Monday, March 30, 2015

The King's Banquet

During this week around 2,000 years ago in Palestine, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and began teaching quite openly about the kingdom of God or heaven.  More particularly, Jesus taught on who and how to enter the kingdom of heaven, and his teaching encouraged the poor and downcast and unnerved the religious leaders.  One of his public speeches included a parable about a king giving a wedding feast for his servant.  In Matthew 22:1-14, his audience included both followers and opponents, as well as a general crowd made up of curious Jews.  In the parable the kingdom of heaven is compared to a feast that is ready to be attended and enjoyed.  However, the guests not only rejected the invitation summons, they beat and killed the king's messengers.  Thus, the king sent the messengers to all the commoners that could be found to fill his hall with guests. 

Many came, but one had come unprepared, being ill-dressed for such an occasion.  His forgetfulness or negligence earned him a boot out the door.  The conclusion hung like an ominous cloud in the air on the horizon.  The storm of Jesus' words said that those outside the party were cast "into outer darkness.  In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth," (Matt 22:13).  Then, the point of the parable was briefly alluded to when Jesus said, "For many are called, but few are chosen," (Matt 22:14).  What a profoundly biting parable to tell in this context!  The overall teaching (the most important message to hear from a parable) was simply that few will enter the kingdom of heaven.  In the parable, some were invited (called), but rejected the invitation summons (not chosen).  Some came into the banquet (called), but neglected the proper attire (not chosen).  So, if the parable is about entering the kingdom of heaven, and it is being told by Jesus in the context of the week leading up to his crucifixion to a crowd of religious leaders who will conspire to kill him, then the likely meaning is that these religious leaders are in the very process of rejecting God's (the king's) Son, and are destined for hell (the place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth). 

A common response to this thought might be simply, "who can be saved?"  Jesus' disciples posed the same question after Jesus concluded that the rich man was not ready to enter the kingdom of heaven because of his love for money (Matt 19:23-25).  Jesus' response was as appropriate as the conclusion to the parable, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible," (Matt 19:26).  In John, Jesus was recorded teaching plainly, "whoever believes has eternal life," but that such belief was not something man would freely choose on his own because, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.  And I will raise him up on the last day," (John 6:47, 44).  Paul later expanded the idea of belief itself being a gift from God, necessary for salvation, "For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, no a result of works, so that no one may boast," (Eph 2:8-9).  So the parable of the king's banquet, and “the many called but few chosen”, demonstrated that naturally, man from his sinful heart would reject the gift of salvation, the call.  Only those chosen by God, drawn by the Holy Spirit would respond to the Son of God in belief and trust, receiving the gift of faith and the gift of salvation. 

Many verses of the New Testament refer to Christians as those chosen by God.  Paul to the Colossians wrote, "Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts," (Col 3:12).  Paul addressed the Thessalonians, "For we know, brother loved by God, the he has chosen you," (1 Thess 1:4). Also, Peter called believers by a similar title, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who call you out of darkness," (1 Pet 2:9).  Many will hear the Gospel and reject the saving Good News of God's Son sacrificed for man's sins as foolishness.  Naturally, their hearts will not want to be saved, because in pride they will esteem themselves good, not enslaved to sin and in desperate need of salvation.  Thus Paul explained to the Corinthians, "For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe," (1 Cor 1:21). The Holy Spirit works to penetrate the hard hearts of some to help men and women understand their current dead state and desperate need for God's rescue. 

Is it wrong of God to only prompt the hearts of some to recognize the depth of their own sin and come humbly and needy to Him for salvation?  Is He obligated to send both His Son to die and His Spirit to awaken the hearts of all men so that all are chosen to receive the gracious gift of faith and salvation?  First, it must be noted that to ask such a question reveals a degree of pride and haughtiness on our part, for who are we to question God?  If indeed He created all things, owns all things, and is the rightful Lord over everyone and every moment, then who are we to question Him and His choices?  Paul responded to this same line of reasoning with a warning to remember that man is merely clay in the hands of the master potter:
"[God] has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.  You will say to men then, 'Why does he still find fault?  For who can resist his will?'  But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?  Will what is molded say to its molder, 'Why have you made me like this?'  Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?" (Rom 9:18-21).

So from this base, we proceed cautiously.  Certainly, we have not obligated Him by our good works.  Any honest self-assessment or assessment of the history of mankind reveals that we are a violent, greedy, lustful, wicked race, kept in check only by the threat of punishment.  We cannot will ourselves to be entirely good.  Thus, Isaiah prophetically pinpointed our universal guilt when he implicated first God's nation of Israel, and to a lesser degree all mankind in foolishly evaluating ourselves as righteous, "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.  We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away," (Isa 64:6).  Yes, indeed it is very wrong to assume that God is obligated to save everyone because of anything we have done.

But, what of His own character?  If God is love, does not His own goodness obligate Him to save all?  Peter revealed that God is indeed patient, "Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.  The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance," (2 Pet 3:18).  So, God's love does extend to all men, and His patience is evidenced in our existence.  We are alive, because God is patient in punishing mankind for the rebellion of sin.  Moreover, God's love for all is evidenced in His Son, coming to be the sacrifice for mankind's sin, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life," (John 3:16).  No one is excluded from the real offer of salvation in Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins.  In 1 John 3:16, John taught again that God's love is most clearly seen in the gift of His Son, "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us" .  So, the objection that God's love ought to touch all is first answered by the shed blood of Christ to demonstrate that He did.  God loved mankind enough to send His Son to be the one and only Savior of anyone who will believe in Him.  Thus, John concluded, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them," (John 3:36).  Again, returning to our original parable, what is necessary is both the perfect sacrifice and a receptive heart, for naturally no one will receive the gift of eternal life because sin blinds us both to our need and to His precious gift.  Paul ventured a possible explanation into the mystery of God's electing some for eternal life and others for eternal destruction:
"What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory - even us whom he has called, not from Jews only but also from the Gentiles?" (Rom 9:22-24).

Praise God, He sent His Holy Spirit to breathe His words through Paul's hand, for in these words we see the answer to the conundrum.  Man is responsible to God for His sins, and no amount of supposedly good deeds obligates God to save any man.  In fact, naturally, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," and "the wages of sin is death," (Rom 3:23, 6:23).  But, entirely of His own goodness, God patiently endures all mankind, sends His Son to be the One and only Savior of mankind, and gives the gift of faith to some to show mercy to some - even to those who were never part of God's originally chosen people (i.e. Gentiles like me, an American living in the 21st century).  Paul began his letter to the Ephesians praising God for His sovereign choice to save some:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.  In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will," (Eph 1:3-5).

So, to Paul, that God would choose some (even us!) to be called and chosen to be given a heart to receive His gift, and His invitation into the kingdom of heaven is cause for praise and blessing to the God of mercy.  Our reaction ought not be one of objection, or one that cries out in arrogance, "But what of my free will?".  Ours is to recognize that as spiritually dead people, with sinful hearts, had it not been for the intervention of God neither would a sacrifice for sins have been given in Jesus this week many years ago, nor would we have had the heart to receive that gift by faith and repentance.  Paul, thinking about how God's election of the Jewish nation would one day find fulfillment in widespread revival (something for which I pray and long to see), praise God for his mercy and calling on some:
"For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all [i.e. all of the Jewish people who will one day receive the Gospel in faith].  Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  'For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?  Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?'  For from him and through him and to him are all  things.  To him be glory forever.  Amen." (Rom 11:32-36)

This week as I write these words begins the commemoration of the final days of Christ before his crucifixion.  We began by seeing him preaching to the people and religious leaders about a banquet in which many rejected the invitation or came but were cast out because they came in a way that went against the invitation summons.  Truly, the one and only way to God is through faith in His one and only Son, Jesus, for the forgiveness of sins.  Moreover saving faith is itself a gift from God.  God is under no obligation to save anyone, for His love is evidenced merely in creating us, and then further shown in his good judgment against our sins, and in His mercy to patiently allow us to exist when we all deserve immediate death and judgment.  Finally, his love is seen in that He graciously chooses, through no merit of our own, to save some.  If these precious truths stir in us objections and anger, then we must pray that God humbles us to see His grace as praiseworthy, one of His most precious gifts.  Instead of crying out "unfair" in anger, we ought to weep "unfair" in humble and broken appreciation.  Praise God that He would in His Lordship, as King, send his messengers with the Good News and His Spirit to prompt the hearts of some (like me) to receive his invitation into the kingdom of heaven. 

As we prepare for Easter, may God humble us so that we are prompted with hearts of praise to recognize anew the awesome and costly gift of the blood of Jesus Christ, his only Son.  As Isaiah prophesied so particularly of Christ's death on our behalf, "He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities, and the punishment that brought us peace was on him; by his wounds we are healed," (Isa. 53:5).  Thank you God, so much, for your immeasurable grace.

Note: The image at the beginning was a painting of George IV's coronation banquet in Westminster Hall in 1821.

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