Thursday, November 2, 2017

18: Transfiguration, Testing and Taxes

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 18: Transfiguration, Testing and Taxes

We continue to explore the central section of the gospel 'According to Matthew.' We are seeing many turning points in the story. Jesus talks less about the Kingdom and more about the Cross. There are clearer statements about His person and His mission. There is a developing understanding on the part of His disciples. There is more of a focus on those who accept His message and less said about those who oppose Him.

We begin this chapter by traveling to the heights of a mountain and witnessing a burst of glory. We celebrate this event in the church calendar as Transfiguration Sunday. Let us read though Matthew's account of the events, beginning with verses 1 thru 3 of chapter 17.

Matthew 17:1 After six days Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

The passage begins by telling us that six days have passed. One presumes that as nothing of note is recorded that things have been quiet. Certainly the disciples have had a lot to think about with both Peter's confession that Jesus was the Son of the Living God and Jesus teaching them that He was traveling towards His betrayal in Jerusalem. What they don't know is that they are about to receive a wondrous revelation of the significance of Jesus.

Such is almost a picture of our own spiritual journey. Sometimes we feel like we are getting nowhere. Our minds are full of questions. What seems plain to some of those around us, is still like a fog in our own minds. We think and we ponder and wonder if we'll ever be able to get our head around it. But who knows? Just around the corner God may well have things in store that help us see more clearly.

This event was also important for Jesus Himself. We don't know exactly how His mind worked, but we are given indications that He was constantly faced with choices. We see Him rebuking Satan in the wilderness temptations and pleading in the Garden of Gethsemane that there could be some other way to fulfill His ministry than drinking such a deep cup of suffering as the Cross. Doing 'His father's will' was never so clearly defined that He didn't need to spend time seeking His Father's way in prayer. During such times He often received the assurance that He was on the right track and that He was pursuing the right goals.

William Barclay suggests the mountain they travel up was Mount Hermon, about fourteen miles from Ceasera Phillipi, (where Peter's confession of Jesus bring the Messiah had taken place.) He writes: “A strange peculiarity has been noticed about Mount Hermon, in the extreme rapidity of the formation of cloud upon the summit. In a few minutes a thick cap forms over the top of the mountain, and as quickly disperses and entirely disappears”.

A friend in a previous church, who was a regular mountain walker, recounted an experience he once had in Wales, of reaching a mountain top as the clouds descended and how the sun lit up the clouds bathing everything in an eerie light. Apparently to seasoned climbers the experience is known as a 'transfiguration.'

As often appears when we look at these Biblical stories there is a rational explanation of events as well as a miraculous understanding. Often the miracle is found not so much in the outward events, but in the timing of the action and in the words that are spoken. Over the years of my ministry I have often observed that miracles are not always about what has happened, but about the synchronicity of when things have happened. God has a way of putting things together that defies explanation.

Getting back to the mountain; what happens there? Firstly, we see that it is not the mountain that is transfigured, nor even the disciples that are transfigured, but that this is an event centered upon Jesus. In verse 2 we read 'He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.' In Greek the word 'transfigure' literally means 'to undergo a metamorphosis' (like what happens to a caterpillar when it becomes a butterfly.)

In Jewish tradition such transcendental signs of glory were usually reserved for angels, but occasionally manifested themselves in the lives of earthly beings such as Adam, Abraham and Moses. Moses, when he came down from the mountain, had a face glowing with such an intensity that he had to cover himself with a veil. (Exodus 34:29-33).

We read in Exodus 34:34-35; But whenever he (Moses) entered the LORD's presence to speak with Him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD. So we see on the mountain something of divine significance happening to the person of Jesus.

Secondly, we see Jesus joined by two Old Testament characters of great significance, one of them Moses, the other Elijah. Both Moses and Elijah were prophets who were initially rejected by the people but were eventually vindicated by God, both worked miracles, and both were considered in First Century Judaism to be figures who after death were taken up to heaven. Moses burial place was never known and Elisha witnessed Elijah's body being carried away by chariot's of angels. Both were symbols of death and Resurrection. Barclay points out that Moses was associated with the law, whilst Elijah was associated with the prophets.

Moses was the greatest of all law-givers; he was supremely and uniquely the man who brought God's law to men. Elijah was the greatest of all the prophets; in him the voice of God spoke to men with unique directness. These two men were the twin peaks of Israel's religious history and achievement. It is as if the greatest figures in Israel's history came to Jesus, as He was setting out on the greatest adventure into the unknown, and told Him to go on. In them all history rose up and pointed Jesus in His way... they witnessed to Jesus that He was on the right way and bade him go out on His adventurous exodus to Jerusalem and to Calvary.”

In the midst of all this Peter, the disciple, is about to make a second error in his interpretation of events. In the last chapter we had Jesus telling him “Get thee behind me Satan,” when Peter sought to persuade Jesus that His journey to the Cross could not be the will of God. We continue with the events of the Transfiguration, verses 4-9 ;

Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," He said. "Don't be afraid." When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, "Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

Peter recognizes that something awesome is taking place. "Lord, it is good for us to be here.” (verse 4). It didn't get much better than this. Indeed, could anything top this? Moses, Elijah and Jesus! On a mountaintop! If only they could get people to come up the mountain top and see this, how could they not believe? So Peter has the good idea of putting up tents (or booths or tabernacles or shelters) so that the experience can be captured for everybody, for all time.

Whenever you have a mountain-top experience the temptation is always to want to set it in stone. I have come across people in my ministry whom I describe as 'Convention Groupies.” They go off to a conference somewhere and have a truly amazing experience, but then can't let the experience go. They are sometimes so focused on the experience that it hinders their service in their local church, because they are always looking back, always making negative comparisons and somehow, life down in the valley is just not good enough.

We do something similar with our church history. We want to go back to the golden age. We want the church to be the church 'that was' when it was full and the crowds came and every pew was filled and the preaching was awesome and the choirs were stupendous and we could barely house the Sunday School. The attraction of 'Old Time Religion' and the pull of nostalgia can truly be a powerful force.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with the church being full or the Sunday School overflowing. The good days truly were good days. Days when people said along with Peter "Lord, it is good for us to be here.” But like the vision on the mountain, the view faded. Those times can not be contained or bottled or recycled. We have to come down from the mountain and deal with the valley. The temptation is to always go back.

But before Peter has time to truly reflect on the impossibility of what he is asking, the text tells us; 'While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. '

Often in the Old Testament the cloud is a visible sign of God's presence. God communicated with Moses in a cloud. The Tabernacle and the Temple were possessed by a cloud. This particular cloud overshadowed them with brightness... and it terrified them. They hit the deck, hiding their faces.

From within the cloud comes an assurance of the glory of Jesus. "This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!" The last time we heard such words was at the baptism of Jesus as He began His ministry. Now, as He is about to descend from the mountain and walk towards Jerusalem and the Cross, we have a further assurance that this is God's work. Moses and Elijah were great servants of God, but Jesus alone is described as being the Son of God.

Moses was a great intercessor, always carrying the people in his heart. Elijah was the great reformer who changed the face of Israelite religion. But, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself. The love of Jesus for the people was greater than the love of Moses, the reforms that Jesus would bring were beyond anything Elijah could achieve. Disciples are told 'Listen to Him!"

As I reflect upon this passage I feel the phrase 'Listen to Him!' is the most challenging in the whole chapter. We have our agendas, we have our plans, we have our baggage and our history. We often are proud of the fact that we allow our past to inform our present, our heritage to inform our future. We like our mountain-tops! We'd like to put up a few tents and stay there.

Then along comes this blinding, scary, revelation. The old has gone the new has come. It's a new day. There are fresh challenges. The way things have always been done is not the way things always have to be done. And the only way we can navigate these challenges is by listening to Jesus. 'Listen to Him!' is our challenge. The old textbooks don't apply to the our situation. We are not walking through the cities ministering to a willing people, we are headed towards the Cross and facing strong opposition.

Things for churches belonging to traditional denominations in demographically shifting communities like ours are likely to get worse before they get better. As I think about that, it is scary. The blinding revelation that the glory days have gone and may not ever return can cause us to fear for our future and feel like hitting the deck and burying our faces in the dust.

See what happens to the disciples when that happens? As Matthew Henry writes in his commentary... 'Christ graciously raised them up with abundance of tenderness' Verse 7 ' Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," He said. "Don't be afraid." 'His approaches banished their fears; and when they apprehended that they were apprehended of Christ, they needed no more to make them easy.... Note. It is Christ by His word and the power of His grace going along with it, that raises up good men from their dejections, and silences their fears; and none but Christ can do it”

As though to underscore the idea that 'none but Christ can do it' when the disciples do get up off the floor 'they saw no one except Jesus.' If all that we've got is Jesus, then we've actually got all we need. If the only thing we can see is Jesus, then it reminds us what the true focus of the church was always meant to be. Sometimes only when everything else is stripped away do we come back to what really matters. God commands regarding Jesus, whom God loves and with whom God is well pleased, “Listen to Him.”

How do we listen? Through prayer. Through Word. Through worship. Through service. Nothing new there. Except for the fact that in order to live serve and follow we have to get up off our faces and come down from the mountain. Which is what the disciples do.

And as they are coming down, again Jesus insists that they keep these things to themselves. Spreading the word that they'd just seen Moses and Elijah up a mountain, would not help their cause in any way whatsoever. What happened on the mountain, stayed on the mountain, and I would suggest also stayed in their hearts as an encouragement for the difficult days that lay ahead of them. But we have a way to go yet. And as always, the disciples have questions. Verses 10 thru 13.

The disciples asked him, "Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?" Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

We saw from the very beginning of the gospel 'According to Matthew' that one of his big themes is the Kingdom of God (and the way the Kingdom of God is different from the kingdoms of the earth). In chapter 13 we heard, through parables such as the 'wheat and weeds' that grew up together, that the way the Kingdom was coming, was not as a flash of light but through gradual growth that was mostly unseen and barely recognizable.

The opponents of Jesus insisted that when the Kingdom arrived it would be sudden and unmistakable. Elijah would appear and everybody would see it! That's what lies behind Jesus's words that Elijah would 'restore all things'; verse 11; Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things.'

But, in contradiction to the thinking of the day, Jesus claims that that the 'Restoration of all things' had already begun. It had begun when John the Baptist began his ministry. Back in Matthew 11:13-14, at the time of John's execution by Herod, Jesus taught the disciples For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. (Interestingly enough, who did we just meet on the mountain? Elijah representing the prophets and Moses representing the law.)

This is an affirmation that the Kingdom of God had appeared in their midst but it was only visible to eyes of faith. To quote the NIBC 'The Kingdom expectation, the Elijah expectation, the son of Man expectation, the expectation of the Messiah – all are variations of the redemptive hope that God has not abandoned creation... but is acting to redeem it” (though that final redemption will only come at the end of all ages).

Both John and Jesus offer the Kingdom of God to us, not as a sudden and blinding once and for all cleansing explosion, but offer a Kingdom that can only be discovered through devotion, intimacy with God, service and sacrifice. Jesus has laid it down that the way of God's service is never the way which blasts people out of existence, but always one which woos them with love.

Having descended form the mountain... it is back once more into service. You may remember that at this point the disciples are in training. They, along with Jesus, are seeking to exercise a ministry of healing and deliverance. But sometimes it just didn't go according to plan, as our next encounter shows us; verses 14 thru 21.

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."

It appears from the way the story is worded that whilst three of the disciples were up on the mountain, the rest have been trying to carry on the ministry without them. There is a boy suffering from seizures, in Greek the word is translated as being 'moonstruck', and the disciples seem powerless to help. The father, though disappointed in the disciples, still has faith in Jesus to be able to help him.

Could be there's a little picture here of the church. Churches sometimes (often times) fail to live up to the expectations people place upon them. Churches are communities of everyday people and every one of us is a work in progress, so it is hardly surprising that there are times when we simply fail to be the communities God calls us to be. I've heard people expressing that 'Jesus they like, but the church, not so much!'

In response, and it's not exactly clear if Jesus is addressing the disciples, the father or the crowd in general, Jesus (in the words of the Message Bible) declares: “What a generation! You have no sense of God! No focus to your lives! How many times do I have to go over these things? How much longer do I have to put up with this?” The boy is bought to Him and the boy is healed.

Maybe we should give thanks that God works in spite of our epic failures! That despite our lack of sensitivity to the moving of God's Spirit, despite our blindness to God's ways, despite our inability to focus and discern God's direction, despite everything, God still works in our world through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Maybe we do sometimes get mountain-top experiences, maybe we at times gain a sense of clarity, but, boy, when we get back down in the valley we soon realize that we have a lot to learn, particularly about mountain moving faith!

When Jesus speaks about moving mountains He is drawing upon rabbinical teaching of the day. A great teacher was known as an 'uprooter' or even a 'pulverizer' of mountains. The phrase refereed to having the ability to remove difficulties or obstacles that blocked understanding.

Whilst with God nothing is impossible, the challenge in trying to achieve anything for the Kingdom is whether or not we are truly with God or acting, sometimes with the best of misguided intentions, on God's behalf. This was the lesson Peter had learned on the mountain-top. Yes... building booths and capturing the moment was a nice idea. But it was not God's plan. God's plan for redemption is given in our next few verses; 22 thru 23.

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.

As we close this section on the Transfiguration, with all it's highs and lows, Matthew draws us back to the central message of Christian faith :- the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From their pre-resurrection perspective, they don't really hear the part about Jesus being raised to life on the third day. Presumably they think that He is talking about the way everybody was raised to life in the next world after they had died. Their focus is entirely upon the insistence He makes that He will be killed.

This time Peter does not try and put him right! Good news here? The disciples are making progress. Slow progress as it may seem, they are starting to get it. I'm sure we can identify with that! I cannot speak for anybody else but my spiritual understanding has never been a journey of great leaps and bounds. It comes slowly. It's going to take a lifetime and I'm going to make a lot of mistakes on the way... but, Praise God, I'm learning!

And one of the things that I need to keep being reminded of is the centrality of the Cross and the Resurrection. Lose sight of those two, or over-emphasize one at the expense of the other and you lose your focus. Too much focus on the Cross leads (as it did to the disciples) to grief. Too much emphasis on the Resurrection and we are left on the mountain-top being so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use.

And if you think we've reached the lowest point of the valley or are still not quite ready to see how the Kingdom of God may interact with any earthly kingdoms, then we are about to finish this chapter with a question about taxes. You can't get much more down to earth than dealing with taxes! Verses 24 thru 27.

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." (Mat 17:1-27 NIV)

The two-drachma temple tax was equivalent to two days pay of an average working persons income, that was payed to maintain the workings of the Temple. In Exodus 30:13 it is laid down that every male Jew over twenty years of age had to pay this tax. The temple was an expensive business. There were morning and evening sacrifices, there was the incense, there were the hangings and the priests robes (some like the High Priests robe were as opulent as those of royalty) not to mention all the usual expenses a large public building would face.

At the time of Jesus though, who paid the tax, how regularly and whether or not there were exemptions had become an issue. Some suggested only the wealthy were subject to temple tax. Others that it should be a voluntary contribution. Some suggested anybody belonging to a priestly family should be exempt. Others suggested it was a once only contribution.

Jesus, as one who was known as a teacher and having a recognizable ministry, came under one of those disputed categories. Some would say it was His duty to pay, others would suggest He was exempt.

Peter is asked a question. “Your rabbi? He pays his taxes; doesn't he?” Peter reply's 'Yes. Sure He does.” But when he goes into the house Jesus challenges him, calling him by his former name, Simon. 'Simon, what do you think? When a King levies taxes, who pays? - His children or his subjects?” The correct answer is of course; his subjects.

So here was King Jesus being asked to pay a tax on His Father's temple! Hadn't they just been up the mountain and heard that voice... 'This is my beloved Son'. Jesus was the child of the King, not a subject. He should be exempt. But, of course, only the disciples recognized Him as King. And the master plan was not that His mission culminated in his arrest for tax evasion. There were bigger fish to fry! So Jesus tells Simon to go fishing and in that way they would find the money to pay the temple tax (even though they didn't really need to pay it).

The fact that the coin is found in a fishes mouth only adds to the confusion. So He shouldn't pay the tax, but He did anyway, but He didn't really because the money was found in a fishes mouth? We won't go there, but rather observe that the teaching here is very similar to that of Paul when he writes about freedom.

In 1 Corinthians 6-9 Paul talks about Christian freedom and relates it to the eating of food that had been dedicated to idols. Paul writes of how, as Christians, we were free to eat whatever we liked, but suggested that if we did so, it may lead others to think that idols had some reality to them. Therefore it would be in the best interests of our 'weaker in the faith brothers and sisters' not to express that freedom and be careful about our eating.

In this passage Jesus suggests that disciples are to go the 'second mile' in their efforts to avoid placing stumbling-blocks before others. The language recalls the previous chapter where the Greek word for 'scandal' (translated also as 'stumbling stone' or 'offense') was used in His rebuke to Simon-Peter. The whole section touches upon the proper use of freedom. Do we interpret our freedom as meaning we can do whatever we wish or do we see our commitment to Jesus Christ as meaning we are set free to serve?

Transfiguration, Testing and Taxes. Quite a combination for a single chapter. But certainly some things to consider. How do we live in the valley? What does it mean to have faith? How should we live as citizens of the kingdom?

In chapters 18 through 20 we will find further teaching about the Kingdom, about child-like faith, about forgiveness and about grace. We have come down from the mountain. We are headed towards Jerusalem. But all that... next time.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

17. Confession and Commitment

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 17: Confession and Commitment

In our study in the life of Jesus 'According to Matthew'. Chapters 15 through 17 mark a turning point. We hear less about the kingdom and more about the Cross. In chapter 16 we see how the disciples are coming to understand not only who Jesus really was but also what the true demands of discipleship were. In this chapter we see hints of resurrection and a clear statement that the road Jesus was traveling would lead to His death. This teaching is given to those who were on the inside, those who were genuinely seeking to follow.

Matthew 16:1-4 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested Him by asking Him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah." Jesus then left them and went away.

The hostility of the Pharisees and Sadducee's continues to grow. They are desperate to catch Jesus out. Although in the popular opinion there was accumulating a body of evidence that pointed to Him as being the Messiah, how could that be possible? He didn't fit into their narrow description of how a 'Messiah' should act, particularly in regard to their laws and traditions. He had to be exposed as the phony He really was. So they come to Jesus, in the words of Matthew Henry 'Not to be taught by Him, but to ensnare Him'.

Jesus has been healing the sick and casting out demons from among the common people. Yet still the Pharisees come to Him asking for a 'sign from heaven'. One can only presume that wonderful things taking place among the common folk was not that significant in their minds. Again Matthew Henry comments; 'They despised those signs which relieved the necessity of the sick and the sorrowful, and insisted upon some sign which would gratify the curiosity of the proud'.

Pride seems to be the root of the problem in the Pharisees understanding. They consider themselves 'above' such things as the witness of healing and deliverance. They want something more, something spectacular, something indisputable.

I was reading a recent online posting by a guy called Bill Easum, titled 'Five Reasons Western Christianity Is In Trouble While Christianity Florishes In Much Of The World'. One of the reasons he offers is that in our culture we have become too proud in our understanding to accept the simple message of the gospel, particularly when it relates to the miracles of Jesus. He comments:

'Western Christians have become too sophisticated to truly believe in miracles and if you don’t believe in miracles you can’t believe in Jesus because He IS a miracle. We are too smart to truly believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and that he now sits at the right hand of God. So if that isn’t believable nothing else is in the story from that day forward.'

Jesus is not so tolerant as to describe them as being 'sophisticated' or 'proud' but describes them as being part of a 'wicked and adulterous generation'. He confronts them with the fact that whilst they could interpret the weather, they were clueless when it came to understanding who He was. Their hearts were hard. Their minds were closed. And He is done with playing their games.

The only thing He offers them is 'the sign of Jonah'. What was the sign of Jonah?

Firstly, there was the power of Jonah's preaching. Through his preaching mission the people of Nineveh were turned around and taken from godlessness into the Kingdom. Secondly, there was Jonah's miraculous deliverance from death after three days in the belly of a large fish in the depths of the ocean.

The only sign that the Pharisees are offered from here on is the witness of Jesus words and the testimony the disciples would later give that 'Jesus died and was raised on the third day'. To move forward in faith, the Pharisees need to see that the greatest miracle was not any specific action Jesus performed, but the miracle of Jesus Himself, His life, His death, His Resurrection and Ascension.

Jesus conversation with the Pharisees and Sadducee's is over. Nothing more to say. He walks away to be with His disciples. We find that they also are struggling to make sense of the events that are unfolding around them. Was Jesus the Messiah? They certainly were not ready for the idea of death and resurrection, and were being stretched in their understanding beyond anything they had ever experienced before. So... verses 5 thru 10.

When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. "Be careful," Jesus said to them. "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." They discussed this among themselves and said, "It is because we didn't bring any bread." Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, "You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don't you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don't understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Then they understood that He was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Despite the fact that they are in the midst of signs and wonders, and receiving teaching from Jesus that is on a high spiritual plane, the disciples still function at the most human of levels. They are concerned about what to eat. They worry about doing the right thing. They want to make Jesus proud of them!

They'd just witnessed His confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducee's. The comment of Jesus about 'no sign but the sign of Jonah' may well have gone right over their heads. But one thing they know. As they travel across the lake, they had forgotten to bring any thing for lunch. Verse 5 When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “

So Jesus throws a comment out to them. “Watch out for the yeast (which in the original language is a very similar word to bread) of the Pharisees and Sadducee's.” Immediately they are on their guard and start talking among themselves. 'Oh my gosh. We forgot to bring the sandwiches! We should have brought some bread with us!”

I like the way “The Message” bible pictures what happens next. Jesus knows what they are talking about and interrupts their conversation “Why all these worried whispers about forgetting bread?” He describes them as 'fledglings in the faith, baby-birds in belief' who still hadn't caught on yet where He was coming from. He reminds them of what had happened in the events of feeding the 5000 and feeding the 4000, and how much they had in leftovers.

It wasn't about food or physical needs. Hadn't they yet come to understand that He was well able to take care of all that for them? They didn't need to become all guilt ridden over forgetting their sandwiches! As again the Message Bible puts it; “Haven't you realized that bread isn't the problem? The problem is yeast. Pharisee and Sadducee yeast.' Then they get it! “He wasn't concerned about eating, but teaching – the Pharisee-Saduccee kind of teaching.”

I feel that there is a message here for those, like ourselves, who belong to traditional denominations that are in decline. We can easily become so concerned about our maintenance that we lose sight of our mission. 'Having bread with them' was a maintenance issue. It was about them, their needs and their responsibilities. They felt guilty because they weren't fulfilling them. 'It's because we didn't bring bread' they whisper to one another.

Jesus instead turns their focus to times when they reached out to others in mission. “Remember the feeding of the 5000 and the 4000. Remember what was left-over?” It was only as they recaptured that idea that their reason for being was not themselves, but about meeting the needs of others, that they suddenly get it. They have been acting like the Pharisees and Saduccee's. They have been more concerned about being right than trying to make things right in the wider world. They have been looking 'in' instead of looking 'out'.

Such was the yeast of the Pharisees. They were concerned with personal salvation and survival rather than embracing outsiders with the grace and mercy and abundance of God's love. And all of that is somehow tied up with who we believe Jesus was and what we believe His significance to really be. We move to a passage now where Jesus puts His disciples on the spot and asks them what they really believe about Him and His ministry. Verses 13-17

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." "But what about you?" He asked. "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.

The way we live our lives, both individually and corporately as a congregation, all revolves around the question that this passage challenges us with. Who do we believe Jesus is? It's fascinating to see how Jesus leads the disciples towards personal confession.

First of all He asks them a very general question. 'What are people saying about me?' or actually it's even more general than that, He asks them "Who do people say the Son of Man is?". The question is phrased in the same way as a marketing survey. What's the word on the streets?

And the disciples offer some responses. 'Some say John the Baptist'. In a previous chapter Matthew speaks of how Herod feared that Jesus was the ghost of John come back to haunt him, after he had the Baptist beheaded at a boozy birthday bash. John was one of those 'out-there' characters. A holy man for sure and definitely popular with the common folk. Still today people will acknowledge Jesus as being that sort of character. A popular religious figure who eventually fell foul of the authorities.

Some say 'Elijah'. Elijah at this time in history was a figure of mythical proportions. Elijah was the one who would return before the end times or the dawn of a new-age. Jesus had even spoken of John the baptist as being the Elijah like figure who had heralded His coming. Still today people think of Jesus as a mythical hero of the past. Some even look to His coming again, not as gentle Jesus meek and mild, but warrior Jesus, riding a white horse, sword in hand, to avenge the martyrs and establish God's rule forcibly upon all creation.

Some say 'Jeremiah or one of the prophets'. The Koran pictures Jesus as 'one of the prophets'. The greatest prophet of them all, although only Mohammed is the true interpreter of His message. People throughout history have described Jesus as being the 'greatest teacher that ever lived'. Ghandi described the sermon on the mount as the greatest of all teaching. Many people, though they may not be members of the church or even believers in any particular faith, nevertheless acknowledge that Jesus was a great prophet and radical teacher. Certainly a religious figure comparable with Elijah or Jeremiah.

But then Jesus goes and makes it all personal. We do well to recognize that another persons faith cannot be a substitute for own. That other peoples opinions are not the equivalent of our own experience. He challenges them with a straightforward and pointed question. 'But what about you?" He asked. "Who do you say I am?" ' (verse 17)

I suspect there was quiet at this point. Maybe their minds were still trying to figure out how to answer such a question. Maybe some of them were afraid to say what they really believed or express their thoughts for fear they may look foolish. What Jesus is seeking from them, is what He seeks from us all, a personal confession of faith.

As Presbyterians we often shy away from such personal expression, fearing that it can be ostentatious or even embarrassing. Other traditions are not so reticent. Indeed their lack of reticence partly accounts for our own. Maybe we have heard too many testimonies with words that have not been backed up by lives that showed evidence of transforming grace and love. Maybe we become a little cynical when folk offer glowing testimony of the difference Jesus has made in their lives, because sometimes their lives don't seem that different and phrases such as 'born again' or 'being saved' have become identified with particular political views or unspoken expectations.

However that may be, we still have this passage confronting us. Jesus looks straight at us and asks 'What about you. Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter is the one who gives an answer. Verse 16; 'Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."' This was huge! These were outstanding claims for a Jewish fisherman to make about anyone. To be 'THE' Messiah. To be the “Son of the living God.” This took Jesus out of the realm of being another John the Baptist or mystic or prophet or great teacher. This is Peter saying that Jesus is the real deal, the One in whom all peoples hopes and faith could be focused.

And Jesus says “Good job!” Or rather He says "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” This too is a remarkable statement. It suggests that for us to come to a personal confession requires more than just trying to figure everything out at an intellectual level, with our 'flesh and blood,' but requires that we are open to the moving and leading of the Spirit of God. Staying with verse 17 'this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.

To belong to the spiritual 'Kingdom of God' requires some kind of 'Holy Spirit' encounter that reveals to us the significance of the person of Jesus Christ. Such an encounter takes place for us as we encounter the Word of God through Scripture, through worship and through service. As we seek to practice the presence of God with others then the presence of God gets to work on our lives.

And we are not all at the same place at the same time. Peter got it. Some of the others didn't. Judas never seemed to get it. And even though it seems Peter got it right, he still had a long way to go. In a few verses time we see he is just as likely to be influenced by wrong as he is by right. But for the moment, right here 'according to Matthew', he got it totally right! And that's something that Jesus can build on. Verses 18 thru 20.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then He ordered His disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Messiah.

Though some of my Roman Catholic colleagues may strongly disagree with me, this passage does not suggest that Peter was the first pope and that he was given all authority, through the church to which he held the keys, to admit people or expel them from the kingdom.

Neither do I think this passage is all about the words Peter has just spoken being the 'rock' upon which the true church is founded. It's more personal than that. Jesus makes a point of naming Peter. There is a play in words going on here. The name Peter, in both Aramaic and in Greek, meant “Rock.” And whilst it is true that in Peter's 'rock like' confession something awesome had happened, it was also the confession of a particular individual, once named Simon, whose life had been transformed by the Holy Spirit. I'll turn here, as I am inclined to do, to the words of William Barclay.
'Peter himself is the rock, but in a special sense. He is not the rock on which the church is founded. That rock is God. He is the first stone of the whole church. Peter was the first man on earth to discover who Jesus was; he was the first man to make the leap of faith and see in Him the Son of the living God. In other words, Peter was the first member of the church, and in that sense, the whole church is built upon him... and in ages to come everyone who makes the same discovery as Peter is another stone added to the edifice of the church of Christ.'

Keys represent authority. Peter would become a leader in the early church. In the early chapters of the Book of Acts, the history of the newly birthed church, the focus is upon the actions of Peter. He is the one who seeks to explain the events of Pentecost. (Acts 2:14, Acts 4:8). When Ananias deals dishonorably with the church community, it is Peter who enacts discipline. (Acts 5:3). It is to Peter that a vision of the extent of the mission to the Gentiles is revealed through a vision of clean and unclean animals. (Acts 10:4).

However, Peter does not become the sole authority. We read of others such as Stephen, Phillip, Thomas, John, James the brother of Jesus, and of course the apostle Paul who act with authority in the life of the earliest church, and as such become 'key-holders'.

The insistence of Jesus that the disciples keep things quiet is an indication of the growing opposition to the ministry of Jesus. People were having a difficult time understanding what He was about. To throw in claims of being the 'Messiah' and the 'Son of God 'could only muddy the waters even more deeply.

And this is a crucial moment in the disciples journey because Jesus is about to state quite clearly to them that His mission would involve His arrest, his murder, and His Resurrection. Hardly surprisingly, the disciples are not exactly thrilled at such a scenario and it is left to their leader, Peter the Rock, to express their horror and disbelief. Read 21 thru 23.

From that time on Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns."

Jesus talks less about the Kingdom and more about His cross and His betrayal. Matthew is quite deliberate in pointing out that it is those who hold the keys of religious power that betray Jesus. Sometimes it is said that the 'Jews killed Jesus.' We can easily forget that it was only Jews who first became disciples of Jesus and even forget that Jesus Himself was a Jew.

Anti-Semitism remains a serious problem in today's world. The death of Jesus came at the hands of the religious and political elite of His day, both Jew and Gentile, and whilst the climate of opinion was against Him at the time of His crucifixion (even those closest to Him deserted Him) it is not helpful to carelessly throw around phrases such as 'Jesus was killed by the Jews.' Matthew is careful not to do so, maybe particularly as he is writing for a Jewish audience!
Peter, expressing the disciples horror at what Jesus has told them, takes Jesus aside to have a quiet word with Him. “Listen Lord, we are not going to let something like this happen to you!' But this was a matter of destiny. This was why Jesus had come. To offer His life for the salvation of the world. Matthew uses here the phrase 'He must go to Jerusalem”. The Greek word used here for 'must' has the meaning 'it is necessary, there is need of, it behooves, it is right and proper' that He goes to Jerusalem. And Jesus firmly puts Peter right on this score. "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me”

It was in the earlier temptations in the wilderness that Satan sought to persuade Jesus from taking the road to Jerusalem. The Devil is still up to his old tricks, this time using the words of Peter, the rock upon whom the church is going to be founded, to talk Jesus out of doing the will of His Father.

There is another play on words here. Jesus uses the phrase 'stumbling-block' to describe Peter. He's saying that the Rock upon which the church was to be founded had become a rock that was attempting to trip Him up! The King James Bible translates 'stumbling-block' as 'offense' because the word in Greek is 'skandalon', which is where we get the English word 'scandal' from. To suggest to Jesus that He now abandoned His mission was a scandalous temptation that the disciples needed to put behind them. 'Get thee behind me!'

There's a children's chorus, that in times of temptation can actually be quite effective, that goes;

Get thee behind me Satan, get thee away,
Don't want anything to do with you today,
SO... get thee behind me Satan, get thee away,
Cos I'm a christian soldier and I'm learning how to pray.
I'm a christian soldier and learning how to pray.”

As He teaches about the cross He must face, Jesus teaches the disciples that they will be challenged to fulfill their own destiny; a destiny linked to His ultimate victory. Verses 24-28.

Then Jesus said to His disciples, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in His Father's glory with His angels, and then He will reward each person according to what they have done. "Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."

To quote from the New Interpreters Bible Commentary:-

This call to discipleship is based on faith in Christ and confidence in the future victory of God; it is not a matter merely of high human ideals or noble principles. That is, the life called for here is not based upon on a reasoned conclusion based upon how things are...but on faith that something has happened that makes everything different”

That 'something' is the death and resurrection of Jesus, the central acts of the Good News of the gospel. Without His death there is no message of redemption, without His resurrection there is no hope of eternal life. These two central events make all the difference in the world.

In this world we can either exist or live. We are either on a journey from the womb to the tomb or living a life from before the womb to beyond the tomb. Either we believe that we are born, we get by and then we die, or we frame our life in the terms of Scripture... that before we were even born God had us in mind, that we are here on this planet for a purpose that God alone can fulfill in us as we seek to live as children of the Kingdom and that beyond this life there are dimensions that our minds can hardly fathom.

Either we believe that the world is a cruel and uncaring place and we need to just make the most of the miserable time we have before blind chance destroys us or we can adopt the attitude that every day is a blessing given to us by God and that the greatest use of our life is to spend it in tasks that outlast it.

And the difference revolves around what we believe about Jesus, about why He came and who He was. Which throws us right back to the central verses of chapter 16, the moment Jesus turns to His disciples and puts them on the spot, verse 15 "But what about you?" He asked. "Who do you say I am?"
How we answer that question determines how we live our lives!

In our next chapter we are taken to the mountaintop and given a glimpse of glory, we witness the disciples fledgling attempts at Kingdom work in the casting out of evil, we hear Jesus again stating His intention to travel to Jerusalem and we will finish by coming right down to earth.... with a question about paying taxes. But all of that next time.