Faith That Moves Mountains: Matthew 17:14-20

When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew 17:14-20 (NRSV)

Although we are not specifically told, the flow of this story has Jesus and a few of his disciples coming down the mountain where they witnessed the Transfiguration.  We are not told which mountain this was.  Early church tradition suggests Mount Tabor, and some commentators have suggested Mount Hermon (as it is the highest mountain in the Caesarea Philippi area).

As they come down the mountain, a crowd is waiting for them, and that’s when the man tells Jesus about his son with epilepsy and how Jesus’ disciples (presumably the ones still at the base of the mountain who didn’t go up with Jesus) couldn’t heal him.

What follows is another wonderful snapshot of historical, human Jesus.  He gets very frustrated and says some things that he might not have in cooler moments.  I love it when the actual story shakes up our preconceived notions about what Jesus must have been like, which are often personifications of abstractions (e.g. Jesus was always kind, Jesus was always gentle, etc.).

Although this was in answer to the man’s story, we have to assume that it was directed to the disciples.  The man is not faithless; he brought his son to the disciples and, ultimately, Jesus for help.  Coming to Jesus for healing or bringing someone for healing has often been called out by Jesus as a sign of great faith.

The disciples, by contrast, seemed unable to help the man, and this is just too much for Jesus to contain.  He lumps them in with the faithless and perverse generation of the Pharisees, the scribes, the Temple regime – everything that embodies the unfaithfulness of Israel and that the coming kingdom of God will displace.  Jesus is, in effect, saying, “You’re just like them.  You’re just like the people who don’t believe – the people who oppose me.”

This may seem like a rather extreme accusation given the circumstances.  The disciples have tried and failed to miraculously heal a boy of epilepsy.  It’s hard to fault them for this.  Most people don’t succeed in miraculously healing anybody.  If I were sick, and you prayed over me, and I was not healed on the spot, I would probably not accuse you of belonging to a faithless and perverse generation.

In order to see how Jesus ended up where he ended up, we have to step into that first century Near Eastern worldview.

In the first century, the division between “natural” and “supernatural” was thin to nonexistent.  Yes, people experienced the same world we experience today.  They may not have always understood why the world works the way it does, but they experienced the same physical laws that we experience.  Gravity, liquids and solids, the positions of the stars, the day and night cycle, disease and death – even many centuries prior to the scientific method, people did not have illusions about what commonly happens in the natural world.

At the same time, behind all this mundane activity was a (normally) hidden, spiritual world.  What happened in the world was an external manifestation of what was happening in this invisible aspect of reality.  For example, if one nation defeated another, it meant the first nations gods were stronger that day than the other nation’s gods, even though nothing ostensibly supernatural may have happened.  The outcome we could see and experience had behind it a spiritual aspect that we could not see and could (usually) only determine after the fact.

It is this context that defines people who saw visions or dreamed dreams.  For them, the veil was pulled back, and they were allowed to see what was going on behind the scenes in a world that was so alien to them that they resorted to images, and what strange and powerful images those would be.

When it came to sickness, if you asked someone in Galilee or those northern regions, “Does this boy have epilepsy or a demon?” many would likely have told you, “Yes.”  Those were not separate explanations to them.  One was a physical manifestation of the other.

In the same way, the oppression of the Roman Empire was viewed as the external manifestation of a darker, spiritual phenomenon.  If Rome was the body, then Satan was the spirit.  He had his own kingdom, his own soldiers, his own power structures, and these things had their physical manifestations in the form of the things that oppressed Israel.

Because of this, when Jesus would heal a sick person or drive a demon out, it was more than just a kind act or a generic demonstration of God’s power.  It was an invasion of sorts.  Jesus’ authority over these things showed that the hoped-for kingdom was imminent.

Around this time of year, we sometimes talk about how Jesus defied everyone’s expectations of how the kingdom would come.  In some aspects, this is true, but it would be a big mistake to assume that Jesus did not come to change Israel’s concrete political situation.  That’s a division we make:  Jesus came to do spiritual good, not physical good.  Those are two, separate things.

But for first century Israel, he came, in God’s name, to displace the oppressive powers of the world with the kingdom of God.  It was holistic.  There was no separation.  And when people saw healing and the driving out of spirits, they saw the invasion and impending victory of God in the world that the prophets longed to see – a comprehensive victory that would result in the poor being made rich, those who had lost all they had receiving it back, the powerless judging the nations, the meek inheriting the land.

This is, perhaps, why Jesus is so frustrated with his disciples.  It isn’t that they didn’t have faith in some general sense or that they couldn’t “faith heal” someone; it’s that they did not believe that the kingdom was coming.

And if you don’t believe the kingdom is coming, then you don’t believe Jesus, because that’s all he’s been talking about.  And if you don’t believe Jesus, well, you’re just like everyone else in that faithless and wicked generation.

Remember some time ago when Jesus had sent his disciples out to do the very thing we’ve been discussing:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

Matthew 10:5-8 (NRSV)

After this, after all the signs, after all the teachings, they still struggle to believe that the kingdom is coming.

We’re not told why this was such a struggle for at least some of the disciples.  Maybe some of them have been on the fence this whole time.  Or, maybe, some of them are starting to get discouraged with time.  Jesus is spending a lot of time preaching and ministering, but not a lot of time bringing the Temple to heel and demanding fealty from the Emperor, and he just keeps… not doing that.

Maybe some of them (looking in your direction, Judas) were hoping for a Messiah who would deliver something fast, violent, and decisive.  Even John the Baptist himself seemed to struggle with this.  How could Jesus be the Messiah if Herod were still in power and John was in his prison, about to be executed?

As for Jesus’ part, he absolutely sees this work as vital to the salvation of Israel.  He has to free from everything that would prevent them from believing his gospel message, and he isn’t done with that, yet.

The man never says that his son has a demon, but that’s how Jesus cures him.  He rebukes the demon (who leaves) and the physical afflictions disappear.  Another demonstration that Jesus is who he says he is, that his message is true, and that he is exactly the person who can and will execute God’s current stage in the mission.  The powers of earth are right to fear this man, because even the forces behind them can’t defy his will.

Perhaps having been chastened enough in public, the disciples pull Jesus aside and ask him why they couldn’t heal they boy, and Jesus ties it back to their lack of faith.  He then makes a statement so dramatic that it has found its way into modern expressions: if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move this mountain, and nothing will be impossible for you.

A mustard seed is very small; a mountain is very big.  Hence the dramatic impact of the statement.

Mark has Jesus giving this statement at the Temple in Jerusalem.  And, interestingly, so does Matthew.  Jesus will say this again, later.

This is a very believable thing.  My employees can recite for you several of the stories I tell, because I tell them over and over again for different audiences to make different points.  It’s quite likely that Jesus would say similar things in different situations.

What’s interesting about this situation, though, is that when Jesus is on the Temple mountain in Jerusalem, he tells his disciples that they could tell that mountain to be thrown into the sea, and it would be.  In other words, Jesus is predicting the unthinkable – that the Temple will be destroyed when the kingdom comes.

Here, Jesus is talking about the mountain of Transfiguration, and he tells the disciples that it will be moved from here to there.

Significant?  Maybe not.  Maybe it’s just an offhand choice of words.

Or, maybe, the difference is significant.  Maybe Jesus is trying to tell his disciples, struggling to believe, that all it will take is for the barest smidgen of faith to take what they briefly saw in the Transfiguration and move it forward to a new location.

We can’t see where Jesus is pointing when he says this, but I wonder if he was pointing toward Jerusalem.

Consider This

  1. In the ancient world, people saw a very close relationship between the physical and the spiritual.  Is this an antiquated worldview we no longer need, injecting our natural world with a reality that simply isn’t there?  Or have we lost something important if we reduce the world to what we can empirically determine?
  2. Oppression continues to take various forms in the world, both overt and subtle.  If we claim to continue the story of God’s people, do we have obligations to confront them?  What does that look like?  What does that look like in your specific sphere of impact?

Elijah Must Come: Matthew 17:9-13

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

Matthew 17:9-13 (NRSV)

The vision Jesus is referring to is what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration, where some of the disciples saw a foreshadowing of the success of Jesus’ mission.  Jesus appeared to them as a glorified saint – a citizen of the victorious kingdom of God – discussing the exodus event he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem with the great prophets and deliverers from Israel’s history.

Jesus commands the disciples not to tell anyone about what they saw until after his resurrection, identifying himself as the Son of Man figure that Daniel’s visions look forward to: the one who will receive the kingdom from God on the day when God destroys His enemies.

This isn’t the first time in Matthew that Jesus has asked the witnesses to keep what they saw under wraps.  It’s not always clear why Jesus wants them to do this, but I think we can say, generally, that Jesus is concerned that he and his nascent movement don’t get snuffed out before it has a chance to take hold.  When you start telling everyone that you saw the man Jesus transform into a glorified deliverer promised by God, authorities are going to take notice.

Rome may not believe in Jesus’ claims, but she certainly believes in the effect these claims may have on an oppressed population, and the experience of Jesus and the disciples (and the faith communities established by their testimony) will look very different if there’s a contingent of soldiers waiting for them in Capernaum.

But the disciples have seen a vision of the imminent arrival of a victorious kingdom with Jesus as the leader.  They know what’s supposed to happen to the Son of Man.  And Jesus has made a shocking claim that he will die and rise from the dead – a claim so absurd that it seems like none of the disciples take it seriously until after it happens.

All these things point to the fact that the day of the Lord is at hand, and this raises a question for the disciples.  They have heard the scribes teaching that Elijah must appear before the day of the Lord can occur.

This may just be something that some of them have been taught as Jews.  It may also be that this is a specific apologetic the scribes are using to discredit the idea that Jesus is the Messiah and that the hoped-for kingdom of God is at hand.  Jesus can’t be the man and this can’t be the time because Elijah hasn’t appeared.

This expectation comes from a portion of Malachi:

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

Malachi 4 (NRSV)

I once heard a really outlandish, but well-intentioned, sermon at an off-the-beaten-path Baptist church where the pastor said that the allusion to stubble, here, was beard stubble, and this showed us how important it was to keep up our cleanliness and grooming.  “The point is: you just can’t let yourself go,” he said.

Needless to say, that’s not really what Malachi is getting at.  What we’re seeing here is a prophesied day that will utterly wipe out the wicked so that the faithful will flourish.  Notice, also, the role of Moses in this day as the one who gave the Law to Israel.  But before this day comes, Elijah has to appear preaching repentance so that there is a faithful to flourish and all Israel doesn’t perish in the day of judgement.

Both Moses and Elijah appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration, but when Jesus says that Elijah has already come, he’s talking about John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was doing the exact thing that Elijah was supposed to do before the day of the Lord.  He even dressed up like Elijah.  He was preaching repentance to Israel so that they might be saved in the day of judgement.  He baptized them, demonstrating the cleansing of their sin and entry into the renewed people of God.  He was preparing the way for the Messiah who would enact the judgement described in Malachi 4.  He was so committed to this vision that, when Jesus failed to start violently overthrowing the government and John ended up imprisoned by them, he questioned whether or not Jesus was the Messiah.

And that last bit is what makes it click for the disciples.  When Jesus says that Elijah wasn’t recognized but was instead persecuted and killed by the powers that be, they know right away who he must be talking about.

Jesus also slips in that the Son of Man will have the same experience.

When we look at the prophets God sent to Israel to proclaim a coming judgement (and encourage repentance in order to avoid it), we don’t see a whole lot of success.  What we see, instead, is an increasingly hostile leadership who isn’t keen on the criticism.  The prophets point out how Israel’s leaders fail to shepherd their people and practice righteousness.  They lay the blame for rampant oppression and corruption at the feet of the leaders.  The prophets say that Israel’s troubles (exile, rule by pagans) are the leadership’s fault, and their circumstances are only going to get worse, culminating in an eventual destruction.  The only way out is to repent of all of this madness and restore faithfulness, compassion, justice, and mercy.

But the leaders of Israel actually like things the way they are.  They are prospering off the backs of their people even in the midst of exile and pagan rule.  They ingratiate themselves with the political powers of their day and are rewarded with power and prosperity of their own.  They really want the prophets to quit stirring up the people.  They want them to shut up.  Their responses move from mockery and discrediting into flat out violence.

This happened to the prophets.  It happened to John the Baptist.  It will happen to Jesus.

This is a crazy juxtaposition with what the vision of glory and success that the disciples have just seen on the mountain.  How can Jesus successfully lead a deliverance of Israel and bring the kingdom of God to fruition if he will just follow the other prophets into imprisonment and death?

This is the value of that tantalizingly absurd claim: “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Consider This

  1. Jesus clearly indicates that the ministry of the John the Baptist is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Elijah returning.  What implications does this have for how we might understand Old Testament prophecy, especially the apocalyptic sort?
  2. The prophets all the way up through Jesus called people out of an old way of life and into a new one that marked a new membership in a new Israel.  What does this mean for you?

The Transfiguration: Matthew 17:1-8

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

Matthew 17:1-8 (NRSV)

Six days after Jesus affirms to his disciples that he is the Son of God, their hoped for Messiah, and that this entails his suffering, death, and resurrection, he takes a few of them to the top of a mountain (perhaps the few that seem to be struggling with this idea, if Peter is any indicator).

Mountains, of course, have significance in many religions, including Judaism.  Mountains are where gods live, and if you want to commune with them, that’s where you go.  They are a point of earth that ascends into heaven.

It is here that what we call the Transfiguration occurs: Jesus’ face and clothes become dazzling, Moses and Elijah appear and converse with Jesus, and God speaks from heaven announcing that Jesus is His beloved son.

This is all kind of weird, and better theologians than I have unpacked what it could all mean.

It was perhaps Origen (who should have been sainted, not declared a heretic) who firstly connected the Transfiguration with resurrection.  The glorification of Jesus, the conversation with saints who have died – these things present a picture to the disciples of the resurrection awaiting Jesus and, ultimately, all of his followers.

I think this train of thought is generally correct, but I’d like to look at how this ties back to history, the Old Testament, and how that meaning will help us understand what this event is trying to communicate to the disciples (and Matthew’s readers).

The idea that resurrected saints will be gloriously dazzling goes back to an important book for Jesus: Daniel.

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.”

Daniel 12:1-4 (NRSV)

This is part of a prophecy about Antiochus Epiphanes – a Selucid king who ruled their empire, including Judea.  Although the rulers prior to Antiochus had been generally tolerant of Judean practices, Antiochus would have none of this.  He declared himself to be a god, ordered the Jews to worship Zeus, and exercised all kinds of tyrannical predations against the Jewish people.  His persecutions sparked the Maccabean Revolt and led to his destruction of Jerusalem.

Interestingly, Antiochus was not without Jewish support – specifically, he reached out to groups of non-observant Hellenized Jews to solidify his power base.  So, we see in Antiochus’ reign a sort of dividing line between the Jews in Judea, with some who do not care much about observing the Jewish faith getting in bed with whoever is in power and others whose faith leads them to a collision course with Antiochus, resulting in their persecution and martyrdom.

Daniel describes these things, and at the peak, offers the vision we see in Daniel 12:1-4.  These things will come to an end, and when they do, some will be raised from the dead to be held in shame and contempt, but others who were wise and led people into righteousness will shine like stars.

It is possible that the prophetic imagination, here, is simply describing the people who survive the calamitous events around the persecution and eventual downfall of Antiochus Epiphanes into the next age.  Once God brings an end to this tribulation, the people who supported it will be objects of scorn while the people who maintained their faith and encouraged others to do so will be heroes.

I do think, though, it is likely that Daniel is contemplating an actual, future resurrection, especially given how closely tied the idea of resurrection is to the Jewish idea of justice for the faithful and the oppressors as well as the restoration of Israel.

But in either case, the meaning is clear.  Currently, Israel is under the thumb of a tyrannical oppressor who considers themselves to be a deity and demands that Israel acknowledge this.  Some in Israel are getting behind this power, while others faithfully refuse to be complicit even if it means being imprisoned or killed.  At the end of this will come a resurrection where there will be a clear, eschatological division between these groups, and one will be held up to scorn while the others will radiantly shine.

It is, in fact, this same idea and image that Jesus uses in his parable about the wheat and the tares.  Currently, wheat and tares grow together in the kingdom because destroying the tares would also cause damage to the wheat.  But there is coming a day when God and His angels will do some harvesting, and those who belong to the enemy will be destroyed, but the righteous will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matt. 13:43)

So, yes, the Transfiguration does give us a picture of resurrection, but not resurrection as a theological abstraction or a generic statement on what happens when we die.

The Transfiguration puts Jesus and his disciples on the eschatological map.

They, too, live under an oppressive regime whose leader declares themselves to be a god.  They, too, are pressured to conform to Rome’s religious and political structures, and they struggle to faithfully maintain a Jewish identity in the midst of this – sometimes suffering imprisonment or death for it (and this will only get worse as time goes on).

Furthermore, some in Israel have allied with this oppressive structure, hoping that they will be protected and comfortable, even at the expense of their own people.

But Jesus and his followers are on the cusp of God intervening in this situation in a powerful way.  The day is soon coming when the oppressor will come against Jerusalem for her rebellion and destroy her.  On that day, some will live through it, and others will fall – but either through survival or resurrection, it will be revealed whose side God was on.  One group will be objects of scorn and derision; another group will be held up as faithful and righteous heroes – shining in the kingdom of their Father.  The resurrection will justify them and, in turn, glorify them.

And this wheat and tare gathering will not simply be limited to Israel, but will in time roll out to cover the entire Empire.  The Caesar who today is declared a living god by Herod will give way to a Caesar who will declare Jesus Christ as lord of the Roman Empire.  Oppressors will be removed from office and put in prison, while the faithful will be exalted to positions of power.  Pagan temples will give way to churches.  The faithful who currently suffer under Rome will one day rule it under the authority of King Jesus.

Later in this same chapter, Jesus will tell the disciples not to share the vision until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” thus taking the apocalyptic title that Daniel uses for the individual in his vision who represents faithful Israel.

I’ll address the appearance of Elijah a little later, but this connection is, perhaps, why Moses is one of the people who shows up.  Moses, who confronted the pagan oppressors who ruled Israel in his day, led his people out from under them, and destroyed the pursuing armies.

Luke makes this connection explicit in his account of the Transfiguration:

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his exodon, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Luke 9:30-31 (NRSV, emphasis and Greek insertion mine)

This brings us to good ol’ Peter.  Is there any disciple that people relate to more than Peter?  Full of good intentions, lacking much understanding, possessed of zeal, and giving in to weakness at critical moments.

Here, Peter wants to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

We aren’t told why, but most theologians believe Peter is trying to make this moment last longer.  As if this moment is an end unto itself.

It’s not hard to imagine what Peter might be thinking.  How different would Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem be if he came in this dazzling, glorified state with Moses and Elijah by his side?  Surely all of Israel would throw their support behind this figure, and probably a decent amount of Rome as well!  There could be no confusion who the chosen ruler of the gods are when one of them is literally shining radiance and he is accompanied by the risen bodies of two of some of the most noted prophets in Israel’s history.

But, as he often does, Jesus points out this is not how the kingdom will come.  It will come through the faithful suffering and death of the Messiah, not a glorious enthronement of the god-king by earthly powers.

See, that’s the thing.  To get to the resurrection, you have to die.

It is the resurrection from the dead that will justify Jesus, and it is his exaltation from God that will establish him as Lord and Christ.  The road to this is faithfulness unto death, not using his rights and powers and political machinations to avoid it.  The latter is the wide road much of the powerful in Israel have taken, but that road leads to destruction.  The narrow road – the road of faithful suffering – the road Jesus calls faithful Israel to follow him on – this is the road that leads to justification and glorification.  This is the road that will see you safely to the other side of this present evil age.

God has to forgive Israel to deliver her.  God has to move in an unmistakable way to overthrow a very entrenched power structure.  God has to do all this.  Anything that happens by way of the help of the earthly powers that be simply extends the cycle.  More curse under new rulers.

The thing that will move God’s heart, though – the thing that will ignite the supernova – is the obedient death of His faithful, beloved Son.  And so His Son will stand for all Israel.  And, by the power of the Spirit, so he stands for all of us.

If the Transfiguration is only a picture of these things, though, why bother?  Why even create this display for the disciples?  What is the point of seeing an initial foretaste of what is to come if that foretaste is fleeting, soon to pass under the layers of history?

My guess is the most vital and elusive of all reasons – to give hope.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Corinthians 15:20-26 (NRSV)

Consider This

  1. Now that we are on the other side of the political situations described in the Old Testament and the book of Matthew, what hope does the Transfiguration give you as a follower of Jesus?  What truths does it communicate about God, His people, and their future?
  2. The Bible presents resurrection not as a generic answer to the question, “What happens to us after we die?” but rather, “What will happen to God’s people?”  Have you ever thought about your journey with God in the context of being part of the story of a larger group of people?  What other parts of your individual spirituality could be informed by thinking of them as part of the experience of God’s people as a whole?

Taking Up Your Cross: Matthew 16:24-28

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Matthew 16:24-28 (NRSV)

Leading up to this passage, Jesus has been teaching his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer under the authorities there, be killed, and rise on the third day.  When Peter protested that these things should never happen to Jesus, Jesus corrected him in very strong terms.  This idea – that Jesus knows that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, die, and rise – provides us the necessary context for understanding Jesus’ follow-up comments, here.

Basically, Jesus says that anyone who would be his follower must walk that same path.  They, too, must suffer under the religious and civil authorities of his day.  They, too, will be killed.  And they, too, will rise from the dead.

Matthew’s Gospel was written after Jesus’ crucifixion, but this event is portrayed as happening before the crucifixion, so the disciples in this story are hearing “take up their cross” without any reference to Jesus’ crucifixion.  What would such a phrase mean to them?

Well, the cross was the instrument of the Roman Empire to execute criminals – specifically, criminals that the government wanted to make an example of.  The cross was an instrument to show the people under Rome’s dominion that you don’t mess with the Empire.  You don’t take their stuff.  You don’t rebel.  You don’t turn people against them.  It was a weapon of intimidation and suppression.  People are less inclined to rebel when a group of rebels is discovered and hung publicly on crosses for all to see.

And as people go by these crosses – these signs of Rome’s absolute power over the life and death of her subjects – you can see their loyalties.  The people who want to “get in good” with their oppressors mock, scorn, and spit on the people on those crosses.  Those crosses hold Rome’s enemies, and if you wanted to stay on Rome’s good side, they were your enemies, too.

This is the destiny Jesus holds out for his followers.  He isn’t saying “my follower” in a general, spiritual, ethical sense; he means it in a very concrete fashion.  The people traveling with and learning from Jesus are going to have to go with him to Jerusalem and face the wrath of the authorities who will destroy Jesus.  This is probably a hard truth for Peter and the rest to hear – everyone who trusted that Jesus would be the salvation of Israel – that not only was their Messiah traveling to his own execution, but they would be executed along with him for their commitments to him.

This has come up in Matthew, before.  It’s interesting to see this facet of Jesus in play.  Jesus is basically thinning the herd of his followers, which is something we don’t normally associate with Jesus.  He doesn’t turn away anyone, no matter how feeble their faith or other gifts, but he is very clear what will happen to anyone who signs up.

This, naturally, raises the question of why anyone would do this.

After all, what Jesus’ followers want is a new world, one in which Israel is back on top.  Land is returned.  Power shifts dramatically.  Oppression ends.  The Temple becomes righteous.  The kingdom comes.  This vision is risky and improbable to begin with, but it becomes even moreso if the very people who are supposed to bring it about are killed by the very powers they hope to overthrow.  It’s hard to be committed to that vision when you are imagining yourself hanging on a cross, suffering and dying, while people walk past you mocking you for your hubris – the very thought that you could challenge the Empire.

But Jesus tells them that the people right now who are trying to preserve their lives and make themselves comfortable will lose their lives, and what good will their efforts do them on the day that their life is taken?  But those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake will receive their lives, again.

Jesus is not describing something purely spiritual or metaphorical, here.  He’s talking about people actually dying and people actually living.  There is an imminent event where those in Israel who have allied themselves with Rome and built up wealth for themselves will lose their lives, and there will be those who have died for the sake of Jesus’ mission who will receive it, as well as those who were willing to give up their lives who will find themselves surviving the coming judgement to life in the next age.

Jesus describes this day as the day when the Son of Man (the figure who receives an everlasting kingdom from God in Daniel 7) will come with his angels in the glory of his Father to judge the world.  He will repay everyone according to what they have done.  In the narrative, here, Jesus foresees that he, too, will still accomplish his Father’s mission even if he is killed.  He, too, hopes in resurrection.

And we know this day is soon to come, because Jesus says that some people who are present in the audience will not die before this event happens.  Since he’s speaking to the disciples, it’s probably fair to say he doesn’t expect all of his followers to be executed, but they definitely need to be willing to meet that fate.

But what’s interesting is the time frame this imposes.  Whatever this event is where the Son of Man comes repaying everyone for what they have done, it’s going to happen before all the disciples die.  Elsewhere, Jesus will describe this as happening in “this generation.”

What are we to make of this claim?

Well, one option is that Jesus is just wrong about this.  He expected these world-changing events to happen with him at the helm in a very short amount of time, and this didn’t work out.  This is the option generally taken by people who aren’t Christians as well as Christians who may greatly revere Jesus but think his apocalypticism may have been a little overzealous.  It’s not my option, but it has the benefit of being consistent with what Jesus is saying, here.

Another option is that Jesus meant this in some non-empirical sense.  The events he describes are metaphors, perhaps for “spiritual realities*” such as a judgement that occurs in heaven or events that occurred in people’s hearts in response to the work of Jesus.  The “spiritual realities” option is popular among some Christians who tend to see most of the apocalyptic language in the New Testament as descriptive of “spiritual realities,” and the latter is a common tack for people who respect the Bible and Jesus but find the more supernatural or apocalyptic claims untenable.  In this way of thinking, what Jesus is proposing is actually not as radical as it sounds.  This isn’t my option, either, but it does have the benefit of recognizing that apocalyptic language isn’t really meant to be taken very literally.

A third option is to keep the events described reasonably literal, but the timeline becomes metaphorical.  Through the use of things like the intermediate state and questionable variations of Greek articles, Jesus is talking about an indeterminate timeline that could potentially stretch into the distant future.  This is all explained through the use of a simple diagram:


So, hopefully, that clears things up.

But a fourth option, and probably the most popular option with Christians, is to figure out what seeing “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” is actually talking about.

One very popular view is that Jesus is referring to the Mount of Transfiguration, which is described in the very next passage, which takes place six days later.  The Transfiguration, it is said, is a preview of the glorified Son of Man, and therefore qualifies as “seeing the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” and fits within the timeline.  In fact, since it happens only six days later, all of the disciples are alive to see it, so Jesus’ prediction works out even better than he let on.  Some objections to this view are that the Transfiguration is not Jesus coming in his kingdom, it leaves out elements such as coming with angels to repay people what they have done, and that it would be silly to announce “some standing here will not taste death” when describing an event that happens in less than a week.

Another view is that Jesus is talking about Pentecost.  I think this does a lot better in the consistency department.  True, there is no judgement that happens on nonbelievers, although it could be argued that it does happen for the faithful gathered who receive the Spirit.  And, technically, Jesus just said some wouldn’t taste death until they saw “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” which doesn’t necessarily mean the judgement part has to happen then.  Also, this does justice to the facet of the kingdom that is spiritual.  Also, at least one of the disciples who was with Jesus in Matthew has died (Judas), so Jesus’ prediction that some would not taste death technically works out.

I’m ok with all that, but I think Matthew’s Gospel is most likely referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

This post has already gone on very long so I won’t make a detailed argument for this, but certainly this event has been the referent for a lot of apocalyptic imagery in Matthew as well as language of a coming judgement.  It’s a natural fit for that language to apply here, as well, and it fits the time frame.  By the time 70 A.D. rolls around, some of the disciples are dead and some are not.  It also fits other timelines given in Matthew like, “You will not pass through all the towns in Israel before the Son of Man comes” and “this generation will not pass away until.”

One might object that, in the destruction of Jerusalem, we do not literally see Jesus and his angels.  Well, on the one hand, I would say the other views have similar problems.  No angels show up in the Transfiguration, and nobody sees Jesus or angels at Pentecost.  We all have to recognize that apocalyptic language is both cosmological and nebulous.  The Old Testament fulfillments of apocalyptic prophecies were much more mundane than the dramatic imagery suggested.

On the other hand, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, we might have:

Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus, and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskillful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes, as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it. At the same festival also, a heifer, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple. Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner [court of the] temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night… Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the temple] as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, ‘Let us remove hence’.

Josephus, The Wars of the Jews

It’s interesting that the historian Tacitus also comments on these signs, and he interprets them as signs portending Vespasian’s victory – which is what happened.

I realize that these are tricky issues, and two or three paragraphs isn’t going to be enough to sway someone from one view on them to another.  I don’t expect that.

But whether you agree with me or not, I want to underscore how tied to concrete history the gospels are.  The events in them could not be dropped into any point in history.  Jesus had to come then to those people in their world living through their circumstances.  The people of God were in trouble, and Jesus intended to save them.  That had a certain form and a certain look because of what was actually going on at the time, just as God’s acts of salvation always had throughout the Old Testament.

This doesn’t mean these Scriptures have nothing to say to us, but if we want these Scriptures to be our Scriptures in a meaningful sense, we have to engage with what it meant for them to be someone else’s Scriptures two thousand years ago, look for how we have been drawn into that story, and listen to what the Spirit has to say to us as we continue that story from age to age.

* I put the phrase “spiritual realities” in quotes because I find it problematic.  It’s unfortunate, because I do think there are passages in the New Testament that describe what we might call “spiritual realities,” and I don’t have a problem with that per se.  But the phrase is commonly used to divorce the New Testament from concrete history, and rather than let such passages challenge our theological narrative, we can just chalk them up to “spiritual realities” and keep our narrative intact.  In this way, the New Testament becomes both transhistorical and transempirical.  And honestly, a doctrinal scheme that has no visible impact in concrete history probably suits a lot of churches just fine, but I don’t care for it.

Consider This

  1. The martyrdom that Jesus asked his followers to accept is a reality for Christians in many places in the world.  Some international ministries even ask new converts if they are prepared to die prior to baptizing them.  For people who live in countries where this isn’t really a risk, have you considered this?  I mean, truly considered this?  Have you truly considered what it might be like to be tortured or killed because of your commitments?  What things would carry you through those moments?
  2. What are the commitments that Christians have that would provoke the wrath of the powers in the world?  What are the risks of allying with those powers or trying to earn their good graces?

Get Behind Me, Satan: Matthew 16:21-23

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Matthew 16:21-23 (NRSV)

That didn’t take long, did it?

We have Peter recognizing that Jesus is the Son of Man, the hoped for Messiah, etc. via insight that has been given to him from the divine, not through natural contemplation.  Here, Peter reverses all that.

In fairness to Peter, we should avoid what I call “narrative compression.”  When two events are placed in close proximity, even if they are connected with “and then,” it doesn’t mean the latter event happened immediately afterward.

It works this way in English as well.  I could say, “I put on my socks and then I put on my shoes,” and most days those things happen pretty closely together.  I could also say, “Abraham Lincoln was elected president and then slavery was abolished in America,” but we all know that didn’t happen on the same Tuesday.

Narrative compression is something that can happen when reading any writing, but our general familiarity with the Bible can sometimes make it worse.  We think, for instance, of the stories of the Fall, then Cain and Abel, and then Noah all happening in relatively short sequence because the stories are very close together, but according to the short verses that describe intervening generations, we’re meant to understand that centuries pass between these things.

So, in Peter’s defense, he probably didn’t say this ten minutes after his famous confession.  Matthew describes Jesus as teaching them “from that time on” about his upcoming arrest and death and resurrection as being part of what the Messiah needs to undergo.  We don’t know if this went on for hours, days, weeks, or months before Peter finally felt like he should say something.

Peter’s distress is not simply concern for his friend, although that very well may have contributed to it; it’s a theological and eschatological problem for him.

The Son of Man hearkens back to Daniel 7 as the figure to whom the Ancient of Days will give an everlasting kingdom.  The Ancient of Days sets up His throne, destroys His enemies, then gives the kingdom to the Son of Man to rule over.  Daniel is told by an angel that the Son of Man are the faithful saints of God.  So, you have this single figure that represents a group of people (cf. the “suffering servant” of Isaiah).

Peter has come to realize that Jesus is this figure who will secure the kingdom for the faithful and is deservedly excited about this.  Jesus is able to forgive sins and perform miracles, this validating his message that the longed-for kingdom of heaven is right on the doorstep and he’s the king through whom God will bring it about following a judgement on the present kingdoms that rule over Israel.

That is what the Bible says.

So, you can imagine Peter’s consternation when he hears that Jesus will be captured, tortured, and executed by the very power structures that God is supposed to remove.

We, on this side of the New Testament, might shake our heads and say, “Well, Peter doesn’t really know his Old Testament, because if he did, then he might know….”

This is partially correct.  Peter doesn’t know his Old Testament.  Peter is a fisherman.  It’s unlikely Peter knows how to read, and we don’t know how observant a Jew Peter was prior to meeting Jesus.  Peter might know in general the Jewish cultural expectations for the Messiah and the Son of Man and that might be it.

But even if Peter did know his Old Testament, we have to be honest that the idea that the Messiah will accomplish his goals by getting captured, tortured, and executed is not an idea that just leaps off the pages of the Old Testament.  In fact, the New Testament paints a picture of this having to be revealed.

When we think back to Peter’s confession, he didn’t identify Jesus as the Messiah because it was an obvious conclusion from the Old Testament; he identified Jesus as the Messiah because God showed it to him.

We might think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24.  They believe Jesus’ messianic aspirations came to an end.  Jesus himself has to explain to them how he fits into the Old Testament story, and when he does, their hearts confirm that this is true.

Paul, who knew his Old Testament pretty well, did not conclude that Jesus must be the Messiah.  Instead, he concluded that Jesus was a seditious blasphemer and his crucifixion was the proof – on the basis of the Old Testament.  It was only when the risen Jesus confronted him directly that Paul decided he needed to reinterpret everything, and he did so in dramatic ways not readily suggested by the texts themselves.

So, let’s cut Peter some slack, here.  The narratives we’ve received from the early church do not show that people could just exegete their way to the idea that Jesus fulfilled the messianic promises – something we need to keep in mind as we have respectful dialogues with our Jewish brothers and sisters.  It takes an encounter with the risen Lord to see it.  Maybe we should be thinking more about how we can show people the risen Lord and less about arguing Old Testament hermeneutics.

Peter could have been any of the disciples (or any of us, for that matter) in the story.

What we have is a clash between Peter’s (or any sane person’s, really) expectations for how the Messiah will receive their kingdom and how Jesus foresees what’s going to happen to him.  If God is going to overthrow the kingdoms who oppress the faithful and give those kingdoms to the faithful, it’s crazy to think this would happen by the mechanism of those kingdoms achieving their victory.

But consider the radical reinterpretation Jesus presents us with – not just of his own life, but of Israel’s experience as well.  The power of Rome and the Temple are not unfortunate accidents about which God can do nothing; their ascension is the very mechanism through God will operate to restore the kingdom to the faithful.

Jesus, for his part, does not have time for Peter’s insights, here.  Peter is actually rebuking Jesus over his theology of the Messiah, which is pretty gutsy when you think about it.

Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” which seems harsh, but in order to understand why Peter earns the title in this passage, we have to think back to an earlier story in Matthew’s narrative – specifically, Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.

In this time of testing, Satan tries to talk Jesus into turning away from the path of suffering in little ways, like turning stones to bread to sate his hunger, and in big ways, like taking possession of the kingdoms of the world from Satan’s hand in exchange for allegiance.

The contrast Satan draws is a powerful one.  God’s way has you starving in the wilderness until you eventually end up crushed by the kingdoms of the world.  Satan’s way gives you food and power right now; all you have to do is play by his rules.

This is the same path Satan offered to Israel as well, and some went one way and some went another.  Some endured the wilderness all the way through the dominance of the world’s powers in faith, hopeful that God would see Israel resurrected at the end.  Others decided that way was for chumps and took the route of becoming those world powers by allying themselves with the forces that oppressed God’s people.

Jesus, in the wilderness, took the road of faithful Israel.  He would struggle through the wilderness and suffer under the hands of oppressors just like his people, and he would rise again from the dead, thus displaying among other things that this was the destination awaiting the faithful who followed him.

In our passage, Peter has taken the role of Satan, trying to dissuade Jesus from walking this road.  Surely, being squashed under the world powers is not what God wants for His Messiah – He wants victory and exaltation!

But Jesus will have none of this temptation from Peter.  Following that road is the road of the world that is passing away.  Jesus has his sights on a harder, narrower, riskier road that only makes sense to the heart of faith.

And if he can successfully navigate that road, his people whom he loves can follow after him.

Consider This

  1. Has your Jewish friend seen Jesus from you?  No?  Whose job is that?
  2. Knowing the route that God took with Jesus to save His people, how does that help us understand the present circumstances of the Church?  Did we end up where we needed to end up?  What does our road forward look like?

Sunday Meditations: Prophecy and History

Recently, Andrew Perriman made the provocative statement that “distant future” views of eschatology keep us from prophetically and apocalyptically engaging with our present, which is something he claims eschatological language was intended to do.  This is, he says, a “failure of nerve” on behalf of the church, today.  All that eschatological stuff is end of history stuff, many might say, but this would be in contrast to Jesus and Paul who used such language to describe the trajectory of their present circumstances that would work out in the future, but in the near future.  Their eschatology was a description of current events and where these events would lead, their hopes for God’s intervention, and what the ramifications were for life now in light of these soon to come events.

I largely agree with that, but I’ve had a few different conversations recently that remind me that the key premise there is highly contested in Christian circles: was the eschatology and apocalyptism of the early church primarily about their relatively immediate future expectations of what would play out on the world stage, or were they “end of the world” expectations slated for some indeterminate point in the future?

In order to give an example for us to consider, I’d like to turn to the Old Testament – for several reasons, really, but the most important one to this discussion is that the Old Testament has prophetic and apocalyptic descriptions of things that have already happened.

One example I like to use is Isaiah 34 – a prophecy of the destruction of Edom:

Draw near, O nations, to hear;
    O peoples, give heed!
Let the earth hear, and all that fills it;
    the world, and all that comes from it.
For the Lord is enraged against all the nations,
    and furious against all their hordes;
    he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter.
Their slain shall be cast out,
    and the stench of their corpses shall rise;
    the mountains shall flow with their blood.
All the host of heaven shall rot away,
    and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall wither
    like a leaf withering on a vine,
    or fruit withering on a fig tree.

When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens,
    lo, it will descend upon Edom,
    upon the people I have doomed to judgment.
The Lord has a sword; it is sated with blood,
    it is gorged with fat,
    with the blood of lambs and goats,
    with the fat of the kidneys of rams.
For the Lord has a sacrifice in Bozrah,
    a great slaughter in the land of Edom.
Wild oxen shall fall with them,
    and young steers with the mighty bulls.
Their land shall be soaked with blood,
    and their soil made rich with fat.


For the Lord has a day of vengeance,
    a year of vindication by Zion’s cause.
And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch,
    and her soil into sulfur;
    her land shall become burning pitch.
Night and day it shall not be quenched;
    its smoke shall go up forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
    no one shall pass through it forever and ever.
But the hawk and the hedgehog shall possess it;
    the owl and the raven shall live in it.
He shall stretch the line of confusion over it,
    and the plummet of chaos over its nobles.
They shall name it No Kingdom There,
    and all its princes shall be nothing.
Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,
    nettles and thistles in its fortresses.
It shall be the haunt of jackals,
    an abode for ostriches.
Wildcats shall meet with hyenas,
    goat-demons shall call to each other;
there too Lilith shall repose,
    and find a place to rest.
There shall the owl nest
    and lay and hatch and brood in its shadow;
there too the buzzards shall gather,
    each one with its mate.
Seek and read from the book of the Lord:
    Not one of these shall be missing;
    none shall be without its mate.
For the mouth of the Lord has commanded,
    and his spirit has gathered them.
He has cast the lot for them,
    his hand has portioned it out to them with the line;
they shall possess it forever,
    from generation to generation they shall live in it.

In the first bit, we have the image of all the “host of heaven” withering away and the sky being rolled up like a scroll.  When God has finished destroying the sky, he will level a sword against Edom that will kill them and their livestock.  Their rivers will be turned into pitch and the soil to sulfur and the land will be turned into a burning wasteland whose fires will never go out.

Edom was destroyed in the sixth century B.C. by Babylon, not too long after this prophecy was likely made (somewhere between the mid-700s and 600s B.C.).  After this, the Edomites who remained were pushed out of territories where they’d settle, harassed by other nations and armies, becoming a small, wandering people who took the wrong side in the Jewish Wars and just disappeared as a distinct people after that.

However, the land that Edom occupied is not currently on fire.  Smoke is not going up from her.  The rivers are not pitch and the soil is not sulfur.  Also, the sky was not destroyed in the sixth century B.C.  Also, there was nothing overtly supernatural about the whole thing – it was another army at work.

So, the way I see it, we have three, basic options:

One, the prophecy is wrong.  People expected God would tear the sky apart and turn Edom into a sulfuric, flaming wasteland for ever, and this clearly didn’t happen.  This just shows how gullible ancient people were and is evidence for how unreliable the Bible is, or at least how unreliable anything like “prophecy” is.

Two, the prophecy is correct but has not happened yet.  At some point in the future, Edom will be reestablished and God will destroy it in a manner that more literally matches the imagery – perhaps in a nuclear war.  We should all be on the lookout for a new Edom or current events that might somehow tie to the restoration of Edom, as this will be a sign of the end times.

Three, the prophecy is correct, but the imagery is not meant to be understood as a literal description of what would happen.  Rather, it vividly communicates the thorough extent of Edom’s destruction and the impact this would have on the world stage.  Edom was destroyed and their power was shattered and the world for them and their neighbors was never the same after that.  The literal descriptions didn’t happen, but nobody was literally expecting them to happen in the first place.  They are meant to describe world-shaking political events, but ones that do not involve the sky being destroyed or something set on fire forever, and the somewhat more mundane versions of these things actually happened.

Personally, I find option three to be likely.  We had a prophecy full of destroyed skies and stars killed with a sword and eternal fires and rivers of pitch – and in history, this nation was more or less wiped off the board as a power within a hundred years or two of the prophecy and eventually dwindled into nobody.  The prophecy was imagery describing that event and its impact.

If this is so, then it stands to reason that the apocalyptic perspectives of Jesus and Paul and John (and Ringo) would work in a similar way.  They are speaking of things within the radar of a few hundred years that occur on the world stage, and they are using images that are not necessarily intended to communicate a literal play by play of events that could only describe the end of the world.  They are doing this so that the people who are hearing them would understand their own times, have hope for the future, and know what they needed to do right now as they lived with those expectations.

If this is so, then why aren’t we doing it?

I know that there’s some leeriness to this because of all the end of the world predictions that have not come to pass or hyper-charismatic predictions about Donald Trump that he would cure cancer and shoot lasers from his eyes.

But keep in mind that prophecy in the Bible is neither used to discuss the end of the world nor unmistakably supernatural events.  They are used to discuss the threats that the people of God face in their age and how they believe God will respond to those threats and what practical implications this has for how they conduct themselves in the world.  The hopes for the future are used to shape an engagement with the present, which is the whole reason eschatological teachings are given to a people – they are meant to do something with it, and it’s not holing up in a bunker waiting for the world to end.

Who Is the Son of Man: Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Matthew 16:13-20 (NRSV)

I may be making a mistake biting off this entire passage for one post.  On the other hand, I’d like to get through Matthew before I turn 80, so here we go!

Because of our theologizing, there’s one part of this narrative we tend to get wrong from the get go.  Because we identify Jesus as “the Son of Man,” we read this passage as a contrast between who people in general say Jesus is and who Jesus’ disciples say that he is.  But that’s not what Jesus is asking.

Jesus begins by asking his followers who people say the identity of the “Son of Man” is.  The Son of Man, while sometimes just being a poetic designator for a human being, is an apocalyptic figure featuring most prominently in Daniel 7.  Daniel has a vision of four, terrible empires in the form of beasts who rule the world, then the “Ancient of Days” sets up thrones, takes up rule, and destroys the empire who rules the world.  But he doesn’t keep this rule all to himself:

I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14 (ESV)

Daniel 7 clearly identifies the “one like a son of man” as the “saints of the Most High” more than once.  It’s neither the first nor the last time that faithful Israel is represented by a single figure in prophetic imagery.

At the same time, rabbinical commentary on the image points out that the use of the phrase “son of man” means that a human being will appear representative of these saints – the King Messiah.  This is how the image is used in the Similitudes of Enoch and in 2 Esdras – a figure who is an individual who is the ruler and representative of the faithful.

Needless to say, people would have their views on who this person would be, and that’s what Jesus is asking in his initial question.  “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and he gets back a list of opinions that people have as to who this figure might turn out to be.  Here, we can tell that Jesus is not asking who people say he is, because while we might be able to understand Jesus as a revisitation of Elijah or Jeremiah, it would be bizarre for people to be saying that Jesus is John the Baptist, since they were contemporaries.

However, Jesus probably intends to tie the “Son of Man” identity to himself with his follow-up question: “But who do you say that I am?”  You’ve told me who people are saying the Son of Man might be; who do you think I am, while we’re on the subject?

In an uncharacteristically insightful move, Peter makes the connection right away.  “YOU are the Messiah,” he says, identifying Jesus as the Son of Man.  Jesus is the one to whom God will give rulership when God overthrows the fourth beast/empire.  Jesus is the saint of the Most High par excellence whose exaltation will mean that the saints receive the kingdom.  Matthew’s Gospel is full of this very theme.

Mark’s Gospel stops there, but Matthew includes the phrase “the Son of the living God.”

In Caesarea Philippi, where this story takes place, was a temple to Augustus that was built by Herod.  Josephus records that Herod built three such temples, apparently in response to authority granted to Herod over regions that had been Parthian.  These temples were built to worship Augustus as a living god.  Much like the confession that, “Jesus is lord,” is a challenge to Caesar’s authority, so is this phrase in Peter’s confession.  Augustus is not the living God; Israel’s God is the living God, and Jesus is His true Son.  It’s a challenge both to Augustus’ divinity and the authority of Tiberias (and possibly Caligula) who would succeed him.

This probably explains why Jesus is very gratified by Peter’s confession but also keen to have everyone keep it to themselves.  This has happened several times in Matthew’s Gospel, and I believe it makes sense that Jesus is trying to forestall premature persecution.  If you go around first century Judea saying Jesus is the Son of Man of Jewish eschatological expectations and the Son of God in opposition to Roman authorities, you are inviting swift retribution.  Both Jewish and Roman authorities would consider those claims blasphemous and treasonous, and both you and your disciples should be put down before your movement gets out of control.  This is, in fact, what eventually happened.

Here is where Jesus calls Simon “Peter,” which is the Greek name for “rock,” and declares that Peter is the rock on which Jesus will build his church.  I think it is highly unlikely that the “rock” Jesus refers to is Jesus himself or Peter’s confession – those are exegetical maneuvers largely designed to undermine the claims of the Roman Catholic church.  We are quite fine recognizing that Jesus deliberately calls Simon “the rock” and says “upon this rock, I will build my church” without also accepting papal authority and attached claims.  We ought not to let later controversies control our reading of Scripture.

But keeping in mind the narrative, the focus is on Peter being a steward in a time of crisis of what Jesus has begun to do.  This time of crisis will involve persecution of the faithful in the near term, but Jesus is constantly thinking about the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem.

Our first indicator is Jesus calling Simon the “rock,” which is an Old Testament image commonly used for God’s protection of Israel in times of trouble.  Deuteronomy 32, for instance, makes a great deal of this image, and verse 30 is one that I use in my prayers to this day: “How could one have routed a thousand, and two put a myriad to flight, unless their rock had sold them, the Lord had given them up?”  Jesus has, in Matthew, already used this metaphor specifically to talk about believing and following him as a way to make it safely through the upcoming catastrophe about to befall Israel.

Our second indicator is the bit about the “gates of Hades.”  A lot of theological hay has been made out of this portion of Jesus’ teaching, but the “gates of Hades” is an Old Testament image that simply means the proximity of death (just a couple out of several examples: Psalm 107:18 and Isaiah 38:10).  Death is near to the faithful, but it will not “prevail” over the church.  In other words, the faithful who follow Jesus won’t be overcome by the death that is so near them – the impending destruction of Jerusalem.

Our final indicator is Jesus giving the keys of the kingdom to Simon/Peter for opening and shutting the kingdom.

This image comes to us from Isaiah 22 where, lo and behold, Jerusalem is about to be destroyed.  This impending destruction was supposed to bring about repentance in Israel, but instead, the people decided to wine and dine themselves in comfort.

I want to pause here, for a minute, to contrast this with Jonah and Nineveh.  Jonah announces to Nineveh that God will destroy their city, and it produced nationwide repentance that averts their fate.  Jesus has already contrasted Nineveh with the Israel of his day.  It is possible this is why Jesus chooses to refer to Simon, here, as “son of Jonah.”

But getting back to Isaiah, in the midst of a Jerusalem that is about to destroyed and a people who refuse to repent, God rebukes Shebna who is the steward of Israel, saying that He will remove him from office (and uses a great image of God whirling around and throwing him away like a track and field hammer).  In his place, God will do this:

On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.  I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house. 

Isaiah 22:20-23 (NRSV)

God will replace the unfaithful rulers with a faithful one who will have the authority of the house of David.  However, all the sins of Israel will be laid on this servant, and the peg will fall, and Jerusalem will still be destroyed.  This image of being able to open and shut with the authority of the house of David is specifically used to describe Jesus in Revelation 3:7.

Jesus, here, is granting Peter this authority.  Jesus has arisen at a time of impending crisis for Jerusalem.  Israel is largely unrepentant.  The stewards are being replaced.  Jesus will soon fall, bearing the weight of Israel’s sins, but he passes this stewardship of the faithful over to Peter.

John captures this sentiment in a different way:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

John 21:15-19 (NRSV)

And Peter, for his part, passes this stewardship to the faithful leaders of the early church:

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. 

1 Peter 5:1-4 (NRSV)

And this brings me to today.

God has replaced the corrupt leaders of His people with the Lord Jesus, who loves His people with a thoroughly self-sacrificial love – a great King who will put Himself between the sheep and the wolves to keep them safe in her time of crisis.  And this King has commissioned apostles after Him to do the same, and they have commissioned elders after them to do the same.

There is still a church, there are still elders, and there are still crises.

And here we see in the cross a fundamental dynamic of what it means to have authority in the Kingdom of God – it means sacrificing your own life for the saving of the people under your authority.

See what a contrast this is with the degenerating leadership of Israel leading up to Roman occupation!  Their leaders used their position for their own comfort and welfare, growing rich while the poor they should have been be caring for were deprived.

Jesus, by contrast, shows another way – a way that has God’s approval – a way of giving up your own life for the welfare of the people under your authority.  Your authority has been given for their welfare, not yours.  Their prosperity, not yours.  If someone under your authority is struggling to pay their grocery bill and you are adding a wing to your house, God’s, to quote Johnny Cash, gonna cut you down.

Can you imagine the transformative power this dynamic would have for the church?  Our families?  Our corporations?  Our nations?  If leaders would look at their own comfort and prosperity and consider it a failure if their followers were suffering?  If authority asked, “How can I use my power for the welfare of the people under me?”

At minimum, those who would be leaders in Christ’s church ought to have the same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus.  What crises does the church face in our present day, and how can leadership safely bring us through those crises even at the expense of their own welfare?  That is what it means to be a leader in the church.  That is what it means to have the keys of the kingdom.

It isn’t your church, after all.  It belongs to Jesus.  You’re taking care of it for a time.  What sort of accounting will you give of yourself when that time is up?

Consider This

  1. What are the crises that face the church in the present age?  What would it look like for leaders to respond to those crises in ways that ensured the welfare of the church?
  2. We confess that Jesus is Lord over the church.  What does this look like, practically speaking?  What impact does that lordship have in the present, lived-out experience of the church?

It’s the Bread, Isn’t It: Matthew 16:5-12

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Matthew 16:5-12 (NRSV)

This little vignette has been one of my favorite Jesus stories since college.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s because we see a very human Jesus in it, or maybe it’s because we can all relate to trying to get something across to someone who is just staggeringly dense about it.  Maybe we can also relate to being that staggeringly dense person from time to time.

Jesus says this after the Pharisees and Sadducees demand a sign from him in an attempt to discredit him.  Jesus knows this unlikely alliance has come together against their common enemy – himself.  He is also very aware that the effort to remove him from the scene will soon spill over into persecution for his followers.

So, there are very immediate, concrete reasons to be wary of what the Sadducees and Pharisees are saying about them among the people.  Jesus, himself, is very wary of this and is constantly working to slip through their rhetorical traps, hoping that the good works he is doing among the Jews will show them who is really on their side, regardless of what the religious leadership is saying about them.

That last bit is an ongoing theme for Matthew that shows up everywhere.  You have Israel’s leadership who should, in love, be using their authority to help struggling Israelites in this, their time of need.  The Pharisees and Sadducees should be doing the things that Jesus and his followers are doing, perhaps without all the fireworks.  God’s delegated authority to Israel’s leaders was always meant to be used for the welfare of the people under that authority, not the other way around.  “How can I use my power to serve the people under my rule?” is a question that was meant to be on the lips of every prophet, priest, and king of Israel.

But, by the time we get to Jesus’ day, Israel’s leadership has turned this model on its head (or turned it the right way up, according to the way the rest of the world typically uses power).  The power structure over Israel has used their position to acquire wealth and prestige, eliminate the people they don’t like, and deafen themselves to the cries of widows and orphans and foreigners.  Religiously, they have kept all the outward trappings of the religion of Israel while engaging it with all the zeal that I engage flossing.  It is, for them, a system of religious observances with no heart, no transformation, and no love.  “Look what a devout Jew I am!” says the Sadducee as he passes by a wounded beggar to avoid contact with anything unclean on his way to a party at Herod’s house.

It is exactly this state of affairs that has brought Israel to their present state in Jesus’ day.  God sent prophet after prophet warning them that, if they did not do justice, repent in humility, and restore a heartfelt worship and obedience of the God who brought them out of slavery, their trust in pagan nations would prove ill-founded and they would find themselves dispersed from their land under the rule of other kingdoms.

It turns out this is exactly what happened.

So, when we consider “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” we might think of it like a long spear.  This trend has gone on and on in Israel’s history and brought nothing but misery to the common Israelite, and now the sharp point is aimed directly at Jesus and his followers.

Jesus, being prone to parables and symbolism, captures this in what he feels is a pithy image: beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  I’ve elsewhere discussed the imagery of yeast in both biblical and extra-biblical sources, and I’m not going to repeat it all, here.  But in summary, yeast is often used symbolically to describe the spread of corruption in Israel.  It starts small, but quickly spreads throughout the entire loaf.

One of the things I quoted in the post I linked to, above, is a prayer from Rabbi Alexandri that pulls together the imagery of yeast and connects it with the state of exile for the Jewish people:

Rabbi Alexandri, when he finished his daily prayer, said the following: ‘Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known to You that our true desire is to do Your will. What prevents it but the “yeast in the dough” and the subjugation of the exile! May it be Your will, O Lord, to deliver us from their hands, and we shall return to perform the decrees of our will with a perfect heart.’

Berachos 17b

The things that keep Israel from being able to be an obedient, priestly people are the conditions of their subjugation and the “yeast in the dough,” which is the internal corruption among the people.  If God would purge out this corruption from Israel and then deliver them from their oppressors, His people could go back to being an obedient, priestly people in the world.

As we look at the historical arc of the destruction of the Temple and the power center of Jerusalem and the overthrow of persecution of Christians, I can’t help but wonder if Alexandri’s prayer eventually came to pass.

But then we get to the part I like best.

Jesus has warned the disciples to watch out for the teachings of the Jewish religious and political leaders and compared it to yeast.  The disciples believe that Jesus is upset because they forgot to bring actual, literal bread.

I really wish we had a transcript of that discussion.

“What do you think he meant by that?”

“Well, we forgot to bring bread.  Maybe he wants some bread.”

“Ok, but why should we beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees?”

“Maybe he doesn’t want us borrowing their yeast to make bread.”

“But then we wouldn’t be able to make bread for him.”

“Yes, good point.  Maybe that’s why he’s upset.”

At some point, Jesus can’t take it, anymore, which is hilarious to me.  I mean, how obtuse do you have to be before you’ve strained the patience of Jesus himself?  It’s sort of like being such a jerk that Mahatma Ghandi takes a swing at you.

Jesus gives a short speech that I’ve entitled, “You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me,” where he explains the problem is absolutely not the lack of bread.  He points out that he is fully capable of asking God for bread and God will deliver even if it requires a miracle to do so.  The disciples were all there to see that happen – twice – which just makes the whole thing doubly stupid.  Not only have they taken Jesus way too literally, thus completely missing his point, but they have arrived at a conclusion completely counter to what they’ve observed in Jesus.

You know, there’s a lesson about hermeneutics in here for all of us, I think.

I wonder, if someone could present Jesus with certain very literal readings of Revelation or the Olivet Discourse that are popular in American evangelical culture, how long it would take before Jesus started tapping his fingertips on the table, trying not to lose it.

Jesus closes his reminder with the exact same thing he said at the beginning, “Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  He does not spell it out, but once he has eliminated the option that he is talking about literal bread, the disciples figure it out in short order, to their credit.

It seems like a funny little story, almost an incidental slice of life, really.  But soon, Jesus will begin to explain more explicitly to his disciples that he is going to die and, not only that, but following him will very well mean their own lives will be in danger.  Their own commitments to the kingdom are about to be challenged.  Their faith is about to be put to the ultimate test – the sacrifice of their own lives for the sake of what they believe about Jesus.  Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that the next story in Matthew is about the disciples recognizing who Jesus is.

Consider This

  1. Are there other examples you can think of in Jesus’ teaching or biblical writings when a very literal understanding creates confusion, misses the point, or maybe even arrives at a conclusion very different than we’d see from Jesus?
  2. Do you see any parallels between the political and religious power structures of Jesus’ day and the ones you live under, today?

Asking for a Sign: Matthew 16:1-4

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.

Matthew 16:-1-4 (NRSV)

This is an interesting passage because it lays out a few, different sets of expectations and assumptions, and they don’t always line up with the people you’d expect.

The Pharisees and Sadducees are both Jewish but have fairly different theological ideas on a number of topics.  It’s helpful to keep in mind that first century Judaism was not a monolith.  It’s helpful not only in the sense of understanding these events better, but it also helps in that it reminds us how grossly inaccurate it is to cast Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews.”

The Pharisees were a group that believed Israel was under Roman dominion because they had failed to keep Torah.  Their solution to this was to preach stricter Torah observance among the people in the hopes that their obedience would motivate God to deliver them.  Since the Torah doesn’t exactly spell out in detail every little thing, rabbis of a Pharisaical bent threw themselves into that very task, creating traditions and interpretations of the Law to which they held their people accountable.

From the standpoint of Israel’s story up to that point, these views had a lot going for them.  It is true that the prophets explained Israel’s exile and tenure under foreign dominion as a result of their breaking of the covenant, and it’s reasonable to assume that, if the nation repented and began steadfastly obeying the covenant, God would turn their situation around.

The disconnect came in the fact that Israel’s failure to live up to the Law did not consist in the failure to observe this or that little detail – it was that Israel’s leadership had become corrupt and unjust in how they treated both their own people and foreigners, and they had led the people astray from devotion to their God into idolatry.  The indictments the prophets brought against Israel were indictments of how they treated orphans, widows, the poor, and the stranger.  Israel was doing fine observing the “religious” specifications of the Law and had abandoned anything that looked like love or justice.

As one example, take the opening salvo of Isaiah:

When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
     learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:12-17 (NRSV)

Here, the prophet tells us that God finds all the careful religious observances that are in the Law offensive because the same people doing those careful observances are oppressors.

We see this clash play itself out with Jesus and the Pharisees as well, as Jesus warns that a world-changing judgement on Israel is imminent, and the only way to be saved through it is to believe him, repent, and follow his path, which included not simply a spiritual reorientation to God but manifested in works of love and restoration of the least of peoples, even when doing so could be seen as technically a violation of Torah.  The Pharisees will not help a crippled man on the Sabbath because that would be doing work, but Jesus demonstrates that helping this man in love is, in fact, what God and the Law require.

You can see how these two would clash.  Jesus is preaching that the judgement will not be averted by more Torah obedience the way the Pharisees define it and, in fact, their definition of obedience is actually hypocrisy in the eyes of both God and Torah.

The Sadducees, by contrast, are more urbane than their Pharisee counterparts.  Sadducees do not believe in any supernatural beings but God, and even that might be a little iffy.  Sadducees do not believe that anyone has or could rise from the dead or even that people have an immortal soul.  They openly reject the “traditional” laws of the Pharisees and only hold strictly to the written words of the Torah, which affords them quite a bit of moral latitude.

The Sadducees tended to be something of a bridge between the Jewish people and the Greco-Roman control of the region.  They were often very high up in both religious and political hierarchies, performing grand Temple duties and serving in various councils and tribunals dealing with matters of Jewish governance.  As a result, they were a prosperous group and archeological evidence has shown us that they tended to adopt the customs of and even change their housing and decorations to match the tastes and preferences of whomever was in charge of Jerusalem at the time.

Perhaps Jesus has run afoul of this group because of the miracle stories or his teaching of resurrection, but I think a great part of the hostility probably comes from Jesus’ preaching against Israelites taking up the ways of her oppressors for their own comfort and prosperity.  God is in opposition to this world order, and those who are allied with it will fall in the judgement, and that puts Sadducees right in the crosshairs.

Honestly, both of these groups provide some good object lessons for looking at Christianity in America, today.  But that’s not really the point of the passage.

The point is that we have two groups who probably never agreed on anything – a fact that Jesus actually uses to his advantage a time or two – who are teaming up here to put Jesus in a bind of sorts.  They demand that Jesus show them a sign from heaven, presumably to validate his message.  The one thing that unites both groups is that Jesus represents a threat to their power base, and if they ask the Miracle Man to produce one, and he can’t, obviously he’ll lose credibility with the rank and file Jewish people.

One thing that’s interesting to me about this is that the author of the gospel of Matthew does not shy away from the miracle stories of Jesus.  In fact, this passage follows on the heels of a miracle Jesus performs.  Matthew, following Mark, even shows us a literal voice from heaven validating Jesus.  If the author is simply trying to establish Jesus’ credibility before gullible first century (and subsequent) readers, then it’s go time.  Jesus’ enemies ask for supernatural proof, Jesus does something amazing or another voice speaks from heaven, and boom – Jesus is vindicated, and you’re an idiot if you don’t believe him.  There are stories like this in both Testaments; it’s a well-established trope.  This is the kind of story we’d expect from a gospel writer who was more concerned with creating a Jesus movement than they were telling us what they believed to be true.

But here, Matthew shows us a Jesus who isn’t interested at all in a supernatural sign.  Honestly, in isolation, this story would look exactly like the story of a fraud – a shyster.  People quite reasonably ask for a supernatural demonstration that should be perfectly commensurate with the stories people are telling about Jesus, and Jesus cleverly and verbally evades the issue and produces nothing.  But it is clear that portraying Jesus this way is actually counter to the author’s intent.  It sort of hurts Matthew’s case, in a sense, to include this story.  If Jesus wants people to believe in him, and he’s fully capable of producing a miracle, why not do it right here, right now?  Those Pharisees and Sadducees would have no choice but to give in to the empirical evidence right in front of them, right?

Interestingly, John (the weird gospel) has an episode where this is exactly what happens:

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

John 12:27-32 (NRSV)

In this passage, John tells us that some people said the voice was just thunder, while others recognized it as a supernatural voice but ascribed it to an angel and not actually God.  If you continue reading this passage, some people in the crowd continue to grill Jesus as if nothing had happened. Maybe producing a supernatural event that convinces everyone is harder than it seems.  Even if you don’t believe John is recording a historical event, here, the author still has people reacting differently to it.  To me, these nods to skepticism not only give us a nice, honest depiction of how people of all worldviews interpret data according to their assumptions, but they actually add credibility to the gospel accounts in a sort of “we’d normally be embarrassed to say this” kind of way.  If you’re making up a miracle to prove Jesus’ identity, it really doesn’t help you out to note that a good chunk of people wrote it off as thunder, and it would just be weird to fabricate people ascribing it to “an angel.”

Anyway, that’s not the point either.  I’m getting there.

The point is that Jesus answers their request for a sign from heaven with an appeal to interpreting the world around them.  In other words, Jesus does not direct them to a miracle or even his past miracles, but rather he points them to the mundane events unfolding in the world.

In other words, they should be able to know Jesus’ message is true because they can look at world events and see that’s where things are going.

I really want to underscore that, so let me say it, again:

They should be able to know Jesus’ message is true because they can look at world events and see that’s where things are going.

If you ever had any doubts about orienting Jesus and his message to the concrete, historical circumstances of his world, allow Jesus to put them to rest for you.  The claims that Jesus is making should have been supported and evident by observing the events of the day.

This criticism would be ridiculous if we had a Jesus who was solely proclaiming “spiritual realities.”  You can’t validate “spiritual realities” by observing the signs apparent in the natural flow of events.  What you can validate is what’s likely to happen down the road on the basis of what you’re seeing, today.

That’s exactly Jesus’ analogy, isn’t it?  You look at the sky the night before, and you can tell what the weather will be like, tomorrow.  You look at the sky in the morning, and you can tell what the weather will be like the rest of the day.  Jesus says the reason people are asking for supernatural validation from heaven is because they’re incapable of observing the normal course of events and drawing the conclusion that Jesus is correct.

This has to mean that Jesus’ message is at least partially about where concrete history is going.  He foresees tensions building up to a conflict with Rome that Jerusalem will not survive, and he weeps over it.  He warns people of this coming calamity and that the time is now to repent, start helping one another, get their hearts right, and literally flee the city when they see the Romans show up.

We can’t really understand Jesus’ preaching about coming judgement, repentance, forgiveness, restoration, and salvation if we totally divorce those concepts from the historical situation and concerns of Jesus’ day.  I’m not trying to say there isn’t a spiritual component of those things, but I am saying that the Jesus the gospels show us is not a transhistorical teacher of timeless spiritual truths.  He is an apocalyptic prophet in the tradition of Israel’s prophets before him that are concerned with the survival of Israel among the nations, with the added status of being God’s own Son sent into the vineyard to warn the tenants.

Further confirmation of this is found in Jesus’ parting words, that this generation would get no sign except the sign of Jonah.

Jesus has already said this, elsewhere.

Part of this – the part that Christians love so much – is an allusion to the resurrection.  Just as Jonah was in the belly of the beast for three days and nights, so Jesus would be in the tomb for three days and nights.  That allusion is completely valid and, in the Matthew 12 reference to it, makes that allusion explicit.  So, I’m not trying to take that away.

But something the Matthew 12 reference also makes explicit is part of the “sign of Jonah” is Jonah bringing a prophetic message to Nineveh telling them to repent or their city would be conquered:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

Jonah 3:1-5 (NRSV)

You see, Jonah’s warning wasn’t that Nineveh needed to repent or they would all go to Hell when they eventually died.  Jonah’s warning was that the great and powerful city of Nineveh would be overthrown.

Jesus is that sign of Jonah for Jerusalem.  He, too, is carrying that message in his day.  The tragedy is that, in Jonah’s day, the (very non-Jewish) city of Nineveh believed the prophet and repented, turning toward the mercies of the true God.  Here, among his own people, Jesus finds unbelief and rejection.  The overthrow of the great city will happen.  And Jesus cries over his beloved Jerusalem, praying that the disaster might not come on them in the winter or on a Sabbath.

But the gospel writers let us know all is not lost.

The kingdom of God has come like a tiny mustard seed, and it will grow until it is a mighty tree that fills the earth.  That seed begins with this rag tag collection of peasant fishermen and tax collector sellouts.  It begins with cripples and lepers and those who have been isolated because of the Law.  It begins with prostitutes who have no place in a first century society or economy.  Jesus’ opposition comes from the religious professionals who know their Bibles, but the salvation of Israel begins with the lowly.  And, thusly, a triumph of both God’s power and grace.

The day would come when all the nations who bowed the knee to Caesar would bow the knee to Jesus Christ.  Jesus was vindicated, and so were all who decided to place their faith in him.

Consider This

  1. What are the perfectly natural, mundane signs of our times showing us God is doing in the world?
  2. Do we have a hope for the immediate future?  What would have to happen in fifty years or a hundred years to vindicate our hope?

Feeding the Crowds, Redux: Matthew 15:32-39

Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.

Matthew 15:32-39 (NRSV)

If you’ve been reading through Matthew, this story probably looks a little familiar.  It was only a chapter ago that we saw Jesus (or, more specifically, his disciples) miraculously feeding a crowd of 5000 men along with women and children.

The stories are not just similar in events, they are similar in the specific language and sentence structures used.  Other than some specific details, the only substantial difference is that, in this story, Jesus verbally says things at the beginning that are a summary of the beginning thoughts and dialogue back in chapter 14.

So, what does this mean?

One option is that it doesn’t mean anything.  Jesus happened to have two experiences that were almost exactly the same right down to the opening thoughts and dialogue.  This is possibly the most “conservative” option in the sense that it would make these stories in Matthew simply reports of exactly what happened in Jesus’ life.  It just so happened that Jesus, being an unusual person, had the same unusual event happen twice and be almost identical.

I think this is possible but unlikely.  This story reads almost like a copy and paste of Matt. 14:13-21 with some tweaks (this is also the case with the two accounts in the gospel of Mark).  The coincidences, if they were coincidences, would be shocking in and of themselves, even apart from the fact that a miracle is at the heart of these stories.

On the other hand, we have to take into account that Matthew’s author is not an idiot, and neither was Mark’s.  They obviously know these two accounts are very similar and they are intentionally present together.

It could be that our gospel writers are preserving two accounts of the same event that differ in some details.  This does happen in the Scriptures from time to time, although often the two accounts are interwoven into one story.  It’s easy to imagine that Mark pulls together multiple sources, but it seems unusual to preserve two narratives of the same event by portraying them as two, different events separated by other events.  It is possible, however.

As we think through our options, one thing we need to keep in mind is that our four Gospels are neither journalism nor biography.  Nobody is following Jesus around with a notepad chronicling his words and actions.  Our Gospels are stories about Jesus written quite some time after Jesus’ death.  That doesn’t make them untrue, nor does it mean their historical claims are just creative fiction.  It does mean, however, that they are reconstructive stories about Jesus, not news articles or biographies in the sense that we think of biographies.

Think of it like this: what’s the difference between writing a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and a novelization of the life of Martin Luther King Jr.?  There’s certainly some overlap between those two projects, right?  You’ve got the historical figure and you’ve got the contours of his life.  But one of those projects is aiming for more of an objective, “scientific” presentation of King’s life, perhaps with an analysis of his impact, while the other project is interested in telling a compelling story.

In a novel of Martin Luther King’s life, conversations and events will be presented narratively.  It is quite likely that the events presented in such a work will do some dramatization.  Events the author was not present for will need to be imagined and/or derived from other sources.  Dialogue will be presented narratively, and the odds are good the novel will not be presenting the exact words said or put everything in all the right characters’ mouths.  It doesn’t make the novel untrue; it does mean that the novel’s primary concern is telling a story, not objectively reporting facts, and while it intends to faithfully present Martin Luther King Jr. to you, it’s going to take some liberties in order to deliver the meaning the story is supposed to have.

Now, if you were writing a novel about Dr. King’s life, you’d have a lot of existing written material, both primary and secondary source, to rely on.  In the case of our Gospel writers, they don’t.  Their material is a lot more scattered and hard to come by and, by the time the Gospels are written, already dependent on various stories that have gone around.

Here’s where I’m going with this: we have to understand the Gospels are, in many ways, dramatizations.  That doesn’t mean their source information is untrue; it does mean we are looking at a dramatic reconstruction of events, not the transcript of a video camera recording.  The writer shapes the story being told and does so for various reasons.

These stories sometimes give us clues that this is happening.  For example, in Matthew 14, Jesus feeds a crowd of 5000 men along with some unnumbered women and children.

Really?  Exactly 5000?  They took the time to count all the men for some reason (tax purposes?) and came out with exactly 5000?

In our story, today, we have 4000.  Exactly 4000?  A while back, he fed exactly 5000 men and, this time, they counted everyone again and it came out to exactly 4000?

Does it seem likely these are objective facts, or does it seem likely these are big, round numbers used in a dramatic recounting?

So, when we read the Gospels, we want to ask why a story was told and why it was told a certain way.  Maybe not every little detail “means” something, but more is being revealed to us than simply the raw events described.

In the previous passage, I talked about whether this crowd was predominantly Jew or Gentile and how that affects the meaning.  I’m not going to rehash all those arguments, and I encourage you to read that post because a lot of what is said, there, applies here.

I do want to add a few reasons that come up specifically in this part of the story that lead me to believe the crowd is Gentile.

In the first place, there are less of them (exactly 1000 less, as it happens).  This is perhaps the primary difference in the details of this story and the miraculous feeding in Matthew 14.  The main strategy Jesus has employed with Gentiles is to avoid them altogether.  In the rare instances when Jesus ministers to a Gentile, he likes to keep things under wraps.  The consistent message we witness and that comes from Jesus’ own mouth is that Gentiles are not the focus of his ministry; he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel.  These episodes are exceptions that happen on the way.  They may give us hints that Jesus’ work will eventually have meaning and ramifications for the Gentiles as well, but this doesn’t happen during Jesus’ regular ministry.

I admit that a crowd of 4000 is not a small number, nor does it really qualify as keeping things under wraps, but 4000 is a nice, big, round number less than 5000, and that may be our indicator that this crowd is “lesser” compared to the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 14.  There’s fewer of them because Jesus isn’t focused on them.

Another potential indicator is that we get five baskets of leftovers.  In the other story, we got twelve.  The disciples go out in Jesus’ name bringing miraculous food to the people and return to Jesus with twelve baskets.  While this may be an incidental detail, it’s hard not to think of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Here, we have seven baskets brought in.  Seven is a number of perfection and fullness.  It’s also the number of days in which God created the world including humanity’s common ancestor.  It’s also the number of laws that define a righteous Gentile in Jewish tradition (the seven Noahide Laws).

But aside from these details, one has to ask why we even have this story if the crowd are not Gentiles.  We have a perfectly good story of Jesus miraculously feeding Israel and bringing them in as the good shepherd should.  What’s the point of including, later, another story that is almost exactly the same, even in the language used, except the numbers are smaller?

I’m not saying we couldn’t come up with reasons; I’m saying that, in my opinion, this story’s very existence makes more sense if what we’re seeing here is Jesus replicating a miracle that was done for Israel to a crowd of Gentiles.

And if this is so, then what we’re seeing is a preview.

Right now, saving the faithful from a coming judgement is very much focused on Israel, but after this, judgement will roll out to the nations, and so will the salvation of a faithful people of God.  This people will, of all things, incorporate faithful Gentiles.

And what is it that will identify these faithful Gentiles?  Their faith and belief in what God has done in Jesus Christ.  By sharing this characteristic with faithful Israel, these people who were not God’s people will be called His people.  They will receive the promises to Israel’s patriarchs and receive the Spirit of Israel’s God, and God’s people will be saved into the age to come at least in part because it now includes these people.  These Gentiles will come to Jesus in droves, and this will overthrow the Empire.

What we see here, I’d argue, is a picture that forecasts that day.  It’s a distant rumble of thunder that happens hours before the storm hits – where Israel’s promised shepherd and deliverer feeds a crowd of Gentiles because he has compassion for them.

If this is true, then the Canaanite woman deserves a lot of credit and air time, because it was her faith, persistence, and sharp reasoning that brought Jesus’ arc into this trajectory.

We might really owe her.

Consider This

  1. What elements of meaning from Jesus’ initial feeding of the 5000 might carry over to a crowd of Gentiles?  Which ones might not?
  2. If we think of Gentiles as the latecomers, what implications does this have for how we (I’m a Gentile) see ourselves in the story of the people of God?  What virtues should this engender?  Does this impact how we view Jewish people?