The family of Jesus - Matthew 12:46-50
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~~The Family of Jesus
I am sure that you will have come across this advice when faced with a difficult moral decision to make: simply ask: What Would Jesus Do? And you can even buy a bracelet with WWJD written on it if, for some reason, you had difficulty in remembering such sage advice. It all sounds rather spiritual and simple doesn’t it? But is not as simple and straightforward as it may seem. In the first place it is designed to short circuit any kind of rigorous thinking by appealing to our imagination as to what we think Jesus might do in a similar situation. And therein lies the problem. We tend to have our imaginary Jesus, who more often than not, will do what we would like him to do. In the second place when we look at the Gospels and see what Jesus actually did, it tends to take us by surprise because more often than not he does things we wouldn’t have expected him or any decent person to do in a million years- like beating up the money changers in the temple with a whip and kicking over their tables- if a Vicar did that he would soon be looking for another job! And this evening we have another instance of how Jesus acts which runs quite contrary to all our expectations in the way he treats his family- Matthew 12:46-50.
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of the setting. Jesus is having a run in with the Pharisees and the religious establishment in which he has been making, either directly or indirectly, some grand claims about himself- how great he is- greater than John the Baptist who up to that point was the greatest human being ever to walk the earth; greater than King David, greater than the temple; greater than Jonah, greater than King Solomon. Not surprisingly, opposition to him and his work has been mounting. And now Jesus is in a house, surrounded by a crowd teaching and here too he is about to make an astonishing claim which was as shocking then as it is now. So let’s take a look at what is going on.
First, we have an unwelcomed interruption-vv46-47, ‘While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” In the original the obtrusive nature of what is happening is captured by the word ‘Behold’ – ‘while Jesus was still talking to the crowd ‘behold’ his mother and brothers… someone said to him, ‘behold’ your mother and brothers.’ This interruption to Jesus’ preaching was more annoying than a mobile phone going off during a service! But at first sight Jesus’ mother and brother’s request to see him seems quite reasonable. We might think it must be important for them to come all this way from their home town, and not just one or two but all of them- perhaps it was a family emergency, someone was ill or had died. What was the problem with Jesus just taking a few minutes out to see what they wanted? In fact the potential serious nature of their visit seems to be underscored by the fact that they managed to persuade someone who was on the edge of the crowd to get the message through to Jesus as they were stuck outside. Furthermore, in this culture this was not the way sons treated their mother, not only by refusing to give her an audience, but by the apparent denigration of her in what he says later, more or less writing her off. This is shocking stuff!
So why is this an unwelcomed interruption? Well, think about what Jesus is doing-he is talking to a crowd whom he calls disciples which means ‘learners’, which means he is teaching them. There is no mistaking that preaching is central to Jesus task as the Servant of the Lord whose mission, according to Isaiah 61, is all to do with proclamation. And if you glance down at what comes next in the Gospel you will see that it is Jesus’ teaching about the parable of the sower and the vital importance of listening to the Gospel and not allowing anything or anyone to snatch away the seed of the message. So whether they realised it or not, whether they meant it or not, that is what Mary and his brothers were in danger of doing with the crowd by their intrusion-snatching away the Gospel seed and Jesus will not allow it. Even his own brothers and mother, precious though they are, must take second place to the Kingdom of God and the mission of the King.
When you think about it, Jesus is only practising what he preached- look back at chapter 10:37, ‘Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’ Jesus’ worth far exceeds that of anyone or anything else- his mission takes priority over everything else- it is that important.
Think of it like this: can you imagine a surgeon in the middle of a delicate operation with the patient laid out on the operating table, scalpel in hand having to deal with an orderly who comes in with the message that his wife is on the phone could she speak to him? That is not as absurd and illustration as you may think, because as Jesus parable is about to go on to show in the next chapter, people’s lives are at stake depending upon how they respond to Jesus’ teaching. Here is the spiritual physician par excellence with his patients and he is not to be side tracked- even by his own family.
One of the reasons why we think Jesus might be acting unreasonably is because we fail to appreciate the seriousness of preaching. It was the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who said, ‘Everything essentially Christian must have in its presentation a resemblance to the way a physician speaks at a sickbed.’ (rpt.) Human beings a seriously sick- having a ‘sickness unto death’ to use Kierkegaard’s phrase, and the Gospel is the only remedy, so you don’t mess with that either by not paying attention to it or by distracting others from paying attention. This is literally a matter of life and death we do here each Sunday. That is why this interruption, as is every interruption to the proclamation of God’s word, is unwanted- however unintended.
But then we have a surprising declaration, vv 48-49, ‘He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.’
Do you understand what Jesus has just done by saying these words? He has relativised the family, that is, with the coming of Jesus Christ claims of natural relations are never absolute in comparison to the claims of Christ, and total devotion to Jesus may at times prevent even biblically sanctioned forms of respect and affection. Later on in the gospel Jesus castigates the Pharisees for weakening and in effect setting aside God’s law regarding our obligation to honour our parents (15:6), calling them hypocrites. Even when he was hanging on the cross bathed in sweat and crippled with pain, Jesus still had his mother’s wellbeing at heart and asked the disciple John to treat her as his own mother (Jn.19:26). But allegiance to Jesus, if the crunch comes, must take priority even over our nearest and dearest. It is not easy when a student who, because of their devotion to Christ, abandons the career hoped for by parents who were denied such an education because they feel called to paid ministry instead. I remember when Heather and I were at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where John Piper was minister, he was saying how he had actually received death threats from parents of students who, under his ministry, decided to go out into the mission field. Of course Christian parents have to face such decisions too when they see their children leave the country for some far flung place in order to serve Christ- it is hard, but it is only following through what Jesus has established here: that he and his spiritual family come first- he has an absolute claim on our lives whereas everyone else has a relative claim- especially relatives!
You see, Jesus by refusing to see his own mother and brothers when they turn up unannounced on the doorstep interrupting his ministry, is simply modelling to us what this looks like- it can be hard and appear harsh, but his ministry must always come first, as God must always come first, and if anything else takes that place in our affections and allegiance- the Bible’s word for them is idols.
So, against this cultures high view of family and kinship what Jesus says is surprising to say the least- it is shocking. However, this is not so much a putting down of family ties as a putting them in their place and this happens by Jesus putting himself and his people in their place which is very exalted indeed,
Let me explain.
When Jesus points to his disciples who are sitting there hanging on every words coming from his lips and says, ‘Behold, my mother and brothers’ he is saying something quite breathtaking. Jesus is making it known that this family of disciples is more precious, much closer in kinship, more intimately related to him than his own flesh and blood. If you are a Christian man here tonight you are closer to Jesus’s own heart than was his brother Jude when they used to play together in Nazareth. If you are an older Christian woman, Jesus has an affection towards you which is not even exceeded by his affection towards his own mother Mary, you are like a mother to him.
Do you not think that Jesus loved his mother? She gave birth to him as a teenager risking being branded with a terrible social stigma; she fed him, bathed him, clothed him, taught him to walk and talk. These are his brothers he would have played with, studied with- hung around with. This was a very closely knit family joined by blood. But no matter how close and valued was that family, his new family is closer and more highly valued still.
Notice how twice Jesus family is described as being ‘outside’. Certainly that is where they were physically- outside the house not able get in. But more than that, at this stage they are outside in a spiritual sense- for why were they not with the other disciples in the crowd listening to Jesus?
Let me say this: close proximity to Jesus to does not mean close fellowship with Jesus. One can be so near-just outside, but not near enough. A familial relationship with Jesus does not guarantee a saving relationship with Jesus. Being found here within these four walls each Sunday need not make you a Christian than you being found in a garage makes you a car. Having Christian parents does not guarantee your safety when it comes to the day of judgement, they cannot save you, only Jesus can do that, which is why you need to get rightly related to him personally.
What we have in this crowd gathered around Jesus who is teaching them is the nothing less than nascent church. The word ‘church’ in Greek simply means ‘gathering’ – ekklesia- it was a common word for ‘crowd’. The church is the crowd of believers gathered around Christ. And what do they do when then gather around him? They listen to his teaching. That is what the church is in the New Testament. Just look around you. This is quite a mix of people who, I would suggest would not normally be associated with each other. What brings us together and unites us is Christ, called to him by the Gospel message, united to him by the Holy Spirit so all the good associations the terms brothers and sisters conjure up- love, commitment, loyalty, affection, oneness- is what we have. There is no group on earth which should even begin to resemble this family which Christ has created out of his own body broken and blood shed on the cross and we should guard it jealously, with our lives if necessary, after all, Jesus gave up his for this.
But if being near Jesus or even being physically related to Jesus does not qualify someone to be a member of his spiritual family, then what does?
Here we come to our third heading: a necessary requirement-v50, ‘For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
It can almost pass unnoticed but Jesus has just made a great claim for himself in that statement. He speaks of ‘my Father in heaven.’ Jesus always made a distinction between himself and his disciples by saying ‘my Father’ and ‘your Father’- never ‘our Father’ which included himself. Jesus was the eternal Son having an intimate filial relationship with His Father with whom he shared his divinity. He was Son by divine identification, but now, through being related to him as our elder brother (Heb.2:11), we become sons by adoption. Through the Virgin Mary in the incarnation Jesus united himself with humanity for ever, and as a result of him dying and rising for us we become united to him with divinity for ever- as the apostle Peter puts it we become ‘partakers of the Divine glory’ (2 Peter 1:4). As human blood pulsed through Jesus body, divine life now pulses through ours.
But there is a requirement necessary for this to become a personal reality- as Jesus puts it, ‘whoever does the will of my Father in heaven.’ This doesn’t describe how we become part of his family. It identifies who is part of his family. Jesus has already said something similar at the end of the Sermon of the Mount, chapter 7:21ff, ‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ [And we come to those words you never ever want to hear]. Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Preaching the Gospel doesn’t identify you as a Christian. Performing miracles doesn’t mark you out as a believer. There is only one thing which does that according to Jesus, viz. ‘doing the will of his Father.’ How do we know what that is? How do we know what Jesus would do? We read about it here in the Bible.
Now in the light of this should not alarm bells ring and genuine concern be expressed when those who claim to belong to Jesus family spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make the Bible say the opposite to what it does say? Here is the crowd keenly listening to Jesus in order to put into effect the will of Jesus’ Father. But it seems to me that for the last thirty years in the Church of England attempts have been and are being made to twist that will so it conforms to our will and that of society especially in the area of homosexual and wider sexual relations. You have to do a lot of fancy hermeneutical footwork to avoid the plain meaning of what the apostle Paul says, for example in 1 Thessalonians 4:2ff, ‘For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.’ I can’t see there being anything remotely ambiguous about that, can you? If you are here this evening and are deliberately going against this teaching then you are not doing the will of Jesus’ Father in heaven and so a question mark hangs over your identity as member of his family. I am not talking about moral slippage- but a set direction. And Jesus calls us to stop, turn around and submit to him-that is what Jesus would have us do.
So according to Jesus teaching in this passage where does our true identity and value lie? I love the way the writer Dr Jim Packer puts it: ‘I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer. My saviour is my brother; every Christian is my brother too.’ And then he writes this, ‘Say it over and over to yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you wait for the bus, any time when your mind is free, and ask that you may be enabled to live as one who knows it is all utterly and completely true.’
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