Choosing Truth over Tradition: Matthew 23:37-39

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As we continue moving through Matthew’s gospel, we come to a passage where Jesus shares a brief message to the city of Jerusalem. In a subtle way, this message isn’t truly for the city of Jerusalem, as in the walls and structure of Jerusalem, but for the religious leadership living in Jerusalem, both during the first century while Jesus walked the earth, as well as during the earlier and later centuries.

Let’s read Jesus’ message for Jerusalem, and discover what we can learn from His message for us living today. Like all our passages in this Year in Matthew, our passage for this episode is found in Matthew’s gospel, and this episode we will focus in on the end of chapter 23, reading it from the New Century Version. Starting in verse 37, Matthew records Jesus saying:

37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone to death those who are sent to you. Many times I wanted to gather your people as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you did not let me. 38 Now your house will be left completely empty. 39 I tell you, you will not see me again until that time when you will say, ‘God bless the One who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

In the chronology of the gospels, some people believe this message was actually given before Jesus entered the city on a donkey. If this is the case, then this would be something Jesus shared on the last trip to Jerusalem before He entered the city on a donkey.

However, Matthew includes this message after Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey with the procession, leading me to wonder if Jesus shared this message again during this week leading up to His crucifixion with the intention that it foreshadows His second coming. While there are many reasons to believe Matthew brought in an earlier teaching into His gospel here, Matthew wouldn’t have done this without a reason. Because Matthew includes this after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, Matthew wants to point us forward to a future time when Jerusalem will see Jesus.

On the surface, this message and event seem to be very narrowly focused on the Jewish people and specifically the spiritual leaders living in Jerusalem. The message begins by calling Jerusalem by name not once but twice. One might think that Jesus was sharing this just for the religious leaders alive during the first century, but leading into this message, Jesus summarizes the response the spiritual leaders had towards the messengers God sent.

Jesus’ summary of Jerusalem’s response to those who God sends them is that they killed the prophets and stoned to death God’s messengers. The religious leaders’ response is one of continued rejection of God. What is interesting to note is that earlier in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus challenged the Pharisees and religious leaders on this same point. Jesus calls the religious leaders out for how their ancestors rejected God’s messengers, before a few generations later deciding to honor God’s messengers after the punishment and disaster they had predicted actually happened.

One might think that the spiritual leadership would have realized this and changed their ways, but Jesus’ message to Jerusalem tells us that no such change was going to happen. Because of this, many people see in Jesus’ message a prediction of a future where God turns His attention to another group of people instead of the Jews. Some people also believe that this passage suggests God will stop sending prophets and messengers after Jesus.

However, in this passage, while I can understand the logic in both these ideas, I don’t see the context of Jesus’ message being one of outright rejection by God, and I don’t see this passage suggesting that God will stop sending messengers. Instead, I see the context of this passage, and really a big theme in this passage, relating to God giving the Jewish nation protection. God isn’t going to force His protection onto a group of people – especially a group of people who are actively rejecting Him.

With the message Jesus shares, I see God expanding His focus, which does not mean rejecting the old in favor of the new. While prior to this, God had focused on trying to teach and share His blessings through a specific nation of people, this ultimately failed, not because of God’s plan not being good, but because sin-tainted humanity is not that reliable.

Also, the focus of this passage is on the broad group and structure of the religion and not on the individual believers. I do think that this is significant to pay attention to, because Jesus is not saying that from this point in history, or from a specific point in history, no more Jews will be saved. Instead, I believe this message emphasizes how God will broaden His focus because the Jewish religious structure and the culture of the Jewish religious leadership had proven it was more interested in protecting its tradition over being dedicated to God.

Jesus loves the Jewish people just as much as He loves the non-Jewish people. This message is not a rejection of the individual who comes to God asking for help. This message isn’t even a message of rejection for a group of people, Jews in this context, who decide to earnestly seek God with their hearts and lives. Looking at first century history, the Jewish leadership actively rejected Jesus, and in the years and decades following Jesus’ return to heaven, the Jewish community pushed the new Christians away, first by trying to persecute them, but also later by adjusting their worship to be unwelcoming towards a follower of Jesus.

Some might still believe this message was only for those living in the first century world. However, in my mind, this message has much bigger implications. In His message to Jerusalem, Jesus emphasizes that leading up to the first century generation of religious leaders, the Jewish religious leadership had rejected God’s messengers. Unfortunately, this same theme is present in the Christian church following Jesus’ time on earth. The hundreds, if not thousands, of different denominations represent different divisions of God’s people because of one group’s rejection of a messenger who may or may not have been from God.

While there are those in Christianity who focus on unity above everything else, the challenge with this belief is the same challenge Jesus gives to Jerusalem. Regardless of the point in history we are looking at, it is very easy for the leadership in any religious organization to become closed-minded and to reject the messengers God sends their way.

Regardless of the denomination one is looking at, regardless of the “not-a-denominational-church” one is looking at, and regardless of the faith community one is looking at, the temptation is present to reject the messengers God sends in favor of holding onto tradition or compromising further from the truth.

The remedy for this condition is humility. The remedy for a community is to test every belief they have and test it with the weight of the scriptures. The remedy for the leadership of a church is to place the truth of the Bible over the traditions of men, and to support or defend these truths with what is written in God’s Word!

While this approach won’t be popular from our secular world’s perspective, or from the perspective of those who value tradition or unity over truth, placing the truth of the Bible over the traditions of men is the only way for a church or community to stay united with Christ.

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

As I regularly challenge you to do, intentionally seek God first in your life and dedicate your life to serving God and His truth over traditions that lead away from Christ.

Also, continue to pray and study the Bible for yourself to stay firmly connected with God and to build a strong foundation for your belief in His truth as revealed in His Word. The Bible is the test we are called to use when evaluating traditions and spiritual truth, and it is the only safe place to go when trying to discern God’s character. While the Bible records some challenging events for us to unpack, the Bible is the clearest picture we have into God’s character and His unfailing love for all of humanity.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or walk away from where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Year in Matthew – Episode 41: In a message Jesus shares to the religious leadership of Jerusalem, discover how this truth is relevant and important for every group of believers both before and after those living in the first century. Discover how this challenge is a challenge for even those of us living today!

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