Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Making sense of Matthew 17

I read Matthew 17 for my quiet time today, and I'm trying to figure it out. Maybe I'm dense, but I'm not sure I get it! So am using this blog to untangle some thoughts. You probably need the passage open in front of you somewhere to follow me.

What we have here is the transfiguration account, the healing of a demonised boy, and an incident peculiar to Matthew's gospel on paying the temple tax. I don't recall ever reading about the temple tax before. In the wider context, Simon Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Christ in 16:16. Jesus now begins to stress how he must go to Jerusalem and be killed, and that he would be raised to life. We see this in 16:21, repeated in 17:9, 12b, 22-23 and later on in 20:18-19. This isn't exactly what Peter wanted to hear! But Jesus rebukes him, and teaches that he is to be the suffering Christ. To follow him is to take up your own cross. This is the path for his disciples. But this isn't the end of the story, as 16:27-28 indicate. Jesus will reign gloriously when he resurrects. V.28 seems to point towards the immediate aftermath of his resurrection, while v.27 appears to look further along towards the second coming. Cross before resurrection, suffering before glory. That's the pattern Jesus is teaching, both for his own ministry and that of his disciples.

This teaching of Jesus, therefore, seems to be re-affirmed by the transfiguration episode. We heard that Jesus will come in glory, here we see Jesus appearing in glory! Jesus is reaffirmed by God the Father in v.5, with the same words as when he was baptised. This time there is also an addition: "Listen to him!" Listen to what he's just been teaching about suffering and glory!

The disciples are just as confused as ever though. In Mark's account, he records how they discuss what "raised from the dead" mean. Their thought processes go something like this:
ok, we're waiting for the Messiah,
who will put the world to rights again
(this is when resurrection happens, right?)
but Elijah's meant to come first to prepare the way.
Wait a minute, where's Elijah?

But Jesus corrects their understanding. Elijah's here already! He's John the Baptist (v.13). So that means the Messiah is here! But this Messiah isn't what you expect - he "is going to suffer at their hands". Actually, that's what happened to John the Baptist (v.12). Suffering before glory, again.

Then we get the story about the exorcism of the boy. Disciples failed, Jesus didn't. I was a bit puzzled by this account. Is this simply a story suggesting that if we have enough faith, we'll have a powerful deliverance ministry? What we have to do is to simply believe? That seems, at first glance, to be a plausible interpretation. But a closer look suggests otherwise. v.22-23 has Jesus teaching about his impending death and resurrection again, which he obviously thinks is important. That doesn't sit well with simply interpreting this story as Jesus giving a model example of how to cast out demons.

Rather, in v.17 it seems better to understand Jesus' rebuke as a continued failure to actually trust in the words of Jesus. Peter's rebuke of Jesus that he could not be killed at the end of chapter 16 is one of many examples. No wonder Jesus is exasperated and possibly resulted in him putting in a quick call to his Father: "Dad, they're not listening! Could you tell them to?" (v.5) Their unbelief was not so much a failure of technique ("maybe we didn't quite have the required deposit of faith to cast out the demon!") but more of a failure to depend on God and trust what Jesus says. That's why Jesus repeats his teaching (v.22-23). So while there is probably something to be gleaned here about deliverance ministry, that's not the main point at all. Certainly it isn't a call to us to look for demons behind every sickness! What Jesus wants to emphasise is a dependence and trust in him. That might result in us actually performing an exorcism if God chooses to, but the authority belongs to him alone.

Errr...this one ah, I'm not surelah. Apparently, Jewish males of a certain age had to pay taxes for the upkeep of the temple. Jesus' point in his exchange with Peter seems to be that the tax is now void. That's because of who Jesus is - he is God's King. (And presumably what he's about to do, go to the cross). But then Jesus chooses to lay down his right and pay the tax, something Paul probably took note of since it will come out in his writings.

So I guess the big point here is that Jesus is showing that he is the King (Christ) and we should listen to him, trust in Him. But He is the Suffering King, who will go to the cross to die for us. But to follow Him is not a futile exercise, for even though we too have to take up our cross, there is glory in the end. So let us praise God and remain faithful.

What do you think?

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