Jesus’ teaching for me, and probably for all of us, is to determine its scope of applicability. I suspect it applies to a lot more situations than we want it to, or with which we are comfortable. Shouldn’t we especially apply these principles in our church? Peter builds off of Jesus’ teaching and applies it to relationships between brothers and sister in Christ. He writes:

Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; 9 not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing (1 Peter 3:8-9).

But let me mention one area in which I do not feel it extends. Historically, and in some church groups today, these verses are used to argue for governmental pacifism in relation to war or even capital punishment. This is where I feel we need to look at Jesus’ audience. He is not addressing the Roman government or even the Jewish judicial authorities. See Matthew 5:1, when He is seated, that “His disciples” come to Him. The teaching is what a disciple of Jesus should do when personally confronted with these types of situations. It is more of a bottom-up approach to diffusing conflict and more than that, giving a blessing instead.

V. Conclusion.

Are these some of the hard sayings of Jesus? Yes, they are. They are hard to do. But for a disciple of Jesus, they are not out of the realm of the possible.

I would like to close by pointing out and reflecting on the fact that Jesus lived out this teaching in His life. This is highlighted in several events in His arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

At the arrest, when Judas, one of the twelve, approaches with the Roman guard, Jesus doesn’t say, “You dirty rotten scoundrel, you traitor, you fiend.” Instead, He says, “Friend, why have you come?” Peter, however, is ready to resist. He pulls his sword out of the sheath to strike a blow and cuts off the ear of the slave of the high priest. But Jesus rebukes him by saying that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and He heals the slave by restoring his ear. Jesus did not resist the evil person (Matthew 26:47-57).

Just before the trial, the soldiers come and strike him on the cheek with the palms of their hands mocking, “Prophesy who struck you” (Matthew 26:68). As Isaiah prophesied concerning Him, “I gave my back to those who struck me and my cheeks to those who plucked out my beard. I did not hide my face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6). Jesus literally turned His cheek to the smiter.

At His crucifixion, Jesus lets the soldiers take both of His garments. John writes:

Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece. 24 They said therefore among themselves, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be,” that the Scripture might be fulfilled which says: “They divided My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots” (John 19:23-24).

He allowed both of His garments to be taken.

Lastly, on the cross, people are hurling insults at Jesus. “If You are the Son of God,” “If You are the King, come down now from the cross and save Yourself.” However, instead of hurling an insult back, Jesus asks for a blessing for them by saying, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).


185 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 24 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by James F. Davis on August 3, 2003.

186 Associated Press Report, June 10, 2003.

187 Story reported at Southwestern Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Dallas, Texas, March, 2002.

188 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Copyright 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson Publishers. All rights reserved.

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18. Jesus on Prayer (Matthew 6:5-15)

Introduction189

Matthew 5 – 7 contains the well-known Sermon on the Mount. The sermon is about righteousness that comes from the heart. Religion tends to be about external forms and obedience to rules, but here Jesus challenges us to evaluate ourselves by an inner standard. This contrasts with the prevailing wisdom of the time. The “teachers of the law” strove to fence the Law by a stringent oral law. Thus a “Sabbath day’s journey” encoded how far one could travel and not break the command to not labor on the Sabbath. It might well be that one could journey more without breaking the commandment, but if you kept the oral standard, you were so far from breaking the Law that you were “safe.” So the Law was fenced by obedience to an even stricter standard.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount also fenced the Law, but did so by looking at the heart. For example, He says,

“You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).190

Murder is an external sin. It is obvious and visible. It is easy to condemn the murderer. But Jesus tells us to take care less we even have a seething anger against another. Our anger can be visible or invisible. It matters not; we have the seeds of murder in our heart, and we had best uproot them by the Father’s grace. And so Jesus teaches about a life lived and judged by attitudes in the heart. There is nothing here by which we can judge others. We can only take His words, and by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, judge our own lives and move to change.191

So Jesus’ instruction on prayer is in the broad context of a sermon about the heart as the real source of good and evil in us. It also has a more immediate context expressed in the opening lines of Matthew 6:

Be careful about not living righteously merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1).

With these words, Jesus speaks of outward versus inward religious practices. Giving, prayer, and fasting are most often associated with religion and, in the following section of the sermon, Jesus speaks again of the inner heart versus outward forms. In Matthew 6:2-4, He speaks of giving. In Matthew 6:5-15, He speaks of prayer, and in 6:16-18, He speaks of fasting. His treatment of all three topics is the same: if you have the outward form only or if the outward form focuses attention on you, the public acclaim that you receive—real or imagined—is all the benefit you will derive.

Of course, a visible spiritual life is not of itself bad. Paul wrote to the Corinthians and said:

I am not writing these things to shame you, but to correct you as my dear children. For though you may have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, because I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I encourage you, then, be imitators of me (1 Corinthians 4:14-16).

Paul said, “Be imitators of me. What you see me do, do yourselves.” Godly men and women are often the first models of godly living that a new believer has. I certainly benefited, over 30 years ago now, from men decades old in their faith. Now I hope to be the same to those younger than me. The difference for Paul to the Corinthians is that he did not derive his self-image from the attention. He was a bondservant of Jesus Christ and spent himself for the church and her people. Men and women like that are worth emulating.

But it is different for those who give to be recognized for their giving, or who entertain with great prayers or fast in agony for the admiration of others. They have erected outward forms only. They have confused the approval of others with approval of the Father.

In this lesson, we will look into what Jesus said about prayer as He discusses its outward forms and instructs concerning the inner reality.

Putting Prayer in Its Place

Jesus’ instruction on prayer in Matthew begins this way:

“Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6).

Jesus develops two basic kinds of prayer. The first is “showcase prayer” by which the person praying actually draws attention to himself. He wants to be known as spiritual and holy. His religion gives him status, and by public prayer, he maintains and feeds it. The second kind of prayer is “relational prayer.” This is prayer that seeks time with the Father. Jesus, for teaching purposes, draws a distinct line between the two, but we must acknowledge that most people will fall somewhere between the two extremes. It is also important to understand that no one can read the mind and intentions of another heart. What might seem to be the height of arrogance may only reflect upbringing. Or gentle, quiet prayers may come from one who has no private prayer life at all. Jesus’ instructions are for us to know and personally apply His words and to let the Holy Spirit guide and train our hearts in these matters.

There are, however, some warning signs to which we might want to pay attention.

  • Do I have an “I am speaking to God” voice? This may be a matter of upbringing. Nevertheless, none is needed, and such a change in voice can draw attention to the one praying—unless one is in an environment that expects it, in which case not changing the voice can draw attention.
  • Elegant words and lots of them. This may be a matter of gifting and natural oratory, but again none are needed.
  • Personal agenda. It’s hard to excuse this one. You pray according to what you want done and what others need to do to help it along.
  • Gossip. “Please God. Help Jane resist the temptation to keep seeing that guy.” Such public prayers are only fruitful if Jane is there and has asked for intercession on that subject.
  • Public prayer of any kind without a private prayer life. It is a given that if you are not speaking to the Father when you are alone, there is no good speaking to Him publicly.

So Jesus advises us to go into our rooms and shut the door. This is the “normal” opposite of standing on a street corner. If He had used a phrase like “pray in private” or “pray alone,” all kinds of extreme ideas may have developed. How private do you need to be? Must we become hermits or monks to have a prayer life? Jesus simply meant that there are places and ways to pray that are between the Father and us. By entering such places, we demonstrate that we “believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). In such a place:

  • We can have an “I am speaking to God” voice if that helps us connect with Him and give Him honor.
  • We can use elegant words as a way of offering Him our best.
  • We can have a personal agenda, because it is now between the Father and us, and He can open and close doors as He sees fit.
  • We can pray for Jane. Since it is just between the Father and us, we are more likely to be showing genuine concern for her welfare.
  • And, of course, we now have a basis for praying in public.

We can be in our own rooms or in public and still pray privately. As Paul wrote, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

The private life is one measure of who we are. Too many times I have seen good public families suddenly come apart from within. It became apparent that the life behind the closed doors of the home was far different from the public family persona. If we believe that God exists and rewards those who seek Him, it will affect our most private of lives, because we will know that He is there. We then know that there is, in fact, no private life. Lest this cause you great fear, guilt, and concern, remember that Jesus says that, “… your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” Showcase prayer has the single reward of public acclaim. The rewards of relational prayer is that it can:

  • Direct the heart
  • Receive answers and close or open doors
  • Strengthen the character and spirit
  • Increase faith and spiritual gifting
  • Bring a deeper sense of the Father’s presence and care

These are good things and worth having

Putting Prayer in Perspective

Jesus’ instruction on prayer in Matthew continued with this admonition:

“When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8).

Jesus contrasts prayer to the Father with the prayers of the Gentiles. He describes Gentile prayer as the repetitious babbling of many words. What might this mean, and how do we relate this to our prayers?

  • Like the Gentiles”. The Gentiles did not worship the true God.
  • “Repetitious babble” connotes a lack of real content.
  • “Many words to be heard” suggests rituals, incantations, and technique.

Gentile prayer is about the manipulation of spiritual forces and entities that do not generally care about you as an individual.

We can, of course, now give Jesus’ words a Christian spin:

  • Like the Gentiles”—Praying to God in Name, but not in knowledge. This is similar to what Paul wrote to the Romans about the Jews who did not accept Jesus as their Messiah, “For I can testify that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not in line with the truth” (Romans 10:2).
  • Repetitious babbling—Praying without real content. Perhaps this would be like reciting liturgical prayers without connecting to their content.
  • Many words to be heard—Praying with an attitude that God is not listening and must be manipulated to answer.

In answer to this, Jesus says that our Father knows what we need even before we ask. We are praying to our Father, which means that we are in a family relationship. We are part of His life, and He anticipates what we need. We can, therefore, come to Him as transparent people. We can come before Him glad, sad, or mad, and He will be there in full understanding. Manipulation is not required.

If our Father knows what we need before we ask, why should we pray? There are two reasons. The first is because of the rewards of prayer that go beyond just meeting our needs. The second is that there are many other things for which to pray such as the needs of others and the advancement of the Father’s Kingdom. We do not need such things, but they should have a place in our prayers.

So Jesus has given instructions about the place and manner of our prayers. We are to have a private life of prayer, and we are to pray to a real Person. This Person is interested in our needs and in us and does not need to be manipulated.

Directing the Heart

So what makes for a good prayer? How are we to pray?

During His sermon, Jesus began a model prayer for us with these words:

“So pray this way: Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored, may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10).

Jesus tells us to pray to “Our Father in heaven.” This should set our mental attitude as we come to a time of prayer. From the Old Testament and much of the New, we understand that we are praying to God, and that He is our Lord and King. We owe Him our lives and our service. But Jesus tells us that we can come to Him and call Him, “Father.” This connotes a more significant relationship than we would imagine. But Jesus is very serious about just this aspect. The entire sermon has many references to God as our Father. This relationship is our primary motivation for the lives that we should live.

God as Father is a two-way relationship. As Father, He loves us, and we honor Him. He protects, and we abide. He provides, and we give thanks. He instructs, and we emulate. He disciplines, and we mature. He touches, and we respond. He commands, and we obey. So much of the time we focus on command/obedience, and we forget all the other wonderful aspects of our walk with our Father. When we approach Him in prayer, He is all these things for us, and we need to be all these things to Him.

Jesus tells us to pray in first person plural, “Our Father … .” Prayer, even in private, is to have a community focus. We can pray for our own needs, of course, but it must not stop there. We are to be intercessors. We pray “Give us … ,” and we are asking for the Father’s provision for family, friend, and foe. We pray “Forgive us … , ” and we seek reconciliation with the Father and among ourselves. We pray “Lead us …” and “Deliver us ” because we all need proper guidance and protection.

We are to pray that the Father’s name “be honored.” This is both a request and an attitude. As a request, we are asking for the knowledge of the Father to fill the earth and for the earth to respond in honor. It is our chance to grieve over those things, in our lives and the lives of others, that bring dishonor to the name: hypocrisy, judgment that triumphs over mercy, mercy that triumphs over instruction and discipleship, those who hate God, etc. It is a time to recognize and put away our hypocrisy. As an attitude, we can begin our prayers with worship, praise, and thanksgiving. We worship who He is. We praise Him for His works, and we thank Him for His care and provision.

We ask for the Father’s kingdom to come. Along these lines, we pray for the spread of the gospel and the establishment of the rule and reign of the Father in the hearts of men and women. We pray for the welfare of the distressed and oppressed. We pray for physical healing, deliverance, change of hearts, broken relationships, and such things as would change with an acceptance of the Father and His ways. We also look forward to Jesus’ return to live and rule among us.

So we begin our prayers by focusing on the One to whom we pray. He is Father and King. Turning our hearts to Him helps us to become like Him.

Sustaining the Heart

What we need as people occupies the next section of Jesus’ model prayer:

Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors (Matthew 6:11-12).

The most literal understanding of “daily bread” is a loaf of bread in my hands to last me for the day. Some might say that is all that He means for us to ask for. I believe it is better to expand daily bread to include all that others and we need. I would, in fact, extend it beyond the material and into prayers for the needs of our bodies and our hearts:

  • Food and Shelter—“But if we have food and shelter, we will be satisfied with that. Those who long to be rich, however, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:8-9).
  • Righteousness—“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).
  • The Father’s presence—“Whom do I have in heaven but you? I desire no one but you on earth … . But as for me, God’s presence is all I need. I have made the sovereign Lord my shelter, as I declare all the things you have done” (Psalm 73:25, 28).

Even though there is nothing in Jesus’ prayer for asking about anything but basic needs, there are two reasons to imagine that requests can go beyond this. The first is that Paul tells us to pray for everything. “Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, tell your requests to God in your every prayer and petition—with thanksgiving” (Philippians 4:6). The second is the example of the wedding in Cana, where Jesus, in answer to His mother’s request, turned water into wine in a way that exceeded the needs of the party. We have a generous God. When Jesus boils prayer down to “daily bread,” He is encouraging thanksgiving. Ask for anything, expect the basics, and give thanks for everything.

The welfare of our souls and bodies also depends on two-way forgiveness. Guilt and bitterness eat away at us. Both are associated with personality troubles and physical ailments. We can make both a matter of prayer. “Forgive us our debts” takes care of our true moral guilt for the things that we do wrong. And because we have forgiveness, we can take honest assessments of ourselves, which hastens our sanctification. However, because bitterness is as bad or worse that unresolved guilt, Jesus tells us to link the two. “Father, forgive us to the same degree that we forgive others.” Jesus has more to say on this, and I will defer more comments until that time as well. Suffice it to say that it is unbalanced to ask to have our guilt removed so that we can stand comfortably in the Father’s presence, when there are people that we exclude from our lives because they wronged us. If it is good for us to receive forgiveness, it is even better that we give it. Plus, if we have a heart that carries no grudges, then we have confidence at this point in our prayer that we have received the Father’s forgiveness. That is an excellent thing.

If the Father answers what we have prayed so far, we would have healthy bodies and souls fit for service in the Kingdom of God.

Keeping the Heart

Jesus concludes His model prayer with these words: “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13).

What does Jesus mean by our asking, “… do not lead us into temptation … ?” Is it that we need to fear that the Father will lead us into temptation unless we pray? Will He set us up to see if we will fall? The letter of James tells us, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires” (James 1:13-14). I think most would agree that we must understand Jesus’ words in light of our own propensity to sin.

The Father does not directly tempt us to evil, but He does bring us to moments of testing. And with testing, comes the temptation to quit and not press on. The famous example of Peter’s denial illustrates such a failure. The night before, Peter had confidently asserted that he would stick by Jesus no matter what. Only a few hours later, Peter denied in strong language that he even knew Jesus. When we pray to not be led into temptation, we are asking the Father’s help in avoiding such situations. We ask for doors to be closed that have difficult situations on the other side. We ask for our hearts to be strengthened and focused on good things. We ask for wisdom to recognize and avoid troubling circumstances.

Although we are morally culpable for our actions, it can also be said that even the first sin in our race was not committed in a vacuum. The serpent in Eden, later identified as Satan or the devil, tempted Eve and prevailed. The Lord had commanded that the man and woman not eat from a single tree in the center of Eden. Satan attacked at that point and helped bring forth the sin. And so we need to ask for protection from his schemes.

Satan seeks our failure and prays for it. In Job, we have the record of such a prayer:

Then Satan answered the Lord, “Is it for nothing that Job fears God? Have you not made a hedge around him and his house and all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his cattle have increased in the land. But extend your hand and strike everything he has, and he will indeed curse you to your face!” (Job 1:9-11).

It is interesting that before this, we have a record of Job making offerings on behalf of his children – just in case they sinned. We are not told that Job ever made an offering for himself. Like Peter, he was self-assured. Like Peter, Satan asked to sift Job like wheat. It is just such situations that we pray against in our prayers. We acknowledge our weakness and ask for strengthening. We ask to receive our lessons according to the way of wisdom and instruction.

There are other sources of temptation that we must guard against. The world values make constant appeal. Our inner natures are weak and would like to go along. Through prayer, we can become a different kind of person.

Ultimately, it gets down to character that flows from within. “When is a thief not a thief?” When I ask this question, I usually hear, “When he is not stealing.” That is not correct. A thief who is not stealing is a thief who is out of work. A thief is not a thief when he labors with his own hands in order to have something to give to someone in need (Ephesians 4:28). Such is the goal of this prayer. To change us from thieves to givers, from adulterers to loving husbands and wives, from proud to humble, from hating to loving, from bitter to forgiving, and so on. For each negative, we need to find and nurture its opposite. Prayer can help us do that.

This ends Jesus’ prayer model according to the most reliable manuscripts. Some manuscripts tack on something like, “For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.” I have chosen to go with the more attested reading. In the first place, we can give honor to the Father at the beginning of the prayer. In the second place, if Jesus did not include the ending, there is questionable value in using it. It is a grand ending, but Jesus ended His model with a reminder of our humility. The prayer moves from the greatness and glory of God to our total dependence on Him. I think it is better left that way.

An Important Condition

Anyone following Jesus’ instruction on prayer closely would have noticed that we are to prayerfully link our receiving forgiveness from the Father to our forgiving others. It is not a command from the Father to us. It is rather to be a request from us to the Father. This is, indeed, a strange thing and one that would prompt the question, “Did you really mean that my forgiveness is based on the degree to which I forgive?” Jesus answers this anticipated question this way:

For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins (Matthew 6:14-15).

Jesus states in very direct terms that what we are to pray is the way things are. There is actually incredibly good news here. There is no one who has done as much damage to me as I have done to the kingdom of God—or would do if given enough time for my self-centered attitudes and actions to propagate. So if I come before the Father bearing no grudges for anything done to me, then I can ask Him to bear no grudge against me. Jesus’ prayer assumes that I have forgiven others before coming before the Father.

There are two important parables that back up this reality. This first even raises the ante by saying that we must forgive from the heart:

“For this reason, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. As he began settling his accounts, a man who owed ten thousand talents was brought to him. Because he was not able to repay, the lord ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, children and whatever he possessed, and repayment to be made. Then the slave threw himself to the ground before him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you everything.’ The lord had compassion on that slave and released him, and forgave him the debt.

“After he went out, that same slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed him one hundred silver coins; then he grabbed him by the throat and started to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe!’ Then his fellow slave threw himself down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you.’ But he refused. Instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he repaid the debt.

“When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were very upset and went and told their lord everything that had happened. Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ‘Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’ And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed.

“So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:23-35).

The second is a story that includes a parable and shows that the degree to which we love the Lord can depend on the degree to which we have been forgiven.

Now one of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.

Then when a woman of that town, who was a sinner, learned that Jesus was dining at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfumed oil. As she stood behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfumed oil.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

So Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

He replied, “Say it, Teacher.”

“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon answered, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then, turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss of greeting, but from the time I entered she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfumed oil. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much; but the one who is forgiven little loves little.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50).

The issue of forgiving others comes down to two things. The first is gratitude. We have been forgiven an enormous debt. Even the smallest and most petty of our self-centered mischief does real damage to the kingdom of heaven. We need only to look at the fallout from Adam and Eve’s simple disobedience to know that the debt that we owe is our lives. Our forgiveness cost the Father the life of His Son in exchange. Our forgiving others is simple gratitude. How dare we not! The second is that by forgiving, we emulate the character of the Father. By this, we honor His name. Our Father is known for His mercy and forgiveness. When we show mercy and forgiveness, we strive to be like Him. In this way, we give honor to His name.

Someone might now be asking, “Am I saved if I do not forgive others?” Since this prayer model seems to be a daily prayer by inclusion of a request for daily bread, then this would seem to be a daily request for forgiveness of what we have done wrong that day. It is operational forgiveness. It is what Jesus meant when He told Peter, “The one who has bathed needs only to wash his feet” (John 13:10). But even placing this aside, salvation does not depend on us. Paul in Ephesians writes:

For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not of works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Saved by grace that comes by faith that is the gift of God. We can contribute nothing to our salvation, which is all the more reason to gratefully forgive those who have wronged us—whether they seek that forgiveness or not.

Besides, we do not want to live unforgiving lives. It is like drinking poison and saying to our offender, “There! Take that!”

Along these lines, I recommend that you read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. In that book, you will find the depths to which we as Christians are able to forgive.

The Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes

You can take each line in the model prayer and find at least two of the beatitudes that reinforce it. When you are done, all the beatitudes are mentioned at least once.

    “Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

    “May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (Matthew 5:3).

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (Matthew 5:10).

    “Give us today our daily bread.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).

    “And forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors.”

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

    “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (Matthew 5:10).

“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way” (Matthew 5:11-12).

I am not inclined to add anything else. I find the pairings interesting and instructive. I hope you do as well.

Some Final Thoughts

Let’s look at the entire text again:

“Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. So pray this way:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored, may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

“For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins” (Matthew 6:5-15).

Jesus’ commentary about prayer is more than twice as long as His model prayer. The prayer, itself, is a marvel of simplicity and wisdom. It tells us to whom we are praying and for what we should pray. I believe that it also ranks what we pray about in priority order. This is significant, because we can focus on our Father and His kingdom and ask for daily provision before asking forgiveness! In this way, Jesus communicates the Father’s abundant mercy and grace. As Jesus has already said in this same sermon,

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).

The application of this text, as with many others, must be personal and by the direction of the Holy Spirit. Typically we have no insight into the hearts and motivations of others. Suppose you come across someone loudly praying on a street corner. Do Jesus’ words above apply? You cannot tell. Jesus, for example, prayed in public (John 11:41, 42). Daniel was in a situation where it would have been wrong to pray in secret (Daniel 6:10). The one who retires into a secret place each day to pray may still have a hypocritical heart—he prays in secret and somehow lets everyone know he prays in secret.

So you need to read this passage concept by concept and bring your heart next to it.

  • Are your prayers mostly about you and your circumstances? Consider interceding for others.
  • How in tune are you to what the Father might be doing around you and the part you might play? Jesus said that He only did what He saw the Father doing. Prayer and connection with the Father is the key to our doing the same.
  • Does “forgive … as we have forgiven” give you dread, or is it full of promise because your heart bears ill will to none? If you are not comfortable, do the hard work of letting go of your anger.
  • Do you plead for your family, church, community, country, and enemies? Remember that the model prayer is in first person plural.
  • Some people have memorized this prayer, and they use it as a guide in their private prayers. That is a good thing and a practice that I would recommend.

It is the nature of Jesus’ teaching that the bar He raises is higher than our grasp. But in the reaching, we reach higher all the time.

May the Father bless you and visit you in your times of prayer.

    Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.


189 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 27 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Donald E. Curtis on August 24, 2003.

190 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

191 There is a modern parallel to the difference between an oral law that seeks to fence a written statute and an issue of the heart. Those who would outlaw private gun ownership are seeking to prevent murder through a stricter set of laws that outlaw weapons. As in Jesus’ time, such stricter codes are bound to fail, whereas an emphasis on the heart and character of men and women is better able to promote a peaceful and safe society.

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19. Where Is Your Treasure? (Matthew 6:19-24)

Introduction192

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:19-24).193

In Matthew 6, one of the main points, if not the main point, is our relationship as Christians to our heavenly Father. In this chapter alone, Jesus mentions the term “Father” 11 times, showing the significance and importance of that relationship (verses: 1, 3, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26, 32). Our relationship to the Father as His children is the most remarkable and incredible relationship. We have been bought with a price, so that we can be called “children of God.” Romans 8:15-17 states:

For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, Abba, Father. The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.

What a powerful thing it is to know that we are the Father’s children and that we can go before Him and cry to Him, “Abba, Father.” “The great secret of life according to our Lord is to see ourselves and to conceive of ourselves always as children of our heavenly Father.”194 So many things pull us away from the significance of that relationship and vie for our attention.

In Matthew 6, Jesus brings up two big temptations we all face as believers that distract us and pull us away from the importance and the satisfaction that we can have in our relationship with God the Father. The first temptation evident in chapter 6 is the religious man doing his works before man to receive the praise of man instead of doing them in secret, where only God the Father knows. Jesus says that if we seek the praise of men, we have our reward, but if we seek to glorify God, the Father will reward us openly. The examples given are charitable deeds, prayer, and fasting. The temptation is to seek to be noticed, to be put on a high pedestal as one who is religious, and to gain the praise of men. The second temptation we face as believers is the temptation of being like the world in seeking treasures on this earth. So often, we look at the things of this earth and say to ourselves, “If only I had that, then I would be all set.” We seek to find security and satisfaction in temporary things instead of what we already have in our relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ. Both of these temptations want our attention, and both distract us from what truly matters – our relationship with God the Father.

The big question from the Sermon on the Mount is the question of where my heart is. In reading through and studying the Sermon on the Mount over the past several months, my heart has been challenged to really think through this question and to evaluate if my heart is seeking after self or after a real, vibrant relationship with God. In a lot of ways, we can put on many masks and faces so people perceive us as spiritual or godly, when in reality, deep in our heart of hearts or in our private life, we struggle with fears, temptations, and desiring the things of the world for man’s praise instead of glorifying God. In this passage, Jesus directly addresses the heart by asking the question, “Where is your treasure?” He says in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” There are a lot of things vying for your heart, as this is the control center for life.

“The Scripture teaches that the heart is the control center for life. A person’s life is a reflection of his heart. Proverbs 4:23 states it like this: ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the well spring of life.’ The word picture here is graphic. The heart is a well from which all the issues of life gush forth.”195

Therefore, we must guard our hearts and watch over them so that our heart follows hard after the things of God and is not distracted by the things of this world. In this message, I ask three questions. The first question we must ask ourselves as we begin this passage of Scripture is: “Where is our treasure?” In asking this, we will answer the question “Where is our heart?” because where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The second question to ask ourselves is: “Where is our focus?” What are our eyes focused on? Are they focused on the seen or the unseen? The final question to be addressed is: “Who, or what, are you serving?” Here Jesus is surrounded by religious people, Sadducees and Pharisees, men who look very religious on the outside, but who in their hearts are serving money and themselves rather than God. Jesus is also surrounded by people who have never heard this kind of radical teaching. Jesus is asking us to repent, to change our minds about these things, to live a life of faith, and to serve the one true God.

Where Is Your Treasure?

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do no break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

It is not too difficult to think of examples of men and women who have laid up for themselves treasures upon the earth, thus showing where their heart truly was. Several come to mind:

Example 1 – The story of Achan (Joshua 6:17-18, 7:1-26). In verse 18, God instructs the children of Israel to attack Jericho, to abstain from the accursed things, and to bring all the silver, gold, and vessels of bronze and iron to be consecrated to the Lord into the treasury of the Lord. Now as they attack Jericho, one of the men disobeys the command of the Lord and keeps for himself a beautiful Babylonian garment, 200 shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold weighing 50 pounds. Because of this man’s sin, Israel is defeated at the battle of Ai, and this man is put to death because his heart coveted after these riches instead of honoring the Lord and doing as He had asked.

Example 2 – The Rich Young Ruler (Matthew 19:16-22). In this story, a rich young ruler comes to ask Jesus a question. The question he asks is how he might have eternal life. Jesus answers the man by telling him that he needs to obey the commandments, and the rich young ruler responds, “Which ones?” Jesus responds, “‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young ruler responds that he has kept all these things and asks, “What do I still lack?” This is where Jesus drops the bomb on the rich young ruler. He says, “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor” and “follow Me.” Where was this young man’s heart? You can tell by his reaction. His heart is controlled by his wealth and riches. This young ruler is wealthy and supposedly has a lot going for him, but he is not willing to let those things go in order to follow Jesus. He is willing to love his neighbor and do the commands that pertain to his fellow man, but when it comes down to loving the Father and having no other gods before Him, he is not willing to let go of the wealth he obtained here on earth in order to gain eternal life.

We have seen a couple of examples of people who laid up their treasures on the earth, and the end result for both of these situations was death. Their hearts were set upon the things of this earth, and they were willing to disobey God for the sake of temporal riches that do not last. The things we gather here on earth are only temporal; they do not last for eternity.

Where is your treasure? So many things come to mind when I think of what Jesus is saying in these three verses that begin our passage. Are you earthly-minded or heavenly-minded? Are you investing in the future eternity to come, or are you investing in the here and now? Are you enthralled with the temporary versus the permanent? Now obviously all of these are asking the same thing, but it is very important that we fully grasp this thought. Jesus uses the three examples below to show how the things we deem most important are only temporary. He uses the moth, rust, and the thief. We can all think of examples of these things in our lives. For instance, someone drives a new car off the lot so proudly. They love this vehicle. They have the windows rolled down and the music cranked as they want the world to know they have just bought this new car! The next thing you know, a little humility comes as they are sideswiped, and their new shiny car is destroyed and no longer of value.

The Moth: We all know that when moths get into our clothes, they eat holes right through them. The moth is a tiny little butterfly-looking animal that doesn’t appear harmful at all. But it will destroy the most expensive, elaborate fabric you could ever own.

Rust: I grew up in Canada where roads are salted in the winter, and the effect of that salt on cars is brutal. We had an old, brown Dodge Ram truck that had holes in the bed because of rust; it even had holes in the floorboards due to rust. You could have the nicest car in the world, but eventually, because of the snow and slush and all the salt that gets on the outside of your car, it eventually rusts. Rust destroys, as moths do, the property and riches we work so hard to obtain.

The Thief: With money and riches comes great fear of someone taking them, so mankind does all in his power to protect what he has. He puts walls around his house so no one can get in. He has security guards guarding them at all times and hidden safes for his rare jewels. What does the thief do? He breaks in and takes what the wealthy man has, and he will do anything to get it.

What do you deem as valuable, because what you deem as valuable shows you where your heart is? Maybe it is money and wealth; maybe it is power and the desire to be recognized as a leader; maybe it is looking spiritual on the outside so that people think you have it together. Maybe it is popularity and acceptance through nice clothes, a home, or an X-box gaming console. Maybe it is your family and how you have raised great kids. Here, Jesus is calling us to change our minds from the temporary to the eternal, from the things that are passing by to the things that are permanent. You never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer! If you did, we would all be shocked because we know the earthly treasures we store up cannot be taken with us. They are only temporary. All through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asks us to repent, to change our minds and our attitudes, and to be like those in Hebrews 11 who had eternity in their hearts and the promises God gave them.

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desired a better that is a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

In contrast, Jesus says in Matthew 6:20, “but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Here Jesus is talking about laying up eternal treasures that do not fade away. What are these treasures Jesus is talking about? First Peter 1:3-6 states:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials.

What an awesome thing to know that as believers our inheritance is waiting for us, that as children of God, we will inherit eternity! Being with Christ, that is our reward! Those who strive to store up treasures here on earth will be disappointed because those treasures will only pass away.

Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

At the end of our life as believers, we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account for our lives here on the earth. Whatever we have laid upon that foundation, whether gold or hay, will go through the fire and either last or not last. Those believers who seek to build up wealth and riches on earth will suffer loss and will be saved as through fire, whereas those who strive to lay up treasures in heaven will receive a reward. The greatest of these treasures is that we can enter eternity fully pardoned and set free from the bondage of sin because of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.

So the question arises, “How do we lay up treasures in heaven?” The answer is by living the way God has asked us to live and following after Him in all that we do. For example, loving your neighbor as yourself – if a man has a need for a shirt and you have extra, give him one – being a cheerful giver, honoring God in your marriage, guarding your mind against adulterous thoughts, sharing the good news of the gospel with those around you. There are so many things which all narrow down to loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself.

In the final statement in verse 21, Jesus goes back to the heart: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” One of the Ten Commandments states: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). When we set our hearts on the things of this earth and fall to the temptation of being worldly in our ways, we are committing idolatry because we are no longer serving God. Rather, we have put our riches above God, and we are serving them. They have become our god and our life. Jesus challenges us, as He challenged those He was talking to that day in the crowd, to ask ourselves where our treasure is. If your treasure is on earth and the things of this world, your heart will be there as well. If your heart is focused on the Father and on laying up treasures in heaven, your heart will be there.

I am reminded of the movie, The Mummy, and a character called Beni. Toward the end of the movie, when they find the great treasure room, Beni has lost all sense of control and is controlled by the riches and wealth present amongst them. I am sure Beni had visions of living the life of luxury and being the wealthiest man in the world, but that is not the way the story ends. Something happens in the temple, and the money room begins to fill up with sand, and the door closes so they cannot escape. Beni has the opportunity to get out, but the power of the riches and wealth are his downfall. He attempts to fill his pockets and drag out bags filled with gold, which are too heavy. Eventually the door closes, and Beni is trapped amongst all those jewels and riches, never to see the light of day again and never able to use the riches he deemed so valuable. The power of those riches controlled him, and they were the cause of his death. Let us not get to the end of our lives having pursued the wealth and riches of this world only to realize that we pursued and were controlled by the wrong things.

How Is Your Vision?

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).

Below are examples that pertain to our passage. Gathering up riches here on the earth blurs our vision. It causes us not to see the truth, the will of God, correctly. It distorts our vision, causing us to not see God as clearly as maybe we once did.

Example 1 – The Story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). In this story, a man and his wife sold a possession, brought the money to the apostles, and laid it at their feet. This occurred a lot in the early church:

Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need (Acts 4:34-35).

This story is a little different though. When they brought their money to the apostles, Ananias and Sapphira lied, saying they had brought all the money they had made from selling this possession. But in fact, they had kept back some for themselves. Peter accuses Ananias of lying to God, and at that moment, Ananias falls to his death. The same thing happens to his wife, who also lies to God about how much they had received for the possession. Ananias and Sapphira had seen earlier the praise and acceptance others had received for selling their property; therefore, they sold this great possession for the sole purpose of being noticed, accepted, and looked upon as spiritual. Because of this, they lied to the Holy Spirit, and their lives ended as a result.

Example 2 – The Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21). In this parable, Jesus makes a profound statement we all should listen to very carefully. He states in verse 15 that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses.” The parable of the rich fool suggests this very thing. This parable tells of a rich man who has yielded a great crop. He decides to tear down his old barns and build newer, bigger barns. Then after he is done, he decides to retire, so to speak, thinking that he has enough stored up to last many years. Now he can sit back, relax, and take it easy. What happens? God calls him a fool and says that his life is required of him that day. Jesus completes this parable by saying, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” So many of us long for the day we can sit back and enjoy our fortune we have been saving up for retirement and take the path of easiness. This man was ruled by his wealth, thinking of all he had accumulated, only to die that night and see his wealth squandered and split up. He was unable to take it with him.

This next section, addressing the same issue but stating it differently, uses the illustration of the eye. When riches are the focus of our lives, our vision becomes distorted. When the things we can see outweigh the eternal things that are unseen, we have spiritual near-sightedness. The eye is the pathway through which light enters the body. It illuminates what is going on around us. It allows colors, scenery, and faces to come to light when we look at them. William Barclay states:

The idea behind this passage is one of childlike simplicity. The eye is regarded as the window by which the light gets into the whole body. The color and state of a window decide what light gets into a room. If the window is clear, clean, and undistorted, the light will come flooding into the room, and will illuminate every corner of it. If the glass of the window is colored or frosted, distorted, dirty, or obscure, the light will be hindered, and the room will not be lit up… So then, says Jesus, the light which gets into any man’s heart and soul and being depends on the spiritual state of the eye through which it has to pass, for the eye is the window of the whole body.196

First Peter 1:6-9 states:

In this you greatly rejoice [talking about our inheritance] though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to the praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end or your faith – the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:6-9, brackets and italics mine).

The eye that is full of light is a life lived by faith in the eternal promises of God. We may not be able to see the physical manifestation of those things, but we believe by faith in the truth that one day we will be with Christ – the end of our faith, the salvation of our souls. When our focus is on earthly, temporal things, our sight is all blurred and messed up. I can remember a time when for two days, I had something in my eye that hurt continually and made my eye water. I couldn’t open it; it was very sensitive to light, and it was a distraction from truly seeing what was going on. It is the same when our treasure is on earth; it is a distraction from what is really going on. We cannot see straight. Look at two examples in Hebrews 11:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, in whom it was said, IN ISAAC YOUR SEED SHALL BE CALLED. By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward (Hebrews 11:17-18).

Here are two prime examples of men who had good eternal vision: they saw clearly, they saw eternity, and they saw the reward versus the temporary things that were passing on by. Because of this faith, God used them in mighty ways.

The question then is, “How is your vision?” James Boice states:

Do you see spiritual things clearly? Or is your vision of God and his will for your life clouded by spiritual cataracts or near-sightedness brought on by an unhealthy preoccupation with things? I am convinced that this is true for many Christians, particularly those living in the midst of Western affluence.197

Have you ever tried on someone else’s glasses and noticed how it affects your vision? I remember times in high school when we were driving on back roads in Northern Ontario at night, and we would turn out the car lights. It was so black we could not see because our eyes were used to the light. When that light was not present, it took a while to adjust to having no light. Of course, we would get scared immediately and turn the lights back on so as not to perish! We can all relate in some way to this parable of the eye that Jesus brings forth. If the eye of our heart and mind is focused on earthly treasures, our vision will be blurred and distorted, and we will not be able to rightly distinguish God’s will for our life, or we may not be able to see God as clearly as we once did. If your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. What happens in the dark? You stumble around the room trying to find some source of light so that you can find your way and see things so you don’t trip and fall or stub your toe. When our eyes are focused on the things of this world, our eyes are bad, our bodies are full of darkness, and we have a very difficult time seeing the truth. If the eyes of our heart and mind are focused on the Father, then we will be in right standing with Him and see Him clearly to know what He is asking of us at that point in time. “If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22b). So I ask again, “How is your vision? What are your eyes focused upon?”

Who Are You Serving?

Now we come to a very powerful and pivotal point in the passage at hand. This verse, in fact, is the climax of the Sermon on the Mount. This passage asks the all-important question, “Who are you serving?” People often think they can have the best of both worlds – both here on earth serving themselves with riches and living it up, and later down the road in the future, which would be heaven. In this passage, Jesus states: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Jesus tells us here that we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve money and God; we cannot serve popularity and God; we cannot serve ourselves and God; we cannot serve our families and God. We can have only one master. Jesus is once again challenging us to look at the whole Sermon on the Mount, challenging us to repent, to change our minds about earthly treasures, about the things that we formerly served, and to serve Him only. You cannot do it no matter how hard you try. One or the other will lose out, and in most cases, it will be God. Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells this story:

A farmer … one day reported to his wife with great joy that his best cow had given birth to twin calves, one red and one white. He said, “You know, I have been led of the Lord to dedicate one of the calves to him. We will raise them together. Then when the time comes to sell them, we will keep the proceeds that come from one calf and we will give the proceeds that come from the other to the Lord’s work.” His wife asked which calf he was going to dedicate to the Lord, but he answered that there was no need to decide that then. “We will treat them both in the same way,” he said, “and when that time comes we will sell them as I have said.” Several months later the man entered the kitchen looking very sad and miserable. When his wife asked what was troubling him he said, “I have bad news for you. The Lord’s calf is dead.” “But,” his wife remonstrated, “you had not yet decided which was to be the Lord’s calf.” “Oh, yes.” he said. “I had always determined that it was to be the white one, and it is the white calf that has died.”198

James Boice comments: “It is always the Lords calf that dies – unless we are absolutely clear about our service to him and about the true nature or our possessions.”199

I would like to point to an example of someone who had the right perspective on what this meant. Many of you may know this example. It is actually one of my favorite passages of Scripture, one that challenges me greatly every time I read it.

Example 1 – Paul (Philippians 3:7-8).

But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ.

The Apostle Paul was in the religious sense a man who had it all. He was circumcised the eighth day; he was of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. Concerning the law, he was a Pharisee; concerning zeal, he persecuted the church. Concerning righteousness, which is in the law, he was blameless. Paul had it all, but he gave all that up because he saw all this as rubbish, as “dung,” so that he might know Christ and the power of His resurrection. He was serving one Master, and that Master was Jesus Christ, and Him alone. The things of this world and the things this world had to offer did not appeal to him anymore because the Father had changed his heart and made him a new man. In his life, Paul had a change of mind – he repented and until his death, Paul followed Christ. He saw the significance of laying up treasure in heaven, and he laid aside those things that might have appealed to his flesh so that he might live by faith in the unseen and lay hold of the reward at the end of his life – the salvation of his soul.

What about us? What is Christ asking of us? He is asking us to do the same – we are not to serve two masters, but to serve Christ and Christ alone. Below are a couple of passages that illustrate this point. We are to count the cost, because it is either Him or self in our personal pursuits, whatever those might be.

Example 2 – Take up your Cross and Follow Me (Mark 8:34-38, Luke 14:25-33).

When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34-38).

“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it – lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, this man began to build and was not able to finish. Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:25-33).

God is calling us to a radical life of service to Him as our Master. As I said at the beginning of this message, there is such huge importance in realizing that God is our Father, and we are His children. God will take care of us and provide for all of our needs as He sees fit. But the temptation to hold onto earthly things weighs heavy on us and tempts us to trust our riches instead of our heavenly Father. In the passages of Scripture quoted above, we see an incredible call to serve our Father, as His children and as His disciples. There are some pretty strong statements in these passages; if you don’t hate your father and mother, etc., you cannot be My disciple. This call is radical in that we are called to give up ourselves completely and to place our complete trust in our Father and to follow Him. We are called to deny ourselves, which means that self no longer has any rights. We are called to take up our cross, which means that we are to take the same path Jesus took, being willing to lay down our lives for His sake and His gospel. And we are called to follow Him. We are called to imitate Jesus in all that He did and to follow His example.200 Jesus wants all of our heart. He desires that we have an intimate relationship with the Father as He does. We cannot serve God and the riches on this earth; it just does not work. One is either despised or hated, while the other one is loved and followed. Whichever one you serve is the one that is your master. If it is riches, those riches are your master, and they have control over you. If it is the Father, He is your Master, and He has control over you. Who are you serving?

Conclusion and Application

(1) In conclusion, I want you to realize that God is not condemning us for being wealthy or rich. The question is, “Are you serving those things and committing idolatry by having them be your god?” Money is not bad; it is the love of money that is the root of evil. “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1Timothy 6:10).

Command those that are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they may be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on to eternal life (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

The example of Demas comes to mind: “Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica …” (2 Timothy 4:9-10).

(2) The temptation to lay up treasures is a real temptation that we all face from youth to adulthood. I was in Chicago recently, and many times throughout the weekend, I thought, “Man, if I only had a little more money, I could do this,” or “I could have a house on Lake Michigan,” or “I could own that sweet car.” We were down on Rush Street and looked into this Bentley store with all kinds of elaborate cars from red and yellow Ferraris to Aston Martins to Porsche 911’s to Bentleys. I thought to myself that it would be so awesome to drive one of those things home; what would people think of me then? The temptation is real, and it is not just in things like cars and big houses; it comes down to clothes, and X-box gaming consoles, and jewelry, family, power, popularity, hypocrisy etc. This temptation is real, and we need to put on the whole armor of God to combat it. Our enemy wants nothing more than to distract us with these temporal pleasures and things of this world so that we do not have an intimate relationship with our Father.

(3) Where is your treasure? I ask the youth students this each week. I don’t know where your heart is or what your heart is longing for or serving. Only two people know that, you and God. I know that if you are serving yourself by storing up wealth or popularity or whatever it may be, that will come to an end. It is only temporary. But if you are serving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, you will not be disappointed. There is an inheritance waiting for you when you go to be with the Lord. I am calling us to repent of those things and to change our minds and our behaviors. I am calling us to repent on a daily basis, as this is a continual battle we face day in and day out. We have seen the power of the gospel and repented; that must continue every day. We must see the grace of the gospel in our daily lives and its effects day in and day out. We must live by that grace, through faith, in what is to come.

I conclude with an excerpt from the story of a missionary woman who has been a huge encouragement to me. Darlene Deibler Rose lost everything but gained so much more.

“Mrs. Joustra came to our barracks and asked if she could talk to me [Darlene Deibler Rose] for a few minutes… “I came to tell you that your husband in Pare Pare has been very ill… .When I saw her eyes fill with tears, I grabbed her shoulders and cried, ‘Oh, Mrs. Joustra! You don’t mean he’s gone!’ ‘Yes’, she said. ‘Some three months ago he died in the camp in Pare Pare.’ I was stunned – Russell is dead. He’d been dead three months already! It was one of those moments when I felt that the Lord had left me; He had forsaken me. My whole world fell apart. I walked away from Mrs. Joustra. In my anguish of soul, I looked up. My Lord was there, and I cried out, ‘But God…!’ Immediately He answered, ‘My child, did I not say that when thou passest through the waters I would be with thee, and through the floods, they would not overflow thee?’”201

Here is a woman who lost everything, including her husband. She was in a prison camp during World War II, yet she found God faithful in all of this. She found that giving her life to Jesus Christ was of far greater value than anything she could obtain here on earth, and through these awful, dreadful years, God used this woman in a mighty way amongst the other prisoners of war, as well as with her so-called enemies that were holding her captive. As Jim Elliot wrote, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Where is your treasure? How is your vision? And who are you serving? I pray that you are serving the Father and Him alone.


192 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 29 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Lenny Correll on September 7, 2003.

193 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New King James Version. Copyright 1990 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. (New York, New York: American Bible Society).

194 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishers, 1971), vol. 2, p. 78.

195 Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart (Wapwallopen, Pennsylvania: Shepherd Press, 1995), p. 3.

196 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press, 1958), vol. 4, p. 43.

197 James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1972), pp. 216-17.

198 Lloyd-Jones, pp. 95-96.

199 Boice, p. 218.

200 See William MacDonald, True Discipleship (Kansas City, Kansas: Walterick Publishers, 1975), pp. 6-7.

201 Darlene Deibler Rose, Evidence Not Seen (New York, New York: Harper and Row, 1990), p. 109.

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20. A Leper, a Gentile, and a Little Old Lady (Matthew 8:1-17)

Introduction202

1 After he came down from the mountain, large crowds followed him. 2 And a leper approached, and bowed low before him, saying, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 3 He stretched out his hand and touched him saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you do not speak to anyone, but go, show yourself to a priest, and bring the offering that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”203

5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him asking for help: 6 “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish.” 7 Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Instead, just say the word and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel! 11 I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; just as you believed, it will be done for you.” And the servant was healed at that hour.204

14 Now when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying down, sick with a fever. 15 He touched her hand, and the fever left her. Then she got up and began to serve them. 16 When it was evening, many demon-possessed people were brought to him. He drove out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. 17 In this way what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet was fulfilled: “He took our weaknesses, and carried our diseases”205 (Matthew 8:1-17, NET Bible).206

Introduction

The first words of Matthew 8 link the miracles that follow with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

After he came down from the mountain, large crowds followed him (Matthew 8:1).

Matthew must therefore desire his readers to see a connection between the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7 and the miracles that follow in chapter 8. Let’s begin by reviewing what we’ve seen in Matthew up to this point.

In chapters 1 and 2, Matthew gives us a record of matters which relate to the birth of the Lord Jesus. This account of His birth was designed to show the reader how Jesus was the promised Messiah. He was the seed of Abraham (1:1) and of David (1:5-6). Thus, He was born in the Messianic line. Four times in these two chapters Matthew indicates that these events fulfilled Old Testament prophecies.207 Already we see indications of Gentile involvement in the genealogy of our Lord (1:3, 5), and in the Magi (2:1-12), who come to worship the “King of the Jews.” And so we also see uneasiness on the part of the Jews in Jerusalem (2:3) and Herod’s lethal opposition.

In chapter 3, we are introduced to John the Baptist, whose appearance fulfills Isaiah 40:3 (Matthew 3:3). John preached that the kingdom of God was at hand and called upon men to repent of their sins in preparation for the coming of the Lord. At the same time, he rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees who came because their presence was hypocritical. They were challenged to “produce fruit that proved their repentance” (3:8). The Messiah’s coming was near. While John baptized with water, the Messiah would “baptize” with fire (3:11-12). Jesus then came to John for baptism. After addressing John’s reluctance, Jesus was baptized, at which time the Father and the Spirit testified to the fact that Jesus was the Beloved Son, the Messiah (3:13-17).

In chapter 4, Jesus successfully resisted Satan’s temptations in the wilderness (4:1-11). After John’s arrest, Jesus left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1 (4:15-16). Here, Jesus called at least four of His disciples: Peter, Andrew, James, and John (4:18-20). Jesus then began preaching, teaching, and healing, attracting large crowds:

23 Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of disease and sickness among the people. 24 So a report about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all who suffered with various illnesses and afflictions, those who had seizures, paralytics, and those possessed by demons, and he healed them. 25 And large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan River (Matthew 4:23-25).

This set the stage for our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), in which the essence of our Lord’s teaching (the gospel) was set out. Essentially, Jesus articulates the relationship of His message and ministry to the Old Testament Law. On the one hand, Jesus corrects the misinterpretations of the law that were current in His day – errors held and promoted by the Jewish religious leaders. They focused on external obedience; Jesus focused on the heart. They taught that it was wrong to murder; Jesus taught that it was wrong to think of your neighbor as worthless, or to allow broken relationships to go unreconciled (5:21-26). They taught that it was wrong to commit the act of adultery; Jesus taught that it was wrong to think adulterous thoughts (5:27-30).

Judaism had turned the Old Testament law into a system of works. Jesus taught that no one could be saved by living up to the requirements of the law, even the scribes and Pharisees, the most devoutly religious Jews:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

These shocking words informed the crowds that many of those who assumed they were going to heaven (so to speak) weren’t going to be there. What was even more shocking was who Jesus said would be there: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the gentle, the merciful, the persecuted (5:1-16). True religion was not a matter of good works, but of faith, not a matter of externals, but of the heart. True religion was not something that the religious leaders could dole out or withhold. It was all about Jesus. Thus, Jesus had to warn people about the “broad way” that leads to destruction (7:13-14) and about false prophets (7:15-23).

At the conclusion of His sermon, Jesus emphasized that true faith is not merely a matter of words, but of actions (7:24-27). It is not those who merely hear who are saved, but those who heed the gospel. Actions must follow profession. Words must be verified in our works.208 The final words of chapter 7 describe the sense of authority which the crowds sensed in Jesus, in contrast to their religious leaders:

28 When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed by his teaching, 29 because he taught them like one who had authority, not like their experts in the law (Matthew 7:28-29).

I believe that the verses which follow in Matthew 8 serve to undergird the authority of our Lord. His words are validated by His works. Jesus speaks with authority in the Sermon on the Mount, and then He proceeds to perform many acts of healing and deliverance, often by just a word. If Jesus claimed to be the Messiah by His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, He validates that claim by His miraculous deeds in chapter 8.

The Leper209 Healed

1 After he came down from the mountain, large crowds followed him. 2 And a leper approached, and bowed low before him, saying, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 3 He stretched out his hand and touched him saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you do not speak to anyone, but go, show yourself to a priest, and bring the offering that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4)

Verse 1 seems to indicate to the reader that what follows is tied to what has just happened on the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus came down from the mountain, and from His teaching, and great crowds were following Him. They must have witnessed many of the healings that Jesus performed in the days that immediately followed His teaching on the mountain.

The first healing described in Matthew is that of a man who was hopelessly infirmed. Matthew tells us that this man was a leper (verse 2). Luke tells us he was “full of leprosy.”210 Scholars tell us that the “leprosy” of that day was not the same as the “leprosy” of our time. In my opinion, it was worse. I’ll spare you the grim details of just what this ailment must have been like.211 Leprosy was considered a curse. Miriam was stricken with leprosy for her rebellion against Moses (Numbers 12:9-15). So, too, Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, was stricken for his greed (2 Kings 5:20-27). David’s curse on Joab’s descendants included leprosy (2 Samuel 3:29). King Uzziah was stricken with leprosy because he presumptuously offered incense in the temple (2 Chronicles 26:16-21). Leprosy was about as bad as it could get. It was incurable and apparently deadly, the equivalent of modern day cancer, except that leprosy was much more evident, and ugly.

Leprosy was a kind of living death, with many sweeping implications. One was declared a leper after tests were performed (Leviticus 13). Once declared a leper by the priest, the leper was cut off from contact with society. He had to display marks of mourning, as if for the dead (thus, to touch him would defile one). He had to tear his clothes, uncover his head, and cover his lips. When someone drew near, he must call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” He had to remain outside the camp (Leviticus 13:45-46). Naturally, the leper could have no access to the temple, or even to Jerusalem. Leprosy was, indeed, a living death. It could not get any worse.

I have to smile a bit as I read Matthew’s account of the healing of the leper. It seems that while Jesus was in one of the Galilean towns, this leper worked up the courage to approach Him, seeking to be healed. This was far from typical. The man should have kept at a distance. I can almost see the crowd melting away as the leper approached Jesus. Who was going to lay a hand on him to stop him? The people must have stood back, curious to see what would happen next.

The leper prostrated himself before Jesus and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (8:2). This man had it right. He was right to call Jesus “Lord.” He was right that Jesus was able to make him clean. He was right that the only question was whether or not He was willing to do so. As others have observed, this leper sees that Jesus has authority in Himself. Jesus does not need to pray for the leper; He can heal him.

We are hardly surprised to read our Lord’s response, “I am willing. Be clean!” (verse 2) Can you imagine the gasps which went up from the crowd as Jesus stretched forth His hand? Matthew makes it clear that Jesus purposed to touch this man, a man who may not have felt the touch of a human hand for many years. How wonderfully strange that He who could heal with merely a word chose to heal this man with a word, and a touch!

Jesus then instructed the man not to advertise what He had just done for him, but rather to go to the priest. Tucked away in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus was a chapter (14) that set down the process by which the priest could declare a cured leper clean. All those years this “sleeper text” lay untouched, unused. But this day the priest who is on duty will have a most unique opportunity, the opportunity to see a man who has been healed of leprosy, and who has been cured by One named Jesus. The former leper was to go to the priest so that he could testify to the fact that he had been healed and was therefore clean. The priest was to validate this miracle and give serious thought to what this meant.

Healing the Centurion’s Servant
Matthew 8:5-13

5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him asking for help: 6 “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish.” 7 Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Instead, just say the word and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel! 11 I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; just as you believed, it will be done for you.” And the servant was healed at that hour (Matthew 8:5-13).212

This healing is described in considerably greater detail than is the healing of the leper (nine verses, as opposed to three). It must therefore be important. Let us first note that the central figure (other than our Lord) is a centurion. These men were soldiers, commanders of 100 men. They were there in Israel to maintain the peace. Centurions are always looked upon favorably in the New Testament.213 What is most important to observe here is that the centurion was a Gentile.214 I am reasonably convinced that the centurion’s servant (literally “boy”) was a Jew. After all, who would we expect to be a servant to this Gentile, in Israel? I would not at all be surprised if this servant was the means by which the centurion came to embrace Judaism. Besides this, Jesus must have come up often in the briefings that this centurion must have held for his men. Their job was to maintain security in this occupied land. Any potential trouble maker would surely be kept under careful scrutiny. Luke informs us that this slave was “highly regarded” by the centurion (Luke 7:2). We can see the centurion’s regard by his extraordinary efforts to procure a healing for his servant, and thus an end to his excruciating pain (Matthew 8:6).

Let us take note of the fact that the centurion is not asking for anything for himself. He is deeply moved by the suffering of his servant. It may be that this Gentile believed Jesus had come only to bless His people, the Jews. Since he was not seeking anything personally, but was only asking for Jesus to heal his (Jewish) servant, he seems to be confident that Jesus might grant his petition. Once more we find that Jesus is willing to help. The centurion’s words have barely been uttered when Jesus responds, “I will come and heal him” (8:7).

It seems that this caught the centurion off guard. He was all too aware of the barrier that that law created between Jews and Gentiles. One need only read the account of what it took to get Peter to the house of Cornelius, also a centurion (Acts 10), to understand the magnitude of this barrier. He did want Jesus to heal his servant, but how could he expect Jesus to defile himself by entering his home? (Little did the centurion know that Jesus had just touched a leper.) This was not a deficiency in the centurion’s faith; it was his humble acceptance of his status as a Gentile.

How different the request of the centurion is from that of the royal official in John 4:46-50. In this case, the official specifically asks Jesus to come to his home to heal his son, who is about to die. The centurion pled with Jesus not to come to his home. There were two reasons for this. First, he was unworthy215 to have Jesus enter his household (Matthew 8:8). Why should he presume to ask Jesus to defile Himself by coming to his home? The second reason is even better: there was no need for Jesus to come to his home. The centurion recognized our Lord’s authority. Our Lord’s authority was so great that He need not come to his home. He need only speak a word and heal Jesus from a distance.

The centurion was himself a man with a measure of authority. When he ordered men under his command to do something, they did it. The authority of Jesus was infinitely greater. Why should He defile Himself by coming to this man’s house when He could heal him from where He stood?

The centurion gets far more than he asks for, and this is a result of his faith, not his authority as a commanding officer in an occupation army. We should remember that this man asked nothing for himself, only for his (Jewish?) servant. And yet he receives two of the finest blessings for which a man could ever hope.

First, the centurion receives the highest praise any man, Jew or Gentile, receives in the Gospels: “I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel!” (verse 10) This Gentile’s faith surpasses that of any Jew in Israel, and it receives the commendation of our Lord. Second, this man receives the Lord’s promise of inclusion and fellowship that he would never have imagined. The centurion did not consider himself worthy (qualified) to have Jesus pass through his door. But look what Jesus promises him, in response to his faith:

11 “I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12).

More than anything else, it was the Old Testament ceremonial food laws that separated Jews and Gentiles. That is what we see in the case of Peter, both in Acts 10 and in Galatians 2. This man could not conceive of Jesus entering his door, much less sitting at his table. But Jesus tells him that in the kingdom he will be sitting at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He also says that while many Gentiles will be found at this table, a number of Jews will not be there.

Now that our Lord has died at Calvary, and has risen from the dead and ascended to the Father; now that the New Testament epistles have been written, we can understand how all this would come to pass. First of all, this centurion surely has blessed the offspring of Abraham:

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. 2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Are we surprised, then, to see that our Lord promises blessings to him?

Most importantly, in the context of Matthew’s account, it is not one’s ethnicity that determines one’s eternal destiny, but his faith. John the Baptist made it clear that many Jews would not enter into the kingdom of heaven, but rather into eternal judgment:

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10).

The issue is not one’s racial origins, and not even one’s works, but faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah. This is what makes one a true offspring of Abraham:

13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified. 15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either. 16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants—not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 17 (as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed—the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do (Romans 4:13-17).

This centurion, who sought the Lord’s mercy toward his servant, came to Him on the basis of faith, and it is this faith which not only healed the servant, but saved the centurion. Most of those who read this sermon will be Gentiles. This passage (buttressed by later New Testament revelation) tells us how Gentiles (and Jews) can – indeed must – be saved. Are these not the sweetest words we could ever hear? What a wonderful Savior!

The Little Old Lady (Peter’s Mother-in-law)
Matthew 8:14-17

14 Now when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying down, sick with a fever. 15 He touched her hand, and the fever left her. Then she got up and began to serve them. 16 When it was evening, many demon-possessed people were brought to him. He drove out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. 17 In this way what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet was fulfilled: “He took our weaknesses, and carried our diseases” (Matthew 8:1-17).

What does Peter’s mother-in-law have to do with the previous two miracles? What is the point of telling us that she was healed? Well in this account, she was healed without saying a word, without asking for anything. The parallel accounts in Mark and Luke both indicate that others petitioned Jesus to heal her.216 This is, of course, another kind of malady. This was not a mere “headache.” The text literally reads that she was “thrown”217 in bed with a fever.

What the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law contributes is the additional evidence that Jesus has the power to heal any malady, instantly. This time He touches the infirmed as He heals them. And what makes this miracle even more miraculous is that this woman instantly gets to her feet and begins to serve the entire group (Jesus, His disciples, and whoever else was in the home).218

My inclination is to see that the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is important for another reason, one that Matthew does emphasize in this paragraph. Word of this woman’s healing quickly spread, so that by supper time there was a large crowd gathered at the door of Peter’s home. In response, Jesus “served them” by healing all who were ill (Matthew 8:16). Even the demons were cast out with a word (8:16).

Matthew once again takes up the fulfillment theme. These things were done in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy:

16 When it was evening, many demon-possessed people were brought to him. He drove out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. 17 In this way what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet was fulfilled: “He took our weaknesses, and carried our diseases” (Matthew 8:16-17).

This citation is from Isaiah 53:4 and is part of a larger prophecy. Allow me to cite a little larger portion of the context:

4 But he lifted up our illnesses,
he carried our pain;
even though we thought he was being punished,
attacked by God, and afflicted for something he had done.
5 He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds,
crushed because of our sins;
he endured punishment that made us well;
because of his wounds we have been healed.
6 All of us had wandered off like sheep;
each of us had strayed off on his own path,
but the Lord caused the sin of all of us to attack him (Isaiah 53:4-6).

Isaiah links sickness with sin, and well he should. He prophesies that when the Messiah comes He will heal men of their diseases, as well as of their sins. Is it any wonder, then, that when Jesus comes to the earth and identifies Himself as the Messiah He should heal men of the whole range of maladies? Jesus makes it clear to us that His ability to forgive sins is closely linked with His ability to heal sickness:

2 Just then some people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Have courage, son! Your sins are forgiven.” 3 Then some of the experts in the law said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming!” 4 When Jesus saw their reaction he said, “Why do you respond with evil in your hearts? 5 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then he said to the paralytic— “Stand up, take your stretcher, and go home.” 7 And he stood up and went home (Matthew 9:2-7).

Conclusion

Each of these miracles is a wonder in and of itself, and worthy of our attention. But Matthew has seemingly set aside a chronological scheme for one that is more thematic.219 I believe the key to understanding this passage is found in its relationship to the Sermon on the Mount. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was defining His relationship to the law. The law could not save men, but could only condemn (Matthew 5:20). He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (5:17-19). Jesus had great authority, even the authority to correct contemporary errors in the interpretation and application of the law. The people realized this (Matthew 7:28-29). Matthew 8:1-17 dramatically demonstrates some of the major themes Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

In particular, our text underscores the relationship of Jesus to the law. The law was unable to save, just as it was unable to heal. The law could define sickness and health, but it could not produce health. It could only condemn (declare unclean) the illness. Jesus, on the other hand, was able to heal sickness, just as He was able to forgive sins. This was His authority as the Son of God and His calling as Messiah. And yet He did not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it.

Matthew first introduces us to the leper, a man whose condition alienated him from others and from access to God. He was always “outside the camp,” so to speak. What can the law do for him? It can only condemn him, and if by some miracle of God he should be healed, it can pronounce him clean. But the law cannot heal a leper. Jesus could heal the leper, and He did.

This is like our sin. The law can define sin and expose it, but it cannot remove it. The law declares what righteousness looks like, but it does not provide the means to become righteous. The law declares us all to be sinners, but the law cannot do anything to save us from our sins (Romans 3:9-20). Only Jesus can remove the filth of our spiritual uncleanness.

Jesus sent the leper to the priest, in obedience to the law (Leviticus 14). He also did so as a witness to the priests. Let them recognize that this leper was cleansed, and that Jesus did it. Let them ponder who Jesus must be, because of this miracle. Let them see, as Matthew indicates in verse 17, that Jesus is not seeking to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, as Messiah. He alone can heal a leper and make him clean. He alone can cleanse a sinner from his sins and assure him of eternal life.

The story of the centurion gets the most emphasis. Being a Gentile, the centurion does not wish to subject Jesus to any defilement by entering his home. In addition, the centurion recognizes the authority of the Lord Jesus. Jesus had such authority that He need not come to his house. He could heal his servant from a distance. And so the man urges Jesus not to come. Jesus is delighted with this man’s faith. Does this centurion think that he has no part in the blessings of God for Israel? Does he see a wall of separation? It is a wall that the law has raised. Jesus informs him that he will be seated at the table with the patriarchs in the kingdom of heaven, while many Jews will be thrown out. The law provided no solution to the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, but Jesus removed this barrier, in fulfillment of the promises contained in the law and the prophets. The law separated Jews and Gentiles; Christ brought the two together as one new man.

11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed on the body by human hands— 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, 15 when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Christ removes the barriers between God and man and also the barriers that separate men. Jews and Gentiles can enter into God’s blessings (including fellowship with each other) by faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah. Jews and Gentiles become one in Christ. It is only Jesus who can do such an amazing thing. The law cannot do it. The law was never intended to do it. The law was given to reveal our sins, and to point us to Jesus. He has come. He has demonstrated that He is the Son of God, the promised Messiah. He died on the cross of Calvary for our sins. He was buried, was raised from the dead, and now sits at the right hand of God. He must either be our Savior or our Judge. Which will it be?

Who could turn from His offer of salvation? Only those who wish to try to get to heaven on their own merits, only those who loathe grace. What a beautiful Savior He is! He is willing to save. He only requires us to trust Him for this salvation. It is true that God alone can turn our hearts to Himself, but it is just as true that God never turns away one who comes to Him in repentance and faith, seeking mercy in salvation:

“Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away” (John 6:37).

As a church, we have committed ourselves to prayer, seeking the glory of God in the salvation of men. What an encouragement our text should be to those who desire to pray. Jesus is willing. He is willing to glorify Himself in the salvation of men. He is willing to hear and to answer the prayers of His children. Why, then, do we not ask?

Does He seem far away? Do we think that distance somehow hinders God from answering our prayers? Let us call to mind the faith of the centurion, who believed Jesus could heal from afar, because He is One with authority. Let us press on in our prayers, knowing that our Savior is both willing and able to grants our requests that He glorify Himself in us.


202 Copyright 2004 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 36 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on May 16, 2004.

203 See also Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-14.

204 See also Luke 7:1-10.

205 See also Mark 1:29-34; Luke 4:38-41.

206 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

207 See Matthew 1:22-23; 2:15; 2:17-18; 2:23.

208 It is not our works that save, but they do show that our faith is living and real (James 2:14-26).

209 Matthew informs us that when Jesus sent out the 12, they were to “cleanse the lepers” (10:8). When John the Baptist had his doubts about Jesus, our Lord told John’s disciples to remind John that, among other things, Jesus healed lepers (Matthew 11:5). In Matthew 26:6 Jesus ate in the home of “Simon the leper.”

210 The NET Bible reads, “covered with leprosy.”

211 If you wish more detail, see William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 388.

212 One can certainly take note of the discrepancies between Matthew’s account of the healing of the centurion’s servant and that found in Luke 7:1-10. I believe there are reasonable explanations for any apparent discrepancies, but this does not fall within the scope of this message.

213 See Matthew 8:5, 8, 13; 27:54; Mark 15:39, 44f; Luke 7:6; 23:47; Acts 10:1, 22; 22:25f; 24:23; 27:1, 6, 11, 31, 43.

214 Fredrick Bruner thinks that he was most likely a Syrian. See Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary (Waco, Texas, Word Books, 1987), vol. 1, p. 302.

215 I find it interesting that the NASB renders, “I am not qualified for You to come under my roof.” This aptly conveys the centurion’s reticence, because he was a Gentile, and Jesus was a Jew. It is not just a matter of personal worthiness, though that, too, is a factor.

216 It is possible that Peter’s mother-in-law was not favorably inclined toward Jesus. After all, he took Peter away from his fishing trade and his family. She could have felt that her daughter (and family) were neglected, and all because of Jesus.

217 See the marginal note in the NASB at Matthew 8:14.

218 Matthew says that she began to serve Him (8:15). In Mark 1:31, we are told she began to serve them.” There is no contradiction here. Since Jesus is the One who healed her, the woman’s focus is on Jesus. She does this for “them” because of “Him.”

219 Notice that the other Gospels don’t keep this same order of events.

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21. Why Jesus Doesn’t Conform to Man’s Expectations or Why Does Jesus Feast when Others Fast? (Matthew 9:1-17)

Introduction1

The Jewish religious leaders were beginning to feel the heat. Jesus was becoming a threat, and they knew this all too well. Actually, Jesus had been a threat to them from the very beginning. Remember the response of Jerusalem (which is where many of the Jewish religious leaders would be) to the news of the birth of the “King of the Jews”:

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem 2 saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:1-3).2

Later, in John’s Gospel, we find the reason for the uneasiness of the Jerusalemites. It is exposed by their own words:

47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. 48 If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation” (John 11:47-48, emphasis mine).

The religious leaders had a very good thing going for themselves. They held positions of power and prestige, and this certainly meant they could use their power for financial gain. For example, the money changing and sacrificial animal concession at the temple probably belonged to the high priest.3 They had much to lose, if Messiah were to appear. His agenda could hardly be the same as theirs, and thus they had feared Jesus from the manger to the mountain from which He gave his great sermon in Matthew 5-7.

John the Baptist did nothing to allay their fears. He publicly identified Jesus as the promised Messiah:

29 On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ 31 I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33 And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining—this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God” (John 1:29-34).

People came from far and wide to hear John preach and to be baptized by him. The priests and Levites recognized John’s influence and sent a delegation to check him out:

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed—he did not deny but confessed—“I am not the Christ!” 21 So they asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not!” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No!” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Tell us so that we can give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John said, “I am the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said” (John 1:19-23).

John had never been a part of the religious system, as his father had been (Luke 1:5-25). He lived in the wilderness, not in Jerusalem. People had to come to him to hear him. And when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John to be baptized, John refused, in the strongest of terms:

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:7-12).

When John passed off the scene, Jesus took up where he left off:

From that time Jesus began to preach this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17; compare 3:2).

Like John, Jesus refused to conform to the religious system of the day. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus agreed with John that the religious leaders of the day were not going to have a part in the Kingdom of Heaven (not without true repentance and faith in Jesus, at least):

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

From here, Jesus went on to correct the teachings of the Jewish religious leaders. In the very next verse in Matthew, Jesus begins to set the record straight regarding the proper interpretation of the Old Testament:

21 “You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).

Again and again Jesus corrects popular Jewish misconceptions with the formula, “You have heard … , but I say … .” The errors He exposed were the teachings of the Jewish religious leaders.

But Jesus posed a much greater threat than John – His authority was underscored by the miracles He performed:

40 Jesus went back across the Jordan River again to the place where John had been baptizing at an earlier time, and he stayed there. 41 Many came to him and began to say, “John performed no miraculous sign, but everything John said about this man was true!” 42 And many believed in Jesus there (John 10:40-42).

Jesus buttressed His teaching with miracle after miracle. Matthew has already indicated that Jesus punctuated His teaching with numerous miracles, miracles of all kinds, resulting in a large following:

23 Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of disease and sickness among the people. 24 So a report about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all who suffered with various illnesses and afflictions, those who had seizures, paralytics, and those possessed by demons, and he healed them. 25 And large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan River (Matthew 4:23-25).

16 When it was evening, many demon-possessed people were brought to him. He drove out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. 17 In this way what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet was fulfilled: “He took our weaknesses, and carried our diseases” (Matthew 8:16-17).

Matthew does not provide the backdrop to our text that Luke does. It would be well to keep Luke’s words in mind as we consider our text:

17 Now on one of those days, while he was teaching, there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting nearby (who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem), and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 Just then some men showed up, carrying a paralyzed man on a stretcher. They were trying to bring him in and place him before Jesus (Luke 5:17-18).

It looks as though a whole lot of conversation had been taking place among the Jewish religious leaders – behind closed doors. They suspected that Jesus could pose a very serious threat to their leadership. They needed to check Him out. And so scribes and Pharisees arrived on the scene from all over Israel. These folks did not come with an open mind, seeking to discern whether or not Jesus was the true Messiah. I don’t think they ever asked themselves, “Could this be true? Could Jesus be the Messiah?” Their fear was, “What will happen if we do nothing, and everyone chooses to follow Jesus, rather than us?” They had to check Jesus out and figure out how to contain the damage before it was too late.

A crowd of people had packed into a home in Capernaum to hear Jesus teach (Mark 2:1-2). The power of the Lord was also present, so that He performed healing (Luke 5:17). The place was so packed there was no way for anyone to get in the door, let alone four men carrying a stretcher. Many were eager to hear His teaching, hanging on every word. Some were probably hoping for a miraculous healing. And then there were the scribes and Pharisees, sitting there with their arms folded, checking out this newcomer, who had not sought their seal of approval (and who had, in fact, taken a very adversarial position).

Jesus and the Paralytic: A Sinner Forgiven
Matthew 9:1-8

1 After getting into a boat he crossed to the other side and came to his own town. 2 Just then some people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Have courage, son! Your sins are forgiven.” 3 Then some of the experts in the law said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming!” 4 When Jesus saw their reaction4 he said, “Why do you respond with evil in your hearts? 5 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then he said to the paralytic— “Stand up, take your stretcher, and go home.” 7 And he stood up and went home. 8 When the crowd saw this, they were afraid and honored God who had given such authority to men (Matthew 9:1-8).

How interesting! Matthew seems to have left out the most interesting part, but Mark and Luke do not:

3 Some people came bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. 4 When they were not able to bring him in because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Jesus. Then, after tearing it out, they lowered the stretcher the paralytic was lying on. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the experts in the law were sitting there, turning these things over in their minds: 7 “Why does this man speak this way? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 Now immediately, when Jesus realized in his spirit that they were contemplating such thoughts, he said to them, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up, take your stretcher, and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I tell you, stand up, take your stretcher, and go home.” 12 And immediately the man stood up, took his stretcher, and went out in front of them all. They were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:3-12; see also Luke 5:18-26).

This paralytic didn’t approach Jesus like all the others; he was lowered to Jesus through the roof. I would have expected Matthew to include this human interest portion of the story, but he did not. Matthew is not just telling human interest stories; he is presenting the gospel. What is more important, knowing that a man was lowered through a roof, or knowing that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins? Matthew simply doesn’t have time for story telling, even a fascinating story. His goal is to present the gospel, the good news that Messiah has come to save sinners.

I want you to notice something special about this situation. The response of our Lord was one that took the faith of others into account. Jesus noted “their faith”:

Just then some people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Have courage, son! Your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2, emphasis mine).

I do not wish to ignore the fact that “their” may well refer to the faith of five men, not just four. I don’t want to suggest that the paralytic can be saved apart from personal faith. But I do wish to call attention to what Matthew is saying: the faith of these four men had something to do with his healing, and even with his being forgiven. Jesus responded to the faith of others when He granted this man healing, and the forgiveness of sins. What an encouragement this should be to us to pray more frequently and more fervently for others! The faith of these men, expressed by their intervention on this paralytic’s behalf, brought him not only the blessing of healing, but of forgiveness of sins. Our prayers on behalf of the lost really count! I can see no other way to understand what I read here.

But why does Jesus go beyond what all of these men sought? I would like to suggest three reasons. First, consider our text in the light of what Paul writes to the Ephesians:

20 Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, 21 to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21, emphasis mine).

God brings glory to Himself by exceeding our requests and expectations in blessing us. We cannot doubt that God glorified Himself by what He did for this paralytic. It is right there in our text:

When the crowd saw this, they were afraid and honored [glorified, KJV, NASB] God who had given such authority to men (Matthew 9:8).

Second, I believe that our Lord forgave this man’s sins because it gave him the courage to be in God’s presence. I am inferring this from the Lord’s words, “Have courage, son! Your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). The expression is found three times in the Gospel of Matthew. It is found here and then later on in this same chapter:

20 But a woman who had been suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. 21 For she kept saying to herself, “If only I touch his cloak, I will be healed.” 22 But when Jesus turned and saw her he said, “Have courage, daughter! Your faith has made you well.” And the woman was healed from that hour (Matthew 9:20-22, emphasis mine).

This woman had the faith to believe she would be healed, if she but touched the garment of our Lord. Many were healed by touching the garment of our Lord, but they first asked permission to do so (Matthew 9:35-36). This woman seemed too afraid to ask, and so she “stole” a touch and was healed. Jesus was not content to leave it at that, and so He called her out. Now, she was really frightened. How could she, a woman who had stolen a healing, stand before Jesus, especially in this crowd? She had faith to be healed, but her fear was in approaching the Son of God. And so Jesus said, “Have courage, daughter! Your faith has made you well.

The last time the words “take courage” are found in Matthew is in chapter 14:

26 When the disciples saw him walking on the water they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” and cried out with fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them: “Have courage! It is I. Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:26-27, emphasis mine).

The disciples were in a boat when Jesus approached them, walking on the sea. They did not know who it was, and they were scared to death. Can you blame them? Then Jesus spoke to them, “Have courage! It is I. Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27b). Hearing this, they no longer were afraid of the One who approached them, but welcomed Him.

I believe that this paralytic was genuinely fearful, like the woman with the hemorrhage, and like the disciples, who thought they were seeing a ghost. They were afraid to be in the presence of our Lord. This man must have had a measure of faith, enough to believe that he could be healed. His faith was in Jesus, and if he regarded Jesus as the Messiah, then it was good that he feared being in His presence. How could he, a guilty sinner, approach the Messiah?

Jesus knew the thoughts of the scribes, as we shall soon observe (verse 4). He also knew the hearts of the four stretcher-bearers (He “saw” their faith, verse 2). Why, then, would He not also know the thoughts and fears of the paralytic? If the paralytic had faith that Jesus could heal him, he must also have had a sense of who Jesus was. How could he, an unworthy sinner, approach the Son of God and hope to be healed? It is a very fine question indeed! Perceiving this, our Lord set this man’s fears aside, giving him courage in the knowledge that his sins were forgiven. Jesus’ words of comfort and assurance met this man’s spiritual need, just as His subsequent words would meet the paralytic’s physical needs.

Third, the Lord forgave this man’s sins because He knew how the scribes would interpret it. Jesus was claiming to be God, and publicly granting the paralytic forgiveness of his sins could not have stated this claim more boldly. The scribes could hardly miss the point. Immediately they were thinking in theological terms. They rightly reasoned, “No one can forgive sins but God alone” (Luke 5:21). Perhaps they recalled these words in Isaiah:

“I, I am the one who blots out your rebellious deeds for my sake;

your sins I do not remember” (Isaiah 43:25).

Notice that Matthew’s account does not contain the words, “No one can forgive sins but God alone.” It isn’t really necessary. On the one hand, we find these words in both Mark and Luke. On the other hand, Matthew does include the indictment, “This man is blaspheming!” (Matthew 9:3). Jesus was accused of blasphemy because He was claiming to be God.

33 The Jewish leaders replied, “We are not going to stone you for a good deed but for blasphemy, because you, a man, are claiming to be God” (John 10:33; see also John 5:18; 19:7).

It should be noted that these scribes did not publicly protest, or challenge Jesus in front of the crowd. Why not? I think it is because Jesus did not give them time to do so. He caught them off guard by exposing their thoughts, before they could protest. This became just one more proof that He is the Son of God.

The scribes’ logic is flawless. They could not be more right in the inference they have drawn. But will they go where the evidence takes them? First, He indirectly claims to have the authority to forgive sins, by forgiving the paralytic of his sins. Then, He exposes the inner thoughts of the scribes, who objected to this claim as blasphemous. Then, He sets down a test of His authority. “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Take up your bed and walk’?

Today, we use the expression, “Put up or shut up!” By this we mean either prove that your words work, or stop talking. Here, Jesus is not talking about the ability to merely utter certain words. Jesus is asking, “Who can speak these words and show that His words actually accomplished what was said?” In that sense, it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven”, than it is to say, “Stand up and walk.” You cannot immediately see the results of the forgiveness of sins, because that takes place in a person’s heart, and the fruits are evident over time.5 Thus, it is easy to make this statement, because it can be put to the empirical test. But if Jesus were to say, “Stand up and walk,” He must either validate this by healing the man instantly, or He will have shown that His words are empty.

Jesus puts Himself to the test by what He says. But He has done so in an ingenious way. He has linked His ability to heal with His authority to forgive sins. Logic led the scribes to reason that no one but God can forgive sins. Logic should thus lead them to conclude that Jesus is God, if He can forgive sins. And now, Jesus has added a further logical link: if He is able to heal a paralytic (the harder thing to do), then surely He can forgive sins (the easier thing to do). If Jesus can heal the paralytic, then He must be God.

And so Jesus turns to the paralytic and says to him, “Stand up, take your stretcher, and go home” (verse 7). The man stood up and went home, just as Jesus commanded. There can be but one conclusion: Jesus must be God. But no one seemed to get it. The scribes are silent. The crowd is greatly impressed, but their conclusion falls short of acknowledging Jesus to be God:

When the crowd saw this, they were afraid and honored God who had given such authority to men (Matthew 9:8).

The crowd saw this as a work of God. They seemed to recognize Jesus was a “man of God.” But they didn’t recognize Jesus as God. They honored God (not Jesus, as God), for giving such authority “to men.” Thus, Jesus is not seen as anything more than a man, with some kind of connection to God. I suppose that this means that they saw Jesus as a prophet, something like the man born blind (until Jesus informed him otherwise):

17 So again they asked the man who used to be blind, “What do you say about him, since he caused you to see?” “He is a prophet,” the man replied… . 30 The man replied, “This is a remarkable thing, that you don’t know where he comes from, and yet he caused me to see! 31 We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but if anyone is devout and does his will, God listens to him. 32 Never before has anyone heard of someone causing a man born blind to see. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (John 9:17, 30-33).

We should not find fault or point fingers here. I don’t believe that the disciples grasped the significance of this healing yet, either. After all, Peter’s “great confession” is not until chapter 16 in Matthew.

I want to say one more thing about the paralytic, before we move along to the next paragraph in our text. Jesus didn’t use this paralytic; He cared for him. It is true that Jesus used this situation to make the point that He not only had the authority to heal, but to save men from their sins by forgiving their sins. But Jesus did not “use” this man the way the religious leaders did. Contrast our text in Matthew with this story in Mark’s Gospel:

1 Then Jesus entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched Jesus closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they could accuse him. 3 So he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Stand up among all these people.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or evil, to save a life or destroy it?” But they were silent. 5 After looking around at them in anger, grieved by the hardness of their hearts, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 So the Pharisees went out immediately and began plotting with the Herodians, as to how they could assassinate him (Mark 3:1-6).

The scribes and Pharisees did not care about people; they lacked compassion (which is the point our Lord makes in Matthew 9:13). Look at the calloused way the scribes looked on the afflicted:

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, 11 and a woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten herself up completely. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her to him and said, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” 13 Then he placed his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. 14 But the president of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the crowd, “There are six days on which work should be done! So come and be healed on those days, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from its stall, and lead it to water? 16 Then shouldn’t this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be released from this imprisonment on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said this all his adversaries were humiliated, but the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing (Luke 13:10-17).

Our Lord had compassion on the paralytic. He not only healed his malady, He forgave his sins. While Jesus used the situation to make the point that He had the authority to forgive sins, He did not do this at the man’s expense. It was a win-win situation.

Jesus and Matthew: A Sinner Called to Discipleship
Matthew 9:9-13

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. 13 Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).

Though I should not, I’m tempted to wonder what hasn’t been said here. How often had Jesus passed by Matthew’s tax booth? How many times had Matthew heard Jesus teach, and seen Him heal the sick? Had Matthew long considered following Jesus? We are not told. But we are told that Matthew was a tax collector. You couldn’t go much lower than that in those days.

“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).

1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 Now a man named Zacchaeus was there; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to get a look at Jesus, but being a short man he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, because Jesus was going to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to that place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, because I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down quickly and welcomed Jesus joyfully. 7 And when the people saw it, they all complained, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 But Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much!” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham! 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:1-10, emphasis mine).

In each of the Synoptic Gospels,6 we are simply told that Jesus called Matthew to follow Him, and that this man immediately did so. Can you imagine the implications of such a decision? He certainly could have taken a risk by quitting his job so abruptly. I would hate to have been Matthew, going home to face Mrs. Matthew: “Honey, I’ve got some good news and some bad news! I’ve just quit my job to follow Jesus, and we have a large group of folks coming for dinner.” This was a lucrative job, with ample opportunity to “get ahead,” at the expense of the tax payers. Now, Matthew has entered the ranks of the unemployed and placed his future in the hands of a poor carpenter’s son.

I think Matthew tells the story for several reasons. First, it provides background for one of the Lord’s disciples.7 Second, it once again emphasizes the authority of our Lord Jesus. Jesus cast out demons by the mere speaking of a word (Matthew 8:16). And now, Jesus calls a disciple, who leaves his job, at the Master’s mere speaking of a word. Third, the calling of Matthew becomes the cause of great celebration on the part of sinners, but a cause of concern for the Pharisees (verses10-12).8 This becomes the occasion for Jesus to point out the primary purpose for His coming (verse 13).

Matthew’s career change is not done with gritted teeth or with great reluctance. It is an occasion of great joy. Luke makes it very clear that this celebration was not only for Matthew, but that it was put on by Matthew:

27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. 28 And he got up and followed him, leaving everything behind. 29 Then Levi gave a great banquet in his house for Jesus, and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them (Luke 5:27-29).

Following Jesus was cause for rejoicing, and celebrate he did! He invited his friends to join with him in the celebration – fellow tax-gatherers and sinners. This greatly irritated some folks:

When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11)

Several observations are in order. First, note that it is the Pharisees who object. In the case of Jesus forgiving the sins of the paralytic, it was the scribes who objected (at least in their thoughts). Now, in the case of the calling of Matthew, it is the Pharisees who object. This time they vocalize their concerns to Jesus’ disciples, but not to Jesus Himself (verse 11). The scribes were the theologians of that day, and thus we would expect them to express concern over the theological implications of Jesus’ words to the paralytic. The Pharisees were the purists, the separatists, of that day, and it is no wonder that they would be troubled by the fact that Jesus was associating with “sinners,” rather than with them (“the righteous”).

Second, this celebration would seem to have Jesus as the guest of honor. Tax collectors and sinners came to eat with Jesus and His disciples. It was one thing for a group of sinners to gather in celebration; it was quite another when Jesus was the guest of honor. These folks were celebrating His presence with them. This was, I believe, a little taste of heaven, when all the saints will be seated at the table with the Savior.

Third, we should observe that the Pharisees, like the scribes before them, were right – at least technically. The scribes were right to reason that no one could forgive sins but God alone. The Pharisees were right to conclude that those at the table with Jesus were sinners. It is Matthew himself who calls them “tax collectors and sinners” (verse 10). Jesus doesn’t seek to correct this assessment, either:

12 When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. 13 Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13).

This provided Jesus with the occasion to clarify, once again, His purpose for coming to earth. Although the Pharisees did not confront Jesus directly, Jesus heard their objections, and He confronted them directly. They had missed the point entirely. In Matthew 8:17, Jesus’ healing ministry was interpreted in the light of Isaiah 53:4. Healing diseases and, more importantly, forgiving sinners was the purpose of our Lord’s atoning death at Calvary. When Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic in chapter 9, it was once again to show the connection between His healing ministry and His greater ministry of forgiving sinners. His opponents objected first to Jesus forgiving sinners, and then to His fellowship with sinners.

If Jesus was to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah 53, how could He not forgive sinners? And why were the Pharisees so disturbed by the fact that Jesus associated with sinners? It was because they considered themselves righteous. These words from Luke’s Gospel are most relevant:

9 Jesus also told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ 13 The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’ 14 I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

The Pharisees saw themselves as righteous, and they perceived that their righteousness was the result of law-keeping and keeping themselves free from defilement from sinners. Jesus was breaking all the rules, so far as they could see. But it was not Jesus who was wrong; the Pharisees were wrong. They needed to give further thought to the Old Testament, for Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies pertaining to Messiah. This is a prominent theme in Matthew’s Gospel.

Specifically, the Pharisees needed to consider what Hosea meant when he wrote, “I want mercy and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). Jesus was citing Hosea 6:6. There is much to be learned from this passage in Hosea and its context, much more than we can deal with in this message. But let me point out several things. First, this is an indictment of both Israel (Ephraim) and Judah for their sins, and a warning of coming judgment:

8 Blow the ram’s horn in Gibeah!
Sound the trumpet in Ramah!
Sound the alarm in Beth-Aven!
Tremble in fear, O Benjamin!
9 Ephraim will be ruined in the day of judgment!
What I am declaring to the tribes of Israel will certainly take place!
10 The princes of Judah are like those who move boundary markers.
I will pour out my rage on them like a torrential flood! (Hosea 5:8-10)

Second, this indictment specifically includes the leaders of Israel and Judah:

1 Hear this, you priests!
Pay attention, you Israelites!
Listen up, O king!
For judgment is about to overtake you!
For you were like a trap to Mizpah,
like a net spread out to catch Tabor (Hosea 5:1, emphasis mine).

10 The princes of Judah are like those who move boundary markers.
I will pour out my rage on them like a torrential flood!
11 Ephraim will be oppressed, crushed under judgment,
because he was determined to pursue worthless idols (Hosea 5:10-11, emphasis mine).

9 The company of priests is like a gang of robbers,
lying in ambush to pounce on a victim.
They commit murder on the road to Shechem;
they have done heinous crimes! (Hosea 6:9, emphasis mine)
Third
, this is a call to repentance, with the promise of restoration:
15 Then I will return again to my lair until they have suffered their punishment.
Then they will seek me; in their distress they will earnestly seek me.

1 “Come on! Let’s return to the Lord!
He himself has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us!
He has injured us, but he will bandage our wounds!
2 He will restore us in a very short time9;
he will heal us in a little while10,
so that we may live in his presence.
3 So let us acknowledge him!
Let us seek to acknowledge the Lord!
He will come to our rescue as certainly as the appearance of the dawn,
as certainly as the winter rain comes,
as certainly as the spring rain that waters the land” (Hosea 5:15; 6:1-3).

Fourth, Israel and Judah are indicted for a failure in covenant faithfulness, and for trusting in ceremonial righteousness:

4 What am I going to do with you, O Ephraim?
What am I going to do with you, O Judah?
For your faithfulness is as fleeting as the morning mist,
it disappears as quickly as dawn’s dew!
5 Therefore, I will certainly cut you into pieces at the hands of the prophets,
I will certainly kill you in fulfillment of my oracles of judgment;
for my judgment will come forth like the light of the dawn.
6 For I delight in faithfulness, not simply in sacrifice;
I delight in acknowledging God, not simply in whole burnt offerings (Hosea 6:4-6).

Would the scribes protest because Jesus forgives sinners, and the Pharisees because He would fellowship with them? Jesus cites this passage in Hosea to show why they are sinners. They are religious leaders, and they are abusing those they lead. Their “righteousness” is ritualistic, rather than seeking to know God and abide in covenant loyalty. They, the leaders of Israel and Judah, have missed the point. They have failed to grasp true religion. They are leading the people astray. They must confess their sin and trust in the Messiah who will come to save them. They should delight that He has come to save sinners. They should be like Saul, once a Pharisee and a Hebrew of the Hebrews, and forsake their claims to righteousness, clinging only to Christ:

15 This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them! 16 But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

1 Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! To write this again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, exult in Christ Jesus, and do not rely on human credentials 4 —though mine too are significant. If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: 5 I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. 6 In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. 7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness (Philippians 3:1-9).

God delights in those who seek relationship with Him, not in those who keep their distance and trust in their ritualistic law-keeping. Jesus delights in the presence of these sinners, whose joy is to be in His presence. He does not delight in those who choose to keep their distance, from sinners and the Savior. If these Pharisees would enjoy salvation, they must desire fellowship with the Savior, along with sinners, like themselves.

Jesus and the Disciples of John the Baptist: To Fast or to Feast?
Matthew 9:14-17

14 Then John’s disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples don’t fast?” 15 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, because the patch will pull away from the garment and the tear will be worse. 17 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the skins burst and the wine is spilled out and the skins are destroyed. Instead they put new wine into new wineskins and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:14-17).

On the one hand, the question of John’s disciples flows from the earlier two paragraphs. Jesus forgives sinners, and then celebrates a feast with them. John’s disciples, on the other hand, were preaching that men should repent of their sins, and they were fasting. Perhaps this fasting was a sign of repentance. Now that John is in prison (Matthew 4:12; presumably not yet executed, see 11:2-6), John’s disciples have yet another reason to fast and pray.

The feast that Jesus and His disciples celebrated with Matthew and his “sinner” friends (Matthew 9:10) prompted the Pharisees to protest. It may have been this same feast that perplexed the disciples of John the Baptist. But the question posed by John’s disciples is different than the objections raised by the scribes (Matthew 9:3) and the Pharisees (Matthew 9:11). The question is not a protest, but a sincere desire to understand why Jesus and His disciples don’t observe the same practice of fasting that they and the Pharisees do. Instead of fasting, Jesus and His disciples are feasting. If Jesus is the fulfillment of John’s preparatory ministry, then how does He explain the difference between His actions and the fasting of the Pharisees and John’s disciples?

I sense no rebuke in Jesus’ response. It was a fair question. But the answer to their question would only be grasped later, after our Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection. For now, Jesus would answer by analogy, an analogy based on John’s teaching. It was an answer that they would not, and could not, fully understand now, but because of what John had said earlier, it would make some sense to them:

25 Now a dispute came about between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew concerning ceremonial washing. 26 So they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you on the other side of the Jordan River, about whom you testified—see, he is baptizing, and everyone is flocking to him!” 27 John replied, “No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but rather, ‘I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. This then is my joy, and it is complete. 30 He must become more important while I become less important” (John 3:25-30, emphasis mine).

By his own words to his disciples, John identified him as the “friend of the bridegroom,” and Jesus as the “bridegroom.” Based on this distinction between the bridegroom and the friend of the bridegroom, our Lord’s words make sense:

15 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15-16).

Jesus’ disciples cannot mourn – indeed, should not mourn – while He is with them. But when He is gone (as our Lord’s words indicate), then it will be the time for His disciples to fast. But Jesus has come as the Messiah (as John himself bore witness – John 1:29). He has come to forgive sinners, as the Old Testament prophesied (Isaiah 52:13—53:12). He indeed has commenced to forgive sinners, as He did with the paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8). He has come to save sinners and to fellowship with them (Matthew 9:9-10). This is a time for celebration and rejoicing. How, then, can He or His disciples mourn, as symbolized by fasting? Joyful celebration is the proper response to the coming of Messiah. That is why John himself rejoiced greatly (John 3:29). John’s disciples (by inference) should do likewise.

The last two verses of our text go beyond this to explain the reason Jesus failed to conform to the expectations of men and to explain the relationship of His coming to the Old Testament and the Old Covenant:

16 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, because the patch will pull away from the garment and the tear will be worse. 17 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the skins burst and the wine is spilled out and the skins are destroyed. Instead they put new wine into new wineskins and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:16-17).

It might be helpful to consider this additional comment of our Lord in this context, cited by Luke:

“No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is good enough’” (Luke 5:39).

The significance of this additional statement in Luke is that it informs us that people in Jesus’ day thought the old was better than the new. The reason they expected Jesus to “patch up” the old garment was that they regarded the old garment to be better than a new one. (I confess, I’ve had clothes like this, that I liked so much I wouldn’t throw them out and kept asking my wife to patch them.)

Our Lord is making a very significant point here, one that we need to understand if we are to grasp the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). Matthew makes much of the fulfillment theme. But fulfilling the law is not the same as perpetuating the Old Covenant. Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets so that He could implement the New Covenant:

19 Then he took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And in the same way he took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

As Paul and others indicate, the Old Covenant could not save anyone; it could only condemn us as sinners:

10 “So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are” (Acts 15:10-11).

Here, Peter speaks at the Jerusalem Council. The issue being discussed is the insistence on the part of some Jews that Gentiles must be circumcised (and thereby place themselves under the Old Testament law) in order to be saved (see Acts 15:1). Peter acknowledges that no one has ever been able to bear this burden. With this, Paul heartily agrees:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed— 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:19-24).

Meeting all the requirements of the Law qualified our Lord to die, under the law, in the sinner’s place, in order to procure the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life. In this sense, the Old Covenant was set aside, replaced by the new.

6 But now Jesus has obtained a superior ministry, since the covenant that he mediates is also better and is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, no one would have looked for a second one. 8 But showing its fault, God says to them, “Look, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will complete a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 8:9 “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not continue in my covenant and I had no regard for them, says the Lord. 8:10 “For this is the covenant that I will establish with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and I will inscribe them on their hearts. And I will be their God and they will be my people. 8:11 “And there will be no need at all for each one to teach his countryman or each one to teach his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ since they will all know me, from the least to the greatest. 8:12 “For I will be merciful toward their evil deeds, and their sins I will remember no longer.” 13 When he speaks of a new covenant, he makes the first obsolete. Now what is growing obsolete and aging is about to disappear (Hebrews 8:6-13).

This explains why Jesus does not conform to the Messianic expectations of the people of His day (even the disciples). While He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, He also came to inaugurate a New and better Covenant. He did not come to “patch up” the old, but to bring something entirely new. He came to bring “new wine,” as it were, and this wine must not be placed in the “old wineskins” of Old Testament Judaism. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets, and was a truly great man, but Jesus brought something better, by fulfilling the prophecies and the hopes of the Old Testament Scriptures:

25 What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? Look, those who wear fancy clothes and live in luxury are in kings’ courts! 26 What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28 I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he is” (Luke 7:25-28).

Jesus came to fulfill the law, so that He, in perfect Old Testament righteousness, could die in the sinner’s place, and provide eternal salvation for sinners. But He also came to inaugurate a New Covenant through His shed blood. This is a covenant that does not condition our salvation on our works, but upon the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in our place. And it is based upon His fulfillment of the Old, and His inauguration of the New, that Jesus can forgive sinners and joyfully fellowship (feast) with them. Thank God He did not conform to man’s expectations!

Conclusion

As we conclude our study of these verses, we should take note of the fact that it is here that Matthew introduces the theme of Jewish opposition to Jesus. Granted, the pig farmers asked Jesus to leave in the verse just preceding our text (Matthew 8:34), but these may not have been Jews. They certainly were not the Jewish religious leaders. In our text, the Jews first begin to oppose Jesus. First it is the scribes who strongly resist our Lord’s implicit claim to be God. Then it is the Pharisees who object to Jesus feasting and fellowshipping with “sinners.” We should also note that the opposition arose because of our Lord’s claim to be God. Let those who would say that Jesus never claimed to be God look here and see that Jesus made a point, early in His earthly ministry, to establish His claim to be God.

Furthermore, the scribes and Pharisees opposed Jesus because He claimed authority to forgive sinners. This is something that no priest, no scribe, no Pharisee, no religious leader had ever done before. This was something that could not be found in the Old Testament. Sacrifices merely set aside the penalty of sin for a time, until the coming of the Messiah:

24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness (Romans 3:24-26).

This is what Jesus was talking about, when He spoke of bringing in something new, rather than patching up the old. Jesus came to inaugurate the New Covenant, while at the same time fulfilling the requirements of the Old. The writer to the Hebrews is emphatic about this:

8 The Holy Spirit is making clear that the way into the holy place had not yet appeared as long as the old tabernacle was standing. 9 This was a symbol for the time then present, when gifts and sacrifices were offered that could not perfect the conscience of the worshiper. 10 They served only for matters of food and drink and various washings; they are external regulations imposed until the new order came. 11 But now Christ has come as the high priest of the good things to come. He passed through the greater and more perfect tent not made with hands, that is, not of this creation, 12 and he entered once for all into the most holy place not by the blood of goats and calves but by his own blood, and so he himself secured eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow sprinkled on those who are defiled consecrated them and provided ritual purity, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our consciences from dead works to worship the living God. 15 And so he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the eternal inheritance he has promised, since he died to set them free from the violations committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 9:8-15).

1 For the law possesses a shadow of the good things to come but not the reality itself, and is therefore completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered continually, year after year, to perfect those who come to worship. 2 For otherwise would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers would have been purified once for all and so have no further consciousness of sin? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year. 4 For the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins. 5 So when he came into the world, he said, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me. 6 “Whole burnt offerings and sin-offerings you took no delight in. 7 “Then I said, ‘Here I am: I have come—it is written of me in the scroll of the book—to do your will, O God.’” 8 When he says above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sin-offerings you did not desire nor did you take delight in them” (which are offered according to the law), 9 then he says, “Here I am: I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first to establish the second. 10 By his will we have been made holy through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 And every priest stands day after day serving and offering the same sacrifices again and again—sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 where he is now waiting until his enemies are made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are made holy. 15 And the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us, for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will establish with them after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws on their hearts and I will inscribe them on their minds,” 17 then he says, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no longer.” 18 Now where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin (Hebrews 10:1-18).

Jesus did that which the Old Testament only looked forward to, that which the prophets spoke about when they wrote of the coming Messiah. Jesus fulfilled these prophecies, and by His death, burial, and resurrection in our place paid the penalty for our sins, thus providing for the forgiveness of sins. What better words could we read than these: “Take courage, your sins are forgiven!”? Have you experienced this forgiveness? Simply acknowledge that you are a sinner, and trust in Jesus, who has taken your sins upon Himself. The offer of forgiveness is for all who will receive it.

28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (Matthew 11:28-30).

And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say: “Come!” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wants it take the water of life free of charge (Revelation 22:17).

8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we preach), 9 because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation. 11 For the scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, who richly blesses all who call on him. 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:8-13).

If I could capture the essence of our text in just two words, it would center on two key words: sin and God. In the story of the paralytic, Jesus healed this man, but in a way that demonstrated His authority to forgive sin. The problem was that the scribes could not accept Jesus’ claim to be God. The second story, that of the call of Matthew and the Lord’s celebration feast with sinners, revolved around the tension between sin (or sinners) and God. They could not conceive of God having fellowship with sinners. They could not conceive of a good man (which is the most they would be willing to say of Jesus) having fellowship with sinners. How could God fellowship with sinners? The answer to this dilemma is revealed, in part, in the third story, in which the disciples of John ask Jesus why His disciples did not fast. Under the Old Covenant there was no provision for sins, nor was there provision for fellowship with God.11 Assurances of sitting at a table in the presence of God was something one hoped for in eternity (see Psalm 23:4-6). It was not by means of the Old Covenant, but rather through the New Covenant – by the shedding of the blood of our Lord – that a sinner can be forgiven, and enter into eternal fellowship with God.

This passage in Matthew’s Gospel assures us of more than the forgiveness of sins. Jesus not only forgives sinners, He calls sinners to be His disciples and to enjoy fellowship with Him. Matthew, the tax collector and sinner, is called to be a disciple, and we see him and his fellow sinners, seated at the table, celebrating the presence of Jesus Christ.

It is possible that some have resisted the offer of the forgiveness of sins because they assume that this will terminate any earthly joy or pleasure. Tell Matthew and his friends that! Trusting in Jesus is the means to following Him, and entering into the joy of His presence. There is no greater joy than this. Leave the tax office behind, and serve Him, in whose presence is eternal, boundless joy.

Our text has a number of applications for those who have trusted in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. First of all, this text should serve as a great encouragement for us to intercede on behalf of others, especially the lost. The faith of the four stretcher-bearers was noted by our Lord. To some degree, their intercession was instrumental in the healing (and forgiveness!) of their friend. Let us take up the stretcher, for those who are lost need the forgiveness of sins.

Our text also serves to warn us that doing good does not always result in the praise of men; it may well result in persecution:

18 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me” (John 15:18-21; see also 1 Peter 4:1-6, 12-16).

Jesus was opposed because He did good as God. When we serve in His name, we should expect that some will resist and oppose us, simply because of Jesus Christ.

Finally, we should learn from Matthew that Jesus did not come merely to “patch up” our lives, but rather to give us new life.

17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away—look, what is new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Faith in Christ means that we die to our former life and that we are raised to a whole new life:

1 What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase? 2 Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life. 5 For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection. 6 We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 (For someone who has died has been freed from sin.) 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that since Christ has been raised from the dead, he is never going to die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 For the death he died, he died to sin once for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you too consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:1-11).

At times the gospel is presented as a kind of “add-on” matter. People are led to believe that they can continue to live pretty much as they have, but now with the assurance of eternal life. The gospel is not a patch; the gospel is new wine, put into new wineskins. When we are saved, we are saved to a radically new and different life. We not only enter into fellowship with God, but we also are to die to our former way of life:

17 So I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. 19 Because they are callous, they have given themselves over to indecency for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn about Christ like this, 21 if indeed you heard about him and were taught in him, just as the truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught with reference to your former way of life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image—in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth (Ephesians 4:17-24).

May God take the words of Matthew and use them to cause us to embrace the Savior, who is the only means by which our sins can be forgiven, and by which we may enter into joyful fellowship with God.


1 Copyright 2004 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 38 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on May 30, 2004.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

3 See William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-1954), vol. 2, p. 122.

4 I don’t think this translation is justified. More literally, the text indicates that Jesus saw, or knew, their thinking or reasoning, as other translations convey. Both Mark 2:8 and Luke 5:22 make it very plain that Jesus discerned their inner thoughts. It is certainly possible that they whispered among themselves, but I hardly think that the very text where Jesus claims to be God is where we would find the author suggesting that Jesus was only reading their body language.

5 We know, of course, that true repentance and faith should produce “fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8; also 7:15-20). But here Jesus is talking about instant, irrefutable, verification.

6 Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

7 In Matthew 10:3, Matthew is identified as “Matthew the tax collector.”

8 Is it possible that Luke 18:9-14 may be more than a parable? Could this tax collector have been Matthew? The story of Matthew’s call certainly gives credence to these verses, even if they are not specifically about Matthew.

9 Literally, “in two days.”

10 Literally, “on the third day.”

11 What we see in Exodus 24:9-11 is without parallel in the Old Testament, an exceedingly rare and unexpected event, which anticipates heaven.

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22. Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Jews (Matthew 11:1-30)

Introduction1

Years ago when I was a student in seminary, I observed some fellow students who had a burning desire to enter into a more personal relationship with their favorite professor. How they would have loved to have been invited over to his home for dinner or simply to have sat down with him for a cup of coffee. Perhaps just an arm around the shoulder and the question, “How’s it going?” Some experienced this; many others did not. It may not be realistic to hope for a close, mentoring relationship. It isn’t that it never happens, but it doesn’t happen as often or to as many as some might hope.

As I was preparing for this message, I was thinking about John the Baptist and his relationship with Jesus. John must have been a pretty lonesome fellow. He seemed to have lived in remote places and to have been restricted to his disciples for fellowship. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful for John to be able to sit down for a fireside chat with Jesus, to have Jesus put an arm around his shoulder and ask, “How’s the ministry going, John?”

It is difficult to fully grasp how little contact John actually had with Jesus. We know, of course, that the two “met” while both were in the womb (Luke 1:39-55), but that hardly counts. (Elizabeth got a kick out of it, though – pardon the pun.) Then there was the meeting when Jesus came for baptism (Matthew 3:13-17). But all in all, they had very little contact. Remember that John was arrested early in our Lord’s ministry, so any opportunity for contact after his arrest was eliminated.

John’s parents must have told him of his unique mission in life, as indicated to Zacharias by the angel of the Lord:

11 An angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense, appeared to him. 12 And Zechariah, visibly shaken when he saw the angel, was seized with fear. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son; you will name him John. 14 Joy and gladness will come to you, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go as forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him” (Luke 1:11-17).2

John would thus have understood that he, in some way, was to fulfill the prophecies of Malachi concerning the forerunner to the Messiah (Malachi 3:1-3; 4:5-6). For some time, John spoke of the coming of Messiah without knowing for certain just who He was until His baptism:

30 “This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ 31 I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33 And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining—this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God” (John 1:30-34).

The events that accompanied the baptism of Jesus settled it for John; Jesus was the Messiah. No doubt about it. And this John made very clear to those who came to hear him, even to his own disciples:

35 Again the next day John was standing there with two of his disciples. 36 Gazing at Jesus as he walked by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When John’s two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus (John 1:35-37).

Some time had passed since that unusual baptism, and now John found himself in prison. His stand against sin had certainly gotten Herod’s attention. So John was now limited to reports from his disciples as to what Jesus was teaching and doing. Frankly, this did not fit the “script” John had in his mind.

Jesus and John were very different, and these differences may have begun to bother John. John’s attire certainly set him apart from the crowd, but Jesus seems to have blended in so far as His clothing was concerned. John and his disciples fasted much (“neither eating nor drinking”), while Jesus and His disciples ate and drank, with sinners no less (Matthew 11:18-19). John performed no signs in his earthly ministry (John 10:41), but Jesus (and now His disciples) performed miracles of every kind (Matthew 9:35; 10:1). There John sat in prison. If Jesus was the Messiah, as John had announced, then why didn’t He do something? Why had Jesus not gotten to the business of establishing His kingdom?

When he could resist no longer, John sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus directly: “Was He the promised Messiah or not? Were the Jewish people to embrace Him as the Messiah, or should they look for someone else?” Is Jesus our only hope? That, my friends, is the most important question you will ever ask or answer. It is just as important to you today as it was to John and his disciples thousands of years ago. So let us listen to the words of Jesus to see what His answer will be.

The Hinge
Matthew 11:1

When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their3 towns (Matthew 11:1).

Verse 1 links the events of chapter 10 to chapter 11. Jesus had just finished giving instructions to His disciples, instructions pertaining to their mission:

1 Jesus called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits so they could cast them out and heal every kind of disease and sickness. . . 5 Jesus sent out these twelve, instructing them as follows: “Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town. 6 Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’” (Matthew 10:1, 5-7)

The events of chapter 11 follow the sending of the twelve. What is interesting is that even though the disciples’ mission must have taken weeks, if not months, there is no account in any of the Gospels about exactly what happened as the disciples went about. Here are matters of great human interest, but not matters that any Gospel writer chose to record. Actually, our Lord’s words in this chapter sum up the response of the Jews to the ministry of our Lord and His disciples. Matthew wants us to “connect the dots” from chapter 10 to chapter 11, from the sending of the twelve to John the Baptist, his doubts, and the response of the Jews of Galilee to the gospel.4

John’s Question and Jesus’ Answer
Matthew 11:2-6

2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds5 Christ had done, he sent his disciples to ask a question: 3 “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: 5 The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:2-6).

Let me begin by saying that John’s problem with Jesus was not one rooted in unbelief, but rather in his concern that Jesus was not fulfilling the Scriptures. I am confident that John’s doubts were those of a godly man, who believed in God and in His Word. His doubts were not a denial of God, or of His Word; indeed, his doubts were rooted in his belief in God’s Word. As we have already noted, John was aware of his role as the forerunner of Messiah in fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3) and Malachi (3:1-3; 4:4-6; Matthew 11:10; Luke 1:11-17).

John was also familiar with other passages that spoke of the Messiah coming in power to subdue His enemies and establish His kingdom:

1 Why do the nations cause a commotion?
Why are the countries devising plots that will fail?
2 The kings of the earth form a united front;
the rulers collaborate against the Lord and his chosen king.
3 They say, “Let’s tear off the shackles they’ve put on us!
Let’s free ourselves from their ropes!”
4 The one enthroned in heaven laughs in disgust;
the sovereign Master taunts them.
5 Then he angrily speaks to them
and terrifies them in his rage.
6 He says, “I myself have installed my king
on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 The king says, “I will tell you what the Lord decreed.
He said to me: ‘You are my son!
This very day I have become your father!
8 You have only to ask me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,
the ends of the earth as your personal property.
9 You will break them with an iron scepter;
you will smash them as if they were a potter’s jar.’”
10 So now, you kings, do what is wise!
You rulers of the earth, submit to correction!
11 Serve the Lord in fear! Repent in terror!
12 Give sincere homage! Otherwise he will be angry, and you will die because of your behavior, when his anger quickly ignites.
How happy are all who take shelter in him! (Psalm 2:1-12)

When John spoke of Messiah’s coming, he spoke of Him coming in power and in judgment of the wicked, just as a number of Old Testament prophecies described His coming:

11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12, emphasis mine).

John was a prophet, and as such, under inspiration, he spoke with divine authority. But as a prophet, he suffered from the same problem every Old Testament prophet experienced – he was not omniscient!

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. 11 They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. 12 They were shown that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things now announced to you through those who proclaimed the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things angels long to catch a glimpse of (1 Peter 1:10-12).

The Old Testament prophets (like every true prophet, Old Testament and New) were given a divinely-inspired piece of the prophetic scheme of events, a piece of the puzzle. They were not given a full and complete grasp of the entire prophetic picture – at least that they understood as such. And so, as Peter has indicated above, the prophets searched their own writings and others, in an attempt to grasp what it all meant. In the final analysis, they had to be content with the awareness that these prophecies would be fulfilled later, and thus they were serving others, like us, and like those who will be alive as these prophecies come to pass.

John the Baptist suffered from what I would call “the dispensational problem.” John was not, at that moment in time, able to distinguish between those prophecies which spoke of Messiah’s first coming and His second coming. The first coming was foretold in those prophecies which spoke of His rejection by men and His sacrificial death, by which He paid the penalty for our sins – prophecies such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 52:13—53:12. His second coming was described in prophecies such as Psalm 2 and Malachi 3:1-3. John struggled because Jesus did not fulfill those prophecies pertaining to Messiah’s second coming, and we can now understand why. His was a problem that only time would solve.

By the way, this is not the first time the “dispensational problem” has arisen among John’s disciples:

14 Then John’s disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples don’t fast?” 15 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, because the patch will pull away from the garment and the tear will be worse. 17 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the skins burst and the wine is spilled out and the skins are destroyed. Instead they put new wine into new wineskins and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:14-17).

In chapter 9, Jesus actually addresses the “dispensational problem” indirectly, by using the analogy of putting new wine (the gospel, or the New Covenant) into old wineskins (the Old Covenant). They might understand the imagery, but they did not yet understand what it symbolized. This is because they were still on the far side of the cross, still in the old dispensation.

Our Lord’s answer to John is simple and straightforward:

4 Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: 5 The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:4-6).

Jesus told John’s disciples to tell him what they heard and saw. What did they hear? They must have heard, over and over, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17; 10:7; see also Mark 6:12), the very same words that they and John preached. They may have heard segments of the Sermon on the Mount. From our Lord’s own words, they must have heard the good news being proclaimed to the poor. Beyond what they heard, they had to have seen miracles of every kind – sight was given to the blind, the lame were made to walk, lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, and the dead were raised. All of these things were signs that Jesus was the Messiah, signs foretold by John’s predecessors:

18 At that time the deaf will be able to hear words read from a scroll,
and the eyes of the blind will be able to see through deep darkness.
19 The downtrodden will again rejoice in the Lord;
the poor among mankind will take delight in the sovereign king of Israel (Isaiah 29:18-19).

4 Tell those who panic,
“Look, your God comes to avenge!
With divine retribution he comes to deliver you.”
5 Then blind eyes will open,
deaf ears will hear.
6 Then the lame will leap like a deer,
the mute tongue will shout for joy;
for water will flow in the desert,
streams in the wilderness (Isaiah 35:4-6).

1 The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has chosen me.
He has commissioned me to encourage the poor,
to help the brokenhearted,
to decree the release of captives,
and the freeing of prisoners,
2 to announce the year when the Lord will show his favor,
the day when our God will seek vengeance,
to console all who mourn,
3 to strengthen those who mourn in Zion,
by giving them a turban, instead of ashes,
oil symbolizing joy, instead of mourning,
a garment symbolizing praise, instead of discouragement.
They will be called godly oaks,
trees planted by the Lord to reveal his splendor (Isaiah 61:1-3).

John was troubled because some prophecies concerning Messiah (those pertaining to His second coming) did not appear to be fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus did not attempt to give John a full explanation. He simply turned John’s attention to His deeds and His teaching, reminding him that these did fulfill prophecies concerning the coming of Messiah – His first coming!

John’s doubts and Jesus’ response remind me of Job. Job’s experience of suffering did not seem to square with the explanations of his friends or even with Job’s understanding of how God works in men’s lives. For a while, Job had his “hands on his hips” so to speak, expecting God to give him an explanation. God did not explain the particulars (of the heavenly lesson being taught, of Satan’s involvement, etc.), He simply pointed out that He was God, the sovereign God. When Job pondered this, he shut his mouth. He had no more words of protest, only confession. God was God, and He could do as He pleased. Who was Job to think He could question His workings in this world, a world He had created? Knowing that God was God was enough for Job. So far as we know, he never knew God’s purposes for his suffering.

The things Jesus told John’s disciples to report to John were proof that Jesus was the Messiah John had promised, baptized, and introduced publicly. John had done something that virtually all of us do at one time or another. John had certain expectations of God, about how He works in the lives of men (that is, how he felt God ought to work in the lives of men). He challenged God in the light of his expectations. John had this matter upside-down. He should have recognized Jesus as Messiah, as God in human flesh. If Jesus was God, then John should change or revise his expectations of God, convinced that Jesus is God.

All of us are too much like John – when God fails to work in just the way we expect Him to work, we begin to question God. If our Lord really is God, then we should expect Him to work in ways that are very different from what we might expect:

7 The wicked need to abandon their lifestyle
and sinful people their plans.
They should return to the Lord,
and he will show mercy to them,
and to their God,
for he will freely forgive them.
8 “Indeed, my plans are not like your plans,
and my deeds are not like your deeds,
9 for just as the sky is higher than the earth,
so my deeds are superior to your deeds
and my plans superior to your plans.
10 The rain and snow fall from the sky and do not return,
but instead water the earth and make it produce and yield crops,
and provide seed for the planter and food for those who must eat.
11 In the same way, the promise that I make does not return to me,
having accomplished nothing.
No, it is realized as I desire and is fulfilled as I intend” (Isaiah 55:7-11).

Our Lord’s last words in verse 6 are an exhortation for John not to be offended (or to stumble) on account of Jesus. I believe that this exhortation is also rooted in the words of the prophet Isaiah:

13 You must recognize the authority of the Lord who leads armies.
He is the one you must respect;
he is the one you must fear.
14 He will become a sanctuary,
but a stone that makes a person trip,
and a rock that makes one stumble—
to the two houses of Israel.
He will become a trap and a snare to the residents of Jerusalem.
15 Many will stumble over the stone and the rock,
and will fall and be seriously injured, and be ensnared and captured” (Isaiah 8:13-15).

Let John not be among those who stumble over the Messiah.

Jesus’ Commentary on John the Baptist
Matthew 11:7-15

7 While they were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? Look, those who wear fancy clothes are in the homes of kings! 9 What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come. 15 The one who has ears had better listen! (Matthew 11:7-15)

If John had some doubts about Jesus, Jesus had no doubts about John! The crowd must have overheard the question John’s disciples put to Jesus and our Lord’s response. As John’s disciples begin their trek to report back to John, Jesus uses this occasion to address the crowd concerning John the Baptist. Jesus first presses the crowd to acknowledge what He knew they were thinking – that John was a prophet (see Matthew 21:26). In effect, Jesus says this about John,6

“What did you go way out into the wilderness to see? A wishy-washy fellow whose views change with the political winds? I don’t think so! Maybe you went all the way out into the wilderness to see what the new fashions in menswear would be? We all know it can’t be that. No, you all know that the one thing which drew you out into the wilderness to hear John was the strong conviction that he is a true prophet – a man who speaks for God, a man whose words are God’s words. John is a prophet, but he is not merely a prophet. In a very real sense, John is the prophet – the prophet everyone has been waiting for, the prophet whose appearance and ministry have been prophesied by other prophets. Malachi spoke of him when he wrote, ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ John is the forerunner of Messiah, whose unique privilege has been to proclaim His appearance and reveal His identity.”

Because of John’s unique role as the last of the Old Testament prophets, the prophet whose mission it was to introduce Messiah, no one born of woman (to that point in time) was greater than he. And yet, as towering a personality as John was when viewed from the landscape of the Old Testament, even the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than John (Matthew 11:11).

To me, verses 12 and 13 are some of the most puzzling in all of Matthew. In verse 12, Jesus calls attention to the “violence” which seems to characterize the days of John the Baptist. Just what is this violence? I believe we find clues in the Book of Acts and also in the Gospels:

33 Now when they heard this, they became furious and wanted to execute them. 34 But a Pharisee whose name was Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the council and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to the council, “Men of Israel, pay close attention to what you are about to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and nothing came of it. 37 After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census, and incited people to follow him in revolt. He too was killed, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in this case I say to you, stay away from these men and leave them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking originates with people, it will come to nothing, 39 but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, or you may even be found fighting against God” (Acts 5:33-39, emphasis mine).

50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and took hold of Jesus and arrested him. 51 But one of those with Jesus grabbed his sword, drew it out, and struck the high priest’s slave, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place! For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword. 53 Or do you think that I cannot call on my Father, and that he would send me more than twelve legions of angels right now? 54 How then would the scriptures that say it must happen this way be fulfilled?” (Matthew 26:50-54, emphasis mine)

35 Then Jesus said to them, “When I sent you out with no money bag, or traveler’s bag, or sandals, you didn’t lack anything, did you?” They replied, “Nothing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a money bag must take it, and likewise a traveler’s bag too. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 So they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” Then he told them, “It is enough” (Luke 22:35-38, emphasis mine).

14 Now when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, “This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Then Jesus, because he knew they were going to come and seize him by force to make him king, withdrew again up the mountainside alone (John 6:14-15, emphasis mine).

John’s generation seems to be one in which messianic expectations had reached the boiling point. The events surrounding the births of both John and Jesus may have helped to fuel some of this eschatological enthusiasm. Then, too, the political situation in Israel at that time may have played a role. I am inclined to think that John’s prophecy may have also unwittingly contributed to the messianic fervor, leading in a number of instances to violence or the use of armed force. People failed to grasp our Lord’s teaching and ministry, so why not John’s as well? Even the disciples seemed ready and willing if it came to a show of arms (Luke 22:35-38).

Jesus’ comments in verse 12 about violence seem to be closely related to verse 13 (which begins with the word “for”): For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared” (Matthew 11:13, emphasis mine). I see a rather clear chronological scheme laid out here:

“All the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared” (verse 13)

“From the days of John the Baptist until now” (verse 12)

The Past John’s Generation After John (New Covenant)
All the prophets and law until John Days of John until now Least in kingdom is greater than John

Here is the way I currently understand our text. John the Baptist has some doubts about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. This seems to be because He is not the “forceful” Messiah that John predicted, the One who would come powerfully in judgment on sinners. Jesus seems to be saying that a certain element of Israelites who tended toward violence was attracted to John, his ministry, and his message. Why would this be the case? For one thing, it would seem as though John were the only prophet in those days. Before that, there were a substantial number of Old Testament prophets who prophesied. The law, too, had its prophetic aspects. John’s ministry was the culmination and climax of all Old Testament prophecy. If we accept the concept of progressive revelation (which I do), then we must see that John’s prophecy was the fullest, most well-developed prophecy of all the Old Testament prophets. As Old Testament prophets go, it doesn’t get any better than John the Baptist.

I do not believe that Jesus is seeking to be critical of John or of his ministry. He is