Matthew 16. The Roman god Janus is an evocative image. There is something about the two faced Roman god – one face looking to the future and the other to the past – that seems to embody the human condition. We spend a lot of time looking at both the past and the future. But if our past is painful, if our dreams seem to have died somewhere back in the sands of time, we can get stuck there.
During my divorce, three people sent me the same verse: “Do not cling to events of the past, nor dwell on what happened long ago. Watch the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already – you can see it now.” Isaiah 43:18-19 (TEV). The verse trembles with promise. It holds out hope to those who have none. The problem is, that when you’re mourning something in the past, it’s very hard to believe you have a present, let alone a future. It helps to hone in on the verbs of God’s command: we are not to “cling” or “dwell.” Instead God tells us to “watch” and “see.” Unlike the Roman god, the God of the Bible tells us to set our face toward neither the past nor future, but toward the present.
It takes faith to do that. It takes faith to believe that God is actually at work, right this very minute, even when we can’t see it. My favorite tv preacher (yes, I really did write those words), Joyce Meyer, points out that once you have prayed about something, you can rest because it’s already answered in the spirit realm. Or, as a devotional that my friend Virginia Apple gave me puts it: “Pray your mind away from your problems so you can focus your attention on Me… Instead of trying to direct Me to do this and that, seek to attune yourself to what I am already doing.” If you can believe that, you can have peace no matter what your circumstances. So how do you get that kind of faith?
In Matthew 16, we see the religious leaders asking Jesus for a miraculous sign from heaven to “prove” Jesus’ authority. They want a sign so they can have faith. The strange thing is, they actually had already received a lot of miraculous signs from heaven to prove Christ’s authority. The Holy Spirit had appeared on Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven had declared him to be God’s Son. Jesus was giving sight to the blind; the deaf were hearing; the lame were walking. He had fed thousands of people with a handful of bread. What more did the religious leaders want? What were the religious leaders really asking for?
Jesus rebukes them, saying the only sign he’ll give is “the sign” of Jonah. Jonah, as you can read about in the four short chapters of the same name in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the prophet who tried to run away from the assignment God had given him: God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, and “Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the LORD.” Jonah 1:3. It’s never a good idea to go in the opposite direction from God; the ship on which Jonah sails is caught in a violent storm that threatens to break the ship apart. The crew cast lots to see which of them had “offended the gods” and “caused” the terrible storm. Jonah draws the short straw and says that the storm is his fault because he’s running away from God. The moment the sailors throw Jonah into the raging sea, “the storm stopped at once.” Once in the sea, Jonah spends three days and three nights inside the belly of a great fish: “the LORD had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah.” Jonah 1: 17 (NLT). Jonah offers God a beautiful prayer from the depths of the fish that is prophetic of Christ, and God orders the fish “to spit” Jonah out onto the beach. This time, Jonah obeys when God tells him to go to Nineveh and tell the people that God will destroy them in 40 days. The people believe Jonah’s message and repent, and God spares them. Jonah is furious. Instead of being glad that the people have been spared, he thinks it makes him look foolish that his prediction did not come true. The book ends with God explaining his salvation to Jonah: “Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness [people who don’t know their right hand from their left]… Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” Jonah 4:11 (NLT and footnote).
So where, in this story, is the “sign” of Jonah that Jesus says the people will see? As people who know the end of the story, we know that Jonah is a “type” of Christ. The sacrifice of Jonah in being hurled overboard saves the rest of the sailors. Jonah, like Christ after his death on the cross, spends three days and three nights in the belly of darkness. And through Jonah’s obedience to God, people living in spiritual darkness are spared the fate they deserve. The “sign”, in other words, that the religious leaders will receive is the cross.
After this encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus tells his disciples to beware of the “yeast” of the religious leaders. He explains that there is something deceptive in their teaching that acts like yeast – it’s a small thing, but it expands. But what is that yeast? What is that small thing, that makes Jesus tell them they are an “evil, adulterous” generation?
The chapter moves into Peter declaring that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter knows Jesus is not just a nice man. He knows Jesus is not simply an “example” of how we should live. He is actually God’s Son. Jesus has been saying this all along, and yet when Peter affirms the truth of who Jesus is, Jesus tells him that the only way Peter knows this is that it has been “revealed” to him by God in heaven: “you did not learn this from any human being.” Matt. 16:17 (NLT). Apparently, it is too difficult for us human beings to understand that Jesus is God’s Son. God has to reveal this to each of us himself.
Which brings us back to faith. How do you get the faith to have faith? Immediately after Peter makes this declaration of faith, and Christ tells him that he is the “rock” (a wordplay in Greek on the name Peter) upon which Christ will build his church – we see Jesus calling Peter “Satan.” It seems that even when the truth about Jesus is revealed to us, we will still mess up. Here, Jesus’ harsh words are directed at Peter because Peter denies the necessity of the cross. This is exactly what Satan tried to do in the temptation on the wilderness. Jesus explains clearly to the disciples that he will suffer and be killed, “but on the third day he would be raised from the dead.” Matt. 16:21. But Peter doesn’t want to accept this. Jesus reprimands him, and tells him: “You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” Matt. 16:23. He explains that we have to give up our lives for Christ’s sake, in order to save it.
Perhaps the reason Jesus reprimands the religious leaders for wanting a sign, is the same reason he reprimands Peter. Perhaps the religious leaders are really asking to do without the cross. They are asking if Jesus can rescue them from Rome, or any other earthly power, with lightning bolts and thunder.
The reason Christ denounces this request with such vehemence, is that whether the religious people realize it or not, they are asking if they can save themselves. Can’t we just be good? Can’t we just do better? Can’t we just try harder? Those are questions that “religious” people ask. Religious people make up a bunch of rules, and then hope that by following those rules they can “earn” their way to heaven. This may seem like a small problem, but like yeast, it expands into something huge.
That we can save ourselves by being “good”, Jesus teaches, is the opposite of the truth. Christianity does not offer a “religious” way out. The Bible teaches that if you become “religious”, you will only look down on your fellow man. You will also be a hypocrite. Because no matter what rules you come up with, you won’t follow them. And if you actually try to follow God’s rules, instead of your own man-made onces, you’ll never be able to. Witness Peter: here he actually believes that Jesus is God’s Son, and then he turns around and says, “I know better than you do. You don’t have to die on the cross.”
The sign of Jonah is that we humans “don’t know our right hand from our left.” We mess up all the time. We try to do well, but we don’t. We know exactly what God wants us to do, and we run in the opposite direction. The harder we try, the harder we fall. If we think we can be good, therefore, we will crush ourselves with the weight of our unrealistic expectations.
The truth is that God loves us so much, that He spent three days and three nights in the belly of darkness, in order to rescue us. He doesn’t rescue us because we’re “good.” He rescues us because we need it. Our need intersects with his love. They meet on the cross.
The cross provides the solution to every problem. We don’t need to dwell on the past, because the cross erases all our mistakes. We don’t need to worry about the future, because Christ has already defeated the powers of darkness. We just need to rest in peace in our present, knowing that God is working all things together for good. He is the master weaver; Christ’s body is the loom; and we are all threads being woven together into a tapestry so beautiful it will take eternity to enjoy it.
Does it take faith to believe that? Absolutely. So if we want faith, all we have to do is ask. God will send us friends and bible verses to carry us through dark times. And, most of all, He will send himself. He will reveal to us who he really is. When I was mourning the loss of my family during my divorce, I wasn’t alone. Christ was crying along with me. What breaks our hearts, breaks his, too. That’s why he allowed his body to be broken on the cross for us: because he loves us more than we can even imagine.
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com