Date: July 16, 2018
Speaker: Erik Raymond
Category: Biblical Exposition
Scripture: Matthew 17:14–17:27
There are some things that come naturally for us. For example, nobody has to teach us to want to eat. From the earliest moments of life, we know a desire for food. Likewise it’s fairly natural for us to desire and accomplish sleep. Even in our interpersonal relationships, things are quite natural. Nobody receives training at the registry on how to react when they are cut off in traffic—it just happens. Or, if someone sees a child in danger, thankfully, the natural human reaction is to intervene, and to help.
But as we see in the Scriptures, life in Jesus’ kingdom is not as natural. It’s a kingdom from another world after-all. We have to learn what it means to live as a citizen of his kingdom. And this is what Jesus is teaching us here this morning. Jesus teaches us that following him means embracing kingdom priorities.
Here in this section of Matthew, from chapter 17 through 21, Jesus is giving his disciples their final instructions before his death. He is teaching them about kingdom priorities in the kingdom of God. In the weeks to come we’ll see Jesus teach about humility, purity, discipline, forgiveness, marriage, divorce, children, money, and rewards.
This morning we will be in chapter 17.
The main idea today is that following Jesus requires embracing kingdom priorities.
We’ll consider three kingdom priorities to embrace
(1) Live with genuine faith (14-21)
(2) See the centrality of the cross (22-23)
(3) Avoid unnecessary offenses (24-27)
A Problem on the Ground
In our passage here we are presented with a real-time emergency. When Jesus comes down from the mountain top he is greeted by chaos on the ground. Just like when Moses came down from the Mountain top in Exodus 32 and found the Israelites knee deep in the mess of idolatry, so too Jesus comes down the mountain to find his disciples embroiled in controversy and chaos. Mark 9:14 tells us that they were greeted by a great crowd and that there was an argument between the scribes and the disciples.
It’s this argument that brought a man’s issue to the forefront. But in doing so, it also revealed a major issue plaguing the disciples.
This is where we are introduced to a Dad who is desperate. He is helpless and hurting. His son is suffering from a violent affliction. It appears there are both spiritual and physical afflictions at work here.
Notice how he describes what’s going on. He says in verse 15 that his boy has seizures and suffers terribly. Even to the extant that he often falls into the fire and the water. Mark 9:39 adds that he suffers from an evil spirit that throws him down, with the result that his body becomes rigid, his mouth foams and he grinds his teeth. Luke includes that after the spirit seizes the boy, he cries out with a load voice, he is shattered, and the spirit will not leave him (Luke 9:39).
This is truly sad. It’s a horrible condition that this young boy finds himself in.
But, I don’t think it’s the child’s plight that is causing the argument. No, it’s the fact that the disciples can’t do anything about it. The scribes—along with the other religious leaders—are tracking Jesus like a pack of wolves, waiting to pounce on him. They don’t see Jesus as he really is. They want to discredit and destroy him.
The issue here is that Jesus has shown authority over evil spirits and sickness. The disciples have been given authority by Jesus over the evil spirits. They were supposed to be able do this work on behalf of Christ. This would testify to the power of Christ’s kingdom.
But, there was a problem. Look at verse 16 of Matthew 17, “…I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.”
This is the issue right here. The inability of the disciples to do what Jesus had given them authority to do and in fact had told them to do. “And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction….Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” (Matthew 10:1, 8)
What’s wrong? Why isn’t this working? Is there something wrong with the kingdom? Not at all. In fact, we see the disciples lack an essential ingredient to fulfill the recipe. They can’t serve up kingdom blessings without faith. It’s impossible.
Look with me at verse 17 to see how Jesus answers them. And, I warn you, it’s not for the faint of heart.
“And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”” (Matthew 17:17–20)
The Diagnosis of the Problem
Jesus plainly tells them the problem: It’s because they lack faith. Before we consider this statement, I want you to see how Jesus sets this up. Did you notice how he speaks to them? He calls them at faithless and twisted generation. These very strong words.
First, who is he talking to? Remember, there is a crowd there. And, in the crowd you have the disciples, the scribes, and those who have come to gather. I think he is actually talking to both his disciples and the crowds. The line between the two is intentionally blurred. Jesus is calling out the faithlessness of the disciples by showing it to be consistent with the unbelief of the age.
Second, he calls them faithless and twisted. The first describes the problem—they lack faith. The second is a moral statement—they are perverse. Commenting on these two words, D.A. Carson writes,
Juxtaposing “perverse” and “unbelieving” implies that the failure to believe stems from moral failure to recognize the truth, not from want of evidence, but from willful neglect or distortion of the evidence. Juxtaposing “perverse” and “unbelieving” implies that the failure to believe stems from moral failure to recognize the truth, not from want of evidence, but from willful neglect or distortion of the evidence.” (D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 391.)
The disciples then are grouped in with the rest of the crowds. They lack faith and twisted in their thinking. Little wonder then they were so hindered in their work.
Furthermore, Jesus seems to be quite bothered by this. Look again at verse 17, “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you.”
You get the sense here that Jesus is weary of enduring such faithlessness. I think this is one of those verses that instruct us about how undesirable unbelief really is. One has observed, that this unbelief actually seems painful for him to endure. I think this stems from both the fact that Jesus is no doubt disappointed in them, but also, unbelief is so unlike Christ. When we hear the echoing words of Christ, in response to the disciples unbelief, we should be troubled by our own lack of faith.
How to fix the problem
Well, let’s look at how Jesus proposes to fix this. After powerfully healing the young boy, he calls the disciples in and gives them a lesson.
Jesus tells them that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed they could move mountains—even that nothing would be impossible for them.
It’s very important that we understand what Jesus is saying here.
The issue here is the disciples’ dysfunctional of faith. They are lacking faith. To teach them (and us) he uses metaphorical language. He says if they had faith the size of a mustard seed then they could move mountains.
What do we know about mustard seeds? They are a very small seed. Jesus is teaching that it’s not the size of your faith but the presence of it.
What do we know about mountains? They are big. And pretty tough to move. Their nearly impossible to move without some sophisticated equipment and detailed planning. And, in the Scriptures, removing mountains is synonymous with overcoming difficulties (Isaiah 40:4; 49:11; Matthew 21:21-22).
One commentator notes: “It is important to observe here that it is not the ‘amount’ of faith which brings the impossible within reach, but the power of God, which is available to even the ‘smallest’ faith.” R. T. France, The Gospel according to Matthew, TNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 266.
And this is the point: it is through faith that God does things that would otherwise seem impossible.
If there is a danger in trying to follow Jesus without dysfunctional faith, there is certainly a tendency to forget the centrality of the gospel.
I want to be clear with you so you are clear on this. This is very important. What is the gospel? If I answer this from an etymology perspective, the word simply means, “good news.” The gospel means good news.
But what is this good news? The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ and what he came to do.
What did he come to do? Well, look at what Jesus says here,
“As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” (Matthew 17:22–23)
Jesus for the second time predicts his coming death. He previously did this in chapter 16 and he’ll do it again in chapter 20. There are key components to this good news: Jesus will be arrested, killed, and resurrected from the dead. And we know, from reading the rest of the story, this is precisely what happened. Jesus was arrested by the religious leaders, crucified upon the cross by the Romans, and three days later, he rose from the dead.
How can something this horrible—the brutal murder of someone so wonderfully good—be considered good news? It is because he did all of this for sinners like us. Everything that Jesus did in his living and dying was as a substitute. He was living in the place of those who made a hash of their life. He lived with perfect obedience to God’s law for people who did not obey this law perfectly. People like you and me.
And he died on the cross to pay the penalty for this imperfection. This sin. His life was for us. His death was for us. It was all in our place. As the hymn writer has said, “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood.” The Prophet Isaiah wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6). The Apostle has written, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God..” (1 Peter 3:18) And, “He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Do you not see the beauty of this gospel? God writes himself into the story. He is heaven’s champion who has come to rescue and recover that which was lost.
Hear again that familiar verse, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Amid the announcements and demonstrations of the kingdom, Jesus, three times, slams the cross down in the middle of the road, and says, “Hear again the centerpiece. Don’t you miss this. This is everything!”
Jesus is the cornerstone of the building. Like Polaris in the sky he is the polestar that orients our understanding of the galaxy of the kingdom.
You and I have the tendency to overlook the importance of the cross.
Sometimes we do this by getting over it. We forget the reality of what has happened. We forget how perfect Christ is. We forget his ceaseless obedience to the Law of God. We forget his compassion to the weak. We forget him persevering through teaching with knuckled-headed disciples like us. We forget how much sin really costs. We forget the agony that came through Christ’s abandonment. We forget how he endured the horrors of hell while hanging between earth and heaven.
Tell me, ye who hear Him groaning,
Was there ever grief like His?
Friends through fear His cause disowning,
Foes insulting His distress;
Many hands were raised to wound Him,
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.
We forget how loving God is. “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7–8) Friends, there was nothing to commend us to God at all. We were unlovely and unloving. But, he loved us.
Praise God that behind all of the work of God on our behalf in Christ there is divine love. Because, no other attribute would not be able to reconcile such perfect holiness with our utter sinfulness. He loves us.
Don’t ever forget it.
We read at the end of verse 23 that they were greatly distressed. They were sad. It’s the word used for those who grieve over death or experience intense sorrow.
Why? They don’t fully understand what’s going on. They are simply considering the death of Christ. They are thinking about losing a friend. They do not have proper framework for the resurrection.
But, Jesus was raised from the dead. He is in fact alive.
And now, through the eyes of faith, the cross is not an occasion to grieve the defeat of someone who is special to us, but rather, it is where we rejoice in the defeat of that which is detrimental to us! Namely our sin, Satan himself, and even death.
The cross secures our everlasting joy and forgiveness.
In our final section this morning, we have Jesus teaching us about taxes, freedom, and the kingdom. The teaching comes out of two conversations. The first is between Peter and the tax collectors (in verse 24-25a) and the second is between Jesus and Peter (in verses 25b-27).
We see in verse 24 that Jesus and the twelve disciples return back to Capernaum. This is their home base for ministry. And it sounds like they come to a toll booth on the edge of the town.
The tax collectors ask Peter a loaded question. In verse 24 we read, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” You could say this, “Your teacher pays the tax, right?” It anticipates the positive answer.
The tax here is the same one discussed in Exodus 30:11-16. Is was imposed on every Israelite at the time of the census. The money went to the support of the tabernacle. This tax was attended with some controversy. Imagine that? Controversy over taxes. Historians note that for some the payment of the tax was a matter of national pride, while the Sadducees were opposed to it.
Peter answers, “Yes.”
But then when they got to the house, likely Peter’s house, another conversation takes place. And this is between Jesus and Peter about the tax.
As it turns out, paying the tax was not as cut and dry as it might seem. It wasn’t just about being patriotic.
Jesus asks Peter a question. Look at verse 25? “And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?”” (Matthew 17:25)
And, Peter answers him. “And when he said, “From others,” (Matthew 17:26a)
Then Jesus provides a bit of a surprising answer. “Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”” (Matthew 17:26b–27)
Jesus navigates this complex situation with remarkable wisdom. And, in doing so, provides us with some basic principles for how winsomely live as kingdom citizens in a foreign land.
Jesus builds a metaphor to make his point. He asks about the kings of the earth, who do they tax? The answer is pretty straightforward. Kings tax their citizens and people they conquer, not their families. As a result the sons (of the king) are free. They don’t have to pay taxes.
Who is the tax paid to? Ultimately it’s paid to God, since it’s about the temple and worship. So, should God’s Son be forced to pay a tax? Following Jesus’ logic here the answer is “no.” No king would tax his own family. And since Jesus is God’s Son he is exempt from this requirement.
But this isn’t the end of the answer. Even though Jesus has the right to refuse to pay he decides not to. Even though he has the logical and theological high ground, he opts to flex to a place of submission to others. He says, in effect, “to avoid offense, pay it.”
I mentioned this was complex. Think with me as to how this could have been problematic. If he paid the tax people could understand him to be saying that he was not the Son of God. Also, what if he took the money out of his money box? People gave that money and perhaps his payment would be misunderstood. If he said he would not pay it then he could be seen as saying in a public way that he rejected the temple—and all it stands for.
Jesus says he does not want to be an offense or a stumbling block to anyone. He is concerned about how people will respond to him using his rights.
He does something that would satisfy the tax collectors and not offend any of his supporters. He tells Peter to go and catch a fish. And inside of it there will be a shekel, which would be sufficient for payment for both Peter and Jesus.
A lot of ink is spilled about the fish. And that’s a shame because the fish and the coin are not really the point. The issue here is about how the King responds to a complex situation and what we can learn from it.
But we should say something about the fish. We don’t know if Jesus was talking about an actual fish here or if he was telling Peter to go and catch a fish and sell it. We also don’t know if he actually did this, all we have is the instruction. But we do know that there are fish in the sea of Galilee today that clamp down on things and down swallow them. It is possible that Peter found a fish with a Shekel in its mouth. Also, remember, we are talking about Jesus, he has been known to do unexplainable things—which is why I think we are talking here about an actual fish and actual money in its mouth. Whether it’s a saying, a story, or a miracle, it’s not the point. What we need to see is this: Jesus is willing to set aside his personal rights in order to not offend someone else.
We should not learn from this that Jesus never offended people. He certainly did (remember chapter 15?!). But, here it seems that he has thought it through and is willing to set aside his rights in order to promote his kingdom agenda.
And this is where we need to learn from Jesus. He has a governing principle of the kingdom. He has literally put his entire life into it. He has freedom here that he willingly sets aside in order to aid the mission.
This is where we need to get as a church. We need to develop a reflex that responds to situations from the perspective of gospel advancement.
While it is clear that we are free in Christ. As Paul says, “all things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.” (1 Corinthians 6:12). How do we know what is helpful? We need to have a mind like Christ that is governed by kingdom expansion.
This comes into play in the early church with certain issues related to what people ate and drank. You can read about this in Romans 14-15, as well as 1 Corinthians 8-9. It’s here that we learn that freedom does not always mean enjoying your rights, but sometimes it means forgoing them.
The Christian is in a position of flexibility. You are free to enjoy everything that God has created and sanctioned, but you don’t have to. When your freedom would interfere with the expansion of the gospel then you should wisely set aside your freedom for the sake of the gospel.
This is certainly not something that comes naturally. We tend to think self-first and others last. But, when we are instructed by Jesus in what it means to be a kingdom citizen, then we learn from the one who showed the greatest demonstration of self-sacrifice.
Let’s remember it was Jesus who laid aside his rights and privileges as God to become a man. Being God he also became man. He did this for the sake of the kingdom of God. He was willing to be inconvenienced so that God would be glorified and people like you and me would be blessed.
Are you willing to be strategically inconvenienced for the sake of the kingdom advancing?
This is no doubt something that we as a church can grow in. Perhaps later today or this week, in conversations with other members of the church family, ask each other how this principle of being willing to be strategically inconvenienced would play out in life. There are certainly a myriad of ways in which it will surface.
When we think about living as a kingdom citizen with kingdom priorities, we have to remember that this kingdom is not of this world. What Jesus lays out are things that do no come naturally. This is why we need the Word of God to reshape and renew our thinking. That, by God’s grace, we might be a people that reflect the King and his kingdom.