And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” Matthew 17:17
Imagine for a moment the disappointment that Moses must have felt after having been in the presence of the Lord God on the mountain for 40 days, to come down to find the children of Israel steeped in the idolatrous worship of a golden calf (Exodus 32). Moses was so upset by the shameless display that he actually smashed the stone tablets that contained the Law written by the very hand of God (Exodus 32;19). In our text for Sunday we find Jesus, coming down from His communion with Moses and Elijah and the very voice of His Father. As He does He is descending more than just a physical mountain; like Moses, He returns to find the enemy has triumphed over His faithless followers. Imagine how jarring it must have been to His heart to come from the heights of heaven to return to such an unbelieving company of disciples who were unable to cast a demon out of a young child.
There is an eternal difference between the experiences of Moses and Jesus, however. Moses came down the mountain, leaving God at the top; the disciples however, did not leave Jesus on the mountain; He came down with them. Now their failure is transformed into an opportunity to learn from Jesus and grow in faith, as the transfigured Christ who is the “Beloved Son of God,” now comes down the mountain as the “Son of man,” to teach His disciples how to live by faith, suffer, and help and serve others.
Faced with a demon-possessed boy, Jesus teaches that if the disciples had but a small amount of faith, nothing would be impossible for them (17:20). There is one reason that God’s people are not walking an overcoming, victorious walk; there is one reason that God’s people are not serving one another in love; there is one reason that Christians are not living as we ought – it is faithlessness. The good news though is that we can accomplish great things with even the smallest measure of faith. This is where we find the answer to our inability. The Father’s command in verse 5: “Listen to Him,” necessitates obedience, and obedience requires faith. May we exercise our mustard seed of faith to obey the Lord Jesus Christ.
… a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” Matthew 17:5.
Following Peter’s great messianic confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus began teaching His disciples that both He and they must suffer (Mt 16:21-26). In order to encourage them in the midst of this, Jesus promised His disciples that, “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Mt 16:28). Many find the answer to this promise in what takes place six days later when Jesus would take Peter, James, and John to a high mountain to be transfigured before them (17:1-2). These disciples witnessed Jesus Christ in all of His past and future glory, in the very form that He would occupy for all eternity after His resurrection.
With the transfigured Jesus were the two great figures of the Old Testament: Moses (representing the law) and Elijah (the prophets). Again it is impetuous Peter who speaks up with the typical human response to any great historical moment: “Let’s memorialize it!” He announced, “I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (17:4). No sooner does Peter say this, than God replies, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (17:5), leaving them with Jesus alone.
There are a number of things that we can learn from this momentous event. We see the continuity of the Old and New Testaments in the friendly conversation of Jesus with Moses and Elijah; we also find, however, the supremacy of Jesus Christ as the Beloved Son of God, who is more than a mere prophet like Elijah and who fulfills the Law of Moses. We also see our sinful human tendency to memorialize events with something physical to adore. And we find that Jesus alone is the final authority whom we are called to obey. The transfiguration also gave the disciples a hopeful glimpse of the future triumph of Christ and the restoration of His glory after He would suffer and die. This glory was that which was inherent to Jesus’s nature, which He had in the beginning when He dwelled eternally in the bosom of the Father. It was this glory that Jesus temporarily shrouded in flesh in the incarnation, the glory which now became visible for this brief but life-changing moment in time known as the transfiguration.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things … Matthew 16:21
We have come to a new section of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus begins to reveal His mission and work. Having understood the nature of the Person of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, the disciples will now be confronted with a different idea of the mission of Christ, than they were familiar with. While they acknowledged Jesus’ messiahship, they would now begin to learn that this Messiah’s work involved suffering and death, and to follow Him would likely mean their own death as well.
In this text we have the very first definite prediction of Jesus’ passion (which will be repeated in 17:22-23, and 20:18-19). The Jewish people’s idea of the Messiah, for the most part, was that he would triumphantly reign over the world from Jerusalem. The idea that the Messiah would go to Jerusalem to suffer, was beyond their ability to comprehend, so much so that Peter actually rebuked Jesus for having been mistaken in suggesting such a shocking thing. Even though Peter just confessed Jesus to be the Son of God, he had much to learn about what it meant to follow Him. Jesus revealed that Peter’s rebuke was the result of setting his mind on the things of self, rather than the things of God.
Jesus took this first revelation of His own suffering as an opportunity to teach the disciples about living a life of self-denial and even death to self; in verse 24 He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” For a disciple, to follow his teacher meant that he would live and die as his Rabbi did. So as Jesus did not live for himself, the call to discipleship involves repudiating every link that ties us to ourselves–in the words of one commentator, “obliterating self as the dominant principle of life in order to make God that principle.” To “take up one’s cross” unquestionably pointed to the humiliating practice of a condemned criminal carrying the very instrument of his own execution, through the streets, bearing the shame of onlookers, ultimately to his death. Ironically Jesus tells us that this is the only way to find true life. If our own physical well-being is the dominant principle of life, we will end up losing our lives. Practically speaking, this means that self-interest ends up killing us, while living for God and others results in real life.
“I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18
There are but a few moments in the history of God’s people that were truly revolutionary, resulting in a positive change of direction for them. In the Old Testament we would certainly count the Passover as one example of this; also, that awesome and powerful day when Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, is another; the anointing of David as king of Israel, and the return of the exiled Israelites to rebuild the temple, are other examples. The New Testament opens with the birth of Christ; His birth, life, death, and resurrection unquestionably changed the world’s course forever. In the history of the church after Christ, we would count the first Pentecost recorded in the book of Acts as well as the Reformation, which began 500 years ago, as wholly transformative events in the history of the church.
I believe that if one were to catalogue the top ten or twenty momentous events in the history of God’s people, they would have to include the narrative from our text in Matthew’s Gospel. For several reasons, this is the single-most discussed text in the entire book. In chapter 16 of the Gospel, Jesus cuts off the doctrinal authority of the Sadducees and Pharisees from the people of God (16:1-12), and He reforms His people in what He now calls his “church.” Christ builds His church upon the firm confession of the apostle Peter in verse 16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is a foundational declaration for the Christian church. This event quite remarkably parallels what happened in the 16th century when God reformed His people again after cutting off the doctrinal authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The true church is built upon none other than Christ; and any time the visible church strays from that foundation to any other “rock,” they become a false church from which God rescues and reforms His remnant people. This is something that continues on both large and small scales throughout the history of God’s church.
Ecclesia semper reformanda est, often shortened to Ecclesia semper reformanda, is Latin for, “the church must always be reformed.” It refers to the conviction that God’s people must continually re-examine their foundation to ensure that it is pure in doctrine and practice; and when it is found faulty, it must return afresh to the Foundation which Peter confessed.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Matthew 16:16
We have arrived at a very important place in Matthew’s Gospel – the very first confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and Son of God. In our text in Matthew chapter 16, Jesus changes the doctrinal authority from that of the Sadducees and Pharisees to Himself. Strangely enough this change begins with the Sadducees and Pharisees requesting that Jesus perform a sign in order to validate His Messianic claims. It is no coincidence that Matthew so constructs his gospel, placing this cynical and malicious request immediately after Jesus twice fed the multitudes, did multiple miracles and healed several people. What Matthew is showing is that these religious leaders wanted not merely a sign but a sign of their own liking that would affirm their authority. Jesus condemns these sign-seeking leaders in the severest of terms, calling them vicious and adulterous. God will have His Son glorified, but He will not have Him to be a showman.
Throughout the history of the visible church, one of the most subtle ways that Christ has been most robbed of His centrality and glory, is by sign-seeking. Instead we are told that the only sign necessary is “the sign of Jonah,” which is Christ, his death and resurrection (the Gospel). Doubt will never be overcome by signs and wonders but will only be conquered by Christ alone. Despite this fact, the professing people of God often still want something more than “just Jesus.” Manifested in different ways (from mysticism to legalism to contemplative spirituality to holiness and spiritual warfare movements), this sensationalism is deeply rooted in many Christian movements not satisfied with simple faith in Christ alone. In varied ways false teachers continue to leaven the Gospel by teaching that simple faith in the Biblical Gospel of Christ alone is merely “elementary teaching,” or “milk not meat.” You need to ever be watchful for such leaven, for even a little doctrinal leaven is a dangerous thing. Ironically, when men teach you to desire “more of Christ,” they may be in danger of adding to the simplicity of Christ alone, and thus perverting the Gospel.
Solus Christus teaches us that all else to the left or right of Christ alone are demoted in the light of His Person and work. This is what Peter confesses in chapter 16 and is illustrated at the Mount of transfiguration in chapter 17. Christ alone will always be necessary, sufficient, and complete. All other ground is sinking sand.
They all ate and were satisfied. Matthew 15:38a
Time and again in the Gospel accounts, no sooner are the sick laid at Jesus’ feet than, in compassionate grace, He reaches out and heals them (15:29-30). With their loved ones healed, the crowds happily stay with Jesus and hear Him teaching for three days, glorifying God as they do (15:31-32). But while man does not live by bread alone, neither does he live without bread at all, and after three days, these happy people were likely beginning to starve. So again in compassionate grace, Jesus again uses His faithless disciples to multiply and distribute a mere “seven loaves and a few fish,” to fully satisfy a crowd of upwards of 10,000 people, with a huge supply of leftovers (15:33-39)!
A. Sand wrote in his commentary on Matthew: “In the logic of the Gospel it appears that there is some kind of intimate connection between healing people and feeding them.” In both the healing of great crowds, as well as the feeding of the four-thousand, we find the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated; and we will examine our text in Matthew as we celebrate the reformation rallying cry, “Sola Gratia,” or grace alone. Next Sunday’s text in Matthew chapter 15 manifests the truth that the apostle John documented about the coming of “grace and truth” in the person of the Messiah. In John chapter 1, the apostle writes: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. …For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:14,16-17). In both of the stories in our text, Jesus saves, heals, and provides on the basis of grace alone, apart from all merit on the part of both those receiving the benefits of grace and those being used as a means of grace.
The grace of God is no more clearly revealed than in the salvation of God’s elect, where according to Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Sola Gratia is important because it accurately conveys the fact that God saves people because of His mercy and goodness and not because of anything that makes them desirable to God or worthy to be saved.
… why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matthew 15:3)
October 31, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church sparking what would become a great restorative reformation of Christ’s church. We will commemorate this event by taking the month of October to meditate on some of the themes that spurred on the Reformation. At the same time, our exposition of the Gospel of Matthew has us in chapter 15, which (along with the first 12 verses of chapter 16) contains four stories that can be organized around four of the major themes highlighted in the Gospel and rediscovered by the evangelical church in the Reformation.
The first story involves some of the traditions and dietary laws of the religious leaders (15:1-20); Jesus affirms and establishes the Scripture as the sole authority for God’s people, above all tradition. This will be the text we will consider on October 1st, under the banner of the first rallying cry of the Reformation, “Sola Scriptura,” Scripture alone. Then the following week as we study the faith of a Canaanite woman in verses 21-28 of chapter 15, we will find the means by which people become God’s children, namely “Sola Fide,” by faith alone. The third story describing the great feeding of the four thousand in verses 29-39 of the chapter, highlights the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ as He uses disciples, independent of all merit, by grace alone (“Sola Gratia”). The final two paragraphs of this section (chapter 16 verses 1-12), contain the demand for a sign and Jesus’ warning about “the leaven of the Pharisees;” these texts point us to find our satisfaction in the sufficiency of Christ alone (“Solus Christus”) instead of signs.
These four principles rediscovered in the Reformation recapitulate the main doctrinal truths that we have already seen in Matthew’s Gospel (the authority of Scripture, the inclusion of other ethnicities among God’s people on the basis of faith, the grace of Christ, and His magnificence as the fulfillment of the law). Beginning with the theme of “Scripture alone,” we have been seeing time and again in Matthew how God’s word is always superior to human traditions, and personal relationships always trump religious regulations. While there is a place for tradition within the Christian faith, any tradition that is not supported by Scripture must bow to the higher authority of God’s Word.