After the Transfiguration, the rest of Matthew 17 continues with some examples of the power of faith. Yet again, Jesus has cause to rebuke his disciples for failing to put into practice the teachings he has given them – rather than obeying him and trusting him for the power.
True faith – the sort that has power – is like a mustard seed: it has everything inside it to become the mustard tree that it is destined to be; everything, that is, except water, time, and sunlight. If you have the seed, you have the tree! The key thing, then, is not the size of the seed (the word ‘small’ is not there in the Greek), but the nature of that ‘seed’, and how we nurture it.
Jesus, at the end of chapter 17, speaks about children and sons. He is painting a picture of inheritance – the King’s sons who rightfully inherit his power and authority. The revelation of knowledge about the coin in a particular fish is a lot of fun and a big surprise, but probably not the main point of the passage.
Over in chapter 18 – we got there at last! – Jesus talks about actual children and spiritual children. The qualities found in a young human child – humility, realism, a sense of dependency, asking for help – are exactly the qualities needed to become and to be Jesus’ disciple. The Kingdom of Heaven is about realising your need, about asking, and about receiving from someone far greater than you. It is an economy whose currency is ‘grace’.
The cynic, the tempter, and the God-hater had better watch out! Their ultimate punishment will make them wish they had never been born!
And if we are tempted, we had better watch out! The most important thing of all is eternal life – a pearl beyond price… a treasure worth our every effort to obtain it. Whatever else gets in the way needs to be removed as soon as possible, without question or hesitation.
How does the church deal with persistent sinful behaviour in its members? The first thing that we learn is that ‘sin really matters’! The church should not just ignore it in some misguided attempt to be ‘nice’ and ‘inclusive’. Step One: confront the sinner one-to-one (just you and them). If no progress, then take along some wise and objective church members as witnesses. If still no progress, involve the whole church and its leaders. After that, the matter is in their hands: to treat someone as a tax collector or pagan was to completely ostracise them from your community. This was what ‘excommunication’ really meant. It was not to be taken lightly – but God was ready and willing to back his church up in their decisions.
The opposite side of the coin was dealing with forgiveness. If a fellow believer repents to you, then you must forgive them. Why? God has forgiven you far more than you would ever need to forgive someone else. And it must be a genuine, heart-led forgiveness, not just lip-service. After all, the purpose of forgiveness is usually reconciliation and unity; if you refuse others, then you are single-handedly destroying the unity for which Christ died.
JOB 1, 2 and 3
The entire Book of Job is a bit of a mystery and its author, date of writing and the date of Job’s life are all hidden from us. Certainly Job appears to have been a genuine historical figure, as evidenced by James 5:11 and Ezekiel 14:14,20. He probably lived in an age that predated Abraham, given the complete lack of reference to the history of Israel, the Law and any covenant mentioned in the rest of the Bible. The author was certainly an Israelite, given that he references God’s covenant name, ‘Yahweh’ or ‘YHWH’ (‘LORD’), 25 times in the ‘commentary’ chapters: 1, 2, and 38-42. In the remainder of the book, which constitutes dialogue between Job and his companions, there is only one other reference to ‘LORD’ (12:9) – which may indicate that this Israelite author has taken an ancient non-Israelite oral narrative and repurposed it for biblical instruction.
However, the purpose of the Book of Job is crystal clear; it addresses the vital question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”.
The prevailing worldview of the day was forceful but simplistic: 1. God is all-powerful; 2. God is just and fair; 3. Therefore, anything bad that happens to you must be punishment for something you have done wrong to offend God. In Chapter 8 verse 4, Bildad the Shuhite used this sterile philosophy to attack poor Job mercilessly. Remember that Job’s seven sons and three daughters had just been killed in a freak ‘natural’ disaster; Bildad’s explanation for this was: “When your children sinned against God, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin”!
If you really want to understand what is going on in Job’s life, then all you need to do is read chapters 1, 2, and 42. The rest is an exploration of man’s flawed interpretation of these events, the thoughts and feelings of Job as he lived through the suffering, and God’s intervention to bring human discussion to an end. Therefore, what is the reason that good people suffer? Firstly, it is clear from the Book of Job that God only permits the measure of suffering and hardship that we can withstand; God is sovereign and no-one can touch his children without his say-so. So perhaps we need to rephrase the question: “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”
It is wise to avoid the crass and simplistic conclusions of Job’s so-called ‘Comforters’; however, the rest of the Bible does have some things to say to us about suffering and hardship. Romans 5:3-5 tells us that suffering, if handled correctly, leads to perseverance, which in turn leads to a maturity of character, which increases our hope in Christ. Christ himself was made perfect through a process of suffering, in order to be fully prepared for the task of representing us to God (Hebrews 5:8-10). Amazing, isn’t it, that even Jesus needed perfecting in certain senses! God is in the business of making us as close as possible to the image of his Son, and so one of the purposes of suffering is apparently to accomplish just that. More discussion on this tomorrow.