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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Everyone With Ears: Luke 14:25-35

Focus Passage: Luke 14:25-35 (TNIV)

    25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

    28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

    31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

    34 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? 35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.
       “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

Read Luke 14:25-35 in context and/or in other translations on!

There are several ideas we could focus on in this passage, but the one big (though perhaps humorous) idea that I want to focus on is the closing phrase Jesus uses in this passage (and elsewhere in the Bible) which is found at the end of verse 35: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

This phrase stands out to me because on the surface, it sounds exclusive. Is this teaching for everyone, or everyone except those who are deaf? Is Jesus really being discriminating towards a group of people who are different?

Let’s dig into this idea and see what might happen if a person who was deaf saw a crowd and showed up to see (though they couldn’t hear) Jesus. In many other cases where someone with a similar disability shows up, Jesus stops teaching, heals them, and then continues preaching.

So here, at the end of His message, as the concluding remarks after the climax of His sermon, Jesus makes a sweeping statement to everyone who is within earshot – perhaps even to some people in the crowd who were formerly deaf, but can now hear this teaching as one of the first things ever.

If someone who was deaf hung around Jesus, they would not have been deaf for long. If they instead preferred to be deaf, they probably wouldn’t have been interested in going anywhere near Jesus.

The big idea I see in this passage – and really in this phrase – is: Jesus is never interested in us staying where we are. He is always interested in helping us grow into the people He created us to be!

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Cleaning the Inside: 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!

Periodically throughout the gospels, Jesus accepts invitations to people’s homes to eat. Sometimes these invitations are from some of the less reputable people in an area, while other times the invitation comes from one of the religious leaders.

During one of these invitations to eat at a Pharisee’s home, the Pharisee host was surprised when Jesus did not wash before the meal. Luke describes this to us by saying, “A Pharisee invited him to eat with him. So Jesus went in and took his place at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised. He noticed that Jesus did not wash before the meal.” (v.37b-38)

Before food was even served, this Pharisee had found a fault in how Jesus had acted. Whether the Pharisee had invited Jesus in an attempt to trick or trap Him we are not sure. I am inclined to believe that, at least on the front end, this Pharisee was genuine with his invitation. The Pharisee, and the other elite religious leaders who were present, may have been so accustomed to certain rituals that they had never been around someone who didn’t do them simply because they were what one was suppose to do.

However, Jesus’ response to the Pharisee and those present virtually eliminated any chance that they would become friends. Jesus begins His response by saying, “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and evil. You foolish people! Didn’t the one who made the outside make the inside also? Give freely to poor people to show what is inside you. Then everything will be clean for you.” (v. 39-41)

Jesus immediately challenges the shallow, prideful focus that these Pharisees had. It would seem that their washing before the meal had become about much more than simply a sanitary action. They had given it spiritual significance – and then they had elevated the spiritual significance above many other spiritual things.

It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t really challenge the act of washing before a meal. Instead, Jesus challenges the leaders on the emphasis they had placed on washing while ignoring the sins within their lives. Jesus’ initial statement points out that with greed and evil in their hearts, nothing the Pharisees could wash on the outside would remove this “inner dirt” from making them unclean.

Jesus offers a solution. He prompts them to be generous as a way of cleaning up their hearts and lives. While this is a challenging passage for those present, Jesus gives these leaders a solution to the true sin that they should deal with.

The truth Jesus shared with these leaders is the same for us today. If we struggle with maintaining a good appearance on the outside, it may be because our inner lives struggle with evil. Generosity and love are the ways to clean up our inner lives, and when our inner lives are clean, then our outer lives will be clean as well.

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Flashback Episode — Replacing a Murderer: Luke 23:13-25

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After Pilate’s conversation with Jesus, and after Herod has sent Jesus back without finding anything worthy of death, Luke’s gospel describes the shift that took place that transitions from Jesus simply being released to Jesus being crucified. In Luke’s gospel, we discover two fascinating ideas present in this transition.

Our passage for this episode is found in the gospel of Luke, chapter 23, and we will read it from the New International Reader’s Version of the Bible. Starting in verse 13, Luke tells us that after Herod had sent Jesus back:

13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people. 14 He said to them, “You brought me this man. You said he was turning the people against the authorities. I have questioned him in front of you. I have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Herod hasn’t either. So he sent Jesus back to us. As you can see, Jesus has done nothing that is worthy of death. 16-17 So I will just have him whipped and let him go.”

18 But the whole crowd shouted, “Kill this man! But let Barabbas go!” 19 Barabbas had been thrown into prison. He had taken part in a struggle in the city against the authorities. He had also committed murder.

20 Pilate wanted to let Jesus go. So he made an appeal to the crowd again. 21 But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

22 Pilate spoke to them for the third time. “Why?” he asked. “What wrong has this man done? I have found no reason to have him put to death. So I will just have him whipped and let him go.”

23 But with loud shouts they kept calling for Jesus to be crucified. The people’s shouts won out. 24 So Pilate decided to give them what they wanted. 25 He set free the man they asked for. The man had been thrown in prison for murder and for fighting against the authorities. Pilate handed Jesus over to them so they could carry out their plans.

In this passage, Luke tells us that Barabbas had taken part in an uprising against the authorities and that Barabbas had committed murder. In an interesting, though disturbing twist, the religious leaders are guilty of both of these things. The religious leaders are set on murdering Jesus who has done nothing that would legally warrant death, at least in the eyes of both governors in the area, and the religious leaders and their crowd of supporters are getting so worked up over this one issue that they probably would have started a riot-rebellion in the city, just like Barabbas.

Also, in an odd sort of way, the religious leaders, while claiming to support Rome, are really allying with one of Rome’s enemies. By requesting Barabbas’ release, these leaders say with their actions that they would rather be led by a rebellious murderer than by a loving, miracle-worker who happened to push them spiritually.

Another thing I find fascinating in this passage is that Jesus willingly takes the place of a commandment-breaker. Not only is Barabbas guilty of murder, which is breaking one of the least contested laws in the Ten Commandments, Barabbas is also guilty of rebelling against the rulers of the land. While there is little that we can redeem from Roman culture that is worth mentioning here, God clearly saw the Roman Empire rise into power, and through Daniel’s prophecies, we discover that God may have even directed some of the events to take place.

While governments are not always positive, and while many things in governments around the world are not redeemable in any way, shape, or form, it is worth noting that these negative governments are only in place because God has let them be in place. While sometimes rebellion makes sense, I think that the attitude David has in the Old Testament may be a better approach to facing human governments.

In the Old Testament, David knows he will ultimately replace Saul as king of Israel. The prophet Samuel has anointed him, and he has the respect of many of the people after defeating Goliath. However, David is unwilling to press forward into the position everyone knows He is destined to be. Multiple times, David has the upper hand against Saul, and every time, David restrains himself and his men from lifting a hand against Saul, the ruler of the people. Saul repeatedly sets out to kill David, and while every time fails, many of these times result in Saul calling off the pursuit after David has clearly shown that he does not wish to harm Saul.

Barabbas is the complete opposite of David. Barabbas would likely have killed the emperor of Rome if he were given the chance. And Barabbas was the sinner Jesus chose to replace that weekend. Since Jesus was part of writing history, He could have picked any time and anyone to replace. Jesus chose to take the place of one of the worst people in society to show us God’s love towards us, and to give us a picture of God’s loving us while we were still rebellious sinners.

There were always going to be three crosses that weekend, and the center cross would have had Barabbas on it if it weren’t for Jesus. Jesus died that weekend not just for Barabbas, but for every rebellious person, every sinner, and everyone who has broken God’s law at any point in their past and at any point in history. With Jesus’ death, He is able to promise us a new life with Him and a future eternal life with God forever.

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

As always, be sure to seek God first in your life. Thank Jesus today for what He did for you and I on the cross that weekend, and thank Jesus for the gift He offers to you and me when we place our faith, belief, and trust in Him.

Also, be sure to always pray and study the Bible for yourself to learn, grow, and discover the truth that God has for your life. While pastors, speakers, authors, or even bloggers or podcasters can give you ideas to think about, always filter what you hear, see, and read through the lens of the Bible. The Bible has stood the test of time as a reliable guide for our lives, and when something in our lives doesn’t make sense, the Bible should be the first place we look to for an answer.

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

Flashback Episode: Year of the Cross – Episode 41: When the religious leaders demand that Barabbas be released, we discover that Jesus loved humanity enough to step into the punishment of a rebellious murderer. Jesus was willing to take the worst possible punishment of the worst reputable person in society on Himself, because God loves each of us that much.

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