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.”

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.