13. A Time for Celebration

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 13.  A Time for Celebration ?

Mt 8:14,15    Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

Later on in Matthew, Jesus uses a full-blown parable about a wedding and the bridegroom, but here we have but a cursory reference to a bridegroom and are left to draw our own conclusions. This isn’t so much about the bridegroom as the circumstances surrounding him.  This particular reference is immediately followed by two other analogies that all have the same thought behind them: there are times and seasons for doing certain things and we need to understand them.

This first one is provoked by John the Baptist’s disciples coming to see Jesus and they cross examine him on the apparent absence of spirituality of his followers. John, obviously, demanded a somewhat ascetic and austere lifestyle which included much prayer and fasting. If Jesus is the expected Messiah, as John had suggested, wouldn’t he demand at least as much from his followers?

Now I believe this verse 14 is as dynamic and explosive today as it was then. It challenges the true reality of spirituality: will you have a God-focused spirituality or a godless spirituality? You see, that latter one was very common then and is very common now. People shy away from the word ‘godless’ because it is normally used in quite a harsh way, but it simply means the absence of God in someone or something. As bizarre as it may sound, you can fast and be godless! How many people who fast, enquire of the Lord first to see if He wants them to fast? Fasting is one of those things (which is right when God says to do it) that so often can be almost a superstitious means of bending God’s arm to get Him to do what you think ought to be done. It can be a very ‘religious’ activity that is man-centred. Before we apply this more widely today, let’s see Jesus’ teaching.

He implies, and you have to be a bit slow not to see it, that he is the bridegroom and his followers are the guests at the wedding. Note in this analogy, believers are not the bride, although that is the wider teaching of the New Testament (e.g. Rev 19:7,8). Now nothing about Jesus’ ‘wedding’ is spelled out here, his listeners are just left wondering, but in general a wedding (even more so in those days where the celebrations might last for days) is a happy time, a time of great celebration, a time of much laughter and gaiety. Now none of those descriptions fit what we normally think about when we consider a time of fasting.

It’s almost as if Jesus might have said, “Guys, be serious. Think about this. What are your times of fasting like? Go on, be honest. They are serious times of abstinence and quite often that is a real discipline and a time of real natural weakness. Look around you and see what is going on here. The sick are being healed by their hundreds. Deaf people hear, dumb people speak, lame people walk, demoniacs are delivered and even sometimes the dead are raised. This is the kingdom of God in action and I tell you, none of these people standing around getting healed are going to stand there mournful and go away and have a time of fasting. They are into serious rejoicing!!!!”

So what sort of church do you and I belong to? What sort of Christian experience do we have? Where people are being regularly saved and their lives being transformed, where the sick are being prayed for and are healed, where God’s wisdom is being used to bring transformation to difficult and trying circumstances, where revelation comes to reveal the wonder of the kingdom of God, these will be places of constant rejoicing. Yes, there are appropriate times to seek the Lord and maybe even fast (and yes, I have done my share in the past), but actually WHEN Jesus is truly Lord and is expressing the kingdom of God through his ‘body’ today, then joy is the most common currency in the life of God’s people. If you are part of a body (the church) where there is little spontaneous rejoicing, it is probably because we are not letting Jesus be Lord and we are stifling his Holy Spirit and so are seeing little fruit of transformation.

Twice the apostle Paul spoke of God’s kingdom in these terms. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17) and “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” (1 Cor 4:20) When the power of God is expressed through Jesus’ present-day body, joy always follows. The opposite is also true: when joy is absent it is so often because of the absence of God’s power, the absence of Jesus moving in the midst.

This particular analogy is not about the relationship of the bride to the bridegroom, but it is about the nature of life with Jesus. It is life transformational and if it is not, we have lost something and there is indeed cause to grieve and to fast. When we start believing the New Testament and opening ourselves to be available to the Lord to move through, then transformation will come and it will bring with it rejoicing and celebrations, like those seen in a Jewish wedding feast. May it be so!

12. The Divine Doctor

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 12.  The Divine Doctor

Mt 8:11,12    When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and `sinners’?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The analogy within these verses is so simple and yet if you said to any ordinary person, “You’re sick!” they would quite probably be offended. However, the truth of these verses goes right to the heart of the human predicament: we are all of us contaminated by this thing called Sin, a propensity to be self-centred and godless, not a physical ailment but equally an ailment, one that affects the heart (the centre of a person’s being, not the muscle that pumps blood around the body), one that is spiritual and having far greater effect that any physical ailment might have.

Jesus had been meeting with tax collectors, those collaborators with the Romans who were hated by the people at large, and ‘sinners’, the low life of society we might say today. This caused critical comment from the self-righteous Pharisees, guardians of the Law and of society’s ethics. Jesus overheard their critical grumblings and gave the above explanation. He clearly portrays himself as a doctor in this analogy, and doctors go to sick people and sinners are sick people.

Now we should never use this analogy as an excuse for sin because there is a distinct self-will element to it; we can run with this propensity that I referred to or seek to resist it, and when we fail to overcome it (as Paul explained in Romans 7), we turn to Christ to empower us to overcome it (see Romans 8). Nevertheless, it is a good analogy. Sin is a sickness. Think about this.

Sickness is an unnatural or abnormal physical or mental state of ill health. I use the word ‘unnatural’ because the natural state of a human being is to have good health and illness is an attack on that caused by either a deficiency of some kind or an attack by a disease or infection. Something is working in the human body to bring it down, to limit its actions, to prevent growth and proper development, even to destroy it. Now think of each of these descriptions and apply them to Sin.

Sin is unnatural or abnormal. It is not how God created the first man and woman; they had no sin, but the moment they disobeyed God – they sinned – Sin became an inherent part of human nature, an outworking of the human will. It’s heart is ‘self’ and its outworking is godless unrighteousness  i.e. it is always in respect of God. In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son the son comes to himself and says, I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” (Lk 15:18) Sin is always against God, and may be against another human being.

The apostle Paul demonstrated the power of sin when he wrote, at length, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Rom 7:14-20) You can’t make it more clear than that! If a person has the flu, you know there is no point saying, “Come on, snap out of it, get up, get on!”  Even worse, imagine them with, say, typhoid fever or malaria where they might be delirious. How pointless it is just demanding they ignore it and get on with life!

Now this is the same reality with Sin. You can try to be as nice as you like but ultimately you will still be self-centred and godless. You may try to be religious to overcome this propensity but in reality it is still self-effort that ignores God’s remedy, and is thus godless! The truth is that we are sin-sick and we need a doctor. Now imagine a doctor is called to the home of a seriously sick child. The parents will want to know two things: first, what is the illness and, second, what is the remedy for it?

So doctor Jesus comes to the world to confront it with the fact of its sickness. He does that by demonstrating his utter goodness which shows up even the top religious leaders and makes them really upset. He also does it in his teaching and his call to people to receive his Father’s love and rule. But what is the remedy for this sin-sickness? It is twofold? It is to receive Jesus’ redeeming work on the Cross whereby our sin, shame and guilt were all taken by Jesus, and it is also to surrender to him and receive his Holy Spirit to be born again, empowered by his Spirit to enable us to rise to new heights with a new life that puts Sin to death (Rom 6:11) and whenever the enemy seeks to resurrect it, we reject it and turn away from it and to God (Rom 6:12,13). THIS is what Jesus came to bring.

So why did he not go to the Pharisees, why the tax collectors and sinners? Have you ever noticed that human tendency to denial? Symptoms arise in your partner and you point them out. They deny anything is wrong. The symptoms persist and you continue to point them out. They continue to deny them until they get to a level where they interrupt life and have to be faced. We referred earlier to the fact that the Pharisees were self-righteous, and that was true of the chief priests etc. as well. They thought they were righteous because they were religious, even though the religion they had was a far cry from anything God had instituted to help Israel.

However, when it came to the tax collectors and ‘low life’ they knew exactly what they were like and when a life-belt was thrown them they grabbed at it. Zacchaeus was a classic example of that (see Lk 19) as were many others of that grouping. They just needed Jesus’ unconditional love and acceptance and they came running into the kingdom to receive the ‘healing’ that only heaven can provide – unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, cleansing and adoption.

It is a simple little analogy but a powerful one, especially as you see Jesus working it out with these particular people. Now although the primary work is done at our conversion, the ongoing ‘healing’ process goes on for the rest of our lives. Theologians call it sanctification and once the overall ‘disease’ has been dealt with and its power broken, the ongoing process deals with deep down attitudes that may still surface to be dealt with, or has to confront ongoing opportunities for us to get it wrong when confronted with difficult situations or difficult people. It will only be by God’s grace and His love flowing in and through us, will these times of conflict and temporary failure be reduced. It is an ongoing process and He continues to love us every day until we come face to face with Him, then to be with Him and enjoy Him and be enjoyed by Him for eternity. Hallelujah!

11. A Question of Authority

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 11.  A Question of Authority

Mt 8:8,9  The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, `Go,’ and he goes; and that one, `Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, `Do this,’ and he does it.”

Before I start, we need to restate the overall context of Jesus’ teaching and repeat what I said in two earlier studies: what we have here is a supreme challenge to enter into a new world, the world of Christ, the kingdom of God that works on very different values to the rest of the world. The difference of the ‘two kingdoms’ will now be seen in an amazing way in what now follows.

Now I realise I am stretching the boundaries of these studies because this is not a case of an analogy used by Jesus, but it is clear from what follows that he thoroughly approves it: When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (v.10) This Roman centurion understood something about Jesus beyond anything Jesus had found in his own people. To understand the parallels implied in these two simple verses, we see on one hand the centurion’s perception of Jesus and then, on the other hand, the parallel of his own experience. It is easier to take his experience first and then apply it to Jesus.

This man is a centurion, not very high up in the Roman hierarchy but sufficiently high to have learned about authority in the army. As anyone who has been trained in the army knows, authority and obedience to it is essential. When a command is given, it is imperative that it is obeyed. Authority is the right and power to command and to be obeyed. It is built in very early on in the Forces by strict discipline that requires punishment for failures to obey implicitly. In the Roman army that discipline was about as strict as you may find anywhere in history. When the one above you issued a command, you obeyed! If you didn’t then you suffered. The point was that this man knew all of this and knew that when authority existed it WOULD be obeyed.

Now perhaps we should pause a moment to remind ourselves of the context, the situation involving this man. He comes to Jesus: “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.” (v.6,7) There it is. He comes to Jesus and addresses him with respect. He reveals his need and Jesus says he will meet it. It is at that point the man reveals his humility and awareness of the reality of his life: “The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” (v.8a) i.e. implied within this may be, “I am not religious and holy like you. I am a rough soldier who kills people. I have no right to demand anything of you,” but then all that is overcome by a combination of his concern for his servant and what he knows about Jesus.

The outworking of this is seen in his following words: “But just say the word, and my servant will be healed,” (v.8b) and he goes on to explain his understanding of authority. In it he is saying, “I know all about authority, and I know about you, and in the same way that when I command my men they have to obey, so when you command sickness to leave I know it will obey you and go.

Somewhere between all that he had no doubt heard about Jesus, and his personal knowledge of authority, he had put two and two together and realised that Jesus, in the spiritual world, exercised this same authority and brought about healing in the physical realm. Somehow, we might suggest, the Holy Spirit had released faith in him, in his understanding of who Jesus was, and therefore he knew that Jesus authority could bring the healing his servant needed.

The parallel here (it’s not really an analogy but a close cousin to it) is a most remarkable one that shows us in a unique way what it means to say that the Son of God has such authority. Jesus spoke about this at various times. One well known time is when the man was lowered through the roof and Jesus first forgave his sins, which upset some of the religious observers: “Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, `Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, `Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . .” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home.” (Mt 9:4-7) If Jesus declares it, it is so.

He also imparted that authority to his disciples: “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” (Mt 10:1) which perhaps was the grounds for John to be able to record later, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12)

After his resurrection we read, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Mt 28:16-18) And because of that he was able to send the disciples out to continue doing what he had been doing: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt 28:19,20) In the context of the incident with the centurion, note the strength of his words: “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” That has echoes of authority within it.

John shows us that this wasn’t a matter of following a set of rules, but learning to live under the direction and power of the Holy Spirit, doing what the Father did: “Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working…. I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (Jn 5:17,19) It’s all about relationship, not rules or ritual. When we have that relationship, we will have that authority and we will do what Jesus did.

10. Choices & Consequences

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 10.  Choices and Consequences 

Mt 7:24,26  Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock….. everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”

The parable of the wise man who built his house on the rock (for it is a parable, a story rather than mere word comparisons of the analogies we have seen so far) is probably the most famous story that any child who has been to Sunday School will have learnt – and perhaps even sung about. The story is about making choices and the consequences that follow and in that, it is just like the analogy that Jesus spoke about a few verses earlier – going through the narrow gate of obedience brings life, compared to going through the wide gate which leads to destruction. That too was about choices and the consequences that follow. That cannot be emphasised enough in respect of this present parable and as such it goes to the very heart of everything about the Christian faith – which is all about making choices, and the consequences that follow.

The starting point though, of this very comprehensive little parable, is the nature of two men – a wise man and a foolish man, and they are shown to be what they are by the choices they make and the consequences that follow. It is a mystery why people are like they are. Some argue genetics, others argue upbringing, but the reality is that we each have free will and although there may be either hereditary or training (or lack of it) that suggest to us certain paths to take, we each have free will and sufficient intellect (at least for the vast majority) to decide which path we want to take. Very often the path follows very shallow or brief thinking, but the ability is there, even though we may not use it to its fullest extent.

Before we go any further, it is perhaps worth checking this as a broader scriptural teaching. Solomon wrote, He who sows wickedness reaps trouble.” (Prov 22;8) and “he who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward.” (Prov 11:18) which, combined may be the reason for the apostle Paul’s teaching: “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal 6:7,8) It is the same teaching as we find here, although here we are left thinking a little more about the nature of the ‘destruction’.

There is nothing unusual about this matter of making choices for it appears in many ways in life. Economics is sometimes defined as the ‘science’ of making choices as to how to use scarce resources. Sometime politics is said to be how to make choices for the best running of society. Psychology is about how all behaviour is or is not a matter of choice. When it comes to spiritual choices they prove to be the most significant of all because they not only affect the present but also the eternal future.

So we have two men, a wise man and a foolish man and in Jesus’ story they both decide to build a house. One builds his house on rock and the other on sand. This is not rocket science, this is stuff that any child can understand. But then a storm comes along with torrential rain, and the obvious happens. The rain just runs off the rock but washes away the sand and so the second house collapses. It is a patently obvious story.

Now what is it all about? Jesus makes it very plain for he prefaces both halves of the story with the explanation: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (v.24 and “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (v.26) It’s all about listening to Jesus and then making a choice – whether to obey his instructions, or not.

But Jesus doesn’t just say building on rock is smart and building on sand is stupid, he spells out why it is – because we live in a world where storms come and the foundations are tested. Ah! This is at the heart of this story – the foundations, rock and sand as we’ve already seen. One can withstand storms and one cannot. Obeying me, says Jesus, means you can withstand the storms of life. Disregarding my teaching means the storms of life will bring you down. So two things to be further considered: what are ‘the storms of life’ and what is the teaching of Jesus?

Well ‘storms of life’ occur because we live in a fallen world and they can be things that just naturally randomly happen because the world is not working as it was when God first made because of the effect of sin, even on the physical world (which few of us understand). They can be literal storms, floods, hurricanes etc., things that cause physical damage and may destroy our homes or our businesses. But they may also be things that are caused by the sinfulness of mankind and so we may bring them on ourselves because of our own folly, or others may seek to bring them on us. In the month I write this the world has known cyber attacks which in the UK means dozens of hospitals were shut down putting lives at risk and causing immense inconvenience. The sinfulness of mankind. We have also in the UK a terrorist bomb killing and maiming dozens, specifically targeted at young people and children. The sinfulness of mankind. Even more we have had three random terrorist running amok in London killing people with knives. The sinfulness of mankind.  Because we live in this fallen world, we can get caught up in the outworkings of such things – ‘natural’ or man-made. These ‘storms of life’ can include physical illnesses or infirmities, mental breakdowns, relational breakdowns and so on. They can all be things that threaten to bring us down in misery or collapse. How do we cope with such things?

So what is Jesus’ teaching? Repent, turn away from your self-centred and godless life and turn to God. Receive what Jesus has done for you on the Cross so that your sins may be forgiven, you may be adopted into God’s family and receive the power of His Holy Spirit into your life as a new power source. Sometimes we call that power source ‘grace’, His ability imparted to us to enable us to cope with whatever comes along and to rise above it. THIS is why Christians can survive while their neighbours subside into a heap of misery, this is why when there are national catastrophes it is so often Christians who rise up and provide solace, care, concern and help.

It is not because they are good in themselves, but because they become the instruments of God who wants to bring these things, help to people who are suffering. Why doesn’t God stop these things, people often say? Because you demand independence and so He respects you enough to give it to you, and so He won’t leap in to counter every wrong thought, or wrong deed that unleashes harm – but He is there the moment you turn to Him and seek Him. He doesn’t want harm to come to you, but He respects the choices you make – to build on rock or sand and, if you built on sand, He will be there if you cry out to Him when your life fell around your ears – but how sad that it has to come to that sometimes!

9. All about Fruit

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 9.  All about fruit

Mt 7:16    By their fruit you will recognize them

In the previous study we summarised the earlier verses in this chapter as follows: what we have here is a supreme challenge to enter into a new world, the world of Christ, the kingdom of God that works on very different values to the rest of the world. That was followed by the analogy of two ways ahead – a narrow gate leading to life and a wide gate leading to destruction, and the challenge was to choose which one to go through, with the consequences that follow. The wide gate and the broad road look inviting and easy but they are deceptive. In the next study we’ll see the two house builders and the temptation of building on sand, because it looks easy, but that is deception which will lead to destruction. This same idea comes through again and again – be careful, everything is not as it seems; there will be consequences that follow choice and they may be bad!

Now in this same vein, Jesus uses two different language pictures (not stories, not parables, but analogies) that are all about appearance. In the first one he warns about people who are deceivers: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (v.15) False prophets (and the Bible has a number of warnings against listening to them) are those who speak wrong, false, deceptive and untrue words but the bigger issue about them, according to Jesus, is what they are like on the inside.

They look good on the outside; they come in disguise, he says, as if they had put on a sheepskin. Sheep, after all, are placid and easy going creatures, nothing to worry about. These people make out that they are like this, but they are deceivers because, on the inside, says Jesus, they are ferocious wolves. Now why the analogy of wolves? Well wolves are predators that are out for themselves and they get their food, their means of living, by pulling down and destroying other creatures. They separate the individual sheep off from the flock and then bring it down. False prophets speak false words for their own benefit, that they might get a reputation, get given money and a position; ultimately they are out for self. The untruths they speak are the sort of words that people like to hear: you are not guilty, God won’t act against your sin, and anyway what is sin, we’re all free to do what we like, it will be all right, be yourself, live as you wish.

But Jesus has a very simple way of checking them out: “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (v.16a) Look at their lives, are they full of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22,23), are they holy? Look at the fruit of their teaching; do you see lives that are godly and good and holy? If you look back in history you will find many ‘philosophers’ or maybe authors or poets or artists who were feted by society but their lives were a mess. Look at leaders today, whether they be spiritual or politicians or simply what are called today, ‘celebrities’. Look at their lives. How many have just one wife, how many have an orderly family, how many show the fruit of righteousness?  By their fruit you will know what they are really like.

Then, to emphasise this point, Jesus uses the analogy of fruit: “Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” (v.16b) i.e. think about bushes and trees that bear fruit. He continues: “Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” (v.17,18) It is a very simple analogy: good fruit comes from one sort of tree. A healthy fruit tree, we might say, bears good fruit. Bushes, trees or shrubs that carry thorns don’t bear the fruit we can eat, fruit that is good. Apples come from apple trees, not from fir trees. Pears come from pear trees not briars. Beware pushing the analogy too far because blackberries, gooseberries etc. come from spiky, prickly bushes – but nevertheless you know the bush they come from.

Look at the fruit and you’ll know the bush or tree. It is so obvious that the spiritual analogy is simple to apply: good fruit of the Spirit doesn’t come a bad heart. Bad things – selfishness, self-will, denial of God’s truths, bending of God’s truths, lust, envy, covetousness etc. etc. don’t come from a good heart. And bear in mind, Jesus adds, what happens to trees that are supposed to bear good fruit but don’t: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (v.19) The implied warning is very obvious: God will hold us accountable and it doesn’t matter what we ‘say’, it’s the fruit that reveals the sort of people we are. He concludes a second time: “Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (v.20)

Now put all this into context. Previously he warned about the only valid way of entering the kingdom of God, a kingdom with specific behaviour, good behaviour, righteous behaviour. It doesn’t matter that there is a wide gate and a broad road – they are deceptive and lead to destruction. In the parable that follows, don’t worry about the fact that the sand looks smooth and flat, it’s not safe to build on it, it is deception that leads to destruction when storms come. And now in our present verses, don’t just accept everything by the words you hear. Think about it. Look at the fruit of the lives of people who teach questionable things. Look at the outworking of their teaching. There are good, God-given ministries that we are to follow and there are imitations who pretend to be the same, but aren’t. Look at their backgrounds, how they got here, and where their teaching takes us. Good comes from God and godly ministries, and brings more godly fruit. Bad flows from self, with untruths that bring further self-orientated but godless living. Beware!

8. Doors and Destinations

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 8.  Doors & Destinations

Mt 7:13,14  “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

These, I suspect, well known and much preached on verses, present us with two problems. The first is that it is difficult to see how they follow on from what goes before or what follows after; what is the progression of thought, either in Jesus as he spoke these things or even, perhaps, in Matthew as he compiled these sayings? The second that follows on, is that because of this there are few clues, if any to help us interpret these verses. Let’s try to catch an overall sense of what Jesus has been saying in this chapter to see if we can apply that sense to these verses.

He starts by talking about a people (his followers) who do not judge and write off others (v.1), a people who are aware of their own failures (v.2-5), a people who have been entrusted with sacred and very precious things from God (v.6), things which seem to stretch on into the future and which are appropriated when we pray – ask, seek, knock (v.7,8), a people who are encouraged to ask by the love of their heavenly Father (v.9-11). He finalises this picture of his followers by summing up their behaviour as follows: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (v.12) So what we have here is a supreme challenge to enter into a new world, the world of Christ, the kingdom of God that works on very different values to the rest of the world. That is the challenge so far.

It clearly is a different world, a different way of living and it obviously has to be entered into so the start of our two verses is not surprising: “Enter through the narrow gate.” If you enter a club or an association or any other grouping, there are entry requirements. The requirement here is to come in via a ‘narrow gate’. Narrow? As opposed to what? A wide gate and a broad road. Oh. So what’s the difference? The destination. The wide gate and the broad road “leads to destruction”.  Ooops! So what is the destination of this ‘narrow gate’?  Life! (v.14) Right. What else are we told? When it comes to the wide gate and broad road, “many enter through it”. And the narrow gate? “Only a few find it.” Wow!

So one way leads to life and the other way leads to destruction. But we were thinking in the first 12 verses of chapter 7 of the life for Jesus’ followers? Yes, that is the way of ‘life’, NOT destruction (and both are equally important to realise.) So what is this ‘narrow gate’?  Well, I think preachers often speculate about what it means but actually it is spelled out in the remaining verses of this chapter.

First of all Jesus gives a warning against ‘false prophets’, anyone who brings a teaching or revelation that is not from God. How do we know it is not from God? It is contrary to the rest of Scripture. You’ll know these people, says Jesus, by the fruit of their lives. Are these still self-centred and godless individuals or are they godly and full of the fruit of the Spirit? If they are the former, ignore them.  That is the precautionary warning that comes first. Our guide is first, foremost and last, the Bible. Any teaching contrary to it, stay away from!

But then comes the definition of the narrow gate: “Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (v.21) The narrow gate is complete submission to the will of God. We will go on tomorrow to see how Jesus spells this out in the first real parable in this book of Matthew, but for the moment we can stop with this. Jesus lays down a whole variety of criteria that he expects to see in his followers, lack of judgment of others, self-awareness, receivers of all God’s gifts, childlike seekers of all the Father has for them ahead, a people who look for the good for all. That is what it is like in the kingdom of God and the only way in to all this is by surrender to the will of God, complete abandonment of self-will, a giving in to what God wants. That is the narrow way. (Obviously, by comparison, the wide gate and broad road is just doing your own thing, contrary to God’s ways and God’s wishes).

It doesn’t matter whatever other interpretations we have of the Christian life, all of Jesus’ teaching in the amazing Sermon on the Mount (ch.5-7 of Matthew) is summed up in this one thing: his followers obey what he teaches and are utterly submitted to the will of the Father. If we don’t do that, everything else we do – going to church, trying to impress God and others with our respectability and spirituality – is utterly meaningless. That is the power of these words of Jesus in these verses.

7. The Father’s Provision

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 7.  The Father’s Provision

Mt 7:9-11 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Again we need to see the context to catch the full import of these three verses. Immediately before Jesus has encouraged his followers:Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Mt 7:7,8) Immediately before that, as we saw in the previous study, he had spoken of us not dropping what we had that was sacred, or our ‘pearls’, before dogs or pigs, and that might lead some to think, “Hold on, what have I got that is sacred, what have I got that are the equivalent of precious pearls?” That leads us to realise that there is more in the Christian life to be appropriated than we have at the moment – and this is always true, there is always more to come from the Lord.

But how do you get this ‘more’? By asking, by seeking, by knocking on God’s door, so to speak. The tense of those verbs is ongoing so it means keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. Now many people don’t realise this and they settle for what they have and settle into a state of inactivity and immobility, but the truth is that we are called to be seekers. Why doesn’t the Father just give it without us asking? Well asking is a sign of spiritual health and it also brings about a closeness in relationship with the Father so, yes, as we mature there is always this balance, there is always this tension between being contented with what God has made us but a yearning for more of Him, more of the expression of His kingdom, more of the experience of His Holy Spirit.

But there is a problem. Now in this year of writing (2017) there has arisen a new term used in the media – false news, or fake news. It means things that are said publicly as if they were true but in reality they are false. Now in spiritual warfare this is nothing new for the Bible tells us that Satan is a deceiver; he deceived Eve at the start and he seeks to deceive whoever will listen to him. Now many of us have listened to him unwittingly and so we have heard such ‘fake news’ as “God is a harsh, judgmental God. God doesn’t love you, you are a nobody, you are a failure in life, nobody loves you.” And all of that is untrue! But people believe it, which is why Jesus spoke out the words in our verses above.

He has just encouraged us to be seekers of more, to keep on asking and keep on knocking at God’s door but the problem is that we are reticent to ask because we’ve listened to the enemy’s ‘fake news’ and we need to get over that. So Jesus asks us to think about any normal family: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?”

Imagine the picture. A little child comes in tired and hungry from school, say, and says, can I have something to eat please?  The father goes outside, picks up a rock and brings it in and places it on a plate and puts it in front of him on the table. Oh, come on, Jesus’ listeners would have protested, no dad would do that! OK, replies Jesus, let’s change the picture then, let’s make it a living thing. The child asks for a fish and so dad goes out and finds a snake and puts it on a plate before him. Oh, come on!!! A loving dad wouldn’t do that!

OK, says Jesus, think about this. There’s nothing special about this dad, he’s the same as any other human being, a sinner, basically evil when it comes to it. Now you are telling me that this dad wouldn’t ever do something so unkind to his son, so why do you think your Father in heaven is less than this dad? Why is Father going to hold back on giving good gifts to His children when an earthly father doesn’t do that? We might add, think of all the evidence of the whole Bible that tells us that God has blessed and blessed and blessed His people. Think of all the good He has done for you. Think of the salvation He has granted you – earned by the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, imparting sonship, forgiveness, cleansing, righteousness, and power, teaching and direction of the Holy Spirit. All this was free, you didn’t do anything to earn it. You didn’t go looking for it, He came looking for you, He initiated everything.

This is a serious argument. Why do so many of us think, I’m nobody, I’m nothing, I’m a failure? Answer: because it is true – but it is only half the story. The other half is the things we listed near the end of the previous paragraph. Jesus has got so much more he wants you and me to enter into but we don’t get it because we don’t keep on asking, seeking and knocking for it, because we listen to the likes of the crusading atheists with their ignorant rantings and believe the fake news. No, we are NOT unloved, No, God is NOT a harsh God. He is a loving heavenly Father and if He holds back, it is because He wants to strengthen your heart, strengthen your resolve and draw you closer to Him.

Go back to that Old Testament ‘equation’: “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psa 37: 4) When we delight in Him, when we make Him the focus of our lives, then He starts putting desires on our hearts and as we start recognising those desires and asking and asking for them, so He grants them. There is so much more just waiting for you, but it starts with this ‘equation’.