56. Shepherd and Sheep

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 56.  Shepherd and Sheep

Mt 26:31   Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ” `I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered

And so we come to the last of these analogies and parables and it is a very appropriate one with which to finish. Time is running out; the disciples have met in the upper room and the Last Supper has finished: When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” (v.30) It is then that we come to our verse above, where Jesus quotes from Zech 13:7 which was a strange verse.

It was a strange verse because it started, “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty.” i.e. the shepherd that God speak of is the Good Shepherd, one close to the Father, it is this one who is going to be struck so that his flock will be scattered. Now that was strange because earlier in Zechariah it was the worthless shepherd who would be struck in disciplinary judgment but now it is the Good Shepherd, the one close to God. Whatever did that mean? Perhaps the emphasis was on the sheep being scattered because that was the fulfillment of the curses for covenant disobedience (see Deut 28:64; 29:24-25). Now maybe, it is the disciples who would be scattered temporarily, perhaps as a picture of the dispersion that would come to the Jews before the century was out.

Thus Jesus is the shepherd and his disciples, his followers, are the sheep. It is a very simple analogy and yet the more we think about it, a very poignant one. Indeed before the quote, Jesus had plainly declared, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me,” (v.31) and then showed how it is prophetic fulfillment within the plan of God by quoting from Zechariah. But he doesn’t leave it there for he adds, “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee. (v.32) In other words, he is quite explicitly explaining that everything is under control, his control, and the control of His Father in heaven; his death will not be the end.

Yes, the immediate future is going to look chaotically out of control, especially when you consider all the wonderful things that this amazing Son of God had been doing for three years, completely in control in every situation, whether confronted by demoniacs or threatened by a terrible storm in the middle of the sea of Galilee. Oh yes, Jesus had been in utter control throughout that period and even when hostile religious leaders had come after him, he had shown a wisdom that undermined all of the scheming and challenging words. Whatever else, Jesus was in control.

And then comes Gethsemane and Jesus tries to prepare the disciples in a small way for what he knows is about to happen. Remember what Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) I find that one of the greatest verses of revelation in the New Testament. He ‘saw’ that what had taken place in those terrible hours, and then incredible hours, of what we today call Easter, was all part of God’s plan. God knew it would happen, He knew how it would come about and it was part of the plan of the Godhead to bring about the possibility of our salvation as the Son of God stood in our place and took the punishment for our sins. So the disciples falling away and fleeing in the face of soldiers arresting their master in the middle of the night, was all part of this plan and Jesus had just told them that.

The only problem is that so often we struggle to accept the will of God because we don’t understand it!!! Jesus warns them that they will all fall away BUT, “Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (v.33) Oh, how unknowing we so often are! Peter, if the Son of God says you will fall away, you will and, actually, in your case it is going to be quite spectacular for Jesus has already warned you that you will deny him and that before the early morning is out and a cockerel will have crowed three times. Oh yes, that is how specific that warning had been, but Peter in his self-confidence could not believe it.

Have you ever been given a prophetic word? How did you receive it? I watch responses. Who me, you must be joking! God gracious, surely that can’t be!  At such times, we take on the Peter-spirit. It may be for us it is low self-esteem that shrugs off a word of love. It may be hardness of heart. It may just be lack of understanding.  Mary’s response was the best recorded to this sort of thing: “May it be to me as you have said.” (Lk 1:38)

But there are bigger issues here to be taken hold of. There is the issue of the big picture. Our difficulty is that we struggle to see the big picture, where this present history is going. Yes, we can hear sermons on Jesus, the Lamb of God, in Revelation 5 unrolling the scroll of the end times, but actually seeing how yesterday, today and tomorrow fit in, that isn’t so easy. It is especially ‘not easy’ when it appears to be going badly, when church seems mundane, things seem to be going wrong and nobody seems to have a handle on it all. Well God does!

When Jesus says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” (Heb 13:5), he means it. He could change it all like he stilled the storm with just three words: “Peace, be still!” but he wants you to have that peace in you first, the peace that comes from knowing that he IS in control and he does know what he is doing and he is there for you in the midst of it. When we come to that place, then often he gives us the faith so that we declare those three words, and it all changes. When children have constant nightmares, when someone seems to constantly have poor health, when finances seem to be a struggle despite whatever you do, we have to come to the place of knowing

  • that he is in control
  • he does know what he is doing and
  • he is there for you

because only then does faith rise up and, under his prompting, we can speak the words of authority that bring the change that is needed. Perhaps it means we have to make some personal changes, perhaps we have to step out in faith in some way, but we get connected to him when we realise the truth of these things above. He is the shepherd and we are the sheep. We may appear somewhat ‘scattered’ at the moment by the circumstances but these truths remain unchanged. As we come to the end of this particular series, hold on to them, grasp them firmly, declare them and live in the light of them. Resurrection is just round the corner! Hallelujah”

55. Communion

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 55.  Communion

Mt 26:26   While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body

Of all the analogies we have looked at in Matthew, this one is possibly the most familiar if you are a regular church-goer, for it is probable that we may hear these words at Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, or whatever else we might call it, because Luke added the words, do this in remembrance of me.” (Lk 22:19) and the apostle Paul added, “whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:25,26) Thus we take this ‘sacrament’ (‘a ceremony regarded as imparting spiritual grace’) on a regular basis in most churches, for some weekly, others monthly. Possibly because the Synoptic Gospel writers had covered it adequately, John says nothing about what we refer to as Communion because it was obviously only one small part of all that went on at the Last Supper. John recounts Jesus’ amazing prayer then. (see Jn 17)

But at the heart of it there are two analogies. The first we have above, but then Jesus went on: “Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (v.27,28) So we have two sets of analogies: bread and wine, body and blood, and indeed they are both analogies.

Now we have to recognize that in practice there are different understandings of what takes place. For Catholics what takes place is “the conversion of the substance of the Eucharist elements into the body and blood at consecration, only the appearance of bread and wine still remaining.” For most Protestants, it is merely a symbolic act, an act of obedience which wins the blessing of God and therefore a sense of grace imparted

But we will focus, as in the rest of this series, in trying as simply as possible to catch what Jesus was trying to convey when he originally spoke these words to his disciples and ask, what might these ordinary men have made of these words? It is probable, as the Gospels show with so many things, the disciples were simply out of their depth in the face of such picture language and it would probably be many years before the likes of the apostle Paul helped out with understanding. Yet even in his one piece of writing on this Last Supper, it wasn’t his intention to spell it out, merely correct the Corinthians for their bad behaviour. So let’s look at the wording before us.

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” (Mt 26:26) Now for many years I thought that this was followed by the words, “which is broken for you” but actually Paul’s wording (and the Gospel writers don’t have this) is simply, “which is for you” (1 Cor 11;24) so any desire to impose a ‘theology of brokenness’ is unwarranted. So what did those words mean. In its very simplest understanding Jesus must have been saying, “As you eat this bread, imagine you are eating me, or if that is too much to cope with, imagine you are taking my very life into your life, so I become a living part of you, we being utterly united.”  i.e. this is what this whole thing is about, my coming to the earth, my living in human form; it is that ultimately we may become one, God in you.

Now there is nothing outrageous about that when you see the wider teaching of the New Testament, that we becomes ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’, vessels that contain the glory of God, humans indwelt by God, by Jesus, by his Holy Spirit. Was this a simple piece of imagery to remind us what his ultimate goal is for us?

But then the blood: “Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (v.27,28) Now the concept of the Passover covenant was probably more familiar to many of them, that to avoid the judgment of God in Egypt, a lamb had to be slain and its blood put on the doorposts of the home so that the destroying angel would see it and “pass over”. The tricky bit here is “my blood” and in that Jesus is ratifying John the Baptist’s words which the Synoptics had not picked up but John did, “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29 and also 35,36). It is also the picture conveyed in the vision John received in Revelation: “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne.” (Rev 5:6) The analogy is simple: a lamb was previously sacrificed to save the people; that Lamb was now Jesus. By his death a new covenant is inaugurated.

The talk of body and bread being eaten, signifying a oneness, might cause the sensitive spirit to ask, how can such a thing be? The answer is, because a lamb has been slain on your behalf so that judgment is averted and all the blessing of God is released to your life. That is why we can stand secure before the Lord and in the face of all that the world brings. We are one with him and he made that possible for dying for us. Hallelujah!

54. Sheep and Goats

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 54.  Sheep and Goats

Mt 25:32,33   All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Whereas I have always had the Parable of the Talents as my favourite parable, I have always felt most uncomfortable with this analogy. It comes in three parts. Part 1 is the return of Jesus and the separating out (v.31-33) that will come at the final accounting (judgment). Part 2 is his blessing of believers (v.34-40) and Part 3 is his judgment on unbelievers (v.41-46). Within Parts 2 & 3 there is a commendation/judgment by Jesus, a questioning by the people and then an explanation by Jesus. As an analogy of the End Time, it is in the general flow of all Jesus’ teaching in that last week before his death, about his eventual return and as such brings condemnation of the guilty, hope for the faithful and a warning for all.

Part 1: The Separating Out: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” (v.31-33) Now this conforms to the picture of that judgment given in Rev 20:11-15 and as we go on we need to note, “The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” (Rev 20:12) and “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev 21:8)

Now what is intriguing about those verses and the ones that now come before us, is that judgment and condemnation is NOT about belief, but about behaviour, and the natural conclusion, which is so important in this parable, is that behaviour confirms belief.  It is not what we say we believe or say who we are, (“I am a Christian”) it is the proof of that revealed by the sort of lives we lived. That is what makes these uncomfortable verses because it makes us look at what we actually DO rather than what we say.

Part 2: The Faithful: in what follows we find, “Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (v.34) The most fascinating part of that verses is the reference to this being God’s plan that originated right back at (before) the Creation. It was no last-minute strategy. He then gives the reason why they are in this group – they fed Jesus, that quenched his thirst, then gave him hospitality, they clothed him, they looked after him and visited him in prison. (v.35,36) That leaves the righteous showing surprise, asking when had they done that (v.37-39) and Jesus will reply, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (v.40) Now some suggest that this is all about how we respond to the Jews (“brothers of mine”) but I suggest that it could equally suggest how we respond to all other Christians. It is not, according to his words, how we responded to the rest of the world, but specifically how we respond to his family. That’s a challenge when we go into church next!

Part 3: The Unbelievers: This is the opposite. This is condemnation (v.41) because they failed to do all those things for Jesus (v.42,43). They too will act surprised and ask when didn’t they do that (v.44) and he replies, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (v.45). He concludes, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (v.46) The ‘least of these’ is most likely to apply to his followers there with him, in the light of those identified in Part 2 above.

There are several additional points to be made. First, we need to be wise in understanding when we look at such a parable. A parable usually only makes one main point. Jesus’ main point here is an ongoing condemnation of the religious aspects of being a Jew, the failure of the Chief Priests, all the temple officials and religious groups like the Pharisees, to care for the ordinary people. Religious ritual is not what gets a person into heaven, it is becoming an expression of the Son of God by surrendering to him in repentance and receiving his salvation and his power and going on to reflect him throughout the rest of your life in a growing measure (see 2 Cor 3:18).  But obviously it doesn’t merely apply to those at that time; it applies throughout history.

Second, I would suggest that, to keep the parable simple, Jesus only uses ‘sins of omission’, things people fail to do, because those were the areas where, say, the Pharisees failed the most. No, to quote part of the Revelation verse we saw earlier, they were not, “vile, murderers, sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, idolaters and liars.” The apostle Paul, in his former life as the Pharisee, Saul, could have easily declared that none of those things applied to him, but the way he treated ‘Jesus brothers’ clearly put him in a bad place before God, even though he did not realise it in his former blindness.

Third, we should also note that this parable does not negate the rest of the New Testament teaching that salvation starts with belief, but it does confirm the other New Testament teaching, that faith is expressed through works, is what is important (see Rom 4:6 – salvation is righteousness credited not by works, but also Jas 2:14,17 bringing the balance that it is faith seen in works).

Fourth, perhaps we might summarise this as a call to the church to look to how it cares for all areas of the church – those believers around the world (or in our own neighbourhood) who are poor and don’t know how they are going to get through the next month, or those who are sick to whom we fail to bring Jesus’ healing, or those around the world who are persecuted or imprisoned for their faith. How easy it is to forget these, but the call comes, don’t!  It is a serious call from the head of the body as he reigns at his Father’s right hand. Let’s listen to him.

53. Talents

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 53.  The Talents 

Mt 25:14-15   Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

We come to what I have to confess is my favourite parable, for a slightly strange reason that I will share later. Notice the start word: “Again”. Jesus is continuing on picturing what it will be like at the End and I suppose it can be summarised as “An Accounting”. The thrust is in the punch lines at the end but to get there we have to go through what is a fairly lengthy but simple story.

Remember the context of pointing towards the end time: Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.” (v.14) That is the background scenario, in Part 1 of this parable, a property looked after by servants while the ‘master’ is away. In a sense Jesus is ‘away’ at the present time, as he reigns from heaven, seated at his Father’s right hand. He is ‘away’ and will come back at some point in the future; that is to be remembered at the heart of this parable.

However, before he goes the master entrusts each servant with a number of “talents of money”.  A talent would be the equivalent, I am told, of quite a lot of money. This is a rich master giving out generously. To one he gives five, to another two and to another just one, “each according to their ability” and then he went on his journey (v.15) The parable is about how each one used what they had and then the Master’s response when he returned.  The one who had five made five more, the one with two made two more but the one with just the one, “dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” (16-18).

Now Part 2 of the parable is of The End: After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.” (v.19) Each servant comes before the Master and accounts for what they have done with his money. (v.20) He praises the first one, “His master replied, `Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (v.21) A fulsome praise. The same response is given to the second man. (v.22,23)

Now the response of the third man is the thing that highlights this parable because I believe it portrays the response of so many Christians and needs addressing in these days. Indeed it may be one of the most significant things that limits the church today. So see his response: “Then the man who had received the one talent came. `Master,’ he said, `I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’” (v.24,25)

I will come back here in a moment, but notice the Master’s response. First of all the rebuke: “His master replied, `You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.” (v.26,27) IF, and it is an ‘if’, IF the servant believed what he said, then logically he ought to have done something with the money more than he did. Whether we respond to His love and generosity or we respond out of fear of the accounting, we NEED to be Doers, responders.

Second, observe the severity of his response: “Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (v.28-30) Note two actions and sandwiched between, a two-sided principle.

First action: According to this parable what has been entrusted to each of us in life, will be taken away at the End if we don’t use it wisely, i.e. living with a focus on the Father (v.28). Second action: the removal of that life will mean being cast away from God.  The Principles: 1. When you come to God He will give you His blessings and as you use that, He will give you more.  2. If you don’t come to Him you will have nothing and even that will be taken from you!

Now I need to clarify something. Earlier I said the last man often epitomized what appears to be the response of so many Christians today. Now this man in this parable ends up being cast away from God. Does that mean hell? No, I believe that means into a place of severe disciplining. I don’t believe people will lose their salvation because of their attitude that God is a ‘hard man’ but they will be disciplined, and that in this lifetime.

So what does having an attitude that God is a ‘hard man’ mean?  First of all, it is an attitude about God. Some people get locked up by the thought that God is a God of severe judgment who is to be feared but as one person on the Internet has noted, “Only about 60 verses in total in the Gospels might be construed as either directly or indirectly referring to hell” (1.58%) whereas “192 verses have Jesus referring to heaven, eternal life, or his coming kingdom” (5%). i.e. hardly any of the Gospels are taken up with the thought of what happens to sinners after death and at the End. The Gospels are Good News! It was good news for those who encountered Jesus and it is good news as far as far as our ultimate eternal life will be concerned.

I have previously recommended learning three sets of verses from Ezekiel in this respect and I do so again. They are: Ezek 18:23 “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” and Ezek 18:31,32 “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” and Ezek 33:11 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?”  Our God is a God of grace and mercy!

But second, this attitude manifests itself in unbelief seen in passive Christianity that prefers to sit in the pews rather than risk stepping out in faith and maybe getting it wrong, and the ‘hard man’ mentality fears being slapped by this harsh holy God who cannot tolerate imperfection. Look again at Jesus meeting with the sinners! God loves His children stepping out in faith (and sometimes getting it not quite right!!!). He is NOT a hard man and He loves all of us, when we get it right and when we don’t. Aim to get it right, but risk His love!

52. The Ten Virgins

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 52.  The Ten Virgins 

Mt 25:1-4   At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.

Now there is something special about this particular parable: see how it starts: At that time.” (v.1a) What time is Jesus referring to? Well, he has just been speaking of the “the coming of the Son of Man” (24:39) and then concluded with the parable of the servants waiting for their master to return (24:45-51) so he is clearly speaking about the End Time when he will return. This is a story that is a warning that more obviously brings the warning, that the previous parable only had as a subtitle – he WILL come again and so to those in the future he says, be ready!

Again, as always, the parable was simple and easily understood by the people of his day. There was an impending wedding and so ten young girls went to meet the bridegroom who would be coming to the wedding festivities and because that time might go on beyond dusk, they needed to have lamps with them. That was part of their role, to provide lamps that would light the way for the bridegroom and light up the wedding festivities. That is the background here. (v.1)

Now here is the thing. Of these ten, only five of them were properly prepared, having made sure they had plenty of oil in their lamps and a backup bottle or jar of oil as well. They were described as wise, but the other five didn’t take ‘any oil’ it says, and they were described as foolish. (v.2-4).  Now we are then told, “The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep,” but then, “At midnight the cry rang out: `Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” (v.5,6)

So of course they all wake up and at that point chaos ensues because the ones without an oil supply find their lamps are going out so they can’t be light providers (v.7,8) and ask the others for oil, but the others protest, hey, we can’t do that otherwise our lamps will go out, you need to go and buy some more oil quickly. So the ‘foolish’ girls depart and while they’ve gone, the bridegroom arrives and so both he and the five ‘wise’ girls go into the wedding banquet. (v.9,10) and the door is shut. Thus it was that when the other five returned, it was too late and they were refused entry (v.11,12)

Now Jesus does not explain this parable, even to his disciples, and so we are left to reflect and ponder on it by ourselves. In general terms there are two things that come through in this story. First, there are apparently some things you just can’t get hold of at the last moment. Second, there are apparently some things that you can’t just borrow from others at the last moment. This is a story about having your own supplies.

So what are those ‘supplies’? Well in Christian terms they are the things that a born-again believer has which an apparently religious person does not have: the experience of surrender, repentance, being forgiven and cleansed, being adopted into the family of God and of being empowered by His Holy Spirit and being given a future inheritance. Those are all the things that the born-again believer has but, equally, they are the things that the self-centred apparently religious person, the self-righteous person, does NOT have. The have a form of religion, a form of godliness, without the power of it. (2 Tim 3;5). These people, says Jesus, will not in an instance be able to conjure up genuine repentance and receive a genuine experience of being born again, and so when they go away to try to do something about it, it will be too late, Jesus will have come and they will be on the wrong side.

Now there are many aspects of this story that are unclear – and Jesus didn’t try and explain them. Such as who are the ten girls? Simply those who are drawn to the wedding and have desire to be part of it. Who are the foolish ones? Those who ignore the basic requirements for entry into the kingdom of heaven and rely upon their own endeavours and ignore God’s way of salvation through Christ. What are their lamps? Essentially an expression of their lives and their ability to bring light to the wedding. How do they provide light? By oil. What is the oil? Well, usually in the Scriptures it is a picture of the Holy Spirit but here even the unprepared ones appeared to have a measure, even though it ran it. Perhaps it is just the life source given by God that is intended to enable a relationship with Him in eternity to come about. The foolish ones don’t replenish that and therefore miss out. The wise ones ensure they have more than enough. Enough of what? Perhaps the truth of the Gospel, being sure that you ARE saved and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have the witness that you are a born-again child of God. Perhaps the foolish ones simply heard these truths but never reached out to experience the fullness of them.

But all this is pure speculation and the danger when we focus on the secondary issues is that we lose sight of the main two things we noted previously – there are some things you just can’t get hold of at the last moment and there are some things that you can’t just borrow from others at the last moment –and the final warning is given by Jesus to round off the parable: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” (v.13) Enough said! Be prepared, make sure you have a sound and sure faith as God provides it!

51. Owners, Servants & Thieves

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 51.  Owners, Servants and Thieves

Mt 24:42,43   Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.

Again there are two analogies here and again we will run them together because of the unity of what is being said. Remember, the context is the teaching Jesus has just been giving his disciples about the characteristics of the Church age, the coming disaster on Jerusalem and Israel, and the signs of the End Time just before he returns.  It is in the light of all this that he now says, Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (v.42) and then a little later,So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (v.44) and sandwiched between those two exhortations comes the first analogy-cum-parable. Keep watch and be ready are the two direct instructions.

“If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.” (v.43) What? Where did that come from? Well just look at the two instructions again. First, keep watch. Ah!, “he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.” Second, be ready. Be ready for what? “If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming.” Ah! Yes, the potential of a burglar coming.

Most of the time we probably don’t think about these things but in this last week there have been three burglaries in the street in which I live!!! Suddenly we are all alert to the possibility that ‘we might be next’ and so we are alert and taking extra precaution to be ready to keep out intruders!

And so Jesus says have these two things in mind all the time as you pass through your life, being ready because we know one day – either at his coming or our going to heaven before, maybe – we will see him face to face. So be alert because you don’t know when it will be, but the signs in the sky will give you a good indication that there’s not much time left.

Be quite clear on the structure of this chapter that we considered in the previous study. The things we see in the first section are just the general characteristics of this age, so wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, false Christs, deceptive teaching sometimes, all this is just par for the course and will carry on until the end of this age whenever that will be. It’s when the big things start happening. Remember in the previous section, squeezed between two references to his coming again we find, “Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” (24:29) The ‘distress of those days’ refers to the Church period which is often stressful. Now whether these ‘signs in the sky’ are literal or figurative referring to persons, only time will tell, but those things haven’t happened yet, so be at peace – but be ready and be alert for they could be tomorrow.

But then Jesus adds what is more a parable than an analogy – or is it? “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.” (v.45,46)  That is the ideal picture, Jesus implies. There is a household and the owner has put a servant in charge of the household who is faithful and wise and always makes sure the rest of the servants are looked after all the time. He is commended. Surely this has to be a reference to spiritual leaders who provide for the rest of God’s children and will keep doing so faithfully until Jesus returns again. Jesus concludes, “I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.” (v.47)

But that isn’t the end of his analogy-cum-parable, there is a ‘But’! There is an alternative then portrayed: “But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, `My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards.” (v.48,49) Wow! That is bad! That chief servant takes advantage of the fact that the master seems to be staying away a long time and he takes advantage of the other servants. That is bad. So Jesus gives a severe warning: “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (v.50,51) The master IS going to come back one day, Jesus IS going to return one day and if he finds abuse by those who should know better there will be a serious accounting!

Now in the light of all that has gone before we cannot help think of the Pharisees who Jesus said put burdens on the people and basically abused them with their additional interpretations of the Law. These surely must be in the firing line of Jesus’ story. Yet these are analogies that apply to all of us. As we concluded the previous study, it is relevant to note that Luke records Jesus saying, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) When Jesus comes again, will he find you and me people of faith? Will we be those with an ear open to the Lord and then be those who obey what we hear, whether it is what we ‘hear’ when we read His word, when we read bible notes, when we hear sermons or when we hear the quiet whisper of His Spirit into our hearts? Being faithful means being obedient to whatever we hear. May it be so.

50. Fig Tree and Flood

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 50.  Fig Tree and Flood

Mt 24:32-37   “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

There are two analogies here and we are wrapping them together because they both speak about the same thing, although the surrounding verses give a certain air of mystery to them. Jesus is responding to the disciples in this chapter when they come to him: the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3) In the verses that follow it may be that the ‘signs of your coming’ should be taken to mean signs that will happen BEFORE he comes again rather than the signs that he is just about to come. There are, we suggest three parts to the things Jesus said: 1. The characteristics of the church age (v.4-14), 2. A destructive judgment that will come to Jerusalem and Israel in the immediate future (v.15-21), 3. The signs of the End Time immediately prior to his second coming (v.26-31)

So, Part 1, v.4-14: Those signs include many coming and claiming to be him (v.4,5), wars and rumors of wars (v.6). These are characteristics of the age in which we now live, “but the end is still to come.” (v.6b). Wars, famines and earthquakes are common (v.7) but note these are just “the beginning of birth pains” (v.8) i.e. they have to happen BEFORE the end time and throughout the Church age. There will also be persecution (v.9) and luke-warmness and a dropping away of believers (v.10), there will be false prophets and deception (11), and an increase of wickedness (v.12), so we need to stand firm to be saved (v.13) and when all nations have heard the Gospel Jesus will come again (v.14).

So, Part 2, v.15-21: he said to them AFTER THESE GENERAL SIGNS IN THE FUTURE, watch out because VERY SOON THESE OTHER SPECIFIC THINGS WILL COME:  the enemy coming into the Temple (v.15). When that happens, take to the hills (v.16), quickly (v.17,18) because it will be tough (v.19-21).

So now let’s jump down to verses 32 to 37. We’ll leave you to do your own study of Part 3, v.22 to 31. Now we consider the analogies.

First of all he refers to the analogy of the fig tree, a very common tree in their land. Look, he says, you know that when the leaves come out summer is near. We might say when the Crocus bulbs start pushing up or when the daffodils start coming up, Spring is here.

Now comes a bit that often confuses people: “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Some think ‘this generation’ meant everyone who lived afterwards but when we realise that verses 15 to 21 referred to their immediate future (although it is always possible there is a future element as well) it is easy to see that it meant those who were alive then for within 40 years it happened.

So whether it was them in their day watching the political upheavals with the Romans, us in the Church age, generally being aware of the characteristics of the age and so not being led astray, or whether we find ourselves in a time that is clearly the End Time with the chaotic things (physical and/or spiritual) taking place, the call is to be alert and watch the signs.

But then Jesus runs on and we see the second analogy: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (v.35-35) The first analogy was very straight forward and if we have any questions about the second one, the Flood and Noah, Jesus spells it out: “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (v.38,39) i.e. it is going to happen rapidly and come as a shock to many. He concludes, “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (v.44)

The lessons and challenges are fairly obvious. Luke records Jesus saying, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) So, don’t let the enemy deceive you and lead you astray so that your love grows cold. Keep alert in the Spirit to what is happening around you and don’t let yourself become distracted from the life in the kingdom. Hold firm, remain steady, be patient, rest in his timing, rejoice in his goodness and continue to be a faith person, because that is what he will be looking for according to the above quote. Amen!

49. Mother Hen

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 49.  Mother Hen

Mt 23:37   how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.

Such a simple little analogy in stark contrast to all that has just been saying. Jesus, we might say today, has just torn a strip off the Pharisees in a major way with his seven ‘woe’s’. Everything he has just been saying comes as total condemnation and in that sense is most unusual from the mouth of Jesus, but he is not condemning the sinners, the riff-raff of society, they are what they are, but he condemns the spiritual and moral leadership of the nation of Israel that continues on in the same way their predecessors had done, rejecting God’s servants, the prophets, and are now rejecting His Son.

From the passages we read previously he continued on from, You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (v.33) by saying that his Father would yet send more prophets etc. but he knew that they too will be rejected by Israel (v.34). Therefore, they will be held accountable for all the blood that has been shed of righteous men, all the way from Abel to Zechariah (see Gen 4:8 and 2 Chron 24:20-22), servants of God killed by unrighteous men who were part of this ‘chosen people’. (v.35,36) And it will happen soon! (It happened in AD70 when Jerusalem and its occupants were utterly destroyed by the Romans in response to a rebellion).

When we get angry we often get carried away in a self-centred anguish but Jesus’ anger is softened by his yearning – and the yearning of the Godhead – for Jerusalem’s salvation: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (v.37) It is a cry from the heart of the Godhead who had brought Israel into being, watched over it through the centuries and watched over Jerusalem with anguish.

So look at the analogy: a mother hen who gathers her chicks under her wings. It is again a common picture for anyone in an agricultural community where chickens are kept. The eggs are hatched and the mother hen watches over her chicks and at night or at other times of threat she draws them close and covers them with her wings. It is an act of loving, caring, protection.

This is what Jesus felt about Jerusalem. God had been there for them throughout the centuries, yearning to bless them, care for them, provide for them and keep them secure, but time and time again they turned their back on Him and killed His prophets. He had longed to be a loving Father to them (or a mother hen) but they rejected him.

This analogy is one of pathos, that evokes sadness, sorrow and compassion. There is nothing hard hearted about Jesus at this point so, however strong the words had been of condemnation of the Pharisees, still the heart of God was one of sorrow and anguish and compassion for Jerusalem and its people, but they were too self-centred to see that and be moved by it, and so they would remain blind and hard-hearted and would be terminated as a city at the heart of a nation in AD70.

There is a remarkable ‘summary prophecy’ in Revelation 12 where a woman (Israel) has a son (Jesus) and there is a dragon (Satan) who seeks to destroy her and him and we read: “She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.” (Rev 12:5,6) That period of roughly three and a half years, corresponds to other such similar periods in prophecy and, as one commentator said, ‘became a conventional symbol for a limited period of unrestrained wickedness.’. But is it a set time (half of perfect 7) in God’s economy. There is nothing random about the length of Israel’s time ‘in the world’. Whether the formation of the new nation of Israel in the early part of last century was the end of that period or it is yet to come, remains to be seen.

Notice the words in that quote in respect of Israel, even after the destruction of Jerusalem and the nation in AD70, “a place prepared for her by God”. As with the Exile centuries before, God watched over this people, a people who so often brought anguish to His heart, and yet a people through whom He had chosen to reveal Himself to the world. Within it, there had been great men of God, within it there always had been a faithful remnant even though the majority may have turned away from Him. And so today, they continue to exist, still mostly rejecting their Messiah, but still within the purposes of God. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else on this planet, we might say, “Watch this space!”

What are the lessons that go with this little analogy? First, that God is patient and long-suffering and faithful to His word. Despite their ongoing rejection He still exhibits a yearning love for them.  Second, the sin and folly of mankind is epitomized in this people who, despite the wonder of all that was happening at the hands of Jesus in their midst, remained blind to that wonder. Third, although he will feel compassion, He will nevertheless hold His people accountable – Jew or Christian – and bring discipline where it is needed. Yet, fourth, His plan continues and He is not deterred. He is the God of the big-picture, the God of the long-term and He will fulfil His plans and purposes despite our failures, indeed He takes them into account and weaves them into His will. Worship Him!

48. Gnats and Camels

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 48.  Gnats and Camels

Mt 23:24   You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

The further we go through this last week of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem before his death, the more intense and more pointed his challenges become. So much of the time we will speak graciously and seeking to avoid offence, but Jesus has little time left to speak into the heart of this nation. The way he brings these challenges is designed to raise the spiritual temperature so that the truth thrown in their faces will raise the ire of the authorities so that eventually, and within a very short time, they will come to boiling point and act against him and arrest him and falsely try him and have him crucified, and thus the Lamb of God will be sacrificed.

Jesus now speaks to the gathered crowd – and it would have grown bigger and bigger hearing that he was there – and speaks quite openly about the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees who maintained they were the guardians of the Law. Observe: Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (23:1-4) Obey the teaching, is what he says, but not them themselves, for they don’t do what they say and they just make life more difficult for you and do nothing to help you. Could that be an indictment of us? I hope not.

He goes on to speak against the way they act and culminates in using the language and teaching he has conveyed in the recent parables and analogies: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (v.11,12) but then he turns on these teachers of the law and we have a sevenfold series of ‘Woe’s   (v.13,15,16,23,25,27,27) against them, interspersed with such denunciations as, “You hypocrites” (v.13,15,23,25,27,29), “You blind fools” (v.17), “You blind men” (v.19), “You blind guides” (v.24), “Blind Pharisees” (v.26), and finally, “You snakes! You brood of vipers!” (v.33) It is devastating!

So, it is in the context of all of this that we find our strange little analogy: “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (v.24) The Message version, as always trying to put it in understandable but picturesque language, has it, Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?” We might put it, “In all your efforts to rationalise and apply the Law you end up taking out all the minor unclean issues and yet still accept the bigger unclean issues.” The strict Pharisee would carefully strain his drinking water through a cloth to be sure he did not swallow a gnat, for instance, the smallest of unclean animals but, without realizing it, was accepting or tolerating much bigger unclean creatures. ‘Creatures’ in this case meaning unacceptable behaviour.

Jesus has in fact just explained this pithy little analogy: “You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (v.23) There they were being so careful to even separate off and give a tenth of the herbs they used (was God really concerned with that????) to ensure they tithed on everything, but in the meanwhile they cared little for justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Mark records it more blatantly in an earlier incident: “And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, `Honor your father and your mother,’ and, `Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: `Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother.” (Mk 7:9-12) Appearing spiritual by giving to God meant they no longer were faithful and caring towards their parents.

Now I believe the application of this can be devastating for the Christian community as I have watched it for over forty years.  For instance, there are young people who, coming to Christ, in their newfound zeal to serve the Lord, opt out of all family activities and responsibilities and without realizing it portray a terrible witness to their unbelieving parents. On the other hand, I have known ‘good Christian’ parents whose lives are so filled with ‘meetings’ that they were rarely there for their families (this is especially true of leaders) and so their apparent spirituality was being used as an excuse for poor parenting. Good parenting should go far beyond setting rules, it should include being there for the children when they need a sense of care and security.

A balance needs to be made. In many ways we inadvertently abuse the Spirit of Christ by trying to be spiritual, by trying to be zealous – just like the Pharisees – while missing major issues in our lives. I believe the priority order for our lives (and this includes for leaders) is God – family – church/work, i.e. our relationship directly with the Lord is all important and that should then be followed by the way we express Christ in our families and then, and only then, how we express him in both church and in work.

If we fail to put God first, we are godless. If we fail to minister to our families second, we convey the message to them that they are not important and young people then become vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy and fall away from the Lord. Yes, church is important, yes work is important, but if we sacrifice our relationship with the Lord or our relationships within our family because of either of those two things I identified in the paragraphs above, we will be going astray and are likely to make ourselves and our families especially vulnerable to the deception, the temptations and the outright attacks of the enemy.

This little sentence, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel,” can sound so minor but it can have serious negative effects in our lives and the lives of our family or of our church, and may even affect our work. The Pharisees were being challenged so strongly by Jesus because they had lost all sense of perspective. May that not be applicable to us.

47. The Wedding Banquet

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 47.  The Wedding Banquet

Mt 22:1-3   Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

In chapter 21 Jesus had told the parable of the bad tenants to remind the Jews of their past history of rejecting God’s prophets, as well as prophesying that they would reject and kill him. Then to drum home the point he used the references to the rejected capstone and when he had finished the two illustrations he declared, Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (21:43)

Thus we now arrive at the Parable of the Wedding Banquet where Jesus pushes this point even further. As always, the content of the story is simple: There is a king preparing a wedding banquet for his son. (v.2). In those days, a preliminary invitation would be given and replied to, but then as the time drew near, a second invitation was given saying, “Come now, we are ready for you”, but in this case as the servants went out with the second invitation they found everyone ignoring or rejecting this ‘come now’ invitation (v.3). So the king tells more of his servants to go out and do all they can to encourage those people to come (v.4) but they ignored them, one going to work in his field, another in his business (v.5) while others seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them (v.6). The king was understandably angry at this response and sent his army to kill them and destroy their city (v.7)

But the story doesn’t end there, as bad as that was. No, instead he sends his servant to go out into the city and gather all the people they could find, both good and bad (v.8-10). Now there is a little extra scenario included for the story continues. At the celebration the king spots a man without wedding clothes and challenges him but the man had nothing to say (v.11,12) and so, “the king told the attendants, `Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (v.13)

Now most parables have just one main point to make but this one is unusual in that it appears to have THREE points to make:

  • First, all those invited and who rejected the invitation were killed.
  • Second, the king then simply invited others to come.
  • Third, once they came, the king expected the man to be properly dressed and when he wasn’t he inflicted the most severe punishment.

Now Jesus doesn’t spell out the interpretation of this three-part story but it seems fairly obvious, at least for the first two parts.

First of all, in the light of his previous teaching, the original invitation refers to that given to the Jews to be the people of God which had come about from the Exodus onwards. Over the centuries the Lord had sent prophets to call the people to Himself, again and again, and yet again and again they were rejected. The end conclusion is that (temporarily at least?) the Jews were rejected by God. This should not be seen as shocking because we see it in the ministry of the apostle Paul: “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” (Acts 13:44-46) and that is how it continued.

Second, as we have just seen in those verses, the Gospel was then taken to the Gentiles. i.e. the rest of the world. Paul explained it, “For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ” `I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'” When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:47,48)

The third part is not so simple. It has been suggested by commentators that it may have been the custom for the host to provide the guests with wedding garments. This would have been necessary for the guests at this banquet in particular, for they were brought in directly from the streets. The failure of the man in question to avail himself of a wedding garment was therefore an insult to the host, who had made the garments available, and thus he receives such a strong response.

A few more comments are applicable. First, note the context of the parable: a wedding banquet.  The Old Testament often speaks of the relationship of God to His people in terms of bride and bridegroom or of a marriage (see, for example, Isa 50:1, 54:1, 62:5,  Jer 2:32, 31:32) as does the New (e.g. Jn 3:29, 2 Cor 11:2, Eph 5:32, Rev 19:7). The wedding or the wedding banquet thus speak of the rejoicing in the coming together of Christ and the believer through salvation.

Second, note that the Gentiles who are invited in were ‘good or bad’. It is purely an act of grace on God’s behalf. Yes, we all come the same way – by receiving what He has already prepared for us.

Third, the wedding garments that the one man failed to put on, must speak of ‘putting on Christ’, the new self (Eph 4:24), being willing to let Christ transform you as he both imputes and imparts righteousness through the work of the Cross and the work of his Holy Spirit. The challenges in these things are obvious.

We should perhaps note the final verse in this passage: “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (v.14) which the Message version has as, “That’s what I meant when I say, “Many get invited; only a few make it.” God calls to all, but many are self-absorbed and so don’t heed the call. Some hear and think about coming but don’t want to pay the price and put on Christ’s ‘robes’ and become like him. It is another set of stories all wrapped up in this one parable that are strong warnings, especially to the Jews who maintained the rejections of their history, but also to anyone else who hears the call but can’t be bothered or is so self-absorbed they fail to respond to the most wonderful invitation in history.