"'Paying Attention' in the 'Classroom' of Christ"
Matthew 15:29-16:12; pt. 1
(Delivered Sunday, May 20, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
This morning, we come to a passage in the Gospel of Matthew in which two very different lessons are connected together in one story. Both of those lessons have significant things to teach us about our walk with Christ; and the challenge I face as a preacher is how to tell this one story while making a distinction between these two different lessons.
So, I ask that we pull one of these lessons out for closer examination this morning; and--the Lord permitting--we pull the second lesson out for special attention next Sunday. And as we do, let's trust the Holy Spirit to teach us the things we need to learn about our life of fellowship together with Jesus Christ.
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Let's begin by examining the one story that contains these two dramatically different lessons.
As you might remember from our last time in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus had traveled to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. While there, He had encountered a Gentile--a Syro-Phoenician woman--who had exhibited great faith in Him. He responded to her faith by graciously healing her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28).
It's then that we read these words:
We've grown accustomed to reading such stories about Jesus in our study of the Gospel of Matthew; although I hope we never get used to them. What a wonderful Savior Jesus is! And I hope you'll allow me to linger on these few verses for moment; because any time spent lingering on the subject of Jesus Christ is always time spent in the best way possible.
This passage tells us that Jesus took an unusual route to return from Tyre and Sidon to the area around the Sea of Galilee. He apparently headed in an easterly direction over the northern portions, through the regions of Phoenicia. Then, he traveled south along the eastern regions--through the midst of what Mark, in his Gospel, calls "the region of the Decapolis" (Mark 7:31). The name "Decapolis" means "the Ten Cities"; and it was in an area that had a large Gentile population. Jesus had a growing reputation among the people of that area. Earlier in Matthew's Gospel, we're told that great multitudes of people from the Decapolis had witnessed His miraculous healings and had begun to follow Him (Matthew 4:23-25). And He had even healed a demon-possessed man who "began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled” (Mark 5:20).
So; you can just imagine how welcomed Jesus must have been as He graciously passed through the regions of these Gentiles. We're not sure how long He spent there; but apparently, He passed through with enough time for multitudes of people to hear that He was there. And so, when He finally made His way to the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee--probably near the region of the Gadarenes where He had first healed that formerly demon-possessed evangelist—He went up on one of the mountains of that region and sat. The mountain probably overlooked the Sea of Galilee from the east. Then, multitudes of people—probably many of the Gentiles from the Decapolis—came to Him. And of course, He welcomed them all.
I love the picture that Matthew gives us of Jesus' mercy to the multitudes that came to Him. He says that they brought people to Him who had all sorts of needs that were beyond human remedy—some who were lame, some who were blind, some who were mute, and many others. They laid these needy people at Jesus' feet; and Matthew tells us that He healed them. People marveled as they saw the mute speaking, the maimed made whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. There wasn't a single need placed before Jesus that He wasn't able to graciously and completely meet. (What a lesson that is to us, by the way! Even today, there still is not a need that can be placed before Jesus that He isn't powerful to meet—if we will only trust Him.)
And do you realize that, in all of this—before this group of Gentiles—Jesus was proving Himself to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah? It tells us in Isaiah 35:4-6;
Say to those who are fearful-hearted,
It's very significant, then, that we read—at the end of these verses—"and they glorified the God of Israel" (v. 31). These Gentiles were marveling at Jesus; and when they marveled at Him, they truly were glorifying "the God of Israel". May we do the same today by faithfully bringing our needs to Him—and marveling at how He meets every need we present to Him!
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Now; Jesus' mercy to the multitudes that had followed Him from the regions of the Decapolis and the surrounding area is a crucial part of the story that follows. It was to this very same multitude that Jesus displays an even more remarkable expression of compassion and love.
As Jesus looked over the vast crowd that had gathered around Him, Matthew goes on to tell us;
Before we go any further, let me ask: Does any of this sound familiar? If you've been with us in our study of Matthew's Gospel, you'll recognize that the disciples had already witnessed Jesus in a similar situation—just perhaps no more than a few months prior to this event. In Matthew 14:14-21, we read;
And now, in our passage this morning, we see that the need Jesus was presented with back then—on the opposite side of the lake before some Jewish followers—is the same sort of need He was being presented with once again with a group of Gentiles.
After the disciples gave what meager resources they had to Him, Matthew tells us,
So, take careful notice of what just happened. The disciples, a few months prior, had seen Jesus do something remarkable. They had watched as He feed a multitude with just a few small loaves of bread and a few small fishes—proving that it is never a problem for Jesus to meet the needs of a multitude of His followers. And now, they were again witnessing the same sort of situation. Yet they seemed as perplexed by this second challenge as they were by the first.
Apparently, the disciples had not yet come to understand what Jesus can do. They had, if you will, a great "educational opportunity". They had been taught—through practical, hands-on experience—the greatness of Jesus' power. But clearly, they had not made effective use of the educational opportunity they had been given. They had not yet learned to trust in the sufficiency of Jesus' power to meet the need.
You and I are in “the school of Christ” too. And yet, I wonder how many times we too have dozed off in the classroom.
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Let me pause for a moment and tell you about something that I just had the opportunity to do. As some of you know, I serve on the adjunct faculty of Multnomah Biblical Seminary. It's my privilege to work with seminary students as a part of a team of advisors as they complete 'internship' requirements through service in various churches throughout the area.
Just last week, I finished reviewing the comprehensive written reports of many of these students. These are reports they write to summarize the things that they have learned during their two-years of internship service through the seminary. As I read through the reports that these students wrote, it was interesting to me to see the attitudes some of them had about their internship experiences.
Most of them reported that their internship work involved many different trials and challenges. A few of them admitted in their paper that, though they went through a lot of difficulties along the way, they didn't feel like they learned much from their internship. Some even complained of the frustrations they felt in being in a difficult church, or under the supervision of a difficult pastor, or in some situation in which they really couldn't learn anything profitable. But several other interns expressed that they learned a lot from their internships. And personally, I definitely believe I have learned a lot in reading all their papers.
One student's paper in particular stood out to me. What caused it to stand out wasn't so much the experience that the student reported. Rather, it was the attitude that he projected in reporting those experiences. He impressed me as a young man who had a very strong confidence in the sovereignty of God over his life. He seemed to have greeted the experiences that he underwent throughout his internship as experiences that God—in love—had sovereignly given to him. He had some difficult times and challenges; but he didn't complained about them in his paper. He welcomed everything that happened to him as that which had come from the hand of a loving God. And as a result, he intentionally treated everything that happened to him as a lesson to learn from. Everything in his internship had significance! Every experience was meant by God to teach this student something about Himself, and to train him in the 'school' of trusting Jesus faithfully in ministry and in life.
Among all the papers I read, his was the most edifying and encouraging. It seemed to me that he gained more from his internship than any of the others. His humble receptivity to all the things that God was teaching him was what motivated him to learned "effectively". And quite frankly, he has become a new “hero of faith” to me. His eager and receptive approach to his experience in the “classroom of Christ” has become an abiding example to me.
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Let me recite some familiar Bible verses to you. And please think carefully about what they say.
Do you remember what it says in Ephesians 2:10? There, we're told to that "we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." And do you remember what it says in Romans 8:28-30? That passage tells us that "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren." And do you remember what it says in James 1:2-4? There, we're told to "count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing."
Now; what is claimed in these passages is something remarkable and very encouraging—that God is ordering all the events of our life together in such a way as to conform us to the image of Christ. What they are claiming is either true or it's not. Do you believe what God says in them? And if so, do they constitute the basis by which you view the trials and challenges of life?
I suggest that our answer to that question will determine the kind of student we will prove to be in the classroom of Christ!
Have you placed your trust in Jesus Christ? Are you now a child of God by faith; and are you now "in Christ"? If so, then on the basis of those passages, you can take it for a fact that there isn't a single situation you could ever run into that doesn't come from the hand of an all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving Father. You can take it for a fact that He has purposefully designed and decreed all the trials and challenges of life that you experience for a glorious purpose. He tailor-makes those trials and challenges you experience in life—even the ones that you may be going through right now—in order to teach you truths that you need to know about the sufficiency of our loving Savior, and to train you to trust in His sufficiency in the midst of those challenges, and to allow those tests to conform you increasingly into His image.
Jesus is the greatest Teacher we could ever learn from. His school is the greatest school we could ever be enrolled in. His curriculum for us is the greatest curriculum we could ever be taught from. And if we don't learn anything, the problem is never with Him, or with His school, or with His curriculum. The problem is always with us. If in the end, we fail to learn what He is seeking to teach us, it will prove to be because we were not good students who paid attention in the classroom! It will be because we failed to think carefully about the truths we have been taught about Him in His word—and that have been demonstrated to us in the laboratory past experiences. It will be because we failed to remember the things He did in our lives and in the lives of others. It will be because we failed to believe in those truths in such a way as to apply them to each day's new challenges—looking in faith to Him to prove Himself again today, just as He has proven Himself before.
And so, this is one of the first great lessons that I believe the Holy Spirit is intending to teach us in this morning's passage. We must be effective “students” if we're going gain from the spiritual “lessons” Jesus teaches us about Himself. If we will be more like that student whose paper I read—that is, if we will recognize our Father's sovereign hand in all that happens to us—then we will discover that there is some new, wonderful, enriching truth to learn about our Savior's faithfulness in every new challenge we face! We will be "attentive" and “effective” students in the classroom of Christ.
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Let's continue looking at our passage, and see how this played out in the experience of the disciples. Let's consider how they did in their "mid-term exams" in the school of Christ.
You might say that their "mid-term exam" was announced through an incident that occurred immediately after the thing that they had just witnessed—that is, the feeding of the multitude. We read,
Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven. He answered and said to them, “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” And He left them and departed (Matthew 16:1-4).
Now, Jesus here encounters opposition from the religious leaders of the day But we won't go into great detail about that right now. It constitutes that other lesson within this passage; and Lord willing, we'll look more into it next week. But I'm drawing your attention to this incident, because it is the immediate cause of the things that happen next.
And it's here that we see what kind of students the disciples were. Matthew tells us;
Now when His disciples had come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have taken no bread" (Matthew 16:5-7).
"Leaven", in the Bible, is used often as a picture of that which gets into something else and ends up permeating the whole thing. It may be that just a small portion of that thing is let in; just as a small portion of "leaven" or "yeast" is worked into a large lump of bread dough. But once it gets in, it spreads its influence throughout the whole lump.
Jesus has already used “leaven” on another occasion as a means of illustrating the spread of His kingdom on the earth. He said, "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened" (Matthew 13:33). It's something that started out small and localized. Jesus' kingdom preaching begin in only a small portion of the humble regions of Galilee. But from there, it has spread its influence over the last two-thousand years throughout the whole world.
And so here, Jesus is using “leaven” to illustrate a warning. He was telling His disciples to beware of the attitude of these religious leaders. He was pointing to their unbelief; and showing how they were coming to Him to demand a sign from Him as proof of His identity as the Messiah. In reality, they weren't interested in the truth at all. They were making a hypocritical show—merely pretending to be seekers of the truth; when, in reality, they were seeking to "test" Him in order to find justification and excuses for their disbelief in Him. And Jesus was telling His disciples, "Take heed, and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." They needed to be on their guard against such hypocritical conduct. These Pharisees and Sadduccees had allowed that hypocrisy to influence the way they saw things. They had allowed their disbelief to be the guiding principle by which they interpret everything they saw concerning Jesus. And if followers of Jesus allowed that influence to get into them, it would permeate everything about them. It would spread like leaven. It would spoil their fruitful walk with Christ.
Well; the disciples clearly didn't understand this. They heard the word "leaven"; and they concluded that Jesus was rebuking them, in some strange and obscure way, for not having brought bread. They talked among themselves about it. Perhaps one of them said, "I was so shocked by the Lord's harsh words with Pharisees and Sadduccees, that I didn't even notice that we left without bread." Perhaps another said, "Is Jesus telling us that He doesn't want us to take any bread from the Pharisees and Sadducees? Well; I don't think there's going to be much problem there. I'm pretty sure they weren't going to offer any bread to us anyway." Perhaps John smacked Peter on the shoulder and said, "See? I told you to bring bread! Now, thanks to you, we're in trouble again!" Perhaps Peter said, “Why are you blaming me? I thought you were going to bring the bread! And now, I'm already hungry just thinking about it!”
And what's interesting to me is that it's during this type of discussion that Jesus expresses His—if I may put it this way—"frustration" at them. He didn't express frustration when they were disbelieving Him during the feeding of the multitudes; but now, He expresses frustration at them during their discussion in the boat. I hasten to say that Jesus never loses His love for His followers; but I think it's safe to say that He does at times to loose His patience with them. Clearly, His disciples still thought that Jesus was as limited in the challenges of life as they were. Clearly, these "students" had been paying attention in the classroom.
But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread? Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up? Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up? How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?—but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:8-12).
Jesus rebukes them because they were still worried about whether or not they had enough bread to meet their needs. And three things stand out in His rebuke. First, notice that He rebukes them because they failed to remember. He had just given them two vivid proofs that 'lack of bread' will never be a problem for Him. On both occasions, what was small and insufficient was brought to Him; and He multiplied that provision a thousand-fold so that it meet the needs of everyone—and with an abundance of leftovers afterwards! The problem was that the disciples had not "remembered" what they had seen.
Second, notice that He rebukes them for not understanding. He said, "Do you not yet understand or remember . . .?" They didn't remember what they had seen because they hadn't taken the time to understand what it was that they should have remembered. They hadn't put the pieces together. Jesus asks them to think back at how, on the first occasion, twelve baskets were left over. This referred to small baskets that would be sufficient to carry a lunch for one or two persons. And then, He asks them to think back at how, on the second occasion, the feeding of even fewer people resulted in seven “large baskets” of left-overs (using a completely different Greek word, describing a much larger basket). The second feeding resulted in far more left-overs than the first. And yet, they hadn't thought these things through. They hadn't “understood” what these experiences had to teach them about Jesus' power and sufficiency.
And finally—and perhaps, most pointedly—Jesus rebukes them for their lack of faith in Jesus Himself. "O you of little faith," He says. They had a misplaced trust. They trusted in available resources that they could see and lay their hands on. They didn't trust Him. If they had their trust where it should have been, they would have recognized that, in any situation in which the needs exceed the material resources, all they have to do is bring what they have to Jesus—and He would see to it that the need was met and an abundance was left over. They would never have worried about bread; because our God is able to supply all our needs according to His riches in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19).
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If the disciples had been paying attention in the classroom of Jesus, it all would have been clear to them as soon as they heard what Jesus had said. Jesus had looked at the crowd and said, “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. And I do not want to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” That should have been enough to jog their memories of what they had seen Him do before. And if that alone hadn't been enough, then it really should have come back to them when He said, "How many loaves do you have?"
But then, I hesitate to fault the disciples too much. I tremble to think of how many times I encounter the same situations over and over again; and yet, forget the marvelous ways that God has demonstrated Himself in the past. But I want to do better. I want to learn. I want to pay better attention in the classroom of Jesus. Don't you?
Jesus gives us a wonderful invitation: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me . . .” (Matthew 11:29). We can count on it that, each day, He is teaching us something new about Himself. Each new challenge and test has new lessons to teach us about His faithfulness. Let's greet every trial as a lesson in His classroom; tailor-made for us personally, and designed by our heavenly Father to conform us to the image of His Son. Let's remember the things He has done in the past—both as they are recorded for us in His word, and confirmed to us in our own experience. Let's think about those things and reflect carefully on them, so that the truths they teach us about Him become the basis of our attitude. And then, in each new trial—in each new challenge—let's trust Him to prove Himself to be what He has taught us that He is.
May we thus prove to be good students who pay attention in the classroom of Christ!
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