A matter of the heart, Matthew 15:15-20

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” So goes the old children’s rhyme that tries to convince children to ignore taunts. Whatever good the rhyme may accomplish is countered by selling it with some big lies. First, every adult knows how much words can hurt. Second, God uses our words as a measure of our hearts. Oh my!

Matthew 15:15-20

15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a persons mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Commentary

Peter reminds me of certain Christian adults living in 2015 in that he heard what Jesus said (in verse 11) but made little to no effort to understand it on his own (verse 15).[1] Nor did Jesus let the matter go by unremarked!

Verse 16 is a hammer stroke against spiritual timidity and laziness. The first word out of Jesus mouth is the rare Greek adverb akmen meaning “even yet.” The following “you” is plural, showing that Peter is not alone, but the crusher is the adjective meaning uncomprehending. Even after being with Jesus for an extended period, they still lack a keen spiritual sense! How did Jesus find this out? By the words that came out of Peter’s mouth. That fact is ironic in light of what Jesus teaches them next.

The question Jesus asks in verse 17 expects a “yes” answer. Yes, all the disciples know that food simply passes through the body and then leaves it. The same is true of wine, water and other things taken in through the mouth. They have no bearing on the persons defilement status because they tell us nothing about the person.

Jesus next reveals the actual source of personal defilement: the heart as revealed by the things that come out of a persons mouth (verse 18). While NIV has Jesus saying that the heart is the source of evil thoughts (verse 19), the Greek word can include reasoning, intentions and plans as well. Further, Jesus qualifies these thoughts by calling them wicked or vicious. This description plainly fits when we learn that these thoughts include murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander. For example, the religious leaders are already planning to murder Jesus and have slandered him by claiming that his miraculous acts are empowered by Satan rather than the Holy Spirit.

At last, Jesus returns to the original accusation against his disciples (verse 20). They are innocent of defilement because eating with unwashed hands can only affect what goes into the mouth and later emerges. Compared to the religious leaders, their hearts are pure even if their hands are not!

Copyright 2015 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Material originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] To clarify, I am certainly not talking about fellow members of the Life Group I belong to, who continually show that they are seeking to know God better! They inspire all who visit our group.

A major break — part 2, Matthew 15:10-14

One interesting thing about a Dallas Cowboys football game is that if you don’t have a ticket, you don’t get in. The ticket qualifies you to enter the stadium and sit in a particular seat. In a similar way, avoiding ritual defilement was necessary in the time of Jesus to enter the temple and worship God. Those who were defiled, according to the law, were not qualified to enter and worship.

Because the temple was central to the worship of God, a great deal of rabbinic teaching existed to define defilement and to spell out how to eliminate it. You would think that defilement would be the one thing that all Jewish religious leaders understood. But Jesus refuted that belief.

Matthew 15:10-14

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someones mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.
12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?
13 He replied, Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.

Commentary

When Jesus summons the crowd to listen and understand (verse 10), that sets the stage for an escalation of the conflict between him and the Jewish religious leaders. What Jesus says in verse 11 seems simple enough to us, but it directly contradicted the teaching of the Jewish religious leaders about defilement. They claimed that defilement came from external sources, but Jesus said that what emerges from the mouth, from the inside of a person, is what defiles that person.

When we get to verse 18, Jesus will identify the exact inner source of what defiles a person.
Presumably some time passed after Jesus spoke to the crowd (verse 11), and during that time the Pharisees were seething and deeply offended over what Jesus had said about defilement. The disciples quickly learned of this development and went to Jesus to warn him of it (verse 12). The disciples show the respect many must have felt toward a high-level delegation of religious leaders from Jerusalem.

Jesus answers the news with a surprising metaphor: Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots (verse 13). Since the traditions of the Pharisees contradict the commandment of God, they are the ones who can expect to be pulled up by the roots! This language may well look back to the Parable of the Weeds, where Jesus taught about the separation that will take place at the final judgment.[1] Jesus disciples are the plants established by God, not the Pharisees and their allies.

As to how they might relate to the offended Pharisees, Jesus tells his disciples, Leave them (verse 14a), with the idea of abandoning them and going on to something else. This Greek verb is also used for divorce. In offering his reasons for this action, Jesus returns to metaphors: They are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit (verse 14b). In the arid climate of Palestine, cisterns were dug underground and lined with stone. The surface entry was often a terrible hazard for those unable to see.

Ritual purity, and therefore defilement, held extreme importance to the Pharisees. Jesus has already crossed the boundary of propriety by touching women, lepers and even the dead in order to heal them. Now he moves from deed to word in teaching that defilement comes from within, not from externals. R. T. France explains the significance by saying, After this dialogue the breach between Jesus and the scribal establishment is irreparable.[2]

Copyright 2015 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Passages such as Isaiah 5:1-7 contain similar ideas.

[2] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 575.

Compassion flows freely, Matthew 14:33-36

When Jesus arrives, grab anyone in need and go to him!

Matthew 14:33-36

34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

Commentary

After dealing with the dangerous winds and waves, the boat makes landfall at Gennesaret, a small fertile plain several miles south of Capernaum (verse 34).[1] The moment the people recognize Jesus, messengers disperse throughout the region advising that sick people come to Jesus now (verse 35)!

People in that region do not have to hear twice before going to help their loved ones be healed by Jesus. The verb translated healed means, in as more general context, bring safely through danger, so it is a good choice in the same setting where Jesus just got the disciples through a deadly storm.

Not only did they bring all their sick to Jesus (verse 35b), but they steadily begged him to let the sick simply touch his cloak, without the formality of a personal touch from him. He demonstrated kindness and compassion in granting healing to all who did so (verse 36).

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Material originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 581.

Rescue on the Lake, Matthew 14:22-27

It will gradually become apparent that everyone is trying to push Jesus in one direction or another. But his focus remains on showing compassion and building his disciples.

Fishermen or not, the disciples have about the worst luck I have ever seen for encountering night storms. I wonder if there is a reason for that. Actually, I know the reason.

Matthew 14:22-27

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. Its a ghost, they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: Take courage! It is I. Dont be afraid.

Commentary

Remind me to check the manifest the next time I start to go out on a body of water. If Peter or the other disciples are aboard, then Im staying ashore! (smile)

Keep in mind the context and situation. After spending the day healing the sick, Jesus has just finished feeding a crowd of well over 5,000 people, though he had only a few loaves and fish to do it (verses 14-20). Night is falling because that is the whole reason the disciples wanted to send the people away to find food for themselves (verse 15).

Immediately, Jesus compels the disciples to enter the boat without him and cross the lake, presumably back to Capernaum (verse 22). This forcing action is unusually strong: Greek anagkazo, meaning compel or force. Matthew does not explain, and I am reluctant to introduce information from elsewhere, but perhaps it is appropriate on this occasion. Johns account says that the crowd meant to take Jesus by force and make him king (John 6:15)! Knowing this, Jesus dismissed the crowd — another strong word — and slipped away to a nearby mountain to pray (Matthew 14:23). That this was a strategic moment is seen by the fact that this occasion is the only one when either Matthew or Mark refer to Jesus at prayer other than the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before the cross.[1] Jesus prayed on that mountain most of the night.

Meanwhile, our mariners in the boat have encountered another storm on the lake with the result that they have been rowing for many hours in darkness — more than enough to cross the lake — but are stuck far from shore. Worse, the wind is high and the waves are punishing the boat with severe force, communicated by the Greek verb (basanizo) used for torment (verse 24). NIV’s refined translation buffeted can only be used by scholars sitting around a table with the AC running!

To get a sense of wind speeds on the Sea of Galilee, use the methods mentioned in the footnote.[2] Also keep in mind that the names Lake Tiberias and Lake Kinneret are alternative names for this body of water. You will find that the wind on the Sea of Galilee is typically much stronger in the mid-afternoon than at night. Storms and high winds are far more likely to form during the day due to solar heating.

Once again, I join those scholars who see demonic forces trying to attack Jesus and his disciples. The offer of the kingship is a replay of the temptations described in Matthew 4:8-10, where Satan made a similar offer. Blomberg notes that the sudden storm resembles the one in Matthew 8:23-27, and that the verb for torment is sometimes used elsewhere for demonic hostility against people (Matthew 8:6 and Revelation 9:5), and concludes that demonic activity may be present here.[3] I did not come to either of these lake crossings (Matthew 8 and 14) with demonic activity in mind, but the improbability of the events happening by normal means left me no other choice. Jesus has to rescue his disciples in both cases.

A light in a dark place

The timing of events in verse 25 is subject to interpretation. The Greek text simply says, In the fourth watch of the night, referring to a Roman division of time starting at 3 am and ending at 6 am. So, while NIV places events shortly before dawn, HCSB offers, around three in the morning. The latter is more likely. Osborne points out that the disciples have been rowing for their lives for several hours and are about at the end of their strength and resolve.[1] They need help!

When Jesus, predictably, comes to rescue his disciples, they experience terror in seeing a human shape striding toward them on the lake surface (verses 25-26). In daylight, under calmer conditions, they might have remembered verses in the Old Testament about God walking on or through the waters (Job 9:8 and 38:16; Psalm 77:19). But deep waters had long represented chaos and evil to the Jews. It is hard to criticize the disciples fear that they were seeing a ghost; a similar experience in the twenty-first century could easily receive the same reaction.

Note that Jesus immediately acts to reassure them, urging them to embrace courage, not fear (verse 27). His identification, Greek ego eimi, means It is I, but its older meaning I AM is never far away.

Those causing this trouble had best get lost!

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 574.

[1] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 234.

[2] Use Google search phrase wind speed on Lake Tiberias to get graphic results. The search phrase wind forecast for Lake Kinneret will help you find a site used by windsurfers.

[3] Blomberg, Matthew, 234.

Preview of coming events, Matthew 14:1-12

It is all too common to be haunted by the things we have done. Even we who trust in Jesus and enjoy his limitless grace can regret past acts. And we do. How much more can those who never knew him at all!

Matthew 14:1-12

14:1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, 2 and he said to his attendants, This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.

3 Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 for John had been saying to him: It is not lawful for you to have her. 5 Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

6 On Herods birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much 7 that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist. 9 The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted 10 and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. 12 John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.

Commentary

It is easy to get confused in this brief account. Matthew gives us events out of chronological order by using a flashback in verses 3-11. These events were already in the past, on Herod’s timeline, when Herod experienced the fears expressed in verses 1-2.

Herod Antipas (b. 21 B.C. – d. after A.D. 39), the tetrarch of Galilee (verse 1) was a son of Herod the Great, who tried to kill Jesus not long after he was born. Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., and Caesar Augustus divided his kingdom, delegating rule of Galilee and Perea to Herod Antipas. See the map in the Introduction. Like his father, Herod Antipas would not make a good ethical model, but his rule kept Galilee relatively stable and prosperous during Jesus life and ministry there.

After he had already ordered John the Baptist to be executed, as described in verses 3-12, Herod heard the reports about Jesus (verse 1), and verse 2 makes clear that the reports correctly included miraculous acts by Jesus. It was typical for reports to be made to rulers about important events in their territories, and Herod was at the fortress of Machaerus, east of the Dead Sea, 85 miles (by air) from the area where Jesus was working miracles. The rough terrain made the messenger’s actual travel much longer.

Osborne probably has the right idea that Herod’s guilty conscience had used Hellenistic ideas about spirits seeking revenge to come up with the idea that the miracle-working Jesus was actually John resurrected (verse 2).[1] Starting in verse 3, Matthew gives the twisted background behind John’s execution. Herod had arrested John to shut him up, because John had repeatedly said in public that it was not lawful for Herod to marry Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (verses 3-4). As we will see, this was not the last time that Herod’s lust would land him in trouble. Herod wanted to kill John to stop the ongoing attack on his honor, but he knew that could cause real trouble with the people (verse 5), and that risked the anger of his Roman overlords.

Herod already had a wife, a Nabatean princess, whose royal father was furious and later waged a war that cost Herod dearly.[2] Herodias, who was Herod’s niece and the wife of Philip the tetrarch, soon proved that she could skillfully execute plots to get her way (verses 6-8). She relied on Herod’s lust and the alcohol that flowed freely in such quasi-royal birthday celebrations. It is amazing after so long a time that even non-biblical sources tell about Herod’s extravagant parties.[3]

When you consider the number of parties that occur where questionable or evil things occur, what should a Christian do about invitations to them?

Verses 610 need no explanation in this context. Herodias eliminated her greatest enemy; Herod gained a lifetime of bad dreams; John’s disciples, at great risk, requested John’s body and buried it. While we are here, it is illustrative to see that Herod got word by a messenger from Galilee, and Jesus received the bad news through John’s disciples after a long journey from the southern wastes. News traveled slowly.

John spoke the truth and, through scheming, was put to death. In that, he again served as a forerunner for Jesus. Matthew probably decided to use John’s story here to hint at what will follow for Jesus.

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 557.

[2] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 554.

[3] France, Matthew, 555, footnote 17.

 

Remaining blind and deaf in Nazareth, Matthew 13:53-58

This week we begin a long narrative section of Matthew’s Gospel (13:53 to 17:27) that is notoriously difficult to analyze in terms of literary structure. A big issue at the beginning and toward the end is this vital question: Who is Jesus? Another major theme is Jesus dealing with his disciples, gradually preparing them for the day he is taken from them. In both matters we follow a crooked road toward the cross.

Matthew 13:53-58

53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. 54 Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. 55 “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him.

But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”

58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

Commentary

Looking back, we find that Jesus had some conflict about his family (12:46-50) right before he began a long series of parables. In that scene, it was apparent that Jesus was alienated from his family during his Galilean ministry around Capernaum. In a way, this passage resumes the narrative right about where we left it, but this time the alienation is between Jesus and his hometown.[1]

Looking forward, commentator Craig Blomberg compares Nazareth’s rejection of Jesus (verses 13:53-58) with the rejection of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee (14:1-12). Both rejections were based on a mistaken assessment of who Jesus is.[2] They never did get it straight.

Now and then in studying the Bible, you will come on situations that just make you shake your head in dismay. When the people of Nazareth heard the teaching by Jesus in their synagogue, and possibly saw a healing (verse 54), their reaction was such as to require a Greek verb (ekplesso) meaning “to be filled with amazement to the point of being overwhelmed.”[3]

In the next breath, they start raising questions (verse 54): Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? Like everyone in Galilee, they had heard reports of his miracles and also the charge that he had done them with Satan’s power. Next come three questions about Jesus’ family, each expecting a yes answer (e.g., This is the carpenters son, is it not?). Based on their own words, they decide that Jesus could not possibly be anything special, and they take offense at him (verse 57a).

So, the people of Nazareth cling to the past, and cannot shake giving Jesus an identity from their past: the carpenters son (verse 55). Even his astonishing teaching and a few miracles cannot bring them out of spiritual lethargy. When their Messiah came, they did not receive him.

What does it take, or what did it take, to rouse you from spiritual lethargy?

Among English versions, the NLT does the best job of translating the idiom in verse 57b: “Then Jesus told them, A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his own family.” Keep in mind that a prophet was primarily a teacher and only revealed future events when God decided to make it so. Among many things, Jesus was a prophet.

Jesus does not force anyone to commit to him. In response to their unbelief, Jesus left them with most of the same problems they had when he arrived. Except, they had stumbled on the one issue that, when botched, brings catastrophe: Jesus revealed himself to them, and they rejected him.

Just curious: what kind of welcome would Jesus get at your house?

[1] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 548.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 226.

[3] BDAG-3, ekplesso, astound, q.v.

Managing your storeroom, Matthew 13:51-52

In this section Jesus asks his disciples the very question that every person who teaches a lesson, preaches a sermon, or writes a Study Guide (!) would like to ask you when it is finished: Do you understand all these things?
It is a serious question. Has it occurred to you that, if Jesus were actually standing beside you, he would ask you that question?

Matthew 13:51-52

51 Have you understood all these things? Jesus asked. Yes, they replied. 52 He said to them, Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.

Commentary

As Matthew brings this major discourse section of his Gospel to a close, he shows us its surprising conclusion. The first surprise is that Jesus inquires about whether the disciples understand what he has said, and they say yes (verse 51). Just yes. Probably I am wrong to feel surprised. After all, Jesus himself has been teaching them about the kingdom, and we have probably been shown just a fraction of what he taught them. Since Jesus expresses no qualms about their answer, it is time to reflect on the impact of these who understand his message.

In verse 52, Jesus builds on their response, calling them scribes who have been trained for the kingdom of heaven. The italicized word is another surprise. France calls them authorized teachers for the kingdom of heaven, in contrast with the Pharisaic scribes who have failed to grasp its message.[1]In essence, the other scribes, the ones who have proven that they cannot see and cannot hear, have been disqualified from interpreting the rulership of God brought by Jesus.

Jesus builds on this new state of affairs by offering a final similitude in verse 52b. These kingdom scribes are like the master of a house whose storeroom holds new treasures as well as old. The kingdom scribes are the people who will give their lives in the process of helping others find and follow Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 23:34). Only they can explain the kingdom truths hidden from the beginning, but now revealed.
What are the implications of this passage for revealing to you the importance of teaching and learning about Jesus and the rule of God?

Copyright 2017 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally prepared for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 546.