In the Autumn, over the past few years, we have been going through the whole of Matthew's Gospel and this morning we have reached chapter 26 and we are to look at verses 47-58.
And my headings for this morning are first, A WARNING AGAINST HYPOCRISY; secondly, ALL WHO DRAW THE SWORD WILL DIE BY THE SWORD; and, thirdly, THE SHEER FOLLY OF CHRIST'S ENEMIES.
First, A WARNING AGAINST HYPOCRISY.
Look at verses 47-50 again.
“ 47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: "The one I kiss is the man; arrest him." 49Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, "Greetings, Rabbi!" and kissed him. 50Jesus replied, "Friend, do what you came for." Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him.”
Here you have archetypal hypocrisy. You’ve got here wickedness dressed up as love for Jesus Christ. “Judas said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ and kissed him.” The verb there, in the original, looks intensive. It is an excessive demonstration of warmth and affection.
In the UK we don’t have a “kissing” or “hugging” culture among men as you have in some parts of the middle east (except, of course, what happens after a goal in the Premiership). Judas did, however, and his kiss was an excessive demonstration of love and loyalty.
But it was a complete and wicked lie. It was archetypal hypocrisy and here seeming to be one thing when you are really the opposite. But this sort of thing is just what Jesus had warned his disciples to expect in the Sermon on the Mount earlier on in Matthew’s Gospel. In chapter 7 verse 15 we read Jesus said:
"15Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16By their fruit you will recognize them.”
As with Judas, these false prophets will not only be outside but also inside the churches. And because his disciples will meet false prophets, they not only have to “watch out” for them. For Jesus had said this a little later in Matthew - in chapter 10 verse 16:
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
As we shall see, “shrewdness” must never be aggressive. Nor should you ever be false or manipulative or do anything that is clearly wrong yourself. But you must be one step ahead of the opposition and doing all you can to defeat or frustrate all that is wrong – being as “shrewd as snakes but as innocent as doves”.
Throughout history God’s people have had to face wolves in sheep’s clothing. Go back in history to Old Testament times and the 9th century BC and the wicked Queen Jezebel that we heard about in our first reading.
Judas used a kiss to perpetrate the most evil of acts – the betrayal and then the death of Jesus. Jezebel used a religious quiet day – a fast – to secure the death she wanted – 1 Kings 21.9-10:
“In … letters she wrote: ‘Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them testify that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death."
Move on to New Testament and there is another Jezebel in Revelation 2.20 in the Church in Thyatira:
“You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.”
She seemed, no doubt, so nice and civilized and modern and cultured. But as with all false prophets, she was not speaking for God even though she claimed to be doing so. And death, we are told, was going to result here, too, unless there was repentance.
And sadly today there seem to be false prophets denying what God has revealed through his genuine prophets and apostles – in the Bible. When you hear a clergyman, therefore, denying or doubting a plain truth of the Bible such as Jesus’ virginal conception, his empty tomb, his uniqueness and finality (as God’s final revelation) or basic Christian sex ethics, you know you have a false prophet. So – a warning against hypocrisy. Let’s move on to our second heading, which is that …
Secondly, ALL WHO DRAW THE SWORD WILL DIE BY THE SWORD.
Look at verses 51-54:
"51 With that, one of Jesus' companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52'Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?'"
John’s Gospel tells us that the companion of Jesus who attacked the servant of the high priest was Peter. So here you have Peter acting instinctively and stupidly in defence of Christ. But then look on to verse 56 and you see that he, Peter, along with the rest of the disciples, "deserted Jesus and fled".
You’ve got stupidity together with a lack of moral fibre. It has been well said that it is easier to fight for Christ than to suffer for him. It’s easier to be a crusader than a martyr. Peter, too, is archetypal. So today you have some people like Peter who act instinctively and stupidly in, as they suppose, the defence of the Gospel. They are not shrewd as serpents but like bulls in china shops.
On the other hand, you have the weakness of Christians in the opposite direction. I’ve known it. You take a stand on some major doctrinal or ethical issue in public – at a meeting say – and no one supports you but at the end, outside, many come up and say they so agree with you. But they will not go public themselves. Well, you’ve got all that going on here.
Secondly, Jesus spells out for us here, why Peter’s instincts were stupid. He says, those "who draw the sword will die by the sword." Peter was taking the law into his own hands. And that is wrong. With Jesus arrested, Peter thought he should free him by an armed attack. He counter attacked and hit back with his sword.
Fortunately he missed the man’s throat and neck and only hit is ear. So the man was not killed. But Christ’s mission is not a mission where force is to be used. Peter had, as yet, not a clue. Christ came to win men and women over by persuasion and compassion and dying and rising again for them. As we say today, “he came to propose, not impose his salvation”. He left people free to chose.
God allows for human freedom. That is why the Christian doctrine of hell, taught by Jesus and so terrible, is so important. It underlines God’s respect for human freedom. If almighty God allows you to choose to go away from him, we must never force people to turn to him.
It takes time for some people to learn that lesson. It took Peter time. Christendom didn’t really learn that lesson until after the Wars of Religion in the 17th century. People then saw that the State should not use its force to force people to become believers.
Here, it would seem too, is a great difference between Islam and Christianity. Mohammed rode into to Medina to conquer. Christ rode into Jerusalem to die.
It is disastrous when, as in the middle ages and the 17th century in the name of religion, people took up arms. It is disastrous today in Uganda with the Lord’s Resistance Army and in the Congo where one General wears a “Rebels for Christ” badge. Yes, there is a place for “the sword”. You can argue for a “just war”. But it is the State, not individuals unilaterally, who are to use “force”.
This is the teaching in Romans 13. God, says Paul, has established ruling authorities who have a duty to do its citizens good. They also have a duty to restrain them, by force if necessary, from acting (not believing – but acting) anti-socially. Rulers are to be against those who “do wrong” (Rom 13.3). Therefore, Paul says to individuals …
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody … Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
And for now God delegates his wrath to the State. Romans 13.4 says that the Ruler is …
“God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
But when people do take the law or the sword or some other means of force into their own hands, or the state usurps the limits (so to speak of God’s delegation), and punishes those who do good, then there will be trouble. Those who live like that “by the sword will die by the sword” - or end up in the International Criminal Court, or some other court, like Saddam Hussein did.
So we see here a warning, first, against the possible folly and lack of moral fibre that can mark Christ’s followers.. Secondly, there is a warning against using force in the service of the gospel.
Thirdly, we see here that Jesus did not take an easy way out of what was happening. He could have summoned “twelve legions of angels”. Instead he was concerned that God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures should be done and so God’s purposes fulfilled. Look again at verse 54:
“[the Scriptures] say that it must happen this way …”
… that is to say, with Christ being arrested, tried and crucified … to rise again, of course. Who this morning is facing a problem? You know what is right. But you could take some action that is so easy and, from one point of view, would solve everything. Yet it is wrong. It is clearly not God’s will. Well, resist the temptation to take the easy way out. Jesus did! He is, here, our great example.
We must now look at our final heading which is …
Thirdly, THE SHEER FOLLY OF CHRIST'S ENEMIES.
Look at verses 55-56:
“At that time Jesus said to the crowd, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.’ Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
The pagan world, the world without God, is spiritually blind. Paul writes:
“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4)
It is not demonstrable that this universe of space and time is the work of a creator – an intelligent being – a he, rather than the work of impersonal, mindless nature – an it. But it is infinitely more probable than the alternative.
The possibility of that alternative, as has been well said, is like the possibility of the Oxford English Dictionary resulting from an explosion in a printing works. That Jesus Christ is who he claims to be – the divine Son of God – is not demonstrable in the same way as 2 plus 2 equals 4 is demonstrable. But it is first seen to be probable from the evidence and supremely his Resurrection. Then it is proved true in experience.
But people who are spiritually dead and with blinded minds will never see that by themselves. And here in the Garden of Gethsemane we have people, or their superiors, like that. They couldn’t see the truth at all.
They could not for one moment see that Jesus was preaching about an altogether different kingdom to the kingdoms of this world. If he claimed to be a king, he must, they thought, be just like any other of the revolutionaries that surfaced occasionally in Palestine. He was simply another rebel war-lord such as you are seeing, sadly, in conflict situations around the world today. They could not see that he was totally different. He was a Prince of Peace not War.
But such is the power of the evil one – he blinds minds. So what is the answer?
The Holy Spirit of God alone can give new life and light to men and women who are spiritual dead and in the dark. He works through his inspired word - the Bible and through prayer as people pray for him to work in people’s lives and to open their minds.
So who is praying at this time for all the Christmas opportunities we have here at Jesmond? Thank God that many came to the recent day of Prayer. Well this Wednesday evening at 8.00 o’clock is another opportunity to pray.
When you are dealing with people like these men who came out “with swords and clubs to capture” Jesus, and who are completely clueless (spiritually speaking) and reveal their sheer folly, prayer is so vital.
I must conclude. Look at that last verse again – verse 56:
“’this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.’ Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.”
First, the bad news – “all [every one of them] all the disciples deserted [Jesus] and fled.”
These were not betrayers of Jesus like Judas. These were genuine believers. These were the crème de la crème. So do not be surprised what good Christians sometimes – not false prophets – but good Christians are capable of getting up to. Here they all deserted Jesus and fled.
But now the good news. There is another “all”. We read,
"this has all [not just some of it but this has all …] … taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled. "
God was in total control. All was part of God’s big plan and picture for the salvation of the world. It looks as though things were out of control. But they weren’t. I like the analogy of a tapestry.
On the wrong side it looks all tangled up. On the right side there is a beautiful picture. Who this morning is experiencing life on, so to speak, the wrong side?
Well, the good news of Advent is that Christ coming that first time as a baby in Bethlehem and his second coming one day to wind up history be our judge, reminds you that there is a right side. So trust Jesus Christ, as Hebrews 4.15-16:
"15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin. 16Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. "