ZECHARIAH’S STORY

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20221204

Zechariah’s Story

Luke 1:5-25, 57-80

During this month I plan to share the Chrismas stories — not the ones written by Charles Dickens or sung by Gene Autry. No, I want us to go back to the Christmas stories written by Dr. Luke. When the Holy Spirit moved him to write his Gospel, he consulted a number of witnesses to the events of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection.

Today’s story is that of Zechariah. We don’t know whether Luke interviewed Zechariah himself. He probably got his information about Zechariah from Mary, who was related to Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth. Zechariah’s story is not directly about the birth of Christ. It’s about the birth of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist. But when we tell our children and grandchildren about Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds, the angels, the wise men, and the baby in the manger, we often include this story, and rightfully so.

Zechariah’s story belongs to the Christmas story because it was one of unfulfilled faithfulness(5-7).

5 During the reign of Herod king of Judea, there lived a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah, and he had a wife named Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, following all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. 7 But they did not have a child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both very old.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had grown old together, faithfully doing the work assigned to them, but Christmas had never come for them. As a priest, Zechariah served many families with many children, but he never had the happiness of raising a child himself. He and Elizabeth went year after year watching other families enjoy the wonderful process of physical and spiritual growth in their children. But they always watched others, never experiencing the joy themselves.

No doubt some people wondered if Zechariah of Elizabeth had been guilty of some secret sin that kept her barren and them both unfulfilled. But they knew that they had been faithful, “both righteous in the sight of God, following all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.” But they were old now, and well past their “use by” date.

Politically, it didn’t seem like God was doing much for Israel. They were still under the domination of the Roman empire, and Caesar insulted Judea by making a foreigner their king. Herod was an Idumean. He was a puppet of Rome — a man so cruel he had to order a large group killed on the day of his death so that there would be mourning. It had been a long time since Judea had been ruled by one of David’s descendants. It didn’t seem like Christmas was coming for the nation either. But it was.

Zechariah’s story belongs to the Christmas story because his date with destiny finally came (8-11).

8 Now while Zechariah was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the holy place of the Lord and burn incense. 10 Now the whole crowd of people were praying outside at the hour of the incense offering. 11 An angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense, appeared to him.

There were so many priests at that time that they had divided themselves into 24 groups and took turns officiating at the temple. Zechariah had probably made the trip to Jerusalem many times. He had no reason to believe that this time was going to be any different than the others. He had never seen Gabriel before.

Incense was a symbol of prayer. We are told that outside there was a crowd of people interceding as Zechariah presented the incense inside. Everybody was praying, but we don’t know how many were actually expecting anything to happen. Zechariah was probably praying for his nation. After all, he was a priest, and that was part of his job. He was busy at work, and he liked being busy at work because it took his mind off his personal sadness. It is just at that very point in time — “too late” — when God chose to bless old Zechariah.

But Zechariah’s blessing came with tremendous responsibility (12-17).

12 And Zechariah, visibly shaken when he saw the angel, was seized with fear. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son; you will name him John. 14 Joy and gladness will come to you, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go as forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him.”

The name Gabriel is a lot scarier in Hebrew than it is in English. A Geber is a young, strong man, the kind of man who is fit for battle. Gabriel was God’s soldier, who stands guard in the presence of Almighty God. Anyone who saw this angel would naturally be visibly shaken and seized with fear.

But thankfully, the news Gabriel comes to share that day was good news. His prayers would be answered, and he was going to have a son. Finally, he would have the chance to experience the joy and gladness that he had only witnessed in others in the past. Elizabeth was going to bear a son — and not just a son. He would be a son who will be great in the sight of the Lord. He would be one of the few — the proud — the Nazarites. They take a vow never to drink alcohol, and he would take that vow.

John would be his name because he would be a sign to everyone that Yochanan — Yahveh has been gracious. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. The phrase in Greek is ek kolias — from the uterus. This was fulfilled literally because when Elizabeth met Mary, John jumped inside her. So, if anybody wants to argue with you about what the initial evidence of being filled with the Spirit is, just take them to Luke 1:41.

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”

John recognized his Savior even before he was born. He gave his mother a kick, and She was filled with the Spirit too. He dedicated his life to turning many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. He served as “forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him.”

It was Zechariah’s responsibility to raise that young man for that tremendous task. To whom much is given, much is required. That’s how God’s gifts work. When Christmas comes for us, we are blessed. Then we are responsible for blessing others.

Even though he was blessed, Zechariah struggled with unbelief (18-25).

18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is old as well.” 19 The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will be silent, unable to speak, until the day these things take place.” 21 Now the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they began to wonder why he was delayed in the holy place. 22 When he came out, he was not able to speak to them. They realized that he had seen a vision in the holy place because he was making signs to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was over, he went to his home. 24 After some time his wife Elizabeth became pregnant, and for five months she kept herself in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me at the time when he has been gracious to me, to take away my disgrace among people.”

Zechariah was tempted to do what Gideon did — to test God to see whether or not he would be faithful to his promise. He misunderstood the story of Gideon. God did allow Gideon to ask for proof, and he gave him the proof. But Zechariah did not need any more proof than what he was going to be given — the child himself.

Gabriel told Zechariah that he would be silent until his words would be fulfilled.

Zechariah overcame the consequences of his unbelief (57-66).

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they wanted to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother replied, “No! He must be named John.” 61 They said to her, “But none of your relatives bears this name.” 62 So they made signs to the baby’s father, inquiring what he wanted to name his son. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they were all amazed. 64 Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue released, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 All their neighbors were filled with fear, and throughout the entire hill country of Judea all these things were talked about. 66 All who heard these things kept them in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the Lord’s hand was indeed with him.

When the time finally came, Zechariah and Elizabeth were both able to proclaim that God had been gracious to them. They did it by naming their son Yochanan — Yahveh has been gracious. Zechariah’s unbelief had resulted in his being temporarily unable to speak. He had lost the opportunity to brag about the boy. You better believe that they both made up for that lost time after he was born.

Zechariah’s experience led to praise for God (67-75).

67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has come to help and has redeemed his people. 69 For he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from long ago, 71 that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 He has done this to show mercy to our ancestors, and to remember his holy covenant — 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham. This oath grants 74 that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, may serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.

Zechariah understood that whatever role John would have, it was just the beginning. The Messiah was coming, and God’s salvation was coming with him. He praised God not just for what he had done, but also for what he was going to do. You and I need to learn the same lesson. It is one thing to praise God for our personal salvation, bought by the blood of Christ. But we also need to catch a glimpse of the fact that our story is just part of the bigger story. Our blessing is part of the bigger blessing of a people redeemed for eternity and a new creation.

This section is also remarkable in that it mirrors many of the kinds of prayers that Zechariah and the other priests would have prayed in the temple. But with one difference. These words are prayers turned into praises. It is not “God, come help” but “God has come to help.” It is not “God raise up a leader from the house of David” but “he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”

Zechariah’s experience also led to prophecy about his son (76-80).

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High. For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. 78 Because of our God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” 80 And the child kept growing and becoming strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he was revealed to Israel.

All those months while Zechariah was unable to speak, he was preparing to announce this prophecy that the Lord gave him about John. The dawn of a new day was coming, and John was to prepare his people for that dawn.

John the Evangelist wrote about this in his Gospel. He said “A man came, sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify about the light, so that everyone might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify about the light. The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:6-9).

When I read the story of Zechariah, it comforts me by reminding me that no matter how long I have waited for God to answer my prayers, he has not forgotten them. Even if I have had moments of unbelief, I know that one day I will testify that God has been gracious. No matter how long we wait, it is never too late. Christmas is coming. The dawn of a new age has come, and someday Christ himself will come. He will right every wrong, and answer every prayer. He will make all things new. Until that happens, our only job is to remain faithful, even if our desires are not yet fulfilled. We learn to do that from Zechariah’s story.

the battling seeds

the battling seeds

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An Advent meditation excerpted from “Christ as the Seed of the Woman” by Daniel Moore, in Meditations for Advent, 1884.

“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt
bruise his heel. ” — Genesis. 3:15.
“That through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil .” — Hebrews. 2:14.

“The two seeds are severally contending for empire: and neither can have a throne, except on the overthrow and destruction of the other. The Seed of the woman avowed this to be His purpose from all eternity. To this end came He into the world, -to crush, to break, to overturn, to abolish. “For this purpose, the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

“See a fulfillment of the prophecy which has respect to the bruising of the “ heel” of Messiah, in the wounds, and scars, and stripes, which Christ was to endure in His lower nature. These began with His life and only ended with His life. From the first day of our Lord’s manifestation, the seed of the serpent began to contrive against Him his deadly plots. First, Herod was set on destroying the child Jesus in infancy. On commencing His public ministry, the Holy One has to sustain those forty days’ fierce encounter in the wilderness. On coming to His own city Nazareth, the maddened populace is stirred up by Satan to “cast Him down headlong” from the brow of the hill. (Luke 4:29). And, in all the subsequent trials and insults, endured by the Blessed Saviour, we see the work of the subtle serpent of evil, devising new plots and agencies to bruise and distress the human soul of Christ. He moved Herod to mock, Pilate to scourge, and the priests to revile, and the rabble to shout. He was with the false witnesses who accused, and the apostate disciple who betrayed, with the thief who cast railing in His teeth, and with the heartless soldier who pierced His side. Yes, behind all this machinery of evil did Satan plant himself. Mistaken, short-sighted, utterly suicidal as his policy was, it originated in that sentence promise of Paradise. It was so “written in the bond.” Our salvation had been an imperfect thing without it. All that was mortal in the Incarnate One, all that was capable of suffering, all that belonged to the nature which He had assumed, was to be bruised, insulted, dishonored, shamed. Hunger pinched Him. Thirst distressed Him. Fatigue wearied Him. Pain rent His limbs, and anguish cast down His soul. Oh! it was indeed the sharpness of the serpent’s tooth He felt, when, out of the deep agony of His spirit, He cried out: “ Father, save me from this hour.” But instantly the thought occurred: “For this cause came I unto this hour.” (John 12:27). The Scripture had said that thus it must be: “Thou shalt bruise His heel. But then, blessed be God, the Scripture had also said: “It shall bruise thy head. “And here the triumph of Divine mercy culminates. The two parts of the sentence are found to be correlative: that is to say, it is the very bruising of the heel of Messiah, that leads to the crushing of the head of the serpent. For how stood the case? The head of Satan, that wherein his great strength lies, consists in his having the power of death, — a death of which the sting is sin, and the strength is a violated law. But the bruised heel of Christ has rendered both of these powerless. His submission to all the experiences of the Incarnation was a perfect satisfaction to all the demands of the law, and His death upon the cross provided an infinite propitiation for all sin. Hence, as the Apostle argues in his Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ has purchased salvation for every man by tasting death for every man. By making His righteousness ours, and our sin His, He casts in His lot with us. “For both He that sanctifieth and they that are sanctified are all of one :(Hebrews 2:11). He has made us one, says the Apostle, to this end, “that through death,” that is, His own death, ” He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil.” Here, then, we have the prophetic promise,— the sentence-blessing laid out in its complete fulfillment. Satan is allowed to bruise the heel of Messiah, but meanwhile, and in the very act of submitting to this bruising, Christ is Himself bruising Satan in his most vital part. He is casting out the god of this world. He is destroying him that had the power of death.

FRUIT INSPECTION

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FRUIT INSPECTION

Matthew 7:15-20 NET

15 “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.

Today’s actual command from Jesus is translated by the words “watch out” in the NET version. Other translations say “beware” or “be on your guard.” Jesus had used that word already in his sermon on the mount when he told his apostles to be careful not to display their righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise, they would have no reward with their Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1). In that passage, he was warning them that what they wanted to happen could be blocked if they did something with the wrong motive.

In this passage, Jesus warned his apostles that false prophets would come (15a).

I want to stop here and note that if Jesus is saying that false prophets would come, he is admitting that there would also be true prophets. If Jesus had meant to say that there would be no true prophets, then he would not have given his instruction this way. If he had intended to say that the Holy Spirit would cease revealing God’s will through prophets in the generation after he ascended, then his instruction to test the prophets would be useless.

What I am saying is that Jesus implied the ministry and function of prophecy would continue into the church age. He said himself that he had not come to abolish the prophets (Matthew 5:17). We need to stop and let that sink in because one of the ways people have misapplied Jesus’ words here is to essentially dismiss all prophecy as illegitimate. Jesus is saying the opposite. He’s saying that throughout the church age, there will be a mixture of both true and false prophets within the visible church community.

The Holy Spirit will continue to give believers in our congregations the gift of prophecy. Paul told the Corinthians “To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things” (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). So, as long as the Holy Spirit stays down here with us, we can expect him to provide individuals within our congregations who have prophetic gifts.

Another thing that I have to note here is what a prophetic gift is. We are used to thinking of prophecy as foretelling the future. A person with a prophetic gift may reveal something about the future, but that is not his or her primary responsibility. Prophecy as defined by the Old Testament prophets is less about predicting the future, and more about revealing what God wants in the present. A prophet is a spokesperson for God.

We can also get help by comparing the function of a prophet with that of a priest. A priest serves as an intermediary between human beings and God. A prophet serves as an intermediary between God and human beings. The priest serves God on behalf of the people. A prophet communicates with the people on behalf of God.

So, a false prophet in today’s context is someone who claims to speak for God, yet says things that did not originate from heaven. That person is either deceived and passes along the deception without realizing it, or that person is intentionally misrepresenting his or her words as coming from God when they are not.

Last week I mentioned that these false prophets are leaders of the easy way. They look like genuine men and women of God. These false prophets are a problem because they will appear within the visible church. If they actually represented other religions, we would not be tempted to listen to them. But they will come to us in sheep’s clothing. Some will actually be convinced that they are true believers.

Jesus warned his apostles — and all of us who follow Christ after them — to watch out for those false prophets.

He warned them to look beyond outward appearance (15b).

Those false prophets will come to us in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are voracious wolves. Jesus warned us that we would not have to travel to Tibet and climb Mount Everest to find these false prophets. We won’t have to come to them, they will come to us. They will infiltrate our congregational meetings, our Bible studies, and our prayer meetings.

Also, they are not going to be wearing Nazi uniforms, or t-shirts that say “false prophet.” They are going to look like us. In our study of 1 John in Sunday School, we encountered this verse: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us, because if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But they went out from us to demonstrate that all of them do not belong to us” (1 John 2:19). John was speaking of an entire cult group that was at first part of the visible congregations of believers, but broke away from them and started their own separate groups. One of the purposes of false prophets is to do that: to teach false doctrine within a group of Christians and lead them astray so that they split from the true believers and start an alternative group.

Jesus is telling us to look beyond the visible appearance because that is not going to be proof as to whether someone is a true prophet or a false prophet. They will appear harmless like a sheep but inwardly they are voracious wolves. They will look like they want to just fit in and get along with everybody. But their purpose will be to divide and destroy.

In that context, Jesus told them to inspect the fruit the teaching produced (16-18).

He switched metaphors on us. He said we will recognize them by their fruit. Sheep and wolves don’t produce fruit, but trees do. The leaders of the easy way will look like any other tree of the orchard, but the fruit they bear will be bad. The lives of those they lead will be disobedient and ungodly. That is how they can be recognized. The promoters of the easy way will end in destruction – by fire. The people who follow them will suffer the same fate. They will have built their houses on the wrong foundation, and it is only a matter of time in a world of rain, floods, and winds before such shoddy workmanship will be revealed.

What I am hearing Jesus say is that we should be careful to assume that everyone who appears to be a Christian is actually a genuine Christian. Some who appear to be true will eventually prove themselves false. We will discover the false from the true by looking at the lives of their listeners.

Now, I have to admit that it’s very difficult to engage in that kind of fruit inspection, and it seems to me that very little of it is being done. It is much easier to choose to follow another person’s spiritual leadership based on criteria that are easier to recognize — like denominational loyalty, or the size of the last group they lead. It’s easier to judge them on the basis of how they appeal to you subjectively — like giving them the thumbs up because they appear young enough to be healthy or old enough to be mature. Or, maybe they look like a preacher you enjoyed before. Or, maybe they don’t.

But we have to go beyond the visible and the subjective. Jesus commands us to perform fruit inspection here. We have to choose to follow leaders who produce disciples of Jesus Christ. We have to ignore the attributes of the flesh and concentrate on evidence of the fruit of the Spirit. Paul taught that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Not one of those divine qualities can be identified by looking at a photograph. You have to look beyond the surface for good fruit.

This is another example of the fact that you have to realize what the context is, or else you might think Jesus is contradicting himself. Remember, that in the context of teaching us to love our enemies, Jesus told us not to judge them. But now he is talking about the false prophets who are going to appear among us, and he is telling us to judge them. He says we will recognize them by their fruit. That means we have to be on the lookout for signs of bad fruit. Bad fruit has rot spots. Bad fruit smells off. Bad fruit attracts fruit flies. Anyone working in the produce department at the grocery store is going to recognize that bad fruit and discard it.

In the same way, Jesus taught that we should endorse some teachers, and reject others (19-20).

He said that every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will recognize them by their fruit. It sounds like Jesus is talking about hell, here. I hope he is not. If he’s talking about hell, then we would have to wait for judgment day to find out who the false prophets are. That would not make sense, because Jesus has already told us that we would recognize them by their fruit. He didn’t say that we would recognize them on judgment day when he separates the sheep from the goats — or the wolves. No, I think Jesus is telling us that there will be a way for us to recognize the bad fruit and reject those teachers that produce it. Conversely, we will be able to recognize the good fruit and endorse those teachers that produce it.

In other words, our fruit inspection can work. Let me share with you two qualifications of an accurate fruit inspector. The first qualification is that a fruit inspector needs to be familiar with good fruit. A fruit inspector needs to know what makes fruit good, and what happens when it is bad. For you and me, that means we have to know the kind of fruit Jesus wants us to produce. We know this by focusing on the commands of Christ!

The second qualification is that a fruit inspector needs to know the environment that produces and keeps a crop of good fruit. When you open a package that is supposed to be grapes, but it’s raisins instead, you know that the fruit has been exposed to the wrong environment. For you and me, that means that we have to have a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit within us can help us to recognize the Holy Spirit’s fruit in others.

Jesus’ command for today is to WATCH OUT for false prophets. They are among us, and their disciples are among us. It is not always going to be easy to spot these false prophets by the things they say. We need to be sensitive to the bad fruit — the results of the false teachings. The best way to inspect someone else’s fruit is to be fully aware of what good fruit is like. To do that, we need to produce good fruit ourselves.

TIGHT SQUEEZE

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TIGHT SQUEEZE

Matthew 7:13-14 NET

The typical way of explaining the words of Jesus in today’s text is that when he talks about going through the narrow gate, he is referring to those who want to be Christians. All other religions take the wide gate and walk the spacious way to their own destruction. But there is a problem with that approach. These are the words of Jesus directed toward the apostles who had already sworn their allegiance to him as their master. Everyone that he spoke to had already committed themselves to enter his coming kingdom.

13 “Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.
14 But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

So, what Jesus is talking about in today’s text is two ways of trying to enter the kingdom: the hard way and the easy way. The gate to the hard way is narrow, so people are less likely to choose it. The gate to the easy way is wide. It is very popular. He warns that only those who enter through the narrow gate will find life on the other side. Those who look for the easy way in will find destruction. Eternal life is not something everyone is born with. It is conditional, the result of the right choice.

Look at what Jesus says after this:

  • “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves.” (7:15).
  • “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven — only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ “Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!'” (7:21-23).

Leaders of the easy way are false prophets, but they look genuine. They prophesy and exorcise demons and do mighty works in Jesus’ name, and call him their lord. Jesus does not know them, and he didn’t send them, but they will be here claiming to do his will all the same. Inside they are wolves, not sheep.

These false prophets are a problem because they will appear within the visible church. If they actually represented other religions, we would not be tempted to listen to them. But they will come to us in sheep’s clothing. Some will actually be convinced that they are true believers.

How will we know a true Christian leader from a false one? Jesus also answered that question:

  • “You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.” (7:16-20).

The leaders of the easy way will look like any other tree of the orchard, but the fruit they bear will be bad. The lives of those they lead will be disobedient and ungodly. That is how they can be recognized. The promoters of the easy way will end in destruction – by fire. The people who follow them will suffer the same fate. They will have built their houses on the wrong foundation, and it is only a matter of time in a world of rain, floods, and winds before such shoddy workmanship will be revealed.

Our Lord wants us to seek his kingdom the hard way, not the easy way. We see that in today’s text.

The wide gate is the default (13c).

Jesus said that “the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.” In modern terms, it is the default — the choice that everyone makes unless presented with some reason not to. This would be no problem if the gate one chooses does not matter. But it does matter. The default gate leads to a spacious road — a road where there is plenty of room for lots of people to travel on. Unfortunately, the destination of that road is destruction.

There was a large crowd listening to Jesus as he preached the sermon on the mount to his apostles. Many of them were considering committing their lives to Jesus and becoming his disciples. He was warning them that simply deciding to follow him was not enough. There would be many hard choices that they would have to make. Life as a Christian would not be easy. They would be tempted to casually accept Christ as their savior, and then live their normal lives otherwise. Jesus warned them that the Christian life is not a normal life, and if they tried to stay normal, it would lead them in the opposite direction, no matter what they professed.

That is his message to you and me today. The default gate is always accessible. There are no obstacles to it. It is the easiest choice to make, and the life it promises looks like the best of both worlds. We can get our names on God’s list, but can still live like we want to.

But the problem is…

Those who enter the wide gate will be destroyed (13b).

The future destiny of those who are looking to enter the easy way is clear and plain. Those who look for the easy way in will find destruction. Eternal life is not something everyone is born with. It is conditional, the result of the right choice.

Jesus is not the only one who said that the fate of the lost is destruction.

Paul says that they are “objects of wrath ready for destruction” (Romans 9:22). He says their “end is destruction” (Philippians 3:19). He says they “will undergo the penalty of” permanent destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

Peter agrees with Jesus and Paul on the fate of the lost as well; He says that “the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, by being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Peter 3:7).

Now with all this evidence in favor of what Jesus said about the fate of the lost, it might come as a surprise that most churches and most preachers are afraid to say what I just said. They insist that when Jesus and Paul and Peter talk about destruction they mean something else. Don’t believe it. Destruction means destruction. The second death is a second death, which will be permanent because there will be no resurrection from it. That is why choosing the right gate is so important.

The narrow gate is difficult to enter (14a).

Jesus said, “the gate is narrow and the way is difficult.” We have been studying the commands of Christ for many months now, and we can all agree that once we know what Jesus actually commanded, obeying those commands will be tough. He tells poor and suffering people to rejoice. It’s hard for us to do that. He tells ordinary people to influence the world when the world wants us to just be like them. It’s hard for us to do that. He tells ordinary Christians that their righteousness has to exceed that of religious professionals. It’s hard for us to do that. He tells us to reconcile with those who make us angry. It’s hard for us to do that. He tells us to stop lusting and be faithful to our spouses. It’s hard for us to do that. He tells us to be true to our word. It’s hard for us to do that. He tells us to love our enemies. It’s hard for us to do that.

The narrow gate is difficult to enter, but unfortunately…

The narrow gate is the only way to permanent life (14b).

He said, “the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” You and I have a choice. It’s not a simple choice of claiming to be a Christian or not. Remember, everyone that Jesus was talking to in today’s text had publically committed to following him. But Jesus warned them that there would be false teachers who would try to trip them up. He warned them that there would be those who claimed to be sheep but were actually wolves. He warned them that if they wanted to build true Christian lives they would have to build on the rock, not the sand.

The narrow gate is the only way to permanent life. People will tell you that everyone has a permanent life, and the issue is where you will spend it. Do not believe that lie. Only one way leads to life. The other way — the spacious way — the easy way — leads to destruction. Whoever believes in Jesus will not perish, but have eternal life. Two permanent destinies.

Paul spoke of those two destinies. He said, “the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). If you are not in Christ Jesus, you won’t have life. Your payoff is death.

John spoke of those two destinies. He said that the “one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have this eternal life” (1 John 5:12).

The author of Hebrews spoke of those two destinies. He said those who shrink back will perish, but those who have faith will preserve their souls (Hebrews 10:39).

Peter spoke of those two destinies. He said that those who are born again will be resurrected and receive a permanent inheritance (1 Peter 1:3-4). But the ungodly will experience destruction (2 Peter 3:7).

Now that we know what is at stake, let us return to the command of Christ highlighted in today’s text.

Christ commands us to enter through the narrow gate (13a).

Suppose you have decided to become a Christian. That is a good thing. You want to enter the kingdom that is coming down from the sky. That is a good ambition. Jesus warns us that there are two ways to take, the hard way and the easy way. The easy way will be a well-beaten path, a wide gate, and a spacious road that lots of people have taken before you. It will not make any demands on you other than what you claim. You claim to believe in Jesus — there will be many others on that road who make the same claim. You want to be a good person — lots of good people take that road.

It would seem to me that if we are really serious about entering the kingdom we would follow the instructions of the king. The king tells us to stay away from the wide gate. He warns us to stay off the spacious road. Actually following Jesus is going to be a tight squeeze. Staying on the narrow road is going to be a hard thing to do. But our king commands it.

When he returns, king Jesus is going to gather all the nations before him. He is going to “separate people one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32). He will know every soul. He will determine who has taken the easy way, and who has taken the hard way. He will put the true sheep on his right, and the goats on his left. The goats will be condemned to the permanent punishment of the second death. The sheep will inherit permanent life. The choices we make today will determine which destiny we will experience.

Brothers and sisters, don’t take the easy way. Enter the narrow gate!

ASK HIM

ASK HIM

Photo by Arina Krasnikova on Pexels.com

Matthew 7:6-12 NET

6 Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.
8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 Is there anyone among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?
10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?
11 If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
12 In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.

I want to begin today’s message the same way I began last week. We need to learn to be consistent in our obedience to Christ’s commands. We don’t do this to get saved. Obedience cannot save you, even obedience to Christ’s commands. We are saved by faith in God’s grace, through the obedience and righteousness of Christ demonstrated by his death on the cross. That is the only means of our salvation. But once we come to Christ in faith, declaring him to be our king, and committing ourselves to become active in his coming kingdom, we have a choice. We can choose to act consistently with that faith and obey our new king, or we can choose to shipwreck our faith by disobeying him.

I believe anyone with true faith in Christ is going to want to live out that faith by obeying his commands. I also believe that this is God’s plan for saving others. Jesus told his apostles that they were the light of the world. He implied that if they obeyed his commands, it would light the way for others to come to him and be saved. You and I are recipients of the same promise, and that is why we also must consistently obey his commands.

The subject matter of Jesus’ command that today’s text focuses on appears to be prayer. This is the famous ASK, SEEK and KNOCK passage. Matthew 7:7 was one of the earliest verses I memorized as a child because it came with its own pneumonic device: A S K spells out ASK, SEEK and KNOCK. The basic principle of the kingdom that our king teaches us in today’s text is that the kingdom citizens are to seek divine help. It is not only wrong to try to accomplish kingdom tasks independent of prayer, it is direct disobedience. Prayer is not an option for us — it is the standard operating procedure in the kingdom.

We should ask God for the things that we need (7-8).

Jesus’ command goes like this: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” The resources we need to accomplish the objectives of the king in this life today are available for the asking.

Jesus did not have to say it that way. He could have told us to first look for resources all around us, then to pray as a last resort if we cannot find what we need. The temptation for many is to treat prayer that way. In fact, if we were honest, our prayers might sound something like Jimmy Stewart’s character Charlie Anderson in the movie Shenandoah:

“Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eatin’ it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for the food we’re about to eat. Amen.”*

Later in the movie, Charlie tries to say the same prayer and stumbles through it. His family has been ravaged by war, and he realizes how stupid that prayer was. It was never about really asking God for anything. Our prayers are not supposed to be like that. They are designed to reflect our relationship with the supreme being who is sovereign over all life and holds all resources and power in his hands.

Unless we acknowledge our dependence upon God, we are going to have problems living in his kingdom on this earth today. James tells us that we do not have because we don’t ask (James 4:2).

A human father is not going to deny his child what he needs (9-11a).

Jesus said “Is there anyone among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” He said we know how to give good gifts to our children, even though we are not completely holy and righteous like God is. Penny and I raised three daughters, and we wanted to give them what they needed all the time. We didn’t want to see them go without.

Our heavenly Father is just waiting for us to ask (11b).

Jesus had already taught that prayer needed to flow from a genuine relationship with the Father (6:5-9), and that lack of forgiveness in our other relationships could also hinder our prayers (6:10-15). Now he points out one more thing that can keep us from getting what we need: lack of praying.

Jesus is not saying that God is testing us to see how strong we are and that only the fittest will keep praying and survive the ordeal, gaining the prize. Notice, he – once again – ties prayer and its outcome to our Father in the sky and our relationship with him. The barrier we need to overcome is not our Father’s reluctance to give, but our own resistance to depending on him.

Even we who are evil want to give good things to our kids, and God’s love far exceeds ours. He asks us to keep asking because we will be tempted to give up and try to handle things ourselves. How often have we thrown out a quick prayer, then, thrown up our hands as if to say “that didn’t work” and sought our solution elsewhere? A lack of dependence on prayer is a lack of faith in the one to whom we are praying. Our prayer life is not about getting stuff, it is about learning to depend on him.

The temptation is to give up too easily and end up settling for the rocks and snakes. We don’t appreciate them as much as bread and fish, but at least we did it our way. Staying on our knees long enough to get the fish sandwich is a lesson in humility and faith in a loving, giving Father. The longer we wait for God to intervene, the more credit he gets for the provision.

This principle also applies to human conflict (6, 12).

You see, there are two sections of today’s text that interpreters have a hard time figuring out. The first is verse six which says that we should not give what is holy to dogs or throw our pearls before pigs; otherwise, they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear us to pieces. People think this was just tacked on to the text because Jesus said it in another context. No, it has to do directly with what Jesus had just taught about being merciful toward our enemies so that we can win them to Christ. It also has a direct application to Jesus’ teaching on prayer here.

Here’s the logic of what Jesus taught: When someone does something bad to you or says something bad about you, you will be tempted to pass judgment upon them yourself. You will want to take the matter into your own hands. You will want to clear the land yourself, plow it, sow it, harvest it, and cook it yourself. You will want to retaliate against your enemy yourself and then maybe ask God to bless your efforts after you are through doing it all yourself. That is not what God wants you to do. That would be like giving what is holy to dogs or throwing your pearls before pigs. That is a wasted effort. In fact, doing it ourselves is dangerous. If you want to get stomped on and torn to pieces, do it yourself. But the wise way to deal with your enemies is to ASK God to intervene. The wise way to find a solution to your problem is to SEEK God’s solution. The wise choice is to knock on God’s door until he answers it, and provides a divine remedy.

The principle that Jesus is teaching is that we should go to God in prayer for our needs. The particular need that Jesus is addressing here is human conflict. You see someone with a speck of sawdust in his eye. All your human nature is going to scream to you to criticize him for that small thing wrong with him. You will be blind to all your imperfections. All you will see is a problem that you must fix. God’s answer: Before you do or say anything to that person about his problem, go to God in prayer.

The second text in today’s passage that interpreters often think is out of place is verse twelve. That is where Jesus tells us the golden rule: “In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.” Jesus has just told his apostles about prayer, earthly fathers, fish sandwiches, stones, and snakes. What does the golden rule have to do with depending on God and praying for what we need?

The answer — I think — is that Jesus is again addressing that particular context of human conflict. Someone has said something wrong or done something wrong. We have the choice of treating them like an enemy or treating them like we would want to be treated if it was us. We have the choice of being vengeful or merciful. We have the choice to overlook the sin or pounce on it. Remember the instruction of Jesus here has to do with how we treat others. So, he is still talking about situations in which believers can make the wrong choice resulting in the escalation of human conflict.

The solution that Jesus commands us to take whenever someone says or does something wrong is to resist the impulse to criticize, condemn, hold grudges or retaliate, and instead give the matter to God in prayer. Your Christian witness is a holy thing. Don’t give it to the dogs. Your testimony is a valuable pearl. It’s not hog slop. Don’t throw it to the pigs. Let God intervene in your life when there are times of conflict. God can take that crisis and turn it into a miracle of reconciliation. He can take that enemy and turn him into a Christian brother. He can take a hardened Philippian jailer and make him cry out “What do I have to do to be saved?”

Some things block this marvelous miracle of God. We can sabotage God’s plan by trying to do it ourselves. We can respond to every insult ourselves. We can seek revenge for every wrong ourselves. We can abolish the golden rule and treat every sin against us as a challenge for us to get even. We can relegate prayer to formal statements in church, refusing to allow it to become our secret weapon in interpersonal conflict.

But what would happen if we ordinary Christians began to take this command of Christ seriously? It would revolutionize the way we dealt with one another. If we stopped to pray before reacting and allowed God to solve the problem, he just might do it. Then, where would we be? People around us would start to notice. They would begin to wonder where we got the spiritual strength we have.

Wherever Jesus went, he drew people to God by performing miracles. The miracle he wants to perform today through us is the miracle of a people who supplicate, rather than retaliate. He wants us to be people who pray instead of fight. If we dare to fight our battles on our knees, we are going to find that we can win those battles.

NOTES:

*Jimmy Stewart, Shenandoah, Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, 1965. For the script of the movie, see:

https://transcripts.thedealr.net/script.php/shenandoah-1965-FX5

Fair, Ian A, Stephen Leston, and Mark L. Strauss. Matthew & Mark: Good News for Everyone. Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Pub, 2008.

The next short section has raised several problems for interpretation. The parable in itself is not difficult. One should not give to the unclean (dogs and swine) that which is clean or holy” (Page 40)
“However, does the unclean refer to Gentiles, or simply to the undeserving? Does it perhaps refer to the hypocrite of 7:5? It is difficult to determine what holy thing Jesus is referring to at this point as it relates to the previous admonition against judging” … The next pitfall disciples face is the loss of faith (7:7-12). Jesus encourages His disciples to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking, for true faith never loses heart and quits. Again, Matthew follows this encouragement of Jesus with a saying that seems to be detached, the Golden Rule, but it does have some connection to the previous admonitions of Jesus. Disciples are to be like their heavenly Father. They are to love one another and be constant in their faith” (Page 41).

France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids (MI: Eerdmans, 2007.

“The imagery of sacred things given to dogs and precious pearls to pigs is clearly about mismatch, about the inappropriate use of what is special. But what are the holy things and pearls, and from whom are they to be withheld?” (Page 276).
“Perhaps we can be no more definite than to say that disciples are to be discriminating in sharing the “sacred things” of the gospel and the treasures of their Father in heaven, so as not to lay them open to abuse, but to avoid offering a more specific identification of who are to be regarded as unsuitable or incapable of receiving them (cf. Paul’s insistence in 1 Cor 2:13-16 that only the “spiritual” can receive spiritual teaching)” (Page 277).

McCarren, Paul J. A Simple Guide to Matthew. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012

“Matthew then says Jesus pointed out that we wouldn’t thrust something valuable at a pig or a dog lest they react to such strange behavior with startled aggression. Shouldn’t we show the same deference to one another [v.6]? That question might provoke in us a burst of quibbles that come down to one question: “How can I respect those who are annoy¬ ing?” Matthew says Jesus spoke here of seeking help in prayer. Have a question? Ask. Something missing? Search. Door locked? Knock [vv.7-8]. So, if you need the gifts of patience and respect, ask for them— and remember you’re asking your heavenly Father. Matthew says Jesus pointed out how attentive we are to the appeals of our children, and then suggested we imagine God to be at least as attentive as we are [vv.9-11]. Matthew tells us Jesus summed up his explanation of how our relationship with God should shape our relationship with each other by reminding the crowd of the basic message repeated throughout each part of scripture: you’ll treat others well if you believe God loves them as he does you [v.12]. (Page 32).

Platt, David. Exalting Jesus in Matthew. , 2013.

“When you read the Sermon on the Mount, you should not walk away thinking, “I must turn the other cheek in order to be accepted by God. I must love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me in order to be accepted by God. I must follow the Golden Rule perfectly in order to be accepted by God.” We are not accepted by God because of anything that we do. We are accepted by God completely and totally because of a perfect Savior who has died a bloody death in our place and who has risen again in victory. Yes, we pray for our enemies, we love those who persecute us, and we follow the Golden Rule. But we do these things not in order to earn acceptance before our God, but because we have acceptance by God and we want to glorify Him in everything that we do” (Page 92).

Reid, Barbara E. The Gospel According to Matthew. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2005.

“The saying in 7:6 is unique to Matthew and somewhat enigmatic. What is holy (“hallowed”) in 6:9 is God’s name. A pearl can signify the realm of God (see 13:45-46). “Dogs” is likely a reference to outsiders (see also 15:26), since Jews did not keep dogs indoors as house pets. Swine were unclean animals for Jews. So the saying is best understood as an admonition not to preach about the reign of God to Gentiles or pagans, but to concentrate the mission within Israel (similarly 10:5-6). If persecution can be expected in the mission to Israel (5:10; 10:16-36), all the more would such be anticipated with outsiders” (Page 47).

Wright, N T. Matthew for Everyone: Chapters 1-15. London: SPCK, 2004

“What then about the dogs, the pigs, and the pearls? Doesn’t this imply that Jesus’ followers are to make quite a serious judgment — namely that some people come into these categories, so should not be given holy or precious things? Yes. It seems as though Jesus is here assuming a distinction between one’s own community — in his case that of village and town life in Galilee, within the Jewish world of his day — and people from outside. ‘Dogs’ was after all a regular abusive term for Gentiles; pigs were kept only by Gentiles since Jews didn’t eat pork. He seems to be warning his followers not to try to explain the meaning and life of the kingdom to people who won’t even understand the Jewish world within which it makes sense” (Page 70).