Matthew 16:1-4 – Interpreting Jesus

Christ the Ruler 400 C.E.
Christ the Ruler, from the Santa Pundenziana Basillica in Rome, c.400 C.E.

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. (NIV)

It is a mystery that two persons who come from the same family, have the same training and experiences, can take such different perspectives on God, and go in completely different directions in their lives. Maybe it is not so much about shared events and circumstances as it is about how those experiences are interpreted by each person.  One gives herself to God, the other doesn’t. I believe the fulcrum of history rests on the person and work of Jesus Christ. In saying that, I just offered an interpretation of Christ which many people do not share.

We all have our slant and analysis of Jesus and his ministry in some way. Everyone has epistemic assumptions and metaphysical presuppositions which inform the way they look at the world, and how they discern Jesus.

The Jewish sects of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the ancient world took a different metaphysical spin on Christ’s ministry than did his disciples. The two groups were skeptical and wanted incontrovertible evidence of Messiah credentials from Jesus in the form of a sign.

It is important to note about the Pharisees and the Sadducees that they came from opposite ends of the political and theological spectrum.  The Pharisees were the Jewish conservatives, greatly concerned for Scripture and tradition. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were the liberals of their day, much more concerned with the Temple sacrifices and controlling all aspects of Jewish worship.  Most of the priests in the first century were Sadducees, whereas most of the scribes (who copied the Scriptures) were Pharisees.  They did not see eye to eye on much of anything, except Jesus.

To them Jesus was an untrained, sinner-loving, non-Temple endorsed teacher from lowly Nazareth who could not possibly be the Messiah.  The Pharisees did not like how Jesus handled the Torah; and, the Sadducees didn’t like all the nonsense Jesus was spouting about identifying himself as the true Temple.  In short, Jesus was a threat to the status quo.

So, they “tested” him, that is, they tried to tempt and trap Jesus into giving them a sign – they wanted him to do something dramatic to prove his credentials as Messiah. Just as Satan tempted Jesus to jump from the Temple and demonstrate he is Super Messiah, so the Pharisees and Sadducees asked for something that Jesus would not give them.

Instead, Jesus let them know they completely misinterpreted who he is and what he is doing. In fact, Jesus said they have all the evidence they need with the prophet Jonah.  Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so Jesus would be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth.  Just as Jonah would rise from certain death, so Jesus would rise again.

Jesus insisted they needed to rightly decipher and act on the evidence they already had – which raises (pun intended) some critical questions for us, as well: Are we searching for something more than Christ’s resurrection?  Are we looking for some sign or some more information before we will act?  Do we think we need a class on spiritual gifts before we can serve?  Are we obsessed with how to do any kind of ministry or mission, instead of satisfaction with knowing what it is we are to do?

No further sign is given because we already have the redemption of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God.  We have everything we need to do the will of God.  So, we must discern our situation appropriately and cease believing we need all the answers to God, Jesus, the Bible, and Christian ministry.

It is imperative we go out and be missional people with an action/reflection model of obeying what we already know and then reflecting on it so we can go back out and do it again better. For the best interpretations come from a lived experience of putting our metaphysical notions into practice and trying them on for size – and finding that Jesus is enough.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Matthew 12:38-42 – The Sign

Jonah in the belly

One day some teachers of religious law and Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to show us a miraculous sign to prove your authority.”

But Jesus replied, “Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.

“The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent. The queen of Sheba will also stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for she came from a distant land to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Now someone greater than Solomon is here—but you refuse to listen. (NLT)

We often must unlearn before we learn. We need to let go so that we can take on. Repentance is the key to transformation. To repent is to change; and, change involves the humility to admit when we are lost, ask for help, and go in a different direction. The greatest miracle, the best evidence of God’s work in the world, is a changed life – both personal and corporate transformation. Genuine change is not a minor tweak of habits; it is a wholesale reorientation of the heart. New life is not re-branding oneself but is akin to being born again.

For many folks, when it comes to change and transformation, the focus is on others changing – other people need to bend their lives and organizations to how I believe things need to be. As you can tell, this sounds an awful lot like pride and hubris. And, it is.

Repentance and new life is for everyone, not just a select few or others for whom we believe need to change.

Jesus made waves with lots of people by hobnobbing with the least, the lost, and the lowly. Christ actively sought such people out, and healed many of them from sickness, disease, and sin so that they would be united with God and no longer remain on the fringes of society.

Some within the religious establishment of the day did not take the healing ministry of Jesus into consideration because they themselves were not in the transformation business. So, healing miracles which created new life meant nothing for them. For them, Jesus was not flexing any real Messiah muscle and improving their designs to see Gentiles kicked out of Palestine. They even went so far as to ascribe the healing ministry as the work of the devil. They wanted a sign from heaven that would authenticate proper Messiah credentials.

Jonah sign

Jesus said there is already an existing sign: Jonah. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so Jesus would be in the earth for three days and nights. The death and resurrection of Jesus is needed, and when faced with this information, the only appropriate response is repentance, a complete U-turn, to a changed life.

Jesus mentioned the Queen of the South to make the same point. When the ancient Ninevites, who were a sinful people, encountered the person of Jonah, they repented; when the Queen encountered the person of Solomon, she changed.  Therefore, how much more ought we to change when encountering the person of Christ?

Jesus himself is the sign. Jonah was in the belly of a whale. He was all but dead. But God caused the whale to belch up Jonah, and he went out as a changed man. The experience of having stomach fluids work on a person for three days and nights would have changed a person both spiritually and physically – bleached completely white and an incredible sight to see!

The whole point of bringing up Jonah was to communicate the great need for repentance when faced with Jesus, his life, his teaching, his ministry. The appropriate response to Jesus is a changed life. Jesus was looking for status quo malcontents, and a desire for transformation and new life. The process of change is hardwired into all creation – from seasons of the year to the seasons of people’s lives – all are designed for a sustained process of time to renew and revolutionize us.

Jesus modeled this for us. He switched his address of heaven and moved into our neighborhood to bring us new life. As the Master of conversion, Jesus extends the invitation to change. All he asks is to let God do the work of change within us, be patient with the construction of the soul he is doing and persist with daily routines of faith individually and with one another.

It pleases Jesus and it is the heart of God to realize new life. Change for change’s sake is not the point. Change that reflects the values of God is. So, we must hear the Scriptures, and we must pray to seek the mind and heart of God.

God Almighty, we desire to be transformed by you and allow the life of Jesus to be expressed through us. We desire to walk in the light of your spirit. Reveal to us those things in our life that need to be made anew. Allow us to discern between flesh and spirit so that we can choose a healthy holy path. Continue to give us spiritual awareness. Transform us into something new altogether. May our old life and way disappear, and our new life emerge for the blessing of the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 12:38-42 – A Changed Life

Ichthys
The ichthys (pronounced ick-thoos) is an early Christian symbol of new life in Jesus Christ.

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here. (NIV)

I say at the outset:

The greatest miracle, the best evidence of God’s work in the world, is a changed life.

Yes, both personal and corporate transformation – not a rearranging or a tweeking of habits – but a wholesale change of heart. New life is new life, and not a reconstituted life.

For many folks, when it comes to any discussion of change and transformation, it is a focus on others changing. Other people need to see things rightly; others who must bend their lives and organizations to how I believe things need to be. As you can tell, putting it in writing and laying it bear sounds an awful lot like pride and hubris. And, it is.

The need for repentance is for everyone, not just a select few or others for whom we believe need to change.

Jesus made waves with many people by hob-nobbing with the least, the lost, and the lowly. Christ actively sought such people out, and healed many of them from sickness, disease, and sin so that they would be united with God and no longer remain on the fringes of society.

Some within the religious establishment of the day did not take the healing ministry of Jesus into consideration because they were not in the transformation business. So, healing miracles which created new life did nothing for them. Jesus was not flexing any real Messiah muscle for them and improving their designs to see Gentiles get beat up and kicked out of Palestine. They even went so far as to ascribe Jesus’ healings as the work of the devil. They wanted a sign from heaven that would authenticate proper Messiah credentials.

Jesus responded by essentially saying there is already a sign that exists, the sign of Jonah. As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so Jesus would be in the earth for three days and nights. The death and resurrection of Jesus is needed, and when faced with this information, the only appropriate response is repentance, a complete U-turn, to a changed life. Jesus brought up the Queen of the South to make the same point: When the ancient Ninevites, who were a sinful people, encountered the person of Jonah, they repented; when the Queen encountered the person of Solomon, she changed.

Therefore, how much more should we change when encountering the person of Christ?

Jesus himself is the sign. Jonah was in the belly of a whale. He was all but dead. But God caused the whale to belch up Jonah, and he went out as a changed man. The experience of having stomach fluids work on a person for three days and nights, some scholars point out that Jonah would have been both spiritually and physically different – bleached completely white and an incredible sight to see!

The whole point of bringing up this sign of Jonah was to communicate the great need for repentance when faced with Jesus, his life, his teaching, his ministry. The appropriate response to Jesus is a changed life.

Jesus was looking for status quo malcontents, and a desire for transformation and new life.

The process of change is hardwired into all creation – from seasons of the year to the seasons of people’s lives – all are designed for a sustained process of time to revolutionize us.

Jesus modeled this for us. He switched his address of heaven and moved into our neighborhood in order to bring us new life. As the Master of conversion, Jesus always extends the invitation to change. All he asks is to let God do the work of change within us, be patient with the construction of the soul he is doing and persist with daily routines of faith individually and with one another.

It pleases Jesus and it is the heart of God to realize new life. Change for change’s sake is not the point. Change that reflects the values of God is the point. And in order to know that, we must hear the Scriptures, and we must pray to seek the mind and heart of God.

God Almighty, we desire to be transformed by you and allow the life of Jesus to be expressed through us. We desire to walk in the light of your spirit. Reveal to us those things in our life that need to be made anew. Allow us to discern between flesh and spirit so that we can choose a healthy holy path. Continue to give us spiritual awareness. Transform us into something new altogether. May our old life and way disappear, and our new life emerge for the blessing of the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Click I Will Rise by Chris Tomlin as we continue in this season of Eastertide with its focus on new life.

Jonah 1:1-17 – Against Hatred

JonahWhale

The Lord’s word came to Jonah, the son of Amittai: “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”

So, Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the Lord! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the Lord. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.

Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.”

Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. So, they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?”

He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.”

Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the Lord because he had told them.)

They said to him, “What will we do about you so that the sea will become calm around us?” (The sea was continuing to rage.)

He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. So, they called on the Lord, saying, “Please, Lord, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the Lord: whatever you want, you can do.” Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. The men worshipped the Lord with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made solemn promises.

No escape for the prophet

Meanwhile, the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. (CEB)

One way of outlining today’s Old Testament reading from Jonah is:

God said, “Go!” Jonah said, “No!” And, God said, “Oh!?”

Jonah did a full out run from God’s clear instructions to go to the city of Nineveh. This does not sound like a wise thing to do with God. So, why did Jonah run? Let’s get some perspective….

Who were the Assyrians?

Nineveh was a large city in the ancient world, and the capital of Assyria. The Assyrians had a reputation as fierce soldiers and conquered all the Middle East. They are mentioned many times in the Old Testament. It was Assyria that God used to judge the northern kingdom of Israel. The typical military practice of the Assyrians was to attack a city and completely subjugate it by deporting most of the people and repopulating it with some of their own people. They did this so that the conquered people could not mount a revolt or resistance to their rule.

What is important to know about the Assyrians and the Ninevites is that they were notorious in the ancient world for their brutality toward conquered peoples. Many forms of torture that we are aware of today were invented by the Assyrians. Their methods were so inhumane that it would be inappropriate for me to even discuss them here. I will just leave it at the fact that the Assyrians were experts at thinking-up and executing extreme forms of torture on everyone who resisted their power. It was a very violent culture.

Who is God?

Now, contrast that knowledge of the Assyrians with God. The ways of the Assyrians caught the notice of God, who was ready to pronounce judgment on the heart of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh. So, as God typically did in the Old Testament, he told one of his prophets to go and give a message. And the message was simple: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” Lest we think God was determined to wipe Nineveh off the map, think again. Jonah confesses later in the book, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

Who was Jonah?

Jonah was a prophet of God, which means he set apart to speak for God. So, here we have the rub as to Jonah’s lickety-split in the opposite direction from where God wanted him. Jonah did not like Assyrians. More than that, he loathed them. The last thing Jonah wanted was to have effective preaching and see Nineveh repent of their violent ways. Jonah wanted judgment, not grace.

In this little four-chapter prophetic book of the Old Testament, it is Jonah who needs divine deliverance as much as the Ninevites do. In fact, Jonah’s need for rescue gets more attention than the evil Assyrians. The message of Jonah comes down to this: Racism and hatred, however much perceived to be legitimate, have no part whatsoever in the kingdom of God.

Who are we?

Christians are the community of the redeemed. New life in Jesus Christ involves a wholesale jettison of bigotry and a complete chuck to the manure pile of hatred directed toward any ethnic and/or religious group of people, period. New life means adopting the love of God. It involves becoming a dispenser of grace and mercy with all people, not just the ones we feel deserve it.

What does God want us to learn?

To share the same heart as he has – a heart that beats for people to know and live by a better way – a heart that has grace and compassion even in the face of flat-out evil. We are meant to think twice about pointing the finger at others; to take the plank out of our own eye before we address the splinter in another’s eye.

O God, you created all people in your image. We thank you for the astonishing variety of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of friendship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Click Turn My Heart a beautiful song written by Marty Haugen as we seek to have our lives bend to God’s heart.