“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.
As we arrive at chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel, it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus’ ministry is becoming more focused on His disciples while He is increasingly opposed by the religious Jewish leaders. This polarized response is evidently growing through chapters 11-12. But the progressive polarization to Jesus is not perfect, as we find even the disciples’ have misunderstandings, and we see their faith failing at times.
Surprisingly some of the most faithless responses come from those closest to Him; while the most faithful responses come from Gentiles. In this section we also see the disciples’ strengths and weaknesses set against Christ’s goodness, glory and grace toward them. All of this continues as the shadow of His suffering and crucifixion looms; this text has been referred to as a “pre-passion story.”
Having concluded the parabolic discourse of chapter 13, now the parables become history as we will look at five narratives – Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth (13:53-58), the beheading of John (14:1-12), the feeding of the 5000 (14:13-21), walking on water (14:22-33), and healing in Gennesaret (14:34-36). In these narratives we will find a mixed reception on the part of different people which occurs any time a people are confronted with Jesus Christ. As the parable of the sower has just illustrated (13:1-9), some people despise and reject the gospel (the seed that falls on the path), and some embrace and believe (the fourth, fertile soil).
In the next section of Matthew’s Gospel (13:53-16:20), Jesus will give an explicit and definitive answer as to the questions that people have about His identity and mission. The culmination of this revelation occurs in Matthew 16:13-20 where Matthew strikingly concludes the section with Peter’s triumphant confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16). But before this moment, Matthew introduces this section by contrasting the people’s rejection of Jesus and John the Baptist, based upon mistaken assessments as to their identity (13:53-14:12). While the responses of Herod’s beheading of John and Jesus’ rejection by his hometown can be likened to the seed that falls on the path, it is the surprising response of those “outsiders” of Gennesaret of absolute acceptance, that provides an historic fulfillment of the receptive fertile soil of the parable. Those who despise and reject Christ usually do so based on a misunderstanding of the nature of His Person and work (an incorrect Christology); alternatively, when people receive Christ, it is because He has revealed His true nature to them.
The seven parables of the kingdom in this, Jesus’ third discourse in the Gospel of Matthew, have taught us what the inaugurated kingdom of heaven in this present world is like, while at the same time directing us to a future kingdom. In each of these parables Jesus is bringing forth a new and relevant teaching grounded in an old concept. He is illustrating what He taught in precept in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” Jesus is the church’s one curriculum, but He is taught in the shadows of the Old Testament and revealed in the light of the New; however, both are needed to gain a full understanding of His person and work. (See Matthew 13:51-53).
Next Sunday we will study the final three parables of chapter 13, which we will discover are all related. The treasure parables (13:44-46) set our gaze upon Jesus Christ as the “Pearl of Great Price” – the kingdom’s treasure – who motivates us to leave everything of earth behind in order to embrace and follow Him. The net parable (13:47-50) is a sober reminder that not everyone will see the value of the Pearl and preferring the treasure of earth, in the end will receive the judgment that their selfish evil life acquired for them.
All seven parables help us to know specifically what we are to pray for when we pray “Your kingdom come.” The parable of the sower leads us to pray for the Word to be sown in fertile hearts all over the world. The parable of the weeds directs us to pray for the perseverance of God’s people living in an ungodly and evil world. The little seed parables turn us to pray for those small gospel efforts that we know will produce great fruit. The treasure parables directs our gaze upon the unsurpassing value of knowing Christ and how the joy we have in His grace leads us to the abandonment of all else; and finally the net parable focuses us on the seriousness of a future judgment. When the Lord instructed us to pray, “Thy Kingdom Come,” He is directing us to pray for all of these kingdom realities to be manifested in the world now, and in the eternal future.
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field … Matthew 13:24
With the increasing polarization in the response to His ministry and teaching, Jesus turned to the parable in order to teach His disciples about the kingdom of heaven in terms they could understand. At the same time these parables served to veil truth from hard-hearted unbelievers. Having studied the prototypical, parable of the sower, last week, this week we will conclude our look at the four husbandry parables, “Big Fields and Little Seeds,” in chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel. As an agrarian society, the people who heard Jesus’ parable of the sower (13:1-8), parable of the weeds (13:24-30), and parable of the mustard seed and leaven (13:31-33), would have been very familiar with their language, but only those who were given “ears to hear,” were able to understand and submit to their ethics.
What are we to make of apparent inconsistencies like slavery in Christian America? How about apartheid in Reformed South Africa? How could Christian Europe sit back and watch the Holocaust of six million Jews? And how does the evangelical church seem to be so undisturbed by abortion in our day? Looking at church history, it can be hard for us to hope in that which we are told is a powerful and transforming Gospel which seems to have so little influence on the surrounding society. In the parable of the weeds, Jesus gives an explanation for what seems to be a grand contradiction in God’s church. In the midst of this field which represents the visible manifestation of the “kingdom of heaven,” where Jesus has sown good Gospel seeds into the heart of true believers, an enemy has sown bad seeds that give rise to tares (false converts). Rather than going on a mission to root out these tares from among the wheat, the parable calls for the true church to stand under the Gospel, until the coming judgment day when Christ and His angels will thresh the wheat and winnow the chaff. At that time He will gather the believers together and cast the false converts into hell. The two “little seed” parables reveal that while the kingdom of God may seem small and insignificant, it is actually quite powerful. Both the “big field” and “little seed” parables encourage the believer that, even though we may not see it with our eyes, Christ is King and our God reigns!