The rich texture of atonement (Matthew 18:23–35)

There’s more than one model of atonement in the pages of the New Testament.

I’ve never liked the oboe. Clarinets are agile and joyful. Saxophones are versatile and soulful. An oboe sounds mournful, a bruised reed, a blanket of grief. Yet even an oboe can contribute its mellow hues to an orchestral arrangement. Who can forget the haunting tones of Gabriel’s Oboe?

Atonement is as rich and polyphonic as a symphony. At its heart, to atone is to make at-one. God reconciles the world to himself, and that ultimately makes us at-one with each other.

But when we press in to how atonement works, we cannot reduce it to a single instrument. Like light reflected from a multifaceted diamond, atonement has many angles in the New Testament.

For example:

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And if I don’t forgive? (Matthew 18:35)

How will God treat us if we don’t forgive?

Jesus gives a single-sentence explanation of his parable about the unforgiving servant:

Matthew 18:35 (my translation, compare NIV)
“And that’s how my heavenly Father will treat you [plural], unless you each release your brother or sister from your hearts.”

Now we know who’s who in this story, and how they relate:

  • The king is God — my heavenly Father.
  • The servants are you (plural) — the kingdom of the king.
  • The Son of the sovereign (implied by my heavenly Father) teaches kingdom ethics.
  • The Son counts the servants as family — brothers and sisters.
  • Counting offences (verse 21) doesn’t count as forgiving from the heart.

Most unsettling is the way Jesus presents his Father. God is like a king who in anger handed him over to the torturers (verse 34), and that’s how my Heavenly Father will treat you. Disturbing?

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When forgiveness outweighs repayment (Matthew 18:23–35)

Should people pay for their mistakes, or is it better to let them off the hook? Which works best in the long-term? Jesus had an opinion about that.

What thoughts spring to mind when you read forgiveness in the Bible? If your first thought is personal guilt and asking for salvation, you may struggle with the stories of Jesus, where it sounds like salvation is contingent on your works. It might make more sense to read them as stories about corporate restoration.

This one is about the kind of kingdom our king expects to run, how he expects his servants to represent him in his realm.

Jesus’ story

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Three decrees that gave Christ authority (Psalm 110)

How much of Psalm 110 did Jesus have in mind when he quoted the first verse?

Psalm 110 proclaims three edicts from heaven that reconfigure authority on earth. Jesus quoted the first, and that was enough to silence his opponents (Matthew 22:41-46). The second would have put them in an unenviable position. And the third would have been too frightening to face.

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Matthew’s Gospel: outline and summary

A survey of the Gospel of Matthew, of how Christ received his reign.

How do the pieces fit together? With my grandson, we started with a stack of Lego pieces, followed 48 pages of instruction, and finally saw what we set out to see: the assembled car.

Larger books of the Bible can feel like that. You start reading the verses, to understand the paragraphs, and the chapters, and the sections, and eventually you get the big picture, how the whole story fits together.

So here’s a brief guide to Matthew’s Gospel, a simple outline distilled from 5 years of processing and pondering the details, meditations that could fill two books (275 posts). From opening statement (anointed son of David) to closing declaration (all authority in heaven and earth, with the nations being instructed as he commands), Matthew’s message is how heaven’s anointed became earth’s king.

This is how Matthew traces the good news of Jesus as the one who restores heaven’s reign to earth:

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Olivet Discourse: temple and king (Matthew 24)

Whatever your views about end times, here’s a way to hear Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 within the temple-versus-kingship conflict that is its context.

Open Matthew 24.

“Signs of the end” is the heading in many versions of Matthew 24, and there are almost as many interpretations as there are interpreters. That’s the irony of eschatology: we tend to divide over something God intends to bring us together in Christ.

So, I’m writing cautiously, not wanting to contribute to the division. I’m not about to fit the Olivet Discourse onto world events of our day. Can we agree together that the starting point for understanding Matthew 24 must be its context in Matthew’s Gospel?

Matthew’s message is that Jesus is the Messiah. The temple leaders didn’t see it that way. The conflict of kingship and temple escalates with Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem, culminating in his crucifixion and resurrection. As our previous post showed, the temple/kingship conflict forms the framework of Matthew 21–28, including Chapter 24.

Listening from this position, we hear the Olivet Discourse with a clarity any audiophile would love, the counterpoint of temple and kingship.

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Two powers (Matthew 21–28)

Kings and priests were both anointed in the OT. How does this conflict of powers play out in Matthews’ Gospel? It goes to the heart of his explanation of the cross.

Once you realize the gospel is the good news of the kingdom (with Jesus as the anointed king), you see how the latter part of Matthew’s Gospel is the conflict of the two positions anointed by God: high priesthood and kingship. Matthew 21–28 chronicles the outworking of that clash.

Anticipating the conflict (Matthew 1–20)

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The message of Mark’s Gospel (podcast)

Mark’s Gospel reveals two things about Jesus:

  • his identity (chapters 1–8)
  • his mission (chapters 8–16)

The pivot point is Peter’s declaration of Jesus’ identity (Mark 8:29). Immediately Jesus turns our attention to how Messiah’s mission will play out — his role and our role in his mission.

This 25-minute podcast traces the laser-sharp focus of the shortest Gospel. Recorded at Riverview Joondalup 2022-03-13.

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Our king’s great commission (Matthew 28:16–20)

The Cyrus connection gives us accurate aim for the Great Commission.

“Great Commission” is the label we use for Matthew’s closing paragraph. Raised from tomb to throne, the Christ commissioned his followers to train the nations in his enduring presence.

The Old Testament also ended with a great commission in the Hebrew Bible. Chronicles was the final book of the Writings (after the Law and Prophets), so this is how the story of God’s reign ended before Christ:

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The message of Matthew’s Gospel (podcast)

What is the main thing Matthew says about Jesus, from the first verse to the last?

What message was Jesus proclaiming? Why was he doing the things he did?

Is the Sermon on the Mount best understood as a sermon? Remarkably, it said it didn’t sound like a sermon — more like an address from someone in authority.

How do the parables reveal the way Jesus expected the kingdom to come?

Why didn’t he explain who was king? How does he become king when in the capital there are people who believe they represent God’s authority?

Why did he die on the cross? What statement was God making when he raised him from the dead?

These are the questions Matthew addresses in his Gospel account. We follow Matthew’s main message in this 27-minute podcast, recorded at Riverview Joondalup 2022-03-06.
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But his enemies are still here (Matthew 28:11-15)

If Christ is risen and reigning, why are we still suffering?

Why does Matthew interrupt the good news to tell us about a lie?

He was on a roll, describing Jesus’ victory over death. Risen. Reigning. Leading from the front like a shepherd. Authorizing angels to break death’s seal, to roll back the stone, to reveal the empty tomb. Then the risen king himself confirmed their commission and called them to the king’s council in Galilee.

So, why interrupt this climactic story of the Gospel to tell us the lie about the disciples stealing the body? There must be something here we really need to know.

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Risen and reigning (Matthew 28:1-10)

God’s government arrived with an empty tomb.

I doubt any of Jesus’ followers could sleep after his crucifixion. The men kept a low profile, fearing for their lives. If the leader had been crucified, what would they do to his followers? Their best chance was blending into the crowds returning to Galilee when the festival was over.

The women had watched from a distance (27:55). Those horror scenes would haunt them. Sleepless in Jerusalem, they rose while darkness still enveloped them to make their way to the only thing they had left: a tomb. The tombs of the prophets enshrined Jerusalem’s tragedies.

What they found

This tomb had been disturbed. It was no longer the final resting place they had watched as Jesus was buried (27:61). The tomb’s mouth gaped open. The stone was rolled to one side. And someone was sitting on the stone: not a gardener or a guard, a messenger in a glistening white uniform.

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Guarding the dead (Matthew 27:55–66)

Burial is a sign of respect. Even today in the Middle East, there’s an urgency to burying someone, not leaving them unburied (Deuteronomy 21:23). As Jesus was crucified on Friday of Passover week, no one wanted his body lying around during one of the holiest Sabbaths of the year.

So, the burial was a very public affair that many observed, including:

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The death that shook the world (Matthew 27:51-54)

The dead came out of the tombs? What was Matthew saying?

Death feels so final. God did not intervene to prevent Jesus’ death. As I read Matthew, I feel I need time to absorb the enormity of this tragedy, to process the loss, to grieve at the injustice, to feel the familiar futility of a world where God’s anointed falls.

Matthew doesn’t pause. He hurtles on with disjointed details from a turbulent timeline, confusing our grief:

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Jesus’ dying question: Why have you abandoned me? (Matthew 27:45–51)

Jesus wasn’t losing his faith; he was losing his life, and talking to his Father about it.

The final words of the crucified king in Matthew are these: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? What did he mean?

Is this the dark night of the soul, the road ending in utter despair, all his hopes dying with him? Or should we ignore his emotion and seek a theological reason, like Jesus took on the sin of the world so his Father couldn’t stand him and rejected him? Was the trinity falling apart if Father and Son split up? Did Jesus lose his faith in the end? People raise all kinds of questions to try to make sense of Jesus’ cry of dereliction. Few of those ideas are supported by the context.

These words are not unique to Jesus. He was repeating the words of others who felt abandoned too. These are the opening words of Psalm 22. If you’ve ever found comfort in the words of the Psalms as you faced abusive treatment, you’ll understand what Jesus was doing.

That’s the irony. He feels abandoned, forsaken, cast aside by God. But he’s not alone with that feeling. It’s how the people of God have felt for centuries. It’s the unresolved story of his people, the anguish of their history and songs.

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The meaning of the cross (Matthew 27:32–44)

Why does Matthew tell the story of the cross as he does? Should we have the same emphasis when we talk about the cross?

There are so many ways to talk about the cross, the centre of our faith. So, why does Matthew tell the story of the cross the way he does? Does he have a consistent message? What is it?

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What the mocking reveals (Matthew 27:27–31)

Why do the Gospel writers describe the mockery of Jesus if their aim is to promote him?

What makes a king? Is it the coronation event, that special day when people lead you to the palace, dress you in regal robes, place a crown on your head and a sceptre in your hand, and perform the formal speech act of declaring you to be king?

Matthew describes a mock enthronement where Roman soldiers crown a condemned man to parody the powerlessness of his people. What I want to know is why the evangelists include this scornful humiliation, this parody of worship, if they’re seeking to promote Jesus.

Is there something in this story that reframes how we view power?

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