Notes on Matthew 16-17, Mark 9, and Luke 9, Come Follow Me lesson for April 1-14
"Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees" Matthew 16:1-12
- In these verses, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for asking for a sign. They should know the scriptures and the law and should be able to see all the signs that Jesus is the Christ, and yet they demand more signs from Christ.
- Over and over in the scriptures, the pattern is that people believe, and then signs follow. Signs confirm our faith, not cause it in the first place.
- I wonder what it is about an adulterous people that makes them seek for signs? Is it that they are so consumed by their own appetites that they are unable to feel the whisperings of the Spirit? Or is there something about giving into physical lusts that makes people unable to develop faith? Elder Neal A. Maxwell says this, "Why does this generation seek a sign? queried Jesus with a deep sigh. (See Mark 8:12.) The more wicked and adulterous the people of a particular period, the more they demand signs as a condition of belief. Sensual individuals crave and live by sensations. Disciples, instead, walk and ‘overcome by faith’ (D&C 76:53), accepting gratefully the evidence of things not seen which are true (see Heb. 11:1; Alma 32:21)”"
- Christ tells his disciples to "take heed and beware the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees" At first they don't understand, and think he is talking about physical bread and rebuking them for not bringing some along, but then He explains that they shouldn't worry about bread -- don't they remember the loaves and fishes from last week? Instead, they need to worry about the doctrine of those who want to influence them.
- Just as the people of Christ's time need to be careful what voices and ideas they listen to, so we need to beware of the many voices today who would destroy our faith. I read a comment online recently that said something like "other people can simply believe with their naivete, but I am more enlightened and fair-minded than that; I consider all sides of an issue." The problem with that is that you can study and study and never get to the truth. There are always going to be more opinions and more voices to listen to. The internet has given a platform to the most cunning liars as well as the brightest and most educated. Some people online have your best interests at heart but others would love to cheat you and deceive you. If one really believes in a God, then why would you give equal time to those who oppose Him and the good He stands for?
- In last week's General Conference, Elder Neil L. Andersen addressed the issue of the "information overload" that we experience today and how to find truth in the midst of constantly shifting opinions.
In today’s world, the question “What is truth?” can be painfully complex to the secular mind.
A Google search for “What is truth?” brings more than a million responses. We have more available information on our cell phones than in all the books of a brick and mortar library. We live with information and opinion overload. Enticing and alluring voices pursue us at every turn.
Caught in today’s confusion, it is no wonder that so many consign themselves to the words spoken 2,500 years ago by Protagoras to the young Socrates: “What is true for you,” he said, “is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me.”2
Blessed with the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, we humbly declare that there are some things that are completely and absolutely true. These eternal truths are the same for every son and daughter of God.
Peter's testimony, the keys of the kingdom, and Christ's death foretold ~ Matthew 16:13-23
- I love the two questions asked here. First, what do the people think of me? And second, who do you think I am? I wonder how I would respond to the question today. Probably to the first question, "Some say that you are an outdated, old-fashioned idea. Some say you are a fable. Others that you were a good moral teacher but nothing more. Others believe in some of your teachings but ignore the ones that are unpopular today. Still others believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God and our Savior." To the second, I would echo Peter and then add my own witness. He is the Son of God, the Savior of the World, who descended below all things because He loves us.
- I can't help but contrast Peter's sure witness with the many who left Christ after things got a bit hard. Peter was there through thick and thin and even had the faith to walk on water. His faith and sure testimony was followed by the great experience on the Mount just a week later.
- Christ says to Peter, "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
- There are several interesting things going on in this passage. One is that Christ is showing that the way to gain a witness isn't through signs or through "flesh and blood," but through the witness that comes from God.
- In my study, I heard two explanations of the "rock" passages. The first pointed out the difference between the two Greek words used. "As the Savior taught Peter about revelation, He used a wordplay on Peter’s name, declaring to Simon, “Thou art Peter [Petros], and upon this rock [petra] I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). The Greek word petros means an isolated small rock or stone. The Greek word petra can also mean “a stone,” but in addition it can refer to stony soil, bedrock, or a large mass of rock. From these words we learn that it was not upon Peter as a man that the Church would be built, but upon the bedrock of revelation. (New Testament Student Manual). Just as Peter learned of Christ's true mission through revelation from God, that same revelation would form the foundation for His Church. Peter also would be the "little rock" that helped build the Church after Christ's death, exercising the keys and authority given to Him. The second explanation of the rock passage pointed out that while the two words are necessarily different in Greek, they would have been the same word in Aramaic. According to this explanation, the passage intended to make it clear that Peter would have the responsibility to build up the Church after Christ's death. In my own opinion, I think both are true.
- The imagery of keys is interesting. Today, keys are everywhere and everyone owns multiple copies of their most important ones. We even have keys to unlock things we don't even own anymore. In contrast, to have a key in ancient times was a serious responsibility. The New Testament Student Manual says, "In the first century A.D., keys were typically made of iron and were bulkier, more expensive, and less common than modern house keys. To hold the keys of a house was a position of great trust. Thus, keys were a fitting symbol of special authority, responsibility, and purpose. Ancient scriptures make repeated use of the symbol of keys, which represents the power to lock and unlock, open and shut, and permit or prevent entrance (see Isaiah 22:22; Matthew 16:19; 18:18; Revelation 1:18; 3:7; 9:1; 20:1).
|Drawings of Roman-era keys found in Israel|
- The keys would give Peter the authority to act in God's name, to bind, and loose, and to seal. Thomas Wayment's notes say that "the idea of binding on the earth is built on the Greek word deo, a word that can mean to tie, fasten, or be married to." We in the modern restored Church of Jesus Christ believe that the keys of the priesthood have been once again restored to the earth. We believe that the keys of the priesthood were lost due to apostasy in the early Church and that they had to be brought again to the earth. We realize that this is a bold statement, but we don't expect people to take our word for it. We invite others to read, study, and pray to receive their own witness of it (which is one reason we send out missionaries, like my daughter in Brazil. We believe that the binding power given to Peter is the same power we use in sacred temple ordinances like marriages that we believe will last not just until "death do ye part" but throughout eternity for those who are faithful to Christ and to their covenants.
- Christ, at this point about six months before his crucifixion, begins to tell his disciples that he is going to be killed and raised again the third day. Peter is shocked and doesn't accept this. "This shall not be unto thee," he says, and I imagine him crying it out vehemently. I wonder how much of this statement was because of Peter's preconceived notion of a conquering Savior and not one who came to suffer and how much was because of his horror that such a fate might befall One who had shown power over all things.
- Christ rebukes Peter. Don't you love how often Peter, the highest Apostle and the one destined to lead the Church after the crucifixion, is corrected by the Savior? It makes me feel that there must be hope even for me. It also shows that the gospel is one of growth, correction, repentance, and improvement. "With divine imperatives of love and faith, repentance and compassion, honesty and forgiveness, there is room in this choir for all who wish to be there.12 “Come as you are,” a loving Father says to each of us, but He adds, “Don’t plan to stay as you are.” We smile and remember that God is determined to make of us more than we thought we could be." says Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
Take up your cross ~ Matthew 16:24-28, Luke 9:23-27
- I'm fascinated by the concept of Christ, six months before His crucifixion, telling his disciples to take up their cross and follow Him. While it is easy for us to assign meaning to the concept of "taking up the cross," after Christ's resurrection, I wonder what the disciples who heard this thought of it.
- Christ said something like this, but not this exact thing. But since the narratives weren't written down until later, this was the phrase they used when the gospels were written. So it's anachronistic.
- People still understood what a cross was and what it meant to carry one -- it meant a willingness to defy the worldly authorities and be willing to endure persecution for the sake of something higher. It is very possible that the people who heard this saw this as a call to be willing to put Christ first, come what may and even if the Romans crucified them. This statement might have been meant to shock the audience and cause them to question how committed they were.
- This could have been one of those sayings, like in the other verses in the chapter where Christ foretells His death, that the audience heard but didn't comprehend until after He had died.
- One comment from Mark Thomas said this: Remarkably, the picking up one's cross has multiple attestation: in Mark, Thomas and Q. (See Mt 16:24, MK 8: 34, Luke 9:23, Matt 10:38, Luke 14:27, Thomas 55:2) Multiple attestation is one way to determine what goes back to the historical Jesus. A near contemporary stoic philosopher, Epictetus ( c. 55 – 135 AD) spoke in his second book of discourses: "If you want to be crucified, just wait. The cross will come." See Crossan "The Historical Jesus" page 353. Some of these sayings in the NT use "cross" as a metaphor for fate in a stoic fashion, not as a prophecy of literal crucifixion.
- I love that in Luke, it says to take up your cross "daily," showing that our commitment is not just a "one and done" thing but is needed throughout our lives. "Give us this day our daily bread." And help us bear whatever cross is put on us today and then tomorrow and then the next day. I constantly go back to this devotional address by Elder D. Todd Christofferson. In it, he says, "In the 1950s my mother survived radical cancer surgery, but difficult as that was, the surgery was followed with dozens of painful radiation treatments in what would now be considered rather primitive medical conditions. She recalls that her mother taught her something during that time that has helped her ever since: “I was so sick and weak, and I said to her one day, ‘Oh, Mother, I can’t stand having 16 more of those treatments.’ She said, ‘Can you go today?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, honey, that’s all you have to do today.’ It has helped me many times when I remember to take one day or one thing at a time.”
The Spirit can guide us when to look ahead and when we should just deal with this one day, with this one moment." I've had times when that has been all I can do -- just deal with the tasks and challenges of today and not worry about the many tomorrows.
- Christ goes on to explain that "whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:25-26). Sometimes we talk about this verse as if Christ is talking about losing yourself in service to others, but in context, it is clear that Christ is saying that if we aren't willing to go all in -- even if it might end with losing our lives -- then we have traded our life for a secondary reward. We need to be willing to sacrifice all that we have for the gospel, even if that includes martyrdom, as it did for many brave and committed Christians through the years. What a sobering thought.
The Mount of Transfiguration ~ Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36
- It is meaningful to reflect that without Peter, James, and John's earlier commitment and faith, this experience would likely not have happened. Because they believed, they were given further witness. They saw Christ as Who he truly was. They were visited by the prophets Moses and Elias (the Greek translation of Elijah). Multiple scriptures teach that if we are willing to receive the truth from God and act in faith, that light will only grow.
- This experience occupies just a few scant verses, but it has echoes of other important experiences prophets have had with God -- Moses on the mount, for example, who came back with a face shining so bright that he had to cover his face with a veil. There are beautiful patterns in the Old and New Testament as well as the Book of Mormon of prophets who were able to ascend to the unity and "At-One-Ment" represented by the Holy of Holies in the ancient temple and represented symbolically in modern temples by the Celestial room.
- If you haven't watched this brief video that gives a tour of the Rome Italy temple and teaches about what we believe and experience in the temple, it is well worth a view:
"Help Thou My Unbelief" ~ Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9:14-29, Luke 9:37-43
- This story is told in three gospels, with basically the same elements. A desperate man approaches Christ on behalf of his son. He had brought his son to the disciples but they had failed to heal him. Now, he brought him to Christ hoping for a miracle. I love the example of the man's faith -- that even after the disciples failed, he didn't give up in despair. He kept seeking until he found Christ.
- In contrast to the rebuke Christ gave the Pharisees who came to him seeking for a sign or a miracle so that they might believe, Christ tells the man that "all things are possible to him that believes." And in Mark, the man replies, "Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief." I love that sincere, beautiful, humble message. I have found that when I pray and approach God with no pretense, He listens and He answers me. "Heavenly Father, you know how tired I am," I will all too often begin my prayers, or "I am feeling so overwhelmed to day. Help me to do the most important things. Help me to be in tune with the needs of my children. Help me get enough rest. Help me to push through and be patient." It ain't lofty, but it's all I've got some days, and He meets me where I am.
- I would be remiss if I didn't post the best talk ever given on this passage of scripture. You can watch it below. It is well worth watching!
- And in looking for a video I know exists of the father's encounter with Christ (anyone know what one I'm talking about?), I found this beautiful song about this scripture passage:
Paying the Temple Tax ~ Matthew 17:24-27
- When the tax collectors came asking for Christ to pay the temple tax, Jesus says to Peter, "What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free." Matthew 17:25-26
- I picture Christ saying this with a twinkle in his eye at the irony of asking the King to pay the tax for His own house. He was the One for whom the temple had been built, and the One it taught of and pointed to. He would give his life to make Atonement for all and allow us the privilege of entering into the presence of God, and yet they come asking Him to pay the tribute.
- Christ does pay the tribute, with Peter casting in a line, bringing up a fish, and finding the money inside. I love the principle that Christ uses as reasoning to pay the tribute, "lest we should offend them." Sometimes we do things not because they are right but because they are polite. It isn't necessary to make an issue out of things that don't need to be an issue.
- Interesting that this story is only in Matthew's account, him being a former tax collector.
Who is the greatest? ~ Mark 9:1-5, Luke 9:46-48, see also Matthew 18:1-5
- Who is the best? This is a question that is ever-present in our world today. Is it the person with the most likes on Youtube? The best jump-shot? The one with the coolest bucket list? The one who does something never done before, like free-soloing El Capitan? Is it better to be the fastest man at a marathon or the one who can do fifty marathons in fifty days? Or hey, why not someone who did fifty ultra-marathons in fifty days in fifty states? (I've actually heard this guy speak in person. He has a great story!) Or is the person the greatest who is the most well-known, the richest, or the most powerful? There's constant competition, insecurity, and even ruthlessness to this question. We have awards for everything, endless ways to measure success, and plenty of gurus who guarantee it.
- So it's no surprise that this question arose among Christ's disciples. In Mark, we get a little more background and what I picture as a rather amusing scene. The disciples had been "disputing by the way," it says, and Christ asks them what it was they were arguing about. Chagrined, I picture them all looking at their feet and fidgeting, as it says, "but they held their peace." They didn't quite want to share what they probably realized was a pretty self-centered dispute.
- It is interesting to me that Mark and Luke don't say to become as a little child like Matthew does. Matthew says, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven." All three accounts, however, contain the second part of Matthew in one form or another: "And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me."
- It is interesting that it isn't just a little, humble child that Christ calls the greatest in the kingdom of God, but those who receive those little children. And who is it that throughout centuries have received a child, along with the responsibility to raise, love, and teach that child about God? Righteous, dedicated mothers and fathers.
- Who is the greatest? A small, humble child. Those who become like them in humility and submission to God. And those who receive and care for children in Christ's name. These are very different, unexpected priorities!
The Road to Jerusalem ~ Luke 9:51-62
- In Luke, it says that from that time forward, Christ "steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem." I enjoyed reading this overview of what that road to Jerusalem entailed in Luke. It's nice to get a bigger picture of things sometimes.
- Given that Christ knew what was coming in Jerusalem, this statement is powerful. He knew in advance what the end of the journey would mean and He was bold and determined to see it through.
- Along the way, messengers are sent ahead to Samaria so He can go there. It says the Samaritans "did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem." (Luke 9:53). I'm not sure exactly all that entailed, but it could have been because of their rivalry with Jerusalem (see my notes here for some background on that) and their unwillingness to accept someone who had embraced their perceived enemies or who accepted the temple at Jerusalem as legitimate. Or it could have been that the people of Samaria didn't want to anger the Romans by harboring someone who might seem to be an enemy of the regime.
- In any case, the disciples James and John get their turn for a rebuke from Christ in this story because they wanted Christ to call down fire from heaven to destroy the Samaritans. Christ condemns their warring spirits and reminds them that He is sent to save men, not to destroy them.
Millstones and Hard Sacrifices ~ Mark 9:42-50, Luke 9:57-62, see also Matthew 18:6-9
- Once again, Christ asks for total and complete commitment. "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:62)
- In Mark, Christ discusses leadership principles and how if someone should offend one of the little ones, it would be better for that man to have a millstone around his neck and be cast into the sea. Pretty hard words!
- Christ goes on to say that if a hand, or foot, or eye, offend thee, you should cut it off. That's pretty bold imagery, and it seems to apply both to individuals and to the Church. Given the context of talking about someone leading the innocent astray, Dallin H. Oaks said, "the foot and the eye seem to refer to leaders. They are held to a higher standard. Because of their visible and influential position, they should be cut off for transgression . . . To cut off a leader or a member means to sever that person's membership, fellowship, or some of the person's privileges. In context, then, these scriptures direct the application of what we now call church discipline, and they call for more rigorous discipline for leaders." (as quoted in Thomas Valleta et. al., The New Testament Study Guide, p. 170).
- As to how this applies to individuals when we have a part of us that is so offensive and weak, it is better to cut it off figuratively. I think of alcoholics and recovering drug addicts who have to develop a whole new way of life and new friends because the old patterns are so easy to go back into. I think of someone who may need to choose new friends if the old lead them into sin. I think of the people of Ammon in the Book of Mormon. They were a warring and blood-thirsty people who were converted to the gospel. Because they never wanted to go back to their old ways and risk losing their souls, they took the drastic step of burying their weapons of war and making a covenant not to ever take them up again. They died rather than using weapons. That's the kind of commitment and putting away of sin that the gospel requires.
- I'm not guilty of any great wickedness, but I wonder if there are things that I, too, need to cut off from my life in order to be more centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Am I spending too much time on my phone? On social media? In the past, there have been small things that I've had to cut out of my life. People I've unfollowed on Facebook because they constantly stir up contention, for example. I've also had the experience of enjoying a popular show right up to the moment it starts to show scenes that are offensive. Sometimes it's been hard to turn those shows off because by then I'm invested in seeing how the story turns out. But I have pretty high media standards for my family so out they go. What have you found that you have needed to cut out of your life?