Thursday, November 5, 2015

13. Hardening Opposition

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 13: Hardening Opposition

We are reaching a turning point in the gospel according to Matthew. The opposition that Jesus experienced from the Pharisees is about to move from being threat to actively seeking to get rid of Him. His teaching exposes some nasty sores. He exposes the sinfulness of many accepted attitudes and ways. Those who held the keys of power are particularly hostile. He seemed to be chipping away at the very things that held them in power.

How dare He side with the poor?
How dare He suggest that they needed to repent just as much as the common person?
How dare He question their authority?

He had become a threat, demanding people choose between His way or their way. He exercised authority over all the powers that held people captive. No Pharisee had that sort of power or such a popularity with the common people. As far as they are concerned Jesus had to be silenced.

It is a fact of history that Christianity has a great tenacity in the face of opposition. Wherever there has been opposition the message has survived. All the – ‘isms’ – have never eradicated the church. Christians have stubbornly CHOSEN to follow Christ, even when it meant laying down their lives.

When Jesus walked among us the opposition was spearheaded by the Pharisees. They were a separate religious group who practiced the law to its utmost extremes. For example, whilst they considered it a sin to spit on soft or dusty earth on the Sabbath, it was not a sin to spit on a rock. Why? Because if you spat in the dust it may move the dirt… and plowing was forbidden on the Sabbath day.

The Pharisees had healthy historical roots. In Romans 10:2 Paul speaks of them as having ‘Zeal for God’. But just as concrete takes a while to harden, so other thee years a petrification of their faith seems to have taken over. And like concrete, once hardened, it could be mighty resistant.

When Jesus suggests to them that they could be wrong about some things relating to faith, they simply assume that such could not be possible. For the Pharisees to respond to Jesus would mean admitting that some of the principles on which they built their lives (and in which they found their identity) were wrong.

Matthew illustrates their nature in chapter 12 by speaking of three incidents. A confrontation over eating Sabbath grain, the healing of a paralyzed man on the Sabbath and the deliverance of a man from an evil spirit. Interwoven with these stories we find Jesus teaching about sin and forgiveness, alluding to His future destiny of the Cross and Resurrection and seeking to expand His disciples vision of what a family could be. Let us begin with the first confrontation. Verses 1-8.

NAS Matthew 12:1 At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grainfields, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, "Behold, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath."
3 But He said to them, "Have you not read what David did, when he became hungry, he and his companions; 4 how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? 5 "Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath, and are innocent?
6 "But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here. 7 "But if you had known what this means, 'I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 "For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."

It was a custom of the times to leave the crops around the edges of a field for gleaning by the poor folk, aliens and strangers in the community. In the Old Testament story of Ruth, it is such a practice that leads to her marriage to Boaz. The gleaning laws were in place to protect those in the community who were least able to help themselves.

The disciples were not doing anything illegal by feeding themselves in a moment of hunger. That is not the Pharisees complaint. Rather it is the fact that they were doing so, on the Sabbath, that infuriates them. “Behold, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.” Jesus challenges their complaint from a number of different angles, but each came back to a single thing. The Pharisees would not acknowledge the ministry of Jesus was genuine.

Jesus firstly draws a comparison between His mission and that of King David. He references a story in 1 Samuel Chapter 21 where the priests allow David and his fellow soldiers to eat the bread put aside as an offering for the priests (known as the shew-bread) in order that they may continue with their mission.

He then talks to them of the priests themselves, who of course did a lot of work in the Temple on the Sabbath. They had sacrifices to prepare and services to conduct. Such Sabbath work was their religious duty. If done by anybody else would be considered unlawful, but because they were priests it was sacred and acceptable.

Thirdly, the Pharisees did not recognize that in the ministry of Jesus the New Covenant was about to dawn. They had no clue that the old ways of temple and ritual and offerings were about to receive the ultimate update. 6 "But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here.”

And why had the Pharisees missed the point and shown themselves unable to recognize their Messiah? Because they had hardened their hearts to such an extent they could no longer recognize right from wrong. Even though their scriptures explicitly taught them to take the side of compassion over legalism, they managed to miss the point. Verse 6 "But if you had known what this means, 'I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent. “

The reference is to Hosea 6.6 and makes even more sense when reading the whole verse: “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Jesus suggests their knowledge of God is so lacking that they had spoken out of turn. He and His disciples were doing nothing wrong. They were on a God-ordained mission of compassion. And at the center of this mission was Jesus Himself. So verse 8. "For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."

True to their nature the Pharisees remain unmoved. The drama now moves to the synagogue. Verses 9 – 14.

9 And departing from there, He went into their synagogue. 10 And behold, there was a man with a withered hand. And they questioned Him, saying, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?"-- in order that they might accuse Him. 11 And He said to them, "What man shall there be among you, who shall have one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it, and lift it out? 12 "Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." 13 Then He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand!" And he stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out, and counseled together against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.

It is clear that the reference Jesus has made to Hosea, about God being a merciful God, has gone right over their heads. They drag this poor unfortunate guy with a withered hand to the synagogue and parade his infirmity before the congregation whilst demanding that Jesus answer another question about the Sabbath. The irony here is that they recognize that Jesus has the power to heal the man. But they really couldn’t care less about the man himself. The only use they have for him is to prove a point.

Jesus sees right through them. ‘What sort of men are you? You wouldn’t treat one of your animals the way you are parading this man around! If you had a lamb, and it fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, you wouldn’t hesitate to pull it out. What is it with you? Because it is the Sabbath do you really think your animals are more significant than a fellow human being in need? You are acting ridiculous. Of all the days in the week for doing good things, surely the Sabbath should be top of the list!”

Then, in compassion, He reaches out to the man and the man is healed. And are the Pharisees happy for him? On the contrary, it is after this confrontation they decide they will get rid of Jesus once and for all. Not simply silence Him, but destroy Him.

Religion can be terrible thing. There were no more religious people than the Pharisees. Yet their beliefs turned them into compassion-less monsters and gave them the a god-given right to treat other people as less than human. Religious belief can do that. It can blind rather than enlighten. It can divide rather than unite. Throughout it’s history, whenever Christianity has lost sight of compassion it can turn into something very dark. Inquisitions. Witch trails. Persecutions. And all this it is claimed in Jesus name. Yet the incentive to love is there in passages like Hosea 6.6 and makes even more sense when reading the whole verse: “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”

The growing hostility of the Pharisees is making it hard for the mission to continue. So Jesus, as He advised His disciples to do when hostility prevented their work from going forward, moves in a different direction. Verses 15-20.

15 But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed Him, and He healed them all,
16 and warned them not to make Him known, 17 in order that what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, might be fulfilled, saying, 18 "Behold, My Servant whom I have chosen; My Beloved in whom My soul is well-pleased; I will put My Spirit upon Him, And He shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles. 19 "He will not quarrel, nor cry out; Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.
20 "A battered reed He will not break off, And a smoldering wick He will not put out, Until He leads justice to victory. 21 "And in His name the Gentiles will hope."

Lest we become too embroiled in the immediate crisis of the mission, Matthew offers us one of those passages that helps us put everything back into a larger framework again. We are reminded of the call that was upon Jesus, and given words that recall those we first heard at His baptism when the Spirit came upon Jesus and a voice declared “This is my son in whom I'm well pleased” This time a messianic prophecy from Matthews most quoted prophet, Isaiah: “Behold, My Servant whom I have chosen; My Beloved in whom My soul is well-pleased; I will put My Spirit upon Him, And He shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles. “

You may recall also that Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospels, keeps reminding us that the kingdom that is coming in Jesus is not just for the Jews, but includes the Gentiles. 21 "And in His name the Gentiles will hope."

The gentleness of Jesus, in comparison to the harshness we have just seen in the Pharisees, is beautifully pictured in verse 20 "A battered reed He will not break off, And a smoldering wick He will not put out, Until He leads justice to victory. “ Being a faithful disciple can really knock the stuffing out of you. It can be hard dealing with peoples problems and needs and peculiarities. There are days when you are simply tired and worn out. I've always found this verse about how we can be battered yet not broken, smoldering but not completely extinguished, a great comfort when I'm feeling overwhelmed.

And there's something about the way these verses interrupt the flow of the chapter that is a little message all in itself. We all need times when we can walk away, remind of ourselves of what's important and refocus on the bigger picture. Times when we recharge our batteries so we can put our strength back into the battle. Ready to battle the critics of Jesus truly are! They don't miss an opportunity to put question His ministry. Verses 22-30.

22 Then there was brought to Him a demon-possessed man who was blind and dumb, and He healed him, so that the dumb man spoke and saw. 23 And all the multitudes were amazed, and began to say, "This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?" 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, "This man casts out demons only by Beelzebub the ruler of the demons." 25 And knowing their thoughts He said to them, "Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself shall not stand. 26 "And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then shall his kingdom stand? 27 "And if I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? Consequently they shall be your judges. 28 "But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 "Or how can anyone enter the strong man's house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house. 30 "He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.

These Pharisees are tenacious in their criticism. They had already played this particular card before. Realizing that they cannot get the people to see anything wrong with the results of Jesus actions, they continue suggesting that He is doing the right things out of evil motives. That He is actually in league with the Devil. And all these miracles were nothing but a smoke-screen to hide the fact that He was leading them away from the true religion (which was of course only practiced by the Pharisees).

Once again Jesus exposes the ridiculous nature of their arguments. If football were a game back then maybe he would have suggested that you don’t win games by scoring points against your own side. "If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then shall his kingdom stand?”

He also points out that among their own number they had folks who practiced exorcisms in exactly the same way as He did. He challenges them: ‘If I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out?’ He suggests that as they are both using the same methods, the Jewish exorcists wouldn’t be impressed to discover their colleagues were accusing them of being in league with Satan! ‘Consequently (verse 27) they shall be your judges’

He thirdly uses an analogy of a thief breaking into a house. If the owner of the house finds out what’s happening, the only way for the robbery to continue was if the owner is tied up and prevented from intervening. The implication is that Jesus is the one whose authority had bound the powers of evil and was plundering souls from out of the Devils grasp. By the power of the Holy Spirit great things were taking place in their midst. But did they realize it? Not in the least.

They had a choice. They could side with Him (and with God) or they could carry on opposing Him. 30 "He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.” If they persisted in following the path they were on then they needed to be aware that their very souls were in peril. Having argued with them, Jesus now warns them. Verses 31-37.

31 "Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. 32 "And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come. 33 "Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 "You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.
35 "The good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil. 36 "And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. 37 "For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned."

A question that you’ll sometimes see discussed is ‘What is the unforgivable sin spoken of in Matthew 12:31-32?” Some strange interpretations have been given, varying from suicide to blasphemy. One principle in seeking to understand any difficult biblical saying is to always take notice of what is going on around it. Every bible verse has a context, and if you take it out of that context then you are in danger of misinterpreting it.

The context of this verse is that it is a warning to Pharisees who have it in their hearts to do away with Jesus, even though they recognize His power. They are witnessing wonderful things taking place around them, things that were a result of the action of the Holy Spirit, and calling them the works of the devil. They are precluding themselves from the possibility of forgiveness because they are attributing the work of God to the work of Satan.

Furthermore they have closed the door on repentance. They could say what they liked about Jesus. He would forgive that. What was unforgivable was that they knew He was right, but they carried on with their opposition. They had seen His healings. A man with a withered hand just walked away in perfect health. A man who was dumb and blind was now seeing and talking and people were describing Jesus with the messianic term ‘Son of David.’ Their hearts had become so hardened that they could no longer discern good from evil, and had begun to label one as the other.

Jesus speaks about the heart as the place from which actions flowed. If our heart is full of good, good things come out, if it is centered in evil, then bad stuff will be the result. 35 "The good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil. It is not that the Pharisee’s don’t have a choice. They do. Jesus invites them to do the right thing. But instead they welcome only thoughts of destruction and offer words of condemnation.

Their destiny is therefore determined by what they welcome in their hearts. As they stubbornly refused to welcome the Kingdom in this life, they could hardly be expected to welcome it in the next! “Whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come.” They have shut the door on grace. The unforgivable sin in this context is that the Pharisees are well aware that the Kingdom is at work in their midst, but they refuse to acknowledge it. Rather they view the Kingdom as a threat to their earthly position of privilege. They are wrong. They know it. But they won’t acknowledge it. That is unforgivable because they refuse to repent.

Instead some of them start to make excuses. ‘Just one more sign then we’ll believe!’ But they have missed their opportunity, as our next passage makes clear. Verses 38-42.

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him, saying, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from You." 39 But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; 40 for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 "The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 "The Queen of the South shall rise up with this generation at the judgment and shall condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
43 "Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and does not find it. 44 "Then it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came'; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. 45 "Then it goes, and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation."

Jesus is through with giving signs to satisfy the curiosity of Scribes and Pharisees. Miracles were not performed as signs to satisfy curiosity. Jesus healed people because they were sick. He delivered them from evil because they needed delivering. It wasn't a show. Miracles were acts of compassion. They are trying to get Him to use the same tactics they had used when they dragged the man with the withered hand along with them. They had no compassion for the man. They were just trying to prove a point. Jesus refuses to play that game.

He had done enough to convince them of who He was. In anticipation of His death and Resurrection the only thing He offers to them is the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and nights, so He would be placed in the tomb for three days before rising again to life. Then they would have a chance to repent.

Jesus implies that for most of them repentance wouldn't happen. Why? Because they just don’t get who He really is. When Jonah came out of the big fish and started telling the people to repent, the Ninevites got it! They repented. ‘Listen’ Jesus is saying “I am more than Jonah ever was”.

Likewise the Queen of Sheba traveled all the way across the desert to sit at Solomon's feet and soak up his wisdom. And she got it! If she was there right then, she would have understood that in Jesus something greater than the wisdom of Solomon was at work in their midst. But not the Pharisees. For sure she would speak against their supposed wisdom. But… no… not the Pharisees. They had missed their chance. How can that be? Jesus explains it this way. Verses 43-45.

43 "Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places, seeking rest, and does not find it. 44 "Then it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came'; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. 45 "Then it goes, and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation."

The key verse here is 44 where the evil spirit returns to the house he had once been evicted from and finds it ‘unoccupied, swept, and put in order’. The Pharisees religion had started out on a good footing. We referred earlier to Paul's comment that they were zealous for God. But their stifling legalism had strangled their spiritual power. They took ‘decency and in order’ to the outer limits and had created a set of rules and regulations that had become a standard against which even acts of compassion were judged to be suspect.

Though sincere, sincerity was not enough. You may hear it said sometimes ‘It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere’. That is not the case. Hitler was sincere. The Pharisees had become sincerely wrong. They had systematically removed grace from the picture and embraced spiritual sterility.

Hence they became a breeding ground for a multitude of evil thoughts that led to wrong actions. They were worse off now then they had been before their zealous reforms had begun. Jesus here is turning the tables on their argument that He was possessed by the Devil. He is suggesting to them ‘Look deeply into your own souls’. He was not the one with the problem!

We've seen before in Matthew how the chapters often end on a positive note. The idea of chapters of course never in Matthews mind. It was later generations who added chapters and verses. But they knew where to put the breaks because of the flow of Matthews thoughts and the way he linked themes together.

We are about to move into a chapter full of parables. Parables were stories for everyone. For the whole family. And not just the literal family, but all families. Read 46-50.

46 While He was still speaking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. 47 And someone said to Him, "Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You." 48 But He answered the one who was telling Him and said, "Who is My mother and who are My brothers?" 49 And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, "Behold, My mother and My brothers! 50 "For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother."

The earthly family of Jesus knew there was something different about Him. But they, like everybody else, have questions that need answering. After all, they knew Him better than anyone. They were concerned for His well-being. They wondered what had taken such a hold on Him that He should be attracting such attention. Had He lost His mind?

Jesus does not allow His immediate families concern for His sanity and safety prevent Him from doing God's will. That's not easy to do. I think in my own family there were some who, even when I went off to seminary were convinced that this religion stuff was just a phase I was going through. Once I got it out of my system I'd be back to normal. Maybe they still think that!

It can be a struggle. Every move I've made, particularly deciding to accept a call to minister within the Presbyterian Church in the United States has had implications for our families. We are, like missionaries, a long way from home. Unlike missionaries our home church, the Presbyterian Church of Wales, insisted that we resign from their care to follow the path we felt God had called us to follow. You were almost left with the impression that leaving the denomination was the unforgivable sin.

When churches send missionaries abroad they usually build into their contracts time and resources to stay connected to their families. We have never had that. The result is we often feel like we are a long way from home, particularly in times of family illness or loss. And to be honest there is a certain amount of guilt with that. We abandoned the Church that nurtured us. We have left it up to other family members to take care of family members.

Please don't take that as a complaint. As Yvonne's late mum used to say, 'You make your bed. You lie in it”. We had an idea what we were getting ourselves into. And it's turned out wonderful. We love it here.

But you can maybe understand how I find comfort in these verses. Who are my mother and brothers? “Stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, "Behold, My mother and My brothers! 50 "For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother."

Doing the will of God has implications. It makes you part of a huge family. It can provoke misunderstanding, and even as we have seen tonight in the Pharisees, great hostility. But it also gifts us with wonderful fellowship, gives our lives purpose and puts us on a road that eventually leads to a home beyond all homes... a place of many mansions and reunions where all things shall be well. 'Whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother."

Next time... parables!