He Shall Save His People
IN HIS sermon on the mount, Jesus spoke of the kingdom and the blessings for those who heard and heeded His words. But it is evident, not only in looking back at the failure of Israel but at our own experience of weakness and sin as well, that no one can achieve the perfection described in Matthew 5:17-48 apart from God’s deliverance from sin. The words of Matthew 5-7 only make the promise of Matthew 1:21 more clearly necessary. There must be One Who saves from sin.
Otherwise, when the kingdom arrives, all Israel must be cast into Gehenna (Matt.5:22,27-30); they all must collect the wages of hypocrisy (6:3-5); everyone of them will be brought to destruction (7:13,14); the Lord must declare to them all: “I never knew you! Depart from Me, workers of lawlessness!” (7:23). Jesus required that they be doing the will of His Father Who is in the heavens (7:21). Yet for this to happen they must be established under the covenant of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. And for that to happen there must be a work of the Saviour that saves from sin.
DESCENDING FROM THE MOUNTAIN
Those who listened to the Lord’s message “were astonished at His teaching” (7:28), and when He descended from the mountain “vast throngs follow Him” (Matt.8:1). Yet to begin with, we read of only one individual out of the vast throngs who comes to Jesus as the Saviour. This is a man afflicted with leprosy, who worships the Lord, saying “Lord, if Thou shouldst be willing, Thou canst cleanse me!” (8:2).
The leper is a picture of the sinner, and cleansing from leprosy is a picture of cleansing from sin. This is very promising in light of the message of Matthew 5-7. If He was willing, Jesus could cleanse all the sinners of Israel from their sins. The very fact that He was willing to cleanse the leper from leprosy and that He did so, tells us of His willingness to save His people from their sins and that He will do so.
Nevertheless, it was not the time for this cleansing. Jesus sent the cleansed leper to the priest “as a sign that He is the One Who can cleanse the leprosy of the sinful nation. [The priesthood] should have known that the One Who can do this is the long-desired Messiah. There is no intimation that they heeded this testimony, so that here we have, in a parable, the same truth with which John begins his evangel: His own people do not accept Him (John 1:11). Indeed, this is more striking. For the priests had before them continually the lesson of the suffering sacrifice. If no other class in the nation could understand His rejection and sorrow and death, they should have recognized that this is the One Who was to be led as a lamb to the slaughter. But, in that deeper wisdom of God, they were also the ones who were ordained to be the slayers of the great Sacrifice.” 1
Indeed we may well say that the priests ought to have known that Jesus was the Promised One Who would save His people from their sins. The testimony of the cured leper was clear. But they were blinded to what was right before their eyes, so that they might offer up the Lamb of God Who thus would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
What shall we say, however, concerning the results of this blindness as they affect this particular priest who received this marvelous testimony? And what of the priesthood as a whole, which became the instrument for the giving up of the Lamb of God? If anyone is destined to hear the Lord’s words, “Depart from Me, workers of lawlessness!” surely they must be included.
NO ONE IN ISRAEL
It is not that the priestly unbelief should escape judgment. But we must not make the words of condemnation and rejection spoken by the Saviour mean something that makes it impossible for Him to save such sinners as these. The priest was a sinner as well as the leper. They both needed cleansing from sin. And so did everyone in Israel and in the entire world.
This great need even beyond the circle of His people Israel is shown by the next occurrence in our Lord’s ministry as recorded by Matthew. A centurion, that is, a Roman military officer, came to Jesus in Capernaum, and pleaded that the Lord would cure his boy who was prostrate with paralysis and dreadful torments (Matt.8:5-8). There is much for our learning here, but first of all, let us note that which was so marvelous to Jesus, that this Roman centurion displayed more faith in Him than His people Israel were displaying. “Verily, I am saying to you, With no one in Israel so much faith did I find” (Matt.8:10).
There was no one in Israel who had faith like this centurion’s. And yet, Jesus was the One Who was to save His people from their sins!
The leper was cleansed, and the boy was cured, but the priest showed no indication of comprehending the leper’s testimony, and countless Israelites, as “sons of the kingdom” would be cast out into outer darkness with lamentation and gnashing of teeth when the kingdom arrived (Matt.8:11,12). These are our Lord’s words, and they will be fulfilled.
But to make this condemnation an everlasting punishment in hell, without hope, without relief, without any possibility of Jesus becoming the Saviour and Shepherd of these who are His people (cf Matt.2:6) is surely to mistake the mind of God. Unbelief is sin, and its wages must accord with the serious nature of the sin. Nevertheless, it surely is impossible that Jesus will never know in a saving way those whom He came to save, that He can never wipe away the tears of those cast out into darkness away from the light of the kingdom, that all the sons of the kingdom will never bow in the Name of the Saviour and acclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord.
THE TEACHING OF HELL
The traditional doctrine of hell is founded on more passages in Matthew than any other portion of God’s Word. The King James Version renders the word Gehenna “hell” seven times in Matthew (5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33), and two times it uses “hell” for hades (11:23; 16:18). From this it is concluded that hell is a place of fire, where the whole body perishes, the soul and body destroyed, where one is brought down in judgment, and where there are strong gates. (There is renewed controversy today over the sense implied by the words “perish” and “destroy,” some claiming from these terms that hell involves the annihilation of the sinner and the majority still taking the terms figuratively as symbolic of hopelessness. Very little attention seems to be given in this connection to the fact that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, i.e., those who are perishing.)
The whole subject of an unending punishment is expanded by taking every warning of future judgment and loss in our Lord’s ministry as further revelation concerning hell. Hence, as we have noted, the fire of hell is determined by a further mistranslation to be unquenchable (Matt.3:12), punishment in hell is supposed to be the “wages” of hypocrites (Matt.5:2-5), hell is seen as the place of destruction at the end of broad and spacious way (Matt.7:13), the destiny of workers of lawlessness who are expelled from our Lord’s presence (7:23), and despite normal implications of the word “fire”, hell is found to be a place of “outer darkness” where those who are destroyed continue to lament and gnash their teeth (8:12).
Many more such details are added from later passages in Matthew, culminating in the use of the terrifying words of Matthew 25:46 as rendered by the King James Version and followed by most other translations. From the Lord’s description of the future judgment of the nations, it is claimed that hell is the place of “everlasting punishment,” making punishment an end in itself, and finally securing the impossibility of Jesus ever fully taking His place as Saviour.
HIS WILL AND OURS
The willingness of Jesus to save sinners is not consciously questioned by believers, but in effect, many fail to appreciate its importance. Other issues intrude on almost every consideration of our Lord’s will, such as: “What about the human will? What if the human being is not willing to be saved?” “What if the divine willingness to save is limited and arbitrarily directed?” Theological problems concerning election, predestination, and free will keep cropping up. Few seem to see our Lord’s willingness as such a decisive and determinative factor in salvation as the leper saw it. Few are as clear about the certainty and authority for healing of a word from the Lord as the centurion was. “Lord, I am not competent that Thou mayest enter under my roof, but only say the word and my boy will be healed!” (Matt.8:8).
But the willingness of the Lord to save is not held captive to conditions and situations outside of God’s control. It is not a well-meaning but hopeless wishing for the best. The casting out of the sons of the kingdom into outer darkness is not proof that Jesus can never be their Saviour from sin, nor evidence that He has no willingness to save them from such sorrow. They must weep and lament for a time, but this is only part of the process, and not at all the goal, or the ultimate expression of the divine will. Darkness and sorrow serve and do not oppose the operations of the One Who is willing to save.
The critical issue here is the divine willingness to save, not ours to be saved. “It is not of him who is racing, but of God, the Merciful” (Rom.9:16). His people will be willing in the day of His power (Psa.110:3). May we become more and more like the leper who boldly testified to the vital and effective place of the Lord’s will, and more and more like the Roman centurion who was unswerving in conviction concerning the Lord’s authority and power to heal. No matter how much human stubbornness and blindness, darkness, and lamentation come in between, the final resolution is the Lord’s Who is willing to save, Who is Jesus the Saviour, Who shall save His people from their sins.
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