Summer 2002

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospels for the 21st Century, Part 11

Words of Wisdom

David Hulme

Whether He was instructing His disciples or facing His enemies, Jesus conveyed the essential qualities of godly behavior.

The impending betrayal and death of Jesus Christ was something His disciples could not comprehend, even when Jesus told them directly what was to happen to Him. Why?

The Gospel writer Luke says: “They did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it” (Luke 9:45). There was a point in the time leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion when the reality of what was ahead was hidden from His followers. Perhaps this was God’s way of preserving the group a little longer.

The conversation about Jesus’ death took place along the road from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum. The disciples had accompanied Jesus to the mountainous north of the country, and three of them had the unusual experience of seeing a vision of their master in the kingdom of God. It was an experience like no other, and it would provide an important anchor for their belief in years to come.

Once the disciples were back in Capernaum, some tax collectors approached Peter and asked whether Jesus paid temple tax. This was no doubt a trap to see whether Jesus was supportive of the religious government. Peter told them that Jesus did pay the tax. When Jesus heard of the request, He told Peter to go to the nearby lake and throw out a line. He would catch a fish with a coin in its mouth. Then He would be able to pay the collectors the necessary tax (Matthew 17:24–27).

Jesus knew that as the Son of God He was not actually liable for the temple tax, as His conversation with Peter shows. Indeed, Jesus indicated that the disciples were not obliged as subjects of the future kingdom of God to pay temple taxes either. However, He wanted to set an example of obedience to the laws of the land, and so he paid the tax with money provided in a miraculous way.

Like Children, Like Sheep 

This period in Jesus’ ministry is marked by intensive teaching of His disciples rather than interaction with the crowds. He knew that He had a short time left, perhaps about one year. It was time to educate His immediate followers as fully as He could.

A new opportunity to do so came when they asked a question resulting from a dispute they were having. They said, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They had, in fact, been arguing about which one of them would be the greatest. Their question betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of what the kingdom of God is all about.

Jesus was able to demonstrate the problem by setting a small child in the midst of them. He said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:1–5).

The disciples had argued about who would be greatest. Jesus said, “He who is least among you all—he is the greatest.” 

Like so many human beings, the disciples were lost in the striving for power and prestige. They were missing the point that their master was not interested in any of that. His example of the little child was a powerful correction of their self-centered thought processes. They had argued about who would be greatest. Jesus said, “He who is least among you all—he is the greatest” (Luke 9:48). The unexpected key to greatness was humility. It was also a necessity for entry into the kingdom of heaven.

Next, John asked a question about a man who was not with the disciples and yet was doing similar works. John wanted to stop the man from doing his work. Jesus told him to take a more generous approach and not prevent the man from doing good in Jesus’ name. Jesus did not say to join the man or to welcome him, just to allow him to do his good work. Again Jesus warned the disciples not to do anything to cause the little ones to sin. Those who did, He said, would be better off being thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck (Mark 9:38–42).

Jesus also warned against letting any physical desire get in the way of the pursuit of the kingdom of God. Many things cause people to sin, but none has sufficient advantage to displace the kingdom of God as our preferred goal. Jesus said that it would be better to enter the kingdom physically incapacitated than to fail because of a physical orientation to life (Matthew 18:7–9).

Jesus was also very concerned that the disciples learn the lesson of service to humanity. He asked whether a shepherd does not leave the flock to find a lost sheep. He painted the picture of a loving shepherd whose deep concern for the animals in his care led him to search intensively for one lost out of 99 (verses 12–14). It was a demonstration of God’s care for the least of us.

Dispute Resolution 

One of the more difficult aspects of human relationships is learning to forgive others. When someone has done something against us, what should we do?

While still in Capernaum, Jesus gave some teaching about this. Not surprisingly, He had to deal with this perennial problem in His day. He said to His disciples, who were as yet unconverted, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (verse 15).

What most people do, of course, is just the opposite. They go to other people and complain about their friend, or relative, or boss. They rarely go to the person who has sinned against them, whether that sin is real or perceived. The result is a poisoning of the atmosphere and a drawing in of others who were not previously involved.

Jesus took the opportunity to teach His disciples that a careful process of dispute resolution could heal damaged relationships. Allowing resentments against another to fester only makes matters worse for everyone.

But what are we to do when the person we go to with our complaint doesn’t hear us? Jesus said: “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’” (verse 16).

Calling on the principle in the Old Testament that facts be established before witnesses, Jesus showed that an unresolved private discussion about offenses between two parties has to become more open if reconciliation cannot be effected privately. This requires willingness on both sides for any progress to be made. And if the problem cannot be resolved at this level, then Jesus said, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (verse 17).

The issue, of course, is a sin against another. If no sin has occurred, then the matter is no cause for debate or offense. If there is a provable sin, and the one who has sinned refuses to hear even a broader group, then the person is to be treated as one who is unconverted.

Reassuring the disciples that His relationship with them was solid and dependable, Jesus added two more thoughts. He said: “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (verses 18–19). That is to say that the Church, which was to come into being in the near future and which the disciples did not yet really comprehend, would be firmly linked to Jesus and His Father. The disciples could be confident that their decisions on behalf of the Church community would be supported, and that even a small group of them assembled before God would have a close relationship with Him.

The issue of forgiveness was obviously still troubling to Peter. He asked: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Peter wanted to limit the forgiveness we should extend to others when they sin against us. Jesus made it clear that our forgiveness should be limitless.

Peter wanted to limit the forgiveness we should extend to others when they sin against us. Jesus made it clear that our forgiveness should be limitless. He answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (verses 21–22). Now, this is not to say that where there is an unrepentant attitude, we can forgive. In such cases we must have an attitude that is always willing to forgive and holds no grudges.

Jesus demonstrated the truth of what He was saying by telling a story about a man who was forgiven a huge debt of millions by his master, and who turned around and had someone else imprisoned for owing an insignificant amount. The result was that the first man was imprisoned by his master and made to pay back the millions. Driving home the point about forgiveness and mercy, Jesus said, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (verses 23–35).

First Things First 

Not everyone recognized Jesus for who He was. We’ve seen that many times already in this series. Even His disciples were only coming to understand after a considerable time with Him.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, His family had the same problem of disbelief. Just before the autumn religious festival known as the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus’ brothers said to Him, “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” The Gospel writer John adds, “For even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:2–5).

Jesus’ reply was that His brothers should go to the Feast, but that He would not go to Jerusalem yet. He knew that this was not the right time for a public appearance. After His brothers had left, He began His journey to the city—but in secret.

On the way He went through Samaria, where previously He had met the woman at the well and declared to her that He was the Christ. Several of her townspeople had also recognized Jesus as the Savior of the world. Now the reception was different. When some messengers went on ahead to prepare for His arrival in a Samaritan village, they were disappointed. The villagers rejected Him because He was going to Jerusalem to worship. The Samaritans claimed that Mt. Gerizim in their territory was where God should be worshiped, rather than Jerusalem.

This caused James and John, aptly surnamed the Sons of Thunder, to take a vindictive approach. They asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”

Jesus’ response was to rebuke His two disciples. He said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:51–56, New King James Version).

On the way to another village, a teacher of the law came to Jesus and said that he would follow Him wherever He would go. Jesus pointed out that the cost of discipleship was high, because His way of life was one of self-sacrifice and dedication (Matthew 8:19–22). He said that “no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

This was, perhaps, a comment on Christ’s own part referencing His forthcoming death. He knew that He had to be single-minded about His immediate purpose.

God With Us? 

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the crowds were already asking about Him. He was the subject of considerable debate. Some said He was the Messiah, come at last. Others said He couldn’t be, because the Messiah’s origins were unknown, and this man came from Galilee.

Jesus explained to the religious leaders in His audience that He was teaching only what His Father wished. He was not teaching His own ideas. That, He said, is the mark of a man who is God’s servant. 

In one discussion with them about halfway through the week of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus explained to the religious leaders in His audience that He was teaching only what His Father wished. He was not teaching His own ideas. That, He said, is the mark of a man who is God’s servant.

Furthermore He said that the religious leaders who were listening were trying to kill Him. They told him He was crazy—demon-possessed—to make such an allegation.

But others in the crowd had heard the same thing and concluded that perhaps the authorities thought He truly was the Christ, otherwise they would do something about Him. Some said, “When the Christ comes, will he do more miraculous signs than this man?” (John 7:11–31).

The Pharisees were troubled by this kind of talk. They sent temple guards to arrest Jesus.

His response was that He was with them for only a short time, and that He was going to a place where they could not find Him nor go themselves.

It was a puzzle to the crowds. They said, “Where does this man intend to go that we cannot find him? Will he go where our people live scattered among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks? What did he mean when he said, ‘You will look for me, but you will not find me,’ and ‘Where I am, you cannot come’?” (verses 32–36).

On the last day of the Feast, Jesus made a public pronouncement about the coming availability of the Holy Spirit. This was a dramatic new truth.

He said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (verses 37–38).

What did He mean by this? The writer John says: “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified” (verse 39).

Some people, when they heard these things, concluded that Jesus was the One prophesied by Moses to come. They said: “Surely this man is the Prophet.” Others said, “He is the Christ.” Still others said that Christ had to come from Bethlehem, yet this man came from Nazareth. They knew nothing of His birth as we do now. So the people were divided over Him. Even the temple guards were confused and didn’t want to seize Him. The Pharisees said that none of them nor the rulers believed in Him, so why should the crowd? It was a poor argument. Those who did believe didn’t need the authorities’ permission or agreement (verses 40–49).

One of the rulers, however, had met Jesus before. His name was Nicodemus. He said that it would be wise to hear what Jesus had to say before condemning Him out of hand. His colleagues replied with scorn: “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee” (verses 50–52).

What was happening is typical of the divide that is caused when some recognize the work that God is doing and others cannot.

Casting Stones 

At this point in attempting to harmonize the four Gospel accounts, John’s account presents us with a challenge. It contains the story of a woman caught in the act of adultery. It’s a section of Scripture that some believe was added later. Though believed to be an authentic account of an actual incident, where it should fit in the chronological record is debated.

Eager to trap Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees brought the adulteress to Him for His judgment. She had been caught in the act—a sin punishable by stoning according to the law of Moses. There are a couple of things to notice about the details of the situation. First, the woman’s partner is nowhere to be seen, and second, no witnesses are produced.

With great wisdom Jesus simply started writing in the dust with His finger. The religious leaders kept asking questions. Eventually Jesus straightened up and invited the ones without sin to throw the first stone at the woman. He then returned to writing on the ground. The most senior leaders left first, realizing that Jesus had cornered them. The younger leaders left last, leaving only Jesus and the woman.

Jesus straightened up again and asked the woman, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

She replied, “No one, sir.”

“Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:3–11).

What did He write on the ground? That’s been the subject of much speculation, and no one knows. In a sense it’s what He said and did that’s more important. Jesus showed Himself to be wiser than His enemies, more just and merciful, yet completely supportive of the place of the law of God in human life.