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.
Many of us can remember studying, even in childhood, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace in Daniel 3. Indeed, in the Joliet church building, there was a semi-permanent fiery furnace constructed out of moving boxes and brightly hued construction paper. It was sized so that preschoolers could walk into the furnace (through the crepe-paper flames) and admire the angel at the back.
However, most of us are not as familiar with the other fiery-furnace story in the Bible. Indeed, preacher that I am, I only noticed it myself a year or two ago. It appears in Jeremiah 29.
Contextually, the Jews who have already been carried off to Babylon have a problem with false prophets (surprise!). Two of them in particular, Ahab the son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah the son of Maaseiah, have been leading the people astray with lying “words of the Lord” while practicing adultery on the side. God is not best pleased with them and pronounces judgment upon them.
However, Jeremiah 29:22 contains some interesting information about the form their doom will take. It reads, “Because of them this curse shall be used by all the exiles from Judah in Babylon, ‘The Lord make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire.’”
This is worth considering for a couple of reasons. First, it corroborates the historicity of the book of Daniel, despite the scoffing of the liberal-theologian crowd. Even the most rabid form critic thinks that part of Jeremiah 29 dates from the time of the exile, and it confirms that, yes, Nebuchadnezzar was in the habit of incinerating people he disapproved of.
Second, though the text doesn’t explicitly say so, one imagines that to a point, the experience of Zedekiah and Ahab was similar to the experience of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Zedekiah and Ahab might not have mouthed off and made the furnace extra-hot, but down the hole they went regardless. At the bottom, they found not salvation, but no angel, no protection, and no hope.
All of us have fiery furnaces in our future someplace. Maybe it won’t be because we refuse to bow to an image set up by a Babylonian monarch, but there is some trial waiting for us that will try us to the depths of our being. In the heat of that trial, one of two things will be true. Either we will go through it as faithful servants of God, or we won’t, and that distinction will make all the difference.
Sometimes, the difference won’t be obvious to worldly eyes. In 2 Timothy 4, Paul anticipates being executed for the cause of Christ, and he was almost certainly right. However, 2 Timothy 4:18 points out that Paul, though dead, would be rescued.
Zedekiah and Ahab were just dead.
The furnace will reveal the truth about who we are and what we have done. If we have been righteous like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the furnace will expose that. If we haven’t been, well, the furnace will reveal that too.
Those who are opposed to the project of restoring New-Testament Christianity often love to point out times when the churches of Christ (or other conservative groups) are inconsistent in the use of Scripture (they think). The argument goes that if believers are ignoring the authority of the Bible when it comes to Practice X, they don’t have the right to object to Practice Y on the basis of Bible authority either. Thus, they conclude, we should feel free to engage in Practice X and Practice Y alike.
There are many different areas of study in which this argument appears. For instance, Craig Keener famously uses it in his discussion of women in ministry (which those who are so inclined can read here. He contends, among other things, that people who hand-wave away the covering as a cultural practice 2000 years ago also must accept the argument that 1 Timothy 2:12 is a cultural practice that does not apply to us today. Others similarly argue that people who eat shellfish should not condemn the practice of homosexuality (Law of Moses for the win!), and that churches that don’t practice foot-washing and the holy kiss shouldn’t insist on a-cappella worship either.
I think there are significant flaws with all of those analogies (comparing apples to elephants does not permit the conclusion that apples have floppy gray ears!), but there is an even more severe problem with the form of argument than that. If indeed it is true that Christians are being inconsistent by ignoring Commandment X and insisting on Commandment Y, the cure for the disease is not to begin ignoring Y too. It is to begin practicing both X and Y.
If indeed the Scriptures require women to wear the covering, they should wear the covering. If indeed Christians are instructed not to eat shellfish, we should not eat shellfish. If indeed God expects His people to wash feet and exchange holy kisses, we should wash feet and exchange holy kisses. Period. End of discussion.
By contrast, if we are wrong about coverings and shellfish and kisses, we should not compound our error by allowing female ministers and the practice of homosexuality and instrumental music! Unrighteousness is not an excuse for more unrighteousness, not ever.
I don’t think that every commandment in the Bible is binding on Christians today, nor do I even know anyone who argues that they are and lives accordingly. There are reasons to ignore the ordinances about shellfish, along with the rest of the Law of Moses. There are reasons to regard commandments concerning the covering as specific to a particular place and time. If we’re going to say yes to shellfish and no to the covering, we need to know, understand, and accept those arguments.
What we must not do is dismiss the parts of the Bible that we don’t feel like following as “cultural” while insisting on the rest as the inspired word of God. There is a deadly problem with so doing, and it is not that we have opened the door to lady preachers and gay marriage. It is that we have done what is right in our own eyes while rejecting His ordinance. We have dethroned Him as King and set ourselves up in His place.
No one with a spirit like that can inherit eternal life, and that’s true no matter what our culture (or any other) says.
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.
The Life and Teachings of Jesus – Week 11 – March 16-20:
Monday – Matt. 7:7-11 (cf. Luke 11:9-13): When you pray, do you make your petitions with timidity as if you’re requesting something from a grudging giver or with impudence as if you’re requesting something from a generous giver? In our reading today, Jesus calls for us to approach the throne of our Father with boldness. Now, carte blanche approach to prayer taught by prosperity preachers is not supported from scripture. Perhaps it is wise to read the unqualified offer of vv. 7-8 against the backdrop of Matt. 6:11, 16-24, 25-34. But for all the necessary caution, there is a sense that Jesus invites not merely a resigned acceptance of what the Father gives, but a willingness to prayerfully explore the extent of His generosity. The point Jesus is making is not that human persistence wins out in the end, but that the heavenly Father who loves His children will certainly answer their prayer… if only they would ask, seek, and knock.
What encouragement does Jesus give those who ask, seek and knock? How can we be assured of these promises?
Tuesday – Matt. 7:12 (cf. Luke 6:31): “Therefore, whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” For ninety-one verses Jesus has been teaching us what He expects from His disciples. Yet, in one verse He summarizes His whole sermon, not to mention all of the Old Testament. In these few words, our Lord gives us a guide to how unselfish love should work itself out in our relationships with others. Our actions, He teaches, are not supposed to be dictated by the actions of others. If a person is mean to us, then we’re to be good to them because that’s how we want to be treated. The person who consistently lives according to this rule is totally excluding selfishness and replacing it with love and care for others. An ancient Jewish teaching stated in the negative, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.”
How does Jesus’ positive rule go beyond this command? In what ways would your life change if you followed Jesus’ teaching from this verse?
Wednesday – Matt. 7:13-14: The concluding section of the sermon is taken up with impressing upon hearers the difference between real and nominal discipleship. In four short warnings (vv. 13-14, 15-20, 21-23, and 24-27) Jesus calls for wholehearted commitment to Himself and the Father’s kingdom. To start, Jesus makes it clear that there are only two paths in life that are set before people; therefore it is important that the right choice be made. He presents a scene where a broad road leading to a splendid gate is obvious and easy to be seen, whereas a way that brings a traveler to the unimposing gate is inconspicuous and is perceived only by those who look for it carefully. The first road “leads to destruction,” a fact that doesn’t alter its popularity. While the second road is “narrow” (or “difficult” NKJV) and few find the way “to life.” (We must not press “few” too hard, for elsewhere in Matthew Jesus speaks of “many” that are saved cf. 8:11; 20:28.) The contrast is stark and clear between the two roads in their character, popularity, and in their destination. Without using the words, this saying sets before us the alternatives of heaven or hell. Those are our only two choices, choose wisely.
In what sense is “the gate wide and the way easy” that leads to destruction? Conversely, in what sense is “the gate narrow and the way hard” for those who follow Jesus? Which road are you on?
Thursday – Matt. 7:15-20 (cf. Luke 6:43-45): The second warning focuses on the danger posed by false prophets, who are, by implication, contrasted with true prophets who may be trusted. How can followers of Jesus recognize false teachers? From their fruits; their fruits will in the end betray them. It is not outward appearance that is important (ravenous wolves may be dressed in sheep’s clothing) but the things that the false prophets teach and the manner of their life. For their teaching and lifestyle proceed from what they are in their hearts. The fruit is the test of the tree; if there is no good fruit, there is no good reason for the tree to exist. And the fruit is the test of one who claims to be a prophet (or in modern terms, preacher, pastor, etc.). “Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” Jesus asks. Obviously not, if there is no fruit there, then there’s no good reason for the person to be treated as a prophet worthy of an audience.
List several “fruits” a false teacher would produce and several “fruits” a true teacher would produce. (You might think in terms of opposites.)
Friday – Matt. 7:21-23 (cf. Luke 6:46): In the third warning, we’re confronted with a profoundly searching and disturbing scene for all professing disciples. Here we meet people who confess their allegiance to Jesus as “Lord” and who can back up that claim with impressive spiritual achievements, all carried out explicitly in the name of the Lord. Nevertheless, Jesus says to them, “I never knew you, depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness” (v. 23). Even good works by themselves are not enough. There are good people who claim to follow Jesus as “Lord” and who do good works, nonetheless they are on the broad way leading to destruction. Despite their good deeds, they were carried out by people who still lacked the relationship with Jesus which is the essential basis for belonging in the kingdom of heaven. While the words and actions may be good, their lives were lawless denying Him in their hearts. Since they didn’t really know Him, He didn’t know them.
In spite of their admirable statements or actions, why does Jesus condemn these people? Why do you think people so often confuse religious activity with knowing and doing the will of the Father?