Sunday 29 July 2012

The final question (Matthew 22:41-46)

Every teacher, every politician and every pastor wants to know the secret of verse 46: “No-one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no-one dared to ask him any more questions.” How did Jesus do that? What did he say that made his strongest opponents go, “You got us there, Jesus. You win.” Actually, if you look at it again, they didn’t say anything at all. They were speechless! How did Jesus do that?

The problem is when we do look back to what Jesus said in verse 45, we still don’t get it. “How can he be David’s son?” that is what Jesus asks the Pharisees. Some of us don’t get it because we’re wondering, “Who’s David?” But even those who do know about David; who do know what Jesus is getting at, you are probably thinking, “Meh, so what? What is the big deal?”

So, the challenge for us today is not so much to understand the answer, but to get the question. Jesus gives us the answer first to think about, and then gives us a question to chew over. To help us do that, we are going to walk through today’s passage in three steps; looking at three questions:

1. What do you think? (verses 41-42)
2. Who is the Lord? (verses 43-44)
3. Who is your Lord? (verses 45-46)

1. What do you think?

Jesus begins by asking the Pharisees to think.

While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”

“The son of David,” they replied.
Matthew 22:41-42

To the Pharisees, this was a basic Sunday School question. How many disciples did Jesus  have? How many books are there in the bible? Where was Jesus born? It was the kind of question that had a standard answer. And the answer than they gave Jesus would have gotten them an A+ in Sunday School.

Now in case some of us here didn’t go to Sunday School - I didn’t, by the way, so you are in good company - the word “Christ” means God’s chosen king. Thousands of years ago, God promised King David in 2 Samuel Chapter 7, that one of his sons would inherit a kingdom that would last forever. And for thousands of years after that, all the prophets kept pointing forward to the coming of this king, called the Messiah in Hebrew, and the Christ in Greek. They taught their kids, “One day, God will send us a king like David. He will be the Christ. He will be the Son of David.” So, that’s the quick background.

When Jesus asked, “Whose son is the Christ?” These religious teachers who grew up in Sunday School, who were themselves Sunday School teachers... they didn’t have to open up their bibles. They didn’t have to go on Wikipedia and look up the history or the Greek word or the Hebrew translation. Every single hand in class shot up. “Ohh! Oooh! I know the answer. It’s David. He is the son of David!”

But they missed the question. Jesus was not asking them what they knew. He was asking them to think. “What do you think about the Christ?” The Pharisees gave an unthinking answer. Similarly today, if I were to ask the kids in our Sunday School, and go, “Jesus is the Son of....” every kid would probably go, “God!” That would be a right answer and a good answer. But at some point, we as Sunday School teachers and bible study leaders need to ask our friends “What do you think about Jesus as the Son of God?”

That is the question Jesus is really asking. And even though the Pharisees give him the standard Sunday School answer, Jesus doesn’t give up. He presses them further and asks them, “Who is the Lord?”

2. Who is the Lord?

He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,

“ ‘The Lord said to my Lord:
‘‘Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”’
Matthew 22:43-44

Psalm 110 is the most popular psalm in the entire bible. Psalms are songs of praise, and Psalm 110, composed by none other than King David himself, was the kind of song that was played on every radio station. You heard it everywhere. Twenty-seven times, the New Testament writers quote from this single psalm, Psalm 110. Why? Because Psalm 110 is a song about the Christ. Only here, David doesn’t call him the Christ. He calls him “Lord.”

Jesus’ question is, “How can David call his son, Lord?” to which most of us today would go, “What’s the big deal? Why shouldn’t he call him Lord?” The word “Lord” can mean king, but it can simply mean, “Boss,” or as we would say in Cantonese, Lo Sai. Back home in Malaysia, I would call the owner of the coffee shop, “Boss, one cup of iced tea, please.” Nothing wrong with that. “Boss” is a term of recognition and respect.

But you see, here we do have a problem. A very big one, I might add. David was addressing his son as Lord. Today, if a businessman’s son does better than his father, we would call that good upbringing. His father would be proud to have a son who is more successful, more powerful, more wealthy than himself. A good father would want even better things for his son to inherit and to enjoy. But his son would still be his son. He would still be his father. The son should still honour his father and submit to his father. What he happening here in Psalm 110 is the direct opposite: David submits himself to his son. And Jesus’ question is: How can David do this?

The answer is, there is a second Lord in the room. A greater Lord. “The Lord said to my Lord.” Did you notice that. One Lord is speaking to another Lord. One Lo Sai is speaking to another Lo Sai. We know that the second Lord is the Christ. The question is, who is the first Lord?

To answer that question, have a look at Psalm 110 itself. Do you notice anything peculiar about the first line?

The LORD says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”
Psalm 110:1

The first LORD is spelled out in capitals, see that? It is actually God’s name which was considered so holy and so awesome that anyone reading their Jewish bibles would have been too afraid to saying it out loud. So instead, they would say ADONAI, which, surprise, surprise... means, “My Lord.”

What is going here? God is the LORD who is speaking to the Christ, the second Lord. And what he says is, “Sit at my right hand.” You are going to rule by my side in my kingdom. Not only that, God says to him, “I will make your enemies bow down before you.” You see, in this vision that David writes down as Song 110, he sees God as the father and the Christ as his Son. And David bows down before them both and calls them, “Lord.” David submits to his son and calls him, “My Lord.”

Here is a king who would rule God’s kingdom. Notice as well, that this king has enemies. Unlike David, who conquered his enemies in order to establish his kingdom, what does God say to his Son? Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet. Meaning, the Christ will ascend first, the Messiah will rule first, and only after that will his enemies be conquered. In fact, verse 2 of Psalm 110 reads, “You will rule in the midst of your enemies.”

Earlier on, I mentioned a problem. A big problem. How can the son not submit to his father? Jesus gives us the answer: This Son is submitting to his Father, only his father isn’t David. His father is the LORD. God the Son sits at the right hand of God the Father. He listens to his voice of instruction. At the same time, God the Father gives his authority to his Son to rule and to reign.

Stepping back, Jesus is giving us a picture of the Trinity - of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, in relationship with one another. The Father exalts the Son and gives him glory over to him. The Son submits to the Father, ruling by his side. The Spirit bears witness to the Son, enabling David to testify to what he has seen and heard in scripture. This is the Trinity and it is a pretty amazing thing to behold.

Jesus is asking us, Do we see this? Do we see him as Lord? He is the one who willingly submits to God, his true Lord and his true heavenly father.

3. Who is your Lord?

Finally, we come back to big question. The question of questions.

“If then David calls him ‘Lord’, how can he be his son?” No-one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no-one dared to ask him any more questions.
Matthew 22:45-46

Why were they speechless? Most of them were speechless because they were probably shocked. It never occurred to them that the Christ was such a big deal. Some of them were probably flipping through their bibles furiously trying to find a response but unable to come up with a good answer - How can the Christ be David’s son?

But I wonder, if some of them were speechless because they realised what Jesus was really asking them to do. He was trying to get them to think... of David’s relationship to this Christ, and maybe even, their own relationship to the Christ. Of David’s relationship to God and their own relationship to God. Jesus was a in a room full of Sunday School teachers and he was saying to them, “This stuff that you are teaching your kids, do you believe it yourself?”

When David composed this song thousands of years ago, he wasn’t writing a kids song for his church’s Summer Holiday Club. This was worship. It was an overflow of his love for God. And when David considered God’s promise to him that one day, a son of his would inherit a throne and a kingdom that was infinitely more glorious than his own, David bowed down and worshipped. “My Lord.” That’s what he called him.

This week has been a tiring one. We had fifty-plus kids join us at our Summer Holiday Club. Teachers, helpers, organisers, cooks, teaching-assistants, parents all worked hard to bring the kids together and help them to know Jesus. I think Jesus would ask you today, as he did with the Sunday School teachers in his day, is the bible just another syllabus to cover? Is it just another thing we do every year, once a year, to keep the children occupied? Is it hard work and that’s it?

Or... is it worship? Sadly, I think in Jesus’ day, they didn’t get it. The Pharisees were speechless because they were outmatched. But I hope we do. David saw the Christ and called him Lord. Meaning, are we bowing down before Jesus as our Lord? That’s what Thomas did after the resurrection, do you remember. He said, “My Lord and my God!” What did Jesus reply to him? “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Thomas saw Jesus in the flesh, David saw Jesus in the spirit, but as for us here today, we haven’t seen. What does Jesus say to us? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” How are we to do this? John tells us:

But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
John 20:31

In the book of Acts, Peter quotes this exact psalm, Psalm 110 - the exact same words - and says to the crowd, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” He was using Psalm 110 to explain what happened on the cross. By dying on the cross, Jesus proved that he was the true king. To be sure, Jesus was a totally unexpected king. He was the King who died for his enemies. He was the kind of Lord who served his subjects. Peter says to the crowd, “It is this same Jesus whom you rejected and crucified, but whom God raised to be Lord and Christ.”

Every knee will bow

What does this mean for us? Well, let me ask you again the three questions I have asked us to think through.

A. What do you think?
The reason we read our bibles is not to find answers, but to think through the answers. You might have read Matthew’s gospel before. Read it again. You might have heard the gospel before. Hear it again. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:7, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” God’s word shapes and reshapes our mind. His voice refreshes and renews our spirits. Jesus isn’t looking for good little boys and girls who will score 100% in bible quiz. He is calling his sheep who know his voice and obey his will.

B. Who is Lord?
Who calls the shots in your life? To call Jesus Lord is to submit to him as our King. What he says goes. He calls us to live holy lives. He calls us to speak boldly for the gospel. He calls us to love the church. Not simply because these are good things to do that will get us into heaven. But because we love him and we submit to his lordship.

C. Who is your Lord?
When someone looks at your life, do they see someone living selfishly just for themselves. Do they see someone complaining about their boss? Or do they see worship: Someone who does what they do out of joy and thanksgiving for all that Jesus has done for them?

Maybe some of you look at Jesus as say to yourselves, “I don’t want this King. I don’t want him to be Lord.” Remember Psalm 110. This King is already enthroned. Jesus is already Lord sitting at the right hand of his Father in heaven. One day, God will make all his enemies bow down before Jesus and confess him as their Lord. “Every knee shall bow, in heaven, on earth, under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” Paul says (Philippians 2:10-11). But that is not the invitation of today. Today, we have the opportunity to say to Jesus, “You are my Lord.” To do so willingly and thankfully. Today, we can still come to him at the cross, in his death and in his forgiveness and receive from him forgiveness, life and love.

Jesus Christ is Lord. One day every tongue will confess him as Lord. But today, we have the opportunity to respond together with David, to look to the cross, and say, “My Lord... and my God.”

My Lord, what love is this
that pays so dearly
That I the guilty one,
may go free

Amazing love oh what sacrifice
The Son of God giv’n for me
My debt He pays and my death He dies
That I might live, that I might live
(“Amazing Love”, Graham Kendrick)

Monday 23 July 2012

Go for Gold! (2012 SHC theme song)

Verse 1
On your marks
Are you ready
Get set
Keep it steady
We will go
We will go, go, go for Jesus

We will
Run, run, run
For Jesus
Jump, jump, jump
For Jesus
Go, go, go for him alone
Go for Gold!

Verse 2
We were bad
God still loved us
We were bad
God forgave us
We were saved
We were saved, saved, saved in Jesus


We’re gonna
Go, go, go, go, go, go for Jesus!
Go, go, go, go, go, go for Jesus!
Go, go, go, go, go, go for Jesus!
Go, go, go, go for Gold!


Sunday 22 July 2012

Go for Gold (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Don’t you know?

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?
1 Corinthians 9:24

Some are excited and can’t stop talking about it. Others can’t wait for it to be over and done with. Whichever camp you’re in, one thing is for sure: You can’t ignore the Olympics. Not if you are sports fan, and definitely not, if you’re living in the UK.

We are just six days away from the opening ceremony where 80,000 athletes, officials and spectators from all over the world will gather at the Olympic Stadium in London. The event has been choreographed by Danny Boyle, famous for his directorial work in movies like Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. Four years went into the construction of the stadium alone and some twenty-four billion pounds have gone into sponsoring the games as a whole.

Speaking as someone who isn’t a big fan of sports (and who definitely isn’t a big fan of large crowds), it’s been hard to understand what the big fuss has been all about. To be honest, it has even been a cause for concern. The Summer Holiday Club, an annual camp for kids of primary school age, has as its theme this year, “Go for Gold”, and I have been rather cautious of its emphasis on competition and achievement. The theme seemed to suggest that we could achieve our salvation by sheer effort; that Jesus rewards eternal to those who try hard and finish first. It worried me that this ran against the grain of the bible’s teaching that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

But then I read this passage...

This passage from 1 Corinthians where the apostle Paul begins by saying, “Don’t you know...” And what he is doing is using the illustration of sports to bring home the message of salvation. “Don’t you know...” implies that his hearers, the Christians in the city of Corinth, did know what he was talking about. And if I am to take the bible seriously, I too, ought to try and understand what he was talking about.

Paul was referring to the Isthmian Games, a huge sporting event held every two years in the city of Corinth which attracted thousands of fans from all over the Roman Empire. When he talks about running, athletic training and boxing, Paul was describing key events from the games but used these sports as illustrations for the Christian life and moreover, for Christian ministry. And I think Paul would have had no qualms saying to us today, “Look at the Olympic athlete. Look at the Olympic games. Don’t you know? There is something in these games that teach us a great deal about how we are to live our lives significantly for the gospel; to live our lives purposefully for Jesus Christ.”

I want to highlight three points from this passage - three illustrations the bible takes from the sporting arena - and apply them our lives as Christians today.

(1) Running to win the prize
(2) Training to get a crown
(3) Preaching to win others, but also, preaching to ourselves

1. Running to win the prize

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize. Run in such a way as to get the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:24

What is troubling about this illustration is the contrast between the all and the one. All compete; all run; all take part in the race; but in the end, only one wins the gold. One guy gets “the prize,” as Paul puts it.

But that isn’t Paul’s point. The NIV slightly obscures this by saying, “Run in such a way as to get the prize,” but the word “prize” isn’t repeated in the original. Paul just says, “Run this way.” In fact, I think what he is saying is, “Keep on running this way.” It is a call to perseverance. It is a reminder to keep pressing on - to keep going on - until we reach the finish line. That’s the nature of prize he is describing. It is something that awaits us only at the end. It is an end goal that shapes the way we run the race.

To back this up, let me point you to what Paul says in Philippians.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:12-14

It is the same picture of the race. It is the same goal of winning the prize (Paul uses same word in Greek - “brabeion”). And it is the exact same attitude of pressing on and keeping on all the way to the end. Paul uses this picture of the runner straining towards the finish line to describe the life of someone who has been saved in Jesus Christ. That’s important. He is not talking about someone who is trying to save himself. He is not talking about someone who is more deserving to be saved. No, Paul is, rather paradoxically, describing someone who has already been saved. Notice how he says, “I’m not perfect, I’m not there yet, instead I’m pressing on take hold of this prize,” and then adds, “which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” What is he saying? He is saying that the prize is Jesus - he is trying to take hold of Jesus, but at the same time, Jesus has taken hold of him. Meaning Jesus has saved him. Meaning even, that Jesus regards the believer whom he has given his life for, as his prize.

If we understand that Jesus has taken hold of us; that Jesus has done everything in salvation to bring us to God; we will do everything in our lives to take hold of Jesus. Not to earn his love, but as a response to his love. To the outsider, it will look like a strain. To the spectator, the runner looks like he is out to get the gold. But for the Christian, his life and her life will be characterised by an ever-growing passion, an ever-deepening desire to seek God’s glory.

Eric Liddell was once asked how he won the 400m gold at the Olympics, and he said this:

“I run the first 200m as hard as I can. Then, for the second 200m, with God's help, I run harder.”

Paul says, “Run this way.” Some of us are in the first 200m of our lives. We still have a long way to go. Don’t give up.

Others are in the home stretch. You can see the finish line. You hear God calling you to himself. Paul is saying to you, Don’t waste it. Run even harder. Keep your eyes on Jesus. He is your prize.

2. Training to get the crown

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.
1 Corinthians 9:25

The second example Paul uses from the sports world is the strict training every athlete undergoes in preparation for the games. You can’t just turn up at the Olympics having had fish and chips and Snicker bars every day of the week for the entire year; walk up to Usain Bolt, and say to him, “You’re going down!” Everyone who competes goes into strict training, says Paul. The stuff you eat, the things you do, the places you hang out, even the time at which you go to sleep; everything in your life changes when you are in preparation mode for the games. Why? The athletes do it for a medal but Paul says we have something even better - a crown that will never perish or fade.

In 2 Timothy 4, Paul writes about this crown near the end of his life.

For I am ready to be poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day - and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:6-8

This is one of the reasons why I don’t think Paul was saying there was only one prize up for grabs for the Christian, because here he says that Jesus will award him a crown of righteousness, but not only for him, “but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” What is this crown? To be honest, I don’t know. It could be a way of describing salvation itself, or a kind of reward that comes with salvation. In the book of Revelation, Jesus speaks to the seven churches but has special praise for two of those churches - Smyrna and Philadelphia - and to these two faithful churches, the risen Lord Jesus Christ promises the crown of life. It is his reward to Christians who have stuck with him through thick and thin. The sense that I do get here from Paul is that the crown that Jesus will reward us with will make the hard training worthwhile. The athlete’s glory with fade, ours won’t.

Training isn’t easy. Paul literally says that the athlete exercises self-control in all things (ESV). It means cutting out anything that is harmful or just plain unhelpful. In verse 27, he says, “I beat my body and make it my slave.” The Christian life is a struggle with selfish desires and sinful tendencies, and at times, it can seem as if you are at war with your own self. Even though Christ has done away with the penalty of death; there is therefore, now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1); and even though we have been set free from the law of sin and death and now live under grace, assured that all that needs to be done to effect our salvation has been achieved by Jesus on the cross; yet at the same time, the bible still urges us as Christians not to offer up ourselves up to sin. To the extent that John can even write of Christians, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” In this life, we will still struggle with our sinful nature. In this life, we will still have to turn back again and again to the cross and ask for forgiveness. In this life, we will still have to exercise self control in all things - money, relationships, work, sex, sport, food, TV, shopping, the Internet, politics, speech, thought, the stuff we do, the stuff we don’t do - everything single thing that comes our way. The athlete exercises self-control in all things. The Greek word for the athlete or competitor is agonizomai, where we get "agony"; exercising self-control can be painful. We agonise over our sin.

Where Paul says, “I beat my body,” he literally says, “I give it a black eye.” That’s pretty extreme language. Now notice, at this point, he isn’t just telling us what to do, he is talking about his own personal struggle, “This is what I do. This is my fight and I’m out to win.” Paul may have been an apostle. He was a leader in the church. He was personally called by Jesus to bring the gospel to the nations. But he still struggled with sin - his own sin, mind you - and he didn’t take chances. He knew that his sinful nature was always trying to take over. He knew the temptation of giving up and giving in.

What do you do when that happens? For each one of us, it might take different forms. Some of us struggle with sexual temptation - clicking on that Internet link, glancing at that ad on TV. Some of us struggle with anger - lashing out at our friends, taking out our frustrations behind the wheel. Some of us struggle with greed - that insatiable need for more; to make that quick extra buck on the side. Some of us struggle with approval - the number of likes on our Facebook post. What do you do? Do you even recognise it as a struggle? Or is it easier just to give in? Paul gives himself a black eye. When anger or lust or greed or vanity rises up in his heart, he recognises it for what it is - his sinful nature - and he takes it on. He enslaves it and brings it under his control.

3. Preaching to others, preaching to ourselves

Finally, Paul says to us, there is a point to this struggle. The point is, to paraphrase Paul, “So that I don’t fool myself; that I myself, will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:26-27

I find it is a scary thing, what Paul says here. He is saying that it is possible to preach the gospel to win the lost but still be ourselves, lost to the gospel. You see, this happens when we ourselves aren’t running in the race. This happens when all we are doing is coaching others to live for Jesus, but we aren’t living for Jesus. This happens when we tell others about their sin, but are blind to our own sinful nature. In other words, this happens when we are complacent. We don’t struggle. We take it easy and make it hard for other Christians. Paul says that if he did that, he would be disqualifying himself from the race.

What is it that would disqualify Paul from this race and from this prize? It is important to note, that Paul isn’t saying that he is worried he might commit some gross, despicable sin - though complacency of one’s sinful nature is one of the easiest ways for a Christian leader to fall prey to their temptations and the work of the devil. No, it isn’t even something as serious as that which would disqualify Paul. Rather, it is simply this: that he hasn’t lived his life fully for Jesus. That is enough to disqualify him from the prize.

He says, “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly.” What is he saying? He is saying that his life has one purpose and one goal: It is Jesus. “I do not fight like a man beating the air,” which means when he gets in the ring, he knows he has an opponent to defeat. In short, Paul is living a purpose-driven life. Not aimlessly, not whacking at nothingness; but focussed on Jesus, coming back again and again to Jesus for strength to fight his sin, consciously planning his life around what Jesus wants him to do, speaking and acting in such a way as to give Jesus all the glory every moment of his life. And in the end, the prize he looks forward to is getting Jesus.

The Summer Holiday Club poster says, “Life is a race, run for Jesus. Go for Gold.” I think that is a wonderful theme to get the gospel across to kids and adults alike, provided we make one important clarification. We don’t run to get the gold - to get something - from Jesus. Jesus is the gold. We run to get Jesus.

And for us who are helping out at this holiday club as song-leaders, classroom-teachers and assistants, organisers, cooks and helpers, the bible is saying to us, “Are you in the race? You who are preaching to others that they ought to give their lives to Jesus, are you living for him?” When the kids look at you and me, will they see us running, training, preparing, fighting, giving ourselves black-eyes, straining towards the finish line, longing for the crown of life, growing in our passion and devotion to Jesus? Will their parents?

Oh, they may only see the strain. They may think it’s one big struggle. That’s the perspective of some spectators who look on and puzzle themselves asking, “Why the big deal? Why bother with this race at all?” The athletes do it for a crown that perishes and fades, we as Christians know what lies in store for us is a crown that will never perish or fade. And when we tell them the gospel, we are telling them that Jesus is worth it. We are simply pressing on to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of me, in the hope that one day we will be able to say together with Paul, “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day - and not only for me, but for all who have longed for his appearing.”

Life is a race. Run for Jesus. He is our Gold.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

God loves to use the least

“But Lord,” Gideon asked, “how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”
Judges 6:15

For many Asians Christians, the story of Gideon’s call from God hits home with our own personal experiences.

If you come from a background of idol worship: your family frequents temples, they offer joss-sticks to your ancestors during the festive seasons; if this has been the pattern of life in your family for generations and generations; and then, one day you come to know Jesus, you come to understand that his death on the cross was for your sins, that God raised him from the dead for your justification; and you respond to Jesus in faith, repentance and love. He is your Lord. Your life is now lived in worship of his glory alone. Yet, for you, as someone coming from a background of idol worship, turning to Christ, must also mean turning away from idols to serve the true and living God (1 Thessalonians 1:9). This can be an immensely scary thing to do.

In the story of Gideon, we meet a young man who is afraid. He is afraid of the Midianites, whose troops were oppressing the Israelite people, attacking their homes and destroying their crops. He is afraid of God, thinking that he is going to die from the encounter with the angel of the LORD. But also, he is afraid of his own family, who do not worship God, who instead, had given themselves to the worship of Baal.

So before God sends him out on his mission to take on the enemy, he first sends Gideon back home to deal with the idols in his backyard. “Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it,” God tells Gideon. Gideon did as he was instructed... but. “But because he was afraid of his family and the men of the town, he did it at night rather than the daytime.” Gideon was afraid, and he had good reason to be. His own father was an idol worshipper and possibly even, a priest in service of Baal, the idol. The next morning, the entire village is in uproar over Gideon’s act of vandalism. They march up to his house and demand of Gideon’s father, Joash, “Bring out your son. He must die, because he has broken down Baal’s altar.”

But Joash doesn’t give up his son. Instead he starts mocking Baal. “If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.” Does Gideon’s father become a Christian overnight? I can’t really say for certain, but this much is clear: (1) He sticks up for his son - facing up to the hostile crowd to protect Gideon; and (2) He recognises his own foolishness in worshipping an idol, and turns away from it.

On the one hand, idols have no power. They are not gods, just things that we put in place of God. They are only as powerful as we allow them to be. In this sense, money can be just as powerful an idol as the statues in the Taoist temple - both have a tremendous hold over their worshippers; over those who give their lives in service to these idols.

On the other hand, God is serious about our worship. And for Christians, who understand that the sole basis of our worship is the sacrificial offering of Jesus’ own blood and body on the cross, who we offer our lives in worship to is a serious thing in God’s eyes. Jesus warns us that we cannot serve two masters. Either we will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and hate the other (Matthew 6:24). The first thing God does with Gideon is accept his worship. The very next thing he does is send Gideon to tear down his father’s idols.

That’s scary. We don’t want to offend our parents. We might even be afraid of offending God. But if you look closely at Gideon, it wasn’t so much his fear of God or even the fear of his parents that was at the root of his constant indecision and cowardliness. Why do I say this? Well, because again and again, we find God reassuring Gideon and speaking to him so graciously. Again and again, God is so patient with Gideon, even though this kid keeps insisting on testing God again and again. And as for his fear of his father, why, Joash sticks up for him in the end. He seems like a pretty stand-up guy!

Why was Gideon so afraid? Because he was the least. He was fearful of his own inadequacy. He felt small and he felt so insignificant. What does he say to God again? “How can I save Israel? My clan is the least! I am the least!” But again and again, God’s response to Gideon is, “I will be with you.” God doesn’t give Gideon super-powers. He doesn’t give him supernatural courage. No, what God gives Gideon is an assurance. “I will be with you.” God gives Gideon the promise of his presence. “We will do this thing together.” Such that the strength of God’s promise and the power of God’s presence is seen precisely in the weakness and inadequacy of this young man.

Maybe, like Gideon, you are the least in your family. Maybe, like Gideon, you don’t feel in any way up to the task. And maybe, just maybe, like Gideon, God looks at you and me and goes, “That’s the guy I’m looking for!” “That girl is perfect!” In God’s wisdom he chooses the weak. In God’s mercy, he pours out his love on the least. Why? So that when others see us in our weakness, in our poverty, in our inadequacy, what they will see all the more clearly is his glory, his power and his grace through his Son, Jesus.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
2 Corinthians 4:7-10

Sunday 15 July 2012

Are you sadder than a Sadducee?

The Sadducees say there is no resurrection. They only believe in the first five books of the bible. And they think they are smarter than Jesus. They are sad, you see?

But I wonder, how many of us today might be sadder than a Sadducee?

1. Who are you listening to?

“Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us...”
Matthew 22:24

There’s nothing wrong with listening to Moses. In fact, Jesus intentionally answers their question using Moses’ words written in the bible. And yet, Jesus says to them, “Have you not read what God said to you?” (verse 31) Not, what God said to Moses, but what God was saying to you.

When you open your bibles, is it just another opinion you are looking for - no different from reading the Sunday papers or finding out an interesting fun fact on QI? Or, don’t you know that what God says in his word, he says to you?

2. Are you living just for this life?
At the very least, the Sadducees acknowledge there is such a thing as death. They may not believe in the resurrection - that God will one day raise all of us from the dead, some to eternal life, others to eternal condemnation - but still, they are willing to talk about death, something all of us should agree on. Something all of us will experience.

As such, the Sadducees struggle with the whole concept of life after death, and that is sad. But some of us are sadder still. We don’t even struggle with life in this life. We don’t want to think about life and death issues. We avoid the topic altogether. As such, we are unprepared to deal with suffering; we’re surprised. We complain. We become impatient. But worst of all, we lack joy, because our lives lack meaning.

At least the Sadducees thought that this life was worth living. They asked Jesus about marriage in this life. They asked Jesus about raising children in this life. Many today don’t even ask the question: Is this life worth living?

3. Do you know the cross?

“You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”
Matthew 22:29

It is amazing how Jesus deals with people on their own terms. To the Sadducees, who only know Moses, he answered them using Moses’ words. To the Samaritan woman, who wanted to talk about worship and the temple, Jesus talked about the true kind of worshippers the Father was looking for. To the Herodians who wanted to talk politics, Jesus said, “Render to Caesar,” but he also said, “Render to God.” That is, Jesus answers the question, he deals directly with the questioner, but he always brings the focus back to God.

Mind you, he had no qualms telling them they were wrong to their face. “You are in error,” he said to the Sadducees. “You worship what you do not know,” he said to the Samaritan woman. “You hypocrites,” he said to the Herodians and Pharisees. The questioner’s motives may have been less than sincere, yet Jesus still answered the question. And each time, he pointed forward to the cross. He brought them closer to understanding the purpose of his death and resurrection.

Today, many still come to Jesus asking him questions about all manner of things. But unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees or the Herodians - who only had the books of Moses; who only had the Old Testament; who only knew Herod as their king - we actually have the whole story played out before us. The bible points the fulfilment of every single one of God’s promises in Jesus Christ on the cross.

So, it should be no surprise to us that when God deals with our questions, he is going to say to you and me, “Look to the cross.” Such that, instead of asking, “Will I be raised from the dead?” the bible asks us, “Have you been raised in Jesus Christ?”

Do you know the cross? Unlike the Sadducee, God can actually say of you today, you should.

Saturday 14 July 2012

The God of the living (Matthew 22:23-33)

[Download MP3 Recording]

Cause they’re so sad, you see?

I don’t wanna be a Sadducee,
I don’t wanna be a Sadducee,
‘Cause they’re so sad, you see?
I don’t wanna be a Sadducee.

The reason why they are sad, you see, is because the Sadducees “say there is no resurrection” (verse 23). That is, Sadducees believe that God will not raise you from the dead. Now it is important to note that these weren’t atheists. The Sadducees believed in God and moreover, they believed in the bible. Yet, what differentiated them from the Pharisees, whom we’ve been meeting these past few weeks, is that the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of Moses from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Which is why their question begins with Moses.

“Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us.  The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died.”
Matthew 22:24-27

They begin with a command from Moses about levirate marriage, where the Hebrew word levir refers to the “husband’s brother”. The command says that in the event of a man’s death, the man’s brother is to marry the widow for two reasons - to provide for her, but also, to bring up children in the dead man’s name. That’s what Moses told them to do, say the Sadducees, but then the ask Jesus: What if. They propose a what-if scenario, where there is a family of seven brothers. The reason I call this a what-if scenario is because even in Jesus’ day, this law was no longer practiced. Still, it may be that this scenario really happened, because in verse 25, they say to Jesus, “There were seven brothers among us.” And the scenario is this: The first brother dies without any kids, so the law kicks in: the second brother steps up  to marry the widow. But then he dies, and she gets passed down to brother number three. But he dies as well. This happens seven times such that the poor widow ends up getting married to seven men and mourning over seven husbands. The saddest verse is, I think, verse 27, which reads, “Finally, she dies.” Childless and alone, she goes to the grave.

“Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”
Matthew 22:28

Hence, the question from the Sadducees about the resurrection. “Whose wife will she be?” It isn’t just a question about the resurrection, is it? It is also a question about the permanence of marriage. That is, marriage poses a serious problem for the resurrection. This is not a case of someone being unfaithful in their marriage. This is not a case of someone who got divorced again and again, whose marriages broke down again and again, seven times. No, this is an actual command in the bible from Moses himself, which if obeyed to the letter as God’s word revealed in the Scriptures, would pose a serious problem for the resurrection.

The Sadducees point was this: Moses was very clear about marriage. Moses gave commands about getting married - even strange ones like the one we have here about marrying your dead brother’s widow - but Moses said nothing about the resurrection, and the truth is, a situation whereby God would raise dead people from the grave, would pose serious problems not simply about the improbability of such an event, but would contradict God’s own word revealed in the bible.

“Whose wife will she be of the seven?” The Sadducees weren’t looking for an answer. They thought they knew the answer; that there could only be one answer. None. God would never allow such a preposterous problem to exist because the Sadducees believed that God does not raise the dead.

How does Jesus answer them? He tells the bible experts, they don’t know their bibles.

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”
Matthew 22:29

Because the Sadducees pose to Jesus a two-part question - on marriage and the resurrection - Jesus gives them a two-part answer - on the word of God and the power of God.

Two kinds of raising

At the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.
Matthew 22:30

People are permanent, marriage is not. I realise how risky it is to say something like that, and how likely a statement like that can be easily misunderstood. But I will say it again, people are permanent, marriage isn’t. Marriage is a good thing, but it is, for all the good it does and for all  the joy it brings, a temporary thing, when set against the full scope of God’s plan for redemption.

What do I mean? Look back to the law of Moses in verse 24. The reason why the widow marries the brother-in-law, isn’t companionship and love, though those form part of the reason for the marriage - that she is looked after and provided for. The reason is children. If a man died without children, the brother-in-law marries his wife in order to raise children. And here I need to point out that the word for raise is exactly the same for resurrection. Two kinds of raising is being compared and contrasted. On one hand, there is the raising of children within godly families. That’s an important element for marriage we tend to overlook today - the raising of children by both the father and mother - because we tend to put it off or some of us would rather not think about it at all. Yet in Malachi Chapter 2, God says about the married couple, “Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring” (Malachi 2:15). The purpose for levirate marriages is the same for all faithful marriages, to raise godly children. And actually, this was a risky thing for the brother-in-law to do, to fulfil the command and marry the widow, because the children that they raised would not be in his name, it would be in his dead brother’s name.

If you remember, that is precisely what happened in the book of Ruth. One moment, the kinsman-redeemer says, “I’ll marry her,” thinking the widow he is taking on is old-grandma Naomi, who couldn’t possibly produce any more children. He’ll look like the hero, stepping in to save the day by giving the poor lady a roof over her head, when in actual fact, he would be inheriting all the fortune of her dead husband. But then Boaz says it’s not grandma Naomi he is to marry, but Ruth, her daughter-in-law, who is a foreigner and who is still, in fact, young of age. Immediately the kinsmen-redeemer goes, “I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate.” What was he saying? He was risking his own fortune by marrying Ruth because the whole point of the kinsman-redeemer levirate marriage law was to produce a son in the widow’s dead husband’s name, and doing that, might mean that this son, who isn’t yours, who wouldn’t even bear your name, would inherit both his father’s estate and yours. That is what he meant when he said, “I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate.”

The purpose of the levirate marriage was to raise children. Children who would know and love their parents. Children who would know and love their God. But, Jesus says, one day there will be no need for such raising, because God will raise his children from the dead. People will neither marry nor be given in marriage, because it is not parents who will produce children in heaven, but God. He will raise his children and they will bear his name. God is the ultimate kinsman-redeemer. This is what Jesus meant when he said we will be like the angels, not that we will be able to fly, not that we will no longer be male or female, not that we will all be dressed in white robes and play golden harps all day, but that they will be with God in heaven.

So, the first part of the answer has to do with the power of God. God raises his children from the dead, the same way God raised Jesus, his Son from the dead. But the second part of the answer has to do with the Word of God. Whereas the Sadducees were saying, “We’re just listening to what Moses said to us,” back in verse 24, Jesus answers them by saying, “Are you listening to what God is saying to you through Moses?”

The God of the living

“But about the resurrection from the dead - have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
Matthew 22:31-32

This comes from Moses’ very first encounter with God at the burning bush. In Exodus Chapter 3, Moses is looking after some sheep in the desert, he goes up a mountain where he sees a strange thing: a bush that was burning and burning, but didn’t burn itself up. As he steps closer to have a look at this strange thing, God calls out from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Exodus 3:4-5

God is telling Moses that he is the same God who spoke to Abraham, then Abraham’s son, Isaac, and then Isaac’s son, Jacob. I am that same God, God is saying. But then Jesus adds, “He is not the God of the dead but of the living,” and the point Jesus is drawing our attention to is God’s name which is “I AM”. God reveals, through his name, that he is everlasting and eternal. “I AM WHO I AM” is the name that God reveals to Moses. God is self-existent, self-sufficient and everlasting.

But what God also does in revealing the eternal nature of his name, is to extend a part of that nature to his children. “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He doesn’t say, “I was” - as in, I was the God of Abraham. He says, “I am”. Meaning, God who is eternal, has a relationship that is also eternal and ongoing with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, even though, they had been dead for over 400 years. Jesus says that God is not the God of the dead but he is the God of the living, implying that, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were very much still alive with God.

God is their God

Now I will admit that it is a rather strange argument that Jesus uses here to prove his case. But if you understand what he is getting at, Jesus is telling us something that is quite marvellous. At the heart of the resurrection is relationship. It isn’t simply believing that God will be able to raise a dead man to life again. He can and he did with Jesus. But that the reason why God raises us as Christians from dead to life eternal is so that we will have a relationship that surpasses all other relationships in this lifetime.

You see, I suspect that the bigger problem for many of you reading this passage isn’t the bit of being raised from the dead. Not if you’re young. Not if you’re healthy or if you’ve just graduated from university, and there is so much promise and hope ahead of you. No, you’re still hung up on the first part of Jesus’ answer on marriage. When Jesus says there will be no marriage in heaven, many of you went, “What? No marriage? What kind of heaven is this? Why would I want to go there?”

As it is, marriage is a touchy subject for many single Christians, who stay up all night praying to God, “Lord, when will it be my turn to experience happiness and companionship?” But let me tell you, married couples have an even bigger problem with this verse. If you love your husband and wife deeply - I’m not talking about a bad marriage or a broken marriage - but the best of marriages, whereby you cherish one another, and you experience a relationship that growing in trust, submission, love, sacrifice and togetherness, this verse is tough, because Jesus is saying that at the resurrection people will neither marry, they will not be given in marriage, and by extension, they will no longer be married.

But Jesus also promises us that God is no one’s debtor. In the resurrection, God gives us something that is so precious, so fulfilling, so wonderful, it will trump even the best of marriages. He gives us himself.

Do you remember the story the Sadducees told and the question they asked in the end? “In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?” They think that the wife will have to be divided up between the seven brothers, that each man will get only a part of her - one-seventh - in the resurrection. But here is God saying, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” It doesn’t mean that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob get one-third of God. Rather, it means they get all of him. He is their God, and it is amazing that God is willing to say that. He doesn’t simply say, “These are my servants. They are my messengers,” or even, “They belong to me.” No God says, “I belong to them. I am their God.”

“Don’t you know this?” Jesus says to the Sadducees as a kind of wake-up call. Don’t you know that the greatest promise God has in his word is the promise of himself? That’s the tragedy of the Sadducees. For all their learning and piety, for all their dedication to God and for all their discipline towards God’s word, Jesus says to them, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” They are sad, you see, because they don’t know God. They are sad, you see, because unlike Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I’m not sure that God would say of them that he is their God.

Is he yours? That’s the real question, isn’t it? Would God say of you and me, “I am the God of Calvin, the God of David, and the God of Wei Mun?” Jesus gives us the answer. God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Only those who have been raised in Jesus, as sons of God, as daughters of God; only those who are living in newness of life empowered by his Spirit; only those who look to Jesus who was raised from the dead, will know God as their God. This week, Winnie, Lisa and Sarah led us in the study of these verses from Romans Chapter 6 at Rock Fellowship, and I commend them to you.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
Romans 6:8-10

Have you been raised with Christ? For Christians, the resurrection isn’t a future uncertainty, a what-if scenario. Christians look back to one resurrection and know that they will be raised. Christians look back to one life and know they, too, have eternal life. Christians look back to Jesus Christ on the cross and say, “If we died with him, we believe we will also live with him.”

Jesus lives and so shall I
I’ll be raised from the dust with Christ on high
Jesus lives no more to die
And when He returns with Him I’ll rise
Jesus lives
(“Jesus Lives” by Sovereign Grace Music)

Turn around

Sometimes you run
Sometimes you fall
Sometimes you run and you run
And you fa-a-all.

Sometimes you win
Sometimes you lose
Sometimes you win and you win
And you lose it all

Everyone’s looking for something special
Everyone’s looking for number one

The world is turning and turning
Around and round
The world is looking and looking
It hasn’t found
Jesus is calling us, calling us
Turn around,
Do you hear him calling you

Turning and turning
Around and round
The world is looking and looking
It hasn’t found
Jesus is calling us, calling us
Turn around,
Do you hear him calling you now
Do you hear him calling you now

Sometimes you’re good
Sometimes you’re bad
Sometimes you’re good you’re so good
Then you’re very bad

Sometimes you smile
Sometimes you’re sad
Sometimes you smile and you smile
Then you’re sa-a-ad

Everyone’s looking for something special
Everyone’s looking for number one

The world is turning and turning
Around and round
The world is looking and looking
It hasn’t found
Jesus is calling us, calling us
Turn around,
Do you hear him calling you

Turning and turning
Around and round
The world is looking and looking
It hasn’t found
Jesus is calling us, calling us
Turn around,
Do you hear him calling you now
Do you hear him calling you...


The bible tells us, it tells us
While we were bad
The bible tells us, it tells us
While we were sad
God came and saved us, he saved us
And made us glad
Jesus came to save ...

The world is turning and turning
Around and round
The world is looking and looking
It hasn’t found
Jesus is calling us, calling us
Turn around,
Do you hear his call...

The bible tells us, it tells us
While we were bad
The bible tells us, it tells us
While we were sad
God came and saved us, he saved us
And made us glad
Jesus came to save you and
Jesus died to save you and
Don’t you know he saved you and me.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Show me the money (Matthew 22:15-22)

“I pay what I have to and not a penny more.”

Jimmy Carr has been the subject of recent headlines revealing the celebrity as a member of “a legal but aggressive tax avoidance scheme” (BBC News, 20 June 2012). Prime Minister David Cameron condemned Mr Carr’s actions as “morally wrong”, while Treasury Chief Secretary, Danny Alexander equated rich tax dodgers with benefit cheats. Having said that, pop star, Lily Allen considers them a “hundred times worse”. Mr Carr has since issued statements publicly apologising for his tax affairs and says he is no longer a part of such schemes.

What is interesting to note is how each condemnation spoken out against Mr Carr was essentially that of moral outrage. He was wrong. Not legally, but morally. It is not that he couldn’t do what he did - the scheme he took part in was within the limits of the law - but that he shouldn’t have done what he did. At a gig held soon after the debacle in the press, Jimmy said this:

“I’ve not broken the law. I’ve not done anything illegal. But morally, morally...”

In today’s passage, Jesus is asked a seemingly innocuous question on the subject of paying tax. Yet the nature of that question is neither economic nor legal, but ethical and moral. “Is it right,” they ask Jesus, “to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” To which Jesus answers both practically and ethically, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” But then he adds, “And to God what is God’s.” What Jesus does is give a theological answer.

In other words, what is the bible’s perspective? What is God’s? I think the answer may very well surprise you. The account ends with Jesus’ hearers described as being “amazed” with his response.

I want us to see three things from today’s passage:

(1) The question of the cunning
(2) The coin of the king
(3) The king without a coin

1. The question of the cunning

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.
Matthew 22:15

The masterminds behind this encounter are a bunch called the Pharisees. These are the guys who score 100% at bible quiz. They turn up every week with pressed shirt and tie. Their hair is combed-down and centre-parted. Think, Ned Flanders from the Simpsons. “Okedy-Dokety!”

Now it is all too easy to make fun of the Pharisees. Especially in Sunday School, where we tell stories like this to the kids and teach them that the moral of the story is, “Don’t be a Pharisee! They are the bad guys.” And what I want to say to you today is: That is not the moral of the story. No, the moral of the story is this: All of us are Pharisees. All of us, have had at one time or another, arguments with our teachers, friends and colleagues; after which we stayed up all night, doing what? Thinking of a comeback, that’s what! Haven’t you ever done that? Some guy in school ticks you off and says something nasty about you and you replay that scene over and over again in your head. “Oooh, I should have said that! If only I had done that!”

That is how the story begins in verse 15. “The Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap (Jesus) in his words.” What has happened is, Jesus has been speaking out against the Pharisees since Chapter 21. Yet, each and every time, they’re stuck for words. Jesus keeps hammering them again and again; for being religious, for being proud and for being plain stuck-up. At one point, Jesus even says to the Pharisees, “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). To get how offensive that was, it is like Jesus pointing to drag queen and drug pushers and saying to the members of the Rotary Club, “They’re in but you guys are out!”

What is so pathetic about this is how the Pharisees - these top theological minds - actually have to leave the room just to formulate an answer to give to Jesus. They couldn’t come up with a decent comeback on the spot! Instead, they had to have a committee meeting. And there was just one item on the agenda at this meeting: Think of a way to humiliate Jesus. “They laid plans to trap him in his words.”

And before we move one bit further, I just want to say: This is what all of us do. When a mistake is pointed out to us; when our authority has been challenged, our first reaction is not to ask ourselves, “Was there any truth in that?” No, we want to humiliate our accuser. We pour all our energies into damage control. It doesn’t matter if the problem was serious. Doesn’t matter whether person was being truthful. Doesn’t even matter if it’s God.

What is worse is we think that Jesus is the same like us. That’s the whole reasoning behind the Pharisees’ cunning plan. The Pharisees think that Jesus is playing a power game; that he’s all about ego, because that’s what everyone is about - being popular and looking good in front of the crowd. Look at what they do next.

They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, ‘we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Matthew 22:16-17

Some say that the Pharisees were being cowardly, sending in their disciples instead of approaching Jesus themselves. I suspect, though, that this was all part of the plan. They wanted Jesus to think that the younger low-level grassroot leaders were abandoning the party. Hence, the over-the-top display of respect for Jesus, calling him “Teacher”, showering him with praise for his frank views on the religious establishment and his no-holds-barred analysis on the spiritual state of the nation. They say to him, “You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.” In other words, what they were saying was, “Jesus, you don’t give face!” (In Chinese, “Lei Mo Pei Miin”) “You are someone who speaks his mind regardless of the consequences.”

But it’s just smokescreen; a setup for the real question they had been sent there to ask. “Tell us then, is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

To fully understand how sinister this question was, look back to verse 16, and notice that there was another group of representatives sent with this delegation. They are called the Herodians; supporters of a man named King Herod. You see, this was a political rally. The Herodians were campaigning for their guy, King Herod, to be recognised as the head of state of their nation, Israel. At this point of time in history, the Romans were in charge. Rome had invaded and taken over the country, leaving a sizeable military presence in the capital city (which is why the gospels has Jesus bumping into Roman centurions and Roman soldiers everywhere he went). However, to appease the locals, they also appointed Herod as kind of a local MP in charge of the northern region of Galilee. In the eyes of the Jewish people, he was the rightful ruler and King as Herod was descended from royal blood.

Now, this debate between Jesus and the religious leaders was taking place smack centre of this political turmoil. The encounter took place in Jerusalem, the city of the King, but where Herod's jurisdiction was not recognised. Instead Romans troops were stationed in Jerusalem enforcing military rule under a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The Herodians wanted the Romans out and their guy recognised as the true king. Aside from being political, the Herodians also saw their cause as deeply religious. They believed that God’s kingdom could only be ruled under God’s king.

So, when they ask Jesus, “Is it right to pay tax?” the question had nothing to do with money. It was a question to determine which government had the authority to rule over them. Was it Caesar or Herod? In fact, the tax in question was not income tax, that is, the percentage off your monthly paycheck that went to the Treasury. This was something called a poll tax. It was a minimal sum - just one coin, if you look ahead to verse 19 - that everyone had to pay, regardless of whether you were a slave or a businessman. Everyone could afford to pay this sum, but again, it wasn’t the amount of money that was being disputed. It was who the money was being paid to. The poll tax was tribute compulsory for each and every individual to pay up to Caesar as a sign of their allegiance to the Roman government. Hence the question, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

It was a question designed to trap Jesus in his words. What was Jesus going to say? All this while, Jesus has been speaking out against the religious establishment; all this while, Jesus had been preaching about the new Kingdom of Heaven that was soon approaching; would he now speak out against the Roman government? It would certainly be the answer the Herodians were looking forward to. But then again, Jesus would essentially be inciting rebellion against the Romans. Remember that this was happening in Jerusalem, one week before the Passover, the biggest religious festival of the entire Jewish calendar. I wonder if many a faithful Jew was itching for Jesus to give the word to take up arms against their oppressors.

But if instead Jesus said, “Yes, you ought to pay your taxes to Caesar,” he would be branded a Roman sympathizer and a traitor of the Jewish people.

You have to hand it to the Pharisees, it was a cunning question. Answer “Yes”, and Jesus would have lost the support of his countrymen. Answer “No”, and Jesus risked being arrested by the Roman authorities.

But Jesus knew what they were up to. And what he said next was, “Show me the money!”

2. The coin of the king

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
Matthew 22:18-20

If you take out a one pound coin, you are going to have on one side, the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. (The design on the other side changes every year - you have emblems representing the UK, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England.) In fact, every coin produced since the 17th century has had the image of the monarch’s head on it. Interestingly, the direction the each head faces, changes from each successive ruler, which is why Elizabeth II is always facing to the right.

Similarly, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Show me the money,” and what they produce is a coin with the portrait - literally, the word the bible uses here is image - of Caesar. Caesar was the king and this was the coin of the king. It reminded everyone who used this coin that they were subjects of this king.

As we have already seen, this was a problem for the Jews, especially for the Herodians who wanted their own king to be ruler of the land. But the problem ran deeper still. Aside from asking what image was on the coin, Jesus said, “And whose inscription?” Written on the side of the image of Caesar were the words, “Son of God” (Latin: Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus)  and on the back, “High Priest” (Pontifex Maximus). You can see why this was deeply offensive to Jews. Caesar was proclaiming himself more than just a ruler, but that he was descended directly from God and the chief mediator between God and man.

“Whose image and whose inscription is this?” Jesus asked. They replied, “Caesar’s.” Now notice that Jesus doesn’t simply say, “What image is on this coin, or what is written on this coin.” He says, “Whose.” Meaning, who does this coin belong to? Whose kingdom is this coin talking about? And everyone, including the Pharisees’ disciples, including the Herodians themselves reply, “It belongs to Caesar.” Now, look at how Jesus concludes in verse 21.

Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Matthew 22:21

“Give it back to him.” Some translations use the word “render”: “Render to Caesar.” To render means to return. You are returning something that belongs to that someone else. “This is the king’s coin,” Jesus is saying. “Give it back to him.”

In effect, Jesus is saying to bible-believing, God-fearing Jews, then - and by implication, to us Christians today - that we owe our tax to our king, that we owe, even our allegiance to our government. When you pay taxes, you shouldn’t go, “Sigh, I’m losing all this money I have worked so hard for. I wonder how much of it I claim back through deductions.” Rather, the Christian who knows that there is no authority except that which God has established (Romans 13:1), will say, “I owe this money. I want to pay this money.” Especially when we live under a government that is doing its job, protecting its citizens and providing for its citizens, but more so, because God establishes his authority through all governments to ensure order and justice. It doesn’t mean that the government has to be Christian - it certainly wasn’t when Romans 13 was written. And it doesn’t mean that the government is above God - there is a second part to the answer that Jesus gives. Look again at verse 21.

Jesus adds, “And render to God what is God’s.” What is that you owe God? That is a much harder question to answer, especially for those of us who don’t think we owe anyone anything. But the truth is, we do. We owe our government what is due to our governments - our obedience to the law of the land, our taxes to support the governing of the land, our allegiance to the leaders and rulers set over the land. It is important to highlight that the bible does not negate our responsibilities due to the state, to our parents, to our community, once we become Christians. This has implications on the way we pay our taxes, but also in other areas to do with national service, honouring our parents, respecting the cultures within our community, even those which differ or are even against the Christian faith. We do all this not in spite of, but out of our submission to God’s ultimate authority. That’s the first half of Jesus’ question, “Render to Caesar, what is Caesar’s,” and it is actually the easier bit. The second half of the question is tougher to answer. How do we render to God what is God’s? What is it ultimately that we owe to God?

You see, for the Pharisees and Herodians, they would have answered that question by saying, “We owe God our money.” And we hear that sometimes in a church settings. I listened to a sermon recently from a pastor who said that our worship to God - the praises we sing and the prayers that we offer up - are currency that needs to be backed up. The same way that any national currency needs to be backed up by reserves of gold in the bank, to ensure that the currency isn’t devalued, so our worship to God might become worthless and hollow unless it is backed up by our giving.

I must say that there is some truth in that statement. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” (Matthew 6:21). Or as the private detectives on TV would say, “Follow the money.” Money leaves a trail of clues. Our spending of our money reveals where our true treasure is. Our spending of our money reveals what we truly worship.

Yet, Jesus is saying something quite different from the pastor’s illustration to back up your worship with your money. Because that’s what the Pharisees and Herodians were saying, “We shouldn’t worship Caesar, we ought to worship God, instead with our money.” But that’s not the answer Jesus was looking for. What is it that we owe God?

The clue lies with the money, or rather, something that is on the money. You see, the coin belongs to Caesar, why? Because it has Caesar’s image and Caesar’s writing on it. How then can we tell what belongs to God? It is something that has God’s image and God’s handwriting printed on it. That’s you and me. God created us in his image. That’s Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image... male and female he created them.” But more than that, if you are a Christian, God has written his laws on your heart. Hebrews 8:10, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts” (quoting Ezekiel 11:20). What belongs to God? What do we need to return to God that belongs to God? It is our whole lives.

“Render to God what is God’s.” You belong to God. “Have you given yourself to him?” Jesus is asking. When someone looks at your life, do they see Jesus? When God looks at your heart, does he see his Word, his laws? His writing?

The word, “coin” simply means to stamp something with a mark. It is a term taken from the printing industry. All coins have a mark and an image. When Jesus said to them, “Show me the coin,” what they showed him was the mark and image of Caesar that said this coin belonged to an earthly king, Caesar. Now Jesus is saying, “In the same way, you are coins of the true King.” All of us have markings that say we don’t belong to ourselves. All of us have markings that tell us we were made by someone else. All of us bear the image of God that remind us our lives belong to Him, and the question is, do you see that? Have you given back to God what is God’s?

“Do you see the coin of the King?” Jesus is asking. But finally, Jesus says, “Do you see the king without a coin?”

3. The king without a coin

Did you notice that when Jesus wanted to illustrate his point about the coin, he didn’t have one? This isn’t the only time it has happened. Back in Matthew Chapter 17, someone comes up to Peter and asks, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” and Peter says, “Duh! Oh course, he does.” But then, in the next scene, he says to Jesus, “Erm, Jesus, did you remember to pay this week’s offering yet?” And what Jesus does is tell Peter to go fishing in the lake, and that the first fish he catches will have the coin he needs to pay the tax!

So here, when Jesus needed another coin for his illustration, he said, “Can someone lend me one please?” It must have been embarrassing for his disciples, to travel around the country with their esteemed leader, whom many were hoping would be the mighty Messiah, who didn’t have enough money on him to pay for lunch. And yet, many believed him to the true king. What kind of king was this? A different king. Jesus was a king without a coin.

The Herodians and the Pharisees were looking for a king like Caesar - a king with power, prestige and influence. They were looking for a king whose picture was stamped on all the currency, who controlled the wealth of the country, who commanded all the troops. Jesus came with no money, no prestige and no recognition. And yet, the bible contends, he is the true Son of God. Jesus is the true High Priest. What kind of king is he? Jesus is a king who sacrifices his wealth to enter into poverty. He is a priest who sacrifices his own life to pay for our sins.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9

You see, you and I couldn’t possibly afford the price tag on our lives. We can’t render to God what is God’s because even after we have given up our entire lives, we would still fall short. What God has done is paid the price on our behalf. On the cross, Jesus takes our debt of sin exchanges it with his wealth. Though he was rich, the bible says, for our sakes he became poor, so that through his poverty - not through his wealth, but through his humility; through his sacrifice - we might become rich.

Do you see Jesus in his poverty? That is the kind of king he is - gentle, generous, gracious. That is the true image of God, seen not in power but in humility; seen not on a coin, but displayed for us most fully on a cross.

This is the gospel, that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus has paid. Other religions talk about what we need to do and what we need to pay in order for us to be accepted by God. The gospel says God has footed the bill. God has rendered to God what is God’s. On the cross, the Son of God took upon himself the full punishment of our sin, erasing our record of debt to God, and transferred all his glory, all his blessing and his righteousness into our account. Other religions talk about what we need to pay, only the gospel says God has paid for our sins through Jesus Christ.

What the gospel invites us to do is to come to Jesus not with our wealth but with our poverty, not with our righteousness but our sins, not with power but in weakness and receive from him forgiveness, love and eternal life. To come to the king without a coin and to be reconciled with God at the cross.