The Kingdom of God in the Gospels - 2:
The Prodigal Prospects for Kingdom Citizenship
Scripture Reading: Matthew 9:1-17
Text: Matthew 9:9-13
Suggested Songs: 324:1-3; 94:1-2; 96:14; 458:1-3; 326:1-2
Sermon by Rev. Harry Van Dyken
Minister in the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 21, No. 7
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Congregation, beloved of the Lord Jesus Christ:
We have seen together something of the nature of the kingdom of God, as Christ compared it to a mustard seed and to leaven. We would consider together now something of the nature of those whom God considers as prospects for the kingdom.
You will recall that when Hitler was setting up his world dominion, as he then thought it would be, he considered the Aryan race to be a super race. He desired to choose those super men out of the whole human race, making them into a kingdom served by the rest of mankind. In its immigration laws, the nations of Canada and United States screen out undesirables. They are not allowed to enter. Wanted are those who will enhance, who will somehow contribute to this nation by their righteousness, by their goodness. As a nation we do not want to be an infirmary, or an institution for social rehabilitation in the midst of the world. This is typical of earthly kingdoms.
The Jews of Jesus’ day had the very same idea. They looked upon the kingdom of God as promised in the Old Testament in precisely the same way. Therefore they had quite a system for screening prospects for the kingdom of God. It is no wonder, then, that when Jesus came and began to go to the publicans and sinners, yet claiming to be a king and to be working for the establishment of God’s kingdom, that the Pharisees opposed Him throughout His whole life.
Our Lord contends, and He contends in His actions and His words, in all of them, that the only prospects for the kingdom of God are those who have completely wasted their lives, who have absolutely nothing to offer, so that, in themselves, they will in no way be making a contribution to the kingdom of God. They are wasted prodigals.
Let us consider The prodigal prospects for the kingdom. I would have you notice:
1. Its Dramatic Declaration;
2. Its Challenging Counter-proposal;
3. Its Rebuking Restatement; and,
4. Its Evident Illustration.
Christ encounters the Pharisees. It is not the first encounter He has had with them, but it is one of the earlier ones. In this encounter a conflict appears which continues throughout Christ’s ministry. It is a conflict which continues, people of God, because it is caused by a basic cleavage, a basic difference, a basic antithesis. It is an antithesis that stands clearly between the proclamation of Christ and that which the Pharisees are presenting.
You notice that it is the action of Christ they oppose. First He had said to that man that was lame, "Thy sins be forgiven thee." Then He had gone to this publican, Matthew, a tax collector for the Romans, and said, "Follow me." Then Matthew, out of gratitude, prepared a feast and invited his friends. Do you know who those friends were? They were tax collectors, and those whom the Jews categorized as sinners. They were his friends. Matthew invited them to this feast, and Christ was there. That spoke loudly. It spoke so loudly that the Pharisees, the Jews, and the church of Christ down through the ages could not help but hear it. Notice the tremendous contrast when there were so many learned men, so many such as Gamaliel in Israel, that Christ now, as He is choosing His followers, chooses this man who was despised, who was working for Rome. Had not God, using David, pushed out the enemy and established the borders from the entering in of Haznath to the River of Egypt? Had not God said, "Now this is the kingdom of God and this is my king whom I have placed in Jerusalem?" And had not God said, "Of his loins there shall proceed One, the One who shall reign forever, who shall sit on the throne of David?" Then Assyria had come, and Babylon and Medo-Persia and Greece and Rome. Now Rome was sitting on the throne of David, and Rome had put an Edomite there. They had put Esau over Jacob. Here were those people who were collecting taxes for them, for this kingdom which seemed to have conquered the kingdom of God. How possibly, in that conflict of interests could such a one as Matthew be considered a prospect for kingdom citizenship? How was it possible that Christ could come to this feast which Matthew had prepared and sit there as a guest of honor with His disciples, and with all these publicans and sinners?
Yet, Church of Christ, it is precisely that way throughout the whole life and work of Christ. He busies Himself in a life which speaks, in a life which makes declarations, in a life in which word and act are always in agreement. That Word of God which He speaks forth is the same Word of God which He lives. He is the living Word of God. For when you look at His life, whether that be here, calling Matthew and going to that feast, healing the lame man or cleansing the temple, or what ever it may be, you see the living Word of God. That same Word of God is that which proceeds from His mouth as He speaks.
I say it is a dramatic declaration of Christ only because it is a declaration which proceeds out of life. That is the only true drama — the drama of life. Out of this drama there comes the declaration that the kingdom of God is not identified with the nation of Israel, not in its final meaning. Even the nation of Israel will finally be cast off because it is no longer a fit vehicle to show the world what is the kingdom of God.
There comes also the declaration that the kingdom of God is not a recruiting agency to salvage the best of men and somehow, someway, through this salvaging process of the best of men, to save some little bit of God’s creation which has gone awry. That is absolutely impossible! There are no best of men. There is no group of men; there is no person in the whole human race of whom it can be said, "If only we could lift this one, or lift these out of all the rest and salvage them, saving them somehow from the corrupting influence of the rest of men. Ah, then we’d have it."
" For as death came unto one man through sin, and so death passed unto all men in that all have sinned." "Therefore are they all unrighteous. There is none that doeth good, no, not so much as one. They have all gone astray, they have all turned aside; there is none that seeketh after God." Where then shall you find men to salvage?
Christ is not declaring that, since there are no good men to be found, you’d just as well have your friendship and your concourse with wicked men. As if it doesn’t make any difference. He is not saying that at all. Christ is saying that the kingdom of God is not an agency of salvage, but it is an agency of transformation! These Pharisees must see themselves as proper company with these publicans and sinners because they too are publicans and sinners. They are collecting taxes for the enemy, Satan. They are using God’s creation, themselves, for the kingdom of darkness. Unless they see it and are transformed by the power of God, they cannot under any circumstances enter into the kingdom of God. That is what Christ is declaring. That is what He would have them clearly understand. The kingdom is not an agency for salvage or for rehabilitation.
You see, Christ is saying to these Jews, Here are people that I am eating with. I know that I am eating with dead people. I know that I am the only living one in the midst unless they have received life from Me. Otherwise I am the only living one in this group and I’m eating with these dead people. It seems so strange. You are telling me that I ought to eat with you because you are alive. Yet your death is all the worse because you do not realize it. You think that you have enough of life in you by your own good works. You think that if God would just take and keep you separate from the rest, and I too, as the Christ, would join you as separate from the rest, we could start a kingdom here. But God says, NO! Not at all.
"For it is the Spirit that maketh alive; the letter killeth." It is not that there is a real disjunction between Spirit and letter. It is not that as we read the law of God, as we read those letters, that those letters kill. No, but as man apart from the grace of God takes those letters and tries to use them for life, the only thing they ever say is death. But when those letters are applied by the Spirit of God, then the Spirit maketh alive. That, says Christ, is what you need.
The King and Ambassador of that kingdom, then, will find His associates with outcasts, with those who know they are sinners. That is constantly impressed upon the leaders of that day. Pharisees were declaring that the kingdom of God was not made up by transformation but by segregation, by separating the very choice of men and making a kingdom out of them.
Do not think that Christ was here at this feast because He enjoyed the company of publicans and sinners so much, and could not stand the company of the Pharisees. Do not think that Christ was here because it was merely a matter of joining with these people because — who else could He join? He could not join those self-righteous, hypocritical Pharisees. He couldn’t join the Romans. Who could He join? So He joins up with these. No. It is not that at all! He came alone! There was no one He could join. NO ONE! His aloneness is finally brought to its full completion when He hangs there on the cross and tells His disciples that they cannot follow Him, when He tells them that they cannot drink of the cup that He must drink of, and that they cannot partake of the awful death into which He must go. Alone He hung on the cross, forsaken of God and of man. That is how alone He was here. He stood out like a sore thumb to any who had spiritual discernment.
You see, in that respect the Pharisees were right. They saw something very strange about this situation. Here was the Son of God, the perfect Son of man feasting with these publicans and sinners. They said, "How can this be?" And that was right. It was not just a social something. It was a transforming something. Christ was there to work His transforming work on those who knew they were sinners. He was not there because He was telling us that it is alright to have our fellowship with just anybody. He did not intend to say that it is alright to go to this, that and the other thing that the world has to offer. He wasn’t saying that at all! The fact is, Christ did not become a publican.
Christ did not join then in order to witness to them in the sense in which we often hear of it. He did not become a publican to witness to the publicans, or a sinner to witness to the sinners. Christ did not do that and does not approve of our attempting to do it. Christ refused to become one with them. He made them one with Him! That was the work that was being accomplished as He sat at this feast with publicans and sinners. He is not condoning the frivolity of the world, or having worldly associations for the sake of those associations themselves. He was there for the sake of the transforming of those with whom He was associating. This is also the standard and the example He sets for us as we contemplate various possible reasons for fellowship or association with the world and its life. Dramatic! It is a living presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ came not to separate the best but to save the worst! He came to save the worst in that context. Pharisees, if you only knew it — you are the worst!
That is why this challenging counter-proposal of the Pharisees is truly a challenge. It is a challenge because it cuts at the very root of what Christ had said. The Pharisees are saying, "No, Christ, the kingdom of God is not formed that way. The kingdom of God is not formed by transformation. It is formed by separation, by segregation. If you, Christ, would only take us. If you would only take the other best of this world and start Your kingdom that way. If you would only feast with us. Ah, then you would have a good beginning of the kingdom of God."
These Pharisees are witnessing this feast. They are outside looking in and they are judging this Christ who says that He is a king who is making a kingdom. As they judge Him, they conclude that He is worthy of condemnation. Yes, they will also condemn Him later on. But they have already condemned Him. Here is One that cannot be the true king of Israel. For Israel is Israel, not by transformation; but Israel is Israel by separation and segregation!
You see, church of Christ, what they had really done was to try to identify Christ’s first coming with His second coming. They had tried to cut out the necessity of His first coming. They had tried to cut out the necessity of the cross and the blood. They tried to say that as the righteous, holy God looked down on them in His justice, He couldn’t find enough sin for condemnation. There was no need, then, for the kind of sacrifice that would come. The ceremonial sacrifices which they brought from week to week and from day to day — that was enough! But the main thing that was enough was their own righteousness which they would bring before God.
If only now the King would come and say, "Alright, out with those Romans. Out with these publicans and these sinners! We’ll establish the throne of David here once more in Jerusalem and you, Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees will have the seats of honor in the kingdom of God." That would be it!
The trouble with this king was that He couldn’t even recognize the natural subjects of the kingdom. He couldn’t recognize the kingdom that they had set up for Him. He was going to the publicans who had taken upon themselves this lucrative task of serving an alien power, another kingdom, under whose control they were at that time.
That is the challenging counter-proposal. Strange; it is altogether unbiblical, church of Christ. Yet it is not so strange. For it is that which is proposed over and over again in this world and even in the church of Jesus Christ. It proposes that it is not a matter of transformation, but merely of segregation. It is merely a matter of gathering the best and using them. That is all.
Oh, I know there is another strange counter-proposal that comes against what Christ proposed. The fact is, it is stranger still, stranger because it is unnatural. It is the proposal that the kingdom is not for saved sinners, as Christ said, but it is for unsaved sinners. It is for those who know they are sinners and they are not hypocritical and self-righteous. But they know they are sinners and because they know that, somehow, some way the kingdom of God ought to be made from them. No, says Christ. That was the kind that Simon Magus was who came to Peter. No, it is not that counter-proposal either.
It is not the counter-proposal of the Pharisees either , as they came to the disciples and say, "What is the matter with your teacher? Doesn’t He realize that He has been eating with publicans and sinners? Doesn’t He realize that that is against the rules of the kingdom? Don’t you know that in this way His one chance to be a King in the kingdom is going to be lost? He had better change His ways!" That, church of Christ, is the counter-proposal.
You know, in a certain way these Pharisees were right, but they had things mixed up. There is the matter of segregation. Let us never forget it! Christ says it over and over again. Christ says, "Come ye out from among them and be ye separate." I know that He said that through Paul. But no matter where He says it in the Bible, it is always Christ who says it. Come ye out from among them and be ye separate because that is not a method of gaining prospects for the kingdom. That is not a way of entering the kingdom. Never! But to those who are in the kingdom Christ says, Come ye out from among them and be ye separate. "Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers."
Do not go into the world seeking association with the world, unless and except it be for one reason and one reason alone. It must be the same reason for which Christ was sitting with publicans and sinners; that is, to bring the transforming powerful Word of God. Then one of two things is going to happen. They are going to come with you, or they are going to cast you out. They did the same with Christ, and He promised it for us. He said that what they had done to Him they would do to us. We see what Christ did when He went to the woman at the well in Samaria. He did not become a Samaritan. He didn’t join her, nor did He say, "Yes, I see that you’ve had five husbands and. that the one you have now is not your husband. Well, I get into that life too." No, He did not! Nor did He say that Mount Gerazzim was one place to worship. He didn’t go along with her there either. But He talked with her to tell her, "Here is the water of life. Here is the only way that you can worship God in spirit and in truth. You come to know Him through the One that is sent, even Jesus Christ the righteous. It will transform you from the death which seeks this other water all the time and is never satisfied., to the life which drinks of that water from heaven and shall never thirst again."
Therefore, when Christ speaks to the Pharisees, He comes with a rebuking restatement. These Pharisees had already run into this and they were a little bit afraid of it. At every conflict and clash they had had with Him, when the restatement had come, had come with such forceful rebuke that they couldn’t miss it. They had been embarrassed so often. Now they are embarrassed again. Christ does not give in at all. Christ is not embarrassed to be found with these social outcasts. He would have been embarrassed indeed, had He taken part in their work. But He was not embarrassed at all. When He speaks to them, the words are exactly the same language as His actions have already spoken. So He takes up the complaint that these Pharisees had spoken to His disciples and He answers it. He answers it with a stinging rebuke. He simply tells then that they do not understand the working of the kingdom.
This was a stinging rebuke because these were the leaders. These were the great men, who should have really known the meaning of the kingdom. They had the message of the kingdom. He says to them, "You do not understand at all. You have completely confused my first coming with my second coming. You thought I came now to take you Jews — scribes, Pharisees and your followers — and lift you out of this world and set you over it to rule. That cannot happen. I came to go to the cross, to take the place of these kind of people that I’ve been feasting with here. I came to take their place on the cross of Calvary, under the wrath of God. That is the kingdom and that is the establishment of the kingdom."
"You think that you can offer your own payment for sin, that you do not need another. It is not true. Haven’t you heard the voice of John the Baptist? ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is coming?’" Only after this first coming with its sacrifice, with its death, with its perfect righteousness can there be a second coming. A coming which takes the kingdom of God out of the midst of this world that it may be in itself a new humanity, the new man, a new world in which righteousness dwells.
That is why Christ tells the parable of the ninety-and-nine, and the one sheep that was lost. He says that the Shepherd has come, concerned for this one sheep that knows that it is lost, than with ninety-and-nine who think they are safe. He was talking to the Pharisees. The ninety-and-nine were righteous — but they were self-righteous! You can’t save self-righteous people. There is no hope for them, no hope at all. There are only prodigal prospects for the kingdom.
He says to these Pharisees, "If you were sinners, then there would be hope. But because you are so righteous, because there is nothing wrong, that is why there is no hope." Christ does not support the thesis of the Pharisees at all. Not even one little bit!
There is a rebuke, and I want you to see it. This rebuke is terribly sharp. It is a rebuke which reaches hell! It is a rebuke which says, "You are completely outside the kingdom. It is not that you have a little misunderstanding. It is not that you just have to straighten out a few thoughts in your minds. You are completely outside and therefore, when I come again to segregate, to take out my people, you will not be among them. You will still he establishing your own righteousness. You will still be building your own kingdom."
"Indeed it is true that I will come again. It is true that I will come in triumph to separate my own. You have rightly looked for that, but you have completely misunderstood it."
"You must throw your righteousness away. If only you understood what the prophet Hosea said in chapter six, verse six, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ Then the Lord had said, ‘I hate; I despise your sacrifices. I can’t stand them.’" Why? Was it because these sacrifices in themselves were wrong? No, for God had commanded them. But because these sacrifices were not brought to point to the death of Christ, but to point to a misunderstanding, a misunderstood second coming of Christ instead of His first coming. They looked for a coming which, apart from sacrifice, would separate them to be a people of His own. That is not mercy; that is self-righteousness. The mercy of God must come out plainly here, that God sent His only-begotten Son. That is what had to be shown in the life of God’s people in the midst of those sacrifices.
I will have mercy and not sacrifice. That is, not sacrifice which is separated from the mercy of God which seeks out these lost, damnable, hell-bound sinners. It seeks out sinners who can never be part of God’s kingdom apart from the mercy and love of God in Christ. That is why Christ had said to these Pharisees that they completely misunderstood when they spoke to Him about the lame man who was lowered through the roof.
Christ had said to him, "Thy sins be forgiven thee." And they had challenged Him. Then He drew for them this evident connection. What is easier to say: "Thy sins are forgiven thee?" or to say, "Take up thy bed and walk?" What is easier to do: to get at the origin of all this or to touch some symptom? That is what He is saying, Pharisees. You have not gotten to the origin of it all. It is sin! And because you have not gotten to the origin of it, you do not understand what it means to say to this man, "Arise, take up thy bed and walk, and go to thy house." It means the forgiveness of sins, mercy, and therefore the sacrifice on the cross of Calvary.
Its evident illustration is simply this: Matthew followed Jesus. The publican, the tax collector for the kingdom of Rome became, if you will, a tax collector for the kingdom of heaven. Yes, he became a tax collector. He was to go out and lay the demands of the King before the world. He was to declare the demands of Jehovah God for His people — demands that asked the whole of self for Him. Those who are able to accept the diagnosis which He has made are prodigal prospects for the kingdom.
As God’s children, we look now for His second coming. But if we look for His second coming apart from that first coming, if we see the kingdom of God as that which, at its root, is segregation instead of transformation, then we are not in it. We are outside.
But if we have seen the absolute root need of transformation and cried, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner"; if we have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ who came to be cast down to hell for our sake; if we cry out, "Lord, I believe!", then that transforming power of the Word of God reaches into our hearts and saves us. Then we go out as interns into the great hospital of the world. We go to publicans and sinners with a message — never without that message. We go with a message to dead people that can make them alive again. Prodigal prospects are the only ones.
Is it true that we have met this one, this same Jesus? Then you know that He says, "You know what I came for, you publican, you sinner! You know I came to transform you by My Word, by My Spirit through faith in My Name." Beloved, if that is true, then we are interns in the great hospital of the world. That is the only message with which we must again go out into that world. Amen.