Active vs. Passive Learning
There are many ways to learn something. We rightly glean lessons from our parents and teachers. We listen to a speaker and digest his thoughts. We even absorb the current cultural ethic by watching television (for better or worse).
But each of these learning methods is indirect. We are learning from other people's learning. If we're not careful, this may breed a pattern of passivity toward discovering truth.
I think it was Thomas Edison who extolled the persistent work of doing personal investigation. Regarding the discovery of the best light bulb filament, he said: "I have not failed. I just have found 10,000 ways in which it won't work." Eventually, through determination, he found the way.
Similarly, I believe the best way (not only way) to learn and fully possess knowledge is to do the hard work of investigation myself. Instead of getting information secondhand, I try to personally dig in. For example, if I want to know how prevalent Prayer is in the Book of Acts, I don't run to a concordance to find the number of times it's mentioned in the book. Instead, I pick up the book of Acts and read it for myself, highlighting every instance of prayer I find. (Years ago I did this and discovered Prayer mentioned in 13 of the first 14 chapters).
Gospel of Matthew
Currently, I'm tunneling through the Gospel of Matthew like Edison, looking for the correct interpretive filament that will illuminate the text. I could go to a commentary and discover what scholars think is the overarching theme of the book ... and that would be ok. But if I dig in and discover it myself ... then I don't think I'll ever forget it! It's the difference between visiting the Louvre in Paris to gaze at the Mona Lisa versus printing a streaky copy of her on a home printer. When it comes to studying the Bible, I believe in going to Paris.
Why? Self-discovery is real discovery. Self-discovery stays with us. It lasts. It creates wonder and awe, penetrating deeply into the soul. It changes one's life.
So, let's apply this to what I'm learning in the Gospel of Matthew: it appears to me the central theme is, "The Kingdom."
The word kingdom occurs 52 times in the book (I counted every one). And since kingdoms imply a king, it's not surprising to see the word king an additional 12 times. That's 64 references to kingdom/king. That's a lot.
Drilling down deeper, 31 times Matthew speaks specifically of "the kingdom of heaven." Twelve additional times he uses synonymous phrases like "the kingdom of God" or "my Father's kingdom."
I also notice that "the kingdom" is the first phrase off the lips of key characters in Matthew. A leader's first words often set the stage for everything else – which makes the following moments in the Gospel of Matthew intriguing:
- First words of John the Baptist: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."
- First words of Jesus (after 40 days in wilderness): "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."
- First words of 12 apostles: (on brief mission trip): "The kingdom of heaven is near."
Isn't that fascinating?
Sermon on the Mount
In his most famous discourse, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5), Jesus begins with 8 parallel statements: "Blessed are the ____, for ____." Interestingly, the first and last of these statements bookend the list with the same final clause:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Additionally, these are the only two beatitudes that promise the kingdom of heaven now. Each uses the present tense "is," not the future tense "will be." Every other beatitude makes a future promise: e.g. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted; Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."
What is this Kingdom Like?
Since this term "kingdom" is ubiquitous throughout Matthew, it's worthy of pondering – no quick definition will be given. We must stretch to understand it. We need to experiment with which filament will best light up the vacuum bulb of our mind. So, Jesus offers 11 similes about the kingdom that are worth our attention. I'll merely list them for your future reflection. He says, "The kingdom of heaven is like ...
6. a net that drags up good and bad fish
7. a king wanting to settle financial matters with debtors
8. a generous vineyard owner and workers
9. a king throwing a wedding party for his son
10. ten virgins with oil lamps
11. an owner going on a trip, entrusting his resources to servants
A list of similes worthy of pondering. Yes, self-discovery is real discovery. It stays with us for a lifetime.
(PS I am aware of the subtle irony of trying to convince you of this ... via a blog post – making this information secondhand for you. I didn't say all learning must be solely discovered by self!).