Facing up to the Frightening Texts

Jesus Christ uttered a large number of disturbing, even frightening statements, and some of these were in Matthew’s Gospel. Consider these three:

1)      “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you: depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Mat.7:23).

2)     “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men” (Mat.5:13).

3)     “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it” (Mat.21:43).

You can understand why these are not on everyone’s bedside reading list. Why? They don’t make for easy or comforting reading. Jesus was not interested in comforting those that were hostile to Him. Rather, He was inclined to be confronting, so that they were left in no doubt concerning His true attitude towards them.

I believe we are seeing manifestations of the second of these three texts, today. Why should I say that? Because almost everywhere in the world, the church is on the back foot. It’s on the defensive. It lacks the confidence and the impact that it had two and three hundred years ago in the West.

I believe the reason the church is on the back foot is contained in the text: “…the salt has become tasteless …”

When things have gone wrong in the church, we can make a lot of mistakes in response. We may be doing this today. Some of these could be:

1)     “It’s all the devil’s fault!”

2)     “The world hates the Church. Jesus said it would.”

3)     “It’s a sign of the times. It has to be this way, don’t you know?”

But the problem with these responses is that they sheet home the blame to someone else. “Not us Lord. We can’t be the problem!” And when we do this, the problem remains unresolved.

In Psalm 80, the Psalmist lamented the state of the Old Testament church. He acknowledged what God had done at the Exodus. God had “…removed a vine from Egypt; You drove out the nations and planted it” (v.8). But now the Psalmist said, “a boar from the forest eats it away, and whatever moves in the fields feeds on it” (v.13).

Three hundred years after the Psalmist, Isaiah picked up the same theme. He said that God “…had a vineyard on a fertile hill…but it produced only worthless grapes” (Isa.5:1, 2). Then God made a very important statement: “I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed; I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground (v.5).

Later, Isaiah returned to this same theme. He said “Your holy people possessed Your sanctuary for a little while, our adversaries have trodden it down. We have become like those over whom You have never ruled, like those who were not called by Your name” (Isa.63:18-19).

What I am saying is this: God always expects good fruit. He gives time for the fruit to grow, but at the end of the day, judgment falls when the expected fruit doesn’t eventuate. Jesus told the parable of the unproductive fig tree which a man had in his vineyard, and at the end he said to the vineyard-keeper, “…if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down” (Luke 13:9).

Jesus was the last fruit-inspector, and after 1,500 years of inspecting that vineyard, He wasn’t happy. He said “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it” (Mat.21:43).

This is what He predicted concerning Israel, and judgment fell when the Romans came and destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. History tells us that every person there was either executed or enslaved.[1] Israel in God’s eyes had been an unproductive vine for 1,500 years, and the ultimate culmination of its failure to produce fruit was this: it conspired against and murdered its last Fruit-Inspector, the Son of God. But in AD 70, it was gone.

The most foolish thing we could say today, is “Ah yes, but that’s history. Israel really messed up badly. But that couldn’t happen to us in the Church now, could it?”

Well, Jesus said it could happen in Matthew 5:13. In fact, He predicted it would, if we have lost our savour.

A great part of the solution will be the church returning to those aspects of Biblical law that are appropriate in the New Testament, such as tithing, and the related growth in such things as our care for the poor, and the church being willing to support scriptural responses to criminal behaviour, such as capital punishment for such offences as murder. These are the beginnings of being “the salt of the earth.”

It is the church with flavour that God will bless. For He said to Israel, “if only you had paid attention to My commandments! Then your well-being would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea” (Isa.48:18).

[1] Jesus had warned His disciples to get out of the city, (see Mat.24:15-21). See David Chilton’s “The Great Tribulation,” 1987.

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