Jesus was warmly received by the Gentile world but when He returned to His fellow countrymen, He was soundly rejected. They wanted a sign that Jesus was who He said He was. Jesus chided them saying they could read the weather in the sky but after the many things He had already done, they could not or would not believe what they saw in Him. The signs of the times were what He had already done. He was with His disciples and He warned them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The disciples believed Jesus was speaking of real bread until He explained and then they understood He was speaking of the Pharisees deceptive teaching. Jesus had demonstrated that He was the true bread of life but the Jewish leaders, especially in their teachings, were like yeast permeating everything they touched with their sinfulness. Yeast in scripture is most often a sign of sin and evil. As they traveled, Jesus taught the disciples. He healed those they encountered and when they arrived in Caesarea Jesus asked the disciples who the people thought He was. The people had several different opinions. Perhaps Jesus was really John the Baptist resurrected. Maybe He was Elijah who was to be a forerunner of the Messiah. He could be Jeremiah or another of the prophets. Then Jesus asked the disciples who they thought Jesus was. Peter didn’t miss a beat. He proclaimed that Jesus was indeed the long awaited Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus knew this didn’t come from Peter himself. Only God the Father could reveal this news to Peter. This particular moment in time was a high point in the unfolding of God’s will for humanity. Peter was the first “rock” or foundation stone in that he was the first to confess that Jesus was the Messiah. He was the leader of the disciples. But we must remember that it is clearly Jesus’s church, not Peter’s, and Jesus Himself will build it. Matthew is the only gospel writer that uses the term church. No matter what, the church will not be defeated by the attacks of the evil one.
Keys are an image for access to privileged knowledge that gives one authority. The keys of the kingdom may refer to Peter’s opening the kingdom to various groups of people. There were the Jews in Acts 2-3, the Samaritans in Acts 8, and the Gentiles in Acts 10. The keys would open doors to lost people. In rabbinical literature, binding and loosing refers to what was permitted or not permitted so this may also refer to judgements Peter could make about permitted or forbidden behavior in the new church. Jesus warned the disciples to not tell anyone He was the Messiah. The public didn’t understand the concept of a suffering Messiah so they were not to be told Jesus was the Messiah. Also, the nation had already turned away from Christ. They had crossed the point of no return. From this point on, Jesus began to share with the disciples what His mission really was. He had to suffer before He would know glory, and those who would follow Him would suffer similar fate. Chapter 16:21 is the first of three predictions of Jesus’ passion…His suffering through betrayal, crucifixion, and death. Each prediction gives another lesson on the cost of discipleship. Peter had accurately identified Jesus as the Messiah, but He didn’t understand that the Messiah had to suffer. Peter arguing with Jesus suggests that it was instigated by the evil one.
Jesus also instructed any who might want to follow Him in what that cost could be. There are three imperatives here; give, take, and follow. Giving means to surrender our own personal ambition to God so we can live in His will for us. Taking up your cross is a metaphor for devotion. Following is used both literally and metaphorically. Metaphorically it indicates interest in a teacher. Literally it is a personal allegiance to Jesus involving a call, a commitment, and great ongoing costs. Any who follow are called to relinquish control of their lives, even to the point of giving up your life. Here the exhortation to deny oneself and follow Jesus is rooted in the fact that Jesus will return to judge all people according to their deeds. Verse 28 anticipated the Transfiguration that follows this verse.
Jesus had 12 disciples but three were part of Jesus’ inner circle; Peter, James, and John…always listed in that order. Six days later, that is after Jesus revealed his true purpose to the disciples, Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him up on a high mountain. Mountain tops in scripture are always a place of revelation. While they were there, Jesus was transformed. His inner nature, previously veiled, was now disclosed so that the three caught a glimpse of His glory. It was staggering. Moses and Elijah showed up, representing the law and the prophets. They appeared as witnesses to Christ, to demonstrate that Jesus, God’s Son, is the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets. Peter began to speak and offered to build three shelters as memorials. He may have thought that the kingdom was about to be ushered in with full glory. In truth he was probably overwhelmed and began talking because he didn’t know what else to do. The bright cloud occurred when the Israelites were in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, and God spoke the same words He did at Jesus’ baptism. He instructed the three disciples to listen to Jesus because He is God’s Son who as a prophet, reveals God’s will. At this the disciples were terrified and fell facedown on the ground. This is a pretty typical response for encounters with God’s glory. When the disciples recovered and got up Jesus told them to tell no one what they had seen until He had been raised from the dead. They then went back down the mountain because Jesus work was not done.
Jesus’ discussion about Elijah serves a couple of purposes. The common view was that Elijah would return before the Messiah comes. In pointing to John The Baptist, Jesus reinforced the unexpected idea that the Messiah must suffer, even as His precursor had suffered. Being faithless and corrupt was a reference to moral depravity. Jesus normally directed this at the crowds or the religious leaders but here He aims it towards the disciples. They didn’t trust Him and His saving, healing power. Not having faith here was akin to having none at all. But Jesus told them if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, which is very tiny, they would be able to do great things. And even if they would allow the tiny seed to grow, they could act with courageous belief. Moving mountains is like overcoming obstacles and fulfilling God’s purposes. Again Jesus predicted His death but this time He also predicted His resurrection. The temple tax was two drachmas. It was the annual tax required of every male 20 years or older. It was equal to two days wages and it was used for the upkeep of the temple. As an obedient Jew Jesus would have paid the tax annually and He did. But his point was that as God’s Son, He is greater than the temple and He made a decisive break with it.
Chapter 18 is the fourth major discourse in Matthew. This focuses on responses to the Messiah, acceptance by the disciples and rejection by the Jewish leaders and most of the populace. Jesus began to instruct His followers on community life, living according to His standards. This involved humility, sensitivity, compassion, discipline, and forgiveness. Jesus connected the disciples questions with the previous chapters temple discussion. It seems that the disciples began to assume that their new freedom in relation to Jewish authority entitled them to authority of their own. Jesus set them straight, telling them that the greatest in the kingdom was like a little child. This means to be humble. The disciples were heading towards status and ambition. Jesus taught that welcoming a humble follower of Jesus was like welcoming Jesus Himself. Leading anyone to reject Christ and abandon their faith came with severe consequences. The millstone that would be wrapped around their neck was used for grinding grain and it was so big and heavy it had to be turned by a donkey. That meant it probably weighed several hundred pounds. Causing one to fall away from faith will bring great misery. Jesus encouraged people to rid themselves of whatever caused you to sin. And then Jesus warned everyone not to look down on any of the little ones. This doesn’t necessarily mean small children. It can also mean those new to the faith. In short, we are to walk with one another and support and build one another up. Tearing others down is not unacceptable in any time and place.
The parable of the lost sheep reminds us that Jesus wants to lose no one and He will go after and search for the one who is lost. Christianity is the only religion in which the deity does that. Finding the lost one brings the shepherd great joy. It brings the Father even greater joy. This is the purpose of pastoral care. Jesus taught about restoration in Matthew 18. Restoration begins privately and should be made public only as a last resort. It is on us as believers to set things right with those we have issues with. First we go to the person alone to try to work things out. If that isn’t successful then we are to take a couple of believers with us. This prevents the he said, she said situation. If that doesn’t work then we are to go the church. The unrepentant person is then to be considered a pagan or corrupt tax collector. The discipline for the offender was by exclusion, or excommunication. But the goal is not vindictive retribution or a public display of power. It is restoration to full holiness and fellowship. Verse 19 suggests that discipline must be done in prayer.
We are commanded to forgive, not just once or twice. We are commanded to keep on forgiving without end. Our willingness to forgive should be like God’s Grace…limitless and free. If we have experienced God forgiving grace then we are commanded to forgive others. The first debtor owed 10,000 talents. One talent was the equivalent of 20 years wages. The talent was the highest unit of currency but its value fluctuated. This debt was impossible to pay. It was way larger than the tax revenue of all of Galilee. The servant to promised to pay all the debt…but he would never live long enough. So the master forgave the ginormous debt. But when this servant left he ran into a fellow servant who owed him a small amount of money. This servant promised he would pay but needed more time. The first servant, whose debt had been forgiven, was outraged and tossed the other servant into debtors prison. When the master heard, he was enraged and threw the first servant with the huge debt into prison until he could pay everything he owed. That would guarantee that this servant would spend the rest of his life in prison. This is exactly what God does. He forgives the ginormous debt we owe Him and gives us grace instead.
Beginning with chapter 19, Jesus is on the move towards Jerusalem. As they walk, Jesus takes every possible opportunity to teach them. After all, those men were the ones who would take the Good News of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead out into the world. Jesus addressed the issue of divorce. There were two very divergent views. One group of Pharisees following Rabbi Shammai argued that divorce was allowed only in issues of marital infidelity or other grave sins. The other group that followed Rabbi Hillel taught that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, even because she burned his dinner. But the Pharisees were not considering all of God’s Word. The Creator had made marriage as a permanent union, and because of that humans do not have the right to break it. The Pharisees thought Jesus had contradicted the law of Moses. Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to their hard hearts. Divorce is never God’s desire.
Jesus would lay His hands on others to bless them, in this case children. There were always crowds of people around Jesus and the disciples were motivated to protect Jesus. They scolded the parents, demonstrating a wrong attitude toward children. As a Jew the rich man should have known that God’s standard of goodness is clearly reflected in His commandments. The man’s questions show that he was not trusting in the adequacy of God’s revealed will. By calling the man to go and sell, and come follow me, Jesus revealed that the man had not in fact kept the first of the Ten Commandments. His wealth and possessions had become his god. This was a teachable moment for Jesus and the disciples. It is hard for the rich to humble themselves, admit their need, and trust in God Jesus taught. Many of the Jews lived in a prosperity theology. If people prospered it was because God was blessing them. The kingdom of heaven here is equivalent to eternal life. If taken literally, then it is impossible for the rich to even get close to heaven. A camel would never fit through the eye of a needle. This makes the wealthy entering the kingdom impossible. The disciples asked them who then, in the world can be saved. But all is not hopeless. God’s regenerating grace is absolutely essential before the wealthy are able to repent from their idolatry, abandon their possessions if called to do so, and follow Jesus. The disciples part in judging is a reversal. Those who are wealthy and powerful now will be judged by those who are humble and poor. God likes to turn things upside down.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W