Most Christians probably appreciate the significance of Habakkuk 2:4 (“The righteous one will live by his faith.”) to understanding the New Testament, but the significance of Deuteronomy 19:15 often escapes us. It reads, “One witness cannot establish any iniquity or sin against a person, whatever that person has done. A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” In other words, before you accept something, you need to have multiple pieces of evidence that support it.
We see this principle at work in many, if not most, of the books of the New Testament. In Matthew and Mark, the legal case against Jesus falls apart because the Sanhedrin can’t find witnesses to agree on a single crime that Jesus has committed. In Acts, the tripartite structure of the first gospel sermon in Acts 2 is based on Deuteronomy 19:15. In 2 Corinthians 13, Paul describes his multiple visits to the Corinthian church as multiple witnesses. In 1 Timothy 5, we learn that we should not accept a charge against an elder except on the testimony of two or three witnesses. And so on. Indeed, the more we look for multiple witnesses at work in the Scriptures, the more we will find them.
However, in no book of the Bible is Deuteronomy 19:15 more important than in the gospel of John. Some commentators have compared John to a cosmic trial, a proceeding meant to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. Naturally, in such a trial, witnesses are very significant. In John 8:13-18, the Pharisees insist that they can ignore Jesus’ words because He is only bearing witness about Himself. Jesus retorts that even though His word alone is sufficient, the Father also bears witness to Him.
Indeed, this confirmatory structure is repeated throughout the entire gospel. Jesus will make a claim about Himself (“I am the light of the world”) and establish the truth of His claim with a relevant miracle (healing the man born blind). Sometimes, the order is reversed, as in John 6, when Jesus first feeds the 5000, then announces that He is the bread of life.
The fullest elaboration of this idea, though, appears in John 5:31-47. There, Jesus acknowledges that legally, His testimony by itself is insufficient. However, there are three other witnesses who confirm Him: John the Baptist, the Father, and the Scriptures. Thus, the Jews’ failure to accept Him is inexcusable and reveals their rotten hearts.
Even though we are 2000 years removed from the religious disputes of Jesus’ ministry, this methodology remains extremely important for us. Anybody can say that He is the Son of God. Lunatics do all the time. However, Jesus didn’t merely say. He backed it up by working miracles that His enemies tried to discredit (“He casts out demons by the power of Beelzebul prince of demons!”) but could not deny. John the Baptist, who could have been a competitor, acknowledged His deity. Prophecies written hundreds of years before His coming describe His ministry and death in such specific terms that they confirm His divine origin as well as their own. When we put it all together, we too can have confidence that Jesus truly was—and is—the Son of God.
Our reading for this week features three stories that appear in all three of the Synoptic Gospels: the healing of the leprous man, the healing of the paralytic, and the call of Matthew/Levi. However, an examination of the context of these stories reveals that Matthew handles them differently than Mark and Luke do.
Mark places them back to back to back except for a brief summary of Jesus’ ministry in 1:45, Luke does the same, but Matthew includes a chapter’s worth of material (Matthew 8:5-34) between the healing of the leper and the healing of the paralytic. In his narrative, the healing of the centurion’s servant, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, the cost of discipleship, the stilling of the storm, and the story of the demons and the swine all come between the two.
Normally, I regard Luke as the most chronological of the gospels, but here, I think it is Matthew rather than Mark and Luke who is organizing his material chronologically. Mark has taken three stories that occur out of strict sequence and arranged them thematically, and Luke has done the same (this happens, I think, because the gospel of Mark is one of Luke’s sources).
In Mark’s account, everything from 1:39-2:22 is about the true nature of Jesus’ healing (though 2:15-22 is shared with the next Markan theme—the opposition of the Pharisees). The first story, the story of the cleansing of the leper, reveals the limitations of Jesus’ power. His subject is physically healed, but spiritually, he remains disobedient. Rather than obeying Jesus’ command to be silent, he tells everyone about the miracle.
The next story in the sequence, the healing of the paralytic, uses physical healing as proof of spiritual healing. Jesus tells the paralytic that his sins have been forgiven. Then, so that all the incredulous onlookers can know that Jesus is telling the truth, He cures His paralysis too—an actual outward sign of an inward grace!
All of this prepares us for Jesus’ summons of Levi from the tax booth. “Follow Me,” He says, and Levi does. In Luke’s account, Jesus clarifies for us in 5:32 what just has happened. He has called a sinner to repentance.
But how can we know this? How can we know that the heart of the loathsome tax farmer has been changed? How can we know that he has been spiritually healed and reconciled to God?
Simple! The previous story has proven the point. Because the paralytic walked, we can be sure that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins—even the sins of a tax collector like Levi! Even today, Jesus’ miracles of physical healing should reassure us that we have been spiritually healed, and that through His power, we can continue to be.
All this should also teach us a powerful lesson about the depth and the intricacy of the gospels. Yes, Mark 1:39-2:22 does contain three stories about Jesus, and we can understand them and appreciate them separately as Jesus stories, but much more is going on in the gospels than merely that! Once we begin to consider the arrangement of these narratives and the authors’ (and/or the Author’s) reasons for so doing, we can come to a more profound appreciation of their meaning and relevance to us.
We live in a tolerant age, indeed, one that is so tolerant that it will tolerate anything—except intolerance. “Don’t you judge me!” is a favorite rallying cry of the defensive sinner. So too, “Don’t you judge their hearts!” is beloved of those who want to defend sinners, particularly when the sin involves apostasy.
So-and-so has left the Lord’s church and is now worshiping with a church that teaches the sinner’s prayer instead of baptism for the forgiveness of sins, but we are supposed to accept them as good people with sincere hearts who simply are seeking God in a different way right now. We’re not allowed to suggest that they have made this decision from unrighteous motives. After all, we can’t see hearts, can we?
Jesus, though, tells us that we can see hearts, after a fashion. Indeed, He commands us to do so. As He says in Matthew 7:16, we will recognize false teachers by their fruit. Good hearts don’t bring forth bad fruit; bad hearts don’t bring forth good fruit.
This is true not only for false teachers, but generally for all of us. What we do reveals who we are. Most of us don’t like this thought, particularly as it applies to ourselves. We want to engage in special pleading about the difficult circumstances that led to our bad behavior.
Ideally, we want to put the blame on someone else. I yelled at my kids because they’ve been out of control recently. I got in a fight with my wife because she did that thing that she knows I hate. I left my church because they were a bunch of hypocritical legalistic Pharisees who never said anything about love and grace.
We can construct all the narratives we want, but the truth lies in our actions. I yelled. I got in a fight. I left.
Indeed, whenever we have done evil, we didn’t do it because of somebody else. We did it because of ourselves. Indeed, we did it because of evil in our hearts that our evil actions revealed. By our fruits we must know ourselves, and by their fruits we can know others.
Without exception, it is true that the good-hearted disciple of Christ will, according to their knowledge, worship where the truth is taught and practiced. Hypocrisy is everywhere. A church’s relative emphasis on legalism, love, and grace is subjective.
Truth is objective, and baptism for the forgiveness of sins is too. Either a church repeats the Biblical teaching from a dozen different passages on baptism, or it doesn’t. If you know those passages, but you choose to worship with a congregation that doesn’t teach Bible baptism, then, yeah, you’ve got a heart problem. The fruit says so.
Now, that’s not an incurable disease. Some heart problems are worse than others, but the presence of sin in all of our lives reflects the presence of evil desire in all of our hearts. Every heart can be purified by the grace of God.
However, before God will solve the heart problem, we first must acknowledge that it exists.
Like many who were raised by Christian parents, I can remember being taught as a child that Christians today weren’t supposed to pray the prayer of Matthew 6:9-13, variously known as the Model Prayer (to brethren) and the Lord’s Prayer (to everyone else). In support of this claim, my teachers made two main arguments.
The first was that the entire context of Matthew 6:5-15 is a warning against vain repetition, and repeating the words of the Lord over and over again is likely to reproduce the same problem He was warning against. I think that’s legitimate. We’re supposed to pray from the heart rather than defaulting to the easy minimum of rote repetition and prayer clichés.
The second, though, insisted that the Lord’s Prayer was no longer appropriate because it contained the words “Your kingdom come.” According to this way of thinking, the kingdom of God came with power on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, so we should not expect further comings of the kingdom now.
I suspect that this argument goes back to the premillennial controversy of a century ago. At that time, premillennialists argued (as they do now) that the millennium would begin with the beginning of Jesus’ reign as King in Jerusalem. In response, brethren pointed out that Jesus is reigning as King now (see Colossians 1:13), so it is hardly reasonable to expect His coronation to take place in the future too! Through the years, this argument became separated from its context and mutated into a belief in the once-and-only-once coming of the kingdom on Pentecost.
However, this understanding fails to take into account the varied nature of the Scriptural witness about God’s kingdom. At times, Jesus speaks of the kingdom as having already come during the time of His ministry (Luke 11:20). At others, He anticipates a distant event that only some of His followers would remain alive to see (Matthew 16:28). At still others, He foretells a coming of the kingdom that wouldn’t be accompanied by outward signs at all (Luke 17:20-21). None of these things line up with the events of Pentecost.
Instead, we must understand the coming of God’s kingdom as something that happens not once, but multiply. It occurs whenever God asserts His dominion and His sovereignty is revealed. Thus, it is equally legitimate to speak of the kingdom coming when Jesus casts out a demon, when the Holy Spirit falls upon the apostles on Pentecost, when the Jewish nation is judged for rejecting the Messiah in 70 AD, and even when a penitent sinner first submits to Jesus. All those things proclaim God as King.
Today, unless Christians are interested in entreating God to rise up and judge the nations (which seems like a perilous thing to do!), it is this latter sense that most concerns us. In Matthew 13:33, Jesus compares the kingdom to leaven that is kneaded into bread dough. It works invisibly, yet it transforms its environment. So too, we ought to pray for the gospel to work in the hearts of those around us, until a change that we cannot see produces a life of obedience to Christ. May Your kingdom come in this way, O God, until no hearts remain that have not yet received it!
At first glance, Matthew 5:34 appears to be a simple passage to interpret. Jesus says, “Don’t take an oath at all,” so Christians should. . . take no oath at all. Like the Quakers, when we are asked to swear to tell the truth in a court case, we should affirm instead.
However, this facial interpretation fails to take into account everything else we know about oath-swearing in Jewish society at the time of the New Testament. Jesus Himself gives us more insight into the matter in Matthew 23:16-22.
This passage says a great deal about the hearts of the Jews and their purposes in swearing different kinds of oaths. It invites us to consider the thought process of a “religious” Jew who has a deceitful heart. He wants to be able to lie when it’s advantageous to him, but he also wants others to accept his word sometimes.
As a result, he comes up with the idea of confirming his word with an oath when he wants to be believed. “I’ll swear by the holy temple of God! That’s what I’ll do!” However, this deceitful Jew discovers that he has a problem. Nobody believes him unless he swears an oath, and if he swears an oath, he doesn’t feel free to lie.
He still wants to be able to trick people sometimes, so he comes up with a hierarchy of non-binding and binding oaths. Now, he can swear by the temple and feel free to lie his head off, but if he wants people to believe him, he will swear by the gold in the temple. He can use the impressive-sounding but meaningless oath to deceive outsiders while still being able to show insiders his good faith.
Apparently, temple/gold wasn’t the only non-binding/binding pair. Crafty Jews would also use altar/gift and heaven/God’s throne, depending on whether they wanted to deceive or to be believed.
Jesus points out, though, that the whole enterprise is morally bankrupt. Regardless of whether they thought their oath by a holy thing was binding, they still were swearing by a holy thing. Failing to keep any such oath brought dishonor on the One who made the holy things holy in the first place.
It is this corrupt hierarchy of oaths that Jesus is condemning in Matthew 5. It’s the idea that sometimes, God’s people should feel bound to tell the truth, but at other times, they can feel free to lie. If that’s what you’re using oaths for, Jesus says, you need to quit swearing them.
Today, Christians must tell the truth at all times and in all circumstances. As a result, the whole question of oath/not-oath is meaningless to us, like circumcision/not-circumcision is meaningless to us (as per Paul’s point in Galatians 5:6). Oath-swearing and circumcision simply don’t have the same significance in our cultural context as they did 2000 years ago.
Certainly, we should examine our hearts if we find ourselves feeling the need to swear oaths on our own. I’m reminded here of a childhood acquaintance who was a notorious liar and so went around exclaiming, “I swear to God!” all the time. If we have to swear an oath before others will believe us, we’ve got a serious spiritual problem.
However, the Christian who is summoned to court need not feel a pang of conscience when they are asked to swear an oath (though if they do and ask to affirm instead, that’s acceptable too). I’m going to tell the truth if asked to swear, and I’m going to tell the truth if not asked to swear. It makes no difference to me. The truth is what matters, and only when we speak truly is God glorified.