“If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror; for he looks at himself, goes away, and right away forgets what kind of man he was” (James 1:23-24).
I’m going to suggest that you find a scripture–a story, a teaching, or a scene–and live in it for a few days.
Doing so might change forever how you study the Word.
A certain text has snagged your attention and you wonder why. Perhaps it puzzled you or intrigued you, angered you even or delighted you. Whatever your reaction, the fact that your attention was directed there is often the Holy Spirit indicating He has something rich for you here, something He is sending just for you.
That’s pretty wonderful when that happens.
Before zeroing in on one of those stories for this study–an example of a parable that is far richer than I ever imagined at first–let me mention some favorite scenes in the Gospels which I have found to be rich and “loaded.” You may find one of them to be just your size and one you will want to live with for the next few days.
As you read these, use your imagination. What else happened here? Why did the Lord do what He did? Why did early Christians love this story?
–In Mark 2, four men brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus. Jesus “saw” the faith of the four. Did you know faith can be visible? Notice the first thing He did was not to heal the guy. (I can imagine these men were housebuilders. Maybe the fifth member of their crew had fallen off a house and broken his back. Tearing into the rooftop was no big deal to them, as they’d come back out and repair it first thing Monday morning.)
–In Mark 3, a man with a withered hand is set before Jesus in the syngoguge. The Lord knew He was being set up, but went on and healed the man anyway. This says volumes about our Savior.
–In Luke 18, blind Bartimaeus is healed–but not before he demonstrates matters about prayer and persistence, faith and courage. I love the way Jesus asks him to get specific in his praying.
–In Luke 19, Zaccheus, the vertically-challenged tax collector, received no encouragement from others to get to Jesus. We are intrigued by his perseverance and impressed by his response to Jesus. This is another story so much richer than the casual reader could ever imagine.
–In John 11, the Lord’s friend Lazarus is raised from the dead. There is nothing even close to this powerful story anywhere else in the Word. Verses 25-26 are as strong a statement from our Lord as we could ever ask for.
–Then, in John 12, we have the aftermath of Lazarus’ raising and the excitement it caused. People arriving early for the Passover, traipsed over the Mount of Olives–it was just a couple of miles to Bethany–to see (ahem) “the man who was dead four days!” Apparently, all he did was sit on the front porch in his rocking chair and many came to Jesus as a result. Notice what they religious authorities decided to do with Lazarus. It’s almost funny.
Now, for our example. Please let me direct your attention to the parable of our Lord in Matthew 22:1-14. It’s generally called “the parable of the wedding banquet.”
It begins, “Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables.” (vs. 1)
First, a word about parables.
Often, we will find scholars saying “a parable has one point and one only.” Those who find additional points in a parable are pressing it too far, they say. (We admit that it is possible to press any teaching too far and get more than was intended.)
I respond: a) Who said all parables have only one point? Nowhere does Scripture make this claim about parables. By what right does someone announce that parables will always follow that rule? b) The scholars’ intent is good, I will grant. In the early centuries, preachers sometimes allegorized everything in the Bible and seriously twisted its meanings. We must exercise great care with the Word. c) Parables come in all shapes and sizes. Some are long stories–allegories with numerous points–and some are more like proverbs (and yet are called parables in the Word).
The word parable is a compound noun made up of “para” = “alongside” and “ballo” = “to throw.” A story laid alongside a truth to tell us something important about its message is called a parable.
Second, why would we say one can study Scripture in this way “all by yourself”?
We’re all for Bible study in groups, in Sunday School classes, and in sermons. But as important as these are–and they are, make no mistake–no Bible student gets as much from these as he does from shutting himself up in his room and spending time with the Word and the Lord, then continuing to reflect on it throughout the day. It’s not “either/or” but both.
Example: As a college student trying to grow in the Lord, I grew tired of preachers talking about the various missionary journeys of Paul. It was so confusing. So, one day I got down the Bible maps and beginning at Acts 13, plotted the various endeavors of this great apostle across the Mediterranean world. It took a couple of hours, but was the best thing I could possibly have done. The benefits have lasted to this day. (Such a study is best done by oneself, and not in a class.)
Third, the story itself. (Rather than our typing it here, may we suggest readers stop and read Matthew 22:1-14. No rush. We’ll wait.)
This is not a one-point parable but an allegory with numerous parallels to the message our Lord is conveying.
–This parable clearly depicts something that was about to happen. For the most part, the Jews were rejecting the gospel of Jesus, pictured in the story as the invited guests who spurned the wedding invitation and cruelly mistreated the king’s servants. Soon the gospel would be given to the world, the Gentiles, referred to here as “everyone you find” (vs. 9).
—Personally, I’m intrigued by the second part of the story. In verse 11, the king comes into his wedding banquet to survey his guests and spots someone out of place. “He saw a man there who was not dressed for a wedding.”
“He said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless.”
The king dealt with him as an intruder and had him thrown “into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vs. 13). I imagine that means hell. Weeping is sorrow and gnashing of teeth is anger.
—Focus on that man at the banquet table without wedding clothes.
Question: Where did the guests get the wedding clothes in the first place? Nothing is said in the story. We’re left to surmise.
The Lord is either assuming His audience knows or wants us to think about this and reason it out. Both are probably true.
None of those people left home that morning thinking, “I might get invited to the palace today, so I think I’ll take along my good clothes.”
Most of them probably didn’t even have “good clothes.” I imagine most were poor. (In a similar–but very different story–Luke calls the invited guests “the poor, maimed, blind, and lame” (Luke 14:21).
Clearly, the wedding clothes were provided by the royal servants as the guests came through the main entrance.
This is almost a no-brainer and definitely not reading something into the Word. The story requires that this is the case. Otherwise, it makes no sense.
Question: What were these “wedding garments”? Were they robes or something else? Were they worn over the regular clothing or did the guests receive a bath and all new clothing? We’re not told and must be careful not to press the story too hard to make it say more than it does. (It’s tempting to say they were given a complete bath, representing salvation, and a white robe, representing imputed righteousness. When they exited the palace, no one returned to his former duds. But we would be wrong in doing so. We want everything the parable says, but must not read into it more than it contains.)
When the king entered and spotted a man not properly dressed and asked the fellow how he managed to get in there without a wedding garment, we know immediately…
–that the royal servants were providing wedding garments at the door.
–these were free.
–anyone coming through the door got one.
–this fellow was trying to pull a fast one.
He was trying to get into the king’s banquet by means other than through the door. If it’s possible to “steal salvation,” he’s attempting it.
All right. This is where the application gets rich.
1) Jesus Christ is the door. (John 10:7,9) He alone is the entrance to salvation, to knowledge of the Father (see Matthew 11:27 and John 14:6), and to Heaven itself (see Acts 4:12).
2) All who are saved and going to Heaven have one huge thing in common: They will have come by Jesus.
Everyone in hell will have their individual stories. Each got there in his own way. But that is not the case in Heaven. Everyone in glory will have come through Jesus and no other way. Salvation is all about Jesus. Up in Heaven right this moment, I expect they’re singing “Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe.”
3) Anyone attempting to get to Heaven other than through Jesus Christ is doomed to failure.
We can assume that some in the Lord’s audience were trying this very thing, to gain the Father’s approval and Heaven’s blessings while rejecting Jesus. They were counting on works of righteousness, acts of religion, racial heritage, elitism, and vain hoping of being “grandfathered in.”
This is the sin of doing salvation in our own way. It’s presumption of the highest sort.
When our firstborn son Neil went off to college, Margaret and I cleaned out his closet and gave away a lot of things he no longer needed or could no longer wear. We loaded a large black plastic bag and I drove across town to the mission center where ladies from our various churches distributed used clothing to the needy. This was my first time in that facility, a large house in the middle of a low-income neighborhood. It was pretty impressive and well laid out. Clothing was separated and sized and signs indicated which rooms held clothing for boys or girls, men or women. Scripture verses were posted throughout the rooms.
I said to the director, “I’ll probably have another bag of clothing for you tomorrow.” She said, “We won’t be open tomorrow, but you can get the key from Miss Alice Stanley next door.” Then she said, “But I’ll have to show you how to open the door. The neighbors have just about ruined this door, trying to break in.”
I said, “Trying to break in? Why?” She said, “To steal what’s inside.” I laughed. “Everything inside is free, and they want to break in and steal it?”
Later, I remembered a sign on the wall that said, “Thou shall not steal. Ask and it shall be given thee.”
The neighbors wanted those things. But they wanted them on their own terms. They did not want to be beholden to anyone. How like human nature.
Someone has said, “No one unwilling to be eternally in debt can ever become a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We would add that no one unwilling to be narrow-minded and follow the Savior who said that He alone was “the” way, “the” truth, and “the” life will ever get to Heaven.
One final thought prompted by this parable.
We said the fellow who tried to “steal heaven” was being presumptuous. There’s another presumption that goes on in this regard. That’s when people conclude that “While I’m not coming by Jesus–and not doing salvation the way the Bible teaches–I know that God is a God of love and will do the merciful thing.”
We must not stand on that ground. On the surface it sounds holy and noble. The problem is that God has shown His love in giving us Jesus and is showing His mercy at this moment by giving us time to repent.
John Bisagno has said, “Jesus Christ is everything the Heavenly Father has to say about Himself.” We add, “and He is everything He’s ever going to say about salvation.”
After all, do we think God would go to all the trouble of sending His Son from Heaven and letting Him die on a Roman cross and then say to earthlings, “If you choose to ignore Him, that’s all right. You can come in anyway.” If so, what in the sam hill was the point of His sending Jesus in the first place?
This is another one of those (ahem) narrow-minded teachings in Scripture, passed along by a narrow-minded Baptist preacher about a Lord who thought He alone was the way to Heaven, that only He knew the Father, and that to try to get to God by our own methods was foolishness.
Amen. So be it.
And so, my friend, whenever a Bible story or teaching or picture or event will not turn you loose, when you find it infuriating, intriguing, interesting, or inspiring, consider that this is the Holy Spirit’s way of inviting you to camp out there for a while. He has a wonderful blessing in store for you in that teaching.