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!

36. Keys of the Kingdom

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 36.  Keys of the Kingdom

Mt 16:19    I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The analogy that we find in this verse is difficult because there is no explanation to go with it that shows really what Jesus meant and so commentators generally have wondered and wondered. Let’s first of all observe the context for that might help.

They have travelled up to the region of Caesarea Philippi where Jesus had asked the disciples who people said he was (v.13). Various answers had been given – John the Baptist resurrected, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets (v.14). Jesus prodded them: “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” (v.15) and it is at that point Peter bursts out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (v.16) Jesus indicates that Peter is absolutely right for this is indeed revelation from his Father in heaven (v.17) and on that declaration, Jesus will build his church (v.18)

It is at that point that Jesus declares, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (v.19) Now I would suggest that the two parts of the verse are linked – the keys reference and the binding & losing reference. Why?

Consider what keys do. What is the purpose of a key? It is to open a door, to provide entry or exit.  Now Isaiah had previously used this expression: “In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” (Isa 22:20-22) This was a word spoken to the palace steward, Shebna, (Isa 22:15) and was saying that God was going to replace him and give his authority to Eliakim. Now no doubt the palace steward had keys to the palace and so literally he had the keys to the palace in Jerusalem that had been David’s but this is a prophecy that speaks more of the authority of David to rule.

In the book of Revelation, Jesus appears to John and says because he is the risen one, he holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:18) and then later when he speaks to the church in Philadelphia he describes himself as follows: “These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open,” (Rev 3:7) the same as the Isaiah quote. It is clearly all about authority. Jesus alone is the one to whom all authority has been given (see Mt 28:18) and he alone determines who will go to heaven and who will not.

Now how can the same be said of Peter and the other apostles (and us?). How did this authority work and what was the significance of the binding and loosing reference? Well a clue comes in the tense of the verbs used for you will see in your Bible footnotes so that the verse reads, “whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, 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. Now note the crucial words that I inserted in that previous sentence: “whenever we speak such words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” This is where it starts and finishes!

So what happens? We are confronted by people and as we seek to be instruments of the Lord, our hearts are open to Him and our spirit listens to the Holy Spirit. As we respond to what we hear or as we respond to His prompting, so we speak out His will and as we do that, so we comply with His will and open the way for Him to act. Suddenly it is as if the doors of heaven are opened and the power of the Lord is released and things happen, people are saved, people are released, the enemy is thwarted.

What happened between Ananias and Saul (Acts 9:17) was an example of this ‘releasing’ as he simply spoke out the will of God over Saul. Peter bringing healing to Aeneas (Acts 9:33,34) was another such case of releasing, as all such healings are. An instance of ‘binding’ might be that of Paul speaking against Elymas (Acts 13:8-12). Of course, perhaps the greatest example of Peter using the keys was on the Day of Pentecost when he preached under the anointing of the Holy Spirit and three thousand were saved (Acts 2). Perhaps we might also add when he preached to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10) and they were all saved.

So what are these ‘keys’? They are speaking a) by faith, b) under the direction of the Holy Spirit.  When we do that, the Lord opens the door of heaven and blessing ensues, people are saved, healed and released and the enemy bound. It is that simple.

35. Yeast and Bread again

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 35.  Yeast and Bread again

Mt 16:6    “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

There are many single words that Jesus used that immediately convey a wealth of ideas – or sometimes just one idea – and ‘yeast’ is one such picture word. We have already seen Jesus use yeast to convey one set of ideas in 13:33, but that was all about how a small piece of yeast in a larger batch of dough will manage to spread itself right through the batch. Now he uses yeast to convey something different.

Examining the context of the verse above we note first of all that this incident followed the feeding of the four thousand in Matt 15. A little while later the Pharisees came to challenge him as we saw in the previous study (Mt 16:1-4). Jesus then left them and we read, When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread.” (v.5) So we’ll see shortly these three things – the feeding of the four thousand, the challenge of the Pharisees, and the fact of forgetting their bread supplies – were linked in the minds of the disciples when Jesus said to them, “Be careful, Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (v.6)

In their confusion, “They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.” (v.7) Intriguingly in Mark’s version of this incident he does not pick up on Jesus’ explanation that follows but simply uses the questioning of the disciples to rebuke them for worrying about running out of resources (see Mk 8:14-21) where he leaves it open-ended. In the verses that follow here in Matthew there is this double teaching – a challenge to believe that he, Jesus, could always look after them and provide for them, but also this warning about the Pharisees.

First of all the challenge about supply: “Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered?” (v.7-10) Mark makes it even more clear but it is sufficiently so here: Jesus is challenging them for worrying about their lack of bread; they should realise from the feeding of the two crowds that Jesus is capable of providing for them, that should not be an issue.

No, the bigger issue is the teaching coming from the Pharisees: “How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (v.11) i.e. it’s not the matter of the bread, says Jesus, it’s all about their ‘yeast’. In Luke’s account, he spells out that the reference to the yeast is a reference to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Lk 12:1b) Here in Matthew Jesus does not spell it out but Matthew himself, as he sometimes does, adds an explanation: “Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (v.12)

So we have observed the context and we have seen the double challenge but we still haven’t seen a full explanation of what Jesus meant by ‘yeast’ when he referred to the teaching of the Pharisees. Yes, Luke had picked up that one aspect of it was their hypocrisy, and we have had some thoughts about that previously when Jesus spoke about loads being imposed by them (Mt 11 – see study no. 19 – The Ploughing Team) but there seems something more to be considered. Why yeast?  Well, from what we have considered before there may be a warning about how yeast spreads and thus how insidious the hypocritical teaching of the Pharisees was. The danger when you hear untruth is that it sticks in your mind and Satan can take it and emphasis it and worry you with it so that it seems to spread and spread and fill your thinking until you fully accept it. There are a number of calls in the New Testament to be alert about how we respond to the (false) teaching we may hear and to learn to assess it and reject it when we see it is false.

Now for an alternative possibility we have to go back into the Old Testament to see references to yeast. First of all, at Passover the Israelites were instructed to have dough ready without yeast (Ex 12:15-20), hence the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The absence of yeast signified the speed of the Exodus (Ex 12:39) whereby waiting for yeast to have spread through their dough would have slowed them down and the risen dough would have taken up more space. Yeast thus had the idea of something negative and in this case, something that would slow up the will of God operating. In Lev 2 it was forbidden to use yeast in the grain offering and the idea may be that yeast would make the mixture active and instead it should be a passive offering. The Jewish Rabbis suggested leaven was a picture of evil and perhaps this idea that it was changing the natural provision of God (wheat dough) and turning it into something else, gave a picture of how pride ‘blows up’ a person to make them think more of themselves that they really are.

In the New Testament, Paul chided the Galatians for allowing false teaching to sow doubt and erase faith (see Gal 5:7-9).  Similarly he chided the Corinthians for their pride and spoke of this and other things such as ‘malice and wickedness’ as yeast which can work through the whole body of Christ unless it is purged (see 1 Cor 5:6-8).

Thus again and again the picture of yeast is of something that spreads, something that works without reference to God, and something negative if not downright evil, and the distorted and twisted man-centred teaching of the Pharisees was like this and that is what Jesus is referring to.

Our natural tendency in church, when we come across whisperings and gossip which spreads untruth, is to ignore it and hope that it will go away – but it doesn’t. It remains under the surface until at some inconvenient moment in the future it bursts to the surface and distorts the whole body and causes upheaval and division. We need to reveal such things for what they are and bring them out into the open, seeing where they come from and the harm they can do. Left alone they will spread through the body to make it something different from what God wants. That is the teaching of the New Testament, and we would do well to heed it. Ignoring it is potentially disastrous.

34. Signs in the Sky

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 34.  Signs in the Sky

Mt 16:2,3    He replied, “When evening comes, you say, `It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, `Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

I am sure most of us just meander through life with little thought of where it is going and where it has come from. I know that is how I was when I was younger; we were too busy just coping with life to think big thoughts. I am sure there are many people who are too busy coping with life to thing about and then think through ‘God issues’. Life goes on around us and just happens. Yes, we have what some call presuppositions, starting ideas about ‘stuff’ that we picked up along the way, but so often give little thought to how we picked them up, or who it was who passed them on to us.

The Pharisees, some two thousand years ago in Israel were rather like this. They had their beliefs which became certainties, until an itinerant preacher from the north starting making waves and unsettling people and then, even worse, came to Jerusalem and upset people before returning north again to do more of his unsettling work.

When you are ‘certain’ you can’t let things like this remain, you have to do something about it and so, The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.” (v.2)   Now where have we heard something like that before? Ah! “The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” (Lk 4:3)  And, “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” (Lk 4;9-11) So we know where this “prove yourself by a miracle” mentality came from! But it is more than this, it is “Prove yourself for us, prove yourself to us.”  That was a mistake!

Rather than focus on himself and prove how great he was, Jesus is more concerned to get the Pharisees to address their own short-sightedness. There he was, and had been for some time, performing miracle after miracle, healing after healing, and now they turn round and ask for a sign ‘from heaven’. Oh, come on! We’ve been through this business of the origins of what Jesus did, where his power came from. Have you forgotten that already? Hostility has a short memory. No, you just want Jesus to act on his own behalf. You know that if he is of God then it is God who does it through him, and you want to try to bend God’s arm to turn up for you. Don’t you realise you are messing with Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe?

But that is what makes this all the more amazing. God doesn’t strike these narrow-minded and short-sighted bigots down. While Jesus is around, some of them may yet get saved!!! So Jesus teaches them, because that is what God does.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, `It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, `Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ “ (v.2,3a)  It’s funny isn’t it. Here in the UK we are hyper weather-conscious because we have such a changeable climate, but aware of the sky and the weaker conditions is a world-wide thing. We have a saying, “red sky at night, shepherds’ delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning.” Our weather lore includes, “It will turn into a fine day if it rains before seven or if it is foggy in the morning.” There are lots of this sort of thing and they probably vary in different parts of the world. So Jesus just gives them an example of this sort of thing. The point he is making is that they take this sort of thing for granted, they are happy to look for signs in the sky so, he adds, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” (v.3)

In the previous study we suggested that perhaps sometimes we need to catch the look on Jesus’ face and perhaps it may not be as we have previously thought it. I don’t know about you but so often I think of these chiding words of Jesus coming over as from a hard teacher, and yet I wonder if it was like that. Is that what he would want to convey to his close followers? It doesn’t correspond to the Jesus who healed people without doing deep counseling with them, or the Jesus who could sit down with sinners and have a meal.

You see Jesus knew who he was and he had no need to be defensive and so did the conversation go something like this: Hard Pharisees – give us a sign. Jesus, with a big broad smile of total confidence – oh, come on guys, you’re better than this. You know how to reads the weather, how about learning how to work out what my Father is doing from heaven, and if you see me healing people all over the place in His name, doesn’t that speak of His love and goodness. So don’t be so stressed and don’t be like bad-hearted generation who are so blind they can’t see the good works of God.  I spoke to you before of Jonah and that’s the most significant sign I can give, and if you hang around long enough you’ll witness that (v.4).  Well, it may not have been like that, we just don’t know, perhaps it was the exact words Matthew recorded or perhaps there was a bigger conversation.

The same lesson is there as we picked up on recently – be careful what you demand of God, maybe your question originates out of blindness and that comes because a heart adjustment is needed. Pictures and lessons, pictures and lessons.