EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Straight to the Heart of Matthew by Phil Moore (Monarch Books).
He will save his people from their sins… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit… He will clear his threshing floor. (Matthew 1:21; 3:11-12)
We need to take a theology lesson from the singer Meat Loaf. His lyrics are full of tongue-in-cheek irony, and one of his greatest is "I want you, I need you, but there ain't no way I'm ever gonna love you. Now don't be sad, 'cause two out of three ain't bad". It's a parody of the Elvis Presley title "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You", and he uses this scaled-down version of the promise to point out something very obvious: when it comes to romance, love is essential. Two out of three is bad.
Matthew teaches us the same principle as Meat Loaf when he talks about the mission of Jesus Christ. He begins his gospel with three clear statements about Jesus' mission, and he calls us to embrace this three-dimensional view of why he came to Planet Earth. If we miss one of them, we will only follow a two-dimensional shadow of the real Jesus, and when it comes to following Jesus, two out of three is very bad indeed.
The first aspect of Jesus' mission is perhaps the most obvious. Matthew quotes the words that the angel spoke to Joseph in 1:21, which commanded him that "you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins". Jesus was the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua and a very common boy's name of the day, but Matthew wants us to grasp a deeper meaning behind the name. Jesus would be a new and better Joshua, not stepping into the River Jordan to part it en route to conquering the Canaanites, but stepping into it to be baptized en route to conquering Satan and his demons.2 Moses renamed his servant Joshua, and Joseph named his baby Jesus, because it meant Yahweh-Saves or Yahweh-to-the-Rescue.3 This was the first dimension of Jesus' mission. He would live how we should live and die how we should die, so that God could forgive and justify all those who are part of "his people".4
John the Baptist proclaimed the second aspect of Jesus' mission in 3:11, telling us that Jesus "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire". Now that's very interesting. Some people talk as if the Gospel is all about forgiveness, but John tells us that it isn't. Forgiveness is not the goal of the Gospel; it is merely the means by which we receive the Gospel. The Christian life is no more about being forgiven than my house is about the hallway. It's the entry point, and everyone must pass through it en route to the other rooms of the house, but it's not the destination. Forgiveness is what brings us into deep relationship with God and with his People, so that we can dwell with Christ in heaven, and Christ can dwell in us on earth. Paul tells us that being filled with the Holy Spirit is at the very heart of the Gospel, since Jesus died "so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit".5 If we treat forgiveness as the purpose of the Gospel and forget that Jesus wants to fill us with his Spirit, we will never grow into mature Christians.
Matthew stresses the third aspect of Jesus' mission in the following verse, 3:12, telling us that "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire". Jesus came to expose each person as wheat destined for the barn of heaven, or as chaff destined for the unquenchable fire of hell.6 Many people told him this was unfashionable and that he must try to be more inclusive, but he was undeterred. He warned them, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth… I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law'." 7 Before the arrival of the Messiah, the Pharisees and the Jewish nation looked devout, while the tax collectors, prostitutes and Gentile nations did not. Jesus came to expose people for what they really are, and to warn them of stern judgment unless they repent. If we fail to grasp this or either of the other two dimensions of Jesus' ministry, then two out of three is very bad.
If we stress Jesus-the-Saviour and Jesus-the-Judge but neglect Jesus-the-Baptizer-with-the-Holy-Spirit, we reduce the Gospel to formalism. Ironically, most Christians who do so pride themselves on being Bible-believing and Gospel-centered, even though they have cut the heart out of the Gospel. They preach forgiveness and salvation from hell, but they have removed what makes the Gospel such Good News. They tell unbelievers that they can be forgiven for sins they don't know they have committed, and saved from a hell they don't know exists, and they wonder why they fail to respond. The reason is very simple: the unbelievers see their lives. Their two-dimensional gospel offers great hope for the next life but very little for the present. They have castrated the real, three-dimensional Gospel by removing the intimate life which comes from being filled with the Holy Spirit.
If we stress Jesus-the-Judge and Jesus-the-Baptizer-with-the-Holy-Spirit but neglect Jesus-the-Saviour, we stumble into legalism. When God works powerfully to revive a church, this is a particular danger for the next generation. They know that hell is real, and they know about the Holy Spirit, but they forget that their parents received the Gospel by grace through faith, not by their own prayers or exertions. If they are not careful, they sink into good works and judgmentalism, which is ironically the very thing that their parents hated and rejected in the excitement of revival.
If we stress Jesus-the-Saviour and Jesus-the-Baptizer-with-the-Holy-Spirit, but neglect Jesus-the-Judge, we reduce Christianity to mere sentimentalism. We may show great zeal for God and great thirst to experience God. We may even travel the world in pursuit of revival or the latest "outpouring", but we will never become mature disciples. We have failed to lay one of the main foundations of Christian discipleship, which Jesus tells us is to "be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell".8 Christ-followers do not fear losing their salvation, but they do fear the Lord with a holy and healthy fear.9 It helps keep them from sinning and makes the sinners around them want to follow Jesus too.10 Fear is infectious, and when unbelievers see that we truly fear our God they start to fear him too.
Matthew emphasizes these three strands to Jesus' mission at the start of his gospel because he wants to teach us to follow the real Jesus and to proclaim his three-dimensional message to the world he died to save. We need to learn from the great theologian Meat Loaf and to make sure that we do not neglect any part of Jesus' mission. Otherwise we will learn that two out of three is bad.
2 Matthew 8:29; 25:41.
3 Numbers 13:16.
4 The Greek word used for people in 1:21 is laos, which was used to refer specifically to the People of God.
5 Galatians 3:14.
6 Matthew 18:8; 25:41; Mark 9:43, 48.
7 Matthew 10:34-35. The final prophecies in the Old Testament particularly focused on this aspect of the Messiah's great mission; see Malachi 3:1-4; 3:16-4:6.
8 Matthew 10:28.
9 Ecclesiastes 12:13; 2 Corinthians 5:11; 1 Peter 2:17; Revelation 14:7.
10 Exodus 20:20.
Copyright 2010 Phil Moore
Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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Grand Rapids, MI 49501