Was the Fig Tree Really a Temple? (Matthew 21)

Jesus’ ministry has been described in terms of a comparison of two temples. One temple, a physical building in Jerusalem, was supposed to be a visible example of God’s purity and forgiveness. But at the time of Jesus’ ministry, that temple was not a clear picture of these attributes. In fact… it was exactly the opposite. People were visiting the temple and often leaving with a distorted picture of God and how He works.

In contrast to the Jerusalem temple, Jesus was a clearer example of God’s purity… and His forgiveness. Jesus’ ministry began a transition away from the temple in Jerusalem… to a new temple. The temple of Jesus and those connected to Him through faith. It is a temple of believers.

It was this new temple that Jesus came to inaugurate… and that old temple, the one in Jerusalem, that he put on notice that its time was done. 

This factors greatly into Matthew 21:12-22. In those verses Jesus makes his way to the temple in Jerusalem and drives out those who were buying and selling. The forgiveness of God had become a profit making business, but forgiveness from God is available to everyone. It’s not a money making transaction. 

No matter who you are… no matter how much money you have… God’s forgiveness is available to you. That picture wasn’t being truly represented in the temple in Jerusalem. Sometimes I think we forget that simple truth.

The cleaning of the Jerusalem temple is followed by this strange and cryptic “cursing of a fig tree”. There’s a fig tree… it has leaves on it… but no fruit. Jesus says, “no longer shall there ever be any fruit from you” and at once the fig tree withers and dies. Without a broader context… this certainly seems like a strange event to include in the narrative of Jesus’ week leading up to the cross.  Continue reading

The “Dimmer Switch” of Faith

The Bible talks a lot about faith. Some people seem to have it, some don’t. Sometimes, the people that have it in one story, seem to lose it in the next. Faith is the stuff of salvation and everyone seems to have an opinion about what it is and how to understand it.

One common theme regarding faith is that people tend to see faith as an “all or nothing” commodity. Do you have faith? Yes… or no. In one sense, I suppose you can talk about faith in those terms, but I think faith is much more complicated than that.

Jesus talks about faith in terms, not only of existence (Yes/No), but of quantity and quality as well.

Sometimes He refers to “little faith”…

You of little faith! – Matthew 6:30b

He said to them, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” – Matthew 8:26

… Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” – Matthew 14:31

Jesus said, “You men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread?” – Matthew 16:8

He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith… if you have faith the size of a mustard seed…” – Matthew 17:20

and sometimes “great faith”…

(Jesus) marveled and said… “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.” Matthew 8:10

Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great…” – Matthew 15:28

IRUBThe Bible seems to present faith more like a dimmer switch. You know… the light switches some of us have in our homes that allow us to regulate, on a sliding scale, the amount of light in a room.

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Will the Last Really Be First? (Matthew 20)

The chapter and verse numbers weren’t included in the first manuscripts of the Bible. They were added to the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament texts in the 16th-century by a man named Robert Stephanus (his son, Henri, is famous for introducing the pagination numbers still used today in many of Plato’s writings).

While Robert’s Stephanus’ work has long been the gold standard for quickly finding Bible references according to “chapter and verse”… some of his organizational decisions are not as helpful for studying the Bible as a piece of literature. Matthew chapter 20 is one such “unfortunate chapter break”.

Matthew chapter 20 begins with the word “for”. Grammatically, that word suggests that the statement that follows somehow relates with information that came before. It organically ties back to the statement in the last verse of chapter 19.  Continue reading

Which Commandments Should We Really Follow? (Matthew 19)

In Matthew 19:16 a man came to Jesus asking a question. He said, “What good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” 

There are several places in the New Testament where people ask a question similar to this. Surprisingly, the answers vary greatly (see John 6:25-29, Luke 3:10-18, Luke 10:25-37, and Acts 16:30-31).  

In this particular case Jesus answered the man, “keep the commandments.” But that wasn’t as clear as it needed to be so the man asked another question, “Which ones?” The people that count such things have found 613 different commandments in the OT. So I think it was a good question.

To which commandments was Jesus referring? He started with a portion of the list of the 10 commandments found in Exodus 20:12-17 (and repeated in Deuteronomy 5). But surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t list all of the 10 commandments and the ones He does mention were strategically chosen. 

Let’s count along with him. (I’ve included each commandment’s number for your convenience.)  Continue reading

Commandment 5 – Honoring My Father

My dad, Larry Hall, passed away on Jan 26, 2017. He had a very aggressive type of cancer that moved rapidly through his body over his last two years. On February 18, 2017, his family and friends gathered to celebrate his life. Below are the words I shared that day.

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Dad, Jodi and me (the short one) – Seattle, WA, 1971

Memorial to my Dad

On behalf of the Larry Hall family, I’d like to thank each of you for being here today. Some of you are here because you encountered my dad at some point in your lives. I suppose some of you never met Dad but are here to support someone else. Whatever your reason, thanks for taking time out of your life to be with us in honoring and remembering him. We also want to acknowledge there are several good friends and family members that wanted to be here but couldn’t make it today. Their presence is felt even in their absence. 

My dad was a big man in many ways. I knew that before he died… and since his death I’ve been reminded again of his significance. We found out a couple of years ago that he had cancer. Part of the beauty of the last two years has been getting to watch my dad fight his cancer. He really had an extraordinary outlook throughout the process. Even when the end seemed obvious to those of us around him… he kept looking beyond his diagnosis. He kept putting events on the calendar. I’m really not sure how he was able to do that. 

I have many stories I could tell about my dad, but today I feel compelled to talk about grief a bit. That’s where I find myself this morning. It’s where we all find ourselves at some point. As awful as dad’s cancer was, it did allow us all to grieve a little bit during each season over the last two years.

Grief is an interesting friend. I been trying to find a good analogy for grief. I think it is a type of friend. I suppose we’ve all had a real friend that acted like grief. You know, the one that shows up unexpectedly at your front door… comes in… cleans out your fridge… and stays well past their welcome. 

This type of friend is exhausting.

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I Must Be in the Front Row! (Matthew 18)

In Matthew 18:1, the disciples wonder about what kind of seats they would have in the heavenly kingdom. They asked Jesus for His thoughts by asking who is “greatest in the kingdom of heaven”.

To answer their question, Jesus called a child into their midst. Mark mentions in his gospel (Mark 9:36) that Jesus took the child “in his arms”, so I suspect it wasn’t a teenager! It was probably more like a toddler. 

Then, very subtly, Jesus changes the question. He doesn’t answer the disciple’s question about “who has the best seats”… but responds by telling them what’s required “to get into” the kingdom. Turns out the disciples had been assuming something that wasn’t the case. 

It kinda reminds me of that Bob Uecker beer commercial from the 80’s. In the commercial Bob, a former major league player who playfully refers to himself as “Mr. Baseball”, receives a free ticket from the management to see his former team play a game. He assumes, “I must be in the front row!”  But the seating attendant escorts him, instead, to one of the last rows of the upper deck (in case you weren’t paying attention to beer commercials in the 80’s, I’ve included a link HERE for your viewing pleasure).

Poor Bob Uecker… and poor disciples too! They were both assuming something that wasn’t the case.  Continue reading

Have You Been Transfigured Into Something New? (Matthew 17)

In Matthew 17:1-13, Jesus takes three of His disciples (Peter, James and John) up on a mountain. During their time there, Moses and Elijah appear and Jesus is “transfigured” before them.

When something is “transfigured” it goes through a change that makes it more beautiful. Transfiguration creates a new outward appearance.

In Matthew 17:2, Matthew tells us Jesus was transfigured, and suggests Jesus’ appearance completely changed. The description makes it seem like His outward flesh went away and the divine person beneath was allowed to shine forth. It says Jesus’ face shone like the sun. His clothes became like light.

The Greek lemma behind this transformation is a word that’s pronounced “metamorephoo”. That should sound familiar to English speakers. We describe the change a caterpillar undergoes to become a butterfly as metamorphosis. Interestingly, the same Greek lemma is also used to describe the transformation a believer experiences through faith in Christ. Continue reading

Communion and New Covenant

I’d like to share a perspective on communion that has really changed the way I view this sacrament.

At the last supper, Jesus took the bread and the cup and served it to his disciples. When he served the cup he said, “… this is the New Covenant in My blood.” I’m not sure if you’ve thought about those words recently. Those who take communion acknowledge they have, through faith, entered into a covenant with God. A covenant is an agreement, a contract. But what exactly does this mean in the context of communion?

There’s a scene in the Old Testament, in Exodus 24, that I believe foreshadows our New Testament communion. Continue reading

What’s the Word on the Street About Jesus? (Matthew 16)

In Matthew 16:13, Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Anytime the author (Matthew) records Jesus asking a question, he is expecting you, as a reader, to answer the question. It’s a question that, eventually, everyone must answer.

But did you notice how Jesus phrased the question? He didn’t say, “Who do people say that Jesus of Nazareth is?” He inserts the title “Son of Man” in place of his name. The title “Son of Man” has a very specific context in the Old Testament book of Daniel (chapter 7 verses 13-14). The “Son of Man” character in the book of Daniel is very God himself. 

Jesus is not asking, “Do people think I’m the Son of Man?” He is declaring that this is who He is. He had used the “Son of Man” title before (back in Matthew 9:6).

Here are the responses that the disciples mentioned they were hearing.

  1. People think you seem a lot like John the Baptist.
  2. You are doing things like some of the prophets in the OT… like Elijah… who helped a widow’s son in Sidon. (Jesus had traveled to Sidon and helped a widow’s daughter.) 
  3. You seem like, Jeremiah, who wept over Jerusalem and predicted that the city would be destroyed. (Jesus will weep over Jerusalem and also predict its destruction.)
  4. Or one of the other prophets… like Jonah. (Both Jonah and Jesus had been asleep in the bow of a boat in the midst of a storm… and both calmed the sea… although in very different ways). 

People were concluding that Jesus was an Old Testament person that had come back from the dead. But, the people on the street were failing to make one important connection.

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Did Jesus Really Call Her a Dog? (Matthew 15)

In the gospels, every once-in-a-while Jesus will make a comment… or respond in a way that seems out of character. At first glance, instances like these might seem rather confusing. You might ask, “Why did He say that?” or “That seemed a little rude… didn’t it?” 

As a reader, you can assume that unusual behavior from an otherwise consistent character usually means that there is something else going on that you might be missing. Whenever you read of Jesus acting out of character you can assume there is an important lesson right around the corner. The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15:21-28 is a good example of this.

This story follows up on the previous section (Matthew 15:1-14) that discusses the topic of “defilement”. That section concludes with Jesus explaining to the disciples that the source of human defilement, from God’s perspective, is not instigated from something outside the body… but originates in a person’s heart.

The woman cries out and begs for the healing of her daughter… but Jesus does not answer her a word. This is one of the behaviors that seems a little strange. Jesus normally responds to people seeking his assistance. In this case, Jesus’ silence gives space for the mouths of the disciples to disclose something about the condition of their hearts.

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