Matthew 23 is a lesson on how not to live out our Christian faith. Jesus calls out the religious elite big time.
How does this happen? How does one go from devotion to God to completely missing the mark? Why is it so easy to get to the place where we miss the forest for the trees?
In His critique of the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus gives us a picture of what it looks like when we get to this point…and it isn’t pretty!
Yikes! It is easy to look at this list and quickly see other people while overlooking where we should see ourselves.
Tucked in these critiques are the ways we should instead conduct ourselves as followers and disciples:
God, let me never be about me and my glory, instead of You and Your glory! Quickly bring to my awareness times when I am living contrary to Your ways and truths. Give me clean hands and a pure heart. Help me humbly serve Your people, those You put in my path. May I always concern myself with justice, mercy, and faith.
the wedding day is here.
Call all the guests
from far and near.
No interest in attending,
other things more urgent;
declining the invitation,
even killing the servant.
Go invite others,
as many as you can.
The feast will continue,
I’ve got another plan.
Oh, but look at that man,
the one in the wing.
He’s here at the feast,
but he’s mocking the king.
Out he must go,
no room for him here.
Weeping he’ll do;
an eternity in fear.
You see, all are invited,
but not all say yes.
What about you?
Come, time to get dressed.
Put on humility,
love and submission.
Step into freedom and grace,
you’ve been given permission.
For all are welcome;
all have a choice:
eternally suffer or
The tension is building as the culmination of what Jesus came for is approaching. It is a mix of people welcoming with shouts of, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and the anger of the religious leaders reaching a boiling point.
Jesus enters Jerusalem during the Passover Celebration. The once a year commemoration of God freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery; from passing over the Jewish houses with blood on the doorposts when death came at the door of all Egyptian firstborn sons.
Jewish faithful from all over the world convene in Jerusalem to celebrate, worship, and offer sacrifices. The temple the focal point; God’s presence dwelling in the innermost parts…the Holy of Holies. The city is bustling; visitors everywhere.
Jesus approaches the temple – the house of God, His Father. Though he has seen injustice, hypocrisy, greed, selfishness, and worse His entire life, the scene at the temple fans His anger and zeal.
The outer court, the only place Gentiles are permitted to enter and pray, is consumed by commerce. Booth upon booth set up to sell animals to sacrifice for those who chose not to travel with them or those who had none pure enough to offer. Booth upon booth set up to exchange currency for the temple tax that had to be paid in local currency. At first glance, this doesn’t appear to be a bad thing. It is a convenience for the travelers and a way to support the temple. But that isn’t how it is operating. They charge an exorbitant fee for both, extorting and taking advantage of the people who have no other option. The religious leaders not only approve of this activity, they too are profiting from it. And they are doing it all on holy temple grounds.
They have replaced worship with worldliness and wealth-generation. They have pushed out space for Gentiles to come – the place to evangelize to those on the outside; to show them God’s love and a way to salvation – and exchanged it for a place of business.
Jesus came to cleanse. And on His way to the cross to cleanse us with His blood, He stops at the temple to cleanse God’s temporary dwelling place. He turns over the tables of the merchants and money changers. He calls them out, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you make it a den of robbers.”
The holy place of God has taken on the look and feel and attitude of the culture and environment, leaving little room for worship and communion with God. Jesus had no choice but to clean house.
What about the Church at large today? Have we crowded out the paths for non-believers to come and worship? Have we filled the space with individual motives, legalism, hatred, favoritism, leaving no room for others to come and worship?
And on a more personal level, now we as believers are the temple of God. How is our temple looking? Have we squeezed out space for worship and communion with God and replaced it with worldly things? Do we need to clean house to make room for God?
God, please show me where tables need to be overturned in my life. Show me places and things that are crowding out space that should be filled with You alone. Let this temple within me be a place of pure and holy worship to You alone.
“Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The cries of two blind men. The following crowds attempt to silence them, but they cry out even louder and more determined, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks.
There is no hesitation. They know what they came for and what they want. “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” They want to be healed; to see.
Immediately their sight is restored. Immediately they follow Him.
The contrast between the blind men and the rich young man from Matthew 19 is not lost on me. The blind men come in desperation. They know they are utterly unable to help themselves. The rich man comes pretty comfortable with his situation, but looking for that one missing thing…assuming it isn’t too costly to get. The blind men, poor in spirit. The young man, rich in worldly possessions.
“Teacher,” the young man calls out as he addresses Jesus. “Lord, Son of David,” the blind men cry out. The young man looking for a little more knowledge; the blind men looking for a Savior.
Sorrowful, the young man walks away from Jesus. Restored, the blind men follow Jesus. Oh, how it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. The perceived sacrifice is just too much. The perceived need is not quite as deep. But in walking away, the restoration never comes. Because the sacrifice is nothing compared to the reward and the need is so much deeper than realized.
The rich young man looks to his possessions, and clings tighter. The laborers in the parable look to the right and left, comparing work and wages. The disciples look to the future, hoping for royal status and position. The followers of Jesus continue trying to receive rewards according to the world’s standards, while Jesus continues explaining that His kingdom and reward system are unlike any other. It can’t be earned. There will be persecution and suffering. The cost of following is no joke. The first will be last and the last first. The great one is the one who is the serves, not the one being served.
Though Jesus already knows, He asks, “dear child, ______ [insert name], what do you want me to do for you?” He wants to hear it from our own mouth. He already knows what we need. Do we?
God, today I commit to spend time in thought and prayer about specific requests. You know what I need. I want to be in agreement with You over it, and then firmly planted in Your truth, I want to boldly approach You and ask for it.
Background Photo: 31 Bits
Matthew tells of an encounter between Jesus and a young man that is a huge gut check on who we believe Jesus is and what we are willing to do as a result.
“Teacher,” the man calls to Jesus. Immediately we get an idea of who he thinks Jesus is.
The young man doesn’t recognize Jesus as Lord, but rather another good teacher who may be able to point him to that nagging thing that is missing in his life, despite all of his hard work, success, and wealth.
When we don’t rightly recognize who Jesus is, everything else is meaningless. Many throughout history and even today are quick to acknowledge Jesus as a good man and teacher who walked the earth. C.S. Lewis points out this can’t be. He either lied about who He was, was crazy for thinking He was someone He wasn’t, or He was truly the Son of God.
The young rich man continues with his question, “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
This man is looking for that one last thing he can check off his list to be satisfied and EARN eternal life. Jesus knows that none of us can do it without Him; that we can’t earn salvation.
Jesus plays along, basically responding if he wants to do it on his own, he needs to keep the commandments. Something Jesus knows full well no one but Him could do.
“All of these I have kept,” the man says, shedding light on another flaw in his quest for salvation…the inability to see his own sin. Does he really believe he has kept all the commandments his entire life? Impossible.
“What do I still lack?” the man continues. Although he thinks he has kept all the Jewish laws and commandments, in his soul he knows something is lacking. It hasn’t brought him the satisfaction he thought it would.
Jesus cuts to the heart of the man’s problem -- the thing in his life that is keeping him from being fully devoted to God and putting Him first in all things. For this man, it is his wealth and possessions.
“Sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me,” Jesus responds.
Later in discussing the conversation with the disciples, Jesus tells them it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven…harder than a camel getting through the eye of a needle hard. The disciples are amazed and perplexed. They have grown up wrongly believing that riches are a sign of God’s blessing and favor. How then could anyone get into heaven, they whisper among themselves.
Jesus agrees it is impossible. Impossible for man to do it alone. But with God, all things are possible.
Jesus knows many things can take first place over God, but money is a big one, tricking us into thinking we can control things; tricking us into thinking we are fulfilled; tricking us with just enough temporary satisfaction to keep us from seeking God.
While it was money and possessions for this man, it may be something else for you and me. It is anything we value over God; anything we are unwilling to give up to have more of Him. What God calls one person to give up, He allows another to keep. He alone knows what our heart is so tightly attached to over Him.
So, how does this young rich man respond? He sorrowfully walks away from Jesus. He walks away from the one thing he needed.
He knew something was missing; something was keeping him from life and peace. But when confronted with how to fill that hole, still he clings to that which he thinks he needs even more.
What is that thing for me? What am I clinging to that keeps me from entering into the closest relationship with Jesus? My family, health, possessions, reputation, security, control…?
On my own, letting go is impossible. On my own, saving myself is impossible. I must rightly recognize Jesus for who He is. Not just a great teacher, a humble servant, a gifted healer, a talented storyteller. He is the Son of God; the Messiah; my Savior; my Lord. Only with Him in His rightful position, with an accurate understanding of grace and salvation through Him alone, can I dig deep and recognize my sins and my need for Him to save me. Only then can I loosen my grip on the things I put above Him and follow Him. Because when I know who He is, what He did for me, and what He promises to do for me, then I can trust Him enough to let go and follow.
God, this is hard stuff. Soften my heart to know You, believe You, trust You, love You…so I can wholeheartedly follow You. Thank you for your love and patience.
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” A question to Jesus from the disciples. They are still hoping for an earthly political kingdom, more powerful than that of their beloved David. Not only are they looking forward to this kingdom, as friends of Jesus – the king – they want a high-ranking position.
As is often the case, Jesus’ response is not the one they wanted to hear. He calls a child to himself and sets the child up as the example of the greatest. Humility is what makes one great in this kingdom. Jesus modeled this by leaving His holy position on the throne in Heaven and being born as a child, humbly living, teaching, serving, healing, and ultimately dying to save us. THIS is greatness in this kingdom.
Humility is the foundation and backdrop for the things to follow in this chapter. Humility to strip ourselves of anything that causes us to sin and separate us from God. Humility to suppress our pride and pain and offer forgiveness when we have been deeply wronged. THIS is greatness in this kingdom.
Jesus asks who, if they had a hundred sheep, and one has gone astray would not leave the ninety-nine and go in search of the one who went astray? Um, I think I would leave the one. Thank God I am not God. We are all so incredibly valuable to God. He doesn’t want even one of us to be lost…even if we go astray, wander, and stubbornly or ignorantly try to go our own way. He pursues us. THIS is greatness in this kingdom.
Jesus continues, telling us what to do when we are wronged by a Christian brother or sister. Repentance, reconciliation, and restoration are always the heart of Jesus. Not bitterness, gossiping about it or trying to ignore it.
Forgiveness isn’t based on others’ actions, but instead on our attitude. It doesn’t mean reconciliation has to occur. Where reconciliation takes two, forgiveness only takes one. It doesn’t mean approval or acceptance of the wrong done to us. It doesn’t mean we forget. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for the offender. It simply means we free ourselves of the burden of it. Jesus ends these instructions of addressing wrongs with a statement on the power of unified agreement in prayer. Things like, “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” And, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Friends, if you are struggling with forgiveness, invite your friends to join you in prayer. Jesus will join you too. THIS is greatness in this kingdom.
Peter is feeling especially generous when he suggests we forgive someone who sins against us seven times, certainly much more than the traditional norms.
“I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times,” Jesus responds. Not a literal seventy-seven times, of course, but a lot. And then a lot more than that.
How can we be expected to forgive so often? Because we have been so extravagantly forgiven. Over and over and over again.
Jesus explains with a parable: A master was owed 10,000 talents from a servant. Commentators say that is the equivalent of $12 million to $1 billion; no doubt impossible to pay back. At the pleading of the servant, the master had mercy on him, forgiving the debt. Upon leaving free with a clean slate, the forgiven servant finds another servant who owes him 100 denari (approximately 100 days wages) and brutally demands repayment. The original master is outraged at his lack of mercy after receiving such mercy and sentenced him accordingly.
We can forgive much because we have been forgiven much. THIS is greatness in this kingdom.
Jesus offers forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. The forgiveness has already been granted and paid for. It was a one-way gift from Jesus to us when our sins were nailed to the cross. However, we must step into the reconciliation and restoration through repentance and accepting the forgiveness offered by Jesus. Hurt people hurt people, but forgiven people forgive people; freed people free people. THIS is greatness in this kingdom.
God, thank You for Your unimaginable forgiveness. Thank You for being on our side, deeply desiring restoration and reconciliation. Thank You for consistently pursuing us, even when we are all alone, wandering and lost. Help Your forgiveness of us overflow into gracious and merciful forgiveness of others. Thank You for the freedom that comes from forgiveness.
Jesus just had some tough exchanges with the disciples, telling them how He would suffer and die, rebuking Peter for wanting to stop it, and telling them they must deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Him. It was heavy and hard to hear. But God is so good and tender with us, knowing what we need when we need it; giving us a glimpse of beauty and hope, both to keep us going in the moment and to be a sweet reminder when we need it.
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to a mountain. Maybe these three were most troubled by what Jesus had just shared with them. Or, maybe they were just plain trouble…the ones you can’t trust to leave alone. Regardless of why, Jesus select these three to join Him in something spectacular.
Before their eyes, Jesus is transfigured – transformed. The glory His temporary earthly flesh had been concealing was peeking through. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light.
If that wasn’t enough, Moses and Elijah appear. Moses, representing the law, and Elijah, the prophets. All the glorious fulfillment together and engaging in a conversation right there in their presence. I think about Moses in Deuteronomy 34:1-4 when after 40 years of leading a grumbling people through the wilderness, on the cusp of stepping foot into the promised land, God takes Moses to the top of a mountain to show him the promised land he won’t be permitted to enter because of his disobedience. It felt so harsh, but here Moses is 1,400 years later…on a mountain again, this time with God, Jesus, and Elijah. I think Moses is all good. God takes care of His people.
Peter, being Peter (I love Peter!), suggests they pitch some tents and all stay awhile. Who can blame him? This is incredible. Roughly a week earlier Peter was rebuked by Jesus; now he is rebuked by God. In mid-sentence, God’s presence in a bright cloud overshadows them, and He says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Don’t talk, Peter. Listen. Listen to Jesus. Eyes on Him.
The foursome comes down the mountain to the crowd below. A man greets them whose son the disciples were unable to heal. The disciples had been given authority and power to heal by Jesus, but this was a stubborn one. Jesus criticizes their lack of faith and instantly heals the boy.
“Why could we not cast it out?” the disciples ask.
Jesus tells them they must have faith. It is tempting to read this and think we just need to muster up more faith. But Jesus is quick to point out that faith even as small as a mustard seed can move mountains. It isn't more faith...it is faith in the right thing. Faith in Jesus and His power alone. Faith in His purpose and plan and will. With this faith, nothing is impossible.
Sometimes we can get in a rut, going through the motions of what worked before. But we need to come to Jesus. We need to put our faith in Him and His power. Big faith in our strength or wisdom or past successes may produce little things at best, but even tiny faith in a big God can move mountains.
There is hope and power when we look to the light. When things get hard, impossible even, God will be there to give us that beautiful glimpse into His goodness we need to get us through.
God, help me to keep my eyes on You. Please let me be aware of the ways You are showing Yourself to me at just the moment I need it. Take my ridiculously small mustard seed size faith and let Your power have its way.
I tend to look at Paul with all of his discipline, intelligent words, and joy in suffering, and I just don’t see much of myself there. But Peter. Peter, I can relate to.
Unqualified on his own, spontaneous, “just fix it” personality, full of passion, but saying all the wrong things at times. So often I read accounts of Peter’s actions and think to myself, Oh, Peter. But then…oh, wait…that sounds like me.
In Matthew 16 we see one of Peter’s roller coaster moments. Jesus asks who people say He is, followed by a question to the disciples, “Who do YOU say that I am?”
Peter rightly responds that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Go, Peter! This is a high point indeed in his life so far. Peter is the first to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah; the Son of God.
Jesus praises Peter, saying what was revealed to him was from God. He says He is going to build His church through him; give him the keys of the kingdom. Peter must have been feeling pretty special. He finally got something right.
Unfortunately, it is very short-lived. Peter, Peter, Peter (Joani, Joani, Joani).
When Jesus begins to tell His disciples what will happen to Him—suffering, being killed, rising three days later -- Peter steps in. He just can’t help himself. This is the Christ. His friend. Peter wants to take charge and do things the way he thinks they should be done, which doesn’t include suffering and dying, that’s for sure.
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” Jesus responds. Ouch!
It seems pretty harsh at first glance, but this was serious business to Jesus. This is what He came for, and no friend or foe is going to thwart it. Jesus even mentions the rising from the dead part, but all Peter hears is the suffering and dying.
The devil is tricky, and no one knows this more than Jesus. Peter’s intentions weren’t evil. He loved Jesus. He didn’t want Jesus to suffer, or be rejected, or killed. Who can blame him? But this wasn’t God’s plan, and Jesus knew it. He recognizes the devil’s tricks, encouraging us to seek comfort, control, security. Avoid pain at all costs.
We want to fix things, and all too often we go to our own solutions instead of to God. In our fix-it mode, we could be preventing a mighty work of God on the other side. We think we are making things easier, but God isn’t about easy. God is about holy.
God’s plans often look different than our plans. Jesus was speaking of the MOST important thing. The REASON He came to earth in human form. To endure suffering and to die for our sins. He wasn’t going to take anyone trying to stop it, even His friend, Peter. He couldn’t let this slide. He had to call Satan out.
Like Jesus, we too can utter the words, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Have you ever been fired up for God about something or very diligent in His Word and felt attacked? And often the attack comes out of nowhere, entirely unrelated to the work you are doing. Maybe a stinging word from a friend, challenges at home, strife at work, or some part of your life seeming to fall apart. When we are earnestly seeking and doing the things of God, the devil works overtime to try to trip us up. Being fully aware of this is the first step to pressing through it.
I’ve started to follow Jesus’ lead and crying out, “Get behind me, Satan!” Just saying these words can change my mindset, allowing me to see these kinds of attacks for what they are and ready to get back to the things God is calling me to do. It is a valuable weapon.
God, help me to have eyes open to Your plans, not the devil’s distractions. And when I am pressing into Your holy plans, join me in shouting, “Get behind me, Satan!” when the devil slithers in to do his thing.
Jesus withdraws again to get away with His disciples, this time to a non-Jewish territory.
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”
A visibly distraught woman comes from seemingly out of nowhere, falling at the feet of Jesus. She knows full well the tension between the Israelites and her people. Hated enemies. She knows the Jewish people look down on her, considering her worthless. But she also knows this man who has come to town is the Messiah. So, she goes, full of faith and determination. Humiliation is nothing to her if it can save her beloved daughter.
Her anxiety level likely reaching a new height. This is her one chance. What will Jesus say? What will He do?
Jesus says nothing.
The disciples beg Jesus to send her away. Her tears and pleading likely annoying them.
Another blow to the woman as Jesus replies to the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
She won’t be deterred. With increased resolve, she kneels before Him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
I wonder if she hung her head fighting back more tears or if she locked eyes with the only One who could help her.
Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Another blow to her hope for healing. She knows exactly what He means. She has studied up on who this Messiah is. She knows He has come to save Israel first. But she has also heard rumors of His healing Gentiles in Jewish territories. She isn’t ready to give up just yet. She can’t control her cultural circumstances, but she can control her response.
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” she quickly replies.
I wonder if her reply was loud and bold or riddled with fear. Please hear me; please help me; please save my daughter, she is likely saying under her breath as she waits to see how Jesus will respond.
“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”
Her daughter instantly healed. He did it. She knew He would do it.
Jesus consistently rewards persistent faith. The delayed response was for her, not for Him.
God never tempts us, but He does test us. There is a difference. Tempting seeks failure. Testing seeks increased faith.
It was no accident that Jesus came to her town. He knew she would be there. He knew her story would become part of His story; part of our story.
The woman shows us how to persist when things seem to be falling apart all around us. She doesn’t give up at the first sign of resistance. She doesn’t pretend her lot is different than it is at the moment. She doesn’t let pride in a perceived dig keep her from going after what she wants. Like Jacob cried out in his testing; in his wrestling with God, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:26)
She humbly and passionately persists. She knows He can do it. She will stop at nothing to get it.
What is going on in your life now where Jesus feels silent? Where you are facing opposition? Where your circumstances feeling like a barrier to your miracle?
Press on. Ramp up your faith and your resolve. Keep praying and pleading with God. Let the “testing of your faith produce steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:3-4)
Jesus learns the devastating news that John the Baptist was murdered, his head presented on a platter. The life and sacrifice of an unwavering disciple is no joke. Yes, Jesus is God, but at this moment, He is also human. He grieves and withdraws to a desolate place to be alone with His Father.
The crowds don’t care about Jesus’ grieving or privacy; they want this healing they have heard so much about. Despite His pain, Jesus has compassion on the masses coming to Him. He heals them.
The problem is that the crowds have followed Him to this out-of-the-way place where there is no food and no place to get it. Despite watching Jesus perform countless miracles (even here…He has been healing), the disciples have no clue how to feed the people and want Jesus just to send them away.
Jesus says, “YOU give them something to eat.”
They look around at the meager supply of food available – 5 loaves and two fish. Enough for a family maybe, but not the thousands that have gathered. How in the world can such a small portion solve this enormous problem, they must be whispering among themselves.
Jesus says, “bring them to me.”
You only have a tiny fraction of what you need. Bring it!
He orders the people to sit on the grass. This isn’t going to be a quick charity handout line. We are going to sit, eat, enjoy each other’s company.
All eyes must be fixed on Jesus, wondering what He is going to do; how He is possibly going to feed this large of a crowd…upwards of 15,000+.
Jesus takes the five loaves and the two fish, looks up to heaven and says a blessing.
He gives thanks… before the miracle. He always gives thanks before the miracle.
We tend to think of gratitude as something that comes after the provision, but Jesus shows us that gratitude comes before the miracle too. Gratitude releases the miracle.
Jesus invites His friends to be part of this holy provision. The disciples get to distribute the bread and fish, which don’t seem to run out. Not only does everyone eat until they are satisfied, but there are also leftovers.
The little surrendered to Jesus has produced abundance.
Jesus shows us that no amount is too small if we bring it to Him. He will take what we have, invite us to be part of the miracle, and turn it into abundance.
After this dinner on the grass, the disciples go ahead of Jesus on a boat while Jesus goes to a mountain alone to pray. He later joins them…walking on water. Peter brings his request to do the same to Jesus; fixing his eyes on Jesus, he walks on water too. But when he diverts his focus back to his circumstances and limitations, he sinks.
We can focus our attention and energy on our limited resources and seemingly impossible circumstances, or we can GIVE THANKS and bring our little to Jesus. He can’t wait to take us along on the miraculous ride, accomplishing things that would be impossible on our own. And in His provision from our little, we know it is ONLY JESUS. Our faith becomes stronger. Our fear becomes weaker.
Chuck Swindoll says, “The size of a challenge should never be measured by what we have to offer. It will never be enough. Furthermore, provision is God's responsibility, not ours. We are merely called to commit what we have - even if it's no more than a sack lunch.”
God, please don’t let me miss out on Your miraculous provision because I choose to hoard what little I have, while at the same time fixing my eyes on my limitations instead of Your unlimited power. I surrender my resources to You. I thank You for what you have given me, and I thank you in advance for the miracles to come.
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