A Terrifying Proposition

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.

Matthew 10:1

Matthew did not disclose much personal information for the men he subsequently listed, focusing instead on their future, if not terrifying mission, more so than on their past identities. Jesus sanctioned these men with supernatural abilities to heal and resurrect, but those abilities would not come with fanfare. Instead, these men would be tried, convicted, arrested, beaten, and hated. Families would divide because of them. Haters would label them as disciples of the prince of demons.

Such a sanction causes us to wonder who would willingly agree to this.

A few of the men who did agree to this sanctioning were fishermen, an occupation in a state-controlled, revenue-generating enterprise, protected only by the razor-thin hedge of guilds. Fishermen paid large amounts of revenue to their provinces, and provincial leaders would then pay revenue to the Roman Empire. Every government official in the chain of taxation received their due share. From the Herods to the Caesars, rulers received vast amounts of wealth from this system.

It wasn’t necessarily a fair life. But it was predictable.

Until Jesus offered them another option, one more adventurous, more terrifying, and one that would not depend on their entrepreneurial skills – an option that exchanged lives of comfort for lives on the edge.

Jesus' disciples would be accused of follow the prince of demons Such a calling causes us to wonder who would willingly agree to this.

Matthew never indicated that these men accepted this mission, though.

He chose, instead, to leave Jesus’ calling for them open-ended, using this literary flourish to tell his readers that Jesus’ calling had a much larger reach than twelve men.

Consider these words from scholar Anna Case-Winters.

I wonder whether we … have a form of “culture Christianity,” an ecclesial existence that has become so “well-adapted” to our culture that it is indistinguishable from it? In our situation of ease, have we lost our prophetic edge and, with it, a sense of the distance between the reign of God and the status quo? Is it possible that the very things that, in our context, have made it easy to be a Christian have made it harder to follow Jesus?

If we take a wider global view, we see some churches in other contexts that live very much on the edge. They know the meaning of giving courageous and faithful witness in the face of opposition. They do not have the luxury of a peaceful and prosperous existence. It may be that secularization occurring in Europe and North America may disestablish the church from its place of easy acceptance and privilege. We may come to know the harder realities that are the experience of Churches in some parts of Asia and Africa. The coming changes may lend a new relevance to this chapter in Matthew’s Gospel which reacquaints its readers with the “cost of discipleship.”


Choosing to Hurt

Read Matthew’s remarkable commentary about Jesus after Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount:

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority and not as their teachers of the law.

Matthew 7:28-29

Matthew used the imperfect tense of the verb “amazed,” a tense to describe a past action with an incomplete resolution. In other words, the crowds talked for days about Jesus.

Jesus stood alone among a crowded scene of scribes who could only depend on the teachings of previous scribes or their exegetical work of the Torah. Yet on the Mount, Jesus used phrases like I say to you …” and “these words of mine …,” locating the authority of his teaching to his knowledge and information. Consider this description of Jesus’ teaching from D.A. Carson in his commentary on Matthew:

Jesus is not an ordinary prophet who says, “Thus says the Lord!” Rather, he speaks in the first person and claims that his teaching fulfills the [Old Testament], that he determines who enters the messianic kingdom, that as the Divine Judge he pronounces banishment, that the true heirs of the kingdom will be persecuted for their allegiance to him, and that he alone fully knows the will of the Father.

Matthew & Mark, page 232.

But words without action are empty. Jesus knew this when he descended the mountain of information to walk in the valley of hurt – the following two chapters in Matthew contain half of the healing stories in the gospel. Without fanfare or ritual, the Son of God (again) rendered the stipulations of the Torah unnecessary by healing outsiders: a man with leprosy, an enslaved man who was paralyzed, and Peter’s mother-in-law. Matthew framed these healings, and others, as a further example of Jesus’ authority:

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”

Matthew 8:16-17 (ESV)

Jesus’ authority extended beyond the mountain of teaching, where, in the valley of hurt, he absorbed and bore the pain of leprosy, the pain of paralysis, and the pain of a fever. This is no small thing. He did not become afflicted with leprosy or paralysis or fever – he did not receive the illness in the place of those he healed. But the sin of Adam unleashed a myriad of consequences that aren’t necessarily erased, namely pain and death; thus, the restoration of the sick required the pain to be displaced. Jesus chose to feel the hurt. He is the only person with the authority – the power – to do so.

For those who doubt, consider these words of Paul:

God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:21 (NET)

Jesus bore the punishment for every sin throughout time, feeling a pain not limited to physical hurt. Again, illness is but one of the consequences unleashed by the sin of Adam, leaving us to now live in a system of decay. By being sin, then, Jesus consequentially bore the hurt of every illness every person has ever felt, even as every person is not completely healed.

It is this experience Paul called “love.”

On the Nature of Temptation

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.

Matthew 4:1

What a juicy statement by Matthew, coming immediately after Jesus’ baptism. The Spirit compelled Jesus to leave the peace of the dove for the isolation of the desert, forcing an attack upon his very nature. We dare to consider the implications of such, the chiefest being the nature of our own temptations.

Both the gospel of Mark and the gospel of Luke, in their counterpart tellings of this moment, do not say quite the same thing as Matthew. Mark, in particular, has a very harsh, forceful approach to this encounter: the Spirit impelled Jesus to the wilderness, but not necessarily to be tempted, even though temptations occurred there. Matthew’s language is very specific: the Spirit led Jesus into the desert so that that Jesus would be tempted. Details matter, and Matthew’s telling of this story, as one of Jesus’ apostles and eyewitnesses, would have certainly been more flavorful, and perhaps even more precise. It is possible Matthew heard Jesus once say that God himself, via the Spirit, led Jesus to temptation. But the text of Matthew provides no clues why this had to be so.

Also, it’s difficult to believe that this happened because Jesus had just been revealed as God’s Son and thus was made to experience an exclusive testing. The theology of the New Testament attests that all believers are “sons of God”. While translations and scholarship often focus on the supposed lack of inclusivity in Paul’s words in his letter to the Galatians, his use of this phrase makes much more sense when we see the treatment of Jesus in Matthew 4. “Sons of God” are led into temptation by God and received by the devil.

The devil, though, is a showstopper here, a mysterious being complicit in the Spirit-led temptation of Jesus, created for this specific purpose. Listen to the words of John in the final book of the New Testament:

15 And the angel said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16 And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, 17 for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. 18 And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”

Revelation 17:15-18 (emphasis mine)

Some background is necessary here. In Revelation 17, the prostitute, whose dual identity is both the city of Rome and any nation or government that has systematically oppressed the people of God, is devoured and burned by the beast. Verse 17 states that God gave this authority to a beast, who is consistently seen as evil in Revelation. Verse 17 also teaches, quite clearly, that there is no antithetical being with mechanisms and desires to overthrow God’s reign. Everything serves God’s purposes. Even the devil, the recipient of Jesus in Matthew 4:1.

Whatever we think about Matthew 4:1, then, it’s enough to say that God thought this testing and tempting of Jesus was appropriate.

Nik Ripken is a missionary and author. In his book, The Insanity of God, Ripken recounts his first experience with underground house-churches in China, where he learned the value placed upon persecution and testing in the Chinese house-church movement. After spending time with a twenty-five year old leader of one of the churches, Ripken’s host pulled him aside and said this about the young leader, “He’s going to be someone God can use in a powerful way someday. But you cannot trust what he says now; he hasn’t been to prison yet.”

Ripken continued,

This was an attitude that I would encounter often in China. Personal trust and respect for spiritual maturity were often in direct proportion to the amount of suffering that had been endured for the faith.

The Insanity of God, page 228.

Later, Ripken wrote,

One of the house-church leaders actually asked me, “Do you know what prison is for us? It is how we get our theological education. Prison in China is for us like seminary is for training church leaders in your country.”

The Insanity of God, page 231.

Matthew’s juicy statement is not an anomaly. It a purposeful look at the designs of God who sees value for his “sons” in these moments, and who controls the one who visits us with testings.

A Stellar Announcement

Welcome to kylestrickland.com, a landing spot for my little blog. Thanks for visiting. I hope to post weekly. No political commentary, though. Or pop culture. Or breaking news.

But I will post about the New Testament – the collection of books and letters written during the genesis of the Roman Empire. Those 27 books make some specific and controversial claims, a fact that makes them worthy of a fresh look. I plan to post some quick hits in a rather orderly fashion, commenting on a few chapters at a time and in order. Feel free to subscribe, share, and even comment. I look forward to the interaction.

Let’s begin in the Gospel of Matthew, with the first three chapters.

Though the gospel itself is anonymous, scholars are confident that one of Jesus’ disciples, named Matthew, wrote this brief narrative of Jesus’ life to a Jewish audience some 40 years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus. As you read the introductory chapters, it’s not hard to muster some Christmas nostalgia. In the midst of the dramatic story of Jesus’ birth, as told through the eyes of his adopted father, we find the surprising appearance of Magi, strange foreigners who interpreted a stellar announcement of heaven’s kiss to earth in the form of a baby. These astrologers and shamans came “from the east” to see this child.

The Magi gained prominence as religious leaders during the Persian Empire about 500 years before the birth of Jesus, but they were part of a group of people called the Medes, which predated the Empire. (For more, see The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism by R.C. Zaehner.) By the time we see the Magi in Matthew’s gospel, the world had significantly changed. The glorious Persian Empire had fallen, overthrown by Alexander the Great, and Rome had supplanted Greek rulership around the Mediterranean Sea. The Magi survived all of the upheavals.

Let’s pause for a moment, though, to take a hard turn to ancient China; it’s there we learn something quite special about the visitors to Jesus’ family.

Ancient China had classes of religious leaders not unlike the Magi. One particular class in the Zhou Dynasty looked and acted much like the Persian Magi, and archaeological evidence seems to confirm that these Chinese shamans knew of the Persian Magi about 700 years before the birth of Jesus. Archaeologists found two small figurines with features compatible with Persian visitors and, more specifically, Persian Magi. These two figurines bore what is believed to be the symbol of the Magi.

And what was this symbol, found on these figurines?

A cross potent. Or, in other words, a cross.

Magi were known by the cross they bore. And they bore it all over the world.

Imagine Mary and Joseph seeing the ornaments and attire of these foreigners, seeing a cross sewn into the fabric of their dress, and imagine Mary later watching the death of her son and remembering the strange foretelling of his death by people who knew not what they bore when they saw him as a child. Yet, with the cross they carried, the Magi were made to know the Savior of the world before they even knew better.

Matthew knew this. As did his audience. It was not lost on them that somehow the importance of the Magi would extend beyond the first few paragraphs of his gospel. Nothing, it seems, is of any coincidence here.

It also makes Jesus’ later definition of discipleship more poignant. We see the first example of such following in the Magi, who came to Jesus with gifts and treasures, claimed him as king, bore the cross, and realized that such recognition of this new king does not come without peril.