Infecting the world with good (Matthew 13:33)

How is the kingdom of heaven like a woman baking bread?

Open Matthew 13:33.

There’s nothing like the smell of fresh bread in the morning. Flour, water, and yeast go in the bread maker in the evening, and in the morning the aroma of fresh bread helps you rise to a new day.

We have it so easy. Back in Jesus’ day they kneaded the dough by hand, kept aside some sourdough as leaven for tomorrow, waited for it to rise, punched it down again, waited some more, and then built a fire to bake it.

Jesus told a story about a woman who must have been baking for a party. She took her leaven and hid it in three big 8 kilogram batches of flour. How on earth is the heaven’s kingdom like that? Continue reading “Infecting the world with good (Matthew 13:33)”

The little seed that filled the world (Matthew 13:31-32)

Open Matthew 13:31-32.

A few years back, our film crew sent this email from Israel:

Dear Allen. We’re trying to film a mustard tree, but our guide says mustard seeds only grow to be shrubs. We got some great shots of the mustard seeds, but now we’re stuck. Any ideas?

They were talking about these words from Jesus: Continue reading “The little seed that filled the world (Matthew 13:31-32)”

What about the weeds in God’s world? (Matthew 13:24-43)

How can God allow good and evil to coexist and not sort it out?

Open Matthew 13:24-43.

Jesus told some funny stories. The farmhands find weeds in the wheat field, so they ask if they should pull out the weeds. The farmer says, “I sowed good seed, so our enemy must have come and planted the weeds while we were all asleep.” Never in my life have I met a farmer who would jump to that conclusion!

Even funnier is the farmer’s response, “Nah! Leave all the plants growing in the field. We’ll sort them out at harvest time. If I let you lot pull out the weeds, you’ll pull out some of my wheat as well.”

There is no way Jesus could get a position at agricultural college if he gives that advice to his students. Why would he dream up such a story?

Continue reading “What about the weeds in God’s world? (Matthew 13:24-43)”

Calling all creatives (Matthew 13:10-17)

Why did Jesus teach in parables? Can his method inspire artists today?

Open Matthew 13:10-17. and Isaiah 6:9-10

Creatives know the struggle. How overt do you make your art? Do you feed people facts to change their minds, knowing the facts will drown in the data swamp? Do you inspire people with the seeds of what’s possible, knowing that most people won’t grasp your meaning?

There was a time I wished the Bible told it plainly. Just spell out what I must do instead of all that story and poetry. I was wrong, and Jesus knew it.

Jesus constantly went out on a limb, choosing the creative extreme. Not even his close friends understood his stories at times.

One day, they confronted him, “Why do you speak in parables?” Did you expect a straight answer? Here’s what he said:

Continue reading “Calling all creatives (Matthew 13:10-17)”

Who was the sower? (Matthew 13:1-23)

What’s the point of the sower parable? Is it about the soils, the seed, or the sower?

Open Matthew 13:1-23.

So what do you make of the sower parable? Is it a challenge to respond the way the good soil did? Don’t be like the hard path, or the shallow ground, or where things crowd out the word?

That’s okay as far as it goes, but it wasn’t what Jesus was saying. When he explained the parable, he didn’t say, “You are the soils, so make sure you’re the good one.” It wasn’t about you. It wasn’t even about the soils, although that was the setting of the story. The parable was about the sower and his sowing.

Continue reading “Who was the sower? (Matthew 13:1-23)”

Parables of the king (Matthew 13)

What’s a parable, and why did Jesus use them?

Open Matthew 13.

Like an otter, but with a bill like a duck. If you don’t know what a platypus is, comparisons can help.

Even if you do know what something is, comparisons change how you think of it. “Listening to gossip is like eating cheap candy; do you really want junk like that in your belly?” (Proverbs 18:8 Msg).

Jesus was famous for his parables, similitudes that describe one thing as like another. Sometimes the comparison was a single sentence; other times he spun a yarn with intrigue.

Matthew pulls seven or eight of his parables together in chapter 13. They’re drawn from everyday life: farming, baking, gardening, buying, selling, fishing, entertaining. But they’re all about the same thing. Can you guess? Continue reading “Parables of the king (Matthew 13)”

Belonging to the royal family (Matthew 12:46-50)

If the king says so, you have a place in his family.

Open Matthew 12:46-50.

Joseph was absent from Jesus’ adult life, so responsibility for the family fell to the oldest son. Jesus was firstborn, but he’d been travelling instead of looking after his family.

Suddenly they turn up: Continue reading “Belonging to the royal family (Matthew 12:46-50)”

Worse off with Jesus? (Matthew 12:43-45)

Can a generation be worse off if it refuses to follow Jesus?

Open Matthew 12:43-45.

Jesus’ contemporaries called him Satan’s servant — one who pretended to release people, but actually made their oppression worse (12:24). After pointing out the flaws in their logic (12:25-29), he offered them a royal pardon for their insult. But he warned that they would have no release if they resisted God’s Holy Spirit (12:31-32).

He went on to describe how their situation would worsen if they rejected his leadership. Listen to this parable: Continue reading “Worse off with Jesus? (Matthew 12:43-45)”

Jesus’ most overt kingship claim (Matthew 12:42)

Did you know that Jesus claimed to be greater than the greatest king Israel had ever had?

Open Matthew 12:42 and 2 Chronicles 9.

Jesus was the king anointed to restore God’s reign on earth. That message was often so subtle that we miss it, but there was this time when he made an astounding claim to kingship. Continue reading “Jesus’ most overt kingship claim (Matthew 12:42)”

How Jonah inspired Jesus (Matthew 12:38-41)

How did Jonah’s story help Jesus pursue his mission?

Open Matthew 12:38-41 and Jonah 2.

Why did Jesus compare himself to Jonah? How could Jonah’s story have inspired Jesus and helped him understand his mission? Continue reading “How Jonah inspired Jesus (Matthew 12:38-41)”

You say more than you realize (Matthew 12:34-37)

Our words reveal more about us than we intend.

Open Matthew 12:30-32.

Hang on. Can this be the same Jesus who “wouldn’t hurt a bruised reed” (12: 20)?

Children of vipers! How can you say anything good when you’re evil? (Matthew 12:34)

What happened to, “Judge not” (7:1)? Continue reading “You say more than you realize (Matthew 12:34-37)”

Why does context matter? (Matthew 12:33)

Fruitful conversations have a context. That’s how language works.

Open Matthew 12:33.

When your spouse says, “Can we eat out tonight?” what they mean depends on the context.

Perhaps you’re both dog tired, and all you want is a fresh roll from Subway before you fall asleep. But if the kids are sleeping over with friends tonight, it might mean, “I’d like some quality time with you.” Or perhaps what they mean is, “Did you remember it’s our anniversary? I’d like to celebrate our life together.”

We all know that meaning depends on context. When you’re close to someone, sharing the same context, it’s easier to pick up on what they’re saying. It is harder when the message comes from a different culture, through another language, from a bygone era, the way the Bible does. Yes, it’s harder work to hear the message as the people in that culture and time would have heard it. But it’s so worth it!

Novelists and script writers give us context to make sense of what their characters say. A good biographer takes you through the person’s words into the meaning of their life.

So we’re not making any special claim about the Bible when we ask you to hear what it’s saying in context. We’re very likely to misunderstand its message and misuse it if we ignore the context. Because that’s true of language in general, it’s true of the Bible too.

Let’s take an example. What do you think Jesus meant by this?

Continue reading “Why does context matter? (Matthew 12:33)”

What’s the unforgivable sin? (Matthew 12:30-32)

Ever worried you’ve committed the unpardonable sin?

Open Matthew 12:30-32.

You’re a baptized follower of Jesus, but you’ve blown it. Like, really blown it. Have you messed up your one chance to be saved? Have you committed the unpardonable sin? This question has troubled believers for 2000 years.

Are some sins unforgivable? How about these words from Jesus: Continue reading “What’s the unforgivable sin? (Matthew 12:30-32)”

Out of darkness (Matthew 12:22-29)

We recognize oppression, but where’s the liberation?

Open Matthew 12:22-29.

Any closed system, left to itself, runs down. Entropy is a law of nature. You don’t have to do anything for dust to build up in your house or for your garden to fall into disorder.

But earth is not a closed system. Enormous amounts of energy arrive from the sun. On a clear day, it’s about a kilowatt of energy for every square metre. Without it, we’d freeze. Plants and the whole ecosystem thrive on that incoming energy.

There’s another kind of energy as well, one that isn’t measured in kilowatts. Bette Midler was wrong. God is not “watching from a distance” while his realm deteriorates and spirals into disorder. His creative power sustains us each day. Our heavenly sovereign is restoring order to his troubled realm.

The sun powers our ecosystem, but it’s the Son who restores creation under God’s power, as the kingdom of God. Continue reading “Out of darkness (Matthew 12:22-29)”

Who is “the Servant of the Lord”? (Matthew 12:17-21)

What Isaiah said about Israel, Matthew says about Jesus. How can he do that?

Open Matthew 12:17-21.

Years ago, I ordered the plans to build a 2-seater kit plane. It was fun pouring over the plans, but I didn’t really have the time or resources to commit to such a project. I took on pastoring instead.

Building community is nothing like building an aircraft. You only get one chance to get the critical things right in a plane, but you can stress-test the parts and be mathematically sure it’s good to fly.

Human beings are nothing like that. They decouple mid-flight and fly off in their own direction. There can be no blueprints for building community: the “parts” are living and constantly changing. A leader is always adapting the plans, reshaping and redesigning. Mid-flight!

Continue reading “Who is “the Servant of the Lord”? (Matthew 12:17-21)”

Face or flee? What Jesus did with conflict (Matthew 12:14-21)

What can we learn from Jesus about how to handle conflict?

Open Matthew 12:14-21 and Isaiah 42:1–4.

How do you handle conflict? Fight? Or flight?

Some of us are fighters. We stand our ground. We’re warriors for justice, for ourselves and for others. We’ll never stand by and let evil take the reins.

Some of us avoid conflict. We keep the peace at all costs. We take the way of the cross: it’s more godly to suffer wrong than to demand rights.

Funny thing is that both groups conscript Jesus. Justice warriors look up to a Jesus as a leader who stood up for the poor, the outcasts, the unacceptable “sinners.” He trained his followers to handle confrontation, bringing not peace but a sword (10:14-39). He announced woes on the Galilean towns that rebuffed his kingship (11:20-24). He confronted the Pharisees so vehemently and persistently that they wanted to destroy him (12:1-14).

Then, suddenly, Jesus suddenly quits the confrontation and withdraws (12:15). And this isn’t the first time. When John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus withdrew into Galilee (4:12). This non-confrontational Jesus was not what John expected the Messiah to be (11:3). Jesus didn’t rescue John. John was beheaded, and Jesus withdrew again (14:13).

So what’s all this withdrawing? Is this another side to Jesus? Is this the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of children’s lullabies? Continue reading “Face or flee? What Jesus did with conflict (Matthew 12:14-21)”

The message of Jesus’ miracles (Matthew 12:9-13)

Why did Jesus do miracles? Was he trying to tell us he was God? Or was there another message he wanted us to hear?

Open Matthew 12:9-13.

Why did Jesus do miracles? Was he showing off his divinity? That’s what many people think, but it’s not what the Gospel writers say.

Sure, Jesus was God-with-us (Matthew 1:23), but the incarnation meant God laying aside his divine powers to live as a true human. The miracles are not evidence of his uniqueness; they are the practical expressions of a human being appointed by God and functioning under divine authority.

If the miracles were just God showing off during his human phase, imagine what he might have got up to during the first 30 years of his life! That mindset did fuel some pretty bizarre speculation in the centuries after Christ: Continue reading “The message of Jesus’ miracles (Matthew 12:9-13)”

Giving God’s world rest (Matthew 12:8)

Ever wondered how peace can be restored to earth?

Open Matthew 12:8.

A couple of centuries before Jesus, Israel was under Greek rulers who demanded they give up their distinctives and blend in with the empire. They launched an attack on a Saturday, forcing zealous Jews to choose whether they would give up their Sabbath and fight. They refused, running for the hills and hiding in caves. It was a massacre.

The Jewish leaders changed their minds: “So they made this decision that day: ‘Let us fight against anyone who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our kindred died in their hiding places’” (1 Maccabees 2:41).

200 years later, Israel still didn’t have a king to make that kind of decision and lead them in their battles. Then Jesus rose to fame in Galilee, claiming to be the Lord’s anointed, talking about restoring God’s kingdom. Continue reading “Giving God’s world rest (Matthew 12:8)”

Greater than the temple? (Matthew 12:6)

“Something greater than the temple is here?” How could a Jewish person say that?

Open Matthew 12:6.

Imagine for a moment you’ve always had a fascination with Windsor Castle, its architecture and 39 generations of monarchs stretching all the way back to William the Conqueror. One day, all your dreams come true: you’re invited to a royal banquet at Windsor Castle.

You arrive, and you’re ushered in for the first time. You pause to breathe its air and smell the history. You wonder what stories these stones could tell. You’re so engrossed that you don’t realize when Queen Elizabeth enters to speak with her guests. A voice brings you back to the present, “Something greater than the Castle is here.” How would you feel if that voice was not one of her aides, but the monarch herself?

Jesus meant to embarrass his opponents with some of this audacious royal claims, but this one takes the cake:

Matthew 12 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.

What did he mean? What in all Judea could be greater than the temple? Continue reading “Greater than the temple? (Matthew 12:6)”

The king who gives rest (Matthew 12:1-4)

Recognizing Jesus’ kingship is the only way to find rest.

Open Matthew 12:1-4.

Don’t let the chapter division stop you seeing how Matthew put his Gospel account together. The keyword at the end of Matthew 11 is rest. In contrast to this world’s rulers, Jesus gives his people rest (11:28). The only place this world will find rest is under the yoke of the gentle and humble king (11:29).

But the Galilean rulers wouldn’t let it rest. Even on the Sabbath, they were digging dirt on Jesus’ followers. They saw his hungry disciples pulling heads of grain and nibbling on the seeds as they walked through the fields (12:1-2). Continue reading “The king who gives rest (Matthew 12:1-4)”