Looking for Loopholes: Matthew 23:1-36

Focus Passage: Matthew 23:1-36 (NASB)

During Jesus series of warnings and challenges to the religious leaders living in the first century, He takes issue with how they would hold each other to their word. In the middle of these warnings, Jesus shares a concept that sounds incredibly obvious, but with how He describes it, it would seem that the religious leaders had rationalized their way out of believing it personally.

Matthew tells us that Jesus challenges these leaders by saying, “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.” (v. 16-22)

In my mind’s eye, I picture these leaders having placed the emphasis on the inside objects because they were certainly holy, but not on the objects that made them holy, because these objects resided in a place where sin is present. For example, the temple was likely next to a market, so even though it was set apart and sacred, it’s neighbor was common and secular. However, what was inside the temple had only sacred and set apart neighbors, so it was by definition “more holy”.

Over all, this is a weak argument for these leaders to have had, but it is about the only rationale my mind can come up with for them elevating the temple’s gold over the temple, and the offering on the alter over the alter itself. While not stated in the first set of examples, the implication is also that swearing by heaven didn’t mean much, but swearing on God’s throne was serious – which is an equally ridiculous idea when we think about it.

This section of warnings prompts me to believe that these leaders were always looking for loopholes, and in their search for exceptions, they were then able to make more rules to help close these exceptions. In some ways, they would be like some contract lawyers living today, who write contracts and licenses that rival the length of a dictionary in order to cover almost any possible circumstance that could happen.

But what Jesus’ words really share, at least to me, is that we should be less interested in looking for ways out of the agreements we make, and instead be more discerning about what we actually agree to in the first place – and if we have made a poor choice that we cannot get out of, then we should keep our word and see it as a learning experience for moving forward.

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To Humble or Be Humbled: Luke 14:7-24

Focus Passage: Luke 14:7-24 (GW)

Then Jesus noticed how the guests always chose the places of honor. So he used this illustration when he spoke to them: “When someone invites you to a wedding, don’t take the place of honor. Maybe someone more important than you was invited. Then your host would say to you, ‘Give this person your place.’ Embarrassed, you would have to take the place of least honor. 10 So when you’re invited, take the place of least honor. Then, when your host comes, he will tell you, ‘Friend, move to a more honorable place.’ Then all the other guests will see how you are honored. 11 Those who honor themselves will be humbled, but people who humble themselves will be honored.”

12 Then he told the man who had invited him, “When you invite people for lunch or dinner, don’t invite only your friends, family, other relatives, or rich neighbors. Otherwise, they will return the favor. 13 Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the handicapped, the lame, and the blind. 14 Then you will be blessed because they don’t have any way to pay you back. You will be paid back when those who have God’s approval come back to life.”

15 One of those eating with him heard this. So he said to Jesus, “The person who will be at the banquet in God’s kingdom is blessed.”

16 Jesus said to him, “A man gave a large banquet and invited many people. 17 When it was time for the banquet, he sent his servant to tell those who were invited, ‘Come! Everything is ready now.’

18 “Everyone asked to be excused. The first said to him, ‘I bought a field, and I need to see it. Please excuse me.’ 19 Another said, ‘I bought five pairs of oxen, and I’m on my way to see how well they plow. Please excuse me.’ 20 Still another said, ‘I recently got married, and that’s why I can’t come.’

21 “The servant went back to report this to his master. Then the master of the house became angry. He told his servant, ‘Run to every street and alley in the city! Bring back the poor, the handicapped, the blind, and the lame.’

22 “The servant said, ‘Sir, what you’ve ordered has been done. But there is still room for more people.’

23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go to the roads and paths! Urge the people to come to my house. I want it to be full. 24 I can guarantee that none of those invited earlier will taste any food at my banquet.’”

Read Luke 14:7-24 in context and/or in other translations on BibleGateway.com!

This seems to be one of the most popular passages to draw insights from, and today we come to another powerful one.

Most of the other journal entries on this passage have dealt with the Great Feast parable, but this one will shift gears and teach on the opening portion of this passage – where Jesus teaches on humility.

Jesus opened this passage with an observation on how guests seemed to try to inch their way into places of honor. Jesus challenges this mindset by bringing out a challenging point in verse 8, “Maybe someone more important than you was invited.” In effect, Jesus is asking the question, “What do you think will happen if someone more important than you arrives and the host informs you that you are filling his seat?” Nobody likes to be embarrassed, and this mindset of trying to inch your way up in status will almost always lead to embarrassment.

But Jesus goes a step further. He challenges us to take the opposite mindset in verse 10, “So when you’re invited, take the place of least honor.” In this case, the opposite will happen. When the host enters, and he sees you at the foot of the table, he will make a point of honoring you and displacing someone else. We all love to be publically honored.

I remember an occasion where looking back on this, I had every reason to be embarrassed: I took one of the seats of honor at a special occasion (a wedding) that I was not a part of. I was invited, but other than that, I was a common guest, unworthy of a seat of honor. However, while I had no right to take a place of honor, no one asked me to move.

Perhaps this is how you have felt at times. Sometimes, when we are looking at the world, it seems as only the aggressive, selfish, and obnoxious people seem to get ahead. They push themselves into places of honor and then demand the benefits of the place that they took. Sometimes this works.

But eventually, things will equalize and all wrongs will be made right. When that time comes, Jesus has shared with us the results in advance. If we have pushed ourselves ahead of where we deserve, we will be humbled, but if we have humbled ourselves and placed others first, then we will be honored.

When the end has come and you are looking back on your life, which decision would you have preferred to have made?

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Challenging the Experts: Luke 11:37-54

Focus Passage: Luke 11:37-54 (NIrV)

37 Jesus finished speaking. Then a Pharisee invited him to eat with him. So Jesus went in and took his place at the table. 38 But the Pharisee was surprised. He noticed that Jesus did not wash before the meal.

39 Then the Lord spoke to him. “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish,” he said. “But inside you are full of greed and evil. 40 You foolish people! Didn’t the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 Give freely to poor people to show what is inside you. Then everything will be clean for you.

42 “How terrible it will be for you Pharisees! You give God a tenth of your garden plants, such as mint and rue. But you have forgotten to be fair and to love God. You should have practiced the last things without failing to do the first.

43 “How terrible for you Pharisees! You love the most important seats in the synagogues. You love having people greet you with respect in the market.

44 “How terrible for you! You are like graves that are not marked. People walk over them without knowing it.”

45 An authority on the law spoke to Jesus. He said, “Teacher, when you say things like that, you say bad things about us too.”

46 Jesus replied, “How terrible for you authorities on the law! You put such heavy loads on people that they can hardly carry them. But you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

47 “How terrible for you! You build tombs for the prophets. It was your people of long ago who killed them. 48 So you show that you agree with what your people did long ago. They killed the prophets, and now you build the prophets’ tombs. 49 So God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send prophets and apostles to them. They will kill some. And they will try to hurt others.’ 50 So the people of today will be punished. They will pay for all the prophets’ blood spilled since the world began. 51 I mean from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah. He was killed between the altar and the temple. Yes, I tell you, the people of today will be punished for all these things.

52 “How terrible for you authorities on the law! You have taken away the key to the door of knowledge. You yourselves have not entered. And you have stood in the way of those who were entering.”

53 When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law strongly opposed him. They threw a lot of questions at him. 54 They set traps for him. They wanted to catch him in something he might say.

Read Luke 11:37-54 in context and/or in other translations on BibleGateway.com!

During a meal Jesus ate with some religious leaders, He challenges them with how they have chosen to live and about where they were placing their focus. This all began when Jesus chose not to ceremonially wash before the meal, and this offends the host who was a Pharisee.

Following, or perhaps interrupting, Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees, an authority on the law (i.e. a lawyer) speaks up saying that Jesus’ words against the Pharisees are offending him as well. By speaking up, this lawyer opens the door for Jesus to change His focus and extend His challenges to this group as well.

Luke tells us that Jesus replied by saying, “How terrible for you authorities on the law! You put such heavy loads on people that they can hardly carry them. But you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. “How terrible for you! You build tombs for the prophets. It was your people of long ago who killed them. So you show that you agree with what your people did long ago. They killed the prophets, and now you build the prophets’ tombs. So God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send prophets and apostles to them. They will kill some. And they will try to hurt others.’ So the people of today will be punished. They will pay for all the prophets’ blood spilled since the world began. I mean from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah. He was killed between the altar and the temple. Yes, I tell you, the people of today will be punished for all these things. How terrible for you authorities on the law! You have taken away the key to the door of knowledge. You yourselves have not entered. And you have stood in the way of those who were entering.” (v. 46-52)

Just like He did with the Pharisees, Jesus shares three core issues with the expert lawyers. In some ways, the group of lawyers is even worse than the group of Pharisees.

The first thing Jesus challenges the lawyers with has to do with the lists of laws that they had developed. The lists of new laws they had developed to keep the people from coming close to sinning had taken their focus away from loving and helping others. The issue Jesus has with the lawyers is that they were using their minds and logic to keep people trapped rather than to help people live better lives. With a humble focus, the religious experts could have helped all the Jewish groups live better, be better, and understand God’s character better, but they had instead focused on the negative characteristics of God and turned Him into a villain rather than a loving Father.

The second issue Jesus challenged the lawyers with their honoring the prophets that their ancestors killed. In a somewhat ironic way, by giving the Old Testament prophets honor when their ancestors had rejected them, these leaders in the present were just as stuck in the past as their ancestors were. Both groups chose to focus on what God had done earlier in history while rejecting what He was choosing to do in their lifetimes. By trying to keep things the way they were before, the leaders miss out on what all of God’s prophets were pointing forward to, and the biggest problem with this approach is that these leaders ultimately reject God’s Messiah.

The final problem Jesus has with the lawyers is that instead of using their intelligence to help people grow closer to God, they used their intelligence to push people away from God. These were the people who could have helped everyone understand God’s love and His grace, but they instead pushed people away from God by focusing only on God as the judge. If someone implied that God was loving, the lawyers were quick to redirect the focus away from His love and towards His judgment of sinners.

While Jesus challenged these two groups of religious leaders to help them realize they had misplaced their focus, these leaders ultimately chose to reject Jesus rather than grow based upon His challenges. The leaders chose their pride over the humility God wanted them to have, and this decision closed them off to God like they had closed God off to the people living in the first century. When Jesus challenges us, He doesn’t do it to push us away; His challenges are meant to help us grow into the people He created us to be!

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The Statement for Cynics: John 6:22-59

Focus Passage: John 6:22-59 (NCV)

22 The next day the people who had stayed on the other side of the lake knew that Jesus had not gone in the boat with his followers but that they had left without him. And they knew that only one boat had been there. 23 But then some boats came from Tiberias and landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 When the people saw that Jesus and his followers were not there now, they got into boats and went to Capernaum to find Jesus.

25 When the people found Jesus on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Teacher, when did you come here?”

26 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you aren’t looking for me because you saw me do miracles. You are looking for me because you ate the bread and were satisfied. 27 Don’t work for the food that spoils. Work for the food that stays good always and gives eternal life. The Son of Man will give you this food, because on him God the Father has put his power.”

28 The people asked Jesus, “What are the things God wants us to do?”

29 Jesus answered, “The work God wants you to do is this: Believe the One he sent.”

30 So the people asked, “What miracle will you do? If we see a miracle, we will believe you. What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert. This is written in the Scriptures: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

32 Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven; it is my Father who is giving you the true bread from heaven. 33 God’s bread is the One who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

34 The people said, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

35 Then Jesus said, “I am the bread that gives life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But as I told you before, you have seen me and still don’t believe. 37 The Father gives me the people who are mine. Every one of them will come to me, and I will always accept them. 38 I came down from heaven to do what God wants me to do, not what I want to do. 39 Here is what the One who sent me wants me to do: I must not lose even one whom God gave me, but I must raise them all on the last day. 40 Those who see the Son and believe in him have eternal life, and I will raise them on the last day. This is what my Father wants.”

41 Some people began to complain about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that comes down from heaven.” 42 They said, “This is Jesus, the son of Joseph. We know his father and mother. How can he say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

43 But Jesus answered, “Stop complaining to each other. 44 The Father is the One who sent me. No one can come to me unless the Father draws him to me, and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the One who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47 I tell you the truth, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread that gives life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but still they died. 50 Here is the bread that comes down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will never die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give up so that the world may have life.”

52 Then the evil people began to argue among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

53 Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, you must eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood. Otherwise, you won’t have real life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day. 55 My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them. 57 The living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father. So whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 I am not like the bread your ancestors ate. They ate that bread and still died. I am the bread that came down from heaven, and whoever eats this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said all these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

Read John 6:22-59 in context and/or in other translations on BibleGateway.com!

During one of Jesus’ more straightforward conversations He has with a group of people during His ministry, He shares a prophecy and then He directly ties that prophecy to Himself. In all the gospels’ recorded conversations, this is a very unusual thing for Jesus to do, however I believe Jesus does this to emphasize the true nature of what it means to follow Him.

This conversation happens the day after Jesus fed the crowd of more than five thousand people when He is back in the city of Capernaum. Jesus tells those present, “It is written in the prophets, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the One who is from God; only he has seen the Father. I tell you the truth, whoever believes has eternal life.” (v. 45-47)

The phrase that really jumped off the page in this section of the conversation is when Jesus clearly states that “Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.” (v. 45b)

I don’t think Jesus could be any clearer or more disruptive. This single statement is probably the best statement a cynic could use to reject Jesus. This statement sounds arrogant, closed-minded, and exclusive. All these traits mirror the negative characteristics of the spiritual leaders at that time.

In culture today, where the postmodern mindset has spread throughout most people’s minds, the idea many people believe is that truth is not absolute. Instead, truth is relative and based on the person who is thinking it. Mixed in this thought process is the idea that all spiritual paths lead to God.

However, this could not be more opposite to Jesus’ teaching in this statement. This statement, which Christians believe is from God, basically says that the only message God sends to us is one that points towards Jesus. We could say the same thing in the opposite way by saying that any message from “God” that does not point towards Jesus cannot truly be from God.

Mixed in with this challenging, exclusive statement is a reminder of the reward those who choose God and choose to come to Jesus will receive. Jesus draws our attention to this reward by saying, “I tell you the truth, whoever believes has eternal life.” (v. 47)

Before thinking that this eternal life begins at the instant one believes, it is worth looking at Jesus’ words a little earlier, regarding raising people up on the last day. What we receive when we believe is the assurance and guarantee of eternal life when Jesus gives the reward out. It is like the ticket that guarantees our seat to a sold out show or our seat assignment to a sold out flight. In both cases, we have not been given access to the seat, but we know we will have it when the time arrives.

God the Father uses the Holy Spirit to point us towards Jesus. It is our belief in Jesus that gives us the assurance of salvation and within the gift of salvation is the reward of eternal life. Jesus says this reward is exclusive to those who believe and who have come to Him. This isn’t a belief that blends with popular opinion, but it is the only way eternal life can have any “eternal value”.

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