Exultation and Rejection

Then his disciples asked him, “Why do the teachers of religious law insist that Elijah must return before the Messiah comes?”

Jesus replied, “Elijah is indeed coming first to get everything ready. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, but he wasn’t recognized, and they chose to abuse him. And in the same way they will also make the Son of Man suffer.” Then the disciples realized he was talking about John the Baptist.

Matthew 17:10-13 New Living Translation

As we begin Matthew 17, Peter, James, and John are allowed to experience the strongest evidence to that moment of Jesus being the Messiah their nation had long been waiting for. Jesus takes them to the top of a mountain where they have a supernatural encounter with the presence of God. As they stand on the mountain, Jesus’ face begins to shine like the sun. This points back to the time in Israel’s history when Moses came back from encountering God on Mt. Sinai and his face would glow from being in the presence of Yahweh. The three disciples then see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. They are all overwhelmed by this vision and Peter wants to build three memorials on the mountain to remember this event. At this point, they hear a voice from heaven affirming Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and their need to listen to Him carefully. On the way down, the disciples asked Jesus again about the return of Elijah as the predecessor to the Messiah. Jesus reminds them that Elijah has already come and they finally realize that John the Baptist was the fulfillment of this expectation from the prophecies of old.

As Jesus, again, let His closest followers in on more details of His role in God’s great plan, He included the part they had difficulty absorbing. He reminded them of how John had been rejected by the powers that be and was eventually executed by Herod Agrippa. Jesus saw this as an expected outcome. Among the leadership of a corrupted system that continued to reject the love and justice of God, voices that point to the ways the culture is falling short of the good Kingdom of God will always be a threat and something that needs to be silenced. Jesus knew that the same people who silenced John would eventually want to silence Him. This was hard for the disciples to accept because it went against their understanding of the way things should be. Their culture had taught them to wait for a victorious deliverer. The idea that the Messiah would suffer was foreign to them. Peter, himself, had previously protested the idea that Jesus would suffer death and was strongly warned that this thinking was human thinking and not Divine thinking. Now, they seemed to accept that what He said was true even if it made them uncomfortable.

Often the ways of Jesus will go against our human ideas of how things get done and are changed. We like a conquering king that will kick butt, take over, and make things right. The path of Jesus is a path that finds victory in the midst of what others would call defeat. As followers of Jesus, this can be a hard thing for us to embrace. History has shown us, though, that those who have discovered this reality have found a way of peace in some of the most difficult circumstances. They have the eternal perspective to see that God will set things straight in the end and is always working to bring about the good Kingdom He hopes for us to join Him in.

Jesus, You chose a way of suffering in order to bring about God’s good purposes on Earth. That is something we are not always comfortable with. Give us the faith to see all things from and eternal perspective and to trust You in every circumstance.

Wrong Influence

“Why can’t you understand that I’m not talking about bread? So again I say, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’”
Then at last they understood that he wasn’t speaking about the yeast in bread, but about the deceptive teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Matthew 16:11-12 New Living Translation

The hardening of many religious leaders’ hearts toward Jesus seems complete as we reach the 16th chapter of Matthew. In spite of all the public miracles Jesus has performed, they ask Jesus to perform another miracle on their command to prove His authority as a teacher. He ignores their petty attempt to cover their unbelief with a test of His power for the sake of inquiry. He points to the example of Jonah living in the belly of a great fish for three days as the sign He will give them in the end. He, of course, is pointing to his own death and resurrection as the ultimate sign of His authority as the Messiah. This does not meet their expectations of a messiah. They wanted a messiah that did powerful miracles. They wanted a messiah that would lead them in victory against their oppressors. Instead, He offers them a messiah that will be killed and then raised from the dead. They had no place for this type of messiah.

As He left the area with His disciples, Jesus warned them to watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He had previously used yeast as an illustration of the good work of people of the Kingdom of God in transforming the environment around them. This time, though, it refers to the deceptive teachings of the religious leaders and the bad influence they can have on those around them. Their refusal to believe the coming of the Kingdom of God in their midst led them to keep trying to discredit Jesus as the expected Messiah. His concern was that this attitude would affect His disciples as well. The fact that they misunderstood him and thought He was referring to the lack of bread in their boat demonstrated that they were as vulnerable to the influence of deceptions as the religious leaders who sought to kill Him. Once He reminded them of His provision in the past, they began to realize that He had something else in mind when He made this warning.

The yeast that affected the Sadducees and Pharisees is still prevalent in our world today. Each of us runs the risk of being blinded by our own traditions in such a way that we have difficulty seeing the work of the Kingdom of God in our midst. If we continue to harden our hearts to the voice of the Spirit, we will be in danger of reaching the point that even the most obvious evidence of God’s Kingdom will be difficult to see. If we continue to allow the Spirit to soften our hearts, though, we will have our eyes opened to the work of the Kingdom all around us.

Jesus, we want to be people who are spreading the positive influence of Your kingdom to the world around us. Help us to recognize and guard our hearts against the influence of deception and traditions that harden our hearts to Your Spirit.

Too Extreme

“To what can I compare this generation? It is like children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends,

‘We played wedding songs,
and you didn’t dance,
so we played funeral songs,
and you didn’t mourn.’

For John didn’t spend his time eating and drinking, and you say, ‘He’s possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’

Matthew 11:16-19 New Living Translation

The people of Jesus’ day seemed fickle in what they expected of a Messiah. John the Baptist had come as the fulfillment of words spoken by the prophets of old that Elijah would someday return to prepare the way for the Messiah. Jesus came as the fulfillment of their messianic hopes. Still, the majority of the people in their day didn’t recognize them as such and Jesus was about to call them out about this.

This section of Matthew begins with John experiencing his own doubts about Jesus as the Messiah. He was in prison (a place he remained until he was beheaded). He sent messengers to Jesus to verify that Jesus was, in fact, the one they were supposed to be waiting for. Jesus was understanding of the doubts John was facing and sent reassurances to John by pointing out the ways He was fulfilling the call of establishing God’s Kingdom among the poor and tormented. After the messengers leave, Jesus addresses the crowd around Him, affirming John’s role as the long-promised return of Elijah.

The respectable people of Jesus’ day had trouble with both John the Baptist and Jesus. They were two opposite extremes of the spectrum and people rejected them for apparently opposite reasons. John was too radical and ascetic, so they accused him of being demon-possessed. Jesus hung out with and enjoyed life with the wrong kind of people, so they called Him a drunkard. Jesus compared these people to children playing a game in the market place and complaining that their friends would not respond properly to whatever mood they expressed with their music. The majority of the crowd had specific expectations of how the Prophet and Messiah would act and Jesus and John didn’t fulfill these in their minds.

We can be the same way in the expectations we place on the work of God in our culture today. In times of distress, we may look for a Messiah that stands up to the people we have determined are bad and miraculously brings them down. We may find it difficult to believe that God would send someone to enter their world and bring the presence of Christ with them. In times of prosperity when we are in a mood to celebrate, God’s call to humility, simplicity, and generosity may seem too severe for us. God calls us to live in such a way that we can recognize His work and His presence even when it comes in ways that we wouldn’t expect it.

Jesus, forgive us for the times when we have placed expectations on you that make it hard for us to recognize the work of Your Spirit. Place Your Spirit in us to open our eyes to the things You are doing that may not meet our expectations.

Truly Clean

Then Jesus called to the crowd to come and hear. “Listen,” he said, “and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”
Matthew 15:10-11 New Living Translation

The Pharisees’ opposition to Jesus begins to ramp up in Chapter 15 of Matthew’s account. Jesus is still in Galilee but, apparently, leaders in Jerusalem thought it was necessary to send a team to check out what Jesus was teaching and doing. The first thing they observed was that the disciples were not following the ceremonial rituals for proper handwashing as they ate. This wasn’t to say they weren’t cleaning their hands for hygiene purposes but they were not abiding by the interpretations of how to wash hands according to the law as they were taught by the Pharisees. The Pharisees saw this as evidence to deny that Jesus was the Messiah that so many were claiming He would be.

Jesus confronted the attitude of the Pharisees by showing how they had put their own traditions ahead of the purposes of the law God had given Israel many years before. He cites a specific example of how people were avoiding the commandment about honoring parents by designating resources that would go to caring for parents in a time of need as a donation to the Temple. People had gotten into the practice of dishonoring and neglecting their older parents through a loophole the Pharisees had created in their interpretation of the law. He tells his disciples later that the religious teachers of the day have become like blind guides that lead people astray with the way they have created traditions that miss the heart of what God had desired for Israel in giving them the law so many years before that.

Jesus then goes after the heart of what true cleanliness before God means. In front of these investigators from Jerusalem, He tells the crowd that what they take in as food does not defile them before God. It is what comes out of the mouth from the heart that makes a person unclean in God’s eyes. He later explains to His disciples what He means by this. He reminds them that when food enters the body, the body pulls the nutrients it needs out of the food and then the waste is discarded by the body. It never touches the heart. In their culture, the heart was seen as the center of all intellectual and emotional functions in a person. It represented the true identity of a person. What Jesus told His disciples was that this was where all good and evil was originated in people and it produced the good and evil ideas and actions that came out of them. Jesus was pointing them back to the words of the Old Testament prophets that the Messiah would bring change to the hearts of people to live according to the law because of the character He was forming in them and not following a list of manmade requirements.

As followers of Jesus, we inherit this promise of having a new heart created within us that helps us to resist the temptation toward evil and live a life that brings about the love, hope, justice, and goodness that God desires for us. As such, we also learn to give our fellow followers of Jesus space as the Holy Spirit continues to work in them to create a new heart that best represents the image of God in them. If we try to impose our external traditions and rules on others, we run the risk of becoming blind guides who lead others astray by placing our man made traditions ahead of the spirit of God’s law. This doesn’t mean that there is no place for discernment in what we take in intellectually to feed our spirits. If we feed those attitudes of our hearts that are contrary to love, hope, justice, and goodness, the fruit that comes out of our hearts will more likely be bent in that direction. Still, the attitudes were resident in us from the beginning and it is our choice to nourish them or resist them. As we allow the Spirit to produce the good things that God desires within us, though, we are free from the mandates of man made traditions by which others may try to judge the work of the Spirit within us.

Jesus, create new hearts in us that are drawn to the good things that God desires for us and the world around us. Help us to also resist the temptation to substitute external,manmade traditions for the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

The Influence of Presence

Jesus also used this illustration: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”
Matthew 13:33 New Living Translation

We have done our share of bread making in our house since buying a bread machine at a garage sale a few years ago. I have always been fascinated by the work of the yeast. I’ve learned you have to be careful with yeast. When I first attempted to make bread in our machine, I didn’t concern myself with the order I used to put the ingredients in. The yeast and the salt ended up touching each other and the salt killed the yeast. The end result was a hard and dense lump of cooked dough that had very little resemblance to bread. When used properly, though, the yeast permeates the flour mixture and creates a lighter, larger, and more airy loaf that is a pleasure to eat.

Throughout His time on earth, Jesus used many everyday illustrations to explain to His followers what the Kingdom of God was like. In the verse quoted above, He uses yeast as His illustration. This image points to how people who are living by the principles of the Kingdom of God can change the environment around them through influence. In a way, it contrasts the harsh religious system of the Pharisees seen in Chapter 12. The Pharisees tried to control behavior through external controls. The way of Jesus was to change hearts from the inside out. His approach would create healthier growth for people in an environment that nurtures and doesn’t crush.

We have the opportunity to bring the presence of the Kingdom of God to a variety of environments every day. The call of the followers of Jesus is to change environments from the inside out, not to control outcomes through external pressure. When we are faithfully present in people’s lives and follow the example of Jesus, we have the opportunity to influence positive change in the lives around us.

Jesus, help us to be people who influence others for good the way You do.