Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Jesus and Matthew (Matthew 9:9-14)

Matthew was a tax-collector in Capernaum, which means that he was working for the Roman authorities who governed the land. This was an unusual activity for a Jew to engage in, working for those who had conquered his people. In this regard, Matthew is a picture of all of us in that by nature we are engaged in activities that are against the kingdom of God.
Sometimes Jesus used human instruments as his means of contacting people, as we can see in the Gospels when he used Andrew to bring his brother Peter into contact with him. On other occasions, Jesus would find someone by himself without the involvement of another person, as was the case with Philip. This is what seems to have been the case with Matthew.
Jesus spoke to Matthew briefly. Two words only, ‘Follow me.’ Yet Matthew immediately did so, leaving behind his desk with everything on it. I suspect Jesus gave this call at a quiet moment in the day. It is unlikely that he would have spoken to Matthew if he was busy in a transaction with people, although some no doubt would have been glad to watch a tax collector leave without taking money from them. There must have been something special about the words that Jesus spoke that caused Matthew to do what he did. What was so special about them?
The invitation of Jesus was a provision of peace for Matthew. When does peace come into a soul? It comes when an individual meets the Provider of peace. Before he meets the Provider, all can only be speculation, mere discussion points about a theory. But once contact is made with the heavenly Provider, peace comes.
Matthew realised that the words of Jesus held out for him prospects that were very attractive. It is likely that he was aware of some of the things that Jesus had promised about his kingdom and he wanted to have them. Why else would he have followed Jesus so enthusiastically? Following is not the same as wandering. Matthew followed Jesus because he knew that Jesus intended to take him and the rest of his people to a wonderful destination.
Those features occur in virtually every conversion to Jesus, whatever the age or the background of the person. They sense that what the gospel says and promises is true, that Jesus is sufficient by himself to bring peace to one’s soul, and that following Jesus will lead to a wonderful destination that is full of joy and gladness.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Meeting Jesus (Matthew 9:9-14)

There are different ways of approaching this incident recorded by Matthew. Obviously, it was the occasion of him meeting Jesus and becoming one of his apostles. It was the commencement for Matthew of a life that he could not possibly have imagined. It would never have crossed his mind while he was working in Capernaum that people throughout the world two thousand years later would be reading material that he had written. This is an obvious reminder that no one knows where Jesus will take them after conversion.

Perhaps we can even consider the incident from the point of view of qualifications for eating a meal with Jesus at that time. How would people in general know whether they could ask Jesus for a meal in their homes? The disciples would be able to tell them if he would go to their homes.

Obviously Matthew needed to have a personal encounter with Jesus before the meal would take place. If Matthew had been asked a week earlier about the possibility of Jesus being present at a meal with a tax-collector he would have said it would not happen. An encounter was needed first.

In Matthew’s case, the encounter seems to have been very sudden. Of course, it is possible that Matthew had prayed for this meeting or at least had a desire to meet Jesus because everyone in the area was speaking about him. Matthew may even have seen Jesus in action healing needy people or heard some of his teaching. Nevertheless, the encounter does seem to be sudden.

Moreover, the initial interaction with Jesus was very short – Jesus only spoke two words to Matthew (Follow me) and the great change in his life took place. This is a reminder that Jesus speaks with great power into the souls of sinners and when he does he does not need to use many words.

And the brief interaction was very surprising because Matthew was despised by the people in general because he worked as a tax-collector for the Roman authorities. It is often a surprising the type of person whom Jesus chooses to use in the development of his kingdom.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Failing the test (Matthew 9:1-8)

It has been the case with the miracles in this section of Matthew that something happens that brings an element of testing into each situation. The leper had been tested as to whether he would obey God’s Word after he was healed and make a journey to Jerusalem to see the priest – he failed; the centurion was tested as to whether he thought Jesus should have to come to his home – he passed; the would-be disciples were tested as to whether they would follow Jesus immediately – they failed; and the inhabitants of Gadara were tested over whether they would value Jesus above their pigs – they failed. Now it is some scribes, the religious leaders, who are tested and they fail as well.
Right theology is a very good thing, but there are situations when right theology can be used in a wrong way. The scribes had right theology and one of their convictions was that only God could forgive a person all their sins in the sense of pardoning them. Their problem was that they did not know who God was, that he was standing there in front of them doing what only God should do. Obviously, they failed the test, but the God they did not know was willing to give them further instruction. What did Jesus do? He revealed to them things about himself, and at the same time about themselves.
First, Jesus revealed to the scribes that he could read their secret thoughts. After all, their criticisms had not been public. Rather they were talking to one another and complaining about what Jesus had claimed to have done, which was to pardon the man. Now they discovered that Jesus knew exactly what they were thinking and saying.
Second, Jesus asked them to answer a question about whether which one of two statements was the easier to say. Why does he do this? From one point of view, it was equally easy to say both statements. But Jesus is not referring to the ability to say something but to the authority to say something. Regarding both these statements, the scribes did not have the authority to say either even although they could say both. Jesus knew, however, that he had the authority to do both, whether or not he said them. Both statements ultimately require divine authority. Only God can forgive a sinner and only God can make a paralysed person walk. If one could do one, he would be able to do the other as well. Jesus had already forgiven the man, which was a divine action. Then he healed the man, which was a divine action. So, in addition to omniscience, Jesus revealed to the scribes that he was almighty.
Third, Jesus told them that he was the promised Messiah when he said that he was the Son of Man. As we know, this title comes from a prediction in the Book of Daniel in which the future reign of the Messiah is described. Jesus mentions a detail that the scribes, with their knowledge of the Old Testament, should have known. They should have said to themselves that here was the Messiah and therefore he had the authority to forgive sinners. It is possible that they would not have understood that prophecy in its fullness, but they should have realised that the One who knew their hearts was able to teach them.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Jesus, our faith and forgiveness (Matthew 9:1-8)

The moment came when the paralysed man and his friends reached Jesus. As they arrived, Matthew tells us that Jesus saw their faith. Did he mean by this statement that he had looked inside their hearts and saw what was living there? Or did he mean that Jesus looked at what they had done because their actions were the evidences of their faith? I would incline to the latter possibility.
So far, the focus has been on the actions of the men carrying their friend. Nothing has been said about the man himself except that he was paralysed. But Jesus highlights something else about the man, which was that he was a sinner needing forgiveness. It is worth noting that his friends are not addressed in this way, which may indicate that they had already trusted in Jesus as the Messiah and had been forgiven their sins.
Again, it may have been the case that the man was bothered about his sins and wanted forgiveness above all else. I suspect he was, otherwise Jesus would have forgiven someone who did not ask for his pardon, and who was not interested in it. The fact is that the man’s soul was in greater need than his body. Jesus knew that was the case and immediately forgave the man all his sins.  The amazing reality is that Jesus has the authority to forgive all our sins when we believe in him.
Jesus said more than that to the man because he also indicated to him that he now belonged to God’s family. It may be the case that the use of the word ‘son’ by Jesus indicates that the suffering man was a young person, but the word also points to a close relationship with Jesus. Jesus wanted the man to have assurance of this relationship of belonging to him as well as having the assurance of knowing his sins had been forgiven by Jesus. No doubt the man had great joy in his heart as he listened to the powerful words of Jesus.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Showing friendship (Matthew 9:1-8)

Having delivered the two demoniacs in Gadara Jesus returned across the sea to Capernaum, here called his own city. It is the case that the people of Capernaum in general did not heed the message of Jesus. Yet there were exceptions, and the story of one of them is told here by Matthew.

This man had four friends who were convinced that Jesus would help. I would stress the ‘would’ rather than ‘could’. If it was only at the level of ‘could’, it would only have been an opinion on their part. But they showed it was ‘would’ by taking him to Jesus to solve the problem. Why were four of them involved? Maybe it was because four were needed to carry the stretcher. Or maybe it was because each of them wanted to be involved. I would choose the latter option.

Their response is a picture of what every believer should be doing. No doubt, every believer can be placed in the category of those who believe that Jesus ‘could’ help sinners. Yet that may only be a correct theological opinion. It would be better to become ‘would’ persons, convinced that Jesus can help those in need. How will we know that we are ‘would’ rather than ‘could’? By taking the gospel to people.

Of course, the four men would have encouraged one another as they shared the task of carrying their friend to Jesus. They could have said simple things like ‘it is not far to his house’. Perhaps they spoke to one another or to their friend about others whom Jesus had helped in different ways. After all, he had helped many in Capernaum already. There are lots of possible things that they could have spoken about.

In this, they would be a picture for us as we get involved in taking, in a spiritual manner, a needy person to Jesus. For example, four (or another number) could agree to pray about an unconverted person they know and bring him to Jesus in that way. During the process of carrying him, they could remind one another of other people whom Jesus helped. It is very important to be involved in bringing people to Jesus. After all, it is a way of showing true friendship.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Jesus’ Power Revealed (Matthew 8:28-34)

We can see from the story that the powers of darkness recognised four things at least about the Saviour. First, it is obvious that they recognised who Jesus was because they called him by the title, the Son of God. Some have commented that here, from a surprising source, was the answer to the question asked by the disciples in verse 27 about the identity of Jesus after he calmed the storm. Second, the demons also recognised that there was a day coming when they would be tormented, which is a reference to what will happen to them in a lost eternity. Third, they recognised that Jesus would be the One who would inflict punishment on them, that he would be the final Judge of evil angels as well as of humans. Fourthly, the demons were aware of why Jesus had come to that location – he had come to set the two individuals free from the grip of the evil powers.

It looks that maybe the demons wanted to stay in that area, which would have been one reason for them wanting to enter the pigs. Perhaps the area was connected to evil behaviour. Nevertheless, they confessed a fifth aspect of their recognition of Jesus, which was that they could not go anywhere without his permission. The outcome was that the entire herd was lost, which may indicate that it was connected to inappropriate practices.

Why did Jesus allow the herd to be destroyed? I suspect it was to give an insight to the local people of the destruction and havoc the powers of darkness can cause. This story describes two extreme examples – the two demoniacs and the pigs, but the demons affecting them could easily destroy a herd of swine. Another reason would be to show that he had freed the two men from that awful bondage. And a third reason could be that he was punishing the owners for their sins, and Calvin comments that ‘While the reason of it is not known by us with certainty, it is proper for us to behold with reverence and to adore with devout humility, the hidden judgment of God.’ A fourth reason could have been to show to people what their real priorities were, and they revealed what they were when they came to see Jesus and asked him to leave.

It is surprising that neither the herdsmen or the inhabitants of the city were pleased about what had happened to the two men. Their spiritual deliverance meant nothing to them. They did realise that Jesus possessed real power, but they wanted nothing to do with him. Instead they preferred that he left. They did not see any personal need of his power in their lives.

Why did Jesus wait to hear this request? Perhaps he wanted his disciples to realise that winning souls in a community would not lead to the approval of the community. Or maybe he wanted them to note that displays of power in themselves would not bring people to faith.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Learning the priorities of Jesus (Matthew 8:28-34)

We can see that Jesus was prepared to take his disciples through a storm in order that he would come to a place where two very needy individuals needed his help. Is it not the case that we find ourselves being used by Jesus after we have come through a storm? It is possible that the spot where they landed was not a place that the disciples would have liked because it was Gentile territory, out of their comfort zones. In the storms that come our way we may find ourselves somewhere we do not like, where we may be tested in unexpected ways, but I suspect when that happens Jesus has taken us to a place where we can see his amazing grace in action bringing mercy to those in need of it.

The place where the boat landed was Gentile country. We can see that is the case because there was a herd of many pigs there. Indeed, it may have been very close to an encampment of Roman soldiers because it has been suggested that the pigs were a source of food for them. As far as Gentiles were concerned, we should recall how Matthew began his Gospel – he referred to Jesus as the son of Abraham. He was the descendant of Abraham in the sense that he would fulfil the divine promise to Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. So here is Jesus about to bring blessing to members of another nation, to individuals who were not Jews.

We should observe who it was from this Gentile community that Jesus wanted to meet. Whatever else we make of the choice, the contact points to the compassion of Jesus. He obviously cared deeply about those demoniacs. And as we look at them coming out of the tombs we are to remind ourselves that these two individuals had been part of the discussion and plans between the members of the Trinity before the universe was made. Jesus would have observed their approach towards him in a very different manner than his disciples probably did. They would have seen a threat, but Jesus saw triumphs of grace.

I suppose we are to view these two men as extreme sinners – violent, demon-possessed and living in isolation. Yet we must remember that while they were born sinful they were not born in the state they now found themselves. They had become like this because they had lived sinful lives. Slowly over the years they descended into sin and this is where they are now. Who can say where starting a sinful practice will take us? Who can say where a life of sin will take us? But wherever it has taken us, Jesus can find us.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Realising the competency of Jesus (Matthew 8:28-34)

So far in his encounters, Jesus has brought his disciples into a variety of experiences, but in each of them fear and helplessness was prominent. They would have been frightened of dealing with a leper because of concerns of contracting the disease, of dealing with a Gentile centurion because the Roman authorities could use power against them, and of being in a fierce storm. Maybe they were afraid of what would happen to Peter’s mother-in-law if no one could help her. In all these situations, they would have also felt helpless.

Probably the meeting with the demoniacs would have been the most frightening of all for the disciples. Matthew Henry, in discussing the various fears, mentions that as far as the disciples were concerned the diseases were inevitable, the storm was uncontrollable, and the demons the most formidable.  Facing one would be enough for most people, never mind facing a lot of them at the same time. Each of those categories would make us afraid. I think we can deduce from this incident that Jesus wanted the disciples to deal with their fears by letting him deal with their fears by his gracious power, and by extension he can do the same for us.

The various encounters highlight the competence of Jesus. If we had a notebook and were among his followers we would tick off one by one the various situations that did not prevent his power being displayed. He could heal diseases, whether longstanding like the leper or recent like Peter’s mother-in-law; he could heal from a distance or heal a crowd on his doorstep; he could control the elements with a word and cause his disciples to be full of wonder; he could help the prominent and the outcast without a word. Now he was about to deal with individuals whom everyone else would regard as very dangerous and would not wish to be near on any occasion.

The deduction that can be made is that Jesus can handle all kinds of situations, that there is no set of events that would show any incompetency in his ability to deal with whatever kind of challenge came his way, or in the path of the disciples when they were engaged in following his commandments.

Friday, 22 December 2017

The searching question (Matthew 8:23-27)

We may find it surprising that the first response of Jesus to the prayer of the disciples was to get them to think about their spiritual state rather than to deal immediately with their request for rescue. Of course, he did not take long to deal with the problem, but we do get a hint here of the priorities of Jesus.

It is important to realise that Jesus asked the question lovingly rather than in an accusing manner. We could say that he is speaking as a pastor rather than as a prosecutor. Or even as a doctor rather than a policeman. The Saviour mentions the cause of their problem. The problem was that they did not have a big enough faith in Jesus and this lack of grasping who he is led to fear.

Yet they had just expressed faith in Jesus when they brought their concerns to him. He wanted them to think about why they had the concerns in the first place. One reason was that they had not paid sufficient attention to his instruction in verse 18, which was that they would get to the other side of the lake. They had allowed the crisis of the moment to blur the certainty of his Word. We do that often, daily, hourly! In our troubles, we forget his promises and instead of expressing confidence in our faith we express panic. It is still faith, but it is little faith.

Do you think this statement is true: ‘A believer has no doubt that Jesus can bring into existence the new heavens and new earth, but he often has doubts that Jesus can bring him to dwell there?’ Why is that the case? The believer will mention his sins and his failures usually. Yet often he mentions them through his own assessment rather than by what the Bible says about them. The Bible tells us that we will be sinners until our last breath, that we will need to be forgiven, that we will be forgiven, and that one day those who trust in Jesus will be sinless. We either base our faith on our own assessment or on what the Bible says. And the base will determine whether we have confidence in Jesus or whether we will be like the disciples and panic.

This is not to suggest that we take our sin lightly. Obviously, we must treat it seriously. But what does it mean to treat it seriously? We take it seriously when we consider the greatness of the Saviour as well as the gravity of our sin.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

The simple prayer (Matthew 8:23-27)

In the storm on the sea, the disciples reveal that they had discovered what to do in a crisis, which was to ask Jesus for help. How did they expect Jesus to save them? They probably could not have answered such a point apart from saying that they knew that he could, even if they did not fully know how. Sometimes we want to know what the solution is before the solution is applied whereas at times it might be better to trust the solver.

We do this in life in different ways. When we sense that something is wrong with us physically we will go to the doctor, not because we know the remedy, but because we assume that he will know what to do. We elect politicians because we assume that they, and not us, know what to do. Of course, such gifted people will face matters in which they do not know the answers. But with Jesus he never finds himself in that location of failure. Disciples know that he will always have the answer although they usually will not.

Connected to this is the content of prayer. We can see from their petition that it was short, reverent, united and precise. The shortness is seen in the number of words, the reverence is seen in that they address him as Lord, the unity is seen in that they all approach him, and the precision is seen in the petition they make.

The call to pray raises the question as to whether we ever pray in non-urgent circumstances. Do disciples ever find themselves in a situation in which prayer is not made in a crisis? Which day last month did the devil or our own sinfulness not tempt us to say, think or do something wrong? The environment in which we pray is seldom comfortable and easy-going.  

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Crossing the sea (Matthew 8:23-27)

Life with Jesus must have been full of surprises for his followers. I suspect the disciples were anticipating a surprising experience on this occasion, although the one they went through was probably not the one they had anticipated. What would have been the surprise they imagined? They knew they were going over the lake to Gentile areas, as we can see from verse 28. Perhaps they imagined Jesus doing incredible works there and bringing in lots of new followers to the Jewish faith. Jesus had something else in mind for them.

At a more mundane level, they might have expected a smooth sail. After all, it was very calm when they set out. The description of the storm indicates that it was not expected. So in God’s providence the disciples did not get what they would have expected and did get what was unexpected. And I suspect Matthew is saying, ‘Welcome to the unexpected life of discipleship that the followers of Jesus have!’

Yet we must observe that Jesus did not abandon them when the going became tough. He remained with them throughout the period of trouble. Each of the disciples could observe that Jesus was with them. He was not present in a kind of hidden way that would require a great deal of searching before they could find him. Granted his method of being present may not have pleased them – he was asleep – but still he was there. Better to have a Jesus who is asleep than not to have him, is what Matthew is saying.

Jesus was leaving the crowd behind. He had taught many people and he had helped many people in Capernaum. I suppose the question could have been asked as to whether Jesus did anything with only his disciples present. Did they need to have special moments with him? Obviously, Jesus wanted that to happen, and was about to happen when they were out on the boat. Matthew is about to show his readers that disciples need space to see the abilities of Jesus.

There is another obvious lesson from what happened in the boat and that is that Jesus did not do what the disciples were expected to do. He did not take a turn in rowing the boat even although things were hard for them. Sometimes we can give the impression that Jesus should do everything instead of us doing what we should do. We may ask Jesus to bless the gospel in our community, but he expects us to tell people about it and then he will bless it.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Another would-be follower (Matthew 8:21-22)

The second would-be disciple had also to learn about priorities. There are various suggestions as to what he meant when he said that he wanted to bury his father. It is unlikely that his father had just died, because if he had, his son would be with the family mourning the loss of his father and therefore not with Jesus. When a person died in that part of the world, they were usually buried quickly, on the day itself or the next.

There are two options as to what he meant. One option is that the father was still alive, but aged and drawing near the end of life, with likelihood that his end was near. The other option concerns the custom that a son would transfer the bones of his dead father to an ossuary a year after his death. In this option, the father may have died a few weeks or months previously and the son was asking to wait a few more months to carry out this task. It looks as if the man wanted to fulfil family responsibilities and then he would follow Jesus. He was putting cultural expectations, the assumptions that others would expect him to make, above the requirements of Jesus.

The reply of Jesus dealt with this reluctance of the disciple to put Jesus first. His words could suggest that while the spiritually dead can wait around in order to bury the physical dead, his disciples have to serve the kingdom of God immediately. A real disciple will not use long-term family responsibilities as a reason for not serving Jesus. The list of options in this kind of outlook is endless. We can say to Jesus that we will do something after such an event or development happens. His reply and challenge is to get involved in the work of the kingdom now.

We cannot deduce from this statement that Jesus wants his disciples to ignore family responsibilities. After all, he had just healed Peter’s mother-in-law. The difference was that Peter and his family were putting Jesus first whereas this man had a different attitude.

This would-be disciple had to learn that he could not lay out the terms of true discipleship. Only Jesus has the authority to do so. This disciple was actually using legitimate concerns as a reason not to become a wholehearted follower of Jesus. But Jesus has the authority to claim first place over every area of life.

Monday, 18 December 2017

The priority of following Jesus (Matthew 8:18-20)

Jesus decides that he and his disciples should go over to the other side of the sea of Galilee. This simple activity tested the people to see whether they would continue to follow Jesus. Matthew records the responses of two individuals at that time.

The first was a scribe who stated that he would follow Jesus everywhere. No doubt, some of the disciples would have been impressed by the possibility of a distinguished persons like a scribe joint their number. What did Jesus have to say to him?

Jesus mentioned two details in his response. One of the details concerned his name and the other his present possessions. The use of the name ‘Son of man’ may be in response to the name that the scribe gave to him, which was only ‘Teacher.’ Could it be that the scribe had too low an opinion of Jesus? Maybe all he was saying was that Jesus was the best teacher he had heard. After all, the title ‘Son of man’ is a reference to the prophecy in Daniel about God’s chosen Ruler who would have universal power. It is true that a real disciple must have a true understanding of who Jesus is.

The Saviour wants us to appreciate who he truly is. As the Son of man, he is the King of kings, the one who received glory from God because of his amazing work on the cross. He has now been highly exalted and given the name of Lord. Our Master is much more than a teacher, although he is the best Teacher.

The scribe also seemed to have a wrong perception of the benefits of religion. As a scribe, he would have known that the position of religious teacher was a lucrative one, with many social and financial benefits. He may have imagined that Jesus would make a successful career from his abilities and that there would be other benefits for those who followed him. He must have been very surprised to hear Jesus say that following him would not bring riches in this life.

We are not to imagine that Jesus did not have places to stay at times. When he went to Jerusalem, he often stayed with his friends in Bethany. Yet it seems that he also would spend nights in the Garden of Gethsemane – after all, that is how Judas knew where to find Jesus when he was betrayed. His home was in Capernaum, and Jesus could stay there. What we should see Jesus telling this man is that following him was not always a path to worldly promotion and prosperity. A disciple of Jesus should not expect too much from this world and be prepared to wait until the next for the rewards of serving Jesus.

The scribe probably imagined that he was adding to the prestige of Jesus by offering to follow him. This would not be too surprising since he had no conception of the greatness of Jesus. The scribe had no real conception that Jesus came to deliver from sin and to enable people to live a life of holiness. We have no idea whether or not this scribe ever became a real disciple of Jesus.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Jesus and the crowd (Matthew 8:14-17)

In the incident with Peter’s mother-in-law, we see the compassion and competency of Jesus. But Matthew does not want to leave the story there, wonderful though it is. So he mentions in roughly the same amount of words that Jesus showed the same compassion and competency for a large number of people. It is obvious from Matthew’s description that no trouble was too difficult for Jesus to deal with.

We should observe the location of this large display of grace. It happened outside Peter’s house, or even inside it. I suppose we see in this reality a couple of lessons. One is that when Jesus rescues us from a trouble he expects us to make our assets available for his service. The other is that we have no idea what Jesus can do with our assets.

One detail mentioned by Luke but which is not so clear in Matthew’s account is that Jesus dealt with each of the crowd individually – he laid hands on each. We know that Jesus could have healed all of them simultaneously, but he chose to help each of them individually.

Matthew’s description of the work of Jesus is twofold. He says that Jesus dealt with two different problems. One was demon oppression and the other was physical illness. What is demon oppression? It must refer to attacks by the devil’s kingdom on people and I suppose this could show itself in a variety of ways. In whatever ways it showed itself here, Jesus was able to deal with it and reveal that he was more powerful than the devil. The other problem was physical illness and Jesus was able to cure all the sufferers, which is a reminder that he is the re-creator of people.

Matthew mentions that this activity of Jesus was a fulfilment of prophecy. The text is from Isaiah 53:4, which says that the Servant has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Matthew has translated the Hebrew and therefore we can see what the verse means. The griefs and the sorrows arise from devilish influences, illnesses and diseases. It is not difficult for us to see how such sufferings would be very sorrowful for those afflicted by them.

What does Matthew mean by this? Does he only mean that some people would be cured by Jesus at one time in their lives? There is no suggestion that those healed by him would never be ill again. Therefore, I would say that we should regard those healings as signs pointing to what Jesus would ultimately do. He came to destroy the works of the devil, which he did at the cross and will yet do when all of the devil’s influences will be removed from the earth.

The intention of Jesus was not only to remove the consequences of sin, but also to deal with the cause of sufferings, which ultimately is sin. So we could regard his miracles as signs pointing to what will happen to people after Jesus pays the penalty for their sin. At some stage, those who trust in him will be restored physically and spiritually and be delivered from the grip of the devil. Ultimately this will happen at the future resurrection and renewal of all things.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Jesus and Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-17)

So far in this section of his Gospel, Matthew has mentioned a leper and a Gentile proselyte. Now he mentions a woman who is suffering from an illness.

I assume this verse causes some problems for Roman Catholic writers since they don’t think popes should be married and they imagine that Peter was the first Pope. But since Peter was never a pope, the problem is one based on adding requirements to the Bible that the Bible does not require. Peter would have been appalled if someone had told him that such claims would later be made about him. Other biblical references tell us that his wife later travelled with him when he was spreading the gospel of Jesus.

As we know, the four Gospel writers, when they are describing the same event, sometimes mention details not found in the other accounts. Mark tells us that those in the house told Jesus about the mother-in-law’s fever. Luke says that Jesus healed her by rebuking the fever. Matthew, under the leading of the Spirit, stresses the eyes and the touch of Jesus.

Referring to the eyes draw attention to the mind of a person, to what he is thinking when he sees something. I wonder what Jesus thought as he saw his friend’s mother lying ill. He would be sad, he would see the effects of sin (all diseases exist because of our original sin), and he would see one of his people whom he eternally loved. Then he touched her, which informs us of his willingness to identify with needy people, as well as helping her sense his sympathy as well as his power.

Matthew mentions the response of the woman, which was that she began to serve Jesus. I assume she did some work in the home that day. Matthew highlights that she served Jesus whereas other accounts say that she served Jesus and his disciples. Why did Matthew write in such a way? Probably the answer is that the unnamed mother-in-law did what everyone whom Jesus helps should do. So she becomes a model disciple and we should thank God that there are countless such disciples scattered around the world who serve Jesus out of gratitude. And she is a contrast to the two would-be disciples mentioned in the following verses.

Friday, 15 December 2017

The Anticipation of Jesus (Matthew 8:5-13)

The confession of the centurion led Jesus to make a prophetic announcement concerning the final day. There are several details here that we should note for our encouragement. First, there is the confidence of Jesus in the success of the gospel. This one Gentile centurion was a sample of the many Gentiles who would believe in him from the east and the west.

Second, there is the reference that the Saviour makes to the covenant promises that had been made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The place where we find those promises is the Bible. God’s covenant promises are connected to certainties. It looks as if Jesus made connections between his current situation and relevant passages in the Bible, and he wants his disciples to do the same.

Third, there is the comfort of heaven. We see the concept of comfort in the reference to reclining. The experience of heaven is not like a military parade ground where everyone is on edge in case their nose gets itchy. Heaven, while obviously reverent, is a very relaxed experience for those who will be there.

The illustration of a table points to three features of heaven: host, company (guests) and provision. Although he does not mention it here, we know who the host is – Jesus himself. Surely we can sense his anticipation of this experience. The company are believers, those who have trusted in Jesus for salvation. Sometimes we go to events and enjoy listening to the life stories of those present. How much more will we enjoy listening to those who met the Saviour through his grace. The provision comes from Jesus and is described elsewhere as eternal life, its quality as well as its quantity. Jesus anticipates providing the fullness of life to his people.

Fourth, Jesus also mentions an awful contrast – the contrast between heaven and hell. He mentions the sights and the sounds. As far as the sights are concerned, it is outer darkness. Outer darkness is the opposite of God because he is light. To be in darkness is to be lost because the person cannot see the path to walk on. A lost eternity is a terrible prospect. No escape from the judgement of God. Darkness is loneliness – we have all found ourselves in situations that were so dark that we could not see a person standing beside us. An eternity of isolation and dread, with no one to help them even for a moment.

Then there are the sounds. There will be weeping because of the despair, and there will be gnashing of teeth. This is an awful picture of the despair connected to being lost forever. Of course, Jesus is making a prediction here and he knows the future exactly. This is going to be the experience of the lost. One wonders what each person in the crowd made of his words. Hopefully, each of them responded correctly. Imagine what you would have done had you heard this detailed description of the endless experience of the lost. You do not need to imagine it because in reading the account you already became part of the crowd listening to Jesus.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Astonishment of Jesus (Matthew 8:5-13)

The first comment that we can make about this is that the response of Jesus reveals the reality of his humanity. We find it difficult to know what to think of Jesus at times because he is both God and man. One way to consider his humanity is to remind ourselves that he will always do what is appropriate in each situation. We see this on numerous occasions in the gospels. In those situations, Jesus always did what love to one’s neighbour required.

A second detail to observe is how Jesus wanted to encourage the centurion and commend his faith. As mentioned earlier, some Jews may have wondered if a Gentile could have real faith. We know from other Gospel accounts that this man was highly regarded by the Jewish leaders because he had financed the erection of a synagogue. Whether other Jews did or did not wonder about the faith of a Gentile, Jesus defended the man because he honoured Jesus by the way he asked his request. The Saviour will defend those who serve him in a humble way.

Then there is the fact that astonishment is a valid Christian response. After all, if Jesus showed astonishment, then we should do so as well if we are to be regarded as Christlike. Astonishment should be a regular Christian experience because salvation is full of wonders. It is a wonder that dead sinners become spiritually alive, it is a wonder that weak saints overcome their spiritual enemies, and it is a wonder that imperfect saints become the perfect inhabitants of heaven.

Of course, the amazing detail here is that a Gentile was making incredible progress in his faith. We can see at least two details in his spiritual outlook. First, he had previously realised that the Jews had the truth in contrast to the Gentiles. Such a realisation was common at that time. Nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction. Second, the man was prepared to take further steps beyond that of the vast majority of Jews. He realised that the promised Messiah had come. Becoming a proselyte took him in touch with the truth. Yet he needed more than that. He also had to come in contact with the Messiah.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The Approach of the Centurion (Matthew 8:5-13)

The original readers of Matthew lived under the control of the Roman Empire. They also knew that Jesus was demanding from his followers a higher commitment to him than they could show to the authority of Rome. No doubt they would have anticipated a collision eventually between the representatives of Rome and Jesus or with one or more of his disciples. Matthew here describes once such encounter.

It is important to note that the centurion had already believed in Jesus. His approach to Jesus is that of a person of faith rather than one seeking for faith. We are not told how he came to be a believer in Jesus. Perhaps he had identified himself with the Jewish faith and had been looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. Whatever the process of his conversion, he did trust in Jesus as the Saviour.

How was his faith revealed? First, we can see from the account that he was a man of compassion. This is revealed in his desire for his servant to be helped. I suppose we can see his sense of compassion in his use of the word ‘terribly’. It indicates that the centurion was marked by sympathy. In this he was like every other true believer. It is impossible to be a true disciple and not be marked by compassion, by love for others, and that love will cause the person to do something to bring help to the needy person.

Second, we can see from the account that the centurion had great confidence in the ability of Jesus. The servant’s illness was very serious because he was paralysed. Normally, that is a situation beyond the hope of recovery. Yet the centurion believed that Jesus could do the impossible. He believed in the divine power of Jesus and expressed this aspect of faith when he said that Jesus did not need to come to the centurion’s home in order to heal the servant.

We should notice in this regard that Jesus tested the centurion’s faith. The test was in the response that he would go to the house and heal the servant. This kind of test is difficult to engage in because initially the centurion’s response seems to go against the desire of Jesus. Perhaps we would have expected the man to respond submissively and accept that Jesus could come to the house. But such a response was not an expression of faith. If the centurion had gone along that road, he would be hiding the fact that he believed Jesus could heal the servant with a word.

Connected to the matter of authority, it is obvious that the centurion believed that Jesus had authority in areas that he or his masters did not. He and they could order people about in an external manner, but none of them had the power to dismiss a disease. But he believed that Jesus had authority in the supernatural areas of life. His confidence in the authority of Jesus should cause us to ask in which areas of life we acknowledge Jesus has undisputed authority.

Third, we can see from the account that the centurion confessed his unworthiness. It is important to observe that he did not link a sense of his unworthiness with a low expectation of what Jesus could do. Instead he had great confidence in the power of the Saviour. True confession of unworthiness does not lead a person to say that Jesus cannot help him. Paul confessed that he was a sinner, but that did not lead him to say Jesus could not enable him to be an apostle. David, in Psalm 51, details the awfulness of his sin, but he does not conclude that the God of mercy would never use him again to speak to others about God.

We have no way of knowing if this man had ever been a flagrant sinner. Although a Gentile, he could have been a moral person. The point I am making is that a person’s sense of unworthiness is not connected to the visibility of his sins. If that was the case, then the unworthiness is based on what he thinks other people think of him. Had the centurion based his personal estimation on the opinion of others, he would have concluded that he was worthy. Instead, true sense of unworthiness comes when we see our inner lives and the weaknesses and sinful attitudes we have in contrast to what we should be, even as Christians.

What is the point that the man makes when he refers to soldiers obeying his instructions? I think he is saying that his authority was seen in the actions of others. If Jesus had gone to the centurion’s home, the public impression would have been that the centurion was in charge of the movements of Jesus and had ordered him to go to the house. The centurion did not want that impression to happen. Instead, he wanted Jesus to be seen as the One with authority. In other words, he wanted Jesus alone to have the glory.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The response of Jesus (Matthew 8:1-4)

The response of Jesus (Matthew 8:1-4)
The first detail that Matthew highlights is the willingness of Jesus to identify with needy sinners. This is revealed in his response of touching the leper. In the eyes of the community, this action made Jesus unclean (Leviticus 5:3), whereas in reality the opposite was taking place. Jesus was cleansing the leper! His response on this occasion also shows the eagerness with which he comes to the aid of those in spiritual distress.

The second detail that Matthew underlines is the immediate nature of the cure that Jesus provided. He did in a moment what the best doctors of the time could not do in a lifetime of treatment. What he did physically here is also true spiritually as far as salvation from sin is concerned. Of course, we cannot push the picture too far. Although a sinner becomes spotless in God’s sight when he believes in Jesus (justified), he does not become sinless. He remains a sinner while on earth, although he is a forgiven sinner.

The third detail mentioned by Matthew is that Jesus gave instructions to the cured leper about acknowledging the commandments of God’s Word (Leviticus 14). The ceremonial law detailed a process to follow when a leper professed to having been healed. If the leper, after his healing, had ignored those requirements, he would have no credibility in the eyes of those who worshipped God. This is a powerful message for us as well. Obedience is necessary for showing we put Jesus first in our lives and also for showing to others that we are the disciples of Jesus.

Fourthly, Jesus tested the healed leper by this command to go to the priests. He told the man to go to the temple in Jerusalem, which was a long way from Galilee. If he failed to go, he would have failed the test of obedience. Moreover, Jesus was requiring that the man should put God first. One assumes that there were other people he might want to tell – perhaps, his wife and children, maybe his parents or brothers and sisters. Instead of going to tell them, he was to go and do what God required and after he had done that he could tell others.

Fifth, the priests in the temple would have learned two things about Jesus. One is that Jesus wished to honour the law of Moses and the other is that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament concerning his ability to perform incredible miracles. Imagine being the priest who had to deal with this man. It is unlikely that he would have dealt with many such cases. Surely he would inform his fellows about the astonishing situation he recently had to deal with.

The sad detail is that Mark tells us that the leper did not do what Jesus wanted him to do. Instead he went and told everyone what had taken place, and the outcome was that the mission of Jesus was disrupted. Here we are reminded that the people whom Jesus help do not become sinless. Sometimes they use their own wisdom instead of his and when they do they lose out spiritually.

ITV is also the case that the healing that Jesus provided restored a wide area of blessings to the leper. Previously he was isolated, now he could enter into society. Before he was debarred from going to the temple, now he could participate in the worship of God. In the years in which he was a leper, he had to live in communities composed of lepers, those without hope; now he could join the community of hope as he faced the future and shared in the blessings of the kingdom that Jesus had commenced. His restoration depicts the range of blessings that salvation brings. Salvation gives us fellowship in the family of God, gives us access to the presence of God, and provides us with hope eventually of the glory of God.

Monday, 11 December 2017

The approach of the leper (Matthew 8:1-4)

We are not told how the leper knew he could come to Jesus nor why he should want to come to Jesus. The assumption is that he had heard of the miracles that Jesus had already performed (Matthew 4:23) and decided that since Jesus had helped others he could help him as well. Such a deduction is part of the logic of saving faith because it learns from the experience of others. He had heard that others had been helped by Jesus and therefore was optimistic that he would help him also.

The leper’s approach to Jesus shows to us how a sinner should come to Jesus for mercy. First, he acknowledged that Jesus was divine. It would be possible to suggest that the title ‘Lord’ was only one of respect, yet when combined with his action of kneeling we can see that the leper recognised that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Here we have an example of God’s amazing grace in which he enlightens an unexpected person to confess the superiority of Jesus.

At the same time, the leper expressed his submission to Jesus when he focussed on whether or not the Lord was willing to help him. Of course, the leper is not suggesting that Jesus would be reluctant to heal. Instead he is expressing his conviction that Jesus is sovereign even in how he chooses to help needy people. The leper recognised that he was not in a position to make demands of Jesus. And we must come to that realisation. Desperation is not a valid reason for disrespect.

The leper’s confession also highlights his spirituality. After all, he did not ask Jesus to heal him. Instead he asked Jesus to make him clean. His focus on cleansing informs us he wanted to worship God in the temple with his people. If all that he wanted was to be able to go in and out in the community, he only needed physical healing. But he also wanted to be right with God, which tells us that there was a spiritual desire in his request. 

His grasp that he needed cleansing points to the reality that he recognised that he was a sinner. So we can deduce that in his request there was an expression of repentance. This recognition can also be seen in his awareness that Jesus was divine. Why else would he have gone to Jesus for help?

Sunday, 10 December 2017

A picture of sin (Matthew 8:1-4)

There are various ways in the Bible by which leprosy pictured sin. Leprosy prevented someone from approaching the temple to worship God. This means that leprosy illustrated someone who was separated from God, and sin does this in a far more serious way that leprosy does. There will be lepers in heaven who were never healed of their leprosy, but there will be no sinners in heaven who were not healed of sin and its consequences. It is a solemn fact that sin creates a separation between us and God.

Another feature of leprosy is that it is not a static disease. The person who has it knows that his state will get worse. That is what sin does to people as well. We see young children and they seem so innocent, but who knows what they will do when they become adults. Many a teenager played with a sin and they are now under its grip and they are very different from what they once were. Everyone knows that bad habits have consequences. The real name for bad habits is sin. The fact is, if we don’t do something about our sins, our sins will do something to us and make us worse.

A third way in which leprosy depicts sin is that it brings sorrow in its path. Imagine the devastation that would come into a family if one of the members was affected by the disease. What sorrows and disappointments there would be! And sin leaves a trail of sorrow behind it. How much sorrow is in the world, no one can say. But we can say about the sorrows that in one way or another they are here because of sin.

There is a fourth way in which leprosy depicts sin and that is that it leads to death. We know that some illnesses are incurable sadly and will lead eventually to death. And that is where sin is taking every person living today, it is where it has taken every person who lived in the past, and it will take every person who will live in the future. Sin guarantees a definite result. Those who are sinners will die, not just physically but also eternally.

So we see four ways at least in which leprosy is a picture of us in our sins. It separates, it progresses, it saddens and it will bring about death. We can imagine how desolating the poor leper must have felt. The reality is that our sins should make us feel far more desolate because sin is a worse disease than leprosy. For most of his life, at least since he had become a leper, this man would have had no hope. But one day he heard about Jesus and determined to see if he could be helped by him.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Jesus and needy individuals (Matthew 8:1-4)

Matthew mentions that Jesus was followed by great crowds and no doubt each of them had a story to tell about what they thought of Jesus and perhaps some of them had received a great blessing from him. Nevertheless, in this chapter, Matthew chooses to describe isolated incidents in which Jesus helped unlikely people.

The Gospel of Matthew was constructed by him, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that we could learn about Jesus. In this chapter he includes several occasions when Jesus performed a miracle. Matthew has already mentioned that Jesus performed miracles, but until now he did not say very much about them. Now he chooses several that reveal among other things the power of Jesus over disease, death and demonic destruction, things that were the consequences of sin. Each incident tells us other details about Jesus as well, but the overall design is to reveal the incredible power of Jesus over other kinds of power. 

As far as the ritual religion of Israel was concerned, lepers were banned from the temple and could not participate in any of the services. This did not mean that a leper could not worship God in private. Yet the nature of his illness meant that he lived life in isolation because he was not allowed to mix with society. Lepers were outcasts both as far as religion and daily interaction was concerned.

Why did Matthew include this story? One obvious reason is that the performance of such a miracle was evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. The Old Testament contains many predictions about the activities of the Messiah and one was that he would help people in great need. A second reason would be his desire to tell social outcasts, of which there were many at that time, that Jesus, although now exalted to heaven by the time Matthew wrote his gospel, welcomes such outcasts into his company. A third reason is that leprosy is a picture of sin and therefore when someone was cured of leprosy he illustrated what Jesus can do for sinners in the gospel.