O ye of little faith

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Matthew 8:23-27; Matthew 14:22-33

At heart, God is Giver.  We, therefore, are meant to receive – that is, believe.  And yet, listen to how Jesus commonly speaks of His followers:

“O ye of little faith.” (Matthew 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; Luke 12:28)

There are two exceptions – the Roman Centurion and the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:28).  They have “great faith”, even though they are Gentiles.  Yet when Jesus looks at His own disciples He sees “little faith.”

And how does “little faith” show itself?  In fear.

Perhaps the clearest depiction of this is the story of Jesus walking on water.  It comes in Matthew 14:

“And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away.  And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.  But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves:  for the wind was contrary.  And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.  And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear.  But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.  And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.  And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.  But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.  And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?  And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.  Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:22-33)

The scene begins with Jesus on the mountaintop praying.  Here we’re reminded of Christ’s heavenly position – communing with the Father on high.  Meanwhile His people are “in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves.”  Such storms, as we’ve seen, are a picture of the chaos and suffering of life.  Yet when Jesus sees our plight, what does He do?  He joins us of course!  This is the gospel in miniature.  Jesus does not simply pray from a distance, nor send advice from on high.  He descends into the storms to be with us and to lead us out.

And so He strides out for the salvation of His people, walking through the storms, walking on water.  In the picture-language of Scripture we’re being taught that Christ treads on the abyss.  You might say, He’s all over the powers of chaos.  And as He joins us in the storm He proclaims His name in verse 28: “Be of good cheer, I AM, be not afraid.”  That’s the literal translation and it brings to mind the Exodus when He descended into the burning bush to save the suffering Israelites.

As He declares His name and demonstrates His power, faith is awakened in Peter.  Peter trusts Jesus, He wants to be with Jesus and to walk as Jesus walks (cf 1 John 2:6).  But how will he do it?

Well notice that he doesn’t just step out.  He asks for Jesus to command him.  That’s important.  You see Peter has been in a storm with Jesus before (Matthew 8:23-27).  Peter knows the power of Jesus’ word – His word makes things happen!  So Peter wants a word from Jesus to command him.  And the word is powerful to enable that which it commands.  Peter does the impossible because Jesus commands it.

And so Peter takes a very literal step of faith.  And – miracle of miracles – he finds himself walking as Jesus walks!  It’s wonderful.  Until he takes his eyes off Jesus and is overwhelmed by “the wind boisterous”.  He begins to sink.  But even there we see the grace of Jesus.  This is not gravity acting on Peter or he’d sink like a stone. How slowly Jesus lets him down!  But when Peter calls out, “immediately” Jesus saves.

And this is when Jesus utters that famous line:

O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”

Peter has faith.  He trusted Jesus, he wanted to be with Him, he wanted to walk as Jesus walked.  But he – like you and me – had little faith.

Let’s ask, what faith, specifically, is Jesus referring to?  What particularly did Peter doubt?

Peter did not doubt that Jesus could walk on water.  He had rock solid faith in that. And Jesus was not recommending self-belief to Peter – Peter has no inner capacity for walking on water!  Peter’s problem was that he doubted Jesus’ word to him.  He doubted the word which both commands and enables what it commands. Peter doubted that he had really become the person Jesus said He had – one who walks like He walks.  That was the essence of his doubt.

Trusting Jesus involves trusting His word about who we’ve become.

Perhaps you have seen Jesus as the great I AM.  Perhaps your heart has been captured by His strength, His sympathy, His solidarity, His salvation. Perhaps you have trusted Him and have desired to be with Him.  And perhaps you have tried to walk as He walks.  Well no doubt at some point you have begun to sink.  O you – O me! – of little faith!

Remember that Jesus makes this assessment while stretching forth His hand and holding us fast.  And now, held by His strong right hand, consider His question:  “Wherefore didst thou doubt?”

He said “Come” and He meant it!  His word happens.  He will not let us fall.  We are exactly who He says we are in His word.  And even as we fail Him, time and again, we will see His faithful response to our “little faith” and we too will worship Him saying “Of a truth thou art the Son of God!”

… that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life

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John 3:16-21

Everything is relative.  By which I mean that all things correspond to God.  Even God corresponds to God and has His existence relative to God.  That is the doctrine of the Trinity.

Therefore how much more ought the creature to properly relate to its Creator.  So the vital question arises, how should we correspond to God?

Well that will depend entirely on the kind of God we’re talking about.  But if we’re talking about the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son then the relationship is clear.  God is Giver, we must be recipients.  God is Sender of His Son, we must be welcomers of His Son.  God is Lover, we must be beloved.  This is what it means to be a creature of the Giving, Sending, Loving God.

If we fail to be a receiver of the Son then we cannot possibly be relating to this God.  If we imagine that we properly correspond to God and yet we cast ourselves as His benefactors, we are clearly relating to some other god.  If we consider ourselves primarily in the category of “giving our lives to God” then we can’t be thinking of the Biblical God.  Only the empty-handed child knows the heavenly Father.  Therefore to be a child of this God can only be a matter of faith.  And faith alone.

Right from chapter 1, John describes faith in terms of receiving and welcoming the Son of God:

“He came unto his own, and his own received him not.  But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.”  (John 1:11-12)

To receive Jesus is to believe on His name, and this is how we become the sons (the children) of God.  And this is how we are saved.  Not through some arbitrary zapping from heaven.  God does not capriciously bestow an abstract benefit called ‘eternal life’.  Rather He sends His Son to a perishing world, not to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3:17).  In this way God gives us His Son in Whom is life (John 1:4).

Therefore Jesus defines the three major terms of this part of the verse. Belief is receiving Jesus – accepting Him to be the Father’s gift to me. Perishing is to remain in Christlessness along with an unbelieving world. Eternal life is having and knowing the Son.  It’s a life that begins now and stretches on into eternity (John 17:3).

How do you think of your Christian life?  Do you speak of “giving your life to Jesus”?  Are you constantly thinking of ways to “do more for God?”  The Bible rarely, if ever, speaks in those terms.  The Bible is about Christ’s life given for you. It’s about His almighty doing on your behalf.  The Christian life begins by receiving Jesus.  And it continues into eternity as a life of receiving.  All that we are and all that God has for us is freely given in His Son.

“God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.”  (1 John 5:11-12)

God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…

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John 3:1-16

Suppose I told you that anyone could drive my car.  What kind of car would you imagine?  And if I told you that anyone could have my car, what would you suppose?  Would you imagine a sports car?  Probably not. More likely I was offering a rust bucket due for an expensive MOT.

If we give indiscriminately it’s usually because we don’t value the gift.

On the other hand, suppose someone allowed me to drive their Porsche 911.  More than this, at the end of the drive they say, “This car is my pride and joy.  I want you to have it.”  What kind of relationship would you imagine we shared?

If we give generously it’s usually because we greatly value the recipient.

That’s the thing about human giving:  We give cautiously to the well-deserving.  But God is very different.  He gives profligately to the utterly unworthy.  He gives His very best to the very worst.  That’s what Jesus tells Nicodemus in John chapter 3:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  (John 3:16)

God’s very best is His “only begotten Son”, Jesus.  He is God’s Word – the everlasting expression of the Father’s heart (John 1:1-2); He is the Co-Creator of heaven and earth – the Father’s Master-Craftsman (John 1:3); He is the Light of the world (John 1:4); He is the glorious grace and truth of the Father (John 1:14); He is the Beloved Son, abiding from eternity in the Father’s bosom (John 1:18).

The Father is Father because He has His Son.  In that sense, to give away His Son is to give away His very Self.  Nothing could be more precious than God’s “only begotten Son.”

It is stunning to think He would give His Son to anybody.  Who could be worthy of such a gift?

Incredibly the Father gives His Son to the world. And that’s not simply a sign of His love for everyone, it’s proof of His love for the wicked.

“The world” in John’s language represents humanity organised in opposition to God.  It’s “the world” which fails to know, or receive Jesus (John 1:5,10).  It’s “the world” that not only dwells in darkness but hates the Light (John 3:19).  It’s “the world” whose Prince is Satan himself (John 12:31).  It’s “the world” that rejoices over the crucifixion and hates God’s people (John 16:20; 17:14).  Yet it’s “the world” in all its God-hating, Christ-denying depravity that the Father loves. It’s the world that is given His Son.

What is God like?  He gives His very best to we the very worst.  God is Giver, though it cost Him everything.

Last week I read an atheist website which mocked this verse.  The author wrote that God didn’t so much give us His only Son as lend Him to us for three days.  Yet the gift of the Son was not a short-term loan recalled on Easter Sunday.  The Son has always been the personal Gift of an eternally generous Father (John 4:10).  And, in a deep sense, He was given as soon as there was an earth to receive Him.  He was the Father’s Light shone upon a dark world (John 1:9).  And in incarnation He was given into our humanity for all time.  The Father gave His Son to man as Man.  Easter was not the retraction of the Gift but the glorification of this Man for man. And He pours out His Spirit that He might be given to all who believe.

God gives His Son to us and for us. He gives His Spirit to be with us and in us.  There is no more He could give.  He withholds nothing from a world which only wants Him dead.  Why?  Because He so loves the world.

Think about His love for a minute.  This love is not a grand feeling which He nurses in eternity.  It is an outward-going, other-centred generosity that holds nothing back.  This is not the benevolence of a feudal lord who bequeaths a portion of his estate to some peasant.  This is the lord marrying the peasant, giving himself to her so that her destiny will be his. This is how God loves the world.

Notice something important here.  Love comes first.  God does not send His Son in order that He might love the world.  It is not that God can love the world once the Son has redeemed it a bit.  No, in all its darkness and unbelief God loves the world and therefore He gives His Son.  We are not saved so that God might love us.  We are saved because God loves us.

Therefore when we see Jesus given to us, it is not the sign that we are, in principle, now loveable.  It is the proof that we are in fact loved.  The Gift doesn’t purchase the love, the Gift proves the love.

Do you feel that God loves you?  Look again at the Gift of the Son and you will see the Father – the Father of Jesus and your Father.  See this Gift given to you and remember that He is yours not because you are good – you aren’t; not because you were receptive – you weren’t; but because of God’s own prior and indomitable love.  See His nature expressed in Jesus. See Him spread His arms, though it cost Him His life, and know that this is the love of God for you.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.”

Weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth

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Luke 13:22-30

Sometimes the KJV translates it as “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28)

Sometimes it says “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:42, 50)

Both are translations of the same Greek phrase.  (The King James is not as consistent as some like to make out).  Yet the popular reception of the phrase has accommodated both versions: “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

Speaking poetically, the form of the saying is very pleasing.  Its pulsing, dactylic meter drives it forwards.  And today people use it as short-hand for any discontent felt when a settlement pans out badly.  After the vote went against them there was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Parents might use the phrase to describe a teenage tantrum.  Yet such a trivial use of the phrase blinds us to the horrors it describes.  “Weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” is the awful fate of those consigned to “outer darkness.”

Let’s consider the words more closely:

Weeping/Wailing: The Greek lexicons speak of “bitter crying” and “lamentation.”  There is the deep sadness of mourning (e.g. Matthew 2:18) as well as self-recrimination – think of Peter’s weeping following his denials (Matthew 26:75).  It is closely connected with the lament “Alas! Alas!” (Revelation 18:15-19).  It is the cry of the hopeless (Revelation 5:4) and yet, through the triumph of Jesus, His people will be brought to the place where we “weep not!”  There will be no such weeping in the new heavens and new earth (Isaiah 65:19).  However the “outer darkness” is a place of continual weeping and wailing.  And also gnashing of teeth…

Gnashing of teeth: This is consistently a description of anger in Scripture.  The miserable comforters “gnash their teeth” at righteous Job. The wicked gnash their teeth at the righteous one of Psalm 35 (v15).  They gnash their teeth at Stephen before stoning him (Acts 7:54).  Outer darkness is a place of violent fury.

Put these two terms together and you get a grotesque portrait of humanity.  Hell is self-pitying, self-righteous anger, stretching on into eternity.  The damned cry bitter tears and grind their teeth in fury.  Sullen self-pity and furious self-righteousness grow in the outer darkness.

The Bible is always painting its anti-heroes in shades of melancholy and murder.

Think of Cain, utterly downcast because his sacrifice was not accepted. He goes quickly from brooding to brutality.

Think of Saul, again we see someone rejected after offering the wrong sacrifices.  He too descends into melancholy and murder – at least in intentions.

Think of Jonah, self-righteously waiting for Nineveh to burn, and when it’s saved he is “angry even unto death.” (Jonah 4:9)

Self-recrimination, self-pity and self-righteousness go together in Scripture and they produce both weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  When we seek to justify ourselves, even in this life, our failures produce petulant regret and an anger that needs to go somewhere, very often onto others. If we haven’t sought to lay our sins on Jesus, we bear the burden ourselves and it’s too much for us.  Crushed under the weight of our failures we weep and wail and we gnash our teeth.

But that’s just the failures of this life.  What about when Jesus judges the world in righteousness?  What about when our whole lives are brought into the light, when eternity is at stake?  Who could bear for the Judge of all to convict us of utter failure and lay the blame squarely upon us?  No-one.  And hell is the slavery, begun in this life, of sinners continuing to shoulder their own guilt.  And just as they have done all their life, they remain in self-recrimination, self-pity and self-justification.  Weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

What do you do with your sin?  Do you turn in on yourself?  Do you harden up?  Do you grow bitter and angry?  Perhaps you even justify this spiritual sulk by calling it repentance.  It is not repentance, it is hellish slavery.  You were not meant to bear your own sins.  You cannot do it, nor can you atone for your guilt.  Lay it upon Jesus and walk free in Him. Weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth is a hell of a life.  In Jesus you are redeemed from it all.

Outer darkness

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Matthew 8:1-13

The Jews were insiders – the chosen race, the people of God.  Israel was a light to the nations, a shining advertisement for the LORD’s grace and glory.  And yet, as Jesus would often say, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” (e.g. Matthew 19:30)  Judgement involves dramatic reversals.  Those on the inside are cast out, while those on the outside are brought in.

“I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness.”  (Matthew 8:11-12)

Think of the contrast.  Sitting down with the patriarchs is a reference to the great banquet at the centre of Biblical hope. The future is feasting – for some anyway.  For others the future is exclusion and darkness.

We have studied many different Biblical images of judgement:

Fire and brimstone,

Plagues of Biblical proportions,


No rest for the wicked,

Reaping the whirlwind, and

Hell fire

Tomorrow we’ll consider “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  But here “outer darkness” is the image: no light, no warmth, no place, no belonging, no company, no hope.  Shut out, sent away, driven back, closed off, groping in the gloom.  As Jude would later say, for some there “is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever.” (Jude 13)

And, shockingly, this fate awaits the best of the best, the elect of the elect. You would imagine that the “sons of the kingdom” would have a birth-right to heaven.  Surely the feast is their inheritance.  Yet their lot will be “outer darkness.”  While the unenlightened heathen – the strangers to God’s words and works – are ushered into the heart of heaven.

There could not be a bigger turnaround.  What would make Jesus say this?

The context is two encounters in Matthew chapter 8.  The first is with a leper (as we mentioned yesterday).  The unclean is made clean, simply through coming to Jesus.

Next Jesus encounters a Roman Centurion whose servant is “sick of the palsy.”  The Centurion simply trusts Jesus and is granted the healing.

To the crowd present, these two men would have been as far from the kingdom as it was possible to be.  A leper was utterly unclean.  A Roman soldier was the enemy of enemies, a foreigner trampling down the people of God.  Yet through Jesus they are restored, healed, honoured and affirmed.

The message is clear.  With Jesus the very worst and furthest from God are brought to His very bosom.  Without Jesus the very best and nearest to God are shut out forever.  The issue is not your pedigree, your piety or your performance.  The only thing to have is Christ Himself.  If you are in Him you dwell in light and life.  If you are out of Him your place is outer darkness.

Building on sand

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Matthew 7:21-27

Jesus splits the world in two.  But He does it by descending right into our midst.

There He is, the son of Mary, an itinerant preacher with no qualifications and no fixed abode.  Surrounded by the poor, the meek and the persecuted, He holds forth with His distinctive northern accent.  Yet as He concludes His sermon He speaks with insider knowledge about the end of all things.  Stunningly, Jesus portrays Himself as the fulcrum of time and eternity, of heaven and hell.

“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.  Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?  And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”  (Matthew 7:21-23)

Jesus is the One whom all peoples will petition on the final day.  Jesus is the Lord whom the righteous will claim to honour.  Jesus is the name in which prophecy is uttered and “wonderful works” are wrought.  Jesus rules on the day of days.  Jesus will have the last word on judgement. Jesus is the One who must know and be known by the saved.  Jesus is the definition of heaven and His absence is the definition of hell.

This Jewish carpenter splits the world.  He is not simply some wandering Rabbi discussing timeless precepts.  He is the Lord, the Judge, the Centrepiece of all creation.  And so His sermon is not about some other truth, like “the kingdom” or “righteousness.”  Jesus Himself is the ultimate content of the sermon.  The kingdom and righteousness only make sense when we see Christ as the content filling out those terms. Jesus is and always has been the King in whom the kingdom is established.  He is the righteousness for whom we hunger and thirst.   He is the Fulfiller and Accomplisher of the law that He preaches.

And so, as He concludes His sermon, He makes it clear that everything revolves around Himself.  Jesus is the fork in the road dividing all humanity.  Depending on our relation to Him we’re either entering by the strait or the wide gate (v13).  We’re either travelling the broad or the narrow way (v14).  We’re either good trees producing good fruit or corrupt trees bringing forth evil fruit (v17).  And now, finally, we are either building our house on the rock or building on sand.

“Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:  And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.  And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:  And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell:  and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

Notice that everyone must endure the floods and winds.  The wise and the foolish alike must weather the storm.  Building on the Rock does not keep off the rain.  But through the judgement of the waters, like the family of Noah, we cling on to the righteous one and are saved.

But not the foolish builder.  He built on sand.  What does this represent? Well it would be tempting to view the sand as transitory, worldly things – money, power, vainglory, etc.  And certainly those are foolish foundations for life.  Jesus has indeed preached against trusting in Mammon.  Yet the immediate context points to a more insidious false foundation.  “Building on sand” is like trusting in your preaching, exorcising or healing ministry (v22).  The sand doesn’t just represent “worldly” confidence, it represents “religious” confidence too.

Yet however successful our religious CVs may be, they are no substitute for knowing and being known by Jesus. Without a genuine relationship with the Lord in which we do His words then we will fall when the great day arrives.  And great will be our fall.

Jesus ends on this calamitous note.  The sermon that began with “Blessed are the poor in spirit” finishes with the utter destruction of the foolish. What are we to think?  That the grace, gushing so freely in the beginning, has now dried up?  In the end is it all down to us and our ability to do His words?

It’s crucial to see what happens straight after the sermon.  The very next incident shows how we should respond to this teaching.

“When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him.  And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.  And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean.  And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”            (Matthew 8:1-3)

If ever there was a man unable to “do the words” of the Lord it’s this leper (see more here).  He belongs far outside the kingdom, outside the camp.  He should flee from the Judge of the world but he flees towards Him.  And Jesus does the unthinkable, He touches the untouchable and cleanses the unclean.

Here is our model and our hope.  We naturally choose the wide gate and the broad way.  We’re naturally corrupted trees bringing forth evil fruit. We’re naturally fools, forsaking Christ’s words and building our own CVs. Yet there is more grace in Jesus than sin in us; more cleansing in Christ than filth in our hearts.  And He is more than willing to give us the righteousness for which we hunger and thirst; indeed to give us Himself. At the end of this sermon Jesus found a filthy sinner and stretched forth His hand – not for condemnation but salvation.  That is what He’s like and what His sermon is driving us towards.

If we’ve understood the words of Jesus at all, what should we do?

Our response must not be a steely resolve to do better.  Indeed that is the very essence of building on sand!  Our first response to this sermon must be to do what the leper did.  In brokenness we confess our sin and in confidence we worship Him who “canst make me clean.”

And He does cleanse us and He does fill us with His righteousness and He does make us good trees and He does perform His word in us and through us.  So to Him be the glory, for ever and ever, Amen!

By their fruits ye shall know them

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Matthew 7:15-20

Jesus has told us “Beware” of wolves in sheep’s clothing.  They look like Christians, they speak in Christ’s name but they are false prophets.  And their false teaching devastates the flock.

But how can we defend ourselves against this secret threat?  After all, these wolves look – at least from a distance – like sheep.

Jesus says, look closer.  In an abrupt shift of metaphor He tells us to examine the fruit of these so-called sheep.

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.  Ye shall know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?  Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.  A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.  Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.  Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”    (Matthew 7:15-19)

It’s fascinating – faulty teaching is the problem, yet how does Jesus counsel us to detect it?  By studying faulty living.  Corrupted creeds are the issue. But corrupted creeds will show themselves in corrupted deeds.  This flows from Jesus’ doctrine of humanity.

We are a crop meant to be fruitful and to multiply.  Yet in Adam we now produce thorns and thistles (see v16).  Separated from God, it’s not life but death that grows out of our Adamic nature.

What is the solution?  Well it can’t be a change of behaviour.  Leopards cannot change their spots.  Neither can you staple grapes onto thorn bushes to turn them into vines.  “A corrupt tree [cannot] bring forth good fruit.”  Rather a corrupt tree cannot help but bring forth evil fruit.  New works are not the answer – only a new birth will do.

But this is how a false prophet can be detected.  The fruit will reveal the tree.  Their life will reveal their nature.  Intensive heresy hunts are not required.  A PhD in theology is not necessary.  If the life of Christ is not coming out of a Bible teacher, alarm bells must ring.

This puts preachers in their place.  They are not to lord it over others, they are to be transparent to the flock.  How can we ever ascertain a preacher’s fruit if they are not open to those they teach?  Preachers must not assert their rights or stand on some kind of authoritative role as a platform for their speaking.  Their authority comes from their life.  And their life must be open to all.

This is not to downplay the role of doctrine.  It is false teaching which destroys.  It is sound teaching which brings life.  And we must be constantly testing the preaching of the church against Scripture.  But if you want to assess the health or otherwise of a suspect preacher, Jesus gives us the most immediate test of orthodoxy.  And it’s not a creed, it’s Christlikeness.

Strait and narrow

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Matthew 7:13-14

“He used to be a junkie, now he’s on the straight and narrow” we say.  And by that we mean that he’s cleaned up his act.  Now he’s behaving.

When Jesus coined the phrase “strait and narrow” He didn’t quite mean it like that.

This is what He said:

“Enter ye in at the strait gate:  for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:  Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”               (Matthew 7:13-14)

It’s a saying that brings the sermon on the mount into its concluding phase. We have been introduced to the kingdom through the beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12).  We’ve been told of our counter-cultural identity as disciples (Matthew 5:13-16). In the longest section of the sermon, we’ve been taught the way of Christ as the fulfilment of the law (Matthew 5:17-7:12).  Now Jesus will conclude by laying before us two ways for the listener to respond.

There are two gates (v13)

There are two paths (v14)

There are two trees (v17)

There are two houses (v24-27)

In each pair there is one that represents the pathway of life, the other is the way of destruction.

At this point it would be easy to conclude that the right way is the way of doing good and the wrong way is the way of doing bad.  Yet when we consider the rest of the sermon, that cannot be the teaching.  The rejected way of life throughout the sermon has not simply been unrighteousness. Far more it has been self-righteousness.  It is the Scribes and Pharisees who Jesus has had in His sights ever since Matthew 5:20.  Such people give and pray and fast – and love to do so (Matthew 6:1-18).  Jesus’ hearers would have identified them as the best of the best.  But in the context we need to see that Jesus puts them on the broad road to destruction.

Thus the “strait and narrow” is not about cleaning up our acts and behaving better.  Jesus is calling us to a whole new path.  Not unrighteousness and not self-righteousness.  The narrow road is a way of Christ-righteousness.

It is the path that Jesus trod – whose righteousness surpassed that of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). Ultimately only Jesus can walk this road.  Later in Matthew He would make that point very memorably.  Our chance of travelling this path is as likely as getting a camel through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24).  “Who then can be saved?” ask the disciples. Jesus answers, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:25)

In Jesus, God makes the impossible possible.  Jesus walks the path and then Jesus becomes the path for us.  He is the Door (John 10:7) and He is the Way (John 14:6).  And He invites the unrighteous and the self-righteous to renounce their own way and to join Him.

The “strait and narrow” is not about moving from immorality to morality. It’s about moving from self-sufficiency to Christ-dependence.  And few there are that find it!

Wolf in sheep's clothing

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Matthew 7:15-20

In the sermon on the mount, there is a progression in Christ’s teaching about the Scribes and Pharisees.

They begin as standard-bearers for outward righteousness.  If anyone is to enter the Kingdom, they must have a righteousness that exceeds the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).  Of course that means that these do-gooders are not themselves in the kingdom – which would have shocked Christ’s hearers.  But it does mean that, in one sense, they “set the bar high.”  They have a “form of godliness”.

As the sermon continues we see how false that form is.  In chapter 6 Jesus refers to them as “hypocrites” – that is, masked actors (Matthew 6:2,5,16). In chapter 7 Jesus speaks first in comical terms: they have beams in their eyes (v3).  Then he sticks in the knife: they are swine (v6).  Unclean. Excluded.  The lowest of the low.

But it gets even worse.  Now in verse 15 Jesus says they are more dangerous than swine, they are wolves:

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”  (Matthew 7:15)

To be sure, “false prophets” come from many religious groupings – not just “Pharisees.”  But it’s sensible to assume that Jesus is referring to the same kind of “hypocrite” throughout the sermon.  They might go by the name “Scribe”, they might go by the name “Pharisee”, they might go by the name “Evangelical” (as I do).  But the name is not what’s important. The real problem is what they are “inwardly” – wolves.  Ravening wolves.

And there’s nothing more dangerous to sheep than a ravening wolf.  A prophet is meant to feed the sheep with the word of God.  False prophets feed on the sheep, all the while masquerading as one of them.

This is the chilling truth about the church’s greatest earthly enemies.  They come from within.  The hypocrites wear a Christian mask.  The wolves wear sheep’s clothing. They appear innocent.  They appear to belong.  Yet underneath there is devastating violence and murder.

Imagine a wolf luring another sheep to itself, mimicking its mother’s bleating.  Imagine the sheep blissfully unaware of the danger.  Now imagine the frenzy and blood of a vicious attack.  What have we just witnessed?  A Sunday sermon.  A best-selling book.  An archbishop’s address.  A popular conference speaker.  Simply the speaking of lies in God’s name.  And the flock is torn apart.

How seriously do you take false teaching?  Is it simply a doctrinal miscalculation?  Merely damaging for the church’s credibility?  No, it’s life or death.  Because the word of Christ is life or death (v24-27).

Therefore, says Jesus, Beware!

Next time, we’ll see how to spot such wolves…

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

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Matthew 7:12

Here is a famous phrase from the Bible.  Yet it’s not in the Bible.  Not in as many words anyway.  Here’s how the King James Bible renders it:

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

As a phrase, “the law and the prophets” is short-hand for the whole of the Hebrew Bible.  And “the law and the prophets” book-end this middle section of the sermon on the mount. More than 70% of the sermon lies in this explication of the heart of the law.

Jesus begins by telling us He is the Fulfiller of the law.

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”  (Matthew 5:17)

Whatever we read concerning Christ’s way, first we reckon with the fact that Christ accomplishes it in His own Person and work.  To hear this law in all its blazing purity is to read of the character of Christ Himself.  He is the peace-loving, pure-hearted, devoted, forgiving, perfect Man of Matthew 5. He is the guileless, giving, praying, fasting, self-denying, generous, worry-free Believer of Matthew 6.  Without hypocrisy and without superiority, He is the single-minded, asking, seeking, knocking Pray-er of Matthew 7. And if you want a more pithy summary, verse 12 sums it all up:  Jesus does not wait for others to treat Him well, He takes the initiative in treating them well.  He does to others what He would have them do to Him.  Instead of saying, “Your life for mine.”  Jesus says to the world, “My life for yours.”

It is often noted that this ethical principle – generally called the Golden Rule – exists in countless religions and philosophies.  Everyone seems to have this sense of reciprocity.  It’s the kind of morality founded on that universal parental lecture: “You wouldn’t like it if Billy did that to you would you?”

And so it would be easy to think that Christ’s way is just one more expression of a more basic ethical principle.  But that would be to forget two things.

Firstly, Jesus repeatedly preaches within the sermon that those to whom this teaching applies includes our enemies.  He is not advocating a simple reciprocal arrangement between citizens who more or less want to get on in the same kingdom.  His way includes counter-conditional love that is initiated by the wronged party.  The command comes into sharp focus when you remember Christ’s teaching on turning the other cheek, etc. When every inclination within us is to do to unto others just what they have done unto us (retaliation), Jesus commands us to break the cycle of violence and do to them what we wish they had done to us (reconciliation).

The second factor to remember is that Jesus does not simply lay down this law – He is its Fulfiller. Jesus is the Lord of heaven who comes into His world to treat His enemies with the love that He should have received.  And that is astonishing!

Muhammed may have been recorded as saying “That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind.”  Yet he would never have dreamt of putting those words in Allah’s mouth.  Allah does not seek for mankind the very glory he desires for himself.  Still less does he seek such glory for his enemies. Yet this is the wonder of Jesus.  He is not simply one more man espousing love and respect for humanity.  He is the God who, at His own divine initiative and in expression of His own divine nature, loves the world when the world hates and rejects Him.

Jesus does not come to bring us some generic moral principles.  He comes out of sheer grace, to do to the world what the world should have done to Him.  If we’re in on this astonishing love, perhaps we can begin to pass it on:

“We love because He first loved us.”  (1 John 4:19)