2015: My Last Word on the Subject

As 2015 draws to its close and a New Year beckons, I wanted to pause a moment to wish each and every one of you a blessed and joyous New Year, full of His grace and truth. May our Lord bless you and your loved each day of the coming year; may all of the blessings of Christ be yours.

I would also like to thank every one of you who follows my blog; you are an inspiration, and that means much more to me than you will ever know. The same is true for those of you who regularly stop by and “like” or comment; your support keeps me going: Thank you!

Off we go into another new year, following our Lord and doing our best to build up, rather than to tear down, to inspire, never demeaning; striving always to serve His purpose.

What a glorious thing it is to follow the living Christ!

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Careful!

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

Matthew 18:6-9

Be careful  this passage isn’t hanging out there all by itself; the scene has not changed from 18:1-5, this is Jesus continuing to speak to their question of who will be the greatest in the Kingdom. In case you missed the last section, they asked the question and Jesus called for a little child to join them and told the disciples that unless they become like that little child they cannot enter the Kingdom, and then He goes on to say the words in our passage above. Thus, the “little ones” are those who have become like a little child so they could enter the Kingdom.

It would also do us well to recall the larger context in which Jesus is trying to teach the disciples about His messianic mission, which was to die for the redemption of Mankind, and how His example would be one of selfless devotion to the will of God, setting self and selfish motives aside completely in doing so, and of course by extension, He is telling them that they should do the same. With all of this in mind, read the verses again, and they are easy to understand…

OK, you’ve got me; it is easy to understand if you realize that He was using just a touch of hyperbole.

A person in the Kingdom who sets self-centered motives aside to serve God may well appear to be weak in the eyes of this world, but this world would be mistaken, for such a person is acting with the strength of God, which is quite different than the world’s strength. Such a person may try to cause the “little one” to stumble along the way, and they may well succeed, but in doing so, they will encounter the very wrath of God in the process, and things will become dire for them in the end.

If we, the “little ones” should find that anything in our lives cause us to stumble, then it is to our great benefit to cut that thing off from our lives, even if that would seem to be a great loss, even if that seems to be very painful of difficult, and it is here that Jesus uses the hyperbole of body parts. Of course He is not teaching the disciples to mutilate themselves! He is trying to make His point, and this is not the only place He uses hyperbole in doing so. What is His point? “Self” has got to go!

 

Well now, that should give us all something to ponder this New Year’s Eve!

The Greatest in the Kingdom

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Matthew 18:1-5

Considering the last scene about the temple tax, Matthew’s thinking becomes clearer as to why he included that particular anecdote, for Jesus and the disciples now move squarely into the subject of self and selfless. It would seem that to be the greatest in the Kingdom, we should consider leaving high offices, fancy costumes and worldly displays of our greatness behind.

I’m guessing that the disciples might have been hoping to hear Jesus mention their names when they asked this question, but the answer they received to their question was quite different; they needed to become like little children.

For a little bit of perspective, let’s remind ourselves that this scene took place long before children had “rights”, long before any parent was likely to let a child run the show, long before people were concerned about a child’s “self esteem”, when children did what they were told, kept quiet in the presence of adults, and worked hard around the house or the farm.

Don’t leave unpleasant comments on this score; I’m only reporting how it was in those days…

A child had no office, position, rights or say in anything, and according to Jesus, we must be like that to enter the Kingdom of heaven. With that in mind, a child is also innocent, and capable of great faith with few of the questions and struggles that adults often have to deal with today. When you put it all together, the greatest in the Kingdom is the one who will put self aside to serve God’s purpose in faith, by serving the needs of others.

An Odd Little Story

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

“Yes, he does,” he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

“From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

Matthew 17:24-27

Considering what is going on in this section where Jesus is trying to teach the disciples about His mission as Messiah, a subject that leads to His death on the cross, one might think of Matthew’s inclusion of this little anecdote as being rather odd; it doesn’t seem to “belong” at this point in the narrative.

Or does it?

So far, Jesus has predicted His own death at the hands of the authorities twice. Yet in each case, He has included reference to the resurrection and the disciples seem to have missed it. He has been alluding to the redemption of Mankind, but they haven’t followed up with questions about that yet. His identity is known to them, and three of them are aware that He is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, and they have heard that directly from the Father. Yet there is another element to His mission, an element that on the one hand makes its completion possible, and on the other hand is one that should mark the life of a disciple, and that element is the denial of self. After all, would anyone claim that allowing Himself to be nailed to a cross was a self-centered thing to do on a Friday morning?

In our text, notice two things: First, that Jesus makes a pretty good case that He does not need to pay temple tax; He is God’s Son for heaven’s sake! Nevertheless, there really isn’t any point to making a big deal about it; it’s a trivial matter… and this is the second point… a needless argument to “get out of it” would be a distraction from His mission, and so He sends Peter the fisherman out to fish.

Over the years, I’ve listened as quite a few Christians go on about how nobody is going to take advantage of them, about how they “don’t have to” do this or that. Often they had valid points, but in no case were they making disciples or building up the Body of Christ while they were busy asserting their “rights”, and it would appear that Jesus didn’t waste His time with such things, for He was “on a mission”.

Another Prediction of Death

When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.

Matthew 17:22-23

Jesus is determined to make His disciples understand His mission, which is to die for the redemption of Mankind, a concept that would have been a hard one for the disciples to grasp. Jewish men were not accustomed to thinking of their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as a God who would want to redeem the Gentiles, for this went against the customs and traditions of their culture and community. To put it in modern terms, it was “radical”.

It was radical for another reason: Jesus was the Son of God; how could He be killed by mere men? How could God allow such a thing? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this is the reason Jesus kept on bringing it up; it was hard for the disciples to fathom, especially for Peter, James and John would had witnessed the transfiguration.

Just think about it; the Son of God, the long awaited Messiah, the one whose supremacy was demonstrated so dramatically on the mountain by none other than Almighty God Himself, the one who had done all the miracles, the one who has the faith that can move mountains was going to be delivered into the hands of men who will kill Him… how can that be?

The disciples were filled with grief… as well they should be.

Do you see what they were missing?

Yes, that’s right; they were filled with grief because Jesus would be killed. They were apparently so filled with grief (and shock) that they weren’t listening to “and on the third day he will be raised to life” They were not yet ready to realize that Jesus was going to the cross, but that was not a sign of weakness, it was a sign of faith that moves mountains. It was not a defeat, but the victory that would change the entire cosmos forever.

When they came to the crowd…

When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.

Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew 17:14-21

There are many parallels between Matthew’s account of the transfiguration and Moses’ account of his encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, and this scene following the return of Jesus and the three disciples from their mountaintop experience is one of them that may remind us of what Moses found after his return to the camp when he came down from Sinai in Exodus 32. Moses found a rebellious and idolatrous people; Jesus found an “unbelieving and perverse generation”.

He was approached by a man who was begging for deliverance for his poor son who as it turns out, was possessed by a demon. The disciples had attempted to deal with the demon, possibly the nine who did not accompany Jesus up the mountain, Matthew doesn’t make this clear, but in any case, they had been unable to deal with it.

Jesus drove out the demon immediately.

Yesterday I pointed out that in this section, the disciples are the ones who Jesus is teaching, certainly they are His principle focus, and we see that clearly in this passage. In verse 11 He addressed the people around Him in general terms, maybe even showing a slight amount of frustration, but the real lesson isn’t His rebuke of the demon or of His generalized remarks in verse 11, but what follows in private with His disciples beginning in verse 20. That scene is set by the disciples’ question in 17:19: Why couldn’t they drive that demon out?

Fair question, they’ve been handling demons for some time now.

Jesus responds in very simple terms: “because you have so little faith.”

He goes on to add that if they have faith as small as a mustard seed, they can order a mountain to move, and it will move, for with a little faith, nothing will be impossible. You know what everyone says at this point: Mustard seeds are the smallest of seeds and they produce the largest of plants, so if you only have a little faith, you can do great things; Jesus has made that point earlier in Matthew’s narrative, and yet, here we are again; can the disciples be so dull, or is there something we have missed?

This is the point where we must make a shift in our focus, a shift from systematic theology into applied theology (if you like the academic terms). Are you ready?

First, here’s a question: Are you a follower of Jesus Christ?

If your answer is “yes” then here’s the next question: Are you His disciple?

(Hint: if you answered “yes” to the first question, then your answer to the second needs to be “yes” as well.)

So, if you are His follower, then you are His disciple, and like the original 12, you (and I) are in training, “at the feet of the Master” so to speak. Take verse 20 out of the abstract and historical (i.e. Jesus once said this to the Twelve) and think of it as Jesus sitting there with you saying this same thing to YOU. So, let’s look at the verse again: Here we are you, me and Jesus sitting around the kitchen table. We ask the question (verse 19) and He says:

“Don and (your name), it’s because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Does it look different now?

Have you ever prayed for someone’s healing, for example, and had a little voice in the back of your mind saying something like “he’s not going to be healed”? If so, may I be the one to point that that isn’t “little faith”, that is NO faith at all.

You, and I right along with you, may well wonder how we get past that little voice of doubt in the back of our minds….

Well, stay tuned, because we are now in school with Matthew, Andrew, Thomas and the whole gang, as Jesus teaches us how to follow Him and truly become His disciple, and from this point on, we are in the crucial part of that instruction.