How Jesus explained the cross (Matthew 20:17-19)

Could we explain the gospel as Jesus did?

Why did Jesus die on the cross?

Many of my friends would say he needed to die for me, in my place, for my sins. That’s called substitutionary atonement, and it’s one of the explanations of the cross found in Scripture. But it’s not the primary way Jesus understood his crucifixion.

Here’s how Jesus described the cross:

Continue reading “How Jesus explained the cross (Matthew 20:17-19)”

Working in God’s vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

Why did all workers get the same wage?

Many of Jesus’ stories are about our relationship with God. As humans, we have such a privileged vocation — working with and for our heavenly sovereign in his earthly realm.

That’s the background for this parable:
Matthew 20:1 For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. (NIV)

Earth is a kingdom of heaven, for “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Exodus 9:29; Psalm 24:1). Since the nations were no longer serving their true sovereign, God planted Israel as his vineyard, but they had not produced the harvest God intended either (Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:8-16).

In Jesus’ story, the property owner never gave up on his original goal. The emphasis falls on his effort seeking people who would work for him: early morning (20:1), mid-morning (20:3), midday (20:5), mid-afternoon (20:5), and late in the day (20:6). That’s keen insight into what it’s been like for God to have earth as his kingdom.

Continue reading “Working in God’s vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)”

Son of man enthroned (Matthew 19:27-30)

What was Jesus seeing when he envisaged thrones for himself and his disciples?

We recognize the kingdom of God by recognizing Jesus as king. That may not be obvious, because Jesus constantly proclaimed God’s kingship without overtly claiming to be king. Only when heaven had revealed his kingship did Jesus begin to reveal his plan to build the community around his kingship (16:16-19).

In fact, he doesn’t mention his throne until his disciples start to question whether Jesus can deliver what he promised. He floored them by declaring that the powerful would kill him (16:20-22; 17:22-23). He devastated them by describing the wealthy as a humanly impossible problem for his kingdom agenda (19:23-26). They start to wonder if pinning their hopes on Jesus to lead them into the regenerated world was worth it.

Continue reading “Son of man enthroned (Matthew 19:27-30)”

The camel that won’t go through (Matthew 19:23-26)

How do you get a camel to go through the eye of a needle?

This is one of Jesus’ most puzzling statements: It is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than to get a wealthy person to go into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 16:24).

When you understand how Jesus saw the kingdom, you see what crucial insight he had. Without that understanding, people contort the camel and the text in ways that would be comic if they weren’t serious.

Continue reading “The camel that won’t go through (Matthew 19:23-26)”

When ‘good’ leads you to ‘great’ (Matthew 19:16-22)

Conditions apply.

A millennial entrepreneur comes to you, bank details ready, asking “What good thing could I do so I could have eternal life?” How do you respond?

You’re probably looking for a seeker-friendly way to respond, “Goodness! It doesn’t work like that. You can’t earn God’s favour by doing something good.” You probably don’t say, “Live like God says; he’s good.”

Apart from the obvious problem of suggesting anyone could earn eternal life by obeying commands, a vague answer like “Do what God says” is unsatisfying for a project manager used to SMART goals. Their next question will be, “Like what?”

They will be really frustrated, insulted even, if you go on to explain the basics of being a good person: “Don’t kill anyone. Don’t sleep with someone else’s spouse. Don’t defraud your business. Don’t commit perjury in court. Take care of your parents, and your neighbours.”

Okay, this story probably isn’t working for you. You can’t even imagine having this conversation. You would not give the answers Jesus did:

Continue reading “When ‘good’ leads you to ‘great’ (Matthew 19:16-22)”

Original kingdom, or original sin? (Matthew 19:14)

What do you see when you look at people?

When you look at people, what do you see? Original sin, or original kingdom?

Since at least the fourth century, theologians have described the essential human state as original sin. Adam and Eve lost their pure identity and become corrupt, so the children they produced received their corrupted nature. Their children passed on this corrupted nature, so every human is already corrupted at birth. On this view, the whole of humanity is corrupt: conceived in sin, sinful by nature at birth, forever doomed, unless God does a work of grace to change an individual’s status.

But that doesn’t match what Jesus saw in people. The disciples thought people were pestering Jesus, so they stepped in to triage and divert the less significant ones: the children. Jesus said they were seeing the children the wrong way. Literally translated, Jesus described the children like this: The kingdom of heaven is such (Matthew 19:14).

That’s a very different view of what it means to be human.

Continue reading “Original kingdom, or original sin? (Matthew 19:14)”

How Jesus saw children (Matthew 19:13-15)

Jesus genuinely enjoyed children with their wide-eyed wonder. Do you see as Jesus saw?

In church, people often worry about how to get our children saved. Some who baptize babies fear the infant will die in original sin if they don’t. Others who think faith means making a personal decision wrestle with how old a child must be to recognize her lostness and ask for salvation so she doesn’t die unsaved.

Jesus didn’t see children like that. He wasn’t anxious about whether they’d go to heaven when they died. He saw heaven coming to earth in them, the kingdom of heaven in the children:

Continue reading “How Jesus saw children (Matthew 19:13-15)”

Handling Scripture as Jesus did (Matthew 19:4-9)

Why did Jesus privilege some parts above others?

Disciples learn by seeing what the Master does. I especially enjoy seeing how Jesus handled Scripture (hermeneutics). Surprisingly, he privileged some parts above others.

When they asked him about applying Deuteronomy 24 (divorce law), Jesus said this isn’t what God always intended. It was a concession God gave them, because of hard hearts. He led them back to the beginning of the story (Genesis 1–2) to discover what God had always intended.

Many things in Scripture are like that — not God’s ideal. He’s managing broken people, and he has the sense to lead us step by step, not demanding everything from us at once. God accommodates flawed heroes and flawed relationships, on the way to restoring what he intended in the beginning.

Can you think of other examples where we could apply this hermeneutic?

Continue reading “Handling Scripture as Jesus did (Matthew 19:4-9)”

Can I have a divorce? (Matthew 19:1-12)

Have you experienced divorce as an adult, or as a child? In your family, or a friends’ family? It’s heart-rending. Your world is ripped apart. In the time of your deepest need, you find family and friends turning away.

That’s why it’s so confronting when religious people use it to impute guilt and failure. It wasn’t something Jesus raised as part of his kingdom agenda. Judean Pharisees used it to paint Jesus as an idealist out of step with Scripture:

Matthew 19:1–3 (NIV)
1 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

As they said, it was the man who held the power in the ancient world. Jewish legal code gave the woman some rights, insisting she receive a formal divorce document rather then being dumped with no status or opportunity. It also banned temporary divorce, so a man couldn’t try someone else and then return.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 proscribed the how of divorce, but not the when. That left the rabbis arguing over the grounds for divorce. Rabbi Hillel supported divorce for any reason, whereas Rabbi Shammai supported divorce only if the marriage was already ruined by adultery. The Pharisees tried to draw Jesus into this debate. They weren’t asking if divorce was okay, since their law was clear about that. The question was when divorce is okay: only when one party has already wrecked the marriage (Shammai’s view), or for any reason (Hillel’s view)?

Instead of arguing the grounds for divorce in Deuteronomy 24, Jesus redirected them to the grounds for marriage in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24:

Continue reading “Can I have a divorce? (Matthew 19:1-12)”

Forgiveness: reciprocated or rescinded (Matthew 18:23-35)

Does God ever back out on forgiving us?

Did you hear the one about the guy who received forgiveness, and then lost it?

Some of Jesus’ stories don’t sit well with how we understand the gospel. I often hear salvation offered as a free gift: admit you’re a sinner, ask for forgiveness, and receive the gift of eternal life. You pray the prayer, and they assure you that you’re saved, because God promised it and wouldn’t lie.

But Jesus told a story where the unforgiving guy had his forgiveness rescinded. Unnerving?

Continue reading “Forgiveness: reciprocated or rescinded (Matthew 18:23-35)”

The king is in community (Matthew 18:18-20)

How does the world discover her king? In the community that recognizes him.

How does heaven’s reign come to earth? We’re meant to be a kingdom of heaven, so how is heaven’s authority restored to the earth? The kingdom becomes our living reality as people recognize Jesus as heaven’s anointed king, the Son with his Father’s authority.

Continue reading “The king is in community (Matthew 18:18-20)”

How far do you push for reconciliation? (Matthew 18:15-17)

How do you solve injustice? Fight? Flight? Is there a better way?

How much effort do you put into maintaining relationships? When people cause you grief, do you confront them and have it out? Do you apologize even if it wasn’t your fault? Or do you let them go, and move on?

Matthew 18:15-17 (original translation, compare NIV)
15 If one of the family wrongs you, go and confront them, just the two of you on your own. If they hear you, you’ve gained your family member. 16 If they do not hear you, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘any statement can be established by the voice of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If the person disregards them, speak to the assembly. If they disregard the assembly, let them be a gentile or tax collector for you personally.

Continue reading “How far do you push for reconciliation? (Matthew 18:15-17)”

The shepherd’s heart (Matthew 18:12-14)

The Shepherd is less likely to blame the sheep than we are.

As established in the beginning, the kingdom of God consists of the whole earth under heaven’s management, with humans as God’s agents providing his care to the rest of creation.  How we care for the animals is therefore a great analogy for how God cares for us:

Matthew 18:12-14 (original translation, compare NIV)
12 What do you think? Say someone had a hundred sheep, and one was misled from the others. Wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hills, head off, and search for the misled one? 13 And if it can be found, I tell you truly that his joy over this one is greater than over the ninety-nine that were not misled. 14 None of those who gather around your Father in the heavens want any of these little ones to come to ruin.

This is God’s heart for the whole human family. Neither the Sovereign himself nor any of the angels who gather around his throne and read in his face how he feels when humans mistreat each other (18:10) want any of God’s children to come to harm.

Continue reading “The shepherd’s heart (Matthew 18:12-14)”

Are we worse off if we live unselfishly? (Matthew 18:7-10)

Enacting legislation doesn’t stop evil; enacting love does.

If you enjoy renovation projects, you’ll love the big one our king is working on. A complete global make-over, restoring the world to the glory of what it was designed to be: a kingdom of heaven. What will be different when he succeeds?

At its heart, it’s a change in how people use power. People do whatever it takes to eliminate their competition. Jesus experienced it (16:21; 17:22). He calls us to use our strength to support each other as we do for children, instead of taking advantage of each other and trying to trip each other up (18:3-6). But how?

Continue reading “Are we worse off if we live unselfishly? (Matthew 18:7-10)”

Don’t fall for repaying evil with evil (Matthew 18:6)

Jesus was never violent. So why would he talk about drowning, amputating limbs, and burning people alive?

Matthew 18:6 (original translation, compare NIV)
But anyone who trips up one of these little ones — those who place their trust in me — would be better off with a donkey’s millstone around their neck, drowned at the bottom of the sea.

Yes, it’s about justice. But we need to be very clear about what question Jesus is responding to, the nature of the injustice, and how justice is restored.

Continue reading “Don’t fall for repaying evil with evil (Matthew 18:6)”

How to receive Christ (Matthew 18:1-5)

How do we receive Christ? For Catholics, it happens at the mass: eating Christ’s body is receiving him. For Baptists, it’s the moment of personal decision: inviting Christ into my heart is receiving him. For Jesus:

Matthew 18 Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me. (ESV)

Okay, that’ll mess up our theology. 🙂 What was Jesus saying? Continue reading “How to receive Christ (Matthew 18:1-5)”

Jesus did refer to himself as a king (Matthew 17:22-27)

If death and taxes are the only certainties, you don’t want to offend those who charge taxes. Taxation was not part of the created order. In the beginning, God only gave humans authority over the other creatures — fish of the sea, birds of the sky, animals and insects of the land (Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 8 etc).

So, there’s something seriously wrong when representatives from the temple expect tribute from God’s anointed king:

Matthew 17:22-25 (original translation, compare NIV)
22 Travelling back to Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The son of man is about to be handed over to the hands of men. 23 They’ll kill him, and on the third day he will be raised up.” They were deeply grieved.

24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter: “Your teacher pays the temple tax, doesn’t he?”

25 “Yes,” Peter said.

Peter didn’t even stop to think. He’d seen Jesus pay the temple tax each year.

But something is different this year. Peter just declared Jesus to be God’s anointed king (Christ), the Son appointed to rule the earth by his Father in heaven (16:16). And Jesus explained that the temple leaders in Jerusalem will kill him (16:21; 17:23).

Peter needs to stop and think. Why should God’s anointed king pay tribute to the rebels? Continue reading “Jesus did refer to himself as a king (Matthew 17:22-27)”

Son of man: suffering king (Matthew 16:21–17:23)

The true king takes on his people’s suffering.

Why did Jesus call himself son of man? Here’s a clue: in the Synoptic Gospels, the vast majority of occurrences (78%) are after Peter calls him the Christ. Jesus has used the phrase previously in relation to his authority, but mostly he uses it once they recognize him as God’s anointed ruler. I think the phrase son of man contains a paradox he wanted them to understand. Continue reading “Son of man: suffering king (Matthew 16:21–17:23)”

The gospel revelation (Matthew 16:16-18)

The “gospel of the kingdom” expects God to reveal who is king.

The biggest reason we struggle to understand what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God” was the way he presented it. He kept on about the kingdom, without claiming to be king. And if you don’t see Jesus as the king, you don’t see the kingdom. Continue reading “The gospel revelation (Matthew 16:16-18)”