Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 9

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BIBLICAL CONCEPTS PRESS

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 9

Wise Nonsense

Jesus changes the unchangeable

In this chapter I’m will try to help you to feel less spiritually knowledgeable so that you can learn something. In fact, if I can help you feel as spiritually informed as a seven-year-old child, then I will have succeeded beyond my highest expectation. That probably sounds like complete nonsense, but I’m convinced that it’s wise nonsense.

You see, there’s more than one way to teach and to learn. Jesus once told his disciples, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15). Jesus knew that what his disciples considered completely settled about God and about themselves was blocking them from further spiritual growth. He challenged them to become more childlike so that they might grow up in the things of God.

Like Jesus’ first disciples, we have each absorbed certain erroneous ideas and habits that we have cast in personal concrete. Such barriers of the mind must be broken down for us to make spiritual progress.

Jesus often used paradoxes to shatter personal complacency. One expert in biblical literature defines a paradox as “an apparent contradiction which, upon reflection, is seen to express a genuine truth.”

Paradoxes help us learn, because they sneak up on us from a totally fresh perspective. They force us to stop and think like few other techniques can. The title of this chapter, “Wise Nonsense,” expresses a paradox. It seems contradictory because wisdom and nonsense describe opposite ideas. On reflection, we realize that some truths sound like nonsense but actually express the very wisdom of God.

Jesus expressed such a truth when he said, “Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). Seeming contradictions abound in his teaching. Such paradoxes give us an opportunity to go back and become a little more childlike so that we can see God’s truth like spiritual adults.

The Rich Man’s Poverty

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
(Mark 10:17–22)

With a love for vivid action, Mark’s Gospel describes a young man dashing up to Jesus, falling on his knees, and repeatedly asking him what personal deeds would lead to eternal life. The young man’s question unveiled the very heart and soul of common ideas about salvation in his time. First-century Judaism taught salvation through certain merit-producing works. We might call it salvation by the “merit system.” This rich man wanted to add eternal life to the bulging portfolio of his wealth.

The Jews considered the Mosaic Law a way of earning merit with God. The Pharisees had listed over six hundred commandments from the law and then had elaborated those even further to provide additional ways of making points. The Jews imagined a steadily accumulating account of merits that God would weigh in his balances at the end of a person’s life. In the time of Jesus, the law-abiding Jew fully expected the balance to tip in his favor.

On the other hand, they regarded Gentiles as totally without any prospect of salvation because they lacked knowledge of God’s merit system. That whole concept guided the wording of the rich man’s question: “Good teacher . . . what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17).

Jesus responded to the question in strong terms; he attacked being addressed as “good teacher” (Mark 10:17). Jesus threw the whole idea of human merit into the trash by saying, “No one is good — except God alone” (Mark 10:18). In criticizing the man’s question, Jesus began to cut away at the cultural, foundational ideas that undergirded it.

As long as men think they can attain goodness through human works, they are not ready to attain the only goodness that will ever bring eternal life. Only by renouncing their own goodness can a person obtain the gift of Christ’s goodness through faith. Jesus bluntly shot the man’s question down because it was hindering his approach to God. In effect, Jesus expressed a paradox: only by denying any merit do we gain merit.

Jesus next focused the man’s attention on the commandments of the Law. Here the man revealed the depth of his blindness. By claiming that he had kept all of the Law since he was a boy, he had missed the whole point of the Law!

A sincere Israelite who tried to keep the Law would soon realize that he could not possibly do it. His failure should lead him to throw himself upon the mercy of God. But the insidiousness of Pharisaism lay in the fact that it had diluted God’s law and made it humanly attainable. Such a heinous deception had captured this man’s mind.

In trying to reach this rich man, Jesus moved him from something hard to something even harder for him. After challenging him with the Law, Jesus then confronted him with the need to give away his wealth. Paradoxically, Jesus told the man that he had to give up all of his treasure if he wished to have treasure.

That idea also struck at the foundations of Jewish piety, which taught that charitable gifts, fasting, and prayer were the three best ways of pleasing God. The rich were thought to have heaven “in the bag” because throughout a lifetime they could dole out little token gifts from their great wealth. The Pharisees forbade anyone from giving away all of their wealth at one time because that would be throwing away salvation — or so they taught.

By asking the man to give away his wealth, Jesus was taking away the best hope for salvation that the man had, according to the thinking of his day. In essence, Jesus told the man that the only way he could get to heaven was to give away the exact thing that he thought would get him there. Give away all to gain all. What wise nonsense!

Many commentators have likely misunderstood Mark 10:21a, which says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” It is often said that Jesus felt some special regard for this man. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Mark was simply telling us that Jesus looked at the man and then loved him in the full, biblical sense of the word.

Biblical love does not consist of some warm and fuzzy feeling toward someone else, but rather it is an act of self-giving for the benefit of another person. Jesus loved this man by revealing to him what was blocking his way to heaven. Paradoxically, Jesus’ love brought this man shock and sorrow. In Mark 10:22 we are told that “the man’s face fell,” which means that he was both shocked and appalled by what Jesus had said.

While Jesus was trying to reach through mental barriers to save this rich man, the disciples were standing beside him, taking it all in. Their heads were swimming with confusion and their hearts were filling with despair.

Possible Impossibilities

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
(Mark 10:23–27)

Jesus’ first statement hit the disciples like a ton of bricks: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23). In telling us that “the disciples were amazed,” Mark used a Greek verb that indicates they didn’t get over their astounded state quickly. Something shattering happened right in front of their eyes and yet defied belief. Jesus knew that his own disciples held the same erroneous beliefs about wealth that the rich man did!

Jesus then treated the disciples much as he did the rich man, by moving from something hard for them to accept to something even harder. Jesus had them off balance and then knocked them further off balance so that they might learn. The approach is counter-intuitive but very effective.

With a piece of exaggerated humor, Jesus took the biggest animal in Israel, the camel, and imagined it passing through the smallest opening, the eye of a needle. By implication, Jesus was saying that it is impossible for someone who trusts in riches to enter the kingdom of God.

The effect of Christ’s words was to bring his disciples to the point of despair. Mark wrote that the disciples were “even more amazed”; the Greek verb means “to be overwhelmed.” Jesus had knocked flat all their ideas about wealth. In despair, the dumbfounded disciples turned to one another and wondered how anyone could possibly be saved.

That exchange led to two more paradoxes. The first is that men must reach despair in order to find hope. The disciples had to abandon all hope in the methods of this world so that they might gain the only true hope. Jesus extended that hope to them with another paradox: with God the impossible becomes possible. Their hope did not lie in themselves but in him.

The entire sequence, including both the rich man and the disciples, expresses a profound paradox about wealth. Wealth seems to men of all ages to bring the greatest security, but that security is deceptive. By relying on wealth, they fail to seek the only security that really does exist, security in God. So, paradoxically, the greatest security brings the greatest peril.

Those who have everything stand in the greatest danger of ending life with nothing. Being overwhelmed by Christ’s words, the disciples reacted like the rich man. Yet, unlike him, they did not leave Jesus. That illustrates the vast gulf that lay between those who responded to Jesus and those who walked away from him.

After wiping away the thoughts that his disciples cherished so deeply, Jesus then began to build new ways of thinking. They must leave behind cultural patterns and ways of thought, which lead to dead ends of impossibility. They must instead trust in the Lord, with whom all things become possible.

The Last First

28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
(Mark 10:28-31)

Quite understandably, Peter sought reassurance from Jesus. In reply, Jesus acknowledged that his disciples had given up both families and inheritances for his sake. As a result, they would win the grand prize. Paradoxically, they forsook all to receive even more in its place. Those who seem according to the standards of the world to have it made, those using the world’s patterns, will in fact be last in the age to come. By contrast, the disciples of Jesus, whom the religious establishment considered to be the last, will prove in the age to come to be the children of the Father, and therefore the first of all.

Paul puts it in another way in 1 Corinthians chapter 1. The world considers the cross foolishness, but the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom. The very thing the world considers laughable is the thing that God will use to save those who will put their faith in his Son. Paradoxically, through death (at the cross) comes life (for all who believe).

I hope that you can see how Jesus used paradoxes to get his disciples to think new thoughts about God. He knocked them off balance and brought them to the point of despair so that they might find the only true hope.

Becoming Childlike Adults in Christ

I want to apply this passage by asking you to rethink some things in a manner similar to the way Jesus taught his first disciples. In setting aside long-established ideas, we can become more like children for a little while, and more pliable in Christ’s hands. Use the following ideas to guide you:

1. One of our greatest needs is to develop Christ’s viewpoint on life’s complex issues. As you study the Scriptures, here are two suggestions:

Meditate the most on the verses you like the least.

Doesn’t that sound like fun? Such behavior would be paradoxical, and it would have a significant purpose. When God says something that you find most uncomfortable, that is probably the very time when the theological system in your head needs to be changed!

Look for situations in which Jesus behaves in a way that would feel embarrassing or very unnatural for you.

Remember how Jesus treated the unsaved rich man. He didn’t deal with him the way any contemporary Christian would. What can we learn from that? In teaching his disciples, Jesus first knocked them off balance and then knocked them totally down! How can we take advantage of this novel method in terms of teaching and learning in our own lives?

By carefully evaluating such unusual approaches, we can pick up profound insights about our own ways of doing things. Such situations certainly should lead us to wonder whether we derive our own patterns of behavior from our surrounding culture or from Jesus.

2. Things are not always what they seem to be. Wealth and accomplishment can deceive us by promising something they can’t deliver. Wealth promises security, but there is no lasting security except in the Lord.

Great or numerous accomplishments can deceive us into thinking that we are doing something of lasting value. But only those actions that serve Christ, his people, and his kingdom will truly endure and be rewarded.

Thousands of years ago, three pharaohs each erected a great pyramid outside of Cairo; each pyramid took over twenty years to build. Can you personally name a single one of these men? Can you imagine putting out such vast effort without even accomplishing lasting fame?

Where is your security based? Is it based in your bank account? Or in your good acts?

Will your busy actions stand the test of time?

3. Some of the things that the Lord calls on us to do bring us struggle, because our life experiences cry out, “That won’t work!” But the very essence of living by faith is doing things his way even when we can’t see what the consequences will be. The rich man considered Christ’s ideas nonsense. By contrast, the disciples were willing to follow him even when the road led them to despair.

4. What are your two greatest strengths, personally or spiritually? I want you to think of something concrete about yourself and even to write it down.

Are you reliable, loving, or intelligent? What do people value about you? Are you giving, articulate, honest or kind?

When I filled in those blanks, I put down knowledge first. A great deal of my life has focused on accumulating and teaching knowledge. But, you know there is something paradoxical about knowledge, because Jesus couldn’t teach some of the scribes anything. They already considered themselves so smart that they didn’t think there was anything that an untutored teacher from Galilee could tell them.

Here is the point: have you considered the seemingly absurd possibility that your greatest strengths may be your areas of greatest weakness in your walk with Christ?

What you do best may need some rethinking and readjustment. The purpose of that is not to do away with your strengths, but to keep them from becoming weaknesses.

As believers we need to be willing to open every door of our lives, including those areas that we consider totally settled. We need to re-evaluate even our greatest strengths so that Jesus can make us ever more effective for him.

A Final Word

As strange as it may sound, I hope I have helped you feel less certain about your beliefs, about yourself, and about how to live for Christ. If you feel a little more like a child, a little off balance, then this chapter has met its goal.

I always loved downhill skiing. I found it exhilarating to ski up to a steep place and look down. The thing that’s tough about it is that the way to ski a steep run is to lean downhill and begin to pick up speed. That doesn’t sound right, does it!

To go that fast is scary and seems like the last thing you would want to do. But — paradoxically — up to a certain point, the faster your skis go, the more control they can give you. And so, what feels like the worst thing you can do is actually the thing that can bring you the most stability and control.

So, if you feel a little off balance by what has been said, don’t fight it. Take your uncertainty and your new concerns right where a child should go — to the Father. Study his Word. Pray for renewed wisdom. What you will find is that Jesus will take your weakened convictions and rebuild them, just as he did for his first disciples.

Coming next . . .

In Chapter 10, Jesus must pause in his daunting journey to Jerusalem and correct disciples who are scrambling for personal power in a manner more suited to Herod’s palace than to their Lord’s trek to the cross.

Exposition of Revelation: Revelation 11:3–7

Revelation 11:3–7
And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for 1,260 days, dressed in sackcloth. 4 (These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.) 5 If anyone wants to harm them, fire comes out of their mouths and completely consumes their enemies. If anyone wants to harm them, they must be killed this way. 6 These two have the power to close up the sky so that it does not rain during the time they are prophesying. They have power to turn the waters to blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague whenever they want. 7 When they have completed their testimony, the beast that comes up from the abyss will make war on them and conquer them and kill them.
(NET Bible)

Revelation 10–11: The interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpets

Some things in life are hard, but they have to be done. Did you ever hold your small child while they squirmed in fear before getting a vaccination? How many times have you struggled through a comprehensive final exam? When have you been forced to be brave through awful conditions and wished for an alternative?

Jesus knew what lay ahead for him; but he went to Jerusalem anyway. Are we following him?

Robert Mounce explains how Revelation 10–11 function within Revelation as a whole:

With the close of chapter 9 six of the seven trumpets have sounded. Once again we encounter an interlude of two related visions — the angel with the little book (10:1–11) and the two witnesses (11:1–13). These interludes are not so much pauses in a sequence of events as they are literary devices by which the church is instructed concerning its role and destiny during the final period of world history.[1]

Grant Osborne[2] points out that in the prior biblical context (9:20–21) the judgments failed to bring about repentance. As a result, the scroll (10:2) will provide a more effective strategy for achieving the conversion of the nations.

Revelation 10 opens (10:1–7) with the appearance of the most awesome of all the angels described in the book of Revelation. Though part of his mighty announcement is sealed (10:4), he gives John a “little scroll” (10:2), which John is to internalize before revealing it to us (10:9–11). Concerning the scroll, Osborne says, “It too tells the divine plan for the end of the age, and now John is to be shown how that plan relates to the saints that are still on the earth.”[3] This plan will include both witness to the wicked world (the sweet taste of 10:10) and martyrdom (the bitter taste of 10:10).

Craig Keener describes Revelation 11 by saying, “This section is perhaps the most difficult passage to interpret in the entire book of Revelation.”[4] While I will offer some possible interpretations, it is reasonable to think that we do not better understand chapter 11 because the words spoken by the seven thunders (10:4) were sealed up and not written down. Keener shows insight when he says, “The concealment of the meaning of the seven thunders reminds us that God knows far more about the future than he tells us.”[5] God’s selective concealment of many details also suggests that trying to construct a precise timeline of future events is not the intended use of Revelation’s visions.

Clearing the fog of Revelation 11, Mounce[6] wisely counsels us that its figurative language does not make the underlying prophetic events any less real. Symbolism is not the enemy of facts. With this underlying reality in mind, we next consider the metaphors of 11:1–13.

To understand the metaphor of measuring the temple (11:1–2), it is necessary to realize that the image draws on Ezek. 40–42 and Zech. 2:1–5, which involve God’s ownership and protection for his people. We should expect the same themes to guide our interpretation of Rev. 11:1–2.

However, that understanding does not deliver us from deciding whether the temple (11:1) is literal or figurative. Since no temple presently stands in Jerusalem, a literal temple would require that a temple be rebuilt on Temple Mount after the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine, was torn down. Those objections to an earthly temple are not insurmountable, but they are problems.

The Greek noun naos is used for temple in 11:1. Throughout the book of Revelation naos refers to the heavenly temple rather than either the earthly temple built by Solomon or the one built by Herod. It is hard to credit that 11:1 would prove an exception.

Note carefully that John is also commanded to measure “the ones who worship there” (11:1). So, these people belong to God and are under his protection in some form. But who are they?

Keener says: “In early Christian literature . . . the temple regularly symbolizes Christians, both Jewish and Gentile (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:18–22; 1 Pet. 2:5). This is also what the temple symbolizes elsewhere in Revelation (Rev. 3:12; 13:6); not surprisingly, this is the more common scholarly interpretation of this temple today.”[7]

The triumph of the Lamb will also be the triumph of his followers, just as 11:15–19 relate.

Protection within opposition

Standing up for Christ has never been a cost-free proposition, and it will be life-threatening during the period just before Christ’s return. Whether we will face those choices is disputed, but certainly some Christians will do so. Are you committed to be an overcomer?

When I took the mortal risk of heart bypass surgery, it was the first time I had to weigh my life against the needed benefits. Many casual Christians do not realize that their commitment to Christ is a life-or-death choice with risks. Unlike Jesus, we may not face certain death due to our witness, but there is no guarantee. What is certain is that Christ will reward us for overcoming!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Rev. Ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) 199.

[2] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 391.

[3] Osborne, Revelation, 395.

[4] Craig S. Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 287.

[5] Keener, Revelation, 281.

[6] Mounce, Revelation, 212.

[7] Keener, Revelation, 288.

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 7:24–27

Matthew 7:24–27
“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!”
(NET Bible)
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.

To do or not to do; that is the question

The movie series Star Wars tells the story of an epic battle between good and evil set in a galaxy far, far away. The young hero, Luke Skywalker, gets instruction in the Force from the wise old Jedi Master named Yoda.

Yoda proposes a difficult training exercise using the Force, which Luke says he will try. To this Yoda sharply replies, “Try? No! Do or do not; there is no try!”

Those who hear Jesus’ words have the same choice. Do or do not; which will it be?

We already know that Jesus is talking to the disciples, and a crowd of listeners has also gathered to hear him (7:28). When verse 24 starts off with the word “everyone,” it sounds as if Jesus is speaking to the whole group, but in fact the grammar of the verse makes it clear that he is speaking to each person as an individual. So, the parable Jesus tells will draw a line between those who respond and those who do not. And that line will also divide some insiders from other insiders!

It would be better to translate the opening phrase as, “Each one of you who hears these words of mine . . . .” (my translation of 7:24a). Jesus is presenting a choice to each individual who hears him, and no one else can make it for you! Further, Jesus is not directing attention to the words of the Law but to his own words as the authoritative interpretation of the Law.

Matthew 7:24 is a simple sentence with verbs that are in the present tense. The present tenses are used here “to make a statement of a general, timeless fact.”[1] The one who “hears these words of mine and does them” is the one who is figuratively “like a wise man who built his house on a rock” (7:24).

Of course, on a sunny, pleasant day it does not matter where you built your house. But Jesus says a storm came and pounded the house with rain, swollen rivers and strong winds (7:25). The rock foundation prevented disaster for the house and its sheltered builder.

In speaking of that all-critical foundation, Jesus uses a verbal form that is rare enough to require a deliberate decision on the part of the speaker. Concerning the house, Jesus says, “it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock” (7:25b). The words in italics reflect the choice Jesus made to show that the survival of the house depended upon action completed in the past before the storm arose. What action is meant? Jesus refers to the doing of his words after first hearing them!

Unfortunately for the foolish man, the storm will also strike the house built on sand. The NET Bible aptly catches the catastrophic nature of that moment by saying it was utterly destroyed (7:27).

Craig Blomberg resolves the meaning of the storm when he says, “So too Judgment Day will come like a flood to disclose which spiritual structures will endure.”[2] But the issue has already been decided by action or the lack of it long before that stormy day comes.

Faith only begins with knowledge!

The faithful actions of a disciple begin with knowing Jesus’ words, but they end only when those words are put into action. Those who meditate on his words are not the ones Jesus honors; thoughtful doers of his words are the ones who will prosper in the storms of God’s judgment. In just moments after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will start walking. Who is going with him?

In this active life of doing what Jesus has said, take heart in these words: “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence.” (2 Pet. 1:3, NLT).

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 523.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 134.

 

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 7:21–23

Matthew 7:21–23
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven — only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’”
(NET Bible)
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.

Last-minute protests

One of the biggest problems that employers face at this time is résumé inflation. Take George O’Leary for example. He was hired to be Notre Dame’s football coach, but he was dismissed twelve days later when officials discovered his résumé contained false claims about a certain college degree and about having played college football.

Nobody will enter the kingdom of heaven with an inflated résumé. But many will try.

As we begin this section, keep in mind R.T. France’s idea that the people Jesus describes here are people who consider themselves insiders (true disciples) but who are not. This is a troubling category for some Christians to think about, so we will dive right in.

The phrase “on that day” (7:22) places this outcry “’Lord, Lord’” (7:21) on the day of judgment, which is part of the longer period known as the Day of the Lord (see Joel 1:15; Isa. 10:20; Zech. 12–14).

R.T. France explains that Jesus “now presents himself as the one who decides who does and does not enter the kingdom of heaven, and even more remarkably the basis for that entry is people’s relationship with him, whether or not he ‘knew them.’”[1] This is a powerful affirmation of the idea that Christianity is about a personal relationship to Jesus rather than belonging to a church or even having been baptized.

As Christians we are accustomed to think of Jesus as Lord. But in the ears of those who first heard Jesus say these words, learning that on the day of judgment many would “say to me, ‘Lord, Lord’” (7:22) would have been a shocking claim of authority and power. Jesus asserts that he not only has the authority to admit people into the kingdom of heaven, but also the authority to send others “away from me” (7:23). Life in the kingdom will be life with Jesus; those excluded from him from that assembly of lawbreakers we call hell.

Jesus is not saying that there is anything wrong with prophesying, casting out evil spirits, or performing miracles in his name (7:22). He is saying that none of those activities can replace knowing him and being known by him.

It is important to make a stronger connection between having a relationship to Jesus and doing “the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21). In the Gospel of John, Jesus said: “The person who has my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will reveal myself to him.” (John 14:21).

Perhaps it is helpful to say that having a relationship with Jesus does not mean it is an equal relationship. The fact that he is both Lord and God to us means that he has legitimate expectations of us that do not conflict with the fact that he loves us. His love for us is not based on our works, but our love for him is expressed, in part, by our works.

Those who have put their faith in Jesus can rest confidently in his words: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14).

Safety for those who know Jesus

Jesus’ words were not designed to dishearten those who love him. They were meant as a warning to the sort of fast-talking con artists who make their way through life manipulating others. That will not work when Jesus judges all people.

To his own, Jesus said: “My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand.” (John 10:27–28).

Jesus gave his life to make a way to include you in the kingdom, not exclude you. Put your faith in him and rest in his hand.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created 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) 294.

 

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 7:15–20

Matthew 7:15–20
“Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.”
(NET Bible)
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.

Trusted liars

Many members of the Palm Beach Country Club had to lobby to get Bernard Madoff to take their money for investment. His marketing strategy was to play hard to get. That worked really well along with the bogus profit statements received by those members he had already taken as clients.

Unfortunately, the only information the clients saw was paper reports from Madoff. They never tried to inspect their own stock certificates or visit the accounting office. Since there were no real stock purchases, there were no stock certificates and no need for an accounting office!

A man selling false profits is one thing, but false claims about knowing God are even worse.

As we begin this section, keep in mind R.T. France’s insight that these false prophets (7:15) are outsiders (i.e. unbelievers) pretending to be insiders. Once again, Jesus gives just one command — watch out for false prophets (7:15a) — followed by an explanation (7:15b–20).

Since prophets are not part of our landscape, the idea of false prophets is a bit elusive. In Matthew’s Gospel (24:11 and 24:24), false prophets mislead or deceive even true disciples. Luke 6:26 tells us that false prophets are likely to be widely praised. Peter said the false prophets would introduce “destructive heresies, even to the point of denying the Master who bought them” (2 Pet. 2:1).

From these references, it seems reasonable to assume that false prophets taught misleading theology, heresies, and even denied important things about Jesus. John heard Jesus’ words, and he warned us to test for false prophets by careful examination (1 John 4:1).

Using metaphorical language, Jesus warns that the false prophets are actually predators (voracious wolves, 7:15) disguised as prey (sheep). Then he offers a way to detect these pretenders. In doing so, Jesus switches metaphors to that of fruit-bearing plants and their fruit.

R.T. France tells us that the basic principle of the fruits-test is that “trees produce only the kind of fruit which reflects their basic character, good or bad”[1] (7:17–18). R.T. France[2] adds that the fruit Jesus wants is the life and loyalty that God expects of his people; this is the righteousness Jesus has been describing, even though the word is not used.

Evaluating fruitfulness requires the restrained but necessary judgment that Jesus described in 7:1–6. Jesus used this standard of fruitfulness when he condemned the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:1–36. There Jesus exhorts the people to obey what the Pharisees and scribes taught from Moses —meaning the Law — but not to imitate them because they did not practice what they taught (23:3)!

What happens to the trees that do not produce good fruit? Jesus says they are thrown into the fire (7:19). That is the ultimate fate of outsiders pretending to be insiders.

Those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ will not fail the test of fruitfulness. After explaining how God saved us by “his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7), Paul explains that we have “been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand that we may do them” (Eph. 2:10). The Holy Spirit enables us to do all that God wants.

The real thing

The truth is that over a period of time it is not that difficult to see the Holy Spirit at work in someone’s life. You will see or learn about acts of kindness, sacrificial service, and devotion to building up the church. Words are harder to weigh than deeds, but we always have the Bible to provide the truth against which teaching can be tested.

Remember Jesus’ warning! Not all allegedly-Christian teaching is true to God’s Word, even when you see it on the Internet, hear it on the radio or read it in a book. To evaluate a prophet, you need to see their life.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created 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) 290.

[2] France, Matthew, 291.

 

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 7:13–14

Matthew 7:13–14
“Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14 But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
(NET Bible)
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.

The lure of the easy life

When I was in school, some people liked the easy way, so they cheated. Can you guess how much they learned? Jesus offers to all a choice of the easy way or the hard. What will each of us choose, and why?

Jesus concluded his description of kingdom-discipleship with the Golden Rule (7:12). What follows, starting in Matt. 7:13–14, is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. The ending falls into four sections skillfully described by R.T. France, who uses the idea that insiders are believers and outsiders are not:

The resultant four sections therefore press increasingly closer to home: the first is a simple contrast between saved and lost [7:13–14], the second concerns outsiders who merely pretend to be insiders [7:15–20], the third looks at those who think they are insiders but are not [7:21–23], and the fourth draws a line within the group of insiders (who hear Jesus’ words) between those who respond and those who do not [7:24–27].[1]

According to this analysis, today’s passage is the first scene and presents a simple contrast between the saved and the lost. Sadly, Jesus says the saved are few and the lost are many. On the basis of such verses, some interpreters teach that only a few members of humanity throughout the ages will end up in heaven. That assumption may be true, or it may not be. In my opinion, Jesus was speaking of his own time about the Jewish nation.

Craig Keener[2] points out that most first-century Jews thought they were saved by the simple fact that they descended from Abraham, but Jesus was letting them know that their assumption was flatly wrong! Those who actually listened to Jesus’ words would have assumed that the few (7:14) and the many (7:13) were references to the Jewish people of that time. Jesus gave them no reason to think otherwise.

Simple observation will show you that Jesus gives only one command in these verses: “Enter through the narrow gate” (7:13a). All the rest of the material (7:13b–14) explains why. When you think about it, you will realize that Jesus is speaking to people who have each trekked to the countryside of Galilee to find him. They have already taken trouble to hear him, and now he challenges them to prepare for even more. Will they take the narrow gate and the difficult road with Jesus, or will they return to the easier path, the unrestricted gate used by the many?

Presumably, those taking the wide, easy road do not know where it leads. Jesus clearly states that it leads to destruction (7:13). That is a metaphorical description of God’s eternal condemnation. On the other hand, the narrow gate leads to a narrow, constricted road (7:14), making it less popular and certainly filled with danger. But the few who find the narrow road are rewarded by arriving at life (7:14).

Jesus understands the struggles faced by the faithful, and he does not leave them to face danger alone. That God approves of the faithful few is plain, because they are rewarded with eternal life!

Never forget that Jesus understands the hardship of the difficult road. The author of Hebrews tells us this about Jesus: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Jesus is our gracious and tested high priest. “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. Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.” (Heb. 4:15–16).

The harder life

Certainly it is easy to think that our contemporary society satisfies the same description Jesus gave to the first-century Jews; many are rejecting the narrow road, if they even think about it at all.

Yet Tim Keller, a well-known thinker and pastor, has established a huge evangelical church in Manhattan. People are still seeking Jesus! Keller says: “We have neither the Western Christendom of the past nor the secular, religionless society that was predicted for the future.”[3]

The narrow gate still stands, and the difficult road remains open for those following Jesus. The reward of living with God is worth the struggle.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created 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) 286-287.

[2] Keener, Matthew, 250.

[3] Tim Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008) xv.

 

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 7:12

Matthew 7:12
“In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.”
(NET Bible)
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.

Summarizing the Law

The sign on the auto dealer’s wall said, “We operate this business according to the Golden Rule.” I recall thinking skeptically, “I wonder if that rule reads ‘The one who has the gold makes the rules.’”

Which of these two golden rules is the one you honor? Which one did Jesus teach?

We have reached a watershed point in the Sermon on the Mount. Today’s verse summarizes “the ethics of discipleship”[1] that Jesus has presented up to this point. Jesus has described the righteousness that exceeds that taught by the scribes and Pharisees (5:20), and now he sums it up by this variant of the law of love for your neighbor.

Before discussing the details of the verse, I will compare two translations of it.

(NET) “In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.” [italics added] NIV 2011 is similar to NET Bible.

(HCSB) “Therefore, whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them— this is the Law and the Prophets.” [italics added]

Of the two translations, HCSB is closer to the Greek text of Matthew 7:12. Note carefully that HCSB begins with a disciple thinking about how they wish to be treated by others. In other words, the disciple first imagines a scenario about how they would prefer to be treated in the future. Only then does the focus turn to using that analysis to determine how to treat others. I want to be shown love, and so I show love to others.

We all know by experience that our showing love in human relationships does not always result in getting love in return. In spite of that fact, Jesus places his disciples under obligation to lead off with love. There is no bail-out point at which we get to switch tactics and start hating the other person. Recall that we have already been commanded to love our enemies (5:44).

According to R.T. France, “The common description of this saying as the ‘Golden Rule’ is traditionally traced to the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus (A.D. 222–35), who, though not a Christian, was reputedly so impressed by the comprehensiveness of this maxim of Jesus as a guide to good living that he had it inscribed in gold on the wall of his chamber.”[2]

HCSB is again more literal at the end of the verse by saying “this is the Law and the Prophets,” while NET leans a bit farther out to say “this fulfills the law and the prophets.”

The point is, if you want to be Jesus’ disciple, obeying this command is the place to start.

Seeking the minimum

Of course, the problem is that some Christians want to see the Golden Rule as the end of what Jesus requires of them. If you ask such a person if they are a Christian, they may say, “I try to live by the Golden Rule.” That probably means they also attend church on Easter but not otherwise!

The world has tried to distort the teaching of Jesus by replacing it with a cleverly-worded alternative: Do unto others before they do unto you! To the contrary, Jesus wants us to be loving and merciful, but we know that he did it for us first!

“But ‘when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior.’” (Tit. 3:4–6)

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created 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) 282.

[2] France, Matthew, 284.