“It’s time to consider your verdict.”
So says the judge to the members of a jury after all the evidence has been heard and summed up.
If you’ve ever served on a jury, you’ll know that you then retire to a special room to consider the evidence you’ve heard. You mustn’t be swayed by anything outside. Reports in the media. You can’t look up the defendant on Facebook. You mustn’t discuss the case at home. The evidence you’ve heard should be enough to reach a verdict. Your task is to consider that evidence.
It’s not unlike that as a person considers the claims of Jesus. You can look at the evidence, but then there comes a point when you need to make up your mind.
That’s the point we’ve reached in Matthew’s gospel.
Matthew’s being telling us who Jesus is. Supremely, he wants us to know that Jesus is the Messiah – the king that the Jewish people had been waiting for centuries for. The one God would send to mend all that is wrong in this world, to make the world great again.
Matthew’s given us lots of evidence to back up his claim. In chapters 5 to 7, we saw Jesus teach with great authority. In chapters 8 and 9, we saw Jesus act with great authority, performing great miracles. In the chapters that followed, we’ve seen different people react to Jesus in different ways.
And now he pauses to sum up. Who do you say Jesus is? In the very next passage, Jesus will ask just this question of his disciples. Verse 15: “Who do you say I am?”
It’s a moment of climax in Matthew’s gospel. It’s also a moment where the action pauses. We’ve been surrounded by a swirl of Jesus teaching and performing great miracles. Suddenly, in the eye of the storm, there’s a moment of quiet. An invitation to stop and think. What do you make of all this?
“It’s time to consider your verdict.”
If you’re still looking into the claims of Jesus, obviously this is one for you. It may be less obvious, but Matthew wants those of us who do follow Jesus to pause as well. We’re going to see Jesus’ disciples are in as much need to consider the evidence as others are. We’ll see why as we look at this.
Our reading falls into two halves. In each half we meet a group of people who fail to look at the evidence in front of them. They do so for slightly different reasons. We’re going to look at each group, and see how they came to fail to examine the evidence. And we’ll look at the evidence they should have paid attention to. And so we’ll learn what we need to do in order to be good, diligent members of the jury. How to avoid falling into the traps made by the not so good jurors in this story. How to look at the evidence for Jesus properly ourselves.
The Pharisees and Sadducees
First, we meet the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These were two extremely keen religious orders. They were quite different groups, and you wouldn’t normally get them working together. But there’s nothing quite like a common enemy to unite people. So they turn up together. Verse 1: “The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.”
We met the Pharisees at the beginning of chapter 15 as well. They’d heard reports of what Jesus was doing, and they’d come to investigate. The crowds think Jesus is the Messiah. Could he prove it, by performing some sign, some miracle, something that will authenticate him, something that will them that heaven approves.
And he refuses. Why?
Verse 2 and 3: “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”
They already have signs from heaven. The problem is that they don’t know how to read them. They are not paying attention to the evidence they already have.
We can relate to Jesus’ picture can’t we. You go outside early one evening in March. The skies have gone a curious dark shade of grey. It doesn’t feel quite as cold as it was, although the temperature tells you it’s still around zero. And so you say to yourself: “I think it might snow”
The Pharisees could do that too. But they’re surrounded by evidence for who Jesus is. Countless miracles, each with many eyewitnesses. There isn’t just one report of a dubious healing from an obscure village, and the person who saw it has gone to fetch some water. Everywhere the crowds are buzzing about what they have seen and heard. The Pharisees can draw the obvious conclusion when it comes to the weather. They know when to bring in the washing. But they cannot, or will not, draw the obvious conclusion about Jesus.
What they need is not another sign. They need to learn how to read.
Go back to the jury sitting in the courtroom. All the evidence has been heard. There’s more than enough to reach a verdict. These Pharisees are the juror who sits in the deliberation room, and refuses to draw conclusions from the evidence that’s been presented. “If only the prosecution had provided some forensic evidence,” they say. They had. Plenty. It was compelling. “If only an eye witness to the attack had given their testimony before the court,” they say. They had. Ten of them.
And yet, tragically, it’s what many people do with Jesus as well. The evidence is there in front of them. Plenty of it. But instead of reading the evidence they’ve got, they ask Jesus to prove himself. People ask for the evidence to support the claims of Christianity. When what they should be doing is examining the evidence there already is.
A few years back, we had a fascinating evening in the Rising Sun pub. A friend of mine came and gave a talk, and then he took questions. He’s a church leader, but he’s also a scientist. He has a PhD in material science. The point we reached was exactly this. People were asking him quite hostile questions about what evidence there is for God. He remained gracious and calm. But he also ended up establishing that none of his questioners had read even one of the four accounts of the life of Jesus in the past ten years.
“More evidence,” we cry. When what we need to do is look at the evidence we already have.
And what evidence are the Pharisees and Sadducees failing to look at?
Well that comes in verse 4: “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” What does that refer to?
To find out, we have to turn back a few pages, to a previous time when the Pharisees asked for a sign. They got the same answer, but Jesus spelt it out in more detail. Turn back to chapter 12, verse 39: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah.”
It may be you don’t know the story of Jonah, although you may have heard of “Jonah and the whale.” Jonah was God’s most reluctant messenger.
God asked him to go and preach to the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, Israel’s great political enemy of the day. Jonah was to warn them that they had 40 days to turn from their wicked ways, or God would destroy Nineveh. He didn’t want to go, for a number of reasons, so he boarded a ship that was sailing in the opposite direction. He tried to run away from God.
You can’t hide from the God who made the oceans, and in fact a boat is pretty foolish place to try and hide. God sent a huge storm, and eventually Jonah confessed to the sailors that he was running away from God. He asked them to throw him into the sea, and immediately the storm died down. God had compassion on Jonah. He sent a huge fish to rescue him. Jonah sat inside the fish for three days and three nights, feeling sorry for himself, before the fish chucked him up on the beach.
And so, a second time, God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh. This time, he went. And to his horror, the Assyrians responded to his preaching. They mended their ways, and the city was spared.
Now, we’ve got no evidence that the people of Nineveh knew of Jonah’s time inside the fish. But they were convinced by Jonah that they needed to turn their lives around at God’s call.
Jesus says he’s going to outdo Jonah. He won’t be inside a fish for three days and nights. He’ll be inside a tomb. The people of Nineveh responded to someone who simply came back from a fish. The Pharisees had far greater evidence, they had someone who would come back from the dead. And yet this is not enough evidence for them. Which is why Jesus says that the men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it.
Picture the scene. It’s judgement day. You’re standing there, unprepared, unforgiven. That would be an awful place to be – please don’t let it happen to you. And God asks you why you’re unforgiven, when he’d done everything necessary for you to be forgiven. You mumble something about needing more evidence, aware that you don’t sound desperately convincing. So God asks you about the resurrection of Jesus. “Did that not convince you?” You’re aware that the honest answer would be: “I’d never properly looked into it.” But instead you say that you weren’t terribly impressed by it. And at this point, God calls his first witness, a man from Nineveh. A man who was convinced to turn his life around by a prophet who came back from a fish. If he’d said “yes” to God on the basis of that, how dare you say “no” to God when you’ve got the resurrection to refer to.
So here is the first group we meet. The Pharisees and the Sadducees fail to look at the evidence before them because they’re asking for more evidence. More proof. And in particular, they’ve failed to look properly at the resurrection of Jesus.
Now let’s meet the second group, Jesus’ disciples.
They also failed to look at the evidence properly, but not because they demanded more evidence. They had a slightly different reason.
Have a look at verse 6: “Be careful. Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Jesus warns them against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
By the end of the passage, we know that he’s referring to their teaching. Verse 12: “Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
Now, we must always read the Bible in context. This follows on from the previous story, where we had the unusual thing of meeting the Pharisees and Sadducees together. So Jesus must be referring back to the conversation that Jesus has just had with the Pharisees and Sadducees. He’s telling the disciples to beware of their cynicism. Of their failure to interpret the evidence in front of them.
And if you look at how the conversation unfolds, we can see that.
Matthew tells us that they’d forgotten to bring the bread for lunch. So they assume that Jesus’ comment about yeast is him having a go. He’s subtly nagging them for failing to bring bread.
They’ve completely misunderstood Jesus, and Jesus shows them that they have. They’ve just seen Jesus perform, not one, but two miracles in which he miraculously produced vast quantities of bread. How could he possibly be fazed by them failing to bring bread.
Do you see it? The disciples have done the same thing as the Pharisees. The evidence was there for them to see. The feeding miracles tell them that Jesus is not someone who needs them to provide the bread. But they’ve failed to interpret the evidence in front of them.
They do need this warning. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
But why does Jesus use this picture of “yeast”? Why does he not just say: “Be on your guard against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
Yeast adds a particular picture. It’s a picture of something spreading.
If you’ve ever made bread, by hand or in a bread machine, you’ll know you need to add yeast. But you really don’t need very much. About half a teaspoon of dried yeast is enough. You mix it in, until it’s spread through that huge lump of dough. If you think about it, it must be spread really quite thinly. The grains of yeast, dotted about really quite sparsely. But yet the yeast is alive It breathes, it grows, it spreads, and every time it breathes out it leaves a little bubble in your bread, until the whole lump of dough is light and fluffy.
Jesus calls the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees yeast because it’s the kind of thing that spreads. Once people start to question whether there’s any proper evidence for Jesus, other people start to repeat it, until everyone just assumes that the case for Christ is somewhat doubtful. This happens especially quickly if the people objecting are respected figures, religious leaders, people with public influence
The disciples, like the Pharisees, fail to examine the evidence in front of them. In their case, it’s not because they’re demanding more evidence. It’s because they’re picking up the scepticism that is the talk of the town.
People today are easily led by public opinion about Jesus, to the point that they don’t look properly at the evidence for themselves.
Let me give you a couple of examples.
The Independent newspaper runs a couple of websites, including one that’s more magazine format. Last summer they published an article entitled: “Historians are questioning if Jesus ever existed at all.”
Here’s a little extract for you: “Historians point out the lack of reliable historical sources. Most of the accounts of Jesus of course come from Christian sources – and even these are largely third party narratives written years after his death.
“In the Bible, there is no mention at all of Jesus’ life between the ages of 12 and 30 – a pretty glaring omission for a man who only lived to be 33.
“A further problem is that few of the biblical accounts have a real name attached to them – rather an apostle who “signs off” the manuscript.
“Where non-Christian sources exist, even these are problematic.”
Or another example, the author Philip Pullman. He’s well known as an opponent of Christianity. He once said this: “If there is a God, and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against.” He dislikes CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, because of their Christian overtones, so he wrote his own fantasy fiction to undermine and correct Narnia.
He’s also written a book retelling the life of Jesus. It’s called “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ”. Quite a bit of it is very familiar to the Jesus we know from the gospels. So much so, you could just think he’s retelling the familiar story. In fact, it’s doing something quite different. It tells the story of how Mary had two twin boys – one called Jesus, and the other called Christ. People frequently confuse the two.
Now, neither of those two on their own would change your view of Jesus. Some historians question whether Jesus existed. Philip Pullman writes a book trying to make you question the story of Jesus you thought you knew. If either of those does bother you, talk to me. The evidence for the Jesus we find in the gospels is overwhelming.
But those two are not isolated comments. They’re part of the steady drip, drip, drip we get from the media that gently but persistently laughs Jesus off as not someone anyone with any IQ would believe in. And we feel the pressure that we’re against public opinion. Until we find it hard to look properly at the evidence for ourselves. We’re prejudiced before we even start into thinking that it’s probably a load of rubbish.
And notice that this second group is Jesus’ disciples. The danger of failing to look at the evidence is not just a danger for those outside. Those of us who do follow Jesus easily start to feel the drip of public figures, of the media, having a go at our faith. Until we don’t abandon it, but we just start to feel slightly less sure that Jesus is for real.
Let’s return to our jury deliberation room. This is the juror who’s seen the tabloid headlines demanding that this person be found guilty. They’ve seen the same thing on social media – it seems the whole world is of the opinion that they did do it. And when that gets under your skin, it’s much harder to do what the judge asked, which is to look simply at the evidence that you heard in court, and to reach a verdict on that basis alone.
And the evidence the disciples should have looked at? All the miracles they witnessed. Jesus points them to the two feeding miracles, but these 12 have had ringside seats for nearly every miracle Jesus has ever done. And because they’re the ones writing this down, so have we.
Look at the miracles, and join the dots.
“It’s time to consider your verdict.”
We’ve reached the midpoint in Matthew’s gospel. In the very next passage, we’ll hear the twelve men Jesus has appointed return from their deliberations and tell us what they make of Jesus.
But first Matthew wants us, the readers, to pause.
What do you make of the person of Jesus?
The claim is that he’s the Messiah. The one God would send to mend all that is wrong in this world, to make the world great again.
If this is right, he calls each and every one of us to follow him. To change the priority and direction of our lives, so that he’s the one in charge.
But is he right? You’ll need to look at the evidence for yourself. Resist the pressures that might stop you from actually doing that. You don’t need more evidence. Don’t be swayed by the crowd. Look at his teachings, his miracles, and supremely his resurrection from the dead.
It’s time to consider your verdict.
“But what about you. Who do you say I am?”