Chapter 3: Jesus And The People
The territories and towns in this portion of the Gospel are the same as in the last, but the focus is different. Although Jesus had dealt constantly with the people and performed miracles in their behalf the disciples were always present, and Jesus explained to them all that he said and did. Indeed, the Sermon on the Mount was addressed specifically to the disciples. The closing discourse was a 'brief" of their apostolate. Even the miracles done for the people were all illustrative of the Master's expectations of the disciples. The situation was similar to a teaching hospital connected to the medical school of a large university today. To be sure, the doctors in such a hospital treat sick patients, but everything they do is in the presence of their students. The enterprise is designed to teach students how to practice medicine. The primary purpose of the previous section of Matthew is to teach the disciples how to practice discipleship and to carry on the work of the Master.
In this section of the Gospel, Jesus shifts his attention from the disciples to the crowds. Here Matthew shows Jesus dealing directly with the masses of the people. After all, they are the ones he came to seek and to save. Keep in mind that this sharp division may not have been Jesus'. Indeed, it is safe to say it was not Jesus'. We do not find such a distinct arrangement of events and teachings in either Mark's or Luke's account. Rather, this is Matthew's arrangement of the materials. All three Synoptic Gospels deal with the same material. It is the way each evangelist presents his message that makes each Gospel unique. Matthew's aim is to present Jesus as the messianic king. In this portion of Matthew's Gospel we will see Jesus in relationship with his potential subjects, the people in whose behalf he came to bring the kingdom of heaven. Even the confession of Peter, which only the Twelve experience, and the Transfiguration, witnessed by Peter, James, and John, are designed as proofs of the kingdom to be proclaimed to all after the Resurrection.
1. Recalcitrance of the Jews (Matt. 11.1 -13:58) These three chapters portend ill for the mission of Jesus in his own country. There are signs of frustration and exasperation on the part of the Master. Those who hear his words do not seem to comprehend. The people see the miracles and even benefit from them, but they have no idea at all what the miracles indicate about Jesus.
Even John the Baptist seems to have forgotten all that happened at Jesus' baptism, including his own words of testimony that the person he baptized was far greater than he, one whose sandals he was not worthy to unloose. Ile seems to have come to doubt his own mission as herald of the Messiah. From prison he sends to Jesus to ask him if he really is the promised one sent by God or if he and the people should wait in expectation of another. Jesus responds by sending word back to John of all that has happened as a result of Jesus' work. Let John make his own decision about who Jesus really is. Maybe those whom Jesus has helped can supply John with the answer: the poor, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, and even those who were raised from the dead. Jesus affirms that John the Baptist, while he was active, was the greatest of all the prophets. Why was this true? Jesus does not give the answer. But it is simply this: John is the only prophet who lived to see his prophecy fulfilled. Unfortunately he is still unaware that what he proclaimed about Jesus has all come true (Matt. 11: 1-15).
Jesus compares the unbelieving public to children playing games on the streets. At times they play ''wedding'' and so make music and dance. At other times they play ''funeral'' and cry and mourn. Jesus says that John the Baptist came with a sad face and preached judgment, but the people did not believe him. They said he was crazy. Jesus continues: ''I preached the good news of the kingdom of heaven. I ate and drank and made merry. But then you people thought I had drunk too much wine. There just seems to be no way to reach you'' (Matt. 11:16-19, AP). All the big towns around the Sea of Galilee where Jesus worked are more scandalous and reprehensible than was Sodom in Abraham's time, and they will be brought down to hell because of their recalcitrance (Matt. 11:20-24).
If the wise and prestigious members of society will not heed the Gospel, fortunately there are some who will -- the simple, the openhearted, babes, as it were, whose innocence is credulous and believing. There is pathos in this prayer of Jesus, where he thanks God that he has revealed the truth at least to this precious little band of people (Matt..11:25-26). Jesus, in desperation, tells the people that they have never really come to know him; in fact, he does not think anybody really knows him except his heavenly Father. And he is certain that he is the only one who knows God If anybody else ever comes to know God, it will be because Jesus reveals God to that person. If people only realized it, they could cast all their burdens on Jesus, and he could give them the rest they need. What he would lay on them in exchange would be a light load. "If you only knew," he says, "I am gentle, and in me you will find rest for your souls" (Matt. 11:27-30, AP). The Jews insisted on complete rest on the sabbath, anticipating perfect rest in the messianic age. Jesus says, "That rest has already come in me. The messianic age has arrived" (Matt. 12:8, AP).
The Pharisees stood aghast when Jesus and his disciples crossed through the grain fields on the sabbath, and the disciples plucked the ears of grain and ate them. This did not bother Jesus in the least, for David and his men ate the consecrated bread on the altar of the Tabernacle, and the priests changed the twelve loaves on the altar of the Temple every sabbath and ate what they took off. Now, says Jesus, one greater than the Temple is here, and the God of the sabbath can determine how that day will be spent. After all, it is set aside for God. The sabbath was for the benefit of the people. It was made for them. They were not made for it. Consequently, when the Pharisees tested him in the synagogue by pointing to a man with a withered arm and asking whether it was lawful to heal that man on the sabbath, Jesus responded by healing him. His retort was: You would rescue one of your own sheep from the ditch on the sabbath, wouldn't you? Isn't a human much more valuable than an animal? When he withdrew from town, the crowds followed him, and he responded to all their needs (Mart. 12:1-2]). He asked them not to publicize his miracles. Jesus cautioned silence, Matthew says, to fulfill another prophecy, and then Matthew gives the longest Old Testament quotation in his Gospel (Isa. 42:1-4). Many commentators think that Jesus' withdrawal from the synagogue at this point marked his abandonment of the old Israel and his inauguration of the new Israel through the church. However, this thought is not expressed in Matthew, and the inference is farfetched.
Jesus returns to heal the person who had been made blind and dumb by a devil and to show how ridiculous was the contention of the Pharisees that he performed this miracle through the power of the devil. Why, said Jesus, would the devil destroy his own work and through me tumble his own kingdom? Jesus wants them to look at the results of his actions, which had to indicate a good, benevolent source, rather than an evil source of power. When the Pharisees ask him for a sign to prove the validity of his ministry, Jesus refuses their request. If they can not deduce from what they have already seen who he is and what he is about, no additional sign will help them. The only sign that will be given them is that of the prophet Jonah. Jesus says, "For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Mart. 12:40). Jonah's mission was to preach to Nineveh until Nineveh repented. That is what Jesus has been doing all the while.
Jesus says people can blaspheme against him and be forgiven, but they can never be forgiven if they blaspheme against the Holy Ghost. To blaspheme against the Holy Ghost is to refuse to believe the Gospel.
The people with whom Jesus must deal are like the Ninevites of Jonah's day. They are not different from the Queen of Sheba. However, in the end both the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba will condemn them, because Nineveh did repent, and the Queen of Sheba left her own land and journeyed to Israel to benefit from the wisdom of Solomon (Matt. 12:41-42). These people do not realize that One greater than Solomon is standing before them. Their status will be worse than that of the man who got rid of one devil but did nothing to fill the vacuum the devil's departure had created, allowing the devil to return with seven other devils (Matt.12:43-45).
Even Jesus' own family was not free from the unbelief that afflicted the people in general. Consequently, when he was told his mother and brothers were nearby and wanted to see him, Jesus said sadly that he had no mother or brothers other than his disciples who did believe him and were trying to do the will of God (Matt. 12:46-50).
After these various encounters, Jesus speaks to the crowds in parables, that is, in stories designed to set forth principles and truths. His parables deal entirely with the kingdom of heaven. There are here recorded seven of them. The first is about a sower who sows seed in various types of soil. The birds ate some of the seed. The rocky soil did not provide enough moisture for some plants, and they withered in the sun. The thorns choked other plants as they grew. But some seed fell on good soil and yielded a good crop (Matt. 13:3-9). Jesus explains the meaning of the parable to the disciples. Some people are too superficial to understand the word and, as its meaning eludes them they forget what they heard just after the message has been given to them. The birds are the evil one (the devil) who snatches the gospel from them. The seed on thorny ground represents those people who rejoice when they first hear the Gospel but accept it only to lose faith when tribulation arises. The thorns represent the pleasures of this life which stifle the Gospel. The meaning of the good yield is obvious (Mart. 13: 18-23).
The second is the parable of the weeds which grow up with the plants. They cannot be removed until after harvest when they are burned. The wicked therefore will be separated from the good at the judgment (Matt. 13:24-30). The third is the parable of the mustard seed, the tiniest of all seeds, which grows up into a large tree (Matt. 13:31-32). That is the way the kingdom of heaven is. It starts off small and inconsequential, only in the end to be so large that it controls everything. Like leaven in dough, it lifts society to a higher level (Matt. 13:33). This is the fourth parable. The fifth and sixth parables, about the tares in the field and the priceless pearl, which a man sells all that he has to purchase and own, illustrate the inestimable value of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 13:44-46). The seventh parable, of the net and the fishes (Matt. 13:47-50), is like that of the weeds and the wheat. It shows that the good and bad exist side by side, the hypocrites with the righteous, but God will separate the one from the other in the end.
Jesus tells these stories to the crowds, but they do not understand them. He explains them to his disciples. Sadly he admits that the crowds in and around Galilee will not accept him and will not heed his message. Seemingly a prophet is without honor in that person's own country (Matt. 13:53-58).
2 . . Mighty Acts of Mercy (Matt. 14:1-16:12) In spite of the recalcitrance of the Jews, especially their leaders, Jesus continues to minister to human need wherever he finds it, and the crowds respond to his mercy and kindness. The compassion of Jesus is inexhaustible, but Matthew says explicitly that Jesus "had compassion" only four times in his Gospel: (1) when he saw the crowds who were disorganized and helpless, "as sheep having no shepherd" (Matt. 9:36; (2) when he fed first the five thousand after healing their sick (Matt. 14:14) and (3) later the four thousand (Matt. 15:32); and (4) when he gave sight to the two blind men at Jericho (Matt. 20:34).
The news of John the Baptist's death at the hands of Herod Antipas, which Matthew treats almost incidentally (Mart. 14:1-12) in contrast to Mark's detailed account (Mark 6:14-30), causes Jesus to withdraw to a desert place. However, the news of Jesus' successes alarms Herod, for he had thought that only John the Baptist could do these mighty deeds, and so Jesus must be John the Baptist come to life again. Matthew correctly designates Herod as tetrarch, the ruler for Rome of only a small district. He was not a king like his father Herod the Great who ruled over the whole country, but people persisted in calling him king as they had his father. Herod was king to the people who were his subjects but not to the Romans whose subject he was.
The people followed Jesus to the desert place, and he ministered to their needs by curing those who were sick. At eventide the disciples wanted to dismiss the people, so that they could go back to the villages for food. But Jesus said that was unnecessary. He would feed them. He took five loaves of bread and two fish, which they had on hand, multiplied them, and fed the whole lot. Matthew says there were five thousand men in addition to the women and children, whom he does not number. This means we do not know how many were really fed, for surely the women and children ate the loaves and fish just as the men did. The significance of the story lies in what was left over. The remains of the meal filled twelve baskets. There were twelve tribes of Israel, a basket for each tribe. The food of the Gospel is for the Jews, and it is sufficient to satisfy their needs entirely. As Moses kept the children of Israel alive on manna in the wilderness, so Jesus is prepared to feed them now with bread from heaven which will provide them with strength, body and soul, for everlasting life (Matt. 14:13-21).
Jesus dismissed both the crowds and the disciples, whom he told to take a boat and cross back over the Sea of Galilee while he remained alone to pray. This is an interesting point. Here and later in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36-45) are the only two instances in the whole of Matthew's Gospel where Jesus is shown in the act of prayer. A storm arose. The disciples were in the boat alone. They were in danger. So Jesus walked to them across the water as if it had been dry land. Peter saw Jesus coming and called to him and asked permission and power to come and meet him on the water. In the process of doing so, Peter became frightened and began to sink. Jesus rebuked him for his lack of faith. "O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?" (Matt. 14:31). The phrase "of little faith" is peculiar to Matthew. We use it now frequently. It is Matthew's contribution to the language of Christendom. As a result of this miracle, the disciples in the boat worshiped Jesus, saying to him: "Of a truth thou art the Son of God" (Matt. 14:33). Matthew uses this incident to emphasize his theme: the kingship of Christ.
The crowds around Gennesaret sought just to touch his garments, believing that this contact with Jesus would be sufficient to heal their diseases (Matt. 14:34-36). The scribes and Pharisees thought otherwise. They accused the disciples of transgressing oral tradition by failing to wash their hands before a meal. Jesus was outraged at their criticism. The disciples' fault was minor compared to their transgression of the sixth commandment. Moses had commanded them to honor their parents, but they used the so-called "tradition of the elders" to evade the commandment. They put their estates in trust to the Temple. They could use the revenue from this trust themselves, but nobody else could benefit from it. Therefore, they used the law to free themselves from the Mosaic obligation to care for their parents. "Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. Ye hypocrites" (Mart. 15:6-7). Once again Matthew calls attention to a prophecy of Isaiah by indicating that Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13 in his rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees.
The real cause of defilement is not what we take into our mouths but rather what comes out of our mouths, for the words we speak reflect our thoughts and the purpose of our hearts. Murder, adultery, theft, and slander are all acts and expressions of the inner disposition of the heart. Note that these all follow the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth commandments of Moses. Peter asks for an explanation, which prompts Jesus to be so explicit. Before explaining, however, he shows disgust with Peter. "Haven't you got any sense?" he said. "You donor seem to have one grain of intelligence, Peter."
At this juncture Matthew records the healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman. The disciples want to send her away, and even Jesus tells her that his mission is limited to the Jews. But when she is so humble as to say that even dogs are fed scraps from their master's table, Jesus cannot deny her. He tells her to go home, for her daughter is already well (Matt. 15:21-28). The power of Christ is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
On the shores of the Sea of Galilee the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb, and many other diseased people are healed by Jesus (Matt. 15:29-31). This time the crowds bringing all their sick people number four thousand men exclusive of women and children. People today must wonder about the male chauvinism of Matthew. Here for the second time he does not count the women and children. In this regard he was typical of the time in which he lived. Jewish society has always been patriarchal, and Matthew leans heavily on the ideas and practices of the Old Testament.
Some think that the feeding of the four thousand was the feeding of the Gentiles -- that the large crowd consisted of Gentiles, not Jews, as in the case of the five thousand. Therefore they say that the seven baskets of food left over represent the seventy gentile nations, and that the four thousand people symbolize the four winds of heaven and the four corners of the earth. All this is allegorizing. There is nothing explicitly stated in Matthew's text to warrant such a fanciful interpretation (Matt. 15:32-39).
Once again Jesus refuses to give a sign to the Pharisees and Sadducees of the authenticity of his mission, telling them that they are skillful enough in reading the sky to predict the weather, but they are blind to spiritual reality and the meaning of his own authority (Mart. 16:1-4). The sign Jesus gives is that of the prophet Jonah. This means that as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days, so the Messiah will be in the tomb three days. The sign is Jesus' resurrection.
Jesus cautions the disciples to beware of the teaching of Pharisees and Sadducees, which he calls leaven. They fix on that word and mistakenly assume that he is criticizing them for not taking food with them as they once again cross over the Sea of Galilee with Jesus. He is disgusted with them. He could not possibly need food. If he could feed four thousand people as he had just done, he could readily feed twelve and himself. They have focused on material needs. He is warning them against spiritual misunderstanding (Matt. 16:5-12). The leaven of bread is quite different from the leaven of theology. Though Jesus uses leaven in one of his parables in a good sense (Matt. 13:33), it is used here and elsewhere in the New Testament to mean something evil.
3. Preparation for the Establishment of the Church (16:13 - 18:35) Technically speaking, Jesus did not establish the church. He lived his life under the ceremonies of the Temple and prayed and taught in the synagogues of Israel. The church did not come into existence until after his death, resurrection, and ascension. The birthday of the church is Pentecost.
However, Jesus conceived the church. He formulated the principles for its operation. His life was its example. His death was the means of the church's forgiveness of sin. His resurrection was its power of new life and the promise of life in the presence of God forever in the world to come. The church was to be the new Israel. It was to be the embodiment of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was both the cause of and impetus for the church.
In this section of Matthew we receive from Jesus the blueprints for the building of the church. The divine architect himself gives the plan. Here for the first time the word church is used. Literally it means congregation. It is the assembly of the people of God, the followers of Jesus, the representatives of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
The confession of Peter provides the church with its theology. Peter tells Jesus who he is. "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16). This is the first confession of the Christian church. To the Christian, Jesus is God in human form. Jesus not only represents God, he is God. We need not, indeed cannot, go beyond Jesus in our understanding of the divine nature and our apprehension of the divine mind and will.
Christ, meaning messiah or anointed one, is technically the title of an office or position, the designation of the person who holds that office and fulfills that position. The word Christ becomes a name, for in Jesus person and office are inextricably one. In the Old Testament we see the change of the name of a person taking place in keeping with a change in that person's work and mission. For example, Abram, which means revered father, became Abraham, father of a multitude (Gen. 17:5); and Jacob became Israel a name his progeny keep even to the present day. So Jesus the Christ, the messiah, the king becomes Jesus Christ, for Jesus of Nazareth is the only messiah there ever was or ever will be, and to the Christian he is king forever and ever.
Likewise, he who makes the confession has his name changed from Simon, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Simeon, to Peter, which means rock. This man, representing the apostolate, is the foundation of the church. His name always and invariably stands at the top of the list of all the apostles. Indeed, from the very beginning he was the Prince of the Apostles. The apostolate is the heart and soul of the corporate body of the church. It is to become the governing instrument of the church. It is to be the teaching authority, the ruling power, and the pastoral directive of the future church. In some Christian traditions, the episcopacy is considered to be a continuation in history of the apostolate with the bishops regarded as successors of the apostles. In other traditions, the continuation of the apostolate is more diffused among the corporate body of Christians.
The power to bind and loose was given to Peter and to his fellow apostles. This means that the church is commissioned through its organization to forgive sin in the name of Jesus and by God's grace to make believers fit for the kingdom of heaven. The clergy have in this regard a special and peculiar privilege, for in the performance of this office they represent Christ; but at the same time they have an awesome responsibility. When the church is faithful to Christ, the church is indefectible, even infallible. Hell itself cannot prevail against the church, for the church belongs, body and soul, to Jesus Christ. That institution becomes the continuation of his incarnation throughout all history (Matt. 16:13-19).
Peter, who speaks for Christ, indeed for God, in his confession, speaks for his fellow apostles immediately thereafter. In doing so, both he and they make a serious mistake. Just after Peter's confession, Jesus tells the disciples for the first time of his passion and death. They do not understand this. They associate the Messiah with power, triumph, victory. It is inconceivable to them that the Messiah should have any relationship whatever with weakness and defeat. So Peter asks Jesus to step aside. Privately he tells him to correct what he has just said. People will misinterpret it. It will injure his work. Jesus' response to Peter is primarily the same as was his response to the devil at the end of the temptations. He calls Peter the devil, and tells Peter to get behind him. His rebuke is severe. Jesus tells Peter that he is an embarrassment to him and a hindrance to his work (Matt. 16:21-23).
Then Jesus explains the pattern of true discipleship and predicts what may happen to those who follow him all the way. Just as he will be persecuted and killed, the same fate will be theirs as well. Only people who are willing to abandon everything, even life itself, for God will discover what true life is all about. In contrast, those who work for secular reward will in the end lose everything. 'Those who follow Jesus will never really experience death at all, for the abundant life is unending in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:24-28).
The next great event after the confession of Peter in the preparation for the establishment of the church is the Transfiguration of Jesus. We do not really know where it took place. We know that it was atop a mountain. Matthew locates the place of the confession of Peter. He tells us it was just outside Caesarea Philippi. This was a pagan city not far from Mount Hermon at the headwater of the Jordan River. Its earlier name had been Paneas, for it houses shrines of the god Pan. Titus came there to give thanks to his Roman gods for the conquest of Judea. Perhaps then Mount Hermon was the site of the Transfiguration, though Mount Tabor near Tiberias is the traditional place.
Only Jesus' intimates -- Peter, James, and John -- went with him to the top of the mountain. They saw him transfigured, his garments white as snow and his face aglow with the presence of God. Moses and Elijah met him there; and on that mountain with Jesus this world had juncture with the world to come.
Moses and Elijah are two of the greatest character in the Old Testament. Neither died in the presence of his people. God took the life of Moses while he was alone with God on top of Mount Nebo, and angels buried his body so that to this day the site of his grave is unknown. Elijah, in the sight of his successor Elijah, was carried to heaven in a chariot of fire. These two great prophets from the Old Testament came to testify to Jesus and to relate their covenant to his.
Peter and the other two disciples, representatives of this world, see it all, and Peter wants to build three tabernacles, one for Jesus and one for Moses and one for Elijah. God spoke as he spoke at Jesus' baptism: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." As they descend from the mountain, Jesus cautionshis disciples to keep silent about what they have seen until after the Resurrection (Matt.17:1-13).
The Old Testament had predicted that Elijah would come back to earth to prepare the way for the Messiah. "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Mal. 4:5-6). These are the words the angel uses to Zechariah regarding the birth of his son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:17). Jesus told the disciples that Elijah had already come, and they were correct in their assumption that he meant John the Baptist (Matt.17:12-13).
The Transfiguration confirms the confession of Peter. It validates and seals the theology of Christianity as being primarily Christology. Everything Christianity purports to do and all the good the church is to perform will be in the name and in the spirit of Jesus Christ.
The disciples who remained in the valley have been unable to cure a boy victimized by epilepsy. They still lack the confidence to fulfill their mission. This will be the fate of the church too, if and when that institution tries to do anything independently of Jesus and alien to the mission Jesus has given to the church (Matt. 17:14-20). Only through Jesus is the church fully the church. Trust in God is like the grain of mustard seed. Though ever so small, it is great enough to remove a mountain. The disciples had been unable to do what needed to be done because they had too little faith.
Jesus again distresses the disciples by repeating the prediction of his impending death (Matt. 17:22-23). He tells Peter to pay the temple tax for himself and Jesus, though really if the authorities understood who he was, they would not tax Jesus just as a prince is not taxed because he is the son of the king (Matt. 17:24-27).
Chapter eighteen gives us a concrete picture of Jesus' expectations regarding the attitude and behavior of Christians, requirements of his followers, and discipline for those who will constitute his church.
He uses a little child as an example of greatness in the kingdom of heaven: innocence, dependence, openness to guidance and instruction, no consciousness whatever of self- importance, willingness to be
reproved, always seeking an example for imitation, devotion, and love. The basic element in Christian greatness is humility. Jesus called a little child and stood the child before his followers. "Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven" Matt. 18:4).
The disposition of the follower of Jesus is to love little children, always seeking their welfare and happiness. Indeed, to do good to a little child is to do good to Jesus himself, while to cause injury or hurt to one is a moral and spiritual calamity, deserving the punishment of death itself. "It were better for lim that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea" Matt. 18:6).
Influence is powerful and pervasive. Everyone has influence. Good influences are blessings. Bad influences are curses. It is inevitable that some people will exert a bad influence. Damage to others will come because of them, because of their words and deeds, their examples, because of the evil they exert. Damnation will be their end. Therefore, carefully avoid injury to others. At the same time, carefully guard against any occasions for sinning. If a part of the human body causes a person to sin, it would be better for that person to lose that part of the body rather than commit sin. If the eye, for example, should Lead one to lust or become covetous, then it would be better to lose one's sight than to yield to unwholesome desire. "And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire" (Matt. 18:9).
Jesus again defines his mission in the world to seek and to save the lost and that will be the mission of the church after he has gone. Evangelism, though Jesus does not use that word nor does it as a word belong to the Gospel, is the supreme business of Christianity, namely, reclaiming the lost for God. Every person is precious in God's sight. Jesus is the good shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep safely in the fold and go out all night on the mountains to find one sheep that is lost. His followers cannot afford to do less. God rejoices over one reclaimed sinner more than over ninety-nine persons who need no reclamation (Mart. 18:11-13).
Jesus provides his followers with the prescription for handling mistreatment and injury at the hands of others. If a person in any way misuses a follower of Jesus, the injured person shall go quietly and privately to the offender and point out the grievance. If the offender does nothing about it and fails to provide a remedy for the offense, then the injured person is to go again with two or three witnesses. If the offender still does not provide satisfaction, the injured person is to take the issue publicly before the church. When the church renders a decision on the issue, the offender must comply with that decision or be expelled, treated as "an heathen man and a publican" (Matt. 18:17). Jesus repeats what he said earlier to Peter and this time confers the power of binding and loosing on the church itself. "Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 18:18). The church, in the plan of Jesus, is definitely his agency for salvation. Here Jesus clearly teaches that outside the church there is little hope for salvation.
Though the church as an institution possesses authority entrusted to it by Christ himself and is expected to exercise that authority, the individual person does not have such authority. For a person to attempt to exercise this authority is presumptuous and dangerous. Peter, for example, asks Jesus "How many times should I forgive another person for sinning against me, say, seven times?" That, after all, is a lot of sinning. Jesus says one must forgive another seventy times seven, that is, indefinitely, just so long as that person asks forgiveness.
At this point Jesus tells the story of the king who went over the accounts of his servants. One highly placed person owed the king ten thousand talents. When the servant could not pay, the king commanded that he, his wife, and his children be sold into slavery and that all his possessions be liquidated and applied to the debt. The man fell on his knees and begged for an extension of time. The king was moved by his pleas and forgave him his debt. He did not have to pay anything. But when this servant began to settle his own accounts, he found that a fellow servant owed him a hundred denarii. This servant also asked for an extension of time, but the man would not give it to him. Indeed, he put the fellow servant in prison until he could pay the debt. The other servants who knew that the king had relieved this highly placed person of his debt reported to the king what had happened.
A talent represented the highest form of currency in Jesus' day. It was a gold piece. Ten thousand talents was an inordinate amount of money, something like a million or more dollars today. It was a fortune. A denarius was one of the lowest forms of currency. The debt of the second servant was about like a dollar today. Yet this wicked man was willing to throw the other servant into jail for this paltry sum of money.
The king was indignant. He changed swiftly from mercy to judgment, from forgiveness to condemnation and punishment. He threw his highly placed servant who owed him so much into jail. "O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?" (Matt. 18:32-33).
We cannot expect God to be merciful to us if we are unmerciful to others. Forgiveness comes from God only to those who forgive. "And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (Matt. 18:34~35).
The basic pattern of the church is delineated by Jesus in this portion of Matthew's Gospel. Both doctrine and discipline are explicitly set forth. Mercy and retribution, deliverance and destruction,
forgiveness and punishment all belong to the teachings of Jesus and therefore to the belief of his followers.
1. Does it seem strange to you that John the Baptist doubted who Jesus was, even after baptizing him? Do you find it hard to admit your doubts when they occur? What tenets of your faith do you have questions about?
2. Using the parable of the sower, what concerns, preoccupations, or affections are most apt to choke off growth in your life?
3. Have you ever let your involvement with the church take you away from family responsibilities? How may rules be used to escape responsibility, as with the Jews who avoided caring for their parents? How does Peter's question about how many times to forgive-' 'Seven times seven?' '- show the same attitude?
4. How many of the Ten Commandments deal with observable actions and how many with attitudes? Which are easier to change? (Exod. 20)
5. Have you ever felt "without honor in your own country" in regard to your Christian witness? Is it hard for you to discuss your faith with those closest to you?