Sunday, 25 June 2017
Having delivered the two demoniacs in Gadara Jesus returned across the sea to Capernaum, here called his own city. We may wonder why it is so named, given that he lived there for a much shorter time than he did in Nazareth where he had lived for almost thirty years. One answer could be that Capernaum had not rejected Jesus in the manner that Nazareth had done when its inhabitants tried to throw him over a cliff after he had preached about himself and his role in God’s great plan of salvation. Another answer could be that he performed a lot of miracles in Capernaum, a reminder of its great privileges. What did Capernaum do with its privileges? It seems in the main to have not done very much and later he rebuked it by saying if the mighty works done in her had been done in Sodom they would have repented publicly of their sins.
The power of his message
Having said what the general response of the people of Capernaum was, we can also see that there were others there who had faith in Jesus. Other Gospels tell us that there were four of them involved in this attempt to get Jesus to help their friend. Matthew wants his readers to notice their action because he uses the word ‘behold’ in reference to them. Clearly, their action was one to be admired.
As we think about this stage in the outworking of the event, we can focus on three matters: the problem of the man, the partnering of the friends, and the priority of Jesus. The problem that the man had was that he was unable to go to Jesus by himself. In his case, this was due to his physical condition. We are not told for how long he had been like this. As we think about his state, we can see that his situation is a picture of what everyone is like before they are converted, which is that they can do nothing to get themselves closer to God.
In real life, this man had four friends who were convinced that Jesus would help the man. I would stress the ‘would’ rather than ‘could’. If it was only at the level of ‘could’, it would only have been an opinion on their part. But they showed it was ‘would’ by taking him to Jesus to solve his problem. Why were four of them involved? Maybe it was because four were needed to carry the stretcher. Or maybe it was because each of them wanted to be involved. I would choose the latter option.
Their response is a picture of what every believer should be doing. No doubt, every believer can be placed in the category of those who believe that Jesus ‘could’ help sinners. Yet that may only be a correct theological opinion. It would be better to become ‘would’ persons, convinced that Jesus can help those in need. How will we know that we are ‘would’ rather than ‘could’? By taking the gospel to people.
Of course, the four men would have encouraged one another as they shared the task of carrying their friend to Jesus. They could have said simple things like ‘it is not far to his house’. Perhaps they spoke to one another or to their friend about others whom Jesus had helped in different ways. After all, he had helped many in Capernaum already. There are lots of possible things that they could have spoken about. In this, they would be a picture for us as we get involved in taking, in a spiritual manner, a needy person to Jesus. For example, four (or another number) could agree to pray about an unconverted person they know and bring him to Jesus in that way. During the process of carrying him, they could remind one another of other people whom Jesus helped. It is very important to be involved in bringing people to Jesus, and I would challenge us about whether we are doing it.
Then the moment came when they reached Jesus. Matthew tells us that Jesus saw their faith. Did he mean by this statement that he had looked inside their hearts and saw what was living there? Or did he mean that Jesus looked at what they had done because their actions were the evidences of their faith? I would incline to the latter possibility.
So far, the focus has been on the actions of the men carrying their friend. Nothing has been said about the man himself except that he was paralysed. But Jesus highlights something else about the man, which was that he was a sinner needing forgiveness. It is worth noting that his friends are not addressed in this way, which may indicate that they had already trusted in Jesus as the Messiah and had been forgiven their sins. Again, it may have been the case that the man was bothered about his sins and wanted forgiveness above all else. I suspect he was, otherwise Jesus would have forgiven someone who did not ask for his pardon, and who was not interested in it. The fact is that the man’s soul was in greater need than his body. Jesus knew that was the case and immediately forgave the man all his sins. All of us must realise that the need of our soul is much more important than the need of our bodies.
Imagine if all that Jesus had done was heal the man’s paralysis. Where would he be tonight if Jesus had not healed his soul? The priority for him and for us is for our sins to be forgiven. The amazing reality is that Jesus has the authority to forgive all our sins. Jesus said more than that to the man because he also indicated to him that he now belonged to God’s family. It may be the case that the use of the word ‘son’ by Jesus indicates that the suffering man was a young person, but the word also points to a close relationship with Jesus. Jesus wanted the man to have assurance of this relationship of belonging to him as well as having the assurance of knowing his sins had been forgiven by Jesus. No doubt the man had great joy in his heart as he listened to the powerful words of Jesus.
It has been the case with the miracles in this section of Matthew that something happens that brings an element of testing into each situation. The leper had been tested as to whether he would obey God’s Word after he was healed and make a journey to Jerusalem to see the priest – he failed; the centurion was tested as to whether he thought Jesus should have to come to his home – he passed; the would-be disciples were tested as to whether they would follow Jesus immediately – they failed; and the inhabitants of Gadara were tested over whether they would value Jesus above their pigs – they failed.
Now it is some scribes, the religious leaders, who were tested and they failed as well. Some folk tell us that if we could perform lots of miracles many people would believe the gospel. Many people observed the miracles that Jesus did, yet seeing them did not cause such to become disciples of Jesus. We need more than to see or even by being part of a miracle. Did everyone who ate bread and fish at the feeding of the five thousand get to heaven in the end? As far as we know, only the immediate disciples of Jesus received some benefit from being there, and the benefit was realised a good while later when they realised that Jesus was the Son of God.
Right theology is a very good thing, but there are situations when right theology can be used in a wrong way. The scribes had right theology – they were regarded by the people as the orthodox – and one of their convictions was that only God could forgive a person all their sins in the sense of pardoning them. Their problem was that they did not know who God was, that he was standing there in front of them doing what only God should do. Obviously, they failed the test, but the God they did not know was willing to give them further instruction. What did Jesus do? He revealed to them things about himself, and at the same time about themselves.
First, Jesus revealed to the scribes that he could read their secret thoughts. After all, their criticisms had not been public. Rather they were talking to one another and complaining about what Jesus had claimed to have done, which was to pardon the man. Now they discovered that Jesus knew exactly what they were thinking and saying. His knowledge was not only accurate in the sense that he knew the literal words of their mouths; it was also the kind of knowledge that knew what kind of words they had used to one another. They had thought evilly of Jesus and did not accept his deity whereas here was God telling them that they were sinners.
Second, Jesus asked them to answer a question about whether which one of two statements was the easier to say. Why does he do this? From one point of view, it was equally easy to say both statements – all of us could try and do so and we would not find either one to be difficult to say. But Jesus is not referring to the ability to say something but to the authority to say something. Regarding both these statements, the scribes did not have the authority to say either even although they could say both. Jesus knew, however, that he had the authority to say both, whether or not he said them. Both statements ultimately require divine authority. Only God can forgive a sinner and only God can make a paralysed person walk. If one could do one, he would be able to do the other as well. Jesus had already forgiven the man, which was a divine action. Then he healed the man, which was a divine action. So, in addition to omniscience, Jesus revealed to the scribes that he was almighty.
Third, Jesus told them that he was the promised Messiah when he said that he was the Son of Man. As we know, this title comes from a prediction in the Book of Daniel in which the future reign of the Messiah is described. In that prophecy, the Messiah would appear before God and receive from him an everlasting kingdom. Jesus mentions a detail that the scribes, with their knowledge of the Old Testament, should have known. They should have said to themselves that here was the Messiah and therefore he had the authority to forgive sinners. It is possible that they would not have understood that prophecy in its fullness, but they should have realised that the One who knew their hearts was able to teach them.
The man walked home a living example of the power of Jesus to change a person. Imagine him reaching home and seeing the happiness of his family. Yet Matthew wants us to note what the crowds thought of what they had seen. They still had a low view of Jesus even although they had seen a clear evidence of his power and heard an explanation of who he is – God and man. But the crowds still did not regard him as divine. They only regarded him as one whom God was helping. Do any of us make a similar response? If we are unconverted, we do. We may see others whom Jesus has changed and yet not fully realise who he is. The reason for their failure was their inability to see that they needed the help of Jesus just as much as the healed man did – they all needed for their sins to be forgiven. Hopefully, we all see that to be the case regarding ourselves.
We are all familiar with the benediction at the end of 2 Corinthians because it is the one that is usually repeated at the close of a service. As we know, a benediction is not so much a prayer but a statement of what we can expect from God. Of course, we can pray for the blessings highlighted in the benediction. Still it is more an expression of confidence that God will meet our spiritual needs.
One obvious deduction that can be made from this benediction is that God is unique because although there is only one God there are three equal divine persons in the Godhead. The three persons work in harmony and not in competition. Nevertheless, each has his own contributions to make in the fulfilling of the benediction. This also means that we can have an interaction that focuses on each divine person in certain ways.
Another introductory matter concerns those who can expect to receive the blessings mentioned in the benediction. Is the benediction available to everyone or is it confined to a certain group? The answer to the question is that the details promised are only for those who already trust in Jesus for salvation. So, the blessings promised here are aspects of Christian experience.
Having said that, we should remember that the Trinity has a message for those who are not yet converted. For example, the best-known verse in the Bible (John 3:16) is a statement that the Father sent his Son so that sinners could be saved. The Son freely came to provide that salvation. And the Holy Spirit will convict individuals of their sins and enables them to believe in Jesus.
As we know, there is an unexpected order here, with the Son mentioned first. We are not told why that is the case. Yet some suggestions have been made. One is that the Son is mentioned first because he purchased the blessings by his death. Then the Father is mentioned second because we enter his family after trusting in Jesus. Once we are in the family, we receive blessings from the Spirit or through the Spirit. So there could be an order of our experience of salvation here. After all, if Jesus had not died for his people, they would not receive anything from the Father or through the Spirit.
Of course, it would be possible in other contexts to exchange the words and speak about the love of Jesus and fellowship with the Father and grace of the Spirit. The relationship we have with God is so big that it is impossible to describe all of it in one sentence, no matter how great the sentence might be. We have to approach it in smaller amounts, as it were.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
As we think of the grace he can provide, we are urged to think of the position that Jesus occupies now. Here he is called Lord, which is a reminder that he has been exalted in heaven to the highest place possible, the throne of God. This was a reward for him connected to his amazing work of atonement on the cross. Of course, his coming to engage in that work was connected to his grace as Paul tells us in Philippians 2:6. The fact that he is Lord of all is a reminder that he is charge, we might say, of the heavenly storehouse, which is full of the riches of his grace.
At the same time, we should remember that his kingship is different from other rulers. Often we get our impressions of what something is like by thinking about situations with which we are familiar. So when we think about a king we think on one from a western country. When we think about the kingship of Jesus it is much better to think about it from how the Bible describes a king. In its description of such rulers, the ideal king would also be a priest. As a king, he would rule over them and protect them and as a priest he would offer sacrifices to God for them and intercede for them as a people. Jesus as our king protects us and governs us, and as our priest he has offered a sacrifice for us and represents us in God’s presence. The intercession of Jesus is a huge subject and we are not to imagine that Jesus is pleading in heaven. After all, he is on the throne. His presence there guarantees that he possesses continually grace for his people. He gives it sovereignly and he gives it sympathetically.
Peter encourages his readers to grow in grace which he connects to an increasing knowledge of Jesus. This implies that we get to know him more as we discover his competence in meeting our needs day by day. While Peter mentions that as a duty, surely it should also be a delight to find out what is in his storehouse of grace. He has grace for us as a shepherd feeding his sheep, as a physician healing his patients, as a teacher instructing his pupils, as a guide leading his travellers, as a friend sharing his secrets.
Paul mentions the grace of Jesus when writing about the thorn in the flesh that bothered him. He prayed about the thorn and was told by Jesus that his grace was sufficient for that difficult situation. The prospect of receiving grace from Jesus caused the apostle to be confident about his circumstances. We can do the same. Each day, we should remind ourselves that the grace of Jesus is appropriate, abundant and available.
The love of God the Father
There are many areas in the Christian life that have a focus on God the Father. We can think of three. The first is assurance of adoption into his family. As we know, when we believed in Jesus two benefits came our way and they were provided by the Father. We speak about them under the doctrines of justification and adoption. Justification means that we are pardoned by the Father and accepted as righteous in his sight because the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to us. Obviously, to be justified is a great blessing and if God had only provided this for us we would be saved wonderfully.
Yet God has done even more and this additional area of blessing is called adoption. As we think about it, we will see that adoption highlights the distance between what we were before conversion and where we were placed at conversion. In Roman times, a wealthy person would adopt a suitable slave as his heir. This is the picture of adoption that Paul uses, except that the slaves whom God adopted were not commendable because they were the slaves of sin, and happy to be so. But when they trusted in Jesus they were elevated from that very low position and brought into God’s family as joint-heirs with Jesus. So the love of the Father points to the greatness of the distance between where they were and where he took them to.
The doctrine of adoption also indicates the degree of delight by which the heavenly Father enjoyed the occasion of blessing a forgiven sinner. At the same moment as, but following on from their pardon, he joyfully brought them into his family. We get an insight into this by considering the parable of the lost son and what his father did for him when he returned home in repentance. Everyone would have recognised that he was restored by his father. But the point I am making is that the Father did it with joy.
What else can be said about knowing the love of the Father? Another area of his blessing is answered prayer. We know that Jesus taught his disciples to pray to the Father in heaven, and that he stressed in his teaching on prayer that the heavenly Father would reward openly those who pray to him in the secret place. In Psalm 91, the author mentions the possibility of dwelling in the shelter of the Most High, of dwelling under the shadow of the Almighty. That is a location, wherever it may be physically, where the love of the Father is known. Prayer is a communication of love, whether in the petition or in the answer.
The last area of knowing the Father’s love that I would mention occurs when he chastises those who need it. I wonder who they are. According to the author of Hebrews, chastisement is a mark of every believer. The author points out that although chastisement is never pleasant it is always profitable. And God does it for our good, out of his great love for his people. His aim always is to make us like our elder brother.
The fellowship of the Spirit
One question that arises from the previous comments concerns how the blessings of the Father and the Son are brought to us. The answer to that question is that the Holy Spirit enables believers to receive them and to enjoy them.
Jesus promised his disciples that when the Spirit would come after the Ascension he would take of the things of Christ and reveal them to his followers. The Spirit does this through the Bible, of which he is the author. He enables us to understand what it means, to think about the promises and find spiritual treasure in them. When he enables us to understand its instructions and obey them, he is enabling us to function as sheep of the Good Shepherd. Through the Bible, the Holy Spirit can make Jesus so real to our hearts that it can seem that he was physically present.
The Holy Spirit is also present as the Spirit of adoption leading God’s people to cry ‘Abba, Father.’ Whatever else is involved in that interaction, it is obvious that one of the roles of the Spirit is to lead his people to talk reverently and intimately with the heavenly Father. Prayer does include presenting our requests to God, but it is also a means of communication in other ways as well.
The work of the Spirit in our lives is the thrust of sanctification. He is at work in our souls to bring about this ongoing change. We know what the model to which he is working – his aim is to make God’s people like Jesus in character, to conform them to his image. This is happening day by day provided we are not grieving him.
Another important aspect of the fellowship of the Spirit is to give glimpses of the glory to come to God’s people. He does this in many ways. I would suggest that one of them is the Lord’s Day. We could say that on it we are asked to climb a hill in a spiritual sense and take our telescopes out. He enables us to climb the hill and the telescope is the Bible. From this vantage point we can look back to the cross and we can look ahead to the world to come. It is a good thing, and I would say it is an important part of the work of the Spirit, for God’s people to read about both events often. For example, today we could read Isaiah 53 and the first part of Revelation 14. There are many other examples.