Feb 192016
 

As part of a project to write a daily comment on each chapter in the Bible (#BCaD) I said this about Matthew 20:

Mt 20: The kingdom of God – not about what we can earn or gaining high position, but about mercy and service and self-sacrifice.

A friend of mine responded to this and said:

would be interested to know how you think this fits with passages in the bible that talk about storing up your reward in heaven or persecuted Christians reward being great in heaven. Mathew 6:20, Matthew 16:27 and so on. How does this fit with being saved by grace and not works and Mathew 20? Would be interested to hear your thoughts!

A great question and here is how I think it all hangs together.

It’s important to think about what the three Matthew passages are saying as they are all providing different insights into living as a disciple of Jesus and what it means to be a citizen of his kingdom.

Matthew 6:20 is in the wider context of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is speaking about what it means to be ” a kingdom person” – it’s about being blessed in all manner of situations (Matt 5:3-12), living as salt and light (Matt 5:13-16) , living righteously (Matt 5:17-20), the way we think and not just the way w
e act (Matt 5:21-30), seeking to understand God’s principles for living (Matt 5:31-6:4), a proper approach to God in prayer and fasting (Matt 6:5-18), focusing on what is important to God as opposed to what is important to us (Matt 6:19-24), trusting in God (Matt 6:25-34) and so forth.

And these were words that Jesus spoke to people in Israel before he died on the cross, before people really started to grasp what he was going to do and the significance of it. They were words spoken to a people who had been brought up to know about God and to try and obey his law and here Jesus was recasting and reframing things to get them to try and understand what living as part of God’s people was really all about. And, from that context, he calls on them to live in a way that will build up rewards and blessing in heaven as opposed to seeking to better themselves on earth. It was a question of focus, a question of “what do we think is important”, a question about where we are going to invest our time and energy – and recognising that there will be rewards for those who seek to do what God is calling them to do.

In Matthew 16:27 Jesus is looking past his death & resurrection and on to the time when he will return in glory and speaking about the rewards he will give to those who have lived for him. And the sort of life he is calling on people to live is spelled out in the previous verses (Matt 16:24-26) where Jesus speaks about being prepared to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses and to follow him. This, he says, is the way of finding and experiencing life and – for such people – there will be rewards. And Jesus picks up this theme again in Matt 19:29 where he promises rewards for those who gives up things for him.

Coming to Matthew 20 we find four separate sections:

  1. A parable about workers in a vineyard (Matt 20:1-16)
  2. The third time Jesus speaks about his forthcoming death and resurrection (Matt 20:17-19)
  3. The mother of two of his disciples asking Jesus if her sons can have a special place of honour with him in his kingdom and Jesus reminding his followers that the way of his kingdom is a way of service (Matt 20:20-28)
  4. Two blind men calling out to Jesus for mercy and receiving it (Matt 20:29-34)

The first reminds us that – even as we are called to serve God – the rewards we will receive are from his generous grace (there is much more to be said about this parable but not here!), the second is another reminder of how far Jesus will go for us, the third shows that greatness is in service and the fourth, again, draws our attention back to God’s mercy. So there are rewards for God’s people and those who choose to live and serve Jesus but they are due to God’s grace and not something we should seek.

So all these passages testify to the fact that there will be rewards and blessings for those who follow Jesus, who seek to live as citizens of his kingdom, but that the rewards themselves shouldn’t be the focus – rather we should be rejoicing in God’s mercy and seeking opportunities to serve.

Is there any tension between this and being “saved by grace and not works”? 

To answer this we need to recognise that most of the words Jesus was speaking in Matthew were aimed at those who were in “the kingdom” and encouraging them in how to behave. If one is a child of God how should we live, what should be our focus and what should we be looking forward to?

And we get very similar ideas from Paul who doesn’t see a contradiction here as he:

  1. Makes it clear that we have been saved by grace and through faith – and as a result of God’s gracious gift to us (Eph 2:8)
  2.  Speaks about people building on their foundation in Christ and receiving a reward (1 Cor 3:10-15).
  3. Looks forward to a “crown of righteousness” that God will award him and others (2 Tim 4:8)

For Paul, our becoming part of God’s family, our “being saved”, is a total act of grace on the part of God but the consequence of this is that we live out our lives in service and we can look forward to a reward from God.

James, speaking about the relationship between faith and works, makes his famous statement about “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Here he isn’t arguing that faith isn’t important but he is arguing that people of faith should live lives, should do things, that demonstrate it.

So there isn’t any disagreement here at all. We become Christians through an act of God’s grace which we receive by faith; as a consequence of that we are called to live lives of discipleship & service in grateful recognition of what God has done; we look forward to a time when we will receive, from God’s grace, a reward for the things we have done as his people.

But just as our motivation for service shouldn’t be the prospect of a reward but rather a response to grace; so our “use” of our rewards will also be a response to God’s grace. In Revelation 4:9-11, the 24 elders around the throne of God fall down and worship God, laying their crowns before his throne. These elders refer to God’s people through history (warning alert – many different views on this but this is what I think!) as represented by the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Jesus. And they take the crowns they have been given, the rewards and standing they have achieved, and they offer them to God. In Revelation 5 this worship and praise is extended to the person of Jesus (Rev 5:8-10, 14). And so the rewards we receive will be things we can offer to God so that he will receive all glory and honour and praise.

Glory to the Lamb

Sep 102014
 

A group of us have just returned from a trip to Israel. It was a wonderful and fascinating experience and I’ll

jerusalem under herodprobably reflect on other aspects of the trip in later posts. But here I want to focus on the privilege of being in Jerusalem and visiting some of the sites which were (or were near to) places which figured in the trial, death and resurrection of Jesus. Walking those streets, looking out over the city, thinking about some of the events was a powerful and moving experience and reminded me of the eternally significant encounter and confrontation which was taking place.

From the top of the Mount of Olives we looked over the valley mount of olivesand onto the hill of Jerusalem – a sight which would have confronted Jesus as he made that journey.

 

We went down into the Garden of Gethsemane and saw the olive trees – some of which may have been there when Jesus contemplated what was ahead of him, when He cried out to his gethsemanefather, where he was betrayed by a close friend and when He was arrested and led away. Here we see the start of the confrontation – between those who were seeking to ensure ritual and legal purity, those who were seeking to maintain the status quo with the occupying Roman forces against a man who was making claims about who He was and the importance of following Him.

As we went into St Peter in Gallicantu – built to commemorate the house of the high priest where Jesus endured gallicantuhis first trial – we thought about how he was denied by one of his closest followers, was subject to an illegal trial and interrogated as to who he really was. Before the high priest, the religious leader of his people, he confidently stated that he was, indeed, the Messiah – the one whom God has promised to send to redeem his people. He made it clear that he would, one day, by seen seated in power and authority at God’s right hand (Matthew 26:63-54). This was too much for the priest, as he saw all that he stood for being challenged and under threat and so sent him on to the Roman governor for further examination.

We saw the place where Jesus was thought to have been examined by the Roman governor, the local antonio fortressrepresentative of the most powerful empire in the world who found him not guilty but – under pressure – still caused him to be beaten and condemned him to death.

For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will. (Luke 23:22–25)

And, soberly and thoughtfully, we visited the Chapel of the Flagellation where, traditionally, that beating took place.

We walked the streets which (or near which) Jesus would have walked and visited the most likely sites of his crucifixion, burial golgothaand resurrection and reflected on those word-changing events and their significance.

There was a sense of pilgrimage, a sense of history, a sense of something amazingly significant happening as we remindedgarden tomb ourselves of how one man, in humility and gentleness and love, stood against the forces which were massed against him, endured all they could heap on him and emerged victorious.

He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: (Luke 24:6)

On one hand we see the inhumanity of man, the desperate desire to hang on to power, the willingness to forgo justice in order to achieve their goals and the surprising alliance between opposing forces united – for a moment – against a common perceived threat. And how often we see the same happening today. On the other hand we see someone who, even when in chains and beaten, was in total control of the situation, behaved with quiet confidence, knew what he was going to do and accomplished his purpose for the benefit of all creation.

A clash of kingdoms but where the one who seemed outnumbered, outgunned and defeated was victorious and triumphant. And for those who have chosen to follow him he calls us to continue to stand against the forces and power of evil wherever we find it and work to bring his kingdom to earth.

Aug 052014
 

I’ve just finished reading a very interesting book looking at the teaching of Jesus and how we should engage with it:

The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything by Briansecret message of Jesus McLaren.

It is really worth reading and reflecting on.

Towards the end of the book he quotes a poem written by Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador – ‘who was assassinated for speaking up for God’s kingdom and justice in 1980’.

I found the poem challenging, stimulating and encouraging:

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection . . .
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results . . .
We are prophets of a future not our own.

It reminds me that, as Christians, we are:

  • called to work towards the kingdom of God while recognising that its fullness is beyond us
  • privileged to engage in God’s work and not the other way round
  • not going to achieve everything we set out to do but God will
  • often involved in activities where we don’t see the results but it doesn’t mean they aren’t important
  • agents of God’s grace as we speak about what might be

Hope this is an encouragement, and a challenge, to others as well.