“I wonder how long God wants us to stay here.” These words tumbled out of my mouth while walking with my wife around the neighborhood where we had moved to just a few years earlier. Even now, more than 15 years later, I still remember the quizzical look she gave me.
After moving to a new town a few years earlier, we had settled in. We had a close community of friends, a church we loved, and good jobs that we enjoyed. We even bought our first place and poured hours into fixing it up. Why would we move again?
Honestly, I don’t know what possessed me to utter this phrase other than a sense that perhaps God had other plans for our future than we currently couldn’t foresee. As I listened to the Lord’s prompting and started the discussion with Misty, we were both suddenly open to the new possibilities of where God might lead us. Soon, we sold our little condo and we packed up to move to a different state.
I must say, however, that I’m not one who easily embraces change. While we were certainly excited for a new adventure, the prospect of a major move to another state where we had no jobs (with a four-month old baby!) felt more than just a little daunting.
Climbing Matthew’s Great Mountain
When you are faced with change how do you respond? Perhaps you feel like a pioneer crossing the Great Plains only to encounter the Rocky Mountains. Suddenly the grand sense of adventure fades as you become consumed by a sense of being overwhelmed.
Handling a significant transition in our lives can certainly feel like climbing a great mountain. Setting out to climb a mountain brings with it a sense of excitement and anticipation. But it can also feel intimidating with all the required preparation as well as the unforeseen obstacles along the way.
Since the first phase of our journey centers around waking up to a new reality and beginning again, climbing a mountain serves as an appropriate metaphor for launching our spiritual journey. It’s also fitting, then, that mountainous terrain figures prominently into Matthew’s Gospel, which serves as our guide for this first stage. In fact, as we shall see, there are several pivotal moments of Matthew’s account all take place in a mountain setting.
Hearing God’s Voice from the Mountain
The theme of mountains found in Matthew’s Gospel would have also struck a chord with his first readers — the Messianic Jews of Syrian Antioch in the 70s AD. These Jews, who had embraced Jesus as the Messiah, would likely have been socially outcast from the larger population of Jews now living in Antioch. But remember that these Messianic Jews — the first Christians — still held close ties to their Jewish roots.
Up until recently, Jewish life had centered around the Temple that stood upon Jesusalem’s Mount Zion. After the fall of the Temple in 70 AD, many Jews fled to Syrian Antioch (just 300 miles or about a week’s journey from Jerusalem) and it became the city with the largest Jewish population.
At the time that Matthew writes his Gospel account, the Jewish community in Antioch is in despair that the Temple has been destroyed and, with it, their understanding of their connection to God. They would naturally be searching for God to speak to them from a mountaintop as he had in the past, assuring them of his presence among them in the midst of this tragedy.
In fact, this is exactly what Matthew provides in his Gospel. He portrays Jesus as a new Moses. Just as Moses received the Law directly from God on a mountaintop (Exodus 19–20), now Matthew features Jesus directly giving his people a new way to live in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7). This is the first of Matthew’s key mountaintop events.
However, these followers of Jesus faced stiff opposition to their new way of life from the predominant faction of Jews, the Pharisees. Some of them presumed that the destruction of the Temple had resulted from God’s wrath due to the Jews’ lack of religious observance.
“These Pharisees, therefore, sought to unify Judaism through a more diligent observance of Mosaic law and ritual practice,” observes Alexander Shaia. “They maintained it was only by these means that the Temple would be restored and the promised Jewish Messiah would finally arrive.” The Messianic Jews, therefore, would have faced tremendous pressure from the Pharisees and their followers to forsake their faith in Jesus and return to a strict observance of their Jewish traditions.
However, Jesus makes it clear that God is concerned not just with our outward behavior (e.g. keeping the law by following regulations), but also with our inward motivations. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes the Pharisees’ concern with outward purity and turns it on it head. He repeatedly uses the phrase, “You have heard it said…, but I tell you…” (Matt 5:21–22, 27–28, 31–32, 33–34, 38–39, 43–44). Each time Jesus takes the Pharisees to task, chiding their emphasis on outward behavior while neglecting the inner condition of the heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” he asserts, “for they will see God.”(Matt 5:8).
Matthew’s Gospel provides the Messianic Jews of Syrian Antioch with a strong affirmation that following Jesus’ new way do not require adherence to strict outward behaviors. Rather it necessitates a transformation of the heart, which provides the inward motivation for our outward actions.
Trust Trumps Tradition
And this is where it gets tricky. When Jesus transforms our hearts, it can lead to some outward behaviors that can look rather unconventional — as our friend Joseph discovered on numerous occasions. Last week we saw how Joseph accepted an unlikely invitation to marry a woman who was pregnant with a child that was not his own. This would have been not just unconventional in his cultural context; very likely he would have been shunned by his community as a result of his decision.
The Messianic Jews could easily relate to Joseph. Like him, their decision to forsake their Jewish tradition in favor of following Jesus’ new way came at a high cost. Like Joseph, their choice to embrace Jesus made them outcasts from their Jewish community and even from their own families.
Yet, Matthew sets Joseph up as a powerful example of courage and trust whom his readers should imitate. He highlights Joseph for his repeated willingness to listen to and obey when God calls on him to make what seem to be unpopular or even seemingly absurd choices (Matt 1:18–25; 2:13–23). Seek safety in Egypt, the place of the Israelites’ enslavement and oppression? Joseph doesn’t hesitate when God leads (Matt 2:13-18).
Matthew goes out of his way to call attention to the fact that, in God’s eyes, willingness to listen and obey carries far more weight than human tradition or conventional wisdom. While traditions are wonderful and can hold deep meaning, they can also hold us back —particularly here at the beginning of our spiritual journey.
Traditions can in fact become idols when we rely on them to provide us with a sense of security. At times of significant change in our lives we are particularly vulnerable to grasping onto well-worn conventions to give us a sense of stability. Yet, Matthew warns us that such customs and norms, even those that are meant to promote obedience to God, can actually become obstacles to stepping out in faith when God calls us to move forward.
Facing Change by Embracing a New Way
So what does all this mean for us when we face change? Matthew’s Gospel meets us at the moment of transition in our lives and encourages us to listen for God’s voice and trust in him — even when doing so means defying cultural norms or long-held traditions.
When everything we hold dear is suddenly pulled out from under us, Matthew’s Gospel helps us navigate life’s changes by reminding us that our security is found not in our traditions, but in our trust in God. He challenges us to not only wake up and courageously face our new reality, but also to embrace the call that Jesus issues to us to follow him in a new way of living.
Clearly, Matthew understands that faithfully following Jesus into uncharted territory can be costly. For many of his readers, the choice to trust in Jesus would certainly come at a steep price. Yet it also comes with something far greater. Next week, we’ll look at what that is and how the Gospel of Matthew equips us for the next stage of our journey.
- What are some family or cultural traditions that are important in your life?
- When have you sensed God calling you to let go of something that you held onto for security (a relationship, a belief, a tradition, a role, a possession, a custom)? How did you respond?
- Have you ever experienced pushback from your family, community, or culture when you went against a long-held or deep-seated tradition? How did it feel? How did you handle it?
- How have you experienced pressure from your culture to go against your faith (in small or large ways)?
AUTHORING + DESIGN CREDITS
✍️ Credit :: Matt Rhodes
📸 Credit :: Matt Rhodes
🎨 Credit :: Matt Rhodes