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.

33. Bread and Dogs

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 33.  Bread and Dogs

Mt 15:26,27    He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”  “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

We are, you will remember, examining the picture language that Jesus used in his teaching. The more we do it, the more I realise just how much he did it – all the time! Wherever we turn in the Gospels we find this word-picture language. It is like Jesus does it, a) to make it more memorable and b) to make us think more – whatever is he getting at here? So often in preaching we try and make everything so simple and straight forward, but Jesus didn’t teach like that.  He taught in such a way that those whose hearts were all for him would understand, while those with a lesser commitment would perhaps say, “Nice story,” and go away untouched.

So what is the context of our two verses above? Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.” (v.21) He has left his usual area of ministry around the Sea of Galilee and gone north to the area to the far north of Galilee, in the area of the towns of Tyre and Sidon. An area outside Israel, a land of the Gentiles. We don’t know why but we do know that he did what he sensed his Father was doing, what the Holy Spirit led him to. Now he may have ministered to other people in this area but we are only told about this particular woman, for immediately after his conversation with her, we read, “Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee.” (v.29) i.e. he went back to his usual ministry area.

She is “A Canaanite woman from that vicinity.” (v.22a) Matthew calls her a Canaanite woman, one associated with the old enemies of Israel, those pagans who had previously occupied the land, many of whom would have left the land and settled elsewhere (when others remained and fought Israel). Mark, perhaps more graciously describes her differently: “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.” (Mk 7:26) However we may look at it, she is not a Jew. Now all of this background is very pertinent to understanding the power and significance of what follows.

She comes to Jesus, “crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” (v.22b) Now what is interesting is that Matthew has a variety of supplicants coming to Jesus and addressing him as ‘Lord’ – e.g. the leper (Mt 8:2), the centurion (Mt 8:6,8), a would-be disciple (Mt 8:21), Peter (Mt 14:28,30, 16:22, 17:4, 18:21), now this woman (Mt 15:22,25,27), a father with a demoniac son (Mt 17:15), and two blind men (Mt 20:30,31,33), but in Mark’s Gospel, the only time someone directly addresses Jesus as ‘Lord’ is in this instance, this gentile woman! No doubt both sets of accounts are true but it is as if Matthew goes to lengths to show Jesus’ Lordship and the recognition of that by many people, while Mark, directed by Peter, only uses it in this one exceptional case, to make a point – a Gentile acknowledges Jesus’ Lordship, and that is outstanding!

This story is truly fascinating from a number of angles. She addresses Jesus as ‘Son of David’, she is emphasizing his Jewishness but also perhaps subconsciously acknowledging his role as ruler in the order of King David, possibly the Messiah. Then she openly acknowledges her problem – her daughter is demon possessed. Now this presents a particular problem. A person only gets possessed (as against ‘oppressed’) when an individual opens up their life to Satan in a big way, usually through the occult – or when someone close to them in authority over them, if they are a child, is seriously involved in the occult. So how did this child become possessed? What had the mother (or father perhaps?) been up to? We are not told. Amazingly Jesus does not appear concerned to apportion blame and point fingers!

Now Jesus’ response to her is strange to say the least: “Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” (v.23) Now perhaps he is remaining silent because he wants to see how all the other players in this scene are going to react. I do believe that the Lord sometimes remains silent because He is testing us and wants to see how we will react to such silence.  The disciples react negatively towards her, and Jesus’ only comment seems at first sight to support their negativity: “He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (v.24) Again, is he wanting to see how she will react?

He is rewarded as she draws closer: “The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.” (v.25) She has sought Jesus out and now she persists. Jesus prods the conversation on again, again possibly to see how she will respond: “He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” (v.26)

Ah! At last we have arrived at the picture language, but what we find is almost abusive. His analogy is of a parent who snatches away the food given to their child and gives it to the dogs. ‘Bread’ is fairly obvious as meaning something that is good and nourishing, but ‘dogs’ is something different. Dogs, as we’ve seen before, tended to be unclean street scavengers or, at the best, guard animals tethered outside the family home. The term was used negatively of others – ‘Gentile dogs’, ‘infidel dogs’ and even later ‘Christian dogs’. What we don’t know is how Jesus said it. It could have been with a wry smile, as if inviting a repost – and this he gets: “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (v.27)

Excellent! Perseverance with wisdom! “Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.” (v.28) He clearly is pleased with her response and sees faith in her. He responds and the daughter is healed. Job done, now he can return to Galilee.

There is something in what we’ve just said that is quite significant and needs to be considered when we read these accounts. I suggested that the look on Jesus’ face would be telling and would be all important. The words at face value are provocative but the face might have been – and probably was – encouraging. If we wanted to expand what happened we might suggest the conversation went something like this: the woman came to Jesus’ house crying out from outside the front door, “Jesus, please come out and help us for my young daughter is horribly possessed by a demon.” Jesus came to the door but said nothing while his disciples in the background whispered, ‘Send her away Lord.’ So she persisted and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, please help us.’ Jesus smiled and said, “But I’ve been sent to our people, to Israel, should I use what I have for foreigners?” She smiles back through her tears, and shoots back, “Fair enough but can’t we have some leftovers of what you have – you are here after all.” Done!

A simple lesson, but a powerful one. If God either doesn’t answer or appears to give a strange answer, remember two things. First, He still loves you. Second, He longs for your growth and development and is watching to see how you will respond. The ball, as they say, is in your court!

(Addendum: if you want to see more of how God provokes, check out Ex 32:9,10 and Num 11:10-15 and Num 14:10-20)

32. Clean & Unclean

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 32.  Clean and Unclean

Mt 15:10,11 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him `unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him `unclean.'”

In a day when we are so often being told to take care in the kitchen, to have clean hands and not to touch things like uncooked chicken, talk of clean and unclean in the Biblical context could be confusing to the modern reader, but that is what we have before us now.

This particular little picture package takes its origin from the beginning of the chapter: Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (15:1,2) It’s the Pharisees again! This reference to the “tradition of the elders” goes back to the time of the post-Babylonian exile, when the Jewish rabbis began to make rules and regulations governing daily life, with interpretations and applications of the law of Moses, which was then handed down from generation to generation and became known as the oral law.

Now the truth is that these laws about being clean or unclean DID have their origin in the Law of Moses but it was about ‘ceremonial uncleanness’ not literally about being dirty. So for instance in the Law we find, “if a person touches anything ceremonially unclean–whether the carcasses of unclean wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that move along the ground–even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty.” (Lev 5:2) That concept of ‘uncleanness’ was particularly highlighted in respect of food (see Lev 11:1-47). Although it is not spelled out, it is probable that God’s prohibition for not eating certain creatures is almost certainly grounded in the fact that in certain ways some creatures are more likely than others to be disease carriers. Such regulations, therefore, are probably for health reasons as much as anything else, but obedience to these laws would indicate submission to the Lord.

But the Jews had gone over the top with these laws, seeking to be hyper-conscious in respect of obeying God. Thus they developed rules in addition to the written laws found in Scripture, and this became the oral law, but the fact that it was oral somehow seemed to them to make it even more important than the written law. So things like hand washing before meals became a big issue, a very real part of their religion. Jesus first chides them for the way they twisted the Law for their own purposes (v.3-9) but then he moves on with this more general teaching that undermined the very fabric of the ‘add-on religion’ of which this is an illustration.

“Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him `unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him `unclean.’” (v.10,11) Note the two things, referring to the mouth: what goes into a person and what comes out of a person. What comes out must be their words which reveal their heart attitudes. What goes in is simply food. Now it may well be that some foods are less healthy than others (and science and the media shout this at us on a regular basis) but as far as religion, ethics and morals are concerned ‘food’ cannot make a person more or less spiritual or more or less ‘clean’.

The disciples were worried by this for they realised that this would upset the Pharisees even more: “Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” (v.12) When Jesus shrugs this off (v.13,14) it is Peter who speaks up: “Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” (v.15) So Jesus explains: “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man `unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man `unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him `unclean.’” (v.16-20)

Food goes into the body and then the waste is expelled from the body. End of story. Nothing spiritual has happened. But listen to what a person says, listen their words and the way they utter them and realise they reveal the sort of heart that the person has.  All sins come out of the heart, out of the inner man; that’s where they start, in a person’s mind. That’s what makes a person ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ or ‘righteous’ or ‘unrighteous’ or ‘good’ or ‘not good’.

It all starts with what you are like on the inside and so religious ritual is a mere add-on, church services are a mere add-on, reading the Bible is a mere add-on. All these things may or may not be good in themselves but they are NOT the things that put us right with God, only belief in Jesus does that! These things don’t make us ‘more holy’ we just are holy.

I wonder how many things we ‘do’ as Christians as part of our ‘religious lives’ that we think have any impact on how spiritual we are? From what we’ve just read, the answer has to be, “None!” Spirituality starts in the heart and everything we do is a reflection of what is our heart condition. Now I realise this might be offensive to some because there are whole schools of thought that are based on ‘doing’, on personal discipline and so on, but in the light of Jesus’ teaching we have to say these are NOT the things that put us right with God or reveal how spiritual we are; they simply show that some of us can be more self-disciplined than others and the danger in this sort of assessment is that it breeds pride. These ‘self-help’ approaches might have, as the apostle Paul might have said, an appearance of wisdom (Col 2:23), but they do little to promote a deeper loving relationship with the Lord.

A religion that focuses more on ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ falls short of the Christianity revealed in the New Testament. ‘Doing’ should always follow or come out of ‘being’. It is because I already am a child of God, much loved by the Father, that I ‘go to church’ to worship Him or be taught more about Him. I don’t go to impress Him or get Him on my side. That’s what these Pharisees were trying to do but their focus was all on externals, things we do outwardly, and so Jesus has to bring the balance and point out that it all starts from what is going on, on the inside, and all we do externally is to be a natural expression of what we feel on the inside. It sounds a mundane teaching but the reality of it is life changing.

31. New and Old Treasures

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 31.  New & Old Treasures

Mt 13:52  He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

Picture words, picture words and even more picture words. So it continues, Jesus using picture words or picture stories to catch the minds of his followers and convey truth to them in memorable ways. Jesus has just been teaching in parables and so we find, Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked. “Yes,” they replied. (v.51) It is in response to their affirmation that they had at least in part understood what he was saying that he now adds our verse above.

The word ‘Therefore’ is always connecting verses; in this case connecting their affirmation with the picture he now gives. It is interesting, for he doesn’t say, “You are like,” but he put it in a more indirect way. It is as if Jesus knows we can often take in a picture and its teaching if it is slightly separated from us and we can observe it objectively rather than perhaps feel rather defensive and thinking, “What is he saying about me?”

The verse falls into two parts, first how people actually live and work, and then, second, an illustration to emphasise or highlight what is going on. He speaks about a teacher of the Law, a scribe some versions say. None of his disciples were scribes but they could associate with what he describes. He speaks of a scribe “who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven.”

Now there must be an implication here in the light of what follows. The implication is that this scribe has been previously taught about God, heaven etc. but when Jesus comes along, if he is a follower of Jesus, he will take on board new understanding about these things. That is at the heart of this verse. Now we just said that none of them were scribes but, the likelihood is that when they were children at least, they would have gone to Synagogue and there learned such things. This is one of the big things about the coming of Jesus – he came to a prepared people. They may have been far from God but nevertheless, their culture included such things as Sabbath teaching in each town or village at the local synagogue.

In Luke 4 we see how, when on one occasion Jesus went to the synagogue as a guest teacher, they handed him the scrolls appropriate for that day, a scroll of what we today call the Old Testament and that day’s reading was from Isaiah 61 which included the Messianic briefing or mandate, we might call it. It was a familiar passage and it is possible that Jesus knew that that would be the reading for the day when he went there and knew it was likely, as a guest, he would be invited to read it. They all knew the familiar words and perhaps it was custom for the rabbi to reiterate and emphasise the wonder of the prophetic scriptures, but what they had not expected was Jesus’ application of them: “Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:20,21) Wow! That was new!

But then, moving on to the second part of the verse, he says this scribe “is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”  He imagines this house owner who has a storeroom and from it he brings things which, perhaps to his family, appear a mix of old familiar articles as well as things they had never seen before. In a day when so many children have so many toys (and are so often bored with them), my wife adopted a policy with our children whereby when a birthday or Christmas came along, she took away some of the existing toys that were not being played with much and stored them away somewhere out of sight. Then, perhaps six months later, she might bring out a few of the hidden toys and, you know what, they were always greeted with great joy. Old treasures and new.

So how do the two parts of the verse work together? Well Jesus appears to be saying that these people, who have ‘old treasures’ in their knowledge of the synagogue teaching of the ‘Old Covenant’ or ‘Old Testament’, know how to bring out and display that knowledge of their past history, but now that Jesus comes along, those who are his followers will hear new things and see how both new and old relate together. The outworking of this is seen in the New Testament in, for example, Paul’s teaching, especially, say, in the early chapters of Romans where he takes the teaching about Abraham and uses it to reinforce his teaching on justification by faith alone. Probably the biggest single piece of the New Testament that does this is the entire book of Hebrews. There is a sense whereby Matthew himself does this when again and again he uses Old Testament prophecies to reveal the wonder of who Jesus is.

Of the paraphrase versions, I think the Living Bible puts it most succinctly: Then he added, “Those experts in Jewish law who are now my disciples have double treasures—from the Old Testament as well as from the New!” The Message Version, as always, tries to put it in a slightly different way to make it come alive: He said, “Then you see how every student well-trained in God’s kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.” The JBP version is more like the Living Bible: “You can see, then,” returned Jesus, “how every one who knows the Law and becomes a disciple of the kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who can produce from his store both the new and the old.”

Pictures and more pictures, all doing the same thing, highlighting the truth, applying understanding in memorable ways. Perhaps we may ask ourselves, are we knowledgeable about God’s word? Do we go back and forth in the Bible and every now and then, like my children when they were young, squeal with delight when we come across the old again, a familiar passage that has blessed us in the past? Then are there times when we read the old and we suddenly see ‘something new’, something we’ve read, perhaps many times before, but suddenly the Lord makes it new.

Earlier this morning, in my preliminary time with the Lord, I felt attracted to the book of Job and there in chapter 1 I read of Job, He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.” (1:3) Wow! That made even more devastating what happened to him; I have never ‘seen’ that before. A little thing, but old treasures and new. Indeed as I have been writing this particular study, I had never seen before, the illustration of the old and new so clearly in Paul’s writings or this verse being seen in the whole of Hebrews. Old and new. What wonders we have, what times we have in store if we will but take the time to spend time with the Lord in His word.

30. The Final Assessment

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 30.  The Final Assessment

Mt 13:47  Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.

Chapter 13 of Matthew is the start of the real parables teaching that Matthew has collected together. We saw it started with the Parable of the Sower, all about the different ways people respond to the word of God. Although it didn’t start with a reference to the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, the implication was there (see v.11). Thereafter, however, each parable starts with “the kingdom of heaven is like…” (v.24,31,33,44,45,47), explaining how weeds grow alongside wheat, how mustard seed grows to be one of the biggest plants, how yeast spreads through dough, how a man reacts to finding hidden treasure or how a merchant reacts to finding a priceless pearl, all of which have different applications in respect of the rule of God on earth – the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. The explanation of the Parable of the Weeds, and then the parables of the treasure and the parable of the pearl and now the present parable, are all given to the disciples in private (see v.36). In this batch in this chapter, Matthew has collected seven parables (seven, the perfect or complete number?) the first about the beginning of the work of the kingdom and now the last, that we are about to look at, about the ‘end’ of kingdom.

Two verses tell the parable and two verses explain it. First the parable itself: Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.” (v.47,48) As so much of Jesus’ teaching was done on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, this is for his listeners, and now specifically his disciples of whom at least four are fishermen, a very obvious illustration.  They go fishing with their nets and when they pull in their haul, they pull it into shore and there they sort out the fish, good from bad, probably meaning either large from small, or fish good for eating from those that are not good for eating.

Then next, the explanation: “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (v.49,50) The lesson is very simple and very obvious: at the very end of all things of this present earth, there is coming a great accounting and at that time there will be a distinguishing between the righteous and the unrighteous.

This teaching is exactly that which is found more generally in the New Testament, for example, “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,” (Heb 9:27) and For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead,” (Acts 17:31) and “we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, `every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’ ” So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God,” (Rom 14:10-12) and “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad”. (2 Cor 5:10)

Now theologians differ over whether this happens the moment you die, or whether it is simply the next thing you are aware of after death, or whether it does literally take place in time-space history after Jesus has returned (Rev 19:1-21), and after the apparent thousand year reign (Rev 20:1-6), all spoken of in the book of Revelation.

It is there we receive the clearest of pictures of all this: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done.”  (Rev 20:11-13) Various explanatory comments might be helpful.

First the Revelation material is pure prophecy and prophecy is often largely allegorical, portraying the truth through pictures. So will there be a literal book with details in? I suggest, very simply, it is more likely to mean God who knows everything knows every detail of your life.

Second, the phrase, “according to what he had done,” seen in the light of the whole of the New Testament refers to each person’s reaction to the Son of God and the life they then lived as the outworking or reality of that response.

Third, in both the present parable and the parable of the weeds, the bad fish and the weeds are thrown “into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (v.42,50) It is worth noting that again theologians down through the ages have disputed the meaning of this. The traditional approach is that this describes hell, an ongoing punishment (eternal fire – Mt 18:8) for the unrighteous. Some find this conflicts with the teaching of “God is love” and an answer would be that this might have to be because spirit and soul cannot be destroyed (although scripture seems to challenge that – see Mt 10:28 – “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” which might limit it to only ‘spirit’ cannot be destroyed.)

The alternative teaching is that actually ‘hell’ is simply a description of this destruction that is available throughout history (‘eternal’ in Mt 18:8 meaning always available) and that the person is utterly destroyed (annihilated) by the fire, for anywhere else fire utterly destroys. The ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ is therefore seen as the responses of those who are about to be cast into this fire. This fire is referred to by Jesus in Matthew a number of times – 5:22, 6:30, 7:19, 13:40, 18:8,9, 25:41. In the book of Revelation it is only Satan and the Beast who are thrown into the fire for ongoing punishment. All other references to people are that they are destroyed. (For a very detailed study of this, see my book, ‘The Judgments of a Loving God’ with a link on this page.)

Whatever the truth (which we shall only know when we meet Him) there is a clear warning that comes through Jesus’ teaching again and again – there are choices and there are consequences and whether those consequences are ongoing pain or simply destruction they should be avoided and the alternative is gloriously wonderful and it will only be the utterly hard-hearted and blind who will refuse it!