Matthew 17:22-27

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Matthew 17

22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, 23 and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed. 24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” 25 He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” 26 And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”

We have in our church folks who have been to Israel and who have visited Peter’s house in Caperneum. Fred Baltz writes of the site:

In the 19th Century the abandoned site of Capernaum was recognized and recovered from Bedouins. Excavations began in 1905. Franciscans Vendelin von Benden and Gaudenzio Orfali continued the work. These excavations uncovered the ruins of a synagogue and an octagonal church that had been destroyed by the early Seventh Century.

In 1968, Virgilio Corbo and Stanislao Loffreda resumed the work. They established that the central room of the octagonal church was from a First-Century B.C. Capernaum house which had become a place of worship for Christians from very early on. They also established that the white limestone synagogue was from the Fourth Century, probably built on the black basalt foundation of the synagogue from Jesus’ time.

The central room of the octagonal church had been plastered, re-plastered, and painted with intricate designs—remarkable and unique in Capernaum. Found on pieces of plaster were prayer expressions like “Lord Jesus, help your servant” and, “Christ have mercy”. There is debate about whether Peter’s name actually appears in the graffiti…

Baltz then offers an interesting observation about an intriguing find there:

It became clear that the use of the central room had changed with the passing years. The lowest level still held evidence from daily home life—lamps, coins, cooking pots. Even fish hooks were found in that lowest level.[1]

That may sound insignificant—fish hooks—but those familiar with the biblical story will know that it is not. Peter was a fisherman. Jesus called him away from his nets in order to become a “fisher of men.” After the crucifixion Peter seemingly returned to his nets until Jesus appeared to him and commissioned him for greater things. So fishing was always kind of lurking around Peter.

But here in our text is one of the more curious fishing episodes in Peter’s life. And, strangely enough, it involved paying taxes!

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Hebrews 7:20-28

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Hebrews 7:20-28

20 And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, 21 but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever.’” 22 This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. 23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. 28 For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

When I was a kid I frequently walked down this hallway in the church our family went to—Grace Baptist Church in Sumter, SC—and on the wall of that hallway was a long line of equally-sized framed pictures of all the pastors of the church. The first one looked old, old, old! And the last one was of our pastor at the time. This used to be more common in churches. Many of you have undoubtedly seen the same.

The effect was always a bit moving but also a bit sobering. It was moving because it reminded me that the line of pastors and the church itself had been there for a long time. It was sobering because it was a standing reminder of the temporal nature of human ministry. The vast majority of men in those pictures were deceased.

That hallway was a statement: we are here and we have been here for a long time doing ministry.

That hallway was a memorial: stop and remember those who have gone on before us.

The writer of Hebrews has been walking down the hallway of the priests of Israel, but now He is stopping and lingering long on the last picture. The last picture is not like the first. Our final priest is different from the others.

In fact, the writers of Hebrews is going to argue that the last priest, Jesus, is the greatest priest and that, in fact, there will never be a picture to the right of his because He still holds His office! No more wall space is necessary. No more frames need be bought! Our final priest is our greatest priest and our final priest breaks the mold in many ways.

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Matthew 17:14-20

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Matthew 17

14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 15 said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” 17 And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

 Have you heard about the chicken cannon and the airplane window? I first heard this when I was a kid in school. My dad told me about it and we had a good laugh. Here is one rendition of the story:

In an issue of Meat & Poultry magazine, editors quoted from “Feathers,” the publication of the California Poultry Industry Federation, telling the following story:

The US Federal Aviation Administration has a unique device for testing the strength of windshields on airplanes. The device is a gun that launches a dead chicken at a plane’s windshield at approximately the speed the plane flies.

The theory is that if the windshield doesn’t crack from the carcass impact, it’ll survive a real collision with a bird during flight.

It seems the British were very interested in this and wanted to test a windshield on a brand new, speedy locomotive they’re developing.

They borrowed FAA’s chicken launcher, loaded the chicken and fired.

The ballistic chicken shattered the windshield, broke the engineer’s chair and embedded itself in the back wall of the engine’s cab. The British were stunned and asked the FAA to recheck the test to see if everything was done correctly.

The FAA reviewed the test thoroughly and had one recommendation: “Use a thawed chicken.”[1]

To my sadness but not to my surprise, Snopes concludes that this story is not true, though the story did in fact appear in Meat & Poultry magazine!

The humor of the story rests in the shocking ineptitude of those who would fire a frozen chicken out of the cannon! After all, planes do not frequently encounter frozen birds.

Ineptitude can be funny…usually when somebody else is demonstrating it!

It can also be frustrating.

It can also be tragic.

Matthew 17 provides us with an example of ineptitude which was both tragic and frustrating and not funny in the least. We are tempted to judge the disciples who demonstrated this ineptitude…until we realize that we frequently do the same.

The story is about the disciples’ inability to cast out a demon and heal a struggling boy. This episode has much to say to us. It also has much to say about us.

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Hebrews 17:1-19

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Hebrews 7:1-19

1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, 10 for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. 11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. 13 For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. 14 For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15 This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, 16 who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is witnessed of him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 18 For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness 19 (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.

I would like to call upon us today to remember, celebrate, and then live out of a keen awareness of the greatness and superiority of Jesus. Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have rightly complained of the low view of Jesus one sometimes finds in churches. They write:

            But if the truth be told, we have been handed a shrink-wrapped Jesus.  Christ has become our once-a-week Mascot.  We rally around him on Sunday mornings, selfishly reaching for all we can get from Him – goodies and gifts, all for us.  But then we push Him off to the sidelines the rest of the week.[1]

Clearly this type of approach to Jesus simply will not do. He is worthy of more honor than this. He will receive more honor than this! The writer of Hebrews is determined for his readers to understand this: Jesus is greatest and there is no greater. To help us understand this he now moves to an extensive teaching about Jesus as our great high priest. As he does this, he will interact with the story of the mysterious figure Melchizedek. Two passages are necessary for us to understand what the writer is doing here. The first is Genesis 14 which tells the basic story of Melchizedek.

17 After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed him and said,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

So there is the basic historical narrative about the person of Melchizedek and his interaction with Abraham. The second text is a prophecy that one to come would be in Melchizedek’s order. This is found in Psalm 110.

1 The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies! Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours.The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

These two passages lay the foundation for what follows in the book of Hebrews, and particularly in Hebrews 7.

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Hebrews 6:13-20

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Hebrews 6:13-20

13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

I want to challenge you, dare you, to do something today. This dare will sound very naïve to some of you. It will sound potentially “tone deaf” to others. Some will possibly even find it offensive. I suspect a good many will hear this challenge and think, “Impossible. It cannot be done.” And yet, I challenge you nonetheless.

Here is the challenge: I challenge you, I dare you, to hope.

I dare you to hope!

I dare you to be the kind of person who, after the group has rehashed the latest tragedy or scandal or catastrophe, walks away only to have those left say, “You know, there is something about her. She listens. She understands. She does not downplay or dismiss what is happening. But she always, inevitably, says something hopeful. And she does not seem to just be saying it. She seems to actually have hope!”

I dare you to hope!

And I dare you to have a solid, unmovable, certain hope.

Syntyche D. Dahou has written of how the French language has two different words for hope.

Unlike English, which uses the word hope broadly, the French language uses two words that derive from the word espérer (to hope): espoir and espérance. Both can first refer to something hoped for. In this sense, the word espoir usually refers to an uncertain object; that is, someone who hopes for something in this way does not have the certainty that it will happen (“I hope the weather will be nice tomorrow”). On the other hand, espérance describes what, rightly or wrongly, is hoped for or expected with certainty. It often refers to a philosophical or eschatological object (“I hope in the goodness of human beings”; “I hope for the return of Jesus Christ”).[1]

Yes, I am calling you to espérance, to a certain hope, a definite hope! But how can we do this? How can we have this kind of hope? Our text answers that question in two different ways.

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Matthew 17:1-13

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Matthew 17

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

It is often said that scripture is the best commentary on scripture. I agree with that completely! In other words, the Bible informs the Bible and we should read each individual verse and chapter in relation to the whole. We should be “whole bible theologians.”

It is exciting, then, when we find in scripture a character from an earlier scene commenting later on the scene in which he appeared. This is the case with Peter’s comments on the transfiguration (as recorded in Matthew 17) in his first chapter of his own second letter. In 2 Peter 1:16-19 Peter comments on what it was like to be up on the Mount of Transfiguration. As such, we will allow his comments about the significance of what happened there to guide our reading of Matthew 17.

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Hebrews 6:4-12

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Hebrews 6:4-12

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

There is a quote that has stayed with me ever since I first heard it some years back. Samuel Beckett attributes it to St. Augustine but there is definitely some question of whether or not it was Augustine who actually said it. There is some evidence it was actually said by Robert Greene. Regardless, the statement had a profound impact on Beckett, and I can see why. Speaking of Jesus and the two criminals between whom He was crucified, Augustine/Greene said:

Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved.

Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.

I would like to take that fascinating statement—whoever said it!—and use it as a spectrum to help us understand what is happening in Hebrews 6:4-12. The spectrum of, on the one hand, a flippant and arrogant presumption of salvation regardless of the evidence or lack thereof of our lives, and, on the other hand, a kind of crippling despair that wonders whether or not our good God will actually save us in the end.

This text is one of the most difficult in all of scripture. That is no exaggeration!

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Matthew 16:24-28

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Matthew 16

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

We could learn a good bit from the old Scottish preacher Job McNeill. Listen:

Near the end of the nineteenth century, McNeill was scheduled to preach at a large evangelistic service in the English Midlands.  His father died a few days before this scheduled event and the funeral was planned for the very day of the revival services.

Those planning the services naturally assumed that McNeill would be unable to come speak to them since his father’s funeral would be that day.  McNeill himself actually considered not going to the services.  He contemplated sending a message informing the organizers of the revival that he would not be present.  But he did not send that message.  Listen to what Job McNeill said: “But I dared not send it, for this same Jesus stood by me, and seemed to say, ‘Now, look, I have you.  You go and preach the gospel to those people.  Whether would you rather bury the dead or raise the dead?’  And I went to preach.”[1]

Now I ask you: what makes a man behave like this? What makes a man skip his own father’s funeral to go preach instead? Did Job McNeill misunderstand what it means to be a son? I think not. Instead I think that Job McNeill understood what it means to be a disciple.

Matthew 16 concludes with Jesus defining the nature of the discipleship. We would do well to listen closely.

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Hebrews 5:11-6:3

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Hebrews 5:11-6:3

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.

I have two older brothers, David and Condy. David is a couple of years older than Condy. My parents have long told the story of when they brought baby Condy home from the hospital.  David, his toddler older brother, was as fascinated by Condy as he was concerned about him. One morning my mother got up to get Condy out of his crib. When she looked in the crib she suddenly stopped and stared in disbelief. There in the crib lay baby Condy on his back. His eyes were wide open…but his eyes were all of his face that my mother could see! This was because the rest of his face was covered by a large biscuit leftover from the night before. There it was, the biscuit, balanced perfectly on Condy’s face who lay there, not crying or moving, staring up at my mother over the edge. She quickly removed the biscuit and then picked him up only to find my oldest brother David standing there. David explained that he had grown concerned about Condy in the night. Specifically he was concerned that Condy go hungry. So David had gotten out of bed in the night, gone into the kitchen, found a biscuit from dinner from the night before and then positioned it oh-so-carefully on Condy’s face.

I love that story. I love thinking about what that must have looked like! The charm of that story resides in a brother’s love for his younger brother. The humor of it resides in the fact that there is no conceivable way that baby Condy could have eaten that biscuit!

Little infants cannot eat big biscuits. Rather, they need milk. And yet, little babies should grow up to be able to eat biscuits…and even steak! A baby who can only stomach milk is cute. A grown person who will only drink milk and refuses to eat is a real and dangerous problem. This is the pint that the writer of Hebrews will make to his listeners at the end of Hebrews 5 and the beginning of Hebrews 6: we must move past spiritual milk to spiritual substance. We must grow. We must cut our spiritual teeth. Otherwise, we will forever be stymied in our growth and effectiveness for Jesus.

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