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Lesson Plan for Matthew 15-17; Mark 7-9

 


After coming off a week of study about the events of that first Easter week, this lesson is a perfect follow-up. With that said, we ought to remember where we were in our reading. In the previous week, we have Jesus feeding the 5 thousand. In this week's reading, he does the same miracle for 4 thousand individuals. The meaning of this miracle was elucidated by the Savior in His sermon about the bread of life in John 6.

"I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst." (see John 6:35)

Interstingly, this bread spoken of takes on increased meaning when we understand the Hebrew for bread ('lehem') can just as literally mean 'flesh' or 'fruit'. Jesus' words would have not only invoked imagery of manna from heaven for His audience but the imagery of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden. In short, this bread of life was meant to be a dual symbol of manna and the fruit of the Tree of Life. As previously noted, it could also be seen as flesh, which might teach us a thing or two about the ordinance of the sacrament.

With all of this said, this sets the stage for what happens in Matthew 15 and the beginning of Matthew 16. Jesus has already told us plainly that He and His gospel are the only way to partake of the Tree of Life (For more on this, see Alma 32:38-43 & Rev 2:7). The manna parallel would have highlighted who He really was for the Israelite audience and the fruit parallel would have highlighted His saving and redeeming power.

BREAD & WORLDVIEWS

The Pharisees approach Jesus, in the spirit of fault-finding, to ask Him why the disciples do not wash their hands before they eat or perform religious duties. This was a law from the oral tradition that was not original to Torah. Jesus cleverly responds with another question, the question shows the hypocrisy of the questioners. Jesus brings up how one of the original Ten Commandments commanded them to honor and take care of their mothers and fathers, but the oral tradition had implemented a tradition where they could declare their money and assets as "consecrated" so it would not have to be used to help their parents in old age. This is why Jesus condemns them for "drawing near to me with their mouth... but their heart is far from me... in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (see Matthew 15:1-9). Jesus goes on to warn that "every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up" (see Matthew 15:13)

Moving on and building upon the theme of bread and fruit, we have Jesus with an odd exchange with a Gentile Greek-speaking woman. She comes to the Savior desperately seeking healing for her daughter. Jesus appears to ignore her at first, but she persists in worshiping the Lord at His feet and asking for help.

READ Matthew 15:26-28

26 But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.

27 And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.

28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

The "children's bread" referred to the children of Israel, those of the covenant. Jesus might appear to imply the woman is a dog here, but cultural context helps. The Greek word used here, 'kynarion', is in reference to a household pet. While dogs were typically looked down upon in ancient Jewish culture, the Greeks and other cultures very much enjoyed the loyal companionship of these household pets. In other words, Jesus was ministering individually to this woman based on her understanding (1)(2). He sought to prove her Faith, and she does so movingly with her response. Jesus ends up healing her daughter.

This story is deliberately placed here as it, again, reflects the meaning of the bread of life and how it is for all people.

To continue to build up, Jesus goes to a mountain and feeds 4 thousand people. This time the bread and fish are associated heavily with the number seven; for there were seven loaves and then seven baskets full left over (see Matthew 15:32-38). The number seven in the Old & New Testament "symbolizes completeness and perfection" (3). The implication is summed up well by Elder Holland:

"Don’t worry about Christ running out of ability to help you. His grace is sufficient [or complete]. That is the spiritual, eternal lesson of the feeding of the five [& four] thousand." (4)

Jesus is then approached by Pharisees & the Sadducees seeking a sign. It has a tinge of irony as this happens shortly after Jesus had just fed 9 thousand people through multiplying loaves and fishes? He refuses to give them a visible sign at that time and, instead, gives them the sign of Jonah, foretelling His eventual death and resurrection.

Jesus and the disciples depart when Jesus teaches them an important lesson about bread again.

READ Matthew 16:6 & 12

6 ¶ Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.

12 Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.

QUESTION: Christ is the bread of life and he invokes the leaven here which we can interpret as sourdough. The bread that results is only as good as the mother dough from which it sprang. Christ is admitting that the beginnings of the Pharisees' and Sadducees' doctrine have good things, but when it is taken to its full effect it will result in poor bread. How can we liken that to ourselves? What things in our life might 'give us life', but when taken too far end up being like the bad leaven for our souls?

Two Christian Psychologists speak of how bad leaven comes into our minds; they refer to them as 'worldviews' that can creep into our lives and distract us from more pure 'bread of life':

"... worldviews [do not] begin as theories or intellectual systems that mold the lives and beliefs of most people. Instead, the most powerful influences come from worldviews that emerge from culture. They are all around us, but are so deeply embedded in culture that we don’t see them. In other words, these worldviews are hidden in plain sight.

[W]e are more likely to absorb them from cultural contact than adopt them through a rational evaluation of competing theories. … Because of their stealthy nature, these worldviews find their way behind the church doors, mixed in with Christian ideas and sometimes identified as Christian positions." (5)

Generally speaking, the ancient Jewish leaders of Jesus' day were influenced by various doctrines, worldviews, and even labels. President Nelson a year ago spoke of these worldviews or labels we might attach to ourselves:

"Labels can be fun and indicate your support for any number of positive things. But if any label replaces your most important identifiers, the results can be spiritually suffocating. I believe that if the Lord were speaking to you directly, the first thing He would make sure you understand is your true identity. My dear friends, you are literally spirit children of God. No identifier should displace, replace, or take priority over these three enduring designations:

- Child of God

- Child of the covenant

- Disciple of Jesus Christ

Any identifier that is not compatible with those three basic designations will ultimately let you down. Make no mistake about it: Your potential is divine. With your diligent seeking, God will give you glimpses of who you may become." (6)

There is much labeling, worldviews, and bad leaven in our time. They might be good when used in their proper proportion but can easily run amok.

THE CONFESSION, ROCK, & SEALING POWER

We return back to the text where all of this talk of bread comes to a head. I think it is worth noting that many New Testament scholars believe the Gospel of Mark (which shares 90% of the same material as the Gospel of Matthew) was originally written as a play. Imagine the previous events organized in such a way to highlight Jesus as the Bread of Life but also slowly leading up to two of the more sacred events in the gospels. 

READ Matthew 16:13-19

13 ¶ When Jesus came into the coasts of C├Žsarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?

14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.

15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?

16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.

17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

QUESTION:

Why is it important to see Christ for who he really is? How do we do that?

Elder Neal A. Maxwell once taught:

"At the center of the Father’s plan is Jesus Christ, mankind’s Redeemer. Yet, as foreseen, many judge Jesus “to be a thing of naught”  or “consider him” merely “a man.” Whether others deny or delimit Jesus, for us He is our Lord and Savior! Comparatively, brothers and sisters, it matters very little what people think of us, but it matters very much what we think of Him. It matters very little, too, who others say we are; what matters is who we say Jesus is." (7)

 "If we choose...the course of discipleship, we will...move from what may be initially a mere acknowledgment of Jesus on to admiration of Jesus, then on to adoration of Jesus, and finally to emulation of Jesus." (8)

Jesus tells Peter that revelation is the reason he knows this. It is the same for us. "[Christ] stands revealed or remains forever unknown" (9). Jesus goes on to promise Peter that he will be given the sealing powers (which might just happen in the next chapter). An interesting note here that often goes unnoticed is that Jesus is specifically referring to the salvation of the dead in verse 18. Hugh Nibley has written extensively about this (10) noting that the 'gates of Hell' is more accurately translated as the 'gates of Hades'. 'Hades' is the Greek term for the abode of disembodied spirits (11). With that understanding, we literally read verses 18-19 as the sealing power coming through to burst open the gate of Hades to let the spirits of the dead out. The gates of Hades will not prevail against the power of Christ; His sealing and revelatory power is given to Peter and to all who follow the same path.

After this, we get Jesus more explicitly revealing how He will die to his disciples. Peter, who had just witnessed of the divinity of Christ, has a hard time accepting the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah. In verse 23 we get something in the Greek that the KJV totally misses, maybe on purpose. Christ calls Peter 'an offense unto [Him]', or more literally 'a trap' or 'stumbling block'. The Greek for Satan means literally 'adversary' or 'accuser'. In short, virtually all New Testament Scholars read this verse as Jesus lashing out at Peter because He is beginning, even at this moment, to feel the weight of the eventual Atonement He would have to perform. Jesus, more accurately, is telling Peter to not test His resolve because He is already being tempted enough.

THE MOUNT OF TRANSFIGURATION

Even so, the Lord takes his three closest disciples with Him on top of a high mountain. This was most likely Mount Tabor in Galilee. This prominent mountain in that region stands almost 2,000 feet high and would have been the perfect Holy Spot for Christ to fully unveil himself. The top of the mount is known for having clouds easily descend and enclose to the point you can't see but a few yards around you.

READ Matthew 17:1-9

1 And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,

2 And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.

3 And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.

4 Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.

5 While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.

6 And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.

7 And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid.

8 And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.

9 And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.

We are not told much in scripture about what happened on top of the mount, but we are told some. For example, in D&C 63:21 we are told the three apostles saw the whole world in its future transfigured state. You can imagine, therefore, how they might see the world differently after this experience. We also know this event has strong parallels to what happened in the Kirtland Temple on April 3rd, 1836. Joseph Smith said it plainly when he wrote that "The Savior, Moses, and Elias [Elijah], gave the keys to Peter, James, and John, on the mount, when they were transfigured before him" (12)

Wonderfully, we have Peter reflecting on this experience later on in scripture where he details how he felt about it many years later.

READ 2 Peter 1:16-19

16 For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

17 For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

18 And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount.

19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:

Plainer translations make it clearer that Peter, James, and John received what is called a "more sure word of prophecy" on top of the mount (for meaning, see D&C 131:5) . Interestingly, the Greek for 'eyewitnesses' ('epoptai') was a name-title for ancient near east temple-centered religions; in that context, scholars say it can also mean 'endowed' (13).

I wish to remind the reader that Peter and Jesus just had somewhat of an altercation before this experience that highlighted Jesus beginning to feel the weight of His last days upon him. James E. Talmage has written:

"In faithfully treading the path of His life's work, He had reached the verge of the valley of the shadow of death; and the human part of His nature called for refreshing. As angels had been sent to minister unto Him after the trying scenes of the forty days' fast and the direct temptation of Satan, and as, in the agonizing hour of His bloody sweat. He was to be sustained anew by angelic ministry, so at this critical and crucial period, the beginning of the end, visitants from the unseen world came to comfort and support Him." (Jesus the Christ, Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Co., 1972, p. 373)

QUESTION:

What lessons and principles can we learn from this and the previous experiences about what coming to know the Lord looks like?

Some things that might be worth thinking about:

  • For even the best among us, coming to know Jesus and having Him revealed to us is a process that happens line upon line. How many miracles did the apostles have to see before they had the Lord unveiled to them?
  • Also, we note the weakness some of these men had even after the Mount of Transfiguration experience. It might just suggest that perfection is not the expectation, but the expectation is to be as closely connected to the Lord through our covenants as we can be.
  • It also highlights the difficult things these men still had to go through after such an experience. The lot of discipleship is to be made perfect through weakness. A perfect brightness of hope comes through that can be obtained in no other way.
Some wonderful thoughts from a former administrator of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion highlight what this story might mean to us here and now:

"Sometimes, especially in the midst of a discouraging season of adversity and struggle, we long to remain on the mountain, free from disturbances, irritations, and the expectations of others. But, as much as we may treasure these moments on the mountaintop, the time comes to descend and rejoin everyday life. Elder Neal A. Maxwell explained that “extended spiritual reveries … might induce in us a regrettable forgetfulness of others in deep need” (“Enduring Well,” Ensign, Apr. 1997, 7).

The Lord wants us to return from the mountaintops to the valley so that we may bless and strengthen others. Among other things, He expects us to “teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom” (D&C 88:77) and to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5). We cannot accomplish those things isolated on a mountaintop. As it was once expressed to me, “We shouldn’t be so heavenly-minded that we’re of no earthly good." (14)

CONCLUSION: THEY COME OFF THE MOUNTAINTOP, THEREFORE WHAT

Jesus comes off the mountaintop and the first story we get in Mark is about the disciples having trouble casting out a "foul spirit" within a young boy. The father of the boy brings him to the Savior and, in a spirit of parental aching, terror, and pleading, tells the Lord he believes, but to help him in his unbelief. The Lord marvels at this response and ends up casting out the demon and raises up the child from a seemingly comatose state (see Mark 9:17-27). Elder Holland gives us this insight:

"... when facing the challenge of faith, the father [of the boy] asserts his strength first and only then acknowledges his limitation. His initial declaration is affirmative and without hesitation: “Lord, I believe.” I would say to all who wish for more faith, remember this man! In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited... When problems come and questions arise, do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do not have, leading as it were with your “unbelief.” That is like trying to stuff a turkey through the beak! Let me be clear on this point: I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I am asking you to be true to the faith you do have. Sometimes we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. It is not! So let us all remember the clear message of this scriptural account: Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But if you and your family want to be healed, don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle." (15)

The next story we get stands in stark contrast to the heavenly events we get on the Mount of Transfiguration. The disciples wonder who among them is the greatest. The Savior gives the classic response:

"If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all" (see Mark 9:35)

The Greek for 'servant' ('diakonos') is the same word used in the Greek for 'deacon', an office in the ancient church typically associated with caring for the poor and serving bread and water (16).

QUESTION:

What principles can we glean when we compare and contrast what happened here with what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration?

Elder Uchtdorf has taught:

"In God’s kingdom, greatness and leadership means seeing others as they truly are—as God sees them—and then reaching out and ministering to them. It means rejoicing with those who are happy, weeping with those who grieve, lifting up those in distress, and loving our neighbor as Christ loves us. The Savior loves all of God’s children regardless of their socioeconomic circumstance, race, religion, language, political orientation, nationality, or any other grouping. And so should we! God’s greatest reward goes to those who serve without expectation of reward. It goes to those who serve without fanfare; those who quietly go about seeking ways to help others; those who minister to others simply because they love God and God’s children." (17)

 In other words, if we want to be on mountaintops, we must work in the valley for the salvation of others.


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