The Gospel Of Matthew
by William R. Cannon
Chapter 4: Herald Of The Kingdom
This is the shortest section in Matthew's Gospel. The material is covered in only two chapters, but it is of crucial importance. It outlines the basic principles which govern life in the kingdom of heaven. In proclaiming these principles Jesus acts as the herald of the kingdom. He does not want people to follow him for the wrong reasons. He does not choose to entice them by false expectations. Whoever would be Jesus' follower should know exactly what following him means. The ethics of the kingdom are the ethics of perfection. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48).
The principles set down and emphasized in this section reflect the teachings already given earlier in the Sermon on the Mount. But here they are applied to those who desire to be subjects of the king and citizens in the heavenly kingdom.
As Matthew presents his account of the career of Jesus, these teachings and pronouncements were made after Jesus and his disciples had left Galilee and were on the road to Jerusalem. "And it came to pass, that when Jesus had finished these sayings (his discourses relative to the formation of the church), he departed from Galilee, and came into the coasts of Judaea beyond Jordan" (Matt. 19:1). This meant he went down through Decapolis and Perea and avoided Samaria. Otherwise, if he had gone through Samaria (the direct route to Jerusalem), he would not have crossed the Jordan at all.
Jesus may have left Galilee, but Galilee did not leave him. Many Galileans followed him to Jerusalem and gave him his large audiences as he taught in Perea and Judea. This was the rime approaching the Passover. Some would have gone to Jerusalem anyway for the feast, but they went early to be with Jesus. And some who might not otherwise have gone, went because of him. The sick and the lame went because they knew he would heal them, and they were not disappointed (Mart. 19:2).
1.Sexual Morality (Matt. 19:3-12) Jesus opens his teachings about life in the kingdom of heaven with a discussion of personal morality as it relates to sex and the use of one's sexual endowments. The kingdom of heaven here means its anticipatory stage on earth, or life in the church, the community of those who belong to the kingdom of heaven. It does not refer to the kingdom of heaven beyond death. In the next life, sex will not be a factor. There, people will not marry or be given in marriage but shall be sexless as the angels (Mart. 22:30). But here on earth sex is a factor in the determination of the quality of a person's life and affects entrance into the kingdom of heaven while a person lives on earth.
The occasion for the teaching is a problem for Jesus by the Pharisees, who ask him if it is lawful under any circumstances for a man to divorce wife. Matthew indicates that the Pharisees raise issue in order to test Jesus. He implies that they are trying to tempt Jesus to give the wrong answer to their question, so that they might have grounds to indict him. Here their ploy would be the same devil's was in the temptations.
There were in Jesus' day disputes among the rabbis over divorce. Some of them questioned its moral legitimacy and doubted that it should be countenanced under any circumstances. Others laid out intricate procedures for granting divorces.
All Jesus says here is, "You know how it was in the beginning. God gave Eve to Adam, and Adam to Eve. They went through trying circumstances terrible ordeals together, but they never sought divorce." God made husband and wife, Jesus to be one -- that is, one flesh. In heart and mind will, husband and wife as they live together and one another shall become one person. This is basic Christian teaching. It comes out of Jesus' own teaching in answer to the Pharisees Jesus says: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man asunder" (Matt. 19:6).
The Pharisees object by reminding Jesus Moses allowed men to issue certificates of divorce and thereby to separate from their wives. "When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife" (Deut. 24:1-2).
Jesus replies that it may have been Moses' teaching, but it is not God's teaching. Moses did this not because he believed it was the perfect will of God, but rather as a concession to the demands of human weakness. Even so, it is basically unfair. It gives the prerogative of decision entirely to the man.
Here Jesus delineates the difference between approval and permission. Sometimes we are forced to permit what we do not really approve. Jesus said that Moses gave permission for divorce. He did not thereby give approval. But Jesus is greater than Moses. He teaches that divorce is to be allowed only in the case of infidelity on the part of one or both of the spouses.
The disciples interrupt the discussion by saying that if there is no way to dissolve an unhappy marriage other than by infidelity, it would seem best never to get married. Jesus admits that celibacy is a legitimate and go£ d way of life when it is a voluntary decision and is entered into for the sake of undistracted service to God and God's people. For Jesus, celibacy is not a way to avoid marriage and its obligations, as the disciples suggest. It is rather an alternative lifestyle dictated by calling and vocation. This does not mean that in the teaching of Jesus celibacy is superior to marriage, nor does it mean that the person who never marries lives an inferior or less fulfilling life. Both celibacy and marriage have their own special places in the kingdom of heaven. Each properly understood and rightly used is honored and esteemed.
It is reasonable to assume that many of the apostles were married. Certainly Simon called Peter, or the Rock, was married (Matt. 8:14). But Jesus never married, and the Apostle Paul either was widowed or single. Though Protestant ethics supports marriage for clergy, still celibacy must not be despised any more than marriage by any Christian body.
If Jesus adorned a wedding ceremony with his presence, he also adorned the celibate state by adhering personally to celibacy all the days of his earthly life. Human sexuality is a precious but precarious gift. Whatever use it is put to by a person must be in order to redound to God's glory.
2. Concern For Children (Matt. 19:13-15) The intended result of human sexuality is children. The word the Bible uses for the conceiving of children is the word know. "And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord" (Gen. 4:1). This does not necessarily mean that sex between husband and wife is reserved exclusively for childbearing. It can be precious as an expression of love between them regardless of its issue. But children are not intended by God to be brought into the world outside the marriage bond, nor is single parenthood endorsed in scripture as a providential way of rearing children. The family is the proper result of the experience of human sexuality, and the family is not a changing or intermittent relationship. It is providentially ordered to be a permanent and abiding institution into which a child is born, nurtured, and developed, until that child reaches maturity and is released in order to marry and form a new family.
And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. . . And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and, cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. Genesis 2:18, 21-24
Jesus welcomed the little children when their parents brought them to him, and he was surprised and ashamed when the disciples sought to deny the children admission into his presence. It was not that the disciples disliked the children. It was simply that Jesus was in the course of his teaching. The disciples felt the children would disrupt his discourse. They thought the children could not understand what Jesus was talking about and that their Master's time could be spent more profitably.
They were surprised, and perhaps a bit hurt, when the Master rebuked them, ordered them to give the little children admittance to his presence, and said that the children belonged to the kingdom of heaven just as much as did the adults.
The church today is wise in its attitude toward children and their place in its ranks. It no longer talks of them as being the church of tomorrow, as if to say they must grow up to church membership and responsibility. Young though they are, they are already members for having accepted Christ, for having come to Christ, and they make their contributions now to the church and to the advancement of God's will. "Be as eager for me and to be in my presence, says Jesus to his disciples, "as these little children are, or else you won't be able to get into the kingdom of heaven."
The family with its children is precious in the sight of Jesus, and its preservation is essential to the kingdom of heaven.
3. The Hazard of Wealth (Matt. 19:16-30) Wealth is a hindrance rather than an aid to entering the kingdom of heaven. Jesus gives this clear emphasis in the passage before us.
A man came and asked him what good thing he needed to do to obtain eternal life. The very way in which the man phrases his question captures the reader's attention. "Good Master," he says, "what good thing shall I do?" He uses good to characterize Jesus as a person. He uses precisely the same adjective to define the deed he needs to perform. Really the two are congruent. Good characterizes the person who performs the deed. The quality of the deed is derivative of the intention and purpose of the one who performs it.
Jesus does not appreciate the man's greeting. The man does not know Jesus personally and probably has never seen him before. He characterizes Jesus on the basis of his reputation. So Jesus brushes his greeting aside by saying, "Why do you call me good? Only God is good," and by implication, "You do not honestly believe I am God."
But Jesus advises him to keep five of the Ten Commandments, five that he is most likely always to have kept: the proscriptions against murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and the admonition to honor his parents. Jesus saw that this was a self-respecting man and realized that in repeating these commandments he was telling the man what he already knew, as we would say, "carrying coals to Newcastle. "Jesus does add another piece of advice not contained in the Ten Commandments. It is a prescription from Leviticus 19:18, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." The young man does not catch the significance of the addition. "Why, all of these have I kept from my youth up." But Jesus knew he had not, for the man did not really love his neighbor at all. Jesus disclosed this by saying, "Sell all you own, and give the proceeds to the poor." That would be proof that the man knew who his neighbors were and that he really loved them. The man did not stand the test. What Jesus said made the young man very sad. He was rich, and he wanted his wealth more than he wanted the kingdom of heaven.
The disciples saw and understood this. They also saw and understood that almost everyone else who had any possessions intended to keep them. That means, they thought, that the kingdom of heaven is open only to the poor. The rich cannot possibly have any place in it. Jesus admitted to them that it would be extremely difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom, as difficult as it would be for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle. That, of course, is a figure of speech, an example of oriental hyperbole. No camel could ever get through a needle's eye.
Jesus says, however, that nothing is impossible with God. Therefore, some rich people will be admitted into the kingdom of heaven. Riches can be an aid rather than a hindrance if the person who possesses wealth uses it to God's will. John Wesley, for example, became by eighteenth-century standards a very wealthy man. He had an annual income larger than many wealthy estates. But he lived on the same amount of money he had lived on as a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, and gave all the rest to the enterprises of the kingdom of heaven.
"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt. 6:21). It does not make any difference how much wealth we have if that treasure is put at the disposal of God and used to enrich on earth the kingdom of heaven.
4. God's Values (Matt. 20:1-19) Jesus ends his teachings on wealth with this statement: "But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first'' (Matt. 19:30). Then he tells a story to illustrate what he means by this statement, which he repeats at the end of the story. The point of the story is that God's values are not always the same as ours. Frequently, those things to which we attach the greatest importance are not at all important to God. And some things we pass by as being trivial, God looks upon as of inestimable significance.
In the busy season of harvest, the owner of a big vineyard goes to the marketplace to hire migrant workers to harvest grapes. The standard wage is one denarius for twelve hours of work a day. He offers the laborers this amount, and they consent and are employed for one day's work. Later in the morning, the owner realizes that he needs more help and comes back to the marketplace and hires another group. This time the owner fixes no pay but simply promises to be fair with them. The process is repeated off and on throughout the day, until late afternoon when the owner employs workers for just one hour.
At the end of the day, the owner tells the paymaster to compensate all the workers equally, starting with the last people hired. Each worker is to be paid a denarius, including the first ones who had worked all day, for that is the amount the owner had promised them.
The last ones hired are no doubt overjoyed at this high payment. The first are bitterly disappointed. They had not expected more than they got until they heard about the high wages of those who had worked only one hour. Then, they were disappointed and expected more. However, the owner of the vineyard said that they had no right to complain about his generosity. The money was his to do with as he pleased. All this does seem unfair to us, but we are weighing the episode on our scale of values.
Jesus says that this story illustrates what happens relative to the kingdom of heaven. God sets the standards. No one deserves God's grace -- admittance into the kingdom. No matter how hard we work, we cannot earn it. In the end, it is the gift of God. Admittance into the kingdom depends on trust in God and utter dependence on God's mercy. If this comes early in life, that person qualifies and is admitted. But one can also enter just before night falls and life ends. There is no time limit for admittance during one's life. The reward for entering early is the satisfaction of work within the kingdom. One should enjoy the work and not feel that it is "the burden and heat of the day" (Matt. 20:12).
In the kingdom of heaven a transvaluation of all secular values takes place. From God's point of view, winning souls is far more important than the accumulation of wealth. The establishment of a church is more honorable than the organization of a new business or the transformation of a prosperous firm into a powerful corporation with multinational outreach. The heroes in the kingdom of heaven are generals who won battles over the devil rather than over human enemies. Many national heroes will do well to get into the kingdom of heaven at all, while the saints go marching in. The last in recognition here are the first there (Matt. 20:16).
The perfect example of the transvaluation by God of human values is Jesus. The Master calls the disciples aside from the crowd as they are approaching Jerusalem to tell them again what to expect there. Jesus will be rejected by his own people. The chief priests and scribes will condemn him to death. He will be reviled and killed by human beings. But God will raise him from the dead. In the eyes of his con-temporaries Jesus has no value and does not deserve to live. But in the eyes of God he is the epitome of value, the standard by which all other values are assessed. He is the last who becomes first.
5. The Acceptance of Sacrificial Service (Matt. 20:20-34) The key to experiencing the kingdom of heaven is sacrificial service. There is no other way fully to participate in the kingdom. One who tries to do so in some other way is a thief and a robber.
The mother of two of the disciples gives Jesus an opportunity to teach this lesson to the Twelve, especially to her two sons. This ambitious woman, the mother of James and John, asks Jesus to promise her that when he establishes his kingdom he will seat her two sons in the chief places, one on his right and the other on his left. Evidently the two boys were standing with her when she made this request. (In Mark's account they asked for the honor themselves (Mark 10:37).) Jesus says to the mother in amazement, "Ye know not what ye ask" (Mark 10:38). And then he turns to the two boys and asks them if they are able to drink his cup-that is, to endure his suffering and shame with him, for he had just finished telling them what was going to happen in Jerusalem. The two boys self-confidently assert that they are able.
Jesus does not argue with them. No doubt he is shocked by their arrogance. He says that, whether they realize it or not, they will all eventually drink his cup of suffering. However, the determination of greatness in the kingdom cannot be made by Jesus in advance. God will decide after all the work is completed and the quality of it assessed. The standard of determination will be service and self-sacrifice. Jesus himself will be the model, but those who consciously seek greatness and recognition are not apt to attain them. The humble and self-effacing win God's approval.
Jesus points once again to the contrast between God's values and those of society. Look, he says, at the gentile order, at the Romans who control this country of ours. They respect authority. With them the basis of authority is power. The greatest person in honor and respect with them is the one who exercises the greatest authority and demonstrates the greatest power. The lowest person is the slave who has to obey another's orders. But with God, the lowest person is the most exalted, and the highest person is the least. That means that the most important person in Roman society could be the least important person in the kingdom of heaven, and the least important person in Roman society could be the most important person in the kingdom of heaven. God will put down the mighty from their seats and exalt those of low degree (Luke 1:52). So, Jesus says to his disciples, if you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven, you must become slaves to others here on earth. If you want to be first, you must be the servant of all.
As Jesus and the disciples come into Jericho, passing through on their way to Jerusalem, two blind men cry out for help from the crowds, and Jesus touches their eyes so that they can see. Immediately they join him, adding two more followers to his company. In opening their eyes, he has opened their hearts as well. They become disciples.
James and John, though apostles, are spiritually as blind as were these two men on the Jericho road before Jesus touched them. The two sons of Zebedee have desired greatness without knowing what greatness is and the price they will have to pay for it.
1. John Wesley believed in "moving on to perfection." Do you think "Be ye perfect" is an impossible command? What does the command mean to you?
2. How could your community of faith include children more fully in its public life?
3. If God were to call you to go to some faraway place and you agreed to go, what would you have to dispose of in order to travel light? How much more do you have than you need -- how many pairs of shoes, how many changes of clothes, how many coats, blankets, dishes, towels, or books?
4. How does your sexuality affect your relationship with God and your response to God's call?
5. How was Jesus contrary to what his contemporaries expected in a messiah? How is Jesus contrary to what our culture applauds?