Sunday, 30 July 2017

New Wine in New Wineskins (Matthew 9:14-17)

It seems that this conversation between the disciples of John followed on from the meal in the home of Matthew rather than happening sometime later. Mark tells us that the disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting (Mark 2:8), so maybe the meal that Matthew gave for Jesus and his disciples was held on one of the two days each week that the Pharisees fasted (Mondays and Thursdays). If that was the case, we can see why people would have been curious at why the disciples of Jesus were not fasting.

Doing the right thing
It is common to say that today the presence of many different churches, each saying different things, creates confusion for people. No doubt that is true, but we can see from this incident that religious groups experiencing confusion has been around for a long time. What seems to have caused part of the confusion here is that Jesus and his disciples were not part of the conservative religious movements in Israel. The two groups mentioned here – the followers of the Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist – would have been included among the more traditional groups as opposed to the liberal Sadducees and the political Herodians.

The disciples of John observed one difference at that time between them and the Pharisees on the one hand and the disciples of Jesus on the other – the practice of fasting. On this occasion, the disciples of John did what the Pharisees had failed to do in the previous incident. Initially in Matthew’s house, the Pharisees had tried to get information from the disciples of Jesus and they probably were unable at that time to answer the question. Here the disciples of John take their question to Jesus, which was them doing the right thing, even although their motives may have been confused. They went to him to get answers because they wanted to know why he did things differently.

In doing this, they give us a good example. While we cannot ask Jesus physically, we can ask him prayerfully to show to us whether our practices are valid. When we do, it is incredible the way that his Word will show us the right path. These disciples of John were a bit like the people in Berea who searched the scriptures to see if the things Paul said were true. After all, the Bible alone is our guide.

Doing the right thing at the right time
As mentioned, the matter that concerned the disciples of John was the issue of fasting. It is important to remember that the only fast required by God in Israel was on the Day of Atonement, although it was permissible to engage in voluntary fasting if desired. As mentioned earlier, in the religious customs of the time, people fasted twice a week and it is probably to that practice that the disciples of John are referring here.

The only recorded occasion of Jesus engaging in fasting is during the forty days of temptation in the desert after he was baptised. He would have fasted on the Day of Atonement, but it is obvious that he did not follow the methods of the religious regarding fasting. Of course, he may have chosen to fast at different times.

There is something sad about the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees joining together against the disciples of Jesus. By this time, John was in prison and it may have been the case that some of his followers, now that their leader was not there to guide them, had drifted into company with the Pharisees. After all, they were the conservatives. One thing is obvious and that is that they had not heeded the message of John when he declared that the Messiah had come. And when people reject the gospel, who knows what company they will end up with?

Earlier, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had instructed his disciples to fast secretly and not to let others know that they were engaged in this spiritual discipline. This may have been why the disciples of John and others assumed that the disciples of Jesus did not fast. In his previous teaching, Jesus had instructed his disciples how to fast; now, in this reply, Jesus informed the disciples of John when they should fast.

His illustration of a bridegroom points out that fasting is very unsuitable on happy occasions, but is very appropriate on sad occasions, such as when a bridegroom dies. Some people say that Jesus here is referring to his death because he uses a violent term to describe the removal of the bridegroom, but I am not convinced that he is because he says that those with the bridegroom will fast when he dies and we are not told that the disciples of Jesus fasted at that time. Indeed, the two downcast disciples from Emmaus invited the risen Jesus in for a meal. Others suggest that he is referring to his departure to heaven, but if that was the case, then the disciples should be fasting regularly over this separation, and there is no hint in the New Testament that they did for that reason.

Instead I would say that Jesus is using an illustration from everyday life and we are meant to take it and think of sad occasions that would require fasting as part of the process of dealing with it. So here are a few examples – when our prayers don’t seem to be heard by God; when the gospel is not being blessed in conversions outside the church; when sins are tolerated in society; when churches are divided; when our commitment levels are low. Regarding them, fasting is a suitable response to engage in along with prayer and confession.

What happens when we do the wrong thing?
Jesus then gave two illustrations to show the danger of continuing to do the wrong thing. He points out what happens if the wrong material is used to mend a hole in an old garment and if new wine is put into old wineskins. Instead of sorting out the problem, the selected actions make the situation worse.

What is Jesus referring to here when he says that something is old and something is new? I suspect he is saying that he has come to replace the old way of doing things with a new way. And he says that it is not possible for the old to be retained. The Pharisees believed that their religious behaviour earned them salvation. They had a religion of works rather than a religion of grace. They had mixed up the requirements given by Moses with their own ideas and formed a new religion. It looks as if the disciples of John had a similar outlook.

The disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees had failed to see that what was happening with the coming of Jesus was not a patching up of old ways that had gone wrong, but that another way of doing things should be followed. They wanted to do the Jewish method better by trying to be diligent about external religious rites whereas Jesus was teaching his disciples that something better was available. If they stayed with the old, they would miss out on the new, and we can see from the Book of Acts that this took place with both groups because the apostles had to correct them.

Religion without grace makes the person proud of what he does and leads him to depend on what he does rather than looking to God for grace. They look down on others, as seems to have been the case here with how they questioned the religious commitment of the disciples of Jesus. Because their fasting could not be seen, they were regarded as less zealous.

The disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees, in their zeal for returning to more devotion to their practices, were going in the wrong direction, away from the new way that was going to be introduced by Jesus. And he did not want the disciples of John to do that, which is why he told them these illustrations.

Those rituals connected to Judaism were the old wineskins and they could not be used as containers for the new wine. Whenever someone insisted on using those old wineskins, as some did over the issue of circumcision, all that happened was that the new society of Jesus lost its spiritual freedom and unity. Are we in danger of going back to the old wineskins of legalism and dependence on our religious activities? I would say that it is a question we should always be asking ourselves. It is the case that the early church, imitating the practices of Judaism, decided that Wednesdays and Fridays should be days of fasting. There is no command in the New Testament that they should have done this.

Doing the right thing with new wine
No doubt, we need to ask why Jesus referred to wine. I would suggest that there are two reasons. One is that frequently in the Old Testament wine was used to describe the joy that would mark the kingdom when the Messiah came. After all, Jesus is the Messiah and it would be expected that he would refer to what the Old Testament said about his kingdom. The other reason would be that everyone knew that wine was linked to celebrations and described situations in which people were happy at what was taking place. We can ask what are the new things that are going to give such joy.

Jesus spoke about this new way to the woman of Samaria. In their discussion, she wanted his opinion about whether Jerusalem was better than Gerizim where the Samaritans offered their sacrifices. If she had asked the question a few years earlier, the answer would have been that Jerusalem was more important because they did what God had stipulated concerning sacrifices. But now, says Jesus, the question is not relevant because a new time has arrived in which people can worship the Father anywhere without focussing on rituals. They would be able to worship the Father because Jesus would open the door for them to do so.

The new wine is the gospel, the good news of salvation. In the gospel, we discover the great love of God for sinners and the steps he took in order for them to drink the new wine. We are familiar, most of us, with great Bible texts that summarise the gospel, that tell us clearly what Jesus did for sinners. Those verses encourage us to come to Jesus and rest upon him for salvation, to cease trying to work our way into God’s favour but instead to trust in Jesus alone for pardon. They bring us to the cross and open to our gaze the cross of Calvary where salvation was procured for sinners.

What are some of the blessings connected to the gospel that we can receive freely from God? There is forgiveness of all our sins, there is reconciliation with the God against who we had sinned, there is adoption into his family, there is the working of the Spirit in our hearts to sanctify us, there is fellowship with Jesus, there is the community of saints, there is access to God’s presence, and there is the promise of heaven. All these blessings are wonderful and they are given to everyone who believes in the Saviour.

What are the new wineskins that we are to use to be able to drink the new wine? I would suggest that by a new wineskin Jesus was referring to a new heart. Where else can the blessings of the gospel dwell but in hearts that have been made new by the Holy Spirit? The problem with the disciples of the Pharisees and the disciples of John was that they were religious people with old hearts. They may have had minor differences between them, but both were very different to the disciples of Jesus. It is only a new heart that can hold the new wine of the gospel.

It may be the case that some of us are like the disciples of John. You see the difference between what you do and what the disciples of Jesus do. The best thing to do is speak to Jesus about it. We don’t know if they asked Jesus for a new heart, but you should ask him for one.

And those of us who have new hearts, always ask yourself ‘why’ when you find yourselves drawn to legalism. After all, why would you want to depart from the gospel way and make up rules of your own?

The King on the Throne (Psalm 45:6-8)

These verses are quoted in Hebrews 1 as descriptive of Jesus and his kingdom. The psalmist uses the example of a royal event to illustrate the exaltation of Jesus, and we need to work out what some of his allusions are pointing towards. I want us to observe six details about his enthronement.

In verse 2, the psalmist mentions that the king is a man, the best of men. Now in verse 6 he says that the king is God. So here we are introduced to an incredible mystery, that the predicted king would be both God and man. It is important that we maintain this distinction when we think of Jesus. Since his incarnation, he has been God and man and will be so forever.

Recently, I was in Germany and went to Wittenberg, a place that was crucial for the German Reformation because of the individuals who taught there. One of them was a man called Philip Melanchthon and he said, when he was dying, that he was looking forward to understanding more of what it means for Jesus to be both fully God and fully man.

Paul gives his response to who Jesus is when he says in 1 Timothy 3;16, ‘Great is the mystery of godliness, God was manifest in the flesh.’ If a human also became an ant, it would be incredible condescension to attach such a small creature to a person with a human mind, and human emotions, and human choices. Yet such a change is nothing in comparison to God becoming a man, the eternal also becoming active in time, the omniscient also learning details, the omnipotent also becoming dependent, and the omnipresent also being confined to one place. When he became a man, he did not cease to be God in any way.

The same verse in the psalm says that the throne on which he sits is eternal. When we think of the Son of God seated on God’s throne, we need to distinguish between what he possesses as the eternal Son and what he receives as the Mediator, the one who is both God and man. As the eternal Son, he always is on the throne of God with the Father and the Spirit. That reign is way beyond our ability to imagine. That is not the reign that is being described here. Instead, what we have here is what he received as the Mediator.

The role of Mediator is connected to the providing of salvation for sinners. A mediator is a person who represents two parties, and Jesus because he is man represents both God and man. He did that when he came to earth, he did that when he was on the cross, and does this now that he is on the throne. As the mediator, he has at heart the best interests of God and man. That is how he will reign, and will do so endlessly.

The kingship of Jesus has different stages. There is the stage that is currently happening, and which will last until the second coming. Then there will be the stage during which the final judgement will take place. After that, there will be the stage connected to life in the new heavens and new earth. The great detail of each stage is that Jesus reigns.

Every government has its policies, which they usually announce before a General Election and then forget about them. We are told in the psalm what the policy of the kingdom of Jesus is – righteousness, and it is announced at the beginning of his reign. The rule of righteousness will mark every stage of his kingdom. In every place and during each second of his reign, he will engage in righteousness. Therefore, we need to ask what righteousness is.

Righteousness can be defined as obedience to the law of God. This is what Jesus as king is engaged in bringing about. Another way that the Bible describes our relationship with God today is that of a new covenant. Regarding that covenant, we are told that it involves the law of God being written on our hearts and minds. We can easily work out where we are regarding our service of the king by asking what our response is to the law of God. The question to ask is, ‘Do I think about it with my mind and do I love it with my heart?’

Unlike many earthly politicians, Jesus preaches what he practises, and unlike all earthly politicians he does so perfectly. During his years on earth, the psalmist says that Jesus loved righteousness (the author is looking back, as it were, when he says this about the Messiah). The law of God was in his heart and he loved to speak about it and to obey it fully and perfectly. Today we watch politicians more concerned about their image, which is a mark of a shallow society. In the kingdom of Jesus, we have a ruler of substance who does not depend on meaningless opinion polls to give him a boost. Because Jesus is like this within, in his heart, we can be confident what his actions will be – he will always promote righteousness.

Above we mentioned three stages in his reign and we can see how in each of them he honours the law of God. In the kingdom of grace, he brings his subjects to love and obey it; on the Day of Judgement, he will judge people for what they did with his law written on their hearts by nature; and in the eternal world, he will rule a world where everyone keeps it perfectly.

It was customary to anoint a king with special oil at his coronation. Jesus, when he ascended to heaven and took his place on God’s throne was given a special anointing. Who anointed him? We can see from verse 7 that he was anointed by God and from elsewhere in the Bible we know that he was anointed by the Father.

With what was Jesus anointed? He was anointed with something that his people have, but of which he has more. The blessing that he was given by God was that of gladness. It is the case that there are several references in the Bible to Jesus and the joy of heaven. For example, the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus endured the cross because of the joy that was set before him (Heb. 13:2). The psalmist, in Psalm 16, when describing the resurrection of Jesus, mentions that in heaven there is fullness of joy. When believers enter heaven, they are said to enter into the joy of their Lord. It must be a lot of joy if the number that no one can count can all enter into it.

So the king is marked by possessing great joy. Where does this joy come from him? The provider of joy in the hearts of God’s people is the Holy Spirit. And the Father gave to Jesus the Holy Spirit at the coronation. Here the Spirit is likened to copious oil that flows down the garments of the king. Jesus reigns through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of people, whether those already in the church, or those who will yet join it.

The joyful atmosphere is influenced by music coming from players of instruments. Maybe the picture is of dwellers in palaces surrounding the main palace join in the celebration by playing their instruments. The king hears the joyful sound and it makes him glad. So we have a second source of joy for the king.

We should note what the palaces are covered with – something very rare and valuable. They are made of ivory. A piece of ivory is valuable, so who can tell the worth of a palace made of it? The lesson is that the host provided nothing but the best for those who came to share in the celebrations connected to the coronation.

All this is a divinely-inspired picture or illustration of what occurred when Jesus was crowned. Is it too much to say that those in the ivory palaces who were expressing their joy at this occasion depict the believers who had already reached heaven and who had the incredible privilege of being there when the coronation took place. After all, such do have the best in accommodation and their skills at bringing joy to God have been greatly enhanced since they went there. The music that they play has not been heard on earth.

It would be good for us if by faith we could hear the sounds from the ivory palaces. And it would be good as well to have the aspiration to go there at the close of our lives and participate in the sound.

The final point I would mention is to observe the way the psalmist stresses the prominence of the king. One way in which this was done in the past was by the importance of the women who made up the royal court. Their presence pointed to the power the king had over the countries from which they came. In addition, the attire of the queen signified the greatness of the king. This could be a reference to the Queen Mother if the author is basing his song on one of the weddings of Solomon. The point is that the dignitaries from home and abroad acknowledged his lordship. And in this we have a picture of the complete prominence of the King of kings.

In this psalm we have a wonderful picture of the enthronement of King Jesus. We have seen who he is (God and man); we have seen the nature of his kingdom (a righteous one); we have seen the joy that permeates his kingdom because he rules; we have been reminded of the praise that marks the ivory palaces; and we have realised that he is prominent above all others. How do we respond?

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Standing Beside the Sea (Rev. 15-16)

There is a connection between this incident and what happened when the children of Israel were delivered from Egypt. Two obvious links are the song of Moses and the plagues. We are told the meaning of these seven plagues – they are a sign signifying that the outpouring of the wrath of God in human history is coming to a completion. This is a reminder that displays of God’s wrath are happening in different ways before the end, but they also remind us that all such displays are never out of control.

Paul tells us that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven by giving people up to their sinful choices (Rom. 1:18ff.). Moreover, he says that believers were once children of wrath, even as others, which is a reminder that all of us by nature are children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). The psalmist says that God is angry with the wicked every day. His wrath is his attitude towards those who sin against him.

To see the point of the seven plagues, we need to ask about the function of the plagues that were sent on Egypt. First, the plagues were expressions of divine judgement on the enemies of God’s kingdom. Second, the plagues were signs to God’s people that divine deliverance was about to happen for them, although the deliverance did not come until the final plague was sent (the death of the firstborn).

Those two features are repeated in the seven plagues. They describe different ways in which God punishes people. At the same time, they are signs to God’s people that he is active and working towards the time when he will give redemption to them. What is the final plague that will bring in the time of deliverance? It is the destruction of Babylon, described in chapters 17 and 18, and they detail the dismantling and disappearance of the city of man.

Once again in this book, when a major moment occurs in which many serious expressions of divine judgement are described, we are taken first to heaven and asked to observe what is going on there. Heaven is described as a palace of great beauty and splendour, where dignified servants of God are engaged constantly in his business, and attendants surround his throne. Its business is the will of God and in the vision different aspects of his will are mentioned. His will is concerned with blessing his people and punishing his enemies.  Standing beside the sea, as it were, is the best viewpoint.

The location described
The sea of glass surrounds the throne of God (Rev. 4:6). Two ideas are suggested in this description – transparency and peace. Transparency ideally is when one has no defects to hide. God is light and his presence reveals it. There are no hidden agendas. Glass also conveys the sense of calm. This is a reminder that there never is disturbance or agitation in heaven – it is the place of peace.

Some have suggested that the clearness is a reference to providence, that what is obscure to us and difficult to understand is straightforward and easy to grasp in heaven. Here we are getting insight into his plans, but the full unfolding of his will takes place beside the crystal sea, where all is clear.

Another feature of the sea of glass was that it was mingled with fire. Fire is often a symbol of purity. It is certainly the case that heaven is the place of perfection. In Isaiah 6, we meet the seraphim, creatures who burn with holiness. The sinful world of planet earth is the opposite, indicated by seas marked by storms and dread and disasters. In contrast, heaven is the place of calm and consecration.

The crowd
The residents of heaven are then mentioned. They are the ones who did not get involved in the activities organised by the beast and the image created by the second beast. They remained faithful whatever the cost and they reached the safety of the heavenly shore. All the dangers and problems connected to that are now behind them. We are told about them that they are prominent – I think that is the point of describing them as standing beside the sea. If we recall, earlier the dragon had stood beside the stormy sea of earth waiting to bring about the chaos that was organised by the two beasts. In contrast, the people of God are standing beside a better sea.

We should ask why people would stand beside a sea. After all, we don’t do so now. In olden times, everything came by sea. Trade, armies, politicians, and many other visitors. We could almost say that the sea brought the future to people because whatever it brought affected them for the rest of their lives. Whatever decisions were made across the sea eventually came to them. So we could say that the crowd standing by the glassy sea were waiting to see what the future would bring to them. Across the sea from them is God and he has great plans and prospects for them to experience eternally.

Because they are in heaven – the place of peace, purity and prospect, they engage in praise. What do they say in their song?

The song
The first detail to observe is that the same battle is fought during the Old and New Testaments. The battle is between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness. Israel had the truth, Egypt was built on a system of lies. In heaven, believers from both campaigns share the victory song.

The song celebrates the sovereignty of God. His sovereignty extends to the nations and to all his actions in those nations – he is ‘King of the nations’ who exhibits almighty power. His actions are wonders because they reveal his wisdom and power and consistent adherence to truth as well as his constant ability to defeat whatever the hostile nations bring against him.

Moreover, the song stresses the singularity of God. There is none like him and it is impossible for anyone to opt out of glorifying him in the end. For many, their glorification will not be saving, because they will acknowledge his uniqueness reluctantly. The biblical way of saying that God is unique is to refer to his holiness. Holiness is a comprehensive word because it combines everything that makes up perfection. Adam was holy when he was first created. Because the holiness here is divine perfection, it is inevitably elevated above everything else, as we see in the vision described in Isaiah 6. This is a reason why we should not sin because every sin is the opposite of the holiness of God.

The fourth feature of the song is that it rejoices in success. Worshippers of God will come from all the nations after they hear about his righteous acts. Although not specified here, the righteous acts are the ones we include in the gospel. So John, and us, are prepared for looking at the seven plagues by being reminded of the redeemed in heaven. They will have been gathered in during the days of the plagues.  

The plagues
The origin of the plagues is shown to be connected to the worship of God in heaven. A heavenly order of process is observed, designed to impress the dignity and the solemnity of the event on those who hear about it. We are reminded here that the source of divine judgement is the holy place where God dwells.

Of course, no real set of bowls can hold the infinite wrath of the eternal God. The number ‘seven’ points to perfection. It may that John wants us to think of the bowls mentioned in 5:8, which are said to be the prayers of the saints. Several times in this book he has connected divine judgement and the prayers of God’s people. The psalms are full of prayers by believers who longed for divine vindication. And Jesus taught his church to pray, ‘Deliver us from evil.’

To add to the seriousness of what is signified by the bowls, entrance into this sanctuary is not permitted until the plagues have passed, which is probably a way of saying that access to the fullness of glory in the presence of God takes place after the Day of Judgement.

The plagues are not all sequential because in verse 11 the boils of the first plague are still affecting those who suffer the fifth plague. So we can assume that some of them are parallel in the experience of those who are receiving the punishment.

Most of the seven plagues bear a similarity to the ten plagues of the Exodus. The obvious difference is that while the ones at the Exodus were literal, the ones in the vision are symbolic. At the Exodus, each plague happened once within the land of Egypt whereas the seven plagues are global. The seven are also similar to some of the judgements connected to the seals in Revelation 6. In the plagues, we see pestilences, death, changes in nature, fierce heat, darkness and demonic attack.

John is also told why the plagues were sent. Two reasons are mentioned. One is that they are forms of punishment connected to the cruel way those persons and societies persecuted God’s people. The other reason is that the plagues are a reminder that people should repent of their sins, yet they did not. Punishment by itself will not bring sinners to repentance.

The final seal describes the judgement of God on Babylon. Its destruction is a global affair and causes the collapse of everything else. It is a moment of great significance because the next two chapters are explanations of what happened. The city of man comes to its end and it will disappear. It began with Cain and has been expanding ever since. Its residents, who are everybody apart from those who follow Jesus, don’t want to repent even while the city is disappearing before their eyes.

What is Armageddon? Some people think it is a literal battle in Palestine. Others think it describes an end-time conflict. John says it is a battlefield. On one side are those who followed the beasts, and they have been brought to this location through demonic temptation. On the other side is God, whose Day it is. It looks to me that Armageddon is another name for the Day of Judgement, the great day of the Lord God Almighty. We might say the biggest numerically, but also the shortest timewise, battle in the history of earth.

The Beatitude
Jesus announces this beatitude. As we can see, it is connected to his second coming, which will come suddenly (the picture of a thief breaking into a building is used frequently in the New Testament connection to the second coming of Jesus). The beatitude is a warning to his disciples and he uses the picture of clothes to make his point.

A thief is successful because the owner of the house falls asleep. When the owner wakens, he discovers his clothes placed elsewhere have been taken and he has nothing to wear. If he had not gone to sleep, his loss would not have occurred. The lesson is that Christians should not succumb to spiritual sleep. Instead they should always have on their spiritual attire.

The church in Laodicea, which had fallen asleep in a spiritual sense even although it imagined that it was wide awake, was exhorted by Jesus to buy from him ‘white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen’ (Rev. 3:18). I doubt if this is a reference to the garments of justification because possession of them does not fluctuate. Instead it refers to sanctification or to Christlikeness, which does have degrees, and which can at times be less than at other times. Times of difficulty can be difficult times for making progress in sanctification. When they come along, we should remember this beatitude and put on our best clothes. 

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Call of Matthew (Matthew 9:9-14)

There are different ways of approaching this incident recorded by Matthew. Obviously, it was the occasion of him meeting Jesus and becoming one of his apostles. It was the commencement for Matthew of a life that he could not possibly have imagined. It would never have crossed his mind while he was working in Capernaum that a group of people in Inverness two thousand years later would be reading material that he had written. Still, here we are and that is what we are doing. This is an obvious reminder that no one knows where Jesus will take them after conversion.

Perhaps we can even consider it from the point of view of qualifications for eating a meal with Jesus at that time. How would people in general know whether they could ask Jesus for a meal in their homes? The disciples would be able to tell them if he would go to their homes.

One cause in this case was that Matthew needed to have a personal encounter with Jesus before it would take place. If Matthew had been asked a week earlier about the possibility of Jesus being present at a meal with a tax-collector he would have said it would not happen. An encounter was needed first. In Matthew’s case, the encounter seems to have been very sudden. Of course, it is possible that Matthew had prayed for this meeting or at least had a desire to meet Jesus because everyone in the area was speaking about him. Matthew may even have seen Jesus in action healing needy people or heard some of his teaching. Nevertheless, the encounter does seem to be sudden. Moreover, the initial interaction with Jesus was very short – Jesus only spoke two words to Matthew and the great change took place. And the brief interaction was very surprising.

Who was Matthew? 
He was a tax-collector in Capernaum, which means that he was working for the Roman authorities who governed the land. This was an unusual activity for a Jew to engage in, working for the those who had conquered his people. In this regard, Matthew is a picture of all of us in that by nature we are engaged in activities that are against the kingdom of God.

From one point of view, Matthew’s activities seemed all right. Tax collectors were unpopular, but unpopularity is not always the guide as to whether something is correct. The real problem with Matthew would have been his motives. He was seeking for satisfaction in earthly things. And he had done very well for himself. Yet I would suggest the speed with which he obeyed the request of Jesus to follow him shows that Matthew was seeking for something better. The problem with Matthew was that he had an empty heart.

What did Jesus do?
Usually when we read an incident we should note who is present in it. At the same time, we should ask if some are not present whom we would have expected to be there. It is interesting that Jesus seems to alone when he spoke to Matthew. The disciples are not said to be present when Jesus calls him. This suggests that the Saviour chose to do it this way.

Sometimes Jesus uses human instruments as his means of contacting people, as we can see in the Gospels when he used Andrew to bring his brother Peter into contact with him. On other occasions, Jesus would find someone by himself without the involvement of another person, as was the case with Philip. This is what seems to have been the case with Matthew. I would suggest that Jesus did this on purpose. He planned to do this on that day because it was fixed as an appointment in the diary of heaven. Without him knowing it, Matthew had been a point of interest in the eternal counsels of God.

The first detail that Matthew mentions is that Jesus looked at Matthew. Did Matthew sense this look burning into his heart? We are not told. I wonder what would have gone through the mind of Jesus as he saw Matthew on this occasion. Here are some suggestions. There would have been sadness in the heart of Jesus as he observed a man living only for this world, climbing a ladder the top of which was not leaning against a good destination. Yet there would have been satisfaction as well in the heart of Jesus because here we have an example of the good Shepherd seeking a lost sheep. After all, this was why Jesus had come into the world, to seek and to save those who were lost. Now he was looking at such a lost sheep and there must have been great joy in his heart as he did so. Jesus would have known that his love for Matthew was eternal as well as personal.

Then Jesus spoke to Matthew briefly. Two words only, ‘Follow me.’ Yet Matthew immediately did so, leaving behind his desk with everything on it. I suspect Jesus gave this call at a quiet moment in the day. It is unlikely that he would have spoken to Matthew if he was busy in a transaction with people, although some no doubt would have been glad to watch a tax collector leave without taking money from them. There must have been something special about the words that Jesus spoke that caused Matthew to do what he did. What was so special about them?

Obviously, the words of Jesus were words of power. It is not likely that someone would follow a stranger without some form of inner conviction that his invitation was true or meaningful. Paul says in Romans 1 that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. He does not say that the gospel and divine power are two distinct things. We sometimes imagine that the simple gospel is somehow inadequate for bringing someone into the kingdom and they should have additional experiences before they will be truly affected. We can use theology in a wrong way. Does the gospel ever come without divine power? When we hear it, we are either blessed or hardened. The best thing for us to do with the gospel is to share it and then witness its power. When Jesus spoke his short and straightforward invitation to Matthew, they were words of power that Matthew found irresistible. 

I would suggest that the invitation of Jesus was a provision of peace for Matthew and his empty heart. When does peace come into a soul? It comes when an empty soul meets the provider of peace. Before he meets the provider, all can only be speculation, mere discussion points about a theory. But once contact is made with the heavenly provider peace comes. We are not told how much Matthew knew about spiritual things at that moment. No doubt he had a lot to learn about the kingdom of God. But he sensed that Jesus wanted him to be a disciple and that brought great peace into his lonely heart.

Moreover, I would suggest that Matthew realised that the words of Jesus held out for him prospects that were very attractive. It is likely that he was aware of some of the things that Jesus had promised about his kingdom and he wanted to have them. Why else would he have followed Jesus so enthusiastically? Following is not the same as wandering. Matthew followed Jesus because he knew that Jesus intended to take him and the rest of his people to a wonderful destination.

Those features occur in virtually every conversion to Jesus, whatever the age or the background of the person. There is the sense that what the gospel says and promises is true, that Jesus is sufficient by himself to bring peace to one’s soul, and that following Jesus will lead to a wonderful destination that is full of joy and gladness.

What did Matthew do?
He made a meal so that his friends could meet Jesus and his disciples. Right away we can see a remarkable change in Matthew’s outlook and the features of the change are connected to expressions of love. No doubt Matthew liked his friends before but he would not have previously wanted them to meet Jesus and his disciples. Now he wanted his former companions in sin to meet the Saviour he had found. So there was a love for unsaved sinners in the heart of Matthew.

Moreover, Matthew also wanted to get to know the disciples of Jesus, which is an expression of brotherly love, and such love is the evidence of new life. One of those disciples later said that we know we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. Such love is a great evidence of true conversion and is therefore necessary for assurance. The astonishing element of Matthew’s expression of brotherly love is that it commenced on the day of his conversion.

One of the striking details in this description concerns how relaxed Jesus was in such company. He was reclining with the others in the room. Imagine a stranger had been told, ‘God has come to Capernaum.’ The stranger might say to himself, ‘I wonder who he is meeting with.’ Imagine his surprise to be told that the Lord was relaxing in a room full of sinners. Of course, he was glad to be there to tell them about his great salvation.

What happened next?
The religious leaders made their presence known, and it was not a pleasant experience for those with whom they interacted. They were the flies on the ointment at this meal. Their question about Jesus and his methods was not a search for answers to the needs of their souls, but an attempt to find evidence to punish Jesus and prevent him from continuing his ministry. Still, they did not realise who they were combatting – they were unaware that he is omniscient and knew their words and their motives better than they knew them themselves.

They received from Jesus a lesson in theology, and the lesson contains three points. No doubt we should ask how Jesus gave the lesson. Was he angry with their response? He would have been. Yet he would also want them to understand the truth of what he was saying. So there would also have been in his heart a desire that they would experience the truths that he was about to mention. What were the three details?

First, they learned something about themselves: they did not realise they were sinners although they were able to see faults in others a mile away – if they had known they were sinners, they would have looked for a cure. Instead, they did not think that they needed a cure. They assumed that their religious activities and self-righteousness were sufficient for pleasing God.

Second, they learned something about God: he is more interested in showing mercy than watching correct displays of sacrificial rituals (they would also have noticed that Jesus claiming to be God). Anyone who knew anything about the Pharisees would have known that they delighted in detail and had even put together complex rules for administering those sacrifices. Their focus on winning the approval of God ignored the greatest of his activities, the one that is above all his other works, his desire to show mercy to sinners.

Third, they learned something about Jesus, which is that he wants sinners to follow him. He wanted to be the shepherd who would lead them, the teacher who would instruct them, and the guide who would show them the way to heaven. They had not realised what the role of Jesus was, that he was the Saviour who had come into the world to find those who were lost. They did not realise that they, although very religious, needed a Saviour like everyone else. Of course, there are no righteous persons for him to call, even if the Pharisees imagined that they were such.