Thursday, December 7, 2017

19. Who is the Greatest?

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew

We continue our study 'According to Matthew'. We have seen how in his gospel Matthew is creating an account of Jesus as being the Servant-King, the One chosen of God to rule over a new kingdom whose priorities turn conventional wisdom upside down and inside out. We heard a kingdom manifesto proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount. We have witnessed unique acts of miraculous service at the hands of Jesus, everything from healing to feedings of crowds and stilling of storms. We have witnessed how Jesus carries with Him an authority that we defined by the Greek Word 'exousia'; an authority that expressed itself in freedom of action and through the love that seemed to ooze out of His life.

In our last session we were taken up a mountain and witnessed a meeting with Moses and Elijah and heard for the second time a voice proclaiming 'This is my beloved Son, listen to Him!” And we witnessed how the disciples are struggling to come terms with such revelations. They are still confused and unsure where all this is leading, even though Jesus has now begun to teach them quite plainly that He will travel to Jerusalem, be betrayed by those who held the keys of earthly power and would meet His death, only to be raised again to life three days later.

We've come along a way since Jesus began His public ministry with a baptism in the River Jordan. But as we've made the journey we get a sense that the kingdom John the Baptist was preparing people to welcome, truly has dawned in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.

The values of this New Kingdom conflicted with the values that were already in place. In the kingdom of humankind there was always a pecking order. Kings knew their places and servants knew theirs. The two never became confused. Position was everything. Certain people never even dreamed of having status. Slaves, women and children had no political rights and were considered as property by the law.

Against this background you can imagine the disciples wondering what the New Kingdom may mean for their own lives. They had, after all, left everything to follow Jesus, and He kept teaching them about the Kingdom. Their question was, “What would their position in this New Kingdom turn out to be?” It's all very well having a revolution and overthrowing society, but when the new came to be, where did that leave them?

So we read Matthew 18:1-5

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to Him, and placed the child among them. And He said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. 
 
As stated earlier, children at the time of Jesus had no rights nor power. The very fact that Jesus called a child to Himself to illustrate who was important in the New Kingdom was a parable all by itself without Him having to say a word. A number of times in the preceding chapters He has invited those who were the movers and shakers of His day to come to Him and they refused to come near. Now He calls a child over and the little one stands right with them.

It's also interesting that the disciples presume that, because they are disciples, they are automatically, going to be part of the new Kingdom, and have a significant place within it. When Jesus is in the picture it never seems safe to assume anything, particularly if its based on our own feelings of self-worth. 
 
We are Americans (well some of you are!), we are decent law-abiding citizens, we take care of our families, we try and be nice to everybody, we attend church, give to charity, for goodness sake, today we've even taken time to come and study the Bible. Shouldn't that count for something in the eyes of God, and at least garnish us a few brownie points?

Bear in mind that when Jesus brings this child into their midst He is not speaking to the crowds but to the inner circle of His followers, the committed ones, the good guys. And what does He tell them in verse 2? “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What? Me? Need to change? Or I limit my chances of entering the Kingdom... oh no that's not how it goes... unless we change we'll never enter the Kingdom? Ouch!”

The conversation is turned on it's head. The disciples want to know what they can do to be a significant entity in the new order of things. Here is Jesus saying that there was absolutely nothing they could do to impact their status as a child of God. What they needed to do was trust in God and so be in a position of total dependence upon God that mirrored the way a child in their society was completely dependent on others for everything they needed in life. Nothing more, nothing less.

As the New International Bible Commentary explains: 'To become like a little child is to humble oneself, giving up all pretensions of self-importance, independence, and self-reliance and turning in trust to the heavenly Father. The story is not a call to imitate the (presumed) character traits of children, but to accept a radically different understanding of status. The first rule for life together in the new community formed by Jesus is to abandon the quest for status and accept one’s place as already given in the family of God.'

In John's Gospel, chapter 3, a character called Nicodemus, a pharisee belonging to the ruling body in Israel, the Sanhedrin, respectfully asks Jesus what can be done to be part of the Kingdom life that he perceived was taking place through Jesus. Jesus answers Nicodemus that there was nothing that he could do, except he be 'born again' or 'born from above'. That belonging to the Kingdom was a matter of trusting in what God could do for him, not what he could do for himself.

In a similar way Paul's great epistle to the Romans speaks of the only way, for anybody, Jew or Greek, to be right with God, was through faith. Whatever 'works' a person did, whatever position in this world they thought they occupied, whatever status their background or breeding or pedigree may confer upon them, their 'works' couldn't help them. As Martin Luther would later make the dominant theme of Reformed theology, justification was by faith alone. Only those saved by grace through faith could ever see the Kingdom.

It's not about what we can do, it's about what God has done in Jesus Christ. It's about throwing ourselves into God's arms. I remember when my children were little, they loved to play those jumping games. Jumping into your arms. Swinging them around. 'Catch me daddy' … and, ready or not, they'd make a leap of faith and laughing and giggling it would be a moment of unabashed joy. If they tried it these days they would probably put me in hospital... but that's not where we are going with this!

If we want to be a part of the Kingdom, what's needed is the trust and faith of a little one. An attitude of complete reliance on God as our parent who will catch us when we jump. 'Whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. '

That last phrase is also significant, because it forms a transition into what comes next. Faith wasn't just about how you trusted God, but also how you offered welcome to others. Just as God welcomes our faith, so we are to extend that invitation to others. We are invited to become the sort of people that others can trust to catch them when they are falling. There is a community aspect to this, an acknowledgment that faith is never purely personal because it also involves acting responsibly towards those around us. When we do that... 'Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. '

One of the themes often stressed during Communion, is that the communion table is a place of hospitality. We share a communal meal. We set a place for all to come, where all are welcome, from the littlest to the greatest, from the weakest to the strongest. Only God knows exactly who qualifies to be in each category. The first shall be last, the humble will be exalted, those who are fallen will be raised, the cross becomes the place of resurrection... that whole reversal thing is always going on in the Kingdom.

Our next verses have been described as some of the most radical and extreme in the whole of Matthews gospel. We stay with the theme of 'little ones' but move quickly into disturbing images of self-inflicted amputations. Read 6-10

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

The words of this section are best interpreted against the background of passages such as 1 Peter 4:17 'For it is time for the judgment to begin with the household of God …' and Matthew 7:4 “How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye?”
It's a section about discipline, discipline within the community of faith and self-discipline.

The early church, by its very nature of being something new, was a church of new believers who were finding their way. The church of today is mixture of seasoned saints and those just beginning their spiritual journeys. For those who have been around for a while, these verses are a caution. They invite us to be patient with one another, and particularly patient with the 'little ones', be they literally children or those who are spiritually children. To act in a way that is open and forgiving, not intolerant and disapproving. Many a potential new member of today's churches have been driven out by thoughtless words and judgmental actions of established church members. 
 
People know the difference between being tolerated and welcomed. Church institutions are notorious for having their unwritten codes of conduct and expectations in everything from the way folk dress to how well they understand the pecking order of a particular congregation. Have you ever considered what a weird experience it is walking into one of our congregations for the first time? To not know where to sit, let alone what the expectations are as to what to do? To be expected to understand that we follow a bulletin and sing hymns we have never heard before from a blue book, that sometimes we stand and sit... and if you look real close there's a footnote that tells you when to do it? That people are going to come around with plates and want you to put money in them?

Again, we are back to ideas of hospitality and welcome. But its so much more than that. It's also about having a lifestyle that backs up our profession of faith. It's no good acting by one set of rules in church and then living your life by a different set of rules everywhere else. Because when you encounter some of those 'little ones' who are just coming to faith, you are going to demonstrate that actually 'faith' doesn't mean anything in the real world. And they will be quick to follow your example. As William Barclay titles this section in his commentary, it's about “The Terrible Responsibility.” Terrible, in the sense that we have a 'huge' responsibility to build the faith of others.
To underline that depth of responsibility towards those less mature in the faith than ourselves we have these words: 'If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. '

The large millstone referred to here is, in Greek, a 'mulos onikos'. 'Onos' is the Greek word for 'donkey', 'mulos' for a millstone. The stone referred to is the big grinding stone that needed a donkey to turn it. Jesus is not mincing His words here! In no uncertain terms we are being reminded that we are responsible for the lives of new believers and need to take care that we do nothing to drive them away. 
 
How do we face up to such a responsibility? We begin with ourselves. In an age that stresses “If it feels good, do it' the notion of 'self-discipline' is not at the top of our priority list. So it is as appropriate for our generation, as it would be for any other, that Jesus gets our attention with images of cutting off limbs and gouging out eyes. Of course these verses are not intended to be interpreted literally.

There is a verse in the N/T book of Galatians 5:24 that tells us: Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. The Message Bible transliterates that verse; “Among those who belong to Jesus Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.”

The phrase used by past generations for such spiritual discipline was 'self-mortification.' A phrase like that reminds us that following Jesus was never meant to be easy. It is the most demanding thing we can ever gear our lives towards. Jesus asks everything of us. Our most basic confession of faith is three words “Jesus is Lord.” He informs us that we have this huge responsibility to nurture the faith of others, to go into all the world and make others His disciples. He holds us accountable for our personal actions.

Matthew Henry in his commentary suggests that Christian discipline is both an inward and an outward process. Firstly he suggests we have to deal with our wrong thinking. The appetites and inclinations that lead us astray have to be kept in check and controlled. In his wonderful 19th century language he writes; “Inward lust must be mortified, though it be as dear to us as a hand or an eye... that which we have rolled under the tongue as a sweet morsel, must be abandoned.” Such ideas take us right back to the sermon on the mount where Jesus identifies sin as something that begins in the heart of a person.

Secondly, Matthew Henry suggests that we seek to avoid situations that we know we have a hard time dealing with. Or as he phrases it: “The outward occasions of sin must be avoided, though we thereby put as great a violence upon ourselves as it would be to cut off a hand, or pluck out an eye.” He gives the examples of Moses who left all the glory of Pharaoh's palace in order to be true to his destiny, and Abraham who fled the idolatry of his native land for a new country where God could be honored. He concludes “We must think nothing too dear to part with, for the keeping of a good conscience.”

On a lighter note some of us may have come from homes where in order to nurture our faith as children we were taught bedtime prayers. For example: 'Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray dear Lord my soul to keep, May angels guard me through the night, And keep me safe 'til morning light. Amen. '

If you had ever wondered where the idea that little children have special guardian angels watching over them comes from, it is from verse 10 here in Matthew. When speaking about the exalted place 'little ones' have in God's affections, here is Jesus saying: “For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Their personal angels are constantly in touch with the Almighty. There appears to be a special place in God's heart for the little ones.

What follows are three illustrations of how a childlike faith may be nurtured. We are given three examples.
  1. Caring for the lost.
  2. Treating each other as brothers and sisters.
  3. Being forgiving servants.
Firstly, caring for the lost and the parable of the wandering sheep. Verses 11 -114
What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Shepherds did not have the best reputation at the time of Jesus. When people told jokes about shepherds they were usually derogatory. Rather like the way West Virginians tell jokes about people from Kentucky (Because the rest of the country makes redneck jokes about West Virginia). So this tale is along the lines of a joke. 'Did you hear the one about Shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in a field? And then he goes off and spends the whole night looking for just one of them. The he finds her and he comes home with a big smile on his face saying 'I found my sheep, I found my sheep. I'm so happy! Ha! What do you make of that!”

You can picture his listeners thinking, “Well. That's a good one Jesus. Those shepherds, huh!” Then Jesus turns the tale right around. “You know how crazy those shepherds are about their sheep? Well that's how crazy God is about all those who are lost and in danger of perishing!”

William Barclay takes a more pastoral approach to the parable and draws out the pictures of God's concern that flow through this story.

He notes that the love of God is an individual love. God wasn't happy until every last soul is bought home. It's patient and seeking love. People, like sheep, can be stupid. They easily wander off the right road. But God seeks them out. The love of God is a rejoicing love. Whenever we turn to God the result is not a rebuke but a welcome. Finally the love of God is a protecting love. We are the sheep of His pasture and He is our Good Shepherd. Psalm 23, 'The Lord is my Shepherd' immediately springs to mind in this context.

The intent of the parable to both remind the listener that they are cared for, and encourage them to offer care towards others. To seek out those who are lost. To rescue from peril those who are perishing, even if they are a minority of one! There is something childlike and naive to the shepherds tale. It extols the virtue of caring as being a hallmark of a Kingdom lifestyle. Another attribute of childlike faith has to do with treating each other as brothers and sisters, and it is with that in mind that the next verses are best interpreted.

Read verses 15 through 19.

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” 
 
Some commentaries suggest this passage is about church authority and discipline, and that it paved the way for the practice of excommunicating people from church communities who didn't tow the line. To myself such an interpretation removes this section from the context of this whole section which is strongly pastoral in nature. The issue is not about control, but how lost sheep can be restored. It's not about closing doors to folk who stray from the path, but rather keeping as many doors as possible open wide for them to return.

Eugene Petersen in the Message Bible captures this sense so well in his transliteration of this section.
"If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you've made a friend. If he won't listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love.” 
 
When Jesus tells them at the end of the story to 'treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.' they would no doubt be bearing in mind the way He treated pagans and tax-collectors. He didn't cast them out. He called them to follow Him. Now if Jesus had said, “Treat them like ta whitewashed tomb brained Pharisee or dead in the letter of the law Sadducee, that would be a different matter! But He doesn't. The emphasis is on seeing them as the lost sheep the shepherd will go great lengths to bring home.

The final section about 'whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven' is not easy to interpret. It seems to be connected to the idea in the sermon on the mount where Jesus told the disciples that when they said 'yes' they should mean 'yes' and when they said 'no' they should mean 'no'. It's about being single-minded about what needs to be done, and in this context would be about agreeing with others what action was needed to help a person through a time when they were kicking against their faith.

This comes out in the next lines, “if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” I've heard people quote that verse completely out of context and suggest that it means that whatever they pray for, as long as its something another brother or sister in the faith totally agrees upon, then God was duty bound to answer such a prayer. That interpretation can only lead to huge disappointment. The whole context of the passage is about restoring lost ones to their faith. 
 
Again I think Eugene Petersen hits it right on the mark as he transliterates these verses as meaning: When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I'll be there." I do however love the promise in the traditional words “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” 
 
Only in Christianity can 2 or 3 be counted as a crowd! It reminds us that faith is never about numbers, but about the presence of God. His presence is the only numeric value that really counts for anything. But obsessed with numbers we tend to be. And the disciples were no different. Particularly as they mulled over all this talk of forgiveness and restoration, they struggled with the idea of how many times they needed to forgive somebody, before they punched them in the nose or did something even worse. At least that's what seems to be on Peters mind.

Read verses 21 through 35.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Seven times seemed like a good number to Peter. He thought he was being generous. Rabbinical teaching suggested three times was quite sufficient. So he's doubled that and added one for good measure. But Jesus replies seventy times, or in some translations “70 x 7”... which didn't mean Peter could keep on counting till he got to 490 and then take revenge, but meant Peter had be infinite with his forgiveness. Why? Because God is infinitely patient and forgiving towards us. And to illustrate that fact Jesus tells this story about an unforgiving servant.

The amounts in the story are maybe not as clear to us as they were to the original hearers. The servant who finds forgiveness owes a debt that is completely out of this world. Call it millions of dollars if you like. The one the forgiven servant won't forgive owes only a small amount... lets say a few hundred dollars. That is what so outrages the other servants. They know this guy has been let off of a debt that was huge and un-payable. But then he goes and demands blood for a comparatively meager amount.

It's a story about forgiveness. Whenever we say the Lord's prayer we use that phrase, 'Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”Here it is in an expanded form. Why should we forgive our debtors? Because God, in Christ, has forgiveness us for all our debts, all our trespasses, all our sins, sins that we are totally incapable of atoning for by own efforts.

Our chapter began with a question about 'Who was the greatest?' and Jesus placing a little child in the midst of His disciples, explaining to them that unless they had the child-like faith and trust of a little one, then they hadn't a hope of being part of the Kingdom of God, let alone of having a significant position within it.

Jesus moves on from there to talk about how God was not concerned with the way they jostled for position and tried to better themselves. God was watching to see how they cared for each other, how they expressed hospitality and welcome to others and how willing they were to change their ways in order to make the Kingdom accessible to others. Along with that came what William Barclay called “The Terrible Responsibility”. Those who were mature in their faith had a responsibility to nurture the faith of those who were just starting out on their journey. To put no stumbling blocks in their way. Discipleship was not an easy option, but demanded a disciplined approach.

But lest we get too fearful of such a commitment we are gently reminded that 'little ones' have guardian angels. So having the faith of a 'little one' meant trusting somebody was watching out for you!

We are then given three examples of how the faith of a little one may express itself. A shepherd searching for a lost sheep reminds us that we need to care for the lost. A passage about forgiving our brothers and sisters reminds to always keep the door of grace open wide. A story about an unforgiving servant reminds us that as servants we are entirely dependent on God. So we should treat others in a similar fashion to the way God has dealt with us. Namely... with love, forgiveness and tenderness.

That's what it takes to be great in the Kingdom! There's a wonderful passage in one of the later letters in the New Testament, that shows how the disciples took this message to heart. The letter is traditionally attributed to St Paul. Verses 7 to 12 of 1 Thessalonians speak of how he and his co-workers conducted their mission in Thessaloniki.

We were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. …. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory.”

'Greatness' was the opening theme of our chapter. Greatness is the opposite of smallness. This chapter challenges our tiny world, with all its limitations and misunderstandings, it's petty squabbles and prejudices, and invites us to expand such confining boundaries and instead be Kingdom people, 'little ones' of faith.

Next time, chapter 19, we will hear what Jesus had to say about marriage and divorce, witness Him again using a child as an illustration of faith and hear some startling words to a rich young ruler about his possessions.

Over the next few chapters we see how many of the themes we have already been introduced to are repeated and expanded. The final narrative will be the account of His final days on earth and the new beginning of the Resurrection. But all that is a little way down the line.

I know.... you can't wait.
But be patient.
All will be revealed!

The Reverend  Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

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.