[March 30, 2008] Unlike the sayings in a book of quotations, in order to understand what is in the gospels, context is everything. The words of the Bible are like parts of a living organism. If we separate them from the whole organism, we kill them. That does not mean we need to be an expert, only that we pay close attention with the help of the Holy Spirit. Then we will see how we are in what we read, we are part of the story, and we can hear the Lord speak to us about ourselves.
Life Down from Mount Hermon (Matthew 17:14-21)
At the conclusion of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, in chapter 16, Jesus took the disciples up north to the foothills of Mount Hermon to the town of Caesarea-Philippi, and there Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of the living God. Thereupon, Jesus said that this confession is the foundation of His church and this church will bring in the kingdom.
Then He announced for the first time that He was going to be killed and on the third day be raised from the dead. In Matthew, these announcements—they happen several times—are section markers. The first section—from 16:21 to 17:21—is about the kingdom.
First, Jesus tells the disciples that they must deny themselves and take up the cross and follow Him. This is the path we must take if we would enter the kingdom.
Then He takes a small portion of them up onto Mount Hermon and He is transfigured before their eyes. They see, in other words, the coming of the kingdom (16:28). Remember what happened here: they have a vision of the resurrected Lord in glory. He who was hidden from them ordinarily is revealed to already be who He will be (remember the name of God in Exodus 3:14—“I AM who I will be”). Moses and Elijah appear with Him, representing the Law and the Prophets, and a cloud descends on them and they hear the voice of God, “This is My Son, hear Him,” and Jesus is left alone with them. Peter had confessed that Jesus is the Son of God and now the voice of God confirms it. And Jesus is singled out from the Law and the Prophets—not in conflict with them but as fulfilling them—as the one Voice which they have to hear.
Then they descend from the mountain onto the plain, back with the rest of the disciples and the people of the world. If for a moment the veil was removed, now they are back in the context of ordinary life where Satan dominates people’s lives. Here the church is weak, but they are called by Jesus to have more faith, at least the faith of a tiny mustard seed, so they can cast out Satan. For, as Jesus said, “If by the finger of God I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). Likewise, the church does the work of the kingdom when it frees people from the bondage of Satan. Faith is sufficient, but because the church is so weak, sometimes it must struggle in prayer and fasting.
Those who are ambitious, can correlate this section with Revelation 12.
We are so enslaved to the world ourselves, we do not have a heart for the kingdom! If only we would recognize what the Lord calls us to do!
The Lord’s Second Announcement of His Death and Resurrection (17:22-23)
When Jesus descends from the mountain, He begins His journey to the cross, returning first to Galilee. There He makes His second announcement: that He must be killed and on the third day be raised from the dead. This reminds us of the first section: that the church exists in the world in the way of death and resurrection. The Lord’s death and resurrection must characterize our own life. Paul tells us in Philippians that his longing is “to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if perhaps I may attain to the select-resurrection from the dead” (3:10-11).
This next section is a long teaching section, from 17:22—19:16. If the first section was about the kingdom, this second section is all about life in the church—living the way of the cross in the power of Christ’s resurrection.
The first story here introduces the entire section, so pay it close attention.
The Introduction to Living in the Church (17:24-27)
In isolation, this is a strange story, a story about paying the temple tax. But if we keep it in context, it is very important. People seize on Peter when he is away from Jesus and ask him if Jesus pays the half-shekel temple tax (Exodus 30 and 38). Without consulting Jesus, Peter responds on his own and says, “Yes.” A moment later he goes inside the house and before he can say a word (if he was even going to mention anything), Jesus anticipates him and says that the right answer would have been “no.”
This is the third time that Peter has spoken out on his own and said the wrong thing. In Caesarea-Philippi, Peter rebuked the Lord for talking about dying and the Lord rebuked him in return. Then on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter—without knowing what he was saying—offered to set up three tents side by side for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and essentially gets rebuked by God. Now he opens his big mouth again and Jesus rebukes him again. Like Peter, we too have an opinion; we too have too much to say.
This is the first thing. Peter does not yet know that he cannot rely on his own judgment. He must refer everything to Jesus. “Hear Him” the voice said on the mountain. Not Moses (the Law), not Elijah (the Prophets), not the religious or the secular culture, not even our family—no one but Jesus.
If we are Christians, we should know that the game has changed and all the rules are different. We cannot go by the old rules. We cannot rely on what makes sense to us, we need to go and ask Jesus and learn from Him.
But what is this about? It is about sonship. “The sons are free.” Peter confessed that Jesus is the unique Son of God, and then the voice of God said, “This is My Son,” but Peter has not understood the implications of this. Sonship implies a certain freedom. Jesus also said “sons” in the plural, implying that all who receive sonship through Him are likewise free.
Before we can live the life of the church, we need to be free. This is the point of this story. Are we free? What does it mean? Putting aside the more complicated question of obligation to the temple because it does not directly concern us, what does this freedom mean for us?
We think of freedom as having the license to do what we want. This is not freedom, because we use this freedom to conform to the world, and thus to enslave ourselves to it. That is not the freedom of the sons of God. Freedom does not mean that God lowers His standard or even removes it. Actually, Jesus says that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens” (5:20). But freedom does mean taking charge of our lives.
Freedom means that we are free to follow Christ. We are free to NOT go the way of the world, to give in to the pressure to conform, to do what everyone else is doing, to value what they value and to busy ourselves with what they regard as important. We are free to give ourselves to Christ. Apart from this freedom, there can be no church.
I have too much to do, so I cannot pray. I do not have time to read the Bible. I do not have time to gather with other believers for worship or fellowship. I am afraid to share Christ with others. I have family obligations, obligations to earn a certain income, to maintain a certain lifestyle, to avoid the criticism and castigation of others. But Jesus says, “the sons are free.”
Why are we so enslaved? Why are we not free? We are trying to justify ourselves to the world, to the culture, to our family, to others. We cannot bear not to have their approval. And we fool ourselves because we think that it is not their approval that we are trying to win, but God’s. We think we are just trying to be good people, that God and conscience demand all this from us. This quiet desperation of ours is all about trying to justify ourselves. But we can never ever achieve this justification. It is relentless and we torture ourselves trying to achieve it. And it is NOT the justification of God. Only when we are free from self-justification can we know the justification of God. And we can only know the justification of God through Jesus.
If Jesus is who He says He is, if He has resurrected from the dead, if He alone is our justification before God, and we have heard His call, then we know that the only thing that matters is HIM and what He calls us to do. “The sons are free.” We are free to follow Him in the way of discipleship and the way of the church, both in Christian community (Matthew 18) and in our homes (Matthew 19—20).
The story does not end here, though. Because Peter has opened his big mouth, he has obligated both Jesus and himself: “that we do not stumble them” or cause offense. He told the tax collectors, “Yes.” Christians should not be beyond causing offense. The Gospel itself is an offense to both Jews and Gentiles. Nor is it wrong to change one’s mind. But we should not cause offense by not honoring our word. So now Jesus must deal with Peter.
Jesus tells him he must go to the sea and cast a hook. That is not the kind of fishing Peter is used to. He is used to casting a net into the sea. But now he has to sit with a line and wait for a single fish to grab his bait. Probably he has to sit there for a while. Peter could have rebelled. Why did he have to go fishing? If the Lord could put a coin in a fish’s mouth, why could He not just as easily reach into His pocket and give one to him? That would be so much easier. But that would be missing the point. Peter needed to learn something. Probably while he sat there waiting for the fish, he would have a chance to think about his mistake. He would find the coin in the fish’s mouth and would realize that it was his own mouth that got him into this mess. And then he would have to pay the tax for Jesus himself, since he was the one who obligated Him, and for himself as well, even though the tax collectors only asked about Jesus.
Peter does not argue with the Lord (as far as we know). He does what the Lord tells him to do, as we should also, especially when we have made a mistake. If we have acted presumptuously, we should not make things worse by rebelling against the Lord’s restriction. We always want things done easily and quickly. But we belong to Him and He has a right to deal with us. We need to submit to His direction, or things will only get harder for us.
“The sons are free” but we foolishly obligate ourselves by saying “yes” to so many things. We obligate ourselves, our time, our money, to the world, to the demands of others, instead of freeing ourselves, our time and our money for the Lord. We need to extricate ourselves and at the same time not cause offense. If we have committed ourselves, we may need to fulfill our obligations first and then free ourselves. As we fulfill our obligations, perhaps we can think about how we foolishly gave away our freedom, and we can learn to depend more on the Lord to lead us from now on.
The Lord helped Peter meet his obligation. He arranged for a fish to swallow the coin that Peter needed. Peter still had to catch this fish, because the Lord wanted to deal with Peter, but Peter was not on his own either. In the same way, even though it was our own mistake that compromised our freedom, if we look to the Lord and accept His direction, the Lord will help us get our freedom back. Even for our foolishness, the Lord has grace for us.
If we want to follow the Lord, if we wish to satisfy His desire for us, we need to be free for Him. And that means, we must stop trying to always justify ourselves, we must stop obligating ourselves to other masters, and accept the justification of God that comes only from letting Jesus be our life.