Daily Devotionals

Matthew 23.13-36

The worship leader at the church I grew up in used to complain about worship songs with too many ‘woahs’ in. Well Jesus gives seven here, although they’re woes of the rather less joyful kind.

Following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he has been challenging and confronting the religious establishment. The religious leaders have been testing Jesus and trying to catch him out with tricky questions but at the end of chapter 22 Jesus asks a question of his own and ‘no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.’ 

Now in chapter 23 Jesus goes on the offensive, and it is highly offensive: ‘hypocrites’, ‘blind men’, ‘whitewashed tombs’, ‘brood of vipers’.  When we encounter Jesus in the gospels, he often doesn’t fit into the box we’d prefer to keep him in. If we think Jesus was always gentle and tender and would never have a bad word to say about anyone, we find ourselves mistaken. Jesus didn’t shrink back from calling out, with holy anger, hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Our reaction is likely two-fold. Part of us winces with the force of Jesus’ statements. Yet we may also find ourselves rubbing our hands with anticipation. We love to see hypocrisy being challenged, injustice exposed and the haughty brought low. We find pointing out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees almost as easy as chuckling at the clueless disciples.

The American pastor Paul Washer once preached a sermon to a youth conference in America which became well known (or at least, well known amongst people like myself: Christians who need to get out more – although I suppose we all fall into that category now) for forcefully calling out the hypocrisy of the young people there who claimed to be followers of Jesus but who acted nothing like it. His sermon contains the infamous line addressed to the congregation, ‘I don’t know why you’re clapping, I’m talking about you.’  When we rub our hands with anticipation as Jesus lets loose on the Pharisees, we might expect to hear the same thing directed at us. As Andy said in his sermon on this passage on 15th March (a sermon it’s well worth (re)listening to on the church website) if we don’t think self-righteousness is a problem for us, it’s probably a sign of our self-righteousness. Pride blinds us to our pride. I don’t know why we’re rubbing our hands, Jesus is talking about us. ‘Our pride isn’t like the Pharisee’s’, we protest. The doctor gave me a prescription for my phylacteries and I haven’t had a fringe since the ‘90s! Yet the woes which Jesus proclaims from verse 13 here are all derived from the attitude of heart he diagnosed earlier on in verse 5: ‘they do all their deeds to be seen by others.’

How many of our deeds are done to be seen by others? How much of our discipleship, service and worship is done with an eye on who is watching? How do we seek man’s empty praise? And where does our practice not match our preaching? Do we preach grace yet live in legalism, or forgiveness but hold a grudge, or sacrifice and still act selfishly? And in our present seclusion, hidden from the sight of others, how are we using our time? We’ve been commanded to go into our room, close our door, but are we praying? (Matt 6:6) The Pharisees and Scribes were also blind to their pride. They claimed ‘if we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ They were certain that if a prophet were sent to them, they would play no part in killing him… The irony is deafening. And their assumption of moral superiority testifies to the very fact that they were no better than their ancestors. Rebellion infects the whole story of humanity – the Hebrew Bible begins and ends with the shed blood of the righteous: Abel’s was murdered at the start (Gen 4:8) and Zechariah at the end (2 Chronicles 24:21). But we glimpse in the final verses of this chapter the heart of God which our pride and rebellion breaks. ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets, knowing that he would suffer that very same fate. The blood of the Righteous One was shed because of our rebellion, but that same blood secured our redemption. Here I find hope, because this is hope for the hypocrite who recognises his hypocrisy, repents of his pride and comes to the Lord in humility.

The last point of Andy’s sermon was to come to the one who wants to embrace self-righteous hypocrites like you and me. We have a father who wants to embrace the self-righteous older brother just as much as the prodigal younger brother, if only we will recognise our sin, lay down our pride and come to him in repentance and faith.

Father, we’re sorry for our hypocrisy and self-righteousness and we’re sorry for when we have been and still are blind to it. Please forgive us for the inconsistency of our lives and for when we value the praise of men above the praise of you, and our own glory above your own. Thank you that you died and rose to take the penalty of our sin and to give us your true righteousness. Help us by your Spirit to follow you faithfully, with humility and integrity. 

Matthew 23.1-12

Have you ever come across one of those people whose lifestyle and teaching are so integrated that you are literally hanging on every word they say? Any time they release a new book, music or podcast you check it out straight away because their authenticity is so attractive? And have you ever come across the opposite type of person who either crushes you with demands or is laughable in their double-morale? Today’s passage is about integrity.

Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees and scribes about the way that they live and teach. He begins by saying that they do have the right to teach the people – they sit in Moses’ seat, the seat of authority on the law, and they teach it correctly, but the problem is that they don’t practice what they preach.

The passage says that they tie up heavy burdens and lay them on the shoulders of others – how very far from Jesus’ own cry a few chapters earlier: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me […] For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Matt 11.28-30)

What was it that made the burden of the Pharisees and scribes so heavy? I think a clue is to be found in the next verse – that they don’t even lift a finger to help. Have you ever had someone give you a difficult task and the prospect of doing this thing really weighed you down? But if the difficult task instead was phrased as something we would do together the burden was suddenly lifted off your shoulders. There’s a huge difference between telling someone what they ought to do, and inviting them to join you in something you do together. Let’s do this time together, church!

Jesus goes on to address the leaders’ motivation – they just do it all for show. They do everything to be seen by others, praised by others, revered by others. They thrive off the attention that religious leadership gives them. But Jesus tells them that’s not the way leadership should be – instead of honorific titles they should be called servants. The principle is that whoever exalts himself will be brought low, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

I’ve been thinking lately about my own motivation. It’s easy in times of stress and isolation to just put up a ‘holy façade’ for the people I’m trying to lead. To put on a brave face and share a ‘thought of the day I just happened to stumble upon in my daily Bible reading that everyone should be doing now that they have time’. But that wasn’t quite the truth – I forgot to read the Bible this morning again, and stole that verse of encouragement from someone else on Facebook. 

It’s all coming back to integrity, isn’t it? Like with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, our true values are going to shine through one way or another. No matter how much we say we believe one thing, perhaps even genuinely think that’s a value we hold, if we don’t embody it in our daily lives, it’s not going to make an impact. And Jesus is calling our values to be that of servants – how could you serve your friends, housemates or neighbours today? In the daily prayer this morning I prayed to see Jesus in every person that I met and that every person that met me would also see Jesus in me – maybe this could be your prayer too.

I’ve realised that this stripping down of normal routine over the last couple of days has forced me to take a step back and think about my values. The circumstances around me has allowed for a closer inspection of what things I actually prioritise, what my day looks like without distractions of busyness. 

It’s challenging, but also, so good. This is a unique opportunity to grow in intimacy with God – no one will see you reading that book or studying that scripture or praying that prayer, but you can do it anyway. And as Jesus says in the sermon on the mount, your Father who sees in secret – in the closed off homes and rooms – will reward you. How can you take steps to grow in intimacy with the Lord today?

Let’s pray.
Lord, we thank you that you are with us. We pray that in this time of change we would be able to see ourselves more clearly. Give us grace to see things that need to change and produce that change in us, Holy Spirit. Help us to grow closer to you in times of need, and bless us with your presence this day.

Matthew 22.23-46

Since my student days I have kept on my shelves a book that I have never properly read. Actually there are quite a few of those. It was the title of John Stott’s Christ the Controversialist that struck me and stuck with me. With a simple, punchy phrase Stott highlighted an aspect of Jesus’ ministry that it is easy to let pass you by. Jesus spent quite a bit of his time in theological arguments with people. Today’s text consists of three such incidents. Two follow the usual pattern – Jewish teachers try to catch Jesus out. In our third story the tables are turned. Jesus pushes back.

The Sadducees only accept the first five books of the Bible. Since these don’t mention the resurrection, they try Jesus out with an unlikely story with a sting in its tail. They are trying to ridicule the idea of bodily resurrection. A woman marries seven brothers in a row each of which die in turn. Then she dies herself. Surely after the first two or three untimely deaths someone in the family would have whispered: ‘this woman is dangerous.’ Which of these increasingly courageous brothers will she be married to in the resurrection?

In reply Jesus does not deny the resurrection but he denies the working assumption behind the question – that the life of the new creation will be the same as now. You only need marriage, sex and children if people die and – to put it bluntly – need to be subbed in with a new generation. Since, Jesus says, we will be raised as immortal beings – like the angels – there won’t be any marrying going on. ‘You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures or the power of God.’ They deny the validity of much of the Bible and don’t believe God can raise the dead. It’s a classic recipe for wishy-washy religion. Within a few days of this conversation, at the first Easter, God will amply demonstrate both the truth of Scripture’s promises and his mighty power to raise the dead. It is a truth and power recorded for the readers of the Gospel then and now.

The Pharisees agree with Jesus about the resurrection and probably quite enjoy seeing the Sadducees put in their place. They have their own go: What is the most important commandment? Jesus doesn’t pick one of the 613 specific commands of Moses but replies with a two general principles that motivate the law quoting the Jewish daily prayer: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God the LORD is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And he adds from Leviticus: love those not just of your own community but those around you. It is a basic principle echoed by Augustine of Hippo: love and do what you will. Jesus summarises the purpose of the ten commandments without conceding the idea that some things God requires matter less than others.

Then it’s Jesus turn: What do you think of the Christ? he asks. Whose authority does he have? ‘He is David’s son.’ But in Psalm 110, says Jesus, the anointed Messiah, David’s son, is called Lord and sits at God’s right hand. So whose authority does he really have? The obvious conclusion is that the Lord Jesus Messiah is great David’s greater son. He has all the authority not just of the promised King of David’s line but of God himself. The Pharisees too fall silent. This is the last time people try to put him on the spot: ‘from that day no one dared ask him any questions.’

I have spent my adult life immersed in theological ideas, discussion, books and teaching. I still count it an enormous privilege to go most weeks to a research seminar in one of the best Theology Faculties in the world. But soon after I read my first serious theology book at the age of 20, I came to a clear and abiding conclusion, shared by many theologians: Jesus comes first. It is Jesus who really matters. He has the words of eternal life. He has shown us the face of God. In light of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done everything else pales into insignificance and can be set aside. Some love theological discussion (and Jesus the Controversialist was really, really good at it). Some run a mile (‘oh – just tell me the right answer’). But Jesus comes first. He has won our love and our loyalty. He is the one to live and die for. He is the one to live and die for because he chose to die and lives again for you and for me.

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the source of truth and life. We run to you again knowing you are not only the teacher of truth, but truth itself. You are not only the life, but life itself. You are the king in need of nothing. We run to you empty handed. As the old hymn says: 

Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling; 
Naked, come to Thee for dress,  
Helpless, look to Thee for grace:
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” lyrics by A. M. Toplady


Matthew 22.1-22

Can you remember the best birthday party you were ever invited to? At my school, I remember that birthday invites were something of a currency. One of the worst things you could possibly say to someone was ‘you’re not coming to my birthday party’ but they’d always, well almost always, forget they’d said that when their birthday actually came around.  

The invitation in the story was from a King putting on a wedding feast for his Son. He sent his servants out to gather the people who were invited – but they weren’t interested. They were distracted and busy. They wanted to tend to their farms and their businesses. They didn’t have time for a party.

But some went further. Some even killed the servants that the King had sent. Understandably, the King was upset and angry and brought judgement upon those who had rejected his invitation and killed his servants.

And so the King extended the invite far and wide, to both the bad and good. He filled the wedding hall up with guests and they enjoyed the extravagance and the abundance of the King’s generosity and hospitality together.  

God the Father is inviting people into the great banquet in the Kingdom of God. This parable is one of extraordinary mercy and grace. The most unlikely people are invited in to share in this incredible feast – that’s you and me! We are unworthy and undeserving, we are not part of the original people of God, but because of Jesus, we have been grafted in. Because of Jesus, we can share in the lavish abundance of God’s goodness to us.

But at the end of the parable, it says that someone had snuck in through the back door. Someone was at the wedding feast who was not wearing the proper clothes. And so he was bound and thrown out into the darkness. We too did not have the proper clothes for this extravagant feast. But because of Jesus, we are clothed in His righteousness. Because of Jesus, we are adorned with the finest clothes. Because of Him, we are ready for the greatest wedding banquet there ever will be.

This parable also shows how important it is to go out, and to invite people in. In the story, the servants were sent out to the roads to gather all the people they could find. No one can come to a party they have not been told about. And this is where we come in. We are now God’s people and we have the privilege of sharing this invitation with others.

These are very strange and uncertain times, but they do also present different opportunities to share this extravagant message of God. How could you shine God’s light into the darkness? How could you display the Father’s generosity and hospitality? How could you reach out to your neighbours, colleagues and friends and invite them to the greatest party of all time?

The second passage in our reading today told the story of the Pharisees trying out a clever ploy to trick Jesus. They ask whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. If he says ‘no’ he would have been guilty of treason against Rome, but if he said ‘yes’ he would be accused of disloyalty to the Jewish nation and lose the support of the crowds.

And so Jesus asks them to pass him a coin. He shows them the image of Caesar etched on the coin and says ‘give therefore to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s’ (v. 21).

In those days, Caesar was the ruler of the worldly Kingdom. But there is another, greater Kingdom which comes under the rule of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are part of two Kingdoms. We come under the authority of those leading us on earth: we have to pay our taxes, obey the law or go to school. Whatever it means to be a part of our society today.

But ultimately, God’s image is imprinted on our hearts. We belong to God. And what he requires from us is not taxes or strict law-following, but relationship, devotion and surrender. He wants our hearts.

What does it look like for you to give your heart to God today? Could it look like carving out time to spend in His Word? Or perhaps serving those in your home and helping around the house? Does it look like reaching out to an old friend on the phone? Or maybe just sitting in His presence, worshipping Him for all He has done.

Because of Jesus, we have been welcomed into the most incredible wedding feast of all time. Because of Jesus, we can come dressed in the finest clothes we could never deserve on our own and because of Jesus we have received the abundant riches of God’s generosity and grace. The very least we can give him is our hearts.

Let’s pray:

Lord God, You are our King. We worship you with all that we are. Thank you that you have made the way so that we could be invited into relationship with you. Lord God, You are our King. All that we have, all that we are belongs to you. Accept this offering of our hearts, we pray. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Matthew 21.28-46

We are at a point in Matthew’s Gospel now where Jesus is confronting the hypocrisy of the religious establishment head on. He’s calling out those who look spiritual, look like they are committed to God and have status from that in society – and yet are not living out the values of the covenant. 

His point is, that for all their religiousness they can’t even spot the messiah everyone has been waiting centuries for. They literally don’t know God when they see him!

The challenge Jesus gives here clearly informed James in his writing. He put it like this.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

Saying ‘I’m a Christian’ and not living that out isn’t faith. Faith isn’t just intellectual assent to a belief system and then do whatever you chose… our faith should show. Here Jesus points out that the faith of the poor, of outcasts, the disreputable was more real than that of the so-called religious people. 

So – what does this mean for us in these disrupted times? When some of us are shut in alone, some of us are key workers, some of us have become home schoolers! We are ALL being stretched in one way or another. 

What would God have us do?

Well, this text is about who has the ability to recognise Jesus – to see God at work in him and to align our attitudes and actions with what he asks of us. So my suggestion is this:

Let’s focus our attention on God more than on the news or our social media feeds.  We claim, as Christians to be people of prayer – so let’s do that, let’s pray. Without ceasing, whatever the challenges we are facing, lets press in in prayer. It brings faith – which is the opposite of anxiety.

We also claim to be worshippers – so let’s do that, let’s take responsibility for our worship lives, not just leave it to Chris and his team on a Sunday. Let’s have worship music on around us, let’s sing, praise, read psalms with our household, or out loud alone each morning. Worship keeps us consciously connected to the throne room of God, the place of perspective.

We are called to be people of hope and joy, so let’s train ourselves – do that old school ‘count your blessings’ before bed each night, so we fix our eyes on where Jesus is at work around us, in us, through us. It will help us when we feel overwhelmed. 

There is a chance for all of us, alone, on the front line or at home with others to press into God, to grow in the fruits of his spirit. To be those who stand under the protection of the capstone that is Jesus. 

Developing these spiritual muscles will hurt at times, just like all exercising does. In the days and weeks to come we are all going to get things wrong and have to learn to say sorry. But like the son who said ‘no’ and then did what the father asked we can be confident that there is grace when we turn towards, rather than away from, God. 

So – let’s be the pray-ers, the worshippers, the comforters, exhorters and spotters of God’s goodness – let’s be the disciples of Jesus we claim to be.

I wonder what that might look like for you today? 

Matthew 21.1-22

If you had been in the city of Bristol on Palm Sunday in the year 1656 during the brief flourishing of the English Commonwealth, you would have seen a remarkable sight. A one-time Quaker named James Nayler arranged to ride through the gates of Bristol on a donkey hailed by a group of followers. Nayler was a famed preacher and a polished debater but people immediately recognised an outrageous and blasphemous claim when they saw one. Nothing needed to be said, the act itself was enough. The news spread like wildfire. Nayler was hauled before Parliament in London and came to a sticky end.

In the same way, when Jesus made his little private arrangement to borrow a village donkey and ride into Jerusalem no words of explanation were necessary. Jesus intended – and people recognised immediately – his Messianic demonstration and his challenge to political power. The crowds of Passover pilgrims flooded out of the Temple city with their palm branches and cloaks and their hope. Hosanna – Save! Hosanna to the Son of David. Hail to the Lord’s anointed great David’s greater Son. But Jesus had his death in mind.

Jesus went next to challenge the religious power of the priestly Temple system. Upending the ancient equivalent of the Bureaux de Change he not only confronted corruption but challenged the comfortable and profitable sacrificial system at its very core. No money changing, no animals, no animals, no sacrifices. Jesus has his death in mind. 

The next day Jesus passes a fruitless fig tree. He’s hungry. He curses it. It withers. You’ve heard of the risqué vicar who swears deliberately in the sermon and then when the respectable congregation take a sharp intake of breath she challenges them to care just as much about avoiding sin/injustice/climate change* delete as appropriate. Jesus’ shocking curse is not really about the tree at all but the withered leadership and covenant life of Israel. They will not see their Messiah or embrace God’s anointed – it would cost too much politically, it would be too radical a change to their religious authority. And they have Jesus’ death in mind, too.

Everybody has got Jesus wrong – they either think too little of him or too much of him. The disciples and the crowds think he is coming to bring political liberation – they can’t imagine his death being part of the deal. And the chief priests and the scribes think he is no more than James Nayler – a pretender and charlatan – they have his death in view alright but they don’t grasp that it is God’s work and God’s plan. 

And tucked way there right in the middle of the story is a lovely and unique scene (verses 14-16); a little oasis of the ordinary in the middle of the turmoil. The blind and the lame come to Jesus for healing in the Temple Courts. They are delightfully oblivious of the crisis unfolding in front of them. They don’t care about the politics which is too high for them – they have more immediate needs, clothes on their backs, food in their mouths. Limbs that don’t work, eyes that can’t see. They just need Jesus. When he touches them their lives are renewed and transformed. And they seek him out in the Temple which is the very symbol of their exclusion from life and status amongst God’s people. But they don’t care. Jesus is everything. He is all they need. He is enough. His touch is enough. 

This season is a good time to still ourselves, to simplify and to hear once again the words of Psalm 131: ‘O Lord my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high, I do not occupy myself with things too great and marvellous for me, but I have calmed and quietened my soul.’ We stop. Jesus we need you. We need your presence and your power. We look to Jesus with simple faith and trembling hope.

Jesus touches the lame and he heals the blind right before the watching eyes of his detractors – ‘they saw the wonderful things that he did’. But they won’t budge an inch. It is the children who celebrate Jesus.  Perhaps the grown-ups lack courage, right there under the noses of chief priests in the Temple courts but the children are running around: oh there’s Jesus – Hosanna to the Son of David. And they bring the echoes of the pilgrims cries right in to the city – to bounce off the walls of the Temple courtyard itself. Like the faith of the lame and blind, the praise of the children comes with directness, simplicity, unadorned – from the mouth of the kids comes perfect praise. But still Jesus had his death in view.

Lord in momentous days we turn to you in simple trust and trembling hope. We lower our eyes, we bow our heads reach out our hands and invite you to renew your life in us once again. In uncertainty be our rock, in fear our confidence and in business our refuge. By your Holy Spirit renew us today we pray. Amen.