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Seven Woes September 2, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 23.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus addresses His disciples and the crowd, noting that the Pharisees – and the scribes – have authority. Thus, if they read from the law of Moses, then they must be continuously obeyed. Yet they are hypocrites, as they pile on regulations that must be obeyed by all without caring for those whom they burden. Thus, they should not be continuously obeyed.

Indeed, the Pharisees – and the scribes – perform their religious works to be seen by others. For example, they:

  • wear large phylacteries
  • have large fringes on their garments
  • desire to sit by the host at banquets
  • desire to sit on the raised platform at the front of synagogues
  • desire to have their excellence acknowledged in the marketplace.

In contrast, His disciples should not desire to have their excellence acknowledged by others, since only He is excellent. Moreover, true excellence lies in serving others, as those who push themselves down will be pushed up, while those who push themselves up will be pushed down.

He then divinely judges the Pharisees – and the scribes – as hypocrites, as they:

  • keep people from entering the kingdom of God
  • convert Gentiles to their movement – who eventually surpass them in their hypocrisy
  • are liars and morons, as they fail to keep their vows and then assert that their vows actually had no meaning, as they were only declared in reference to the temple and/or the altar
  • tithe from their kitchen items while failing to honor God in truly important matters such as justice, mercy and faith
  • appear to be pious – yet plunder others, demonstrating their unrestrained desire for gain
  • appear to be righteous – yet are full of lawlessness
  • commemorate prophets and assert that they would not have sanctioned their lynching by their ancestors – yet plan to kill Him, the greatest prophet of all.

Thus, He damns them to hell, noting that He will send preachers to them. He knows that they will reject these preachers – thereby increasing their condemnation. By stoning them, allow the Romans to crucify others and persecuting the rest, they provide further evidence of their guilt. Indeed, they will be judged when the Romans invade Jerusalem in AD 70.

He then weeps over Jerusalem, as He wants its denizens to enter His kingdom – yet they reject His grace. Therefore, God has abandoned them – yet they will eventually acknowledge Him as their Messiah, thereby fulfilling a prophecy in Psalm 118:26.

Thoughts: In verses 23 and 24, Jesus condemns the Pharisees and the scribes for fixating on trivial matters – while neglecting critical issues – in their worship. Ryle offers some thoughts on this point:

They made great ado about tithing “mint” and other garden herbs, as if they could not be too strict in their obedience to God’s law…and yet at the same time they neglected great plain duties, such as justice, mercy and faithfulness; this again was a great sin.

One thought is that many believers derive pleasure from setting (quantifiable) targets and achieving them, e.g. “tell five strangers about Jesus at this outreach event.” Yet weightier issues are often difficult to quantify, causing believers to struggle with them. We ponder questions such as:

  • what does it actually mean to love God and to love one’s neighbor?
  • when our sinful nature resists our holy desire to actually obey these commands via concrete actions, how can God emerge victorious in that regard?
  • when we fail to perform “great plain duties,” how should we respond to our failures?

These are challenging questions, yet we must address them.

In verses 29-32, Jesus condemns the Pharisees and the scribes for their hypocrisy regarding their commemoration of the prophets of God. Ryle offers some insights on this point:

A passage from the Berlenberger Bible on this subject is striking enough to reproduce here: “Ask in Moses’ time who were the good people; they will be Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but not Moses – he should be stoned. Ask in Samuel’s time who were the good people: they will be Moses and Joshua, but not Samuel. Ask in the times of Christ who they were: they will be all the former prophets, with Samuel, but not Christ and his apostles.”

This is an interesting point; a (potentially) related observation is that we may not react strongly to criticism if we sense that it is not directed at us. Moreover, if we perceive the accuracy of these rebukes, then we may think more highly of those who present them. Yet when we are criticized, our passions are inflamed, and we lash out at those who rebuke us. Indeed, we often find it difficult to maintain restraint in the face of criticism and evaluate it objectively – especially when those who rebuke us make no attempt to soften their words.

In verses 33-36, Jesus asserts that the Pharisees and the scribes are responsible for the deaths of the prophets of God. Ryle offers some insights on this point:

The blood of the early Christians shed by the Roman Emperors; the blood of the Vallenses and Albigenses, and the sufferers at the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre; the blood of the martyrs who were burned at the Reformation, and of those put to death by the Inquisition – all, all will yet be accounted for.

As a believer in a First World country, I often forget that many of my fellow believers have paid the ultimate price for their beliefs. Thus, this passage is a sober reminder of the cost of our shared faith; it also reminds me of the importance of consistent prayer for believers who are being persecuted. I also anticipate meeting many martyrs in the next life and learning how God empowered them to hold fast to their faith – even to the point of death.

Whose Son is the Christ? August 31, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 22:41-46.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus asks the Pharisees to state their understanding of the identity of the Christ.

They reply that the Christ is the son of David.

He replies by stating that if that were the case, then it would conflict with the fact that David refers to the Christ as his Lord – as seen in Psalm 110:1.

Since they are unable to resolve this riddle, they cease their quest to trap Him in a statement.

Thoughts: Here, Jesus continues to expose the Pharisees’ faulty understanding of the Old Testament; in particular, they do not comprehend the divinity of the Messiah. One must wonder how they responded to His revelations of their misconceptions. Were they enraged? Were they embarrassed? Were they baffled by His incisive statements and questions? This also raises the question of how they were able to assert that He had violated the Mosaic law as a pretext for His crucifixion – given that they failed to comprehend the Mosaic law itself. That being said, as modern-day believers, we have the benefit of hindsight; we can synthesize the Old and New Testaments to form a coherent text underpinning our faith in the fully divine – and fully human – Messiah.

Paying Taxes to Caesar August 17, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 22:15-22.

Summary: In this passage, the Pharisees plan to trap Jesus in a statement. They send their disciples – and those Jews who belonged to the political party of Herod – to Him. Addressing Him as “teacher”, they assert that He is:

  • truthful
  • a man of integrity
  • not intimidated by the face of anyone.

They then ask Him if it is lawful for them to give the census tax as a gift.

Yet He discerns their hypocrisy, asking them why they attempt to trap Him in a statement. He then asks for a denarius that they typically use to pay the census tax. Upon receiving a denarius, He asks them whose image and inscription it bears.

They acknowledge that it bears the image and inscription of Caesar. He responds by inferring that they should:

  • pay the census tax back to Caesar
  • continue to worship God only.

Thoughts: Here, Jesus deftly repels the challenge of the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. Ryle offers some insights on this point:

The principle laid down in these well-known words is one of deep importance. There is one obedience owed by every Christian to the civil government under which he lives, in all matters which are temporal, and not purely spiritual…There is another obedience which the Christian owes to the God of the Bible in all matters which are purely spiritual.

Clearly the opponents of Jesus could only conceive of two answers to their challenge. Either answer would advance their position, since:

  • if He asserted that it was lawful for them to pay the census tax, then they would denounce Him as a God-hater and an idol-worshiper
  • if He asserted that it was not lawful for them to pay the census tax, then they would denounce Him as a rebel against the Roman Empire.

They certainly did not contemplate a third answer to their challenge; thus, they were bamboozled by His response. Now as modern-day believers who (hopefully) pay our taxes, we readily adhere to the approach that He establishes in verse 21. As law-abiding citizens, we can comprehend the gravity of tax evasion – yet it is heartening to know that paying our taxes does not disqualify us from citizenship in God’s kingdom. Moreover, we can be thankful that God is sovereign over our government, working through our taxes to advance His kingdom in mystical ways.

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet August 12, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 22:1-14.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus states that His kingdom can be represented by a king who hosts a wedding feast for his son. He sends his servants to those whom he has already invited to inform them that it is time for the feast – but they are unconcerned with his request. Some of them head to their farms and businesses, while others murder his servants. Enraged, he sends his troops to destroy them.

He then commands his servants to go to the crossroads and invite anyone they find to the feast, and they respond accordingly.

Later, he observes that one of his guests is not wearing the proper garments. He queries this guest on this point, but this guest has no excuse for his action. Thus, he orders his servants to permanently expel this guest.

Similarly, while God has invited many to enter His kingdom, He has only chosen a few to accept His invitation.

Thoughts: We see that many of the guests whom the king initially invited to the wedding feast subsequently reject that invitation. While I have declined wedding invitations in the past, I believe that my reasons for declining them were valid (e.g. I had already accepted an invitation to another wedding on that day). Indeed, the notion of declining a wedding invitation for a relatively frivolous reason is almost unfathomable; if I had extended an invitation in that instance, I would have been insulted. Perhaps this bolsters the king’s rationale for destroying the guests in this parable – and God’s rationale for punishing the Jews who had rejected the Gospel message.

We also see that the king in this parable expels a guest for his improper attire. Ryle offers some thoughts on this point:

So long as a man claims to submit to the Gospel, and lives an outwardly correct life, we dare not say positively that he is not clothed in the righteousness of Christ. But there will be no deception at the last day: the unerring eye of God will discern who are his own people, and who are not…It will avail the hypocrite nothing that he…had the human reputation of being an eminent Christian.

My understanding is that no believer can be completely certain – in this life – as to whether they are actually “clothed in the righteousness of Christ.” We may have faith that this is the case – and that our words and deeds support that belief. Yet only God knows for certain whether we have truly put on His righteousness. Given this unavoidable state of uncertainty, how can we live victoriously? Perhaps we would do well to consider the fact that uncertainty is inherent to faith. Instead of being paralyzed by uncertainty, we should embrace it and aim to thrive in it, trusting that He will enable us to grow closer to Him in the process.

The Parable of the Tenants August 11, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 21:33-46.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus states that His kingdom can be represented by a man who owns an estate. This estate owner decides to plant a vineyard in a portion of his land; he later protects it, digs a winepress and builds a tower. He then leases it out to some tenant farmers and goes abroad. At harvest time, he sends his servants to receive his portion of the crop.

Yet his tenants scourge one of his servants, murder another, and stone a third to death. He sends other servants to his tenants – yet they also treat them harshly. Finally, he sends his son to his tenants, assuming that they would be ashamed of treating him harshly.

Yet his tenants plan – and execute – the murder of his son.

When prompted by Jesus, the Jewish leaders assert that this estate owner will:

  • punish his tenants in a devastating manner
  • lease his vineyard to other tenants.

Jesus responds by concluding that they have fulfilled the prophecy in Psalm 118:22-23. They have rejected Him, just as the tenants in this parable have rejected the son of the estate owner. Thus, they will be broken to pieces, as they have tried to harm Him. Moreover, God will take His kingdom from them and give it to His church.

Thoughts: Here, an estate owner sends a group of servants to his tenants to collect his portion of the harvest – even though his tenants had killed at least two of his servants on a previous occasion. When I read this passage, I was bewildered by his decision. After that initial act of violence, why did he fail to summon armed guards to evict his tenants? Was he unaware of the fact that his servants had been killed? Did he view this initial act of violence as a mere fluke? Did he assume that his tenants were ready to confess their sins? One thought is that he was presenting his tenants with a choice: they could either 1) reform their ways or 2) persist in their sinfulness. When they selected the latter option, they actually provided further justification for his decision to evict them from his land – and lease it to others.

We also see that those who try to harm Christ will either 1) stumble over Him or 2) be broken to pieces. As modern-day believers, we know that the false doctrine of many cults consists of an incorrect view of His Person and work; thus, He will “crush” these cult members. Yet this passage should also challenge us; do we also “stumble over” Him? For example, when we hear His calling to “love your enemies” and “do not judge others,” can we actually obey Him in this regard? Perhaps we are in danger of “stumbling over” Him; if this is the case, then we need to approach this passage with humility, asking Him to truly – and painfully – cleanse us.

The Parable of the Two Sons August 5, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 21:28-32.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus states that His kingdom can be represented by a father who asks his two sons to work in his vineyard. The first son initially rejects this request – yet he subsequently goes to the vineyard. The second son initially accepts this request – yet he never goes to the vineyard.

When the Jewish leaders assert that only the first son obeyed his father, Jesus declares that they are like the second son; while they declare their obedience to God, they fail to obey Him. In contrast, the rebels of society are like the first son; while they initially reject God, they will subsequently obey Him.

This point is borne out in the diametrically opposed responses of these two groups to the righteous words and deeds of John the Baptist.

Thoughts: Here, Jesus condemns the Jewish leaders for their hypocrisy, as their outward profession of faith is invalidated by their inward sinfulness. After I read through this passage, I believe that I can identify with the second son in this parable, at least to some extent. I regularly declare that I will obey God, especially when I sing praise songs in church on Sundays. Yet during these worship services, I tend to mull over the song lyrics, wondering if my deeds – especially during the rest of the week – match my words. In those moments, I sense that I cannot achieve a desired level of consistency between my words and my deeds. Perhaps I should be encouraged by the fact that I am aware of my shortcomings in this regard, as I am humbled by them – enabling God to work through my weaknesses.

The Yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees May 25, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 16:5-12.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus and His disciples return to the Decapolis. The disciples have failed to make arrangements in terms of food – and Jesus uses this opportunity to exhort them to shift their focus from physical needs to spiritual needs. In particular, they must shun the evil influence of the external religion of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The disciples fail to comprehend this exhortation; thus, He reminds them of two instances where He met their physical needs. In light of this, they should focus on spiritual needs.

Thoughts: Here, we see that Jesus exhorts His disciples to reject the words and deeds of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Ryle offers some thoughts on this point:

Some want to add to the Gospel, and some want to take away from it; some would bury it and some would pare it down to nothing; some would stifle it by heaping on additions, and some would bleed it to death by subtraction from its truths. Both parties agree only in one respect: both would kill and destroy the life of Christianity if they succeeded in having their own way. Against both errors let us watch and pray.

Of course, one must determine the entirety of the Gospel to answer the following question: are others attempting to add to it or subtract from it, and if so, how? I would assert that the Five Solas constitute the entirety of the Gospel, but that is debatable (e.g. the phrases “grace alone” and “faith alone” often yield divisions between Catholics and Protestants). Some may advance arguments that are clearly heretical (e.g. they deny the dual nature of Christ), but others may advance arguments that are difficult to assess (e.g. they believe that the Holy Spirit still dispenses charismatic gifts). Truly we need God’s guidance in:

  • making our best effort to discern truth from error
  • placing unresolved issues in His hands.

The Demand for a Sign May 20, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 16:1-4.

Summary: In this passage, Jesus returns to Jewish territory, where His enemies attempt to publicly discredit Him.

Jesus responds by asserting that while they are experts in physical matters, they are mere dilettantes in spiritual matters. Moreover, since they have abandoned God, He has abandoned them.

Thoughts: Here, we see that Jesus reiterates the point that He made in Matthew 12:39. Ryle offers some thoughts on this point:

This repetition shows us that our Lord was in the habit of saying the same things over again. He did not content himself with saying a thing once, and then never repeat it. It is evident that it was his custom to bring forward certain truths again and again, and so impress them more deeply on the minds of his disciples.

When I work through an inductive Bible study, I highlight recurring words and phrases, as they usually facilitate my search for the central point of the passage at hand. Indeed, recurring words and phrases reveal points of emphasis for the original audience of a particular passage. Perhaps this principle can be applied in other settings. For example, do praise songs contain recurring words, phrases or themes? Does your pastor emphasize certain points in their sermons? I should note that while applying this principle enables us to comprehend what God is saying to us, we still need to put His words into practice – and that is where I continue to struggle.

Clean and Unclean May 11, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 15:1-20.

Summary: In this passage, representatives of the Jewish religious establishment accuse Jesus’ disciples of violating religious tradition regarding washings. Yet He dismisses their accusation – and accuses them of violating the command in Scripture to revere their parents; He reminds them that those who violate this command are subject to capital punishment. In particular, they have introduced the selfish tradition of corban – thereby fulfilling a prophecy in Isaiah 29:13.

He then calls those whom He has healed from the countryside of Gennesaret and asserts that defilement is a spiritual – not physical – issue. Indeed, if the inner self is defiled, then the entire person is defiled.

Thoughts: In verses 16-20, Jesus explains the assertion that He made in verse 11. I must admit that when I read through this passage, I had a haughty attitude toward the disciples, assuming that they were incapable of comprehending His teaching regarding defilement. Upon further reflection, though, I cannot claim that I would have comprehended His teaching at that time, as His assertion challenged Jewish orthodoxy. Indeed, I am not an iconoclast; I tend to dismiss any assertions that challenge dogma, including:

  • the Earth is only about six thousand years old
  • Lee Harvey Oswald was assisted by domestic and/or foreign enemies of President Kennedy
  • P = NP.

Ideally, one would be open-minded when confronted with such assertions; in practice, though, we dismiss them and indulge our biases.

Here, we see that Jesus exhorts His followers to resist – and forsake – false teachers. Ryle offers some thoughts on this point:

No fear of giving offense, no dread of ecclesiastical censure, should make us hold our peace when God’s truth is in peril. If we are true followers of our Lord, we ought to be outspoken, unflinching witnesses against error…No false delicacy, no mock humility should make us shrink from leaving the teaching of any minister who contradicts God’s Word.

I suppose that I obey this command by not attending any church with a statement of faith that contradicts the Five Solas. Yet I do not confront false teachers – or those who subscribe to false doctrine. This stems from my:

  • tendency to avoid conflict
  • belief that arguments are often unproductive.

That being said, perhaps this blog is a form of resistance to false teachers. I hope to continue to use it to promote correct doctrine and practice.

The Sign of Jonah March 31, 2018

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Here are my thoughts on Matthew 12:38-45.

Summary: In this passage, several experts in the Jewish law ask Jesus for a supernatural proof of His identity as the Messiah. He responds by stating that He will only provide one supernatural proof of His identity to them: He will die and rise again in three days – just as Jonah was trapped in the belly of a fish for three days. Indeed, they will be condemned by:

  • the Ninevites, who repented of their sins when Jonah provided them with a supernatural proof of his identity as a messenger from God – and He is greater than Jonah
  • the Queen of Sheba, who acknowledged the wisdom of Solomon – and He is greater than Solomon.

He concludes by condemning them for promoting external reformation in lieu of internal reformation based on the Gospel message.

Thoughts: Here, we see that Jesus warns his audience about the dangers of external reformation in lieu of internal reformation. This is a valuable reminder of the importance of a valid motive for performing good deeds. Indeed, we see that the only valid motive in this regard is a desire to worship God: He has initiated a gracious plan of salvation that applies to us, and so we are compelled to respond to His act of initiation with deeds of thankfulness. This does raise the following question: does God actually detest acts of kindness that are performed by unbelievers? If an unbeliever wants to “make the world a better place” and participates in relief and development projects in a Third World country, how does He view their efforts? One thought is that He seeks to glorify Himself through their efforts, though this is just speculation on my part.