43. Hiring Workers

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 43.  Hiring Workers

Mt 20:1,2   For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard

This is one of those parables that particularly seems to confuse people and raise questions, and yet it is remarkably simple in the basic story:  A landowner wants people to work in his vineyard and goes out at regular intervals throughout the day to recruit more workers and agrees to pay them all exactly the same amount, a single denarius, regardless of how long they will work. Now this is what confuses people for those employed early on only get a denarius for the whole day while those employed right at the end of the day and who appear to only work for an hour, get exactly the same, one denarius.  How unfair, people say, surely those who worked longer should be paid more! The main content of this fairly long story is found in verses 1 to 9 and then we find this complaint being made obvious: So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, `and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.” (v.10-12)

Now Jesus has the owner responding, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v.13-15)

Now I think this is a classic case of misguidance by Jesus because although it is absolutely true, the bigger issue, which we all have to face is that every person contracts with the ‘owner’ (God) in a unique way. On his side He gives us His forgiveness; on our side, we have noted in previous studies, we have to come empty handed in complete surrender and for different people that will mean different things. For the child who takes Jesus ‘as their friend’ at five say, that surrender is childlike and simple and, at that point at least, costs little. For the criminal at thirty who comes to Christ and realises he has to confess all and make restoration, his throwing himself on Christ’s mercy may mean going to prison. Every person comes uniquely to Christ. Yes, the basics are the same – repentance, surrender, forgiveness, cleansing, empowering etc. – but what that means is different for every one of us. What I have to be forgiven is almost certainly different from what you have been forgiven, and the consequences of my salvation will be different from the consequences of yours.

So yes, then there is the whole matter of what God then makes us. Some people appear little gifted or appear to have little faith, while others appear to have amazing gifting and amazing faith. God knows exactly what we can take and use (and doesn’t give what would ruin us) and no amount of pleading will change it. We may demand, “I want to be an apostle!” but His response might be, “I haven’t given you the faith and wisdom for that because I know that in your case that sort of role would blow your head off with pride and end up destroying you.”

No, this parable is remarkable in the clarity of what it says when you come to look at it. Each employee is just grateful for being ‘employed’ and that’s it. They agreed to the payment, simply to have some work. Call it a contract if you like and they are bound by it. Perhaps a denarius was the going rate for a whole day’s work and thus every person employed as the day went on, was a greater and greater example of the owner’s generosity, just as he said. The truth is that God didn’t have to take us into His kingdom. It was only possible because of Jesus’ death on our behalf, and that was entirely initiated by Him and comes as a free gift to us. When we are forgiven, God could leave us exactly as we were (but forgiven) but He chose to give each of us His own Holy Spirit, His free power resource for every one of us. He needn’t have done that, but He did. It was pure grace, pure mercy. None of us ‘deserved’ it, but He gave us these things anyway. The ‘owner’ is ‘generous’.

It doesn’t matter if you came to the Lord when you were five, say sixty years ago, or only two years ago when you reached sixty. The whole package is there for both. Yes, there are advantages and disadvantages to both conversions. The one who came to Christ as a child has had a whole life to grow and develop in Christ and has this been kept free of the dark things of life, while the most recent convert might have gone through many bad things and be very badly scarred spiritually. However, on the other side of the coin, the one who came to Christ as a child, often feels they don’t know what it was like being forgiven big things while the recent convert is full of praise and thankfulness because they know the depths from which they have been saved. Yet, as both stand before the doors of heaven, they stand there in total equality. It doesn’t matter how long, humanly speaking, they have been in the kingdom, they are both children of God with a wonderful eternal inheritance to come.

But then Jesus concludes this passage with a bombshell: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (v.16) What! What does that mean? Jesus doesn’t explain but leaves us to meditate on it. OK, according to the story of this parable, those who were taken on first end up being grumpy, complaining and envious and think badly of the Owner. They are the ones with the least relationship with him. On the other hand, those who had been taken on last, thought this was going to be a day of poverty and yet found they were taken on and paid exactly the same as the earlier workers and they would be rejoicing wildly about their good fortune and feel really good about the Owner.

About the woman who poured scent over his feet, a woman clearly known as a sinner (Lk 7:39), Jesus said, “he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Lk 7:49) and that after he shared the Parable of the two men who owed money to a moneylender, one a lot, the other a little, and then the moneylender forgave them both and cancelled their debts (Lk 7:41,42) where Jesus asked the simple and obvious question, “which of them will love him more?” (v.42b) In my earlier illustration, the later convert (and bigger sinner) is last in arriving but first with gratefulness. It is a simple challenge to each of us who have known Him a long time, to seek understanding and thus ever be thankful. The moment you stop being thankful is the moment you lost sight of the wonder of your salvation.

Perhaps we should add that to that teaching of, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” the recognition that often the ‘first’ in the world’s eyes, the rich and famous, are often the last to turn to Christ, while the last, the poor and insignificant, are often the first to turn to Christ. It is an upside down world!

42. Camels and Needles

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 42.  Camels and Needles

Mt 19:24   Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Context: a wealthy young man (Mt 19:22) has come to Jesus asking about receiving eternal life and at the end of his conversation he goes away mournful, either because he found Jesus’ instruction to sell up and give to the poor an impossible thing to do, or he went away struggling with the difficulty he knew he would face if he was to do this. As he goes away, Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (v.23) Now that is the basic teaching and the analogy that follows simply confirms or ratifies this teaching.

So why should it be so difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God? Well, the basic requirement for entry is repentance and that may be in respect of specific sins but at the very least it is repentance in respect of the nature of the life we live. Repentance means a one hundred and eighty degree turn about, a turn from a self-centred godless life to a Christ-centred godly life. Previously we lived on the basis of self-will, what we determined was right and wrong and that was largely based on how good the thing left us feeling. Rich people live for enjoyment, for self-pleasure, able to spend what they have on self. They are able to determine what they do and when they do it. Coming to Christ recognizes the empty futility of such a life in reality, and surrenders up that lifestyle and submits to Jesus’ Lordship. Now that is an incredibly hard thing to do and that is why Jesus says what we have just read.

So now comes the analogy: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (v.24) Now there are usually two interpretations given for what this means.

First, the obvious one, is the more simple. Perhaps where Jesus was teaching Camel Traders were passing by and so if you wanted an illustration of something living that was large, the camel was the obvious thing. Now the women in particular would be familiar with a needle used at home and husbands would have seen their use as well so we have a second thing that was familiar. Indeed the struggle to get thread through the eye of a needle is a familiar thing to any homemaker so it is like Jesus was saying, “You know what it is like, the struggle to thread a needle, well imagine what it would be like if I said you must push that camel over there through the eye of your needle.”

This produced a natural reaction: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” (v.25) Jesus gives a reply that goes to the heart of the problem: “Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (v.26) That is the truth of this analogy, that it is impossible for a rich man to come to God because of his reliance on his riches. But is that the end of the story, will that rich young man never come to God? Oh no, says Jesus, it may be humanly impossible but when God is on your case, nothing is impossible.

I think that sometimes it is not only riches that make it hard for people to come to Christ; it can also be culture or even politics. I have no doubt told this story in some previous study on this site but it bears repeating. Many years ago when I was much younger and worked in an office in the City of London, in the office was a much older man who was a cockney Labour councillor who saw my Christianity as a middle class thing utterly opposed to everything his culture believed in. We became good friends and he regularly made fun of my faith. He was, we might say, ‘as hard as nails’ when it comes to belief. He was absolutely, to use another expression, set in concrete, but one day we were at lunch together and he started sharing a personal problem he had at home, a spiritual problem. I started sharing but after a while I had to say, “My old friend, I would love to carry on talking but unfortunately in this building there is a Christian group that meets regularly to pray and read the Bible and it just so happens that today they have asked me to lead the Bible study and so I have to go and do that. You’d be very welcome to come if you want, but I have to go now.”

I didn’t think he would take up my offer and so I went off to take the Bible study in the second half-hour of our lunch hour. I joined the group and started the study which just so happened to be (previously set) an exposition of John Chapter 3 – all about being born again! To my total surprise, after about two minutes he slipped in at the back and listened attentively. At the end of the half hour this ‘hard-as-nails’ old friend was ‘born again’. If you had asked me a week before, I would have said he was the last person on earth who would accept Christ – but he did. The camel came through the eye. It was utterly a work of God, that which was humanly impossible became possible with God.

Now there is a second interpretation given of this analogy. In the city there would be the large main gate which was shut at dusk, but there was also a small arched gateway that was left open for pedestrians who arrived late in the city. This small gate, possibly because of its smallness, was referred to as ‘The Needle’s Eye’. Now it was only designed for people and so if you wanted to get your camel into the city through this little gate, you would have to take off all its load, and get it right down on its knees and only then might it be able to shuffle through. That analogy is equally instructive – that to come to Christ, you must shed all you have and come empty handed on bended knee in total humility. Now that analogy does not actually fit with Jesus words about the impossibility of the situation, but it does convey the truths about a person coming to Christ.

So, two things to conclude. First, don’t try and make it easy for a person to come to Christ – it isn’t. Whoever they are, repentance and total surrender are essentials. Second, never write off anyone as too hard for God. As my illustration above shows, God has an amazing way of working on the most hard of hearts. It (they) may appear impossible from your standpoint but God may think otherwise. Why doesn’t God convict every single person and bring them to Him? He respects our free will and as much as He may speak and bring pressure to bear, He will never force us into the kingdom. Perhaps another way of putting it, in the light of my old friend, is to say that He alone can see the cracks in the hardest of hearts and He alone knows just how little it may require to help that person on to a place of surrender. Keep praying for your unsaved loved ones, friends and neighbours, you never know who the Lord his going to approach as His next ‘camel’!!!

41. The Unforgiving Debtor

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 41.  The Unforgiving Debtor

Mt 18:23   Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.

Context, you may have gathered through my many comments throughout these studies, we consider highly important, especially when the current verses start with a ‘Therefore’. That presupposes a logical flow, so what has gone before? Since our last study where Jesus sought to show that we are each very precious to God, he then taught how to resolve differences (v.15-17) to eventually re-establish unity so ultimately we do all we can to ensure none of our brothers or sisters are lost, and then a little on spoke about authority (v.18-20). These teachings led Peter to wonder about those who do offend, those who do threaten unity and harmony in the body: Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (v.21) to which Jesus then replied, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (v.22)

It is in the light of this that Jesus then tells this parable that is often referred to as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The account has three parts: first, how a master dealt with a debtor-servant (v.23-27), second, how that same servant then went and dealt with another debtor-servant (v.28-30) and third, the consequences of his behaviour (v.31-34). So let’s consider it part by part.

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

The basic facts: a king holds an accounting. One particular servant owes him a lot but was unable to pay it off. As punishment and a means of settling it, the king ordered that he and his family be sold as slaves. The man begs for more time to pay and so the king, in pity, cancelled the debt completely and let him go.

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

The basic facts:  The first servant was owed some money, a small amount by comparison, by another servant who, when he failed to pay off his debt, and despite his pleas for patience, he had thrown into prison.

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

The basic facts: The King (or master) is told what had happened and calls the first servant in and confronts him with his actions and casts him into prison. His logic is very clear: he had forgiven the first servant so shouldn’t he have had mercy on his fellow servant.

Following this Jesus declares, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (v.35) The inference is obvious: God has forgiven us, so shouldn’t we forgive others?  Now the theology of forgiveness is slightly more complicated than this simple parable, for remember Jesus is making the point that when forgiveness is sought, it MUST be given.  That is the crucial lesson here.

Now the overall teaching of the New Testament, which I have implied into this parable is, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you,” (Col 3:13) but the question arises, which many Christians never consider, “How did God forgive us?” and the answer in Scripture is always – when we repent. Jesus has died so that justice might be seen to be done and the punishment for your sin and mine has been taken. Thus when we repent and turn to God, what he has done on the Cross then applies – but it doesn’t apply if there is no repentance. The whole of Scripture – and especially the End – makes this very clear; there is an accounting and either Jesus died for you or you have no option but to take the punishment – death.  Perhaps we just take for granted this teaching, so consider, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times (and if he – implied) comes back to you and says, `I repent,’ forgive him.” (Lk 17:3,4) Forgiveness is always conditional.

But there is also another major aspect to all this. How are we to feel about our offender while we are waiting for him to repent and come and ask for our forgiveness? We are to have his/her wellbeing at heart and desire and do all we can to help them come to repentance, and to be in a place of blessing with God – because that is what God does to us while He waits for us to repent. (A help in this is to realise that almost certainly when we were offended, we contributed to the situation, we contributed to their wrong doing. Joseph in the Old Testament is often cited as one who forgave his brothers but the truth was that he had contributed to provoking them to act against him by his pride and arrogance. Be careful; how we might look down on our offender; we may not be in such a strong position as we thought).

So two things: first, how do you feel about the person who has offended you (and it may be in a really bad way)? Is your desire for them to repent, and perhaps be saved, or at the very least their offence be put right before God and before you and then be reconciled to you and you to them? Second, when they do come and ask your forgiveness, are you ready to give it, for this is what this parable is all about?

Do you see something here? This requires much more grace than that ‘cheap forgiveness’ that sometimes appears in the media that simply says, “It’s all right. I forgive him/her/them.” No it’s not all right, it diminishes the awfulness of the sin and denies justice. Forgiveness in the Bible is a legal declaration of what has already been declared in heaven once the words of repentance have been spoken. God does not forgive blatant sin when there is no repentance. If someone sins, they have an issue with God. Yes, as Christians, our salvation is not at risk for a single (or few) sin, but we do have issues before God if we have not repented and we will have to face them one day, whether on this earth or in the time to follow.

When we repent God WILL forgive: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and WILL forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9)  So if our brother or sister comes to us and confesses their sin and seeks our forgiveness, we MUST make sure we give it. Amen? Amen!

40. The Lost Sheep

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 40.  The Lost Sheep

Mt 18:12   What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?

The context of our present verse above starts right back at the beginning of the chapter when the disciples ask Jesus about who is the greatest in the kingdom (v.1). In answer he called a child over and using it as a visual aid he warned them that unless you had childlike, simple faith, you could not enter the kingdom (v.2-4). He then added a strong warning about the consequences of how we should guide our children, either to him or to sin (v.5-7). That led on to the outlandish suggestion that it would be better to cut off a part of your body than sin (v.8,9) and then a warning not to look down on children with their simple faith (implied v.10) and he then goes on to tell this parable to show that each and every one of them was precious to him.

Verses 12 and 13 are the parable and verse 14 the applicatio0n. First the parable: What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.” (v.12,13) So let’s look at the detail. The owner has a hundred sheep. That is important: the fact is he has a lot of sheep to care about. But then one of the sheep wanders away. What does the owner do? Does he forget the wanderer and blame it for being stupid? Does he consider looking after the other ninety-nine more important? No, he leaves the ninety-nine and goes out looking until he finds that lost wanderer. When he finds that lost one he is very happy. In fact, he is more happy about finding that one lost sheep than about all the others that did not wander off.

Now we have to be sensible and say that this does not mean he does not care for the other ninety-nine, only that because that one was lost he is particularly thankful that it has now been found. Then comes the simple application: “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (v.14) Very simply, Jesus looked out at the number of children that we were there in the crowd and says that God is concerned for every single one of them.

Now let’s get to the heart of this simple story. Let’s be honest, there are times when we look on ‘disreputable’ people and we write them off, people perhaps who are simply different from us, people of a different colour or culture. Jesus’ simple words in this simple parable don’t allow us that option. He says every single wanderer is valuable to him and when they turn back to him, he is overjoyed. Yes, he has focused on children in response to the original question about greatness, but now I would suggest, this parable is bigger than only children.

When Luke records this same teaching (which may have been on another occasion for Jesus would surely have taught these same things many times in many different places) he concludes with, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Lk 15:7) i.e. he makes the lost sheep an unbelieving sinner who repents and comes into the kingdom.  Matthew doesn’t seem to make the distinction; his lost sheep could easily be a believer who has drifted away.

The main point is Jesus’ joy over the returning wanderer. Luke puts this story (the lost sheep) together with the parables of the Lost Coin and the parable of the Lost Son. The same message is conveyed in each of them – joy when that which is lost is found. The picture of the lost wanderer is most clearly portrayed in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-24) which concludes, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Lk 15:23,24).

One of the things that is missing from these stories is recrimination; the owner or the father (in the Lost Son parable) does not chide the lost animal/son. Their folly is obvious enough, Jesus is simply concerned to show how thankful he feels when a prodigal returns.

But there is another important facet of this story –that of the other two parables that Luke adds. Here the owner went out searching for the lost sheep. In the Lost Coin parable, the woman swept and cleaned the houses and kept searching until she had found the lost coin. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is clear than the father was out keeping watch for the returning son: “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son.” (Lk 15:20) We may be careless about the lost around us (prodigals who have left the church or simply unbelievers who have never turned to Christ) but Jesus is out on the lookout for those who are lost and who are open to ‘being found’.  There is an attitudinal thing here. The Pharisees wanted to condemn all who fell short of their standards; Jesus wants to save and redeem all who will turn to him.

I was recently in a group context where several people were launching off about those in their church who were not so all out for God as they felt they were, I reminded them of how Jesus came to seek and save the lost AND those in the kingdom who are a bit slow of understanding. The truth is that we all fall short in some way or another and none of us have room to point fingers of judgment. I am a redeemed lost sinner. Jesus came and found me and started stirring a hunger in me (which I didn’t recognize at the time) until he eventually convicted me of my need of him and the Father’s will in my life.

As I have often said in these studies, God is the Great Initiator, He is the one who comes looking for us and for that reason, as the apostle Paul might have said, we have no room to boast. It was all of Him. And it if is true of us (and it is!) then it is also true of the prodigals and the lost around us. Can we be his instruments to reach them? Will we be open to them? Do we see them as precious to Him rather than ‘judgment fodder’? His longing is to redeem not to destroy (see and learn Ezek 18:23.32, 33;11). May we have that same longing.

39. Chop it off!

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 39.  Chop it off!

Mt 18:8,9   If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

We know something is an analogy when we look at Jesus’ words and say, “Did Jesus mean this literally?”  Does Jesus, for example expect there to be a lot of one-handed or one-footed Christians around? No. So why did he say it then? The answer has to be ‘shock tactics’!  Jesus is not teaching self-mutilation, but simply that we should deal as drastically with sin as necessary. The analogy highlights Jesus’ view of sin.

The context for these verses is Jesus teaching about children and childlike faith: Anyone who welcomes one child like this for my sake is welcoming me. But if anyone leads astray one of these little children who believe in me he would be better off thrown into the depths of the sea with a mill-stone hung round his neck! Alas for the world with its pitfalls! In the nature of things there must be pitfalls. yet alas for the man who is responsible for them!” (Mt 18:5-7 JBP version) ‘Pitfalls’ may be a gentle alternative for ‘sins’ but whatever word we see here, Jesus is being very clear that anyone causing a child to sin is in really big trouble with him. It’s like he goes on to say, “OK, sins will occur in this fallen world but if you are responsible for them, you’re in trouble!” And then, as if to emphasise the strength of what he felt about Sin (the propensity within us to be self-centred and godless) and sins (the actual things that propensity leads us to do) he speaks the words in our verses above.

These verses are so specific and so clear that if you go to a comparison website and check all the alternative versions, including the paraphrases, they all virtually say the same thing; there is no other way of putting it! But we need to read it carefully. Does it mean that if you commit one sin you are bound for eternal destruction? No, that’s not how it works. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the apostle John’s words: I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 Jn 2:1) John was quite clear of the fundamentals or realities of the Christian life. We no longer HAVE to sin but sometimes it’s like we WILL trip up and get it wrong. Perfect in God’s sight, but not in practical day to day experience, so no, the occasional trip-up does not mean we will be consigned to destruction.

So what is the reality of these verses? One temptation and one fall does not mean destruction, but it does mean you might be more vulnerable next time to the next temptation and one after another means a downhill process. If we accept this ‘occasional sin’ and treat it lightly then we come to a place where we tolerate such things and gradually, bit by bit, we move away from the holy position we once held, and before you know where you are, your whole thinking is casual in respect of the Lord and you find you have drifted right out of His blessing.

Today is our wedding anniversary (and we’ve been married well over forty years, which also means we are both getting on in age) and so with tears in my eyes I said to my wife earlier this morning, “I am aware that with age, I don’t cope with frustrations so well as I used to and therefore have a tendency to getting short tempered (on rare occasions, but they do happen) and therefore my present to you is to say I am sorry when I have been like that, and with the Lord this morning I have declared that with His help I will not let that sort of thing keep happening.”

We can make excuses for the ‘little sins’ and justify ourselves but they are still wrong. The Lord still loves us, but the danger that Jesus highlights for us in the strength of his words in today’s verses, is that unless we call a halt to whatever it is that keep happening, it will be a downward slope that, at its best, will mean a diminishing of fellowship with the Lord and, at its worst, will mean we completely drift away from Him into apostasy so that we lose our salvation both now and in eternity. That is the strength of the warning that Jesus brings. Look again at the verses:

If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.”(18:8,9)

But this is an echo of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to  lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Mt 5:29,30)

No, it’s not about cutting bits off yourself but it is about taking ongoing sin seriously and recognising the danger that is there of casual acceptance leading down a slippery slope to eventual destruction. Let’s not be casual and let’s never say, “Oh, it could never happen to me.” It does happen, so let’s remember that.

38. Little Children & the Kingdom

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 38.  Little Children and the Kingdom

Mt 18:3    And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Of all the analogies we have considered, this is perhaps the most simple. It comes because Jesus’ disciples were wondering about greatness in the kingdom of God. It would appear from the Gospels that these discussions arose more than once and had a certain self-serving nature to them. (see also Lk 9:46, 22:24): At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (v.1) it is possible that Jesus’ earlier words about John the Baptist that we considered earlier in this series (see study 17) stayed with them: “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Mt 11:11) It is also possible that Peter, James and John felt a little superior to the others, recently having been up on what we call the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus.

Wanting to show them that pride was not a characteristic of the kingdom, “He called a little child and had him stand among them.” (v.2) This child is to be a visual aid to help them take in what he is about to say: “And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (v.3,4)

The analogy is becoming like a child, and as this child stood there next to Jesus, trusting and unpretentious in complete humility, the lesson is clear. I fear that sometimes, when we watch ‘big ministries’ this lesson has not been learnt. I will always remember the description of the entrance to, I believe it was possibly, the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation in 1974 and the commentator noted all the ‘big names’ from around the world going in, some with their bodyguards (Christian leaders with bodyguards – what are we on about?????) and then he noted sitting among the crowd on the steps, chatting with onlookers, Dr. Francis Schaeffer. The rest were talking about it, Schaeffer in absolute anonymous humility was doing it.

That was what Jesus was talking about here and, as I said, I believe we often forget this. This ‘childlike’ attitude of submission and trust and humility is vital to any person coming to Christ. No man or woman can come to Christ and hold on to their pride. A rich young ruler approached Jesus on one occasion asking what seemed a good question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 18:18) and when Jesus asked him about the Ten Commandments, he replied, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” (v.21) Jesus replied, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (v.22) Jesus saw that this young man relied on his riches and his position but neither are currency in the kingdom, only surrender, trust, humility and reliance on God for His salvation.

Once upon a time (and I am aware I have shared this story before in other studies, but it seems pertinent) when our three children were still small, we were on holiday together and desired to go to church on a Sunday morning. We were camping and so didn’t have ‘smart’ clothes with us but we were not looking scruffy – just not conventional by traditionalist church standards. Arriving just a few minutes before the start of the service we found this well-known church almost full and an usher tried taking us down to the front row that was empty. Having three children all under the age of eight with us, my wife asked could we be in a less conspicuous place. We ended up in the back balcony – about the same height as the preacher’s pulpit and had the sense when he was preaching he was aiming at us. It was the sort of church where everyone troops out at the end and shakes the hand of the minister at the door. The only trouble was that the minister was talking to one of his sidesmen and so when both my wife and I shook his hand he neither looked at us nor said a word of greeting. This ‘great man’ (for he was well known across that part of the country as a great preacher) would have done well to remember Jesus’ words here.

You cannot enter the kingdom of God without being like a child with these characteristics and these same characteristics are not merely for entrance, but are also supposed to be at the heart of the life that follows. ‘Church’ is not about looking good, fine sermons, good teaching, but is about being like Jesus and if he says being childlike is the criteria then we need to hold to that. Little children are, we said, trusting and unpretentious but we might also add they take people at face value, which is what Jesus did when he mixed with the tax-collectors and sinners. Little children don’t have high demands on other people, they haven’t learned to have high expectations of other people. I recently came across that all too familiar evangelical condemnation of the half-hearted recently. As much as we might wish for a church who are all going all out for Jesus, sometimes people are struggling with life and with their faith and looking down on them doesn’t help them. When I was a child I remember two friends who my parents weren’t happy about because of their family backgrounds and slightly absent ethical standards! However, as a child I just accepted them for who they were – my friends. I didn’t become like them although we did get into some scrapes together.

Why do I say these things? Because I have seen that people who do not exercise this childlikeness towards other people, also tend not to exhibit it towards God. Exercising faith is being childlike. Remember what we have seen in recent studies. Childlikeness towards Jesus means listening to him and taking what he says with simple acceptance and if he says, ‘step over the side of the boat and come to me’, we do that. If he says go and be encouraging to that person over there, that’s what we do.  If he says, pray over that person for the needs they have just shared with you, do that. Faith is simply a childlike response to the Lord. May he find that in us.

37. Mustard Seed and Mountains

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 37.  Mustard Seed and Mountains

Mt 17:20    He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, `Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

What is fascinating is that there is a direct link between Jesus’ words here and those we considered in the previous study, about the keys to the kingdom and the matter of binding and loosing. There, you may remember, we said that whenever we speak such words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we are simply declaring on earth the will of God that has been decreed in heaven. So now we come to these power-packed words that focus on three things: faith, mustard seed and a mountain.

Let’s take those in reverse order. Did Jesus mean a literal mountain? Well, yes, I believe he did mean it literally but I also believe it can be taken figuratively to mean any major obstacle that gets in the way of the kingdom. Again, please note the closing words of that sentence – that gets in the way of the kingdom. This is not about us performing magical acts to satisfy or entertain others or boost our own ego; what Jesus is talking about is serving the kingdom of God. Why do I say that? Look at the context. Jesus has just come down the Mount of Transfiguration only to find the disciples struggling to deliver a demon possessed boy (Mt 17:14-16). Jesus delivers the boy and then in private instructs the disciples. The context is all about operating in the kingdom of God, doing the will of the Father. All of this is vital to understand if we are to see what Jesus’ present teaching is about.

Next, the mustard seed. This is easy, we’ve seen it before. It is simply a tiny seed, perhaps one of the smallest seeds used. The implication is obvious: you only need a tiny, tiny bit of faith to be able to move such a mountain. Now let’s face the obvious: such a thing is humanly crazy. No way by speaking to a mountain will you move it. So what is Jesus meaning by this?

The answer comes by understanding faith. Faith, the writer to the Hebrews says, is, “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb 11:1) Now note those two underlined words. When you genuinely have faith, there is a complete confidence in what you ‘see’ in your spirit, you are absolutely sure of what you are hoping to see, absolutely certain of this thing that has not yet happened and thus you cannot see.

But the key to faith comes with the apostle Paul’s teaching, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17) Now I am certain that applies to the brining of the Gospel and faith rises in a person to believe it ONLY when they HEAR it. But I am equally certain that the same thing applies whenever we HEAR GOD. Faith arises when the Holy Spirit speaks the will of God into our hearts or our spirits. When, for instance, someone speaks God’s word that He wants to impact me with, the Holy Spirit makes it come alive within me and at that moment I KNOW that whatever it is, it is true.

When Paul spoke of the gift of faith (1 Cor 12:9) it is a ‘gift of believing’ that is greater than most of us are capable of believing but it comes “in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (Rom 12:3) So your friend with such a gift speaks about starting off some incredibly difficult ministry and you think they must be crazy. No, they simply have the gift of faith, the absolute belief that this thing is possible.

We might say moving a mountain is an example of the gift of faith because it appears so outrageous that we think this is beyond the reach of most Christians. Well, I will not argue either way on that but suffice to say, the teaching of Jesus still stands and with the understanding of what we now know, we can take Jesus words to mean, “if the Father wants this mountain to be moved, all He needs is a willing participant (because He loves involving His people), one who simply has an open ear to Him and who will be available to say or do whatever he/she hears the Father saying. So if He says I want you to move this mountain – speak against it – do that and He will ratify your words with the power that WILL move the mountain.”

In other words, if you hear the Father’s will for you and you respond to it, then “Nothing will be impossible for you.” (v.20b) Remember, the ‘Nothing’ means ‘nothing within His specific will’. It’s what HE wants to come about, not what we want.

In Matt 21 there was the incident of the unfruitful fig tree which Jesus cursed and which then withered and died (Mt 21:18,19). It would almost appear that Jesus did it specifically to provide a visual lesson for the disciples who questioned what happened. We then find the same teaching we have been considering: Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, `Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Mt 21:21,22) Note the slight addition: “faith and do not doubt.” Faith and doubt are opposites. The doubt means to be uncertain. Faith is about being certain. Also note the context that we have perhaps taken for granted: “whatever you ask for in prayer.” It happens when you pray, when you are relating to the Lord, interacting with Him. As we do this, His Holy Spirit speaks in such a way that we suddenly KNOW and we can act.

Now we have been talking about active faith – faith in action – but is can also be passive, the faith we have that just knows we are Christian loved by God and redeemed by Jesus on the Cross. We came to believe those things and we live in them. Now the apostle James speaks of these things: the testing of your faith develops perseverance,” (Jas 1:3) in the context of trials of life (v.2) Recognising that so often we need wisdom to handle life he goes on, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (v.5) That seems simple and straight forward but note: “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” (v.6) No doubting!

Perhaps an obvious little thing in all this is that we need to learn to discern the voice of God, we need to learn to listen to God. If faith “comes from hearing”, we need to learn to listen and when we hear, recognize and accept who it is we are hearing so that the Spirit can energize the words and we recognize and step out in faith. Amen? Amen!