Praying, They Were Singing

I’ve always been impressed with the verbiage of Acts 16:25. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (NRSV). What’s fascinating is the Greek verbiage, not the English. In English, singing and praying are two things, but in Greek, it’s seen as one and the same.

A. T. Robertson’s Word Pictures reads: “Praying they were singing (simultaneously, blending together petition and praise).” Wayne Jackson’s New Testament commentary reads: “The Greek construction suggests they were ‘singing prayers.’” Alford’s Greek Testament notes: “…in their prayers, [they] were singing praises. The distinction of modern times between prayer and praise, arising from our attention being directed to the shape rather than to the essence of devotion, was unknown in these days.” Vincent’s Word Studies notes: “Lit., praying, they sang hymns. The praying and the praise are not described as distinct acts. Their singing of hymns was their prayer, probably Psalms.”

I find this so interesting because we distinguish prayer and praise, but in the early church, they were not as distinct as we made them out to be. There are many passages where prayer is isolated from praise (Matt. 26:39; Luke 22:44; Heb. 5:7; et. al.). Even in worship, prayer is sometimes distinguished from praise, but it’s often mentioned near to praise (1 Cor. 14:15; James 5:13; Rev. 5:8-9). These commentaries made me wonder if even those of the Reformation understood this concept better than we because Charles Spurgeon commented on Psalm 42 in his Treasury of David, “I would just as soon pray with machinery as to sing with machinery.” Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Orthodox philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart’s New Testament translation accurately reflect this nuance. “And at about midnight, as they were praying, Paul and Silas sang hymns to God, and the prisoners listened to them.” I also consulted N. T. Wright’s New Testament translation, but he doesn’t reflect this. Most English translations don’t, but why are so many commentaries keen to point this out? Why not translate it as it should be?


Let’s Talk Revelation (Part 2)

In Revelation 7, we read about the 144,000. As you look at this passage, we can first note some information about the four winds. According to Jewish thought, four winds stood at each compass corner. These winds could destroy a nation (Jer. 49.36) or bring new life (Ezek. 37.9). Zechariah portrays these winds as chariots pulled by different teams of horses which leave the Lord’s presence and go out into all the earth (Zech. 6.5-7). Jesus taught that at His coming during the destruction of Jerusalem that the angels would gather the elect from the four winds (Matt. 24.31). 

We, next, observe the faithful being sealed. Ezekiel 9 sets the backdrop for the sealing of God’s faithful. This imagery of the seven executioners is present in Babylonian literature as well. There they punish those having committed religious offenses, as is the case here (Ezek. 9.4). The imagery of Ezekiel’s seven would have reminded the audience steeped in idolatry about the impending punishment that comes from Yahweh. The mark on their forehead in Hebrew was the taw. This was the last character of the paleo-Hebrew alphabet, and it looked like a modern “X,” or cross. Moreover, the Greek letter “chi” was equivalent to taw and was the first letter in Christ’s name in Greek. The church father Origen (A.D. 185-254) wrote, “A third [person] one of those who believe in Christ, said the form of the Taw in the old [Hebrew] script resembles the cross, and it predicts the mark which is to be placed on the foreheads of Christians.”

In Revelation, the seal separates God’s faithful from the faithless. A pseudepigraphical writing called the Psalms of Solomon was composed in the first century B.C. (it details Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem in 63 B.C.). It also gives a little insight into the marking of God’s people: “For the mark of God is upon the righteous for salvation. Famine, sword, and death shall be far from the righteous; for they shall pursue sinners and overtake them, and those who do lawlessness shall not escape the judgment of the Lord” (15.6-8). Sometimes branding in antiquity was also a sign of a slave (3 Macc. 2.29). In Christianity, sealing became symbolic. The Holy Spirit sealed the Asian churches (Eph. 1.13; 4.30). This wasn’t a physical mark, as some might think. It was a mark distinguishable only by God and His agents of wrath (cf. 2 Cor. 1.22), and it distinguished the faithful from the wicked (cf. 2 Tim. 2.19). This seal in Revelation is to protect God’s faithful, as in Ezekiel (Rev. 7.3).

Now, we arrive at 144,000. This list in Revelation of the 12 tribes differs from other lists (see Gen. 35.23-26; 49.3-27; Deut. 33.6-25): Reuben usually heads the list, but Judah does here likely because this is the tribe from whence Jesus, the lion of the tribe of Judah, came (Rev. 1.5; 5.5); and John included Manasseh while omitting Ephraim and Dan (see 1 Kings 12.29-30). Since this group is spared divine wrath but not earthly persecution, it may be that they will be those who complete the number of the slain souls under the altar (Rev. 6.9-11). These twelve tribes are used figuratively for Jewish Christians (James 1.1). Jewish Christians were predominant over the first decade of the early church. Staying with the Jewish identity, their being “first fruits” (Rev. 14.4) was also well founded as spoken of by the Jews (Jer. 2.3; Rom. 11.16; James 1.18). If this concerns Jewish believers, the great multitude in Revelation 7.9ff were Gentile believers. This could also reference the church — God’s new Israel (Gal. 6.16; cf. Gal. 3.7-9, 29).

Whomever they were, they sang a new song described as the roar of rushing waters, a loud peal of thunder, and harpists playing their harps. No heavenly creature could learn this song because participation is limited to those redeemed from the earth (cf. 1 Peter 1.12; Eph. 3.10) centered on redemption by the Lamb from the beast. They were “virgins” (cf. 2 Cor. 11.2) who were blameless (Rev. 14.4). This may mean that they maintained ritual purity before battle (Deut. 23.9-10; 1 Sam. 21.5; 2 Sam. 11.11). Later on, Babylon (Rome) is referred to as the mother of harlots (Rev. 17.3-5), and those who consort with her would have defiled themselves (cf. Rev. 2.22).


Let’s Talk Revelation (Part 1)


Most Evangelical commentators tend to assert that Revelation was written with three periods of time in mind: 1) things John saw in chapter one, 2) those that were in chapters two and three, and 3) those that would take place afterward, beginning with chapters four or six. Charles Ryrie—in his study, Bible notes—advocates the former while John MacArthur—in his Bible handbook—advocates the latter. A key passage to their supposition is 1:19, where it is written:

Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.

What Evangelicals argue for is that chapters six through twenty-two are end-time (eschatological) material that hinges upon a thousand-year reign. However, internal terminology would refute this claim.

  • “The time is near” (1:3; 22:10; cf. Matt. 3:2; 4:17)
  • These things “must soon take place” (22:6)
  • Jesus said he was “coming soon” (22:12, 20; cf. 1:1)

The terms in English and Greek speak to a swift course of action and certainly not one that would be delayed over two millennia. Granted: the judgment scene in chapters twenty and onward appears to be the true end-time material that may be exempt from the interpretation. However, at what point does the contextual divide speak to the original audience and all thereafter come somewhere in chapter twenty and onward unless one holds to a more symbolic interpretation of the final three chapters? A case for understanding the time frame in which John’s original audience may have understood this prophecy is found when comparing his work to other prophetic literature.

Daniel was told to seal up his vision because it referred to many days from his time (Dan. 8:26). He was also told that the book was to remain sealed “until the time of the end” (12:4). As time went on knowledge would increase as to the culmination of these prophecies. He was urged to go his way because the words of his prophecy were “sealed till the time of the end” (12:9). Studying history along with Daniel’s prophecy reveals that it was not for another four hundred years that those kingdoms came which he had been told of (cf. Dan. 2). Therefore, Daniel would not live to see the fulfillment of the prophecies; hence his being instructed to seal the book. So the sealing of a prophecy book looked ahead to a distant period.

When John wrote Revelation, the angel told him not to seal the words of his book (Rev. 22:10). Why? Because “the time [was] at hand.” If Daniel’s prophecy saw fulfillment some four hundred years later, and he was told to seal the book, would not John’s prophecy have been fulfilled long before the same span of time since he was told not to seal his book?


I Dug Deeper and No Longer Believe Joshua is a Book About Genocide

For the longest time, I struggled with the Book of Joshua. I thought it was a book about genocide mainly because that’s how most people, even many Christians, described it. One of the most complex parts of the book is how violent it is and how this reflects on God’s character. After all, it was in Leviticus (19:18) that God commanded Israel to love their neighbor as themselves. Jesus reiterates this too, so how do we face the rampant violence in the book?

I am wholly unsatisfied with Reformed theology’s explanation of the matter–the sovereignty of God and how we shouldn’t question what he does. Well, even that’s not biblical. People throughout the Old Testament question God, not to challenge his authority, but to understand.

I’ve read that “God so loved the world,” and “God is love.” That doesn’t seem very loving at all. That’s the kind of thing Zeus or Mars would have done. That sounds like a schizophrenic person. The first thing I admitted was that God IS love and that I must be misunderstanding the matter. Rather than laying my emotions on God, I put them on myself and decided I was wrong. That led me to a deeper study.

First, if we consider that Abraham lived around 2100 BC, we can place the mercy and longsuffering of God within a 700-year period. God promised the land to Abraham, but when he did, the sins of the Amorites weren’t complete (Gen. 15:16). God’s judgment/conquest of the land wasn’t something that he just planned at the last minute. He, in his omniscience, knew it would come to this. Yet, 700 years should be enough time for people to get their act together (cf. Deut. 9:5). Sadly, they did not, so God ordered their utter destruction (Deut. 7:1–2; 20:16–18). 

Second, we observe that God would preempt removing people from the land. He didn’t intend those folks’ complete extermination or annihilation, and Scripture states as much. God promised to send pestilence to the land before the conquest to drive them out little by little (Exod. 23:28–30; Deut. 7:22–24). He wanted to drive them out (Deut. 9:4), but if any remained, they would be destroyed. 

Third, archaeology has demonstrated something: cities like Jericho and Ai weren’t civilian centers but military outposts. Archaeology also discloses that the towns and cities in Canaan were nearly uninhabited in the period we believe the conquest occurred—the thirteenth century. Plus, after the “conquest,” we observe Canaanites living among the Israelites. The book of Judges points out how this cohabitation was problematic for Israel.     

Fourth, Israel was commanded to offer peace terms before battle (Deut. 20:10–13). Only the Hivites of Gibeon accepted the peace terms, but everyone else did not (Josh. 11:19). 

Fifth, not everything we read should be taken literally. This is often an error when reading the Bible, but ancient battle narratives were not written like modern books of history. Ancient war narratives contained battle idioms. When someone says, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” we know not to take that literally. The understanding is that the rain is heavy. Another part of ancient battle narratives is an exaggeration. While we expect a level of accuracy that conforms to journalistic standards, ancient writers wrote for literary effect. We might think of it, sometimes, as talking trash. Another example is how Joshua uses language to state that they took all the land, defeated all the kings, and utterly destroyed the Canaanites. The point was that God had exerted complete control over the land. As you read through Joshua, he often says that Canaanites still lived in the land.


Why Do Some Translations Have Extra Verses That Others Don’t?

Depending on your Bible translation, you will either have or lack Matthew 17:21; 18:11; 23:14; Mark 7:16; 9:44, 46; 11:26; 15:28; Luke 17:36; 23:17; John 5:3b-4; Acts 8:37; 15:34; 24:6b-8a; Rom. 16:24; 1 John 5:7b-8a. Older translations contain them, such as the King James and New King James. Newer versions, however, do not. Since the KJV and NKJV are among the oldest English translations, they are often pointed to as the standard of English translations. Yet, just because they are “older” English translations doesn’t mean they are the best.

The very first Greek New Testament to be comprised was by Erasmus in 1516. He used 12th-century manuscripts of the New Testament. Remember that we’re focusing on the New Testament, translated from Greek. There was a Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, in Jesus’ day. Nevertheless, at Erasmus’ time, the oldest manuscript was from the 10th century, but he opted for those from the twelfth century. As time passed, scholars made revisions that echoed Erasmus’ text. Most English translations through 1880 used the same Greek New Testament, called Textus Receptus (“received text”). 

By the 1700s, many more manuscripts had been discovered. Some were six to nine centuries older than what Erasmus had available. These older manuscripts lacked the passages mentioned earlier. A common belief was that a scribe may have mistaken an explanatory marginal comment for a correction and copied it into the text, which accounts for why older English translations have a few more verses. A new Greek New Testament was made and appeared in 1831. Since the manuscripts were older than Erasmus used, they omitted the sixteen passages to construct a more ancient version, reflected in many English translations today.  

Since 1611, the King James Bible has reigned as the preeminent English translation. However, because of the newer Greek New Testament, a Revised Version was commissioned in England in 1881. The Revised Version would later birth the New Revised Standard Version, which would later birth the English Standard Version. When the Revised Version appeared, there was a considerable uproar since the long-dominant KJV had set the standard. The omission of the verses was seen as blasphemous, and people cited Revelation 22:19 to those who upheld the Revised Version. Revelation 22:18 is more relevant if you want to argue the point. 

Translations that omit these added verses usually contain a footnote or marginal note explaining that they appear in later manuscripts. Modern translations do not leave these verses out per se any more than the older ones added them. They are simply the product of the information available at the time. Now that we have older information, the translations that omit them should be more commonly used.

More recent translations utilize a vast amount of sources. The standard for most English translations is the Masoretic text of the Hebrew called Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia; the Greek New Testament used is Novum Testamentum Graece. Translators often consult, alongside these sources, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), the Samaritan Pentateuch (Law of Moses), the Syriac Peshitta (Syriac Bible), the Latin Vulgate, and other sources that may help shed light on texts that may be difficult to translate. 


The Sordid History of Daniel 4-5

*In my haste to publish this, I neglected to mention that one of my sources is my friend, Michael Whitworth’s book, The Derision of Heaven: A Guide to Daniel (Bend, Oregon: Start2Finish, 2013).

My Wednesday Bible class has been studying the book of Daniel. We’ve concluded the first six chapters and will begin chapter seven this evening. Our focus has, thus far, been on how Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah lived faithfully to God while living in a society unfriendly to their religion. Furthermore, we have noted and discussed how we as Christians can live faithfully to God while living in our own Babylon–be that our nation, workplace, home, or where ever. Yet, when we arrived at chapters four and five, the history of Daniel did not align with other document histories.

Something that always catches my attention is when Scripture and secondary sources disagree. This usually leads me down a rabbit hole of historical investigation. I’ve always believed that when Scripture and any other authority are at odds, I’ve misinterpreted one or both. Chapters four and five have information that historians point out as non-historical, at best, or manipulated to fit into the various prophetic schema of Israel, at worst. 

Nabonidus was the king when Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great, so why are Belshazzar and Darius the critical figures in chapter five? For so long, historians had dismissed the book of Daniel as folklore that spun together various prophetic passages to Israelite favor. Yet, in 1854, British explorers uncovered the temple of Ur, finding cylinders from Nabonidus’ reign. Moreover, listed among a prayer for the king was the inclusion of his son, Belshazzar. Since then, extensive documentation has corroborated this information to the extent that it’s common knowledge and doesn’t require citation. 

Folks have also remarked that the madness of Nebuchadnezzar in chapter four was misplaced because Nabonidus was known to have had a mental breakdown for about a decade. However, Eusebius of Cesarea (4th century CE) quotes Greek historian Abydenus (c. 250–200 BCE), whose history of the Assyrians is preserved in quotations from various later historians—the writings, aside from these quotations, are lost in history. Abydenus quotes from a historian whose work was closer to the period than his, Megasthenes (c. 350–290 BCE). Eusebius quotes, 

[Megasthenes] subsequently relates from the Chaldeans’ [accounts] that when [Nebuchadnezzar] had returned to the royal court, some deity took control of his mind and spoke in this manner: ‘Oh brave Babylonians, I, Nebuchadnezzar, I predict that grief will befall you.’ He continues on in this vein for a while and then the historian [tells us] that after this eloquent speech he suddenly disappeared from sight. Then [his] son, Amilmardochus [Evil-morodach in the Hebrew Scriptures; Amul-Marduk in history], ruled. (Chronicle 1.11)

Nabonidus was the last Babylonian king, but he lived in exile because of his favoritism towards the moon god, Sin, while Marduk was the city’s chief god. During this exile, Belshazzar was co-regent. When the Persians, under Cyrus the Great, conquered Babylon, Belshazzar was killed, and his father exiled once more. Another detail is that Nebuchadnezzar is referred to as Belshazzar’s father (Dan. 5:2, 11). Nabonidus was Belshazzar’s father, who led a coup to take the throne, being no son of Nebuchadnezzar. 

Belshazzar is regarded as king in this chapter because of his father’s absence, and he acts as a regent in his father’s absence. Nebuchadnezzar may be described as Belshazzar’s father because the latter succeeded the former. This designation is seen in other literature when no direct relation existed. One possible explanation for Darius the Mede may be that he was Gobryas (Greek), the general who captured Babylon on Cyrus’ behalf. He was governor of Gutium in Media. Another possible explanation is that in Daniel 6:28, the text could read, “The reign of Darius, that is, the reign of Cyrus.” Kings often had multiple regnal names (cf. 1 Chron. 5:26). Cyrus took over the Median Empire, having a Median mother. Therefore, it wouldn’t be implausible that he would be called the king of the Medes. Yet, this is my best attempt at setting the record straight.  


Settling the New Testament?

The twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament appear in the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius (c. 367)—a prominent bishop—and this is the typical starting point for many regarding their history of the canon. Because of such a detailed letter regarding the New Testament, some have concluded that the canon was a late invention considering the letter’s dating. Still, the canon emerged in the first century and is evident in the writings of the early church fathers as functional before the fourth century. Athanasius wrote this letter to end the disputes about other orthodox letters believed to be equal to apostolic writings—Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas. It also detailed Peter’s epistles and Revelation’s authenticity, which was questionable to some.

Earlier than his festal letter, a catalog from North Africa listed twenty-four books named the Mommsen Catalog (c. 359). Cyril of Jerusalem had earlier listed all the books except Revelation (c. 350), but the Council of Nicea is often the canon’s accepted settling point (c. 325). However, the council’s entirety wasn’t about the canon, but the divinity of Jesus, hence the Nicene creed. Because they affirmed the canon doesn’t mean they “created” it. Similarly, regional church councils acknowledged the canon but didn’t determine it. As Michael Kruger puts it, “These councils were declaring the way things had been, not the way they wanted them to be.” 

Around 250 CE, the early church theologian, Origen produced a list of the New Testament in his commentary on Joshua.

Matthew … Mark also; Luke and John each …  Even Peter … in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John … through his epistles, and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles … in fourteen of [Paul’s] epistles. (Hom. Josh. 7:1; cf. Hom. Gen. 13.2)

This list would have included Revelation and John’s epistles; Hebrews would have counted as a letter of Paul because some in the early church believed that Paul wrote Hebrews. 

What, however, precipitated the list and the official declaration of the canon? It all began around 144 CE because of an early church heretic, Marcion. He only listed the gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles, omitting the pastorals and Hebrews. A harmony of the four gospels appeared in 170 CE by Tatian and was entitled Diatessaron. At about the same time, Melito of Sardis identified the Old Testament canon used by the Jews. The earliest response to Marcion’s list with list is the Muratorian Canon (c. 180), named after its discoverer. It contains twenty-two of our twenty-seven books, omitting James, 1 & 2 Peter, 3 John, and Hebrews. Interestingly, around the same time as the Muratorian Canon, Irenaeus was the first to refer to a New Testament (Adv. Haer. 4.15.2).  

This leads to the truth that some books we now acknowledge as inspired weren’t always regarded as such by everyone in the early church. Athanasius explained the reasoning for excluding two well-regarded writings, but a few were disputed earlier, such as 2 Peter, 2–3 John, Jude, and James. Other writings were outright rejected: Acts of Paul, Apocalypse of Peter, Gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias (Eus. Eccl. Hist. 3.25). 


Early Hints of a New Testament

One can easily make the case that a New Testament, or a canon of the new covenant Scriptures, was expected. When we examine the Mosaic covenant, we notice in Hebrews 9:18–21 the facets making up the first covenant that appears in Exodus 24:3–8, and among them is the book (Heb. 9:19). Unlike the first covenant, no tabernacle or vessels in the New Covenant are cleansed because the church and individual Christians are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). Nevertheless, we who comprise the church and are of the Way are sprinkled with the lamb’s blood in our baptisms, and in due course, a book would necessarily emerge. Now, this perspective isn’t accepted by everyone. Some scholars contend that the New Testament could not have been foreseen and wasn’t expected. Others contend that the canon wasn’t created until the end of the second century CE, but I tend to disagree with both of those propositions. 

The earliest hint of an emerging canon appears in 2 Peter 3:16. Peter recognizes Paul’s writings as on par with Scripture. What he has in mind when referring to Paul’s letters isn’t altogether clear because Paul wrote some widely accepted letters while others were questionable. Peter assumes that his audience knows what he’s talking about, and he likely expects that they receive his letter similarly, given that he addressed himself as an apostle (2 Peter 1:1; cf. 2 Peter 3:2). Another hint at recognizing authoritative writings in the first century is 1 Timothy 5:18, which is a quotation from Luke 10:7 and Deut. 25:4. The opening phrase, “For the Scripture says,” recognizes both passages as Scripture. This initial phrase comes from Deut, while the rest is identical to Luke’s wording. Thus far, Paul’s writings and Luke’s gospel account are considered Scripture based on internal evidence from the letters. 

Another aspect worth considering is the nature of public readings in the assembly. In several New Testament letters, we observe the command to have them read publicly, which indicates that they carried authority (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Cor. 10:9; Rev. 1:3). We’re able to base this conclusion, in part, on how portions of the Old Testament were read in synagogue meetings (Luke 4:17–20; Acts 13:15; 15:21). Other scholars have additionally pointed out that the Greek structure of Matthew and Mark lent itself to a liturgical structure—which means that they would have been used for year-round public readings. The fact that such letters were urged to be read publicly along with Paul’s command to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13) may, in fact, suggest that he already believed his writings to have been such (cf. 2 Peter 3:2). 

The earliest historical source about a Christian assembly details the authority of the apostolic writings. 

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. (Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67.3)

What’s clear from history is that Scripture was not exclusively read in early church assemblies. Some popular writings that were often read in the church but were not placed among the acknowledged books were The Shepherd of Hermas (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 3.3.6; cf. Rom. 16:14) and 1 Clement (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 4.23.11). Serapion, the Antiochian bishop (190–211 CE), wrote to dispel the Gospel of Peter that had been read in Rhossus because it had led some astray (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 6.12.2). Certain epistles were well esteemed because of the author, while others were forgeries.  

Some might find the notion of reading non-canonical letters in the assembly challenging. However, these writings weren’t ultimately included in the canon because they were not universally accepted. There were three criteria for canonicity: 1) universality, 2) apostolicity, and 3) orthodoxy. If a writing fit into all three, it was accepted into the canon. However, there’s debate over another point: did the church create the canon? If so, authority primarily rests with the church—which is what Catholics and Orthodox believe, their definition of “church” here meaning the priesthood. However, while it’s true that prelates assembled to formalize the canon, they didn’t “determine” so much as “acknowledge” what had, up to that time, been regarded as Scripture. From the latter point of view, Scripture is more authoritative. This is the great divide between Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox.

See Harry Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 12; James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority and Criticism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 12. 

 Lee Martin McDonald, “New Testament Canon”, n.p. [cited 25 Mar 2021]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/tools/ask-a-scholar/new-testament-canon 

Michael D. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew (London: SPCK, 1974), 182–83; Phillip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Calendar: A Study in the Making of the Marcan Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952). 


Why Some Old Testaments Have More Books Than Ours

When we speak about the Old and New Testaments’ collected books, we use the word “canon.” This term is in Galatians 6:16 and appears as “rule.” When we speak about the canon of the Bible, we’re typically referring to the 66 books we have, but others have more books in their Old Testaments in other traditions. These extra books are the apocryphal books of the Old Testament (deutero-canonical to the Orthodox Church). They are considered canonical in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Apocrypha is a group of writings that date from 300 BCE to 100 CE. They consist of history (1 Esdras, 1 & 2 Maccabees), fiction (Tobit, Judith, and additions to Esther/Daniel), wisdom literature (Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, The Prayer of Manasseh), and apocalyptic literature (2 Esdras). While they appear with Scripture, Jews didn’t consider them to be canonical. Some people argue for accepting the apocryphal books as Scripture based on their inclusion in the Greek Old Testament’s earliest codices (Septuagint, or LXX) that date to the 4th–5th centuries CE. However, they were omitted when the LXX was initially translated in the 3rd–2nd centuries BCE and Jerome refused to include them when he composed the Latin Bible in 383 CE.  

They are, however, included in the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, among which is the Codex Vaticanus. A codex is a way of saying “ancient book,” and the plural is “codices.” This book was found in the Vatican library and has almost all Old and New Testaments, plus other books therein. It dated to the middle of the fourth century and was used by Erasmus in the Renaissance to complete his Textus Receptus. In addition to the Old Testament books they have, 3 Esdras, Wisdom, Prologue to Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiasticus, additions to Esther Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, and additions to Daniel are included. 

The Codex Sinaiticus was found in 1859 by Count Tischendorf at the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. It dates to the later fourth century and has the entire New Testament with half of the Old Testament in Greek. It adds 1 & 4 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus to the Old Testament. A fifth-century codex, Alexandrinus contains the Old Testament in Greek as well as the entire New Testament, but the New Testament adds the first epistle of Clement of Rome. It adds 2 & 3 Maccabees. These three oldest codices agree on the inclusion of Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Ben Sira). Many have equated codices with canon, but it’s not the same.     

Josephus did not include the Apocrypha in his list of books:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death .… but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes [d. 425 BCE] very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time. (Against Apion 1.8) 

What does Josephus mean by, “has not been esteemed of like authority?” Jews didn’t believe a prophet lived among them during the Intertestamental Period. After the Gentiles defiled the altar, they tore it down and “stored the stones in a convenient place … until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them” (1 Macc. 4:46). They later made someone their leader and high priest forever “until a trustworthy prophet should arise” (1 Macc. 14:41). Between these two events, history even recorded that the distress arose in Israel so great since the prophets ceased appearing among them (1 Macc. 9:27). 

Melito of Sardis, a second-century elder, also failed to include them in his Old Testament list.

Accordingly when I went to the East and reached the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and I send them to you as written below. These are their names: Of Moses five, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four of Kingdoms, two of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, Solomon’s Proverbs or Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve [minor prophets] in one book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras. (Eusebius Eccl. Hist. 4.26.14) 

The Council of Trent (Session IV, 1546) is historically the first point at which the Catholic Church formally recognized these books as “Divine Scripture.” They were not included in the original Hebrew Scriptures but were declared “genuine parts of Scripture” by the Councils of Jassy (1642) and Jerusalem (1672). 

“The Septuagint contains in addition ten further books, not present in the Hebrew, which are known in the Orthodox Church as the “Deuter-Canonical Books.”…most Orthodox scholars at present day, however, following the opinion of Athanasius and Jerome, consider that the Deutero-Canonical Books, although a part of the Bible, stand on a lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament.” (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed. [New York: Penguin Books, 1993], 200)

These books, however, do have value for understanding first-century Judaism. When the voice of prophecy had ceased, these books voiced what happened between the Testaments religiously, literarily, and historically. The two books of the Maccabees detail the struggle of the Jews for religious and political freedom, and they record a heroic period of Hebrew history. These books also help us understand the spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual life of the Jews before Christ’s birth. 


The Intertestamental Hebrew Scriptures

Thus far, we’ve established that with Moses living around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to him date between 1450–00 BCE. These books were vested with authority  by the command that they are read every seven years (Deut. 31:10–13), and they were read by Joshua in the 13th century BCE (Josh. 8:34–35). The 8th century BCE prophet Isaiah urged the reading of prophetic books (Is. 34:16). By the 7th century BCE, King Josiah’s court had discovered a copy of the law, likely the book of Deuteronomy (2 Kings 22:3–20), and read from it and inquiring of Huldah what such things meant. Jeremiah (6th cent. BCE) urged something to read of his scroll as authoritative (Jer. 36:6–26). During Jeremiah’s tenure, Judah was exiled to Babylon. 

When the exiles returnedMaccabean Revolt’s time to their land after decades of absence, they did so under one journey where the scribe Ezra led them. Ezra was one who “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ez. 7:10; cf. 7:6, 25; Deut. 16:12). Ezra’s knowledge of the Law enabled him to advocate for the Law in the reestablishment of Israel, so when the people assembled for a reading of the law, their response was remorse and weeping. The return from exile and covenant renewal did not prohibit a lukewarm response to the Law. By the prophet Malachi, the priests had turned from the Law (Mal 4:4). Their neglect of the Law, perhaps a response to unfulfilled prophetic expectations, led them to apathy towards religious observance. They were neglecting their duties manifested in the lack of reverence towards God so that instead of teaching the Law, they turned from it (Mal. 2:1–9).

The Law taking center stage is assumed to have been ongoing by the time of the Maccabean Revolt when the books of the Law were seized from the temple and any who possessed copies. The seizure was followed by a subsequent destruction of the law documents, which gave rise to Jewish zeal for the customs of their ancestors (1 Macc. 1:56–57). The Jews had formed the habit of searching the Law’s book when faced with national threats (1 Macc. 3:48), and they’d read from their holy books even before going into battle (2 Macc. 8:23). Following Ezra and Nehemiah’s example, they became stringent in their observance of studying the Law and turning to it. This was a dramatic shift from their pre-exilic mindset. 

The Essenes dwelt around the Dead Sea while some lived in cities. The Qumran community mandated a third of every night for reading the book and studying the law as a community. Their study and reading of the law were likely oral rather than silent because of the Maccabees’ customs.  

For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work. And here will be the end. (2 Macc. 15:39)

In the time of my maturity I remained with my husband, and when these sons had grown up their father died. A happy man was he, who lived out his life with good children, and did not have the grief of bereavement. While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets. He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and about Joseph in prison. (4 Macc. 18:9–11)

Baruch read the words of this book to Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and to all the people who came to hear the book…. And you shall read aloud this scroll that we are sending you, to make your confession in the house of the Lord on the days of the festivals and at appointed seasons. (Baruch 1:3, 14)

The Essene’s method of interpretation was to not depart from the commandments and not add anything to them. The preservation of God’s commands in their most accurate form was a significant concern for this community. Hence, they believed that their interpretation of the law was the last. Their proper, communal study of the Law was thought to atone for the land, whereas earlier generations had ignored the Law’s reading and hearing. Since the community also had priests and Levites as members, and these clerics read the text aloud in the assemblies that required a minimal number of ten. 

By the time of Philo, the Jews were regularly meeting in synagogues where they would read the scriptures and, after that, explain whatever was unclear. However, scripture reading was not restricted to the synagogue or scribal community. Among the Therapeutae, Philo recorded that scripture readings and the sermons that followed were common at banquets.

While the origin of the synagogue is widely debated as originating with Moses or sometime during or after the exile, the literary value of its activity as it is observed in the New Testament would give greater weight to sometime after the removal. Nevertheless, the synagogue rose during the Intertestamental Period. The earliest New Testament reference to a synagogue meeting came in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus read from the prophets and gave a sermon. The synagogue meetings were not for worship per se but religious instruction. Synagogues were institutions of religious education; to speak of synagogue worship negates the temple’s place in the life of the ancient Jew. The temple was where worship was rendered, as well as Scripture read at times too.

There were at least two readings in a synagogue meeting — one from the Law and the other from the prophets. The latter was followed by the synagogue ruler asking if anyone had a message after the reading. The Law was read on a liturgical calendar and in its entirety every three years. Had a priest or Levite been present, and they would have been given preference over an educated Israelite reading, so Jesus’ reading infers the absence of both. The reading of the prophets formed the conclusion of the synagogue service known as the Haftarah. Since this portion of the reading was not preselected, the reader, at their discretion, could select the passage to read.

When the church was born, it was not considered distinct from Judaism, so synagogue and temple meetings continued until apostolic preaching went to the Gentiles. Upon conversion of the Gentiles and before their conversion, the early Christians primarily met in houses. Within, the worship of the early church became defined as separate from the temple or synagogue. Still, the early church’s house meetings shared many organization and style practices with those of the synagogue. 


Writing the Old Testament

The first instance of recording Scripture occurs at Moses’s hand at the covenant’s inauguration between YHWH and Israel (Exod. 24:4–8). Scholars mostly agree that the Book of the Covenant mentioned there entailed chapters 21–23 of Exodus, but opinions vary. Moses’ upbringing in Egypt explains how he became a scribe in the first place, because they placed a high amount of esteem and respect on the scribe. They believed that a scribe was his own boss and the highest of trades to which one could aspire. Moses obviously had scribal training in Egypt in the first forty years of his life in the higher echelons of society, and that skill would serve him well as the leader of Israel. 

Even in Israel’s later history, we see the scribe as one moving in royal circles ( 2 Chron. 24:11; Esth. 3:12). The scribal chamber was within the palace (Jer. 36:12), and their work often detailed the exploits of the monarchs they served (1 Kings 11:41) as well as the reign of the monarchy itself (1 Kings 14:19, 29). They also served by writing the decrees ordered (Dan. 6:8) and taking dictation (Jer. 36:32). Some might be sent to record the military skirmishes the realm was engaged in (Jer. 52.25), and a useful skill for the scribe to possess in later times was to be bilingual (2 Kings 18:26). Following the station of Moses as a prophet were other prophets who recorded books or records here or there (Josh 24:26; 1 Sam 10:25). Later, we even read about some later holy people referring to what had been written (Dan. 9:2; Neh. 8:1). 

This process led what we know as the Old Testament to be formed around 400 BCE, with some arguing that the Law, or Penteteuch (first five books of the Bible), itself was authoritative by that time if not earlier. By 200 BCE or earlier, the prophets were canonized (cf. Is. 34:16; Jer. 36:6ff). Unlike our Christian Bibles where the Old and New Testaments are major divisions, the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) grouped its books differently. There are three groupings of books: 

  1. The Law (Torah)
    1. Gen–Deut. 
  2. Prophets (Nevi’im)
    1. Josh, Judg., Samuel and Kings (Former Prophets)
    2. Isaiah, Jer., Ezek., and the Twelve (Latter Prophets)
  3. Writings (Ketuvim).
    1. Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (Five Megillot)
    2. Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Chronicles. 

This tripartite division is reflected from Ben Sira, who was the first to refer to it in this way (180–175 BCE), but may be earlier than him. 

Centuries before this time, King Josiah (622 BCE) found a copy of the Law in the temple, and his subsequent reverence of it as such demonstrates its authority in the life of Israelite society (2 Kings 22:3–20). After captivity, Ezra had a copy of the Law in which to lead the nation (Ezra 7:6; Neh. 8:1ff). Centuries before them, Joshua (13th century BCE) read the same (Josh 8:34–35), and King David was to have had a personal copy (Deut. 17:18–20; cf. Deut. 31:9, 25–26). We know David consulted it after Uzzah died (2 Sam. 6:1–10; cf. 1 Chron. 15:1–13), but it’s obvious that it wasn’t central at all times.  

The interlude from the reading of Joshua until the next reading is a noted period of silence of public readings. During that time, the united kingdom of Israel was divided, and the northern kingdom following an idolatrous path while the southern kingdom sinned as well, but with periods of reformation. The next public reading came after the high priest Hilkiah found the Book of the Law in the temple during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Hilkiah took the book to the king’s secretary who then took it to the King. Upon hearing the words of the Book of the Law, King Josiah grieved and sent to inquire of the Lord because all the curses of the book were to be rendered to the unfaithful people of Judah (2 Kings 22–23; 2 Chron. 34). When Josiah assembled the people to have the Book of the Law read in their hearing, Josiah led a covenant renewal to which the people consented. However, because of so many years of apostasy that began with King Solomon, changing the trajectory of Judah was unrealized because of so many years of neglecting to read the Law. Therefore, the land was purged of its inhabitants so that it could undergo a period of cleansing (cf. Lev. 18:28; 20:22).

This points us to the authority the Law and Prophets had. What we find was that those who were well regarded, adhered to the Law. We also note that the absence of it from the life of Israel resulted in an ignorance that permitted apostasy.  


The Genesis of the Bible (for the average Christian)

We have in our possession a sacred book that is nonetheless a book. Scripture was written over 1,400 years by various authors. The Bible wasn’t put together until centuries after all the writings were collected, but some writings remained together as a corpus (e.g., Torah). How did this process occur? That’s what many wonder. How and who created the Bible is remarkable and something that isn’t required to know but is very enlightening. 

Allow me, first, to give you a timeline of pertinent events as it relates to writing altogether and the Bible.  

3200 BCE — Writing began in Sumer through pictographic means. 

3000 BCE — Egyptian hieroglyphs were developed. 

2100 BCE — Abraham lived around this time. 

1800 BCE — An alphabet is created in Egypt. 

1500 BCE — Moses lived around this time. 

1200 BCE — Ugaritic, a language from Ugarit—a northwestern area in Syria—is used, and Exodus 15 and Judges 5 have stylistic patterns that resemble them. These similarities lead linguists to conclude that these two chapters are the oldest in the Bible and date to 1100–1200 BCE. 

1000 BCE — The monarchical period of Israel’s history begins. 

1000–900 BCE — The earliest Hebrew inscription on a potsherd is discovered (Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon). 

516→ BCE — We have manuscripts dating to this time period, known as the Second Temple Period, with the oldest dating to the late 4th century BCE. 

250→ BCE — Dead Sea Scrolls 

This timeline provides us a rough idea and overview of what we know about written communication. This information results from linguists, philologists, archaeologists, and other related areas of study.  

Materials used in writing were stone (Exod. 34:1, 28; Deut. 27:2–3), clay (Ezek. 4:1), wood (Is. 30:8; Hab. 2:2), and leather (Jer. 36:23). Additionally, papyrus leaves were mostly that upon which the New Testament was written. These plants grew along the Nile River and had been used as far back as 3000 BCE, but became common among the Greeks and Romans for making a book (codex) or books (codices). The average roll was 30 feet long and 9–10 inches high. Scribes would write on one side mostly and occasionally on both sides (cf. Rev. 5:1). Animal skins, referred to as either vellum or parchment, were another common material used in making a letter. 

Whenever you hear about the discovery of a manuscript or something that scholars date to thus-and-such a period, they base this off the material upon which it was written, the language, dialect and syntax, and even carbon dating. Because we know that certain materials were used by particular people during a specific time period, this allows archaeologists to pinpoint a general time frame that contributes to our overall knowledge of the history of a text. 

The Birth of the Bible

It’s difficult to fix a date when the Bible was written or began to be written. Believing that Moses lived around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to his authorship would have been written sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, with redactions throughout the centuries (cf. Num. 12:3; Deut. 34:5–6). However, the book of Job is believed to have been written in the second millennium BCE, or it at least is about that period if it was written later. To put it in perspective, Job is believed to have been a patriarch akin to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in their time. 

Regarding what’s extant, the tenth-century BCE potsherd known as Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon is the eldest. This dates to the reign of King David and was found on the north side of the valley of Elah (1 Sam. 17:1–3). Differing interpretations of what it says exists, so suggesting it is Scripture may not be altogether true. However, this discovery also can’t be ruled out as unreflective of Scripture. The Ketef Hinnom amulets, however, are among the oldest finds that contain language akin to the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24–26 and date to the seventh century BCE. Since many scholars believe that the Old Testament is primarily a product of Israel’s post-exilic period, these two finds cast that conclusion into doubt, given the language they each demonstrate.

Behind these fragmentary pieces, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest full-manuscript evidence of our Old Testament. They are a collection of over 900 manuscripts discovered around Qumran from 1947–56. Copies of every Old Testament book except Nehemiah and Esther were found in 11 caves around the Dead Sea, and the oldest dates to the third century BCE. Before this discovery, the Leningrad Codex was the oldest Old Testament manuscript, dating to 1008 CE. Scholars compared the two texts, being greater than a millennium apart, and found that little had changed. This attests to the accuracy of the Hebrew Bible transmission. The notion supported by Bart Ehrman and company that we can’t fully trust Scripture because of the lack of original copies is a bit of a farce when one considers the accuracy between these two texts.  Stay tuned!


From Prison

Matthew 11:2–30; Luke 7:18–35

John the Baptist is next depicted as imprisoned, and the reason given is detailed in Mark 6:17–20. As a man who preached the message of repentance, John the Baptist was sure to know the law and point it out. Perhaps John’s resolution stemmed from his sense of duty as a prophet (Ezek. 3:18–19). John was right to warn Herod. The law prescribed that a man not marry his living brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16; 20:21), and both Herod’s wife and Herodias’ husband were still living when they married (Antiq. 18.5.4 [136]). Jesus would later preach that if one married another after divorcing for any reason other than infidelity, they were an adulterer (Matt. 19:9). This relationship was adulterous. John pointed that out to his disparagement.

The result of John pointing out that Herod and Herodias were sinning was imprisonment. While in prison, John heard about the works of Christ and sent his disciples to Him. However, his inquiry was odd given that John had previously acknowledged Christ as Messiah: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; cf. 1:32; 3:30). John’s inquiry may have been legitimate for several reasons: it may have been for the benefit of his disciples. They chose to remain with John after the revelation of Jesus being the Messiah (John 3:26). John may have wanted to continue to point to Christ while decreasing himself (John 3:30). Secondly, the expectation of Jesus doing the works John said He would perform may have created impatience within John. Perhaps John wanted to know when Jesus would fulfill the prophecy he had proclaimed (Matt. 3:7–12). A final possibility may rest within John’s humanity. The Baptist may have wanted to confirm what he already knew. Given the pressure of imprisonment on John, it is possible that he had a moment of weakness.

John’s scriptural knowledge was so excellent that Christ used scripture to answer John. When in prison, the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus who he was. When Jesus answered John (Luke 7:22), he quoted Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming age of the Messiah and those things that would accompany His coming (Isaiah 29:18–19; 35:4–6). To John, Jesus’ usage of this passage would have communicated what John expected from the Messiah. 

When the disciples of John left, Jesus addressed the crowd. “A reed shaken in the wind” speaks of John’s character in one of two ways: 1) Israel is described as a reed easily uprooted (1 Kings 14:15), and John was undeterred in his commitment to God’s mission, or 2) King Herod’s insignia on coins of his minting was a reed so that John couldn’t be bought. Either interpretation fits John’s character because he was a true prophet, not a straw man.

Luke further shows the typology of John being likened to Elijah (cf. Luke 1:17) when he quotes from Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1. The latter passage is linked with Malachi 4:5, where Elijah is identified as the messenger. These passages, along with Isaiah 40:3, are commonly identified with John the Baptist though he denied that he was Elijah incarnate (John 1:21–23).

Those who rejected his baptism and message were those who Jesus likened to brats. They didn’t initiate the game so they won’t play. Those who play and abstain are bad, while those who play and partake are bad too. Moreover, the imagery is akin to a marriage, and this imagery has been used of Christ being the bridegroom (Luke 5:33–35). Either way, those who rejected John and Christ could not be satisfied because of their lack of wisdom. 

Next, Jesus denounces the places where he performed some of his miracles (Matt. 11:20–30).  He does this by comparing them to cities that suffered wrath at the hands of God in a time past. These evil cities, whose stories were infamous to the Israelites, were Tyre and Sidon—who worshiped Baal and were notorious for their immortality and corruption—and Sodom, which was destroyed for their wickedness. Had these evil cities seen what Jesus had done, they would have repented, unlike the cities that saw the good works of Christ and did not. The point is this: those cities that didn’t repent were cozy with sin and not burdened by it in the least. Twice in Jeremiah, the prophet says that God’s people didn’t know how to blush (Jer. 6:15; 8:12). Every one of us has somehow become desensitized to sin. When was the last time someone used curse words that did not bother me? Was I one of the hypocrites who quit watching a television show because of homosexual relationships while the same show otherwise was about fornication and adultery (e.g., Grey’s Anatomy)? Maybe those aren’t the sins we’re desensitized to, but we all likely have some that just don’t bother us, and they may be some in our lives.

Jesus’ invitation, then, follows a prayer. After rebuking the cities, He doesn’t stew or fixate on them but prays. Then, He explains the prayer to those present, inviting them to come: The invitation is to the one who labors under the heavy burden of manufactured religious traditions spurred by the law. No one can measure up no matter how hard they try. The invitation is to the one who labors under the heavy burden of their sins. Sin is exhausting because we then think we must use our resources to please God. 


A Centurion’s Faith and a Widow’s Son

Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–17

A centurion commanded 100 soldiers, but centurions fought alongside their men, unlike other commanding officers. Perhaps, for this reason, they enjoyed a specific bond with those they commanded. The structure of the Roman military was: legions (6,000 soldiers), cohorts (600 soldiers), and centuries (100 soldiers).  The centurion disciplined, recruited, and enforced orders among his men. They were often referred to as the “backbones” of the Roman army.

Soldiers weren’t stationed in Galilee until AD 44 (cf. Tacitus Annals 4.5). However, Herod Antipas could levy soldiers from outside his region since Capernaum was a garrison city and an import customs post. That this centurion is mentioned as having built their synagogue is contextual of a centurion’s pay, not to mention employing his troops as laborers.

This particular centurion loved the Jewish nation, so he was worthy of Christ to help in the eyes of the elders. The centurion loved the Jewish nation so much that he was aware of Jewish customs as they pertained to Jewish/Gentile relations. He was respectful not to breach the law and entertain a Jewish rabbi (cf. Acts 10:28; 11:12). Instead of Jesus’ presence, the centurion knew that as he commanded his soldiers, so too could Christ simply command the illness to be healed, and it would.

Some have suggested, based on Matthew’s account, that the “slave” (doulos) of Luke’s account should be interpreted in light of Matthew’s “servant” (pais) and that the term translated in Matthew was used in antiquity as the passive partner of a same-sex relationship. However, every other time Matthew uses this term, it’s translated as “servant” (12:18; 14:2), “child” (17:18; 21:15), or “young boy” (2:16). He wouldn’t have meant it as a homosexual relationship on this one occasion when he used it a certain way in all others. So the term Matthew used was indeed used of the passive partner of a same-sex relationship, but that was in classical Greek, whereas he wrote in koine Greek. For proponents of homosexuality, this would be a reasonable interpretation, but we take Luke’s later writing as an interpretation of Matthew’s. Therefore, Luke’s use of a word that indicates a servant or enslaved person is his interpretation of what Matthew wrote.

The following story very closely resembles Elijah’s raising of the widow’s son in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17–24): 

●       Both were widows

●       Both had lost their only son

●       Both sons were touched by men of God

●       Both sons were revived

●       Both sons were delivered to their mothers

●       Both resulted in exclaiming to the healers the powers of God

However, there are also some notable differences. The son of Luke’s account is being carried to his burial. The process of taking the dead to their burial is thus described: 

The corpse was…taken on a bier carried by “shoulders” in bare feet so that they would not trip. The shoulders had the right to trample over sown fields….The “shoulders” changed frequently, so as to give as many as possible the chance to share in the honour of carrying the dead. The conventional number of stops (or “stations”) was seven, and the burial places had a field to which the mourners would direct their procession. 

The strong point of Christ’s compassion likely came because he knew the destitution of a widow with no sons to care for her (cf. Jer. 6:26; Amos 8:10; Zech. 12:10). Therefore, as Ephrem the Syrian put it, “The Virgin’s son met the widow’s son” (Diatessaron 6.23).

Widows were considered to be under the special care of the Lord (Deut. 10:18; Ps. 68:5; 146:9; Prov. 15:25), and care for them on the part of others was regarded as distinguishing of pure religion (Job 31:16; James 1:27). To exploit a widow was reprehensible to God (cf. Exod. 22:22; Deut. 24:17). Later in the New Testament, Paul wrote about the qualifications for widows which included their being provided for by their families (1 Tim. 5:4), but if they had no families, the church would be their portion and care (1 Tim. 5:16; cf. Acts 6:1ff).

That this widow had no one to care for her was a sad state. Gregory of Nyssa said that Luke had given us, in his portrayal of this widow, “the sum of misery in a few words” (quoted in Aquinas, Catena Aurea 3.1.238). To erase her misery was Christ and his compassion for her lot. Once Jesus touched the dead body, he would have been considered unclean according to Jewish law (Num. 6:6, 11; 9:6–13.), but for him who had the power over death, he reversed the authority of uncleanness.


That One Verse Everyone Knows and Misuses

Matthew 7:1–8:1

Everyone and their mother knows Matthew 7:1, and they use it—often inappropriately. Yet, there’s more to this passage than telling people not to judge. For example, just a few verses later, Jesus warns against false teachers. To dub a person a false teacher, you have to be willing to judge what they teach and how they live (Matt. 7:15–20). Notice what follows: how we judge is how we will be judged (7:2). This critical person sees only the fault in others but none in themselves (7:3–5). We’re to judge righteously (John 7:24). Unrighteous judgment is according to appearance. Righteous judgment, however, is with grace, mercy, and God’s will as the standard. There’s always what we see and reality. Sometimes the two are the same, but sometimes they’re not. When we look for the worst, that’s what we’ll find every time. 

In matters of righteousness, we’re to judge our brethren and not outsiders (1 Cor. 5:12). Judgment here isn’t a condemnation but discernment. When a Christian doesn’t bear fruits of the spirit but works of the flesh, unrepentantly, we’re to address the issue. When you read the thought uninterrupted, it flows into the next chapter of 1 Corinthians, which denounced lawsuits among brethren. This matter is one of discipline (cf. Deut. 17:6–7; Matt. 18:15–20).

Next, Jesus urges persistent prayer (7:7–11). Then he gives the golden rule, which was meant to guide interpreting the Law (7:12). The golden rule parallels similar statements from other civilizations. 

Watch yourself, my son, in everything you do, and discipline yourself in all your conduct. And what you hate, do not do to anyone. (Tobit 4:14–15; second century BC)

Let us show our generosity in the same manner that we would wish to have it bestowed on us. (Seneca, De Beneficiis 2.1.1; contemporary of Jesus)

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn! (Hillel, b. Sabb. 31a; 70 BC–AD 10)

Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you. (Confucius, Analects 15.23)

Anything that might seem as if we should treat another in a certain way must be turned on ourselves and asked whether or not we’d wish to be treated in that way. The two ways of verses 13–14 have parallels in other passages (Deut. 30:15; Ps. 1:1–2). 

The false prophets of whom Jesus speaks (7:15–20) must be set in the backdrop of how he said we should regard our enemies. In the decades following Jesus, prophets arose, leading revolts against the occupying Romans. Theudas (AD 44–46) led a band of people massacred by a squadron, the head of Theudas being paraded through Jerusalem. An Egyptian during Felix’s reign (AD 52–60) led several thousand people to the Mount of Olives, where he promised to command the city walls to fall and subsequently be installed as Israel’s king. Hundreds were killed, and hundreds were imprisoned, the Egyptian man having escaped. They could tell who the false prophets were by their fruits—if contrary to what Jesus taught them (non-violence), they were known to be false. 

Once more, he emphasizes proper action over confession (7:21–23). The false prophets would be known by their fruits. His disciples were to let their light shine through their good works (5:16). He wanted their righteousness to exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes (5:20). At every turn, Jesus wanted his disciples to show, by their actions, fidelity to God. They’re not to make a show of it for others but to quietly serve God, trusting in him. Their house will stand if they heed his instructions (7:24–27). 

The response to Jesus’ teaching as having authority stems from his teaching coming directly from himself. Pharisees and rabbis would have cited the collective wisdom of the rabbis, the Law, or other Jewish writings. Jesus alludes to them but speaks with authority and settles the matter. He taught, unlike any other teacher that lived, citing other sources. 


You Have Heard It Said, But I Say To You

Matthew 6:1–34

Jesus addresses a concept exposing faults in the Pharisees and scribes. They did things to be seen (vv. 2, 5, 16). Verse one has “piety” or “charitable deeds.” The former is from a more ancient version of Scripture. The three acts of piety are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. A second-century BCE text highlights the relationship between the three.

Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life, but those who commit sin and do wrong are their own worst enemies. (Tobit 12:8–10)

Each deed was to have been done privately, without drawing attention to oneself so that God receives glory (vv. 3–4, 6–7, 17–18). 

Almsgiving is commanded in the law (Deut. 14:28–29; 15:11), but it’s out of service to God and one’s neighbor that it is done and not for personal acclaim. The chests in the temple that people would place alms in were shaped like trumpets (shofar). The term translated as “hypocrite” is an old word for “actor.” One who plays a part or character that isn’t who they are is a hypocrite—an actor. 

Jews prayed three times daily: 9 a.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. (Ps. 55:17; cf. Dan. 6:10). The morning and evening prayers were at the same time as two of the daily sacrifices, so those living around Jerusalem would have heard the blast of the trumpets at the times of the burnt offerings (cf. 2 Chron. 29:26–30). Presumably, some would go about their day, and when the time of prayer came, they’d stop wherever they were to pray, drawing the notice of those present. The inner room Jesus speaks of here isn’t a closet per se but a storage room. The condemnation of vain repetition isn’t repetition altogether because Jesus did that (cf. Matt. 26:44). The idea here is showboating with too many words or bloviating. 

Rabbis often gave their disciples prayers to recite, so Jesus would have expected this prayer to be prayed verbatim. Outside the New Testament, Christian writing prescribes it to be prayed three times per day—presumably the times of prayer. 

And do not pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever.” Pray thus three times a day. (Didache 8:2–3)

Many in the ancient world may have had little alternative to hunger, so to display fasting as an act of piety would have been rather insulting to those for whom hunger was common. This righteousness was often associated with mourning, repentance, and self-discipline. 

Wealth can change people. Most lottery winners go broke, and that’s after sometimes having millions of dollars. Others, however, become so changed by it that they cannot enjoy the little things. Where their treasure is, their hearts are as well (Matt. 6:21). Jesus has already warned about the eyes’ capacity to lead to sin (cf. 5:27–30), so what a person dwells on determines who they are in the inner person. If they are wealthy, they will be a slave to it. However, focusing on God and trusting in his provisions ensures their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (6:34).  


A New Way of Living

Matthew 5:13–48; Luke 6:27–36

When Jesus referred to his disciples as salt and light, the significance was not lost on them. They used salt to purify (Exod. 30:35; 2 Kings 2:19–22; Ezek. 16:4); thus, its ancient connotation symbolized purity and wisdom. Likewise, the Dead Sea Scrolls speak of “the children of light” who were on the side of God (1QS 2.3; 3.3.19–21). These two metaphors aren’t just representative of who Christians are but how their works were to be (Matt. 5:16). The works that demonstrate a Christian is acting as salt and light are partly given in Matthew 25:32–46. 

A common belief about Jesus was that he would abolish the law (Acts 6:14), so Matthew highlights that this wasn’t his intention, so much so that the most minute portions of the law would go unaltered. The jot is the Hebrew yod; it looks like an apostrophe. The tittle is even smaller but can change the entirety of the word, as seen in the differences between resh and dalet of the Hebrew alphabet.

No matter how minor a command seems, it’s still to be kept, and no one should ever minimize any law (cf. James 2:10). 

Highlighting what is said from this point onward, Jesus urges that his disciples behave more righteously than the scribes and Pharisees, known for being righteous. The first issue is murder: when committed, the Jewish court could judge the wrongdoer (Deut. 16:18; 21:1–9). Judgment can come to one who’s angry without cause (cf. 1 John 3:15). Insulting another was a legal offense, and the Jewish court could excommunicate a person for insulting a teacher (b. Ber. 19a). The progression is interesting: angry without cause = judgment; calling one “half whit” = council (Sanhedrin); calling one a “fool” = hell. Why, though? The type of anger here is long-lived and brooding over imagined or real injustices. This isn’t the type of anger that flares up and dissipates. Another term is used for the latter instead of what’s used here. In Jewish society, name-calling was a severe offense. Names indicate a person’s character or praise of God in some way, so to refer to someone as a half-whit or fool was to strip away the person’s significance by removing their name. Before offering a gift, something that might allude to Cain and Abel, God required reconciliation. 

Once more, going beyond the command, disciples are to avoid lust since it is as equal to adultery as the physical act. From here, Jesus doesn’t command self-mutilation but is speaking in hyperbole. Whatever it is that leads to the temptation should be severed. Finally, Jesus’ commands about divorce and remarriage were stricter than in most branches of Judaism at the time. The reason one may divorce is porneias. As the Old Testament used it, the related term was translated as “playing the whore.” In this case, let’s note a few things: 

  1. “Divorce” then was an exclusively religious act. In our time and culture, it is a civil action. When two people divorce today, they are unbinding themselves legally. Then, when a man gave his wife a divorce certificate, he said that he would no longer be responsible for caring for her, thus leaving her destitute if she didn’t have an adequate support system. People may legally divorce today, but the marriage has not dissolved in God’s eyes except for the condition Jesus attaches to it (Matt. 19:1–9).
  2. If a man divorces his wife for “playing the whore,” anyone who marries her commits adultery. Mind you: this isn’t limited to cheating. It can imply prostitution, incest, and other sexual sins, as Scripture defines. 

Oaths, retaliation, and resistance are forbidden. Roman soldiers could compel anyone to do something for up to a mile, but to go the extra mile demonstrates non-resistance. We’re also not to withhold but give, and we should love differently. Our love should extend to even those we would instead not love, as God loves all people. 


Appointing the Twelve

Mark 3:13–19; Matthew 5:1–12; Luke 6:12–26

Jesus selected twelve men from his disciples (cf. Luke 10:1–12) who became apostles. Christ made this selection after a night of prayer. The term translated for Christ’s all-night prayer is used only here in the New Testament, and it denotes “an all-night prayer vigil,” which suggests a complete trust in God’s selection of the twelve. These particular disciples would be the standard bearers of the church.

An apostle was one who was “sent forth,” like an ambassador. Apostles were head of the church in Christ’s absence (1 Cor. 12.28; Eph. 4.11); hence the early church devoted itself to apostolic teaching (Acts 2.42). That twelve was selected was probably to replace the idea of the twelve tribes of Israel and thus defined Jesus’ followers as the reconstituted people of God. The twelve had a special mission and were hand-selected by Christ. However, the twelve were not the only ones called apostles (cf. 1 Cor. 15:5–7). The term seemed to have been sometimes used regarding missionaries, too, when they were sent from particular congregations (Acts 14:14), though it cannot be said that these were of the same authority as the apostolic office. 

Whenever Judas was replaced, his replacement was to be one who accompanied them during the time that Jesus was among them from the baptism of John until his ascension (Acts 1:21–22). The only apostle whose office didn’t fit the requirements of Judas’ replacement was the apostle Paul, but we know that Paul was likely in Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s ministry (cf. Acts 22:3; 26:4). We don’t know if he personally encountered Christ or heard him. Paul’s apostleship was disputed in the early church, but he contended that he was equal with Peter and the others (Gal. 2:7–9). 

Men would later call themselves apostles while claiming many characteristics of Jesus’ chosen apostles (2 Cor. 11:5ff; Rev. 2:2), but these were not to be obeyed. Once Jesus made his selection, he and they came down the mountain and stood on a level place. This doesn’t indicate that he came down but that he found a level place on the side of the mountain from which he could address his disciples. The crowd benefited from his teaching but was directed as his disciples (Luke 6:20). Jesus healed many at this point who were ill and those who were possessed. As they touched Jesus, they enjoyed his power.

While Luke’s Sermon on the Plain deviates in structure from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Matthew was a topical rather than chronological writer. Luke’s placement of Jesus’ sermon in his Gospel may be best understood from a chronological view. The difference between the mount and the plain may be understood as Jesus standing on the side of the mount, or a slope, which could technically be the mount.

The following sermon was intended not for the people but for the disciples of Christ. The beatitudes have been described as a way of life, while the woes have been described as a way of death (Didache 1.1–5), reminiscent of Deuteronomy’s blessings and curses. Ambrose understood the beatitudes as the four virtues of Greek philosophy: temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude (Luke 5.62-63). Ambrose’s interpretation ran counter to the Stoic philosophers of Jesus’ day.

The woes of Luke speak to those who have enjoyed their reward in this life. Jesus equated what was desired by men with what was base. What was base to men, Jesus equated with blessings: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8–9). The woes were woes, and the blessings were blessings because those who enjoyed the woes could not see the need for Christ, while those with the blessings could. Luke later proves this in his story of the rich man and Lazarus later in his Gospel (Luke 16:19–31). The rich man had all the comforts and wealth of the world, while Lazarus suffered daily. In the afterlife, the rich man was tormented while Lazarus was comforted. When the rich man adjured Abraham to send word to his brothers once he learned that he could not receive relief, Abraham’s words were that they heed Moses and the Prophets. The implication of this passage was that the rich man refused to give himself to a study of the Hebrew Bible, and because he lacked adequate knowledge of how to care for his neighbor, he was suffering as a result.


Healing on the Sabbath

Matthew 12:1–21; Mark 2:23–3:12; Luke 6:1–11

Jesus and his disciples were pulling grain and eating on the Sabbath, but the Pharisees took issue with what they interpreted as their “working” on the Sabbath. The apostle John gave a blunt explanation that summed up the Pharisaical animosity towards Jesus, which revolved around Christ’s Sabbath activity. The law regarding the Sabbath was one of observant cessation for holiness (Exod. 20:8). What they were doing was not a violation of the Sabbath. Instead, they violated the traditional keeping of the Sabbath as it was defined by the rabbis.

God permitted the Jews to eat grain as they passed through a grain field (Deut. 23:25; Ruth 2:2–3). Sabbath prohibitions were to not start a fire for cooking (Exod. 16:22–30; 35:3), gather fuel (Num. 15:32–36), bear a load (Jer. 17:21–22), or conduct business (Neh. 10:31; 13:15, 19). The rabbinical tradition, however, demanded thirty-nine particular restrictions, including reaping (Shab. 7.2). Therefore, the disciples picking grain was perceived by the Pharisees as reaping and thus a violation of the law.

Jesus proved the Pharisee’s inconsistency by exposing their veneration of David while neglecting David’s disobedience of the law while Jesus and his disciples were not breaking the law. Furthermore, Jesus, not the Pharisees, was “lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath does not indicate that Jesus violated the law. Some have categorized this narrative as one of situational ethics, but that is not the case. Jesus was not bending the rules or saying he could because of his lordship over the Sabbath. Instead, he was the legislator of the law and, bound by it (cf. Matt. 5:17–19), would not have broken it. Had Jesus defied the law, he could not have been called sinless (1 John 3:4; cf. Heb. 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22). If Jesus sinned, he could not have been our sacrifice humanity would still be in sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Matthew adds the detail that Jesus pointed out that the priests broke the law, working on the Sabbath, but were blameless. Then, for the second time, he cites Hosea, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” 

Jesus is next faced with healing on the Sabbath. By this time, the Pharisees kept a steady eye on the Lord to determine whether he would violate their traditions. However, later rabbinic traditions attest to an answer to the question of Jesus: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or harm, to save life or to destroy it?” The rabbis agreed that preserving life overruled Sabbath restrictions when life was at stake (Yoma 8.6; cf. Shab. 18.3; 19.2). However, life wasn’t at risk in this story. Mark permits us a glimpse into how Jesus felt about their hardness of hearts: he “looked … at them with anger, bring grieved” (Mark 3:5). Jesus did this miracle publicly not to provoke but to persuade. The proof was required to attest to his identity to know that he was Lord. Once he healed the man, though, the Pharisees began plotting with Herodians, a detail unique to Mark, which makes for an ironic narrative. Since the Sabbath was meant for cessation, their plotting contradicts their ceasing. 

Jesus removes himself, healing those who came to him in Tyre and Sidon (Mark 3:7–12), Gentile cities that perhaps spoke to the offer of salvation even to Gentiles. Matthew cited Isaiah’s words as the explanation of being in Tyre and Sidon (12:16–21; cf. Is. 42:1–4).  


By the Pool of Bethesda

John 5:1–47

Jesus spent a lot of time in Galilee. Now, he goes to Jerusalem for a feast in the first year of his ministry (c. 27–31). The Sheep Gate was where sheep came in and were washed in the pool before being taken into the sanctuary. Invalids were also here, so those wishing to be ritually pure would have avoided this area. Yet, Jesus goes to it. Its name may mean “house of mercy,” which was why such folks went here (vv. 1–3). Depending on your translation, there may be an omission of mentioning angels stirring the waters (vv. 3–4).  

All English translations use a specific edition of the Greek New Testament and Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament. The very first Greek New Testament to be comprised was by Erasmus in 1516. He used 12th-century manuscripts. At his time, the oldest manuscript was from the 10th century, but he opted for the later ones. As time passed, scholars made revisions that echoed Erasmus’ text. All English translations through 1880 used the same Greek New Testament, called Textus Receptus (“received text”). 

By the 1700s, many more manuscripts had been discovered. Some were six to nine centuries older than what Erasmus had available. These older manuscripts lacked passages such as John 5:3b–4 and fifteen others. The belief was that a scribe may have mistaken an explanatory marginal comment for a correction and copied it into the text. A new Greek New Testament was made and appeared in 1831. Since the manuscripts were older than Erasmus used, they omitted the sixteen passages to construct the most accurate and historical version, which is reflected in many English translations. 

Since 1611, the King James Bible has reigned as the preeminent English translation. However, because of the newer Greek New Testament, a Revised Version was commissioned in England in 1881. The Revised Version would later birth the New Revised Standard Version, which would later birth the English Standard Version. When the Revised Version appeared, there was a considerable uproar since the long-dominant KJV had set the standard. The omission of the verses was seen as blasphemous, and people cited Revelation 22:19 to those who upheld the Revised Version. In reality, Revelation 22:18 is more relevant if you want to argue the point. 

Translations that omit these added verses usually contain a footnote or marginal note explaining that 3b–4 appears in later manuscripts. Modern translations do not leave these verses out per se any more than the older ones added them. They are simply the product of the information that was available at the time. Now that we have better information, the translations that omit them should be more commonly used.

Nevertheless, given the affinity for the New King James, we use it with the caveat that it’s based on later manuscripts. More recent translations utilize a vast amount of sources. The standard for most English translations is the Masoretic text of the Hebrew called Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia; the Greek New Testament used is Novum Testamentum Graece. Translators often consult, alongside these primary sources, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), the Samaritan Pentateuch (Law of Moses), the Syriac Peshitta (Syriac Bible), the Latin Vulgate, and other sources that may help shed light on texts that may be difficult to translate. 

After Jesus healed the man, linking his condition to sin (v. 14), he took his bed and went on his way while the Pharisees rebuked him for carrying his bed. This act of healing on the Sabbath was the start of persecution for Jesus that would culminate in his death (v. 16). Christ explains  himself to them as equal with God in nature (vv. 17–18), power (vv. 19–21), authority (vv. 22–30). The language of verse 25 may foreshadow the raising of Lazarus. Another possibility is that his intention is akin to Ezekiel speaking to the valley of dry bones to bring them to life (Ezek. 37). Later, Jesus alludes to the resurrection at the judgment (vv. 28–29). 

Jesus, next, shows that he is submissive even to the Law of Moses, which prescribes two or three witnesses to confirm facts (Deut. 19:15). Jesus has the witness of John the Baptist (vv. 31–35), the works he performs (v. 36), the father (vv. 37–38), and Scripture (vv. 39–47). Rabbi Hillel taught, “The more study of the Law the more life…If a man…has gained for himself words of the Law he has gained for himself life in the world to come” (m. ’Abot 2.7). The emphasis on studying the Torah was such that what it taught was overshadowed. We must beware of this kind of biblicism because many brethren can know the Scriptures with exactitude. Yet, being able to quote book, chapter, and verse is meaningless unless our lives conform to what’s written. 


Jesus Among an Undesirable Crowd

Matthew 9:9–17; Mark 2:13–22; Luke 5:27–39

When we think about apostles, we envision holy men. Yet, we often forget their humanity and the “before” of their story. Relating to ordinary people, even some that society considers undesirable are disregarded as we think of them in the position given to them by Jesus. Jesus, however, chose unwanted, ordinary people. 

This story begins with Jesus calling a certain disciple, Levi. In other passages, he’s identified as Matthew—the writer of the Gospel that bears his name (Matt. 9:9–13; Mark 2:14). Matthew, or Levi, was a tax collector. They were crooked, greedy, and usually men of wealth and influence. They would contract with their city or district and gather taxes to be sent to Rome. They had little authority, but they were in cahoots with the authorities. Sometimes they served as informants and bore false witness to get extra money when someone might have already paid their taxes (cf. Luke 19:8). Whatever they collected above what was required was often pocketed as a commission (cf. Luke 3:13). What made tax collectors so hated was that they were Jews who worked for the Roman government. To the Jewish people, who were prideful of their heritage and disdainful of foreign rule and occupation, the tax collectors were seen as traitors. Israel had been an independent state for about 100 years until Rome brought them under subjugation, and Herod was installed as king in AD 6. Before, Israel and Rome were allies. After being made a Roman province, Israel often had uprisings in attempts to expel the Romans from their homeland. Those tax collectors were natives working for the occupiers, placing them in a hated category. This was why the religious leaders were astounded by Jesus’ associations. However, it was because Levi was spiritually sick that Jesus sought him. 

Table meals in the ancient East were more significant than we might deem them. Sharing a meal with someone implied accepting them, and in this case, added to that was forgiveness. Our Lord’s Supper is based mainly on the same premise. Sharing the meal from the Lord’s Table in the assembly communicates our acceptance and forgiveness towards one another. The religious leaders believed obedience to religious law was a precondition for God’s kingdom’s arrival. Jesus, however, communicates by this that God’s kingdom will arrive even to sinful Israel by God’s grace—the very thing Jesus is giving the sinners and tax collectors. The same still stands: we don’t make ourselves ready to be accepted. God offers grace through which, in our unpreparedness and sin, we can go to him as we are, and he makes us something far more significant. Then the work begins. 

Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy [steadfast love] and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” The statement isn’t meant to call one away from sacrifices (worship) but to the knowledge of God. When we understand God’s heart, we’ll live with integrity under his covenant rather than engage in rituals and shows of piety to earn his love. Have affection for God and mercy for others. They had missed the whole point. Jesus was going to heal spiritual sickness, but they were enslaved to trivial issues of purity. The opposite of mercy, in this case, is a religious triviality wed to traditions and regulations. 

The banquet at Levi’s home concerned the Pharisees because they, and John’s disciples, were disciplined in fasting and prayer, while to them, it appeared that Jesus’ disciples partied. However, what Jesus seemed to relay to the Pharisees was a matter of compatibility. As a new garment patch was incompatible with an old garment, and as new wine in old wineskins was incompatible, so it was that fasting in the presence of the bridegroom was incompatible. This isn’t to say that fasting isn’t needed. Just that the occasion for it was untimely.   


Jesus’ Popularity Grows

Matthew 8:2–4; Mark 1:40–45; Luke 5:12–16

Leprosy was no pleasant or beautiful thing. It was downright torture for the one who struggled with it. It was physical torture because of its effects upon the body, and it could even be in the orifices hidden from sight, the throat, and genitals. To have leprosy was thought to have been cursed by God (cf. 2 Sam. 3:29; 2 Kings 15:5; 2 Chron. 26:20–21). One author notes: 

Leprosy usually begins with a patch-like lumpy rash which does not fade under pressure. The…initial eruption may entirely disappear and reappear after a long interval, when the next and unmistakable form of the disease manifests itself…[as] the appearance of the white skin.

Leviticus 13–14 dealt with leprosy and its handling in Jewish life. Priests were responsible for pronouncing one as unclean or clean. The initial stages of leprosy were a period of observation in the event a person did not have leprosy (Lev. 13:4–6). If the disorder spread, the person was declared unclean, and they were to be ostracized from society (Lev. 13:45–46).

Because Jesus touched the leper—an unlawful thing to do (Lev. 5:2–6; 7:21) – some might be prone to think him unclean and in violation of the law. This must have been the audience’s thought when they saw Jesus touch the leper. Since Christ is the author of the law, he is able to supersede the law in this regard (cf. Luke 6:5), but he did observe it and yield to it by commanding that the leper seek the priest’s pronouncement as well as offer acceptable sacrifices.

This miracle gave greater rise to Christ’s already growing popularity. Because of this, he could scarcely be seen without being bothered by those wanting to be healed. Yes, Christ is a healer, but more of the spirit than of the body. A man should seek the spiritual cleansing that brings us into fellowship with God more so than the physical healing that affords comfort. A leper was not only physically ostracized, but he was also spiritually ostracized. He could not worship. The Lord wearied of these requests and went away to pray. 

(Matthew 9:1–8; Mark 2:1–12; Luke 5:17–26) 

In this account, Jesus healed a paralytic man while attributing his healing to forgiving sins. However, it is here that Luke first points to the contention between Jesus and the Pharisees. In this story, they appear as students, but when Jesus did something contrary to their customs, they accused him of blasphemy. Accompanying the Pharisees were the “teachers of the law” or, more likely, the scribes. The latter group traced their heritage back to Ezra (cf. Ezra 7:6, 10). Their duty was to interpret the law while the Pharisees applied the law. It would be like having a different preacher for exposition and application. The exposition gives the meaning while the applicator instructs how the meaning is to be followed.

This contention was Christ pronouncing forgiveness of sins and healing the paralytic (cf. Ps. 103:3). While only God forgives sins, he did use human agents to offer forgiveness (2 Sam. 12:13). Since disease and sins were linked in Jesus’ time (1 Cor. 11:30; cf. John 9:2–3), those present would have identified the paralytic’s disease as linked to his sins. What Jesus was doing was what was prophesied in the Messianic era (Jer. 31:31–34; Is. 29:18–19). However, the Pharisees didn’t understand these things, so they accused Christ of blasphemy. Jesus would have been worthy of blasphemy had he misused the name of God (M. Sanh. 7.5), but he didn’t.


Jesus Begins Healing and Casts out Demons

Matthew 8:14–17; Mark 1:21–34; Luke 4:31–41

One emphasis of Mark’s is the authority of Jesus (Mark 1:22, 27; cf. 2:10; 3:15; 6:7; 11:28–33). He teaches as one with authority, and the response is surprise and wonder, but not faith. His authority is that he did not cite a rabbi or some tradition when he taught but spoke as an arbiter. While in the synagogue, Jesus exorcised a demon (v. 27). He set out to cleanse the unholiness on a day God intended to be holy. Jesus’ manner of exorcism and the words he used were similar to Jewish exorcists (e.g., “rebuked” and “muzzled”), yet he didn’t use incantations as mentioned in the pseudepigraphical book, Testament of Solomon. Josephus attributed Jewish exorcism to Solomon and even said such practices were customary (Antiq. 8.45–49). Since Jewish exorcists invoked magical incantations (cf. Test. Sol.), Jesus simply commanded, and he obeyed. 

The genesis of demons is an interesting one. Angels were created by God (Psalm 148:1–5), and they have free moral agency (Psalm 103:20–21; Jude 1:6; 2 Peter 2:4). Some of these angels did in their outcast status changed the course of events that eventually birthed demons (Jude 1:6; 2 Peter 2:4). The text used to determine this was Genesis 6:1–4. This passage spoke to the ancient audience of the comingling between the divine and earthly figures—something that violated God’s creative purposes and was thus sinful. In the Greek Old Testament, this passage has in the place of “sons of God,” “angels” in Genesis 6:2. In place of Nephilim (“fallen ones”), the Septuagint has “Giants” in Genesis 6:4. Therefore, the Old Testament of the early church believed this passage to speak regarding fallen angels who had copulated with women and produced as offspring a race of Giants. Because of the commingling of earthly and divine beings, God would eventually judge the earth and destroy it by the flood due to the subsequent corruption that arose because of the intermingling of angels and humans.

However, if God were to destroy all except Noah and his family by flood, one might assume that the flood would destroy the offspring of angels and women (Giants), ending the matter. The case is that the disembodied spirits of the offspring (Giants) produced by angels and women became what we regard today as “demons.” As seen in the New Testament, these demons often sought to possess bodies to enjoy once more the pleasures of the flesh that brought God’s judgment on the earth in the days of Noah. Furthermore, we also read about Giants post-flood (Numbers 13:33), which suggests that some survived.

Jesus obtains notoriety from the crowds but not faith (v. 28). This wonder continues throughout the ministry of Jesus. So many just aren’t sure what to make of him, and we have the benefit of hindsight so much that we cannot fathom how they were so confused. His hushing of the demons may have to do with him not wanting them to be the ones to disclose who he is. After all, if it’s coming from a demon, people may look to them in a way he doesn’t want. Angel worship, or angel religion, may have been an issue (Col. 2:18; cf. 1 Cor. 11:10; 1 Tim. 4:1). 

After this, they go, and Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. She begins to serve him, and crowds gather to be healed by him at sunset when Sabbath prohibitions end (v. 32). Matthew attaches this to fulfilling the prophecy about Jesus (Matt. 8:17). The English rendering from Isiah 53:4 reads, “griefs” and “sorrows,” which often leads us to equate that with struggles and sins, or something along those lines. It would be better translated as “sicknesses” and “pains,” which is more faithful to Matthew’s rendering and the English derived from it. Here on out, Jesus is noted as having healed multitudes. 


The Invitation to Follow Jesus

Matthew 4:13–22; Mark 1:16–20; Luke 5:1–11

Matthew’s and Mark’s passages are calling of the disciples, while Luke’s details what occurs immediately after they join Jesus. He had just read Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, and the crowds, not liking what he said, sought to kill him. Jesus, however, eluded them and left Nazareth and went to Capernaum. Capernaum was a city in the northern part of the Sea of Galilee, and there was a large fishing industry in this city and the others surrounding the sea. Here on out, Jesus makes Capernaum his base of operations (cf. Matt. 9:1). 

Matthew ties Jesus’ location to a prophecy from Isaiah (Matt. 4:13–16; cf. Is. 9:1–2). The prophecy envisioned when the Assyrians threw the region into darkness by their conquest (721 BC), but that light would come to it once more. This was why Jesus was here. 

Nazareth was in Zebulun and Capernaum was in Naphtali, both of which were in the territory of Galilee. To the west, north, and east, Galilee was surrounded by non-Jewish populations, hence “Galilee of the Gentiles.” It also came under Gentile influences, which was why many pious Jews didn’t regard the area very well. Interesting that Jesus went to a lowly regarded area to draft disciples. 

Jesus begins preaching the message of John the Baptist (Matt. 4:17). As he walks by the sea, he calls Simon and Andrew and James and John (Matt. 4:18–22; Mark 1:16–10). This wasn’t their first meeting: they were with him after his baptism and when he turned water into wine. Rabbis were typically sought after by students, and the rabbis determined who’d they take on as a disciple. Here, however, Jesus chooses his own, something out of the norm (cf. John 15:16). Not taking for granted the scene, understanding what a disciple was is important. A disciple was not only a student but a follower. They mimicked their rabbi in all that he did. When Jesus gave his great commission to make disciples, he told them to make little Jesuses of all the nations.  

The next event occurred in the morning after a night of fishing (Luke 5:5); by this time, Jesus’ popularity had swelled to proportions, making teaching difficult because the crowd was pressing in on him. Jesus entered Simon Peter’s boat and set out so that he could be heard. The way the lake is situated is akin to an amphitheater, so Christ setting out gave him enough distance to be heard while the people crowded. The acoustics in this area are ideal for such an address.

Jesus later asks Peter to cast his nets after an unsuccessful night of fishing (Luke 5:4). Fishing entailed not only the use of nets (Luke 5:2, 4) but also a spear (Job 41:7) and fishhook (Job 41:1; Amos 4:2). Ezekiel prophesied the spread of the Gospel in fishing imagery(47:8–10). Peter’s asking the Lord to depart from him was not only Peter’s sensing the holiness and personhood of Jesus, but it was also a manifestation of his guilt (Luke 5:8). One reason Peter might have wanted Jesus to depart was the belief of his ancestors that no one can look upon God without incurring his wrath (Exod. 20:19; Judg. 13:22; 1 Sam. 6:20). Luke solidifies that it was at this point that they left everything to follow Christ (Luke 5:11).


Jesus in the Synagogue

John 4:43–54; Luke 4:16–30

Leaving Samaria, Jesus ventures to Galilee. John makes a preliminary note in verse 44, which we later see in Luke’s passage under this study. While in Cana, where he performed his first miracle, a father from Capernaum came seeking healing for his son. He’s desperate because of the dire nature of his son’s health (v. 47). This father had traveled fifteen miles, about a day’s journey, uphill. The father didn’t make it back the same day, but his servants met him, and the nobleman inquired about when his son became well (vv. 49–53). 

Luke 4:14–16 is a year, filled in by information from John 1:29–4:54. Since Jesus had time to make an impact within a year, his popularity no doubt grew. So when he returned to his hometown to participate in the synagogue meeting by reading from the prophets and preaching, he would have likely been given attention to see what he would say and do.

From this sketching of the synagogue meeting and other passages, we notice how closely the early church worship mirrored the synagogue meetings. The synagogue meetings were not for worship per se but religious instruction. Synagogues were like an institute of religious education (Contra Apion 2.7; Mosis 3.27), and synagogue worship negates the place of the temple in the life of the Jew. The temple was where worship was rendered, though one might argue that common prayers in the synagogue were a sort of devotion.

There were at least two readings in a synagogue meeting—one from the Law and the other from the prophets (Megillah 4.1–5). The latter was followed by the ruler of the synagogue asking if anyone had a message after their reading (Acts 13:15; 15:21). The Law was read on a liturgical calendar in its entirety in three years (Megillah 29b). Had a priest or Levite been present, they would have been given preference over anyone reading (Gittin 5.8), so Jesus’ reading infers the absence of both. The reading of a prophetic book was the meeting’s conclusion, known as the haftarah. Since this portion of the reading was not preselected, the reader, at their discretion, could select the passage to read (Megillah 4.4).

For Jesus to unravel the scroll to Isaiah, to read this small portion from it, to roll it back up and hand it to the attendant likely took some time because the Jews were respectful in their handling of the Scriptures. After his reading followed a sermon that explained the text and applied it (cf. Luke 4:31–33; 6:6), and afterward, Jesus related this reading to the ministry of Elijah. However, the message and point of this relation appear after they question who Jesus’ father was. The fact that stung the audience was that Elijah, like Jesus, was also sent to Gentiles to work miracles when the people of God refused to receive them. This enraged the audience, who likely anticipated the Messiah, but they couldn’t believe his report because they knew him as Joseph’s son and had seen him grow among them.

When Jesus read from Isaiah, one passage Jesus noted was the one that read, “…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This phrase indicates that the year in which Jesus spoke was the year of Jubilee (cf. Lev. 25:8–17, 50–54; Deut. 31:9–13). During the year of Jubilee, whoever sold themselves as enslaved people or was indebted was released from their debts and freed. If someone lost land as surety, it was returned. Imagine a year where all was forgiven. That’s the year of Jubilee, and it is after this model of the year of Jubilee that chapter seven bankruptcies are modeled.

However, that doesn’t mean that a person was free to rack up as much debt as possible so that it could be forgiven in seven years. No, those usually indebted were in that position because they had to borrow to survive and not because they tried to save the cars, boats, and ways of life to which they became accustomed. This year was for those who found themselves in an unfortunate position of indebtedness—a position in which all Christians find themselves (cf. Matt. 18:23–35). Jubilee was meant to avoid oppression and social classes. On this year, every man was square with one another. It was in this year that Jesus begins healing on the Sabbath—a move that would later draw the ire of the religious leaders of his day. 


The Woman at the Well

John 4:5–42

Some thirty-four miles from Jerusalem, Jesus arrives in Sychar (Shechem; Josh. 24.32). John often uses the term polin (“city”) to indicate a small town, so we’re not in a big metropolis. At noon, he sat by the well when a Samaritan woman came to draw from the well. Water drawing usually occurs in the morning or evening and by a group of women (Gen. 24:11; Exod. 2:15–16). So drawing water alone may reflect her story—that she’s been married multiple times (John 4:18). Jesus asks for a drink at noon, and he asks for a drink upon the cross (John 19:28). 

John is careful to mention that Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. They were a race who sat between being Jew and Gentile, descending from Assyrians and Israelites. In Jesus’ time, Shechem was regarded as the “city of senseless” (T. Levi 7.2). Between AD 6–9, the Samaritans desecrated the temple on the eve of Passover: “It was customary for the priests to open the temple gates just after midnight. … some of the Samaritans came privately into Jerusalem, and thew about dead men’s bodies in the cloisters; on which account the Jews afterward excluded them from the temple” (Jos., Ant. 18.2.2). 

What’s later evident is the Holy Spirit is the living water of which Jesus speaks (John 7:37–39). Like Nicodemus, the woman takes him literally, however. The transition from the discussion about water to her husband is a little odd (vv. 15–16). It’s not a natural conversation progression, but men had met their wives at wells, such as Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 24:17; 29:10). There’s no technical term in Greek for “husband.” However, when it’s used as possessive, it’s implied. Assuming that “husband” is the better translation reminds us that rabbis disapproved of more than three marriages, even in the case of death (b. Yebam. 64b). If the translation is to be “man,” then she’s a serial fornicator. Either way, she’s living with one who isn’t even hers. 

Jesus’ point in asking this question may have been to reveal that he was a prophet, to which she responds (v. 19). She changes the conversation to their differences in worship location. Abraham and Jacob built altars in the region (Gen. 12:7; 33:20), and Mount Gerizim was where Moses blessed the Israelites (Deut. 11:29; 27:12). The dispute, however, has been ongoing for centuries. Worship won’t be tied to a location but to a person. Preachers have often stated that the spirit of worship is the mind and heart we bring to it, while the truth is doing what is commanded. John likely wouldn’t have agreed with that interpretation. Throughout his gospel, Jesus is the person who is associated with spirit and truth, as is belief in him (1:14, 17, 33; 3:5–8; 6:63; et. al.). When we worship through Christ (cf. Heb. 8:1–2), we worship in spirit and truth.

Samaritan belief in Messiah was not so much royal as he was to be instructive. Jesus discloses that he is the one of which she speaks. When the disciples return, they find Jesus speaking with this woman and are surprised. The surprise was that he was a) speaking with a woman and b) that she was Samaritan. Something Jesus often does is break through barriers by which people usually live. He disabuses us of our prejudices. He challenges our feelings on things. This woman left to bring others to Jesus while his disciples urged him to eat. As the people approach him because of the woman’s testimony, Jesus likens them to a field ready for harvest. The very people the disciples may have avoided were those they spent two days among sharing the good news. Later, Jesus commands his apostles to begin in Jerusalem and proceed to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  


Jesus and John

John 3:22–4:4; Luke 3:19–20

Jesus has been in the land of Judea since the Passover, so the term translated “land” here may indicate the countryside. Either way, Jesus is likely heading north of Jerusalem, where John the Baptist is too (3:22–23). Jesus is not doing the baptizing, though (cf. 4:2). The exact location where they were performing baptisms is disputed, but Aenon is a word meaning “many springs.” The verse tells us that water was plentiful there (3:23). The author mentions John not yet being in prison, something he assumes his audience was familiar with. 

A dispute arises about purification (cf. Lev. 14:8). There are many reasons a person might be baptized or purify themselves (cf. Heb. 6:1–2; 9:10). Unique to John was that he did this in repentance in preparation for the kingdom of heaven. People were “getting right” with God through John via his baptism, so the nature of it may have led to the dispute since it differed from the usual rite. 

Next, John’s disciples come to him concerned about those going to Jesus. They may have feared that the dispute was because of their varying personalities—some were going to John to be baptized while others went to Jesus. John, in answering, doesn’t feel threatened, unlike modern preachers might. He was doing God’s will and wouldn’t supersede the mission God gave him. That mission was to point others to Jesus, not to rival him. 

John mentions to his audience that Jesus had the spirit without measure. The rabbis believed that God gave portions of his spirit to prophets. “Even the Holy Spirit resting on the prophets does so by weight, one prophet speaking one book of prophecy and another speaking two books” (Lev. Rab. 15:2). Jesus, however, had the fullness of the Spirit. Here in this passage are Father, Son, and Spirit, all mentioned. It’s important to note this passage’s active, present tense verbs. “He who believes” is ongoing, not a one-time thing. 

As much as believing is something ongoing, so is not believing. We don’t like to talk much about God’s wrath because it can sound too harsh and dilute our picture of a loving God. The author mentioned that Jesus wasn’t sent to condemn the world (v. 17), so this conclusion eliminates any misunderstanding that judgment is nonexistent (v. 36). God’s wrath isn’t God losing his temper. John has already shown us that the father came to earth as the son, and the son endured the cross to keep us from condemnation. God would rather die than we should incur his wrath. 

In the Old Testament, God is often described as “slow to anger” (Exod. 34:6). The phrase used literally translates to “long of nose.” Anytime anger is translated from Hebrew, it comes either from “nose,” “heat,” or “hot nose.” When a person becomes angry, their face often flushes, hence “hot nose.” God, however, is described as “long of the nose,” meaning it takes much longer for his face to flush. He’s more patient and longsuffering and gives many chances for change. When we read about his judgment on Pharoah, remember that he sent plagues to provoke Pharoah to change. When he refused and pursued the Israelites, God gave him over to the consequences of his actions—the man who drowned all Israelite boys in the river was himself, along with his fighting men, drowned. Some may still struggle with this, but we can’t forget that Pharoah oppressed others who God also loved. That brokenness in our world is what God sought to repair through Jesus. 

Meanwhile, John the Baptist removed himself from the scene as Jesus’ disciples continued baptizing. He went to Herod and rebuked him for being married to Herodias, his niece. Herod had divorced the daughter of the Nabatean king to do this, but Herodias had divorced his half-brother, Philip. Jewish law prohibited this very thing (Lev. 18:16; 20:21). John had the boldness to rebuke a ruler and wound up in prison for it. Once Jesus learns of John the Baptist’s imprisonment, he heads to Galilee (Matt. 4:12; Mark 1:14), but he has to go through Samaria to get there (John 4:3–4). 


Jesus and Nicodemus (& Co)

John 2:23–3:21

Believing in Jesus’ name is a reiterated point from the book’s opening (1:12–13; 2:23; cf. 1 John 3:23; 5:13). The name, Jesus the Christ, literally means God Saves, The Anointed. Paul often referred to him as Christ Jesus (The Anointed Jesus). “Christ” is a title more so than a name. Later, Jesus prays for protection in the name God gave him (John 17:11-12). Simply put, to believe in the name of Jesus is to believe that the one and only God saves through him (cf. Acts 3:16; 4:12). A key theme in John’s gospel is that Jesus is God (1:1–2, 14). Here again, an attribute of God is applied to Jesus (2:24) because only God knows the mind and hearts of men.

The result of the signs Jesus did (2:23) was drawing the attention of an influential Jewish leader. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews (3:1). Corroborating evidence demonstrates that the name was common in Palestine at this time. Despite Pharisees often appearing as opponents of Jesus, Nicodemus and a few others were more amenable to him. Coming to Jesus at night has caused a lot of speculation. Maybe he wanted a private audience or was afraid to be seen with him. We don’t know, and we’re not told. Nicodemus addresses Jesus very respectfully and cannot deny the signs he has performed. Still, it would appear he is approaching Jesus on behalf of some group (“we” in v. 2). When Jesus replies, he uses the plural “you” in verses 7 and 11–12.  

Jesus’ answer isn’t altogether best translated in English Bibles. It should say “born from above” or “born anew” rather than “born again.” Jesus is pointing to a heavenly birth, but Nicodemus envisions only the natural birth a mother gives to a child. Being born of water and Spirit entails baptism (1 Cor. 6:11; 12:13; Titus 3:5). This particular passage is the most quoted baptismal passage from second-century Christian literature. Plus, baptism has occupied portions of chapter 1 (vv. 24–34), and the Spirit is mentioned in conjunction with baptism at Christ’s immersion by John. The contrast between natural and spiritual birth has already been highlighted in 1:12–13. 

The conversion language is taken from Ezekiel 36:25–27, where water and spirit work to cleanse the heart and achieve inner transformation. Gentile converts to Judaism were regarded as newborn children.  “And the legal status of a convert who just converted is like that of a child just born” (b. Yebam. 22a). “A convert who just converted is like a child just born” (b. Yebam. 48b). Here we have the connection between conversion and infancy in Jewish law. The spirit associated with water in Ezekiel 36 was symbolized as the wind in Ezekiel 37.

Nicodemus, an established and recognizable teacher, fails to understand. The earthly things are water and wind, and the heavenly things are rebirth from above by the Spirit. Therefore, heaven can only give divine wisdom—the Spirit (1:32–33), angels (1:51), and the Son of Man (3:13). Yet it’s the Son of Man who will be lifted, as the serpent in the wilderness, so that all who believe may have eternal life (cf. 1:4). Each time you see “believe” or one of its cognates, think “faith,” or “trust” as I much prefer. It’s the same term translated as faith used here as belief.  

The most famous verse of Scripture, John 3:16, appears to begin John’s reflection on the interview, given the past tenses from there till verse 21. We can’t trust the words in red but must rely on the grammar. When we read the first few words, “For God so loved the world,” we often think this is how much he loved the world. Yet, the tense doesn’t suggest the extent to which he loved the world but how he loved the world. It would be better to think, “God loved the world this way: He gave his only son.” The fact that God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world should make us pause in how we present the good news. Instead, it’s often presented as a threat: God loves you, so you’d better obey or burn in hell. I much prefer that Jesus came to rescue us from the consequence of our own decisions, and if we accept his rescue, we don’t have to face those consequences.    


Water to Wine; Cleansing the Temple

John 2:1–22

We’re going to read about the first miracle Jesus performed, and he did so at a wedding. Men wedded between 18–24 and women as early as 13 or 14. A Jewish wedding was a joyful occasion for the bride, groom, their families, and the community. On the wedding day, the bride was taken from her father’s home to her husband in a joyful procession. The bride veiled her face and was surrounded by bridesmaids. Friends of the groom would have led her to her husband, and they were crowned with garlands. After, the couple signed the wedding contract, and the marriage supper followed. The celebration could last an entire day, and friends of the bridegroom would lead them to the bridal chamber. 

When we arrive at the setting, they’re at the marriage supper. Jesus was with his mother and disciples, so this is likely a relative or friend, which may explain why Mary brought the problem to Jesus. Wine symbolized joy: “There is no rejoicing save with wine” (b. Pesach 109a). To not have wine was an embarrassment. Moreover, Jews envisioned the Messianic age as flowing with wine. 

    Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion,

    Streaming to the goodness of the LORD

    For wheat and new wine and oil,

    For the young of the flock and the herd;

    Their souls shall be like a well-watered garden,

    And they shall sorrow no more at all. (Jer. 31:12)

    Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD,

    “When the plowman shall overtake the reaper,

    And the treader of grapes him who sows seed;

    The mountains shall drip with sweet wine,

    And all the hills shall flow with it.

    I will bring back the captives of My people Israel;

    They shall build the waste cities and inhabit them;

    They shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them;

    They shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them. (Amos 9:13–14)

Scripture is clear that drunkenness is sinful (1 Cor. 5:11; Gal. 5:21). Yet we don’t know to what degree the wine here was intoxicating or not. Nevertheless, what we call wine and what they call wine are different things. People often added water to wine to dilute it when it was strong, and this was what they called wine. “We call a mixture wine although the larger part of the component parts is water” (Plutarch, Mor. 140f; c. first century). The average person who drank in the first century would have considered drinking undiluted wine barbaric. 

Jesus’ reply in verse four might come across as disrespectful, and some argue for such an interpretation, but, at best, we might say it was distant. Addressing his mother as “woman” would have been akin to our “ma’am,” but the second phrase is often disrespectful. This verse and the next seem odd until we further understand. “My hour has not yet come” is another way of saying, “Once I begin miracles, my path to the cross begins.” Mary’s reply was one of full faith. Mary trusts that Jesus will answer her entreaty. Jesus has pots filled with water, and as the master of the banquet drank the water, it turned to wine. This was Jesus’ first miracle. 

At Passover, Jews traveled from all over to go to Jerusalem. They would have gone up regardless of their direction because the city was on a hill. Herod had renovated the temple. Here’s how Josephus described it, 

The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either miind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up that it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays. To approaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was overlaid with gold was of the purest white. (Wars 5.5.6)

The rabbis, who did not like Herod in the least, admitted that “he who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building” (b. B. Bat 4a).  

Jesus is in the temple courts (hieron), in distinction from the actual temple (2:20; naos). Interestingly enough, when Paul refers to the church and individual Christian as the temple of the Holy Spirit, he uses naos (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). For the pilgrims who traveled far, the sale of sacrificial animals rendered a service to them rather than having to carry an animal a long distance. Also, considering where one came from, they would need to exchange their local currency with that of Jerusalem to purchase the animals. Previously, this was done across the Kidron Valley on the Mount of Olives. For some reason, it had moved into the temple courts. Jesus’ zeal for the temple was akin to Phineas, who drove out sin from the tabernacle. Because his actions bucked convention, the Jews wanted a sign to justify what he’d done. He foretold of his own temple (body) being destroyed and raised in three days, but they believed he was speaking of Herod’s temple. Even his disciples wouldn’t understand it until he rose from the dead.   


Calling the First Disciples

John 1:35–51

John was a spiritual leader whose sole mission was to point out Jesus, but those who saw in him the mission of God took up with him. This is why John had disciples (v. 35; cf. 3:25–26). As the previous day, John proclaimed Jesus aloud for all to hear (1:36; cf. v. 29), and two of his disciples began following Jesus. What’s of note is that John doesn’t follow Jesus but continues his ministry. Some have argued that Jesus was a disciple of John because he was known in relation to John (cf. Mark 6.14–15; 8:27–28), but John didn’t see it that way (John 3:30). 

One of the disciples that left John to follow Jesus was Andrew, Peter’s brother. The gospel’s author is believed to have been the second, so Andrew and John left the Baptizer to follow Jesus. Andrew goes to Peter and brings him to Jesus. When Simon Peter sees Jesus, he receives a new name—Cephas. Both Cephas and Peter are names meaning “rock.” There’s a lot of significance to this. Jesus said whoever hears his words and does them is like one who builds their house on the rock (Matt. 7:24). Later, Peter is contrasted with the rock upon which the church is built (Matt. 16:18). 

The next day, Jesus calls Philip. Disciples then opted to attach themselves to a rabbi, so Jesus calling disciples was not expected (cf. 15:16). Bethsaida means “place of fishing,” and it’s where Andrew and Peter were also from. This city is one of the most frequently mentioned cities—Jerusalem and Capernaum being more so. A blind man was healed here (Mark 8:22–25), and the feeding of the four thousand occurred in a deserted place nearby too. Yet, the city was cursed because they did not accept Jesus despite the miracles performed there (Matt. 11:21). 

Nathanael isn’t mentioned in any of the other gospel accounts, so it’s been presumed that his name was Bartholomew—the name being a surname (Bar-Tholomais, or son of Tholomaiso)—who’s often linked with Philip (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14). By the first century, Jewish rabbis had puzzled together Scriptures about an anticipated Messiah. He was one of whom Moses spoke (Deut. 18;15, 18) and the prophets predicted (Is. 9:1–7; 11:1–5, 10–12). Nathanael was himself from Cana in Galilee, so it seems odd that he would look down on Nazareth. However, many others questioned Christ coming from Galilee (John 7:41, 52). 

Jesus’ address to Nathanael is ironic. Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel, was a deceiver. Yet, Nathanael, unlike the original Israel, was not deceitful. Jesus’ knowledge of Nathanael points to him being a prophet, which accounts for his response. Jesus promises greater things to come and identifies himself with Jacob’s ladder (v. 51; cf. Gen. 28:12). As the angels ascended and descended on Jacob’s ladder, an indication of divine revelation, so Jesus’ disciples would receive further revelation. It’s often tempting to think “Son of Man” references that Jesus was born of a woman and thus represents his humanity. However, the title is taken from Daniel 7:13 and is a divine title.  


John and Jesus

John 1:19–34

John had previously immersed some Pharisees and Sadducees in the Jordan, but now priests and Levites came to him—inquiring who he was. One reason for the Levites’ arrival was that some expected the Messiah to be from the tribe of Levi. The book of 1 Maccabees reflects the longing for a Levitical kingly Messiah, and many expected him to be a priest. He, first, informs them that he isn’t the Messiah or Christ (1:20). Both terms mean “anointed” and were often used about leaders of Israel, especially kings. In Isaiah, Cyrus is called God’s anointed (Is. 45:1), so the title wasn’t limited to Jesus’ role. However, by this time, the word had taken on a meaning of the savior of Israel, God’s anointed one (cf. Ps. of Sol. 17:32). Elijah came to be associated with the figure because of Malachi 4:5–6. The belief was that either Elijah himself would return and be the messiah or someone like him, which was what John was. The prophet they expected was one like Moses (Deut. 18:15). 

John was none of these, though he was the one like Elijah (Luke 1:17). John cites Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 as an answer—he later tells people that he was to prepare the way of the Lord (John 3:28). Since John was none of the expected people, they ask why he was baptizing, likely because by so doing he was gathering disciples. John points them further to the one who is the come. He will come from among them, and it’s he who’s preferred over John. 

The next day, Jesus arrives at the Jordan—likely from his temptation. John proclaims Jesus to the crowd, and while his account doesn’t include the baptism of Jesus, it points out John’s response to it. While in the previous lesson, we discussed why Jesus was baptized, we see here that it was also for him to be revealed to Israel (v. 31). As we’ve also previously read, Jesus would be the one to baptize with the Spirit. 

Several baptisms are mentioned in the New Testament: John’s baptism of repentance, baptism of fire, baptism for the dead (1 Cor. 15:9), baptism into Moses (1 Cor. 10:1–2), baptism of the Holy Spirit, and baptism in making disciples. Since only Jesus performs this, we have to look and see what exactly it is. Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus reiterated the promise (Acts 1:4–5), and we see it performed on Pentecost (Acts 2:32–33). There were only two examples in Scripture when this was applied: on Pentecost and Cornelius’ household (Acts 10:44–48; 11:15–18). This baptism enabled apostles to remember what they’d learned and be taught by God (John 14:26). They were also able to perform wonders and signs to accompany their preaching (Acts 2:43; cf. Heb. 2:3–4). Concerning Cornelius’ household, baptism with the Spirit was more to convince the Jews that Gentiles were worthy of salvation, too (Acts 10:44–48; 11:12). Moreover, it was God’s way of acknowledging the Gentiles, and the Jews’ understood that God makes no distinction (Acts 11:8–9).  

Considering the numerous baptism we read about in the New Testament, we must establish a timeline because, by 64 CE, Paul wrote that there was only one baptism (Eph. 4:4–6). Jesus was crucified and ascended to heaven anywhere between 28–33 CE. We like to think that Jesus was born in 1 CE, but he was more than likely born between 4–6 BCE, given the dating of the death of Herod. Gentiles received the baptism of the Holy Spirit some 8–10 years later, putting us at 43 CE at the latest. This is important because by the time Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he stated that there was one baptism leading us to conclude that Holy Spirit baptism was no longer a factor. Just as John’s baptism was for a time and purpose (cf. Acts 19:1–7), so was Holy Spirit baptism. However, the immersion that makes us disciples of Jesus is universal and unending (Acts 2:38–39). 


The Baptism and Temptation of the Lord

Matthew 3:13–4:11; Mark 1:9–13; Luke 3:21–4:13

Jesus’ baptism has been understood as the two births of every believer—one of nature and the other of the Spirit (John 3:3–5). Some have suggested it as a manifestation of the Trinity (Ambrose Luke 2.92) or an example to live to please God (Cyril of Alexandria Luke 11; Cyprian The Good of Patience 6). To argue that Jesus needed cleansing from sin may neglect other passages that speak to Christ’s sinlessness (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). “In receiving baptism Jesus identified with the people of Israel to whom John addressed his message and started on a path that led to the cross.”

Perhaps to build upon the conclusion of his genealogy, Luke transitioned from Christ’s descent from Adam to Jesus being tempted. Whereas Adam was in the Garden of Eden and tempted to sin, Christ entered the wilderness to be tempted and thus overcame the wiles of the same adversary (cf. Rom. 5:12–21; Ambrose Luke 4.7, 14). The three greatest temptations in the Bible were that of Adam and Eve when they ushered in the fall of humanity, that of Job to distrust and curse God, and that of Christ. The frailty of human nature is seen in two, and the triumph of humanity is witnessed in Christ withstanding the powers of darkness.

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, coinciding with the Spirit’s appearance and descent as a dove (Luke 3:22). The descent as a dove would have been understood as the presence of God because the Greco-Roman gods often appeared as winged animals. The dove was the symbol of peace and signified the reconciling ministry of the Spirit. One author wrote, “What is noteworthy here is that the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ life brings him into direct and immediate conflict with the forces of evil. The antithesis between the Holy Spirit and the evil in the world apparently had to be brought to light.”

Whether the forty days were literal or typological is a matter of debate. Still, on the surface, it would seem literal. Forty was undoubtedly a period of testing and trial: God poured rain for forty days (Gen. 7:4, 12); Israel wandered forty years (Num. 14:33; Deut. 8:2); a woman was to purify herself for forty days postpartum (Lev. 12:1–4); Moses (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:9) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) fasted for the same period as Christ too. Of course, it may be preferable to link the fasting of Christ to that of Moses and Elijah, given the upcoming scene on the Mount of Transfiguration. Intertestamental writings highlight Moses (Deut. 18:15–18) and Elijah (Mal. 4:5–6) as eschatological and messianic figureheads. At the same time, some believed that a prophet like either would be the messiah. 

Jesus fasted so that he could know what it was to have a depraved desire, so some believe. Once hungry, Christ was then open to Satan’s work: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus knew and learned (cf. Heb. 5:8) through hunger what it was to be tempted, but through temptation, Jesus shows us what it is like to overcome. He did what we cannot or are unwilling to do. In the temptations, Satan tried to persuade Jesus to become something he was not because God cannot be tempted (James 1:13) to deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13). 

The Lord’s first temptation of hunger would have been enticing, and when people are hungry, they are prone to do the unthinkable (cf. 2 Kings 6:28–29). The identity of Jesus is often a significant theme in the gospels, and Satan is the first to question Jesus’ identity. He did so with the enticement of food—a perceived vulnerability of Christ at the time. Several commentaries categorize the temptations of Christ as “appetite,” “boasting,” and “ambition.” John referred to them as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” in 1 John 2:16. Though Adam was overtaken by each, Christ could not be swayed. After the temptation, Satan departed, as Luke put it, until an opportune time. The next mention of Satan was when he entered Judas Iscariot (Luke 22:3; cf. John 14:30). In Matthew and Mark, angels were attending to Christ similar to Elijah after his forty days of fasting (1 Kings 19:5). Jesus did what we are often too weak to do: he resisted the devil, so Satan fled from him (James 4:7).


Prepare the Way of the Lord

John has arrived, and he’s been preaching repentance. We must remember that though we know nothing about his formative years, he is of priestly lineage. Whatever training John received, his aged parents likely entrusted his care to those who would raise him to be faithful to God. He gets right to work when he steps into the public from the wilderness. While John is a prophet, he’s not just a prophet (Matt. 11:7–9). He’s the one God chose before he was even in the womb. 

John’s activity attracted religious leaders (Matt. 3:7; Luke 3:7). Pharisees and Sadducees came, but we don’t read about them in the Hebrew Scriptures. When the Greeks spread Hellenistic culture in Judea, a group arose that wanted to remain faithful to the covenant with God. They were called “the pious.” This group aligned with the Maccabees and revolted in a holy war against the Seleucids. The “pious” later became Pharisees—a name meaning “separate”—while those who retired to the desert became the Essenes. The Pharisees were representatives of the Law—oral and written. While the New Testament somewhat vilifies the Pharisees, their intentions were born of a concern for preserving Jewish culture. They wanted ceremonial purity (Mark 7:7ff) and to protect fellow Jews from transgressing God’s commands (Matthew 12:1–2).   

While their origin is ambiguous, the Sadducees were aristocrats. They were typically priests and differed from the Pharisees by enjoying the favor of the rich. The Pharisees wanted the populace’s confidence (Antiq. 13.10.6; cf. 18.1.4). They argued against the oral law and advocated primarily for the Law as higher than the prophets (cf. Matthew 22:23–33). They were not strangers to conflict with the Pharisees. They did not believe in the resurrection, angels, or that a person has a spirit (Acts 23:6–9; Mark 12:18; cf. Antiq. 18.1.4). Furthermore, they denied fate altogether (Antiq. 13.5.9) and believed a particular contribution should be made for sacrifices and that they should not be funded by the temple treasury. They were undoubtedly supporters of Rome, as witnessed by their support of the Hasmoneans. Because of this support, they enjoyed primary influence within the Sanhedrin—a governing body of seventy-one religious and political leaders for the Jews. Although, they would side with the Pharisees from time to time to be tolerated by the populace (Antiq. 18.1.4). Their political ideology gave them a willingness to compromise, which led to the adoption of Hellenistic tendencies. 

John’s address of these two groups is telling (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8). Jesus used this exact phrase when addressing the Pharisees (Matt. 12:34; 23:33). To call someone a serpent was insulting and associated with moral deficiency because vipers were believed by the ancients to devour their mothers which may indicate that John intended to convey to the crowd that they were “unfaithful to their heritage” as Jews. Their corruption and satisfaction with the status quo weren’t what God wanted. 

Before John immersed those who came to him, he sternly warned them that their lives be transformed and that the outcome of their faith shines forth in the bearing of good fruit (cf. Origen Luke 22.6). John’s baptism was unique because he administered it when washings (cf. Heb. 6:2) were typically self-administered (2 Kings 5:10, 14; cf. Zech 13:1). Proselyte baptism, from Gentile to Jew, was self-administered but was a one-time observance much like John’s. This baptism was meant to be understood as a conversion. The purposes of John’s baptism of repentance may be summed up as:

  ●   Expressing repentance and turning to a new way of life.

●   Mediating divine forgiveness.

●   Purification from ritual and moral uncleanness.

●   Foreshadowing the ministry of the expected Lord.

●   An initiation into the “true Israel” and not a closed community.

●   A protest against the temple establishment since it took place in the Jordan (Matt. 3:6, 13; Mark 1:5, 9; John 1:28).

If John intended to relay that they were unfaithful to their heritage, he would have further reiterated this belief by adjuring them to not claim their physical heritage as Abraham’s descendants. Since God could raise descendants from Abraham from stones, the Gentiles coming to faith should not be a considerable surprise. Only those showing worthy fruits of repentance would escape the fire.

To demonstrate those worthy fruits of repentance, the crowd asked John what must be done to illustrate those worthy fruits of repentance. Everything he told them to do infers that their pre-repentance behavior was immoral and sinful. Being a hoarder of clothing and food neglected one’s, fellow man. Tax collectors were to gather what was required and no more. The soldiers were to be content with their living and stop robbing people. Each of those addressed dealt not only with stewardship but with a divorce from materialism. Stewardship is a common theme in Luke’s Gospel and is often approached through sharing and even liquidation. Those necessary sacrifices were needed to follow Jesus in his mission because being tied down by materials hindered the complete devotion Christ demanded in spreading the Gospel.

John’s reference to unstrapping the Lord’s sandal has often been interpreted as the work of a slave toward their master. However, it may have been about the marriage custom of the bride to unstrap her husband’s sandal (Gen. 38; Ruth 4:7–8). Holy Spirit baptism is not the same as water baptism because Christ isn’t recorded as having baptized anyone (cf. John 4:2). Long before John the Baptist preached the baptism with the Spirit, the prophets foretold a heavenly outpouring of God’s spirit that would take place in the days of the coming kingdom of the Messianic era (Isaiah 32:15; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28–29). The unmistakable act by which John would know the administrator of Holy Spirit baptism, the Lord, was the one on whom the Spirit would rest (John 1:32–33; cf. Acts 2:33).


Out of the Wilderness, Came John

Around thirty years have passed since Jesus and his family returned and settled in Nazareth. Mark begins the story of the gospel at this point (Mark 1:1). Scholars agree that Mark is the earliest gospel account, followed by Matthew, Luke, and John. Another commonly held view is that Mark wrote his account specifically for the Romans, and we know he was in Rome with Peter (cf. 1 Peter 5:13). Therefore, it might be acceptable to suggest that Mark wrote what Peter preached. “Peter and Paul proclaimed the gospel in Rome … After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed on his preaching to us in written form” (Iren., Against Heresies 3.1; c. 200 CE). 

Nevertheless, writing to the Romans, Mark introduces his account as “the beginning of the good news.” When a Roman envisioned the “good news” (Gr. euangelion), they related it to the Emperor. Mark now presents a new Emperor, Jesus the Anointed, the Son of God. The Emperor was the son of a god, but Jesus was the Son of God. The rhetoric is not without intent to sway the minds of the Romans away from Empire and Emperor to Kingdom and Christ. Employing popular Roman propaganda language distinguishes the two, and those who follow King Jesus must esteem him above all else. 

Luke now gives us a historical time frame of this period (Luke 3:1–2). The fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign was 29 CE. The Jews were under the shadow of a Roman rule having the Gentile governor Pontius Pilate exercising sovereignty over them. Having two high priests named explains the former selected the latter as his successor (Antiq. 18.4.3), so Annas was likely high-priest emeritus. During this time, “the word of God came to John.” This phrase is suggestive of the work of a prophet (cf. Jer. 2:1; Ezek. 3:1; Hos. 1:1–2). During these times, when Jesus was in Nazareth, John came preaching (Matt. 3:1). 

What was it like during this time? Roman governors had occupied the province of Judea as early as 6 CE. Yet, they were ignorant of the Jewish religion. Because of this, the display of the image of the Emperor often kindled the fury of the Jews. Judea was unique because it wasn’t required to worship the Emperor of Rome. Instead, Romans requested them to make offerings to God on behalf of the Emperor (Joseph., Against Apion 2.77; Philo, Embassy to Gaius 23, 40). Because Jewish religion also entailed governance, Roman authorities allowed autonomy in respecting Jewish customs, which the Sanhedrin enforced. Any political matter had to be handled carefully since that might fall under Roman interests. 

From the first when Judea had a Roman governor, Jewish resistance groups formed. Judas the Galilean incited a revolt against the Roman occupiers. While unsuccessful, a political party called the Zealots began due to his efforts. This group prized liberty above all else and only recognized God as their true ruler. Notably, during 26–41 CE, outrage against the Romans was often nonviolent. You might imagine the sentiments of Jews during this period, but it was then that John arose on the scene.  

John came preaching a baptism (cf. Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38) of repentance in preparation for the kingdom of God denoted an eschatological message, but Josephus saw it as something more than that by not relaying to baptism the mere washing of the filth from the flesh (cf. 1 Peter 3:21). 

…for that the washing would be acceptable to [God], if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. (Antiq. 18.5.2) 

People came from Judea and Jerusalem to receive baptism at the Jordan River. It may be that the two thieves on the cross were among this crowd. However, John’s baptism differs from Jesus’s (Acts 19:1–5). Jewish baptism differed from John’s in some measure. Yet, what may have been difficult for some religious leaders was how John used baptism because the symbolism of the baptism was the final of three steps for Gentiles to convert to Judaism. Since Jews were rather proud of their national identity and heritage, the religious leaders might not have been as keen on John’s baptism. Repentance, as defined, should be thought of as a change of mind and, therefore, of actions. The purpose of the baptism was for conversion after one repented.

Isaiah 40:3 to describe John was precisely how the Essenes used the passage to prefigure the preparation of the coming Messiah (1QS 8.12–14). John prepared for Jesus by reconciling God’s people to the Lord (cf. Mal. 4:6). That John came as a herald was customary when preparing the way for the king (cf. Iliad 1.376–94, 2.59). Luke used a more extended version of this passage than the other Gospel writers. What likely led Luke to use the more extended version by using “every” and “all flesh.”

John’s depicted as the new Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet (Matt. 3:4; Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8). Elijah, like John, wore simple clothing, ate simple food, delivered a message to God’s nation, and had a significant female enemy. Yet, he unabashedly gave the word of the Lord to Israel. In the end, it resulted in his death. Before then, however, he would see and baptize the Christ whose way he proclaimed.


Young Jesus at the Temple

For the first couple years of his life, Jesus was born and lived in Bethlehem until Joseph received a dream warning him of Herod’s intention. Thus far, Joseph’s dreams have led him to care for Mary and Jesus. His first dream was the word that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that he shouldn’t put her away. His second dream warned that Herod sought Jesus’ life. His fourth dream was an angel telling him how Herod died (Matt. 2:19), and his final dream was urging him to go to Nazareth to avoid Archelaus (Matt. 2:22). When Herod died, his kingdom was divided among his three sons; Archelaus ruled Judea, Samaria, and Idumea (Edom) from 4 BCE–6 CE. Herod Antipas ruled Galilee, where they’d settle. Philip headed the region northeast of Galilee. 

Nazareth was an agricultural village fifteen miles west of the Sea of Galilee and likely where they’d previously dwelt (Luke 2:4). Nazareth was a despised city (John 1:45–46), and some have likened Jesus being called a “Nazarene” to the prophecies that he was despised and rejected. However, the Hebrew term netzer is the shoot or branch of Isaiah 11:1. Matthew’s gospel already began by listing Jesus as a descendant of David (Matt. 1:1), so the ending of this first section of Matthew concludes with him being called a Nazarene, which may have been a play on words. Nevertheless, from here onward, Jesus is often referred to as Jesus of Nazareth. 


Due to this narrative being unique to Luke, Mary may have been one of Luke’s sources. This would explain why she is often addressed after Gabriel appears to her. Each scene after her angelic visit revolves around further confirmation of what the angel told her. Mary even remained with Elizabeth until John’s birth came and, I suppose, was one of those present at his circumcision and naming (Luke 1:57–59).

●       Gabriel’s initial message to Mary included Elizabeth’s son’s information as a part of Mary’s promise (Luke 1:28–38).

●       Elizabeth’s Spirit-filled exclamation upon Mary’s arrival confirmed that Mary was the mother of Elizabeth’s Lord (Luke 1:41–45).

●       Mary’s Magnificat responded to Elizabeth’s exclamation, which acknowledged her being “blessed” for all generations for bearing the Son of God (Luke 1:46–55).

●       Mary remained with Elizabeth until John was born to witness the unfolding of what was told to her (Luke 1:57–63).

●       Zacharias’ blessing of God and prophesying point to John’s mission in the life of Christ as indicated by Zacharias’ speaking of a servant from David’s house when he was of Aaron’s (Luke 1:64–79; cf. 1:5–6).

●       The shepherds arrive at the manger to tell Joseph and Mary what they saw, and she treasured those things in her heart (Luke 2:15–20).

●       Simeon takes the infant Jesus in his arms, blesses him, and then tells Joseph and Mary what the Holy Spirit revealed (Luke 2:25–35).

●       Though it’s unknown what she said, Anna, the prophetess, began to thank God and speak of Jesus (Luke 2:36–38).

Each of these scenes appears to be directed at Mary because she remains the narrative’s focal point, as evidenced by the repeated statement that she treasured all things in her heart (Luke 2:51).

Despite individual scholars claiming this section is fiction, history would attest otherwise as to its probability. Jewish males began their education at a young age and progressed as they aged: “At five years of age for Scripture; at ten, for Mishnah, at thirteen for the commandments; at fifteen for Talmud” (Pirke Aboth 5.22; cf. Nid. 5.6; Meg. 4.6). Jesus, being twelve, would have been naturally curious. Still, the nature of his inquiry shone forth his understanding to the astonishment of the scholars. Moreover, some Bible characters had extra-biblical sources attesting to their prowess as youths: Moses had excellent knowledge as a child (Antiq. 2.230; Philo Moses 1.21); Samuel prophesied at twelve (Antiq. 5.348), and Abraham supposedly distanced himself from his idolatrous father at two weeks old while at fourteen he instructed farmers on livestock and sowing to avoid ravens (Jub. 11.18-24). This was also a characteristic of Greco-Roman figures in literature (cf. Philostratus Vit. Apoll. 1.7; Plutarch Alex. 5; Cicero 2.2; et al.).

Since Roman society was so infatuated with Augustus, Luke may have sought to counteract the god-like esteem of a ruler. Augustus was deified by the time of Luke’s Gospel and was often called “lord” or “savior,” so Luke intended to show that it was Christ who was Lord and Savior rather than Augustus or any other emperor (cf. Horace Carm. 4.5). The very name “Augustus” meant something more extraordinary than human, and the month of August in our calendar is a tribute to him. In the first century, temples were dedicated to Augustus and Julius Caesar to depict them as gods. The imperial cult was a thorn in the side of Christians, which brought about widespread persecution since believers would not call Caesar “lord” or burn incense to him (cf. Mart. Poly. 8.2). Jesus, however, was to reign on David’s throne as the God. 

The birth of Augustus was prophesied and marked by omens. A politician had a dream and, upon meeting young Augustus, identified him as the savior of Rome. The politician (Quintus Catulus) and Cicero dreamed that he was in the lap of and endowed by Jupiter (Zeus), thus making him the “son of a god.” Julius Caesar selected Augustus as his successor (Seutonius Aug. 94). One historian writes, “It is … certain that both Luke and his readers knew of Caesar Augustus, and quite probable that they also knew of at least some of the stories, legends, and traditions that had gathered around him.”  

After this scene in Jesus’ life, the focus turns back to his mother, Mary. They left Jerusalem to return home. After four days, they found him in the temple and were astonished at his comprehension. The point that Mary had not fully understood all the angel told her about her son is further emphasized in verse fifty. They didn’t understand him even though Gabriel said to her that he would be called the “Son of the Most High.” They might have thought that Jesus spoke about Joseph as his father when he meant God because Joseph is identified as his “father” (v. 48).

A problem with this text is that Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, which leads some to believe that Jesus was more human than divine or a created being and not eternal. Those at the Council of Nicea faced this same argument, where Arius believed that Jesus was a created being, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, to the contradiction of John 1:1–14. I prefer the explanation of Millard Erickson on the incarnation:

While he did not cease to be in nature what the Father was, he became functionally subordinated to the Father for the period of the incarnation. Jesus did this for the purposes of revealing God and redeeming humanity. By taking on human nature, he accepted certain limitations [cf. Luke 2:40, 52; Heb. 2:10] upon the functioning of his divine attributes [e.g., omniscience, omnipresence, etc.]. These limitations were not the result of a loss of divine attributes but of the addition of human attributes [and their limitations].


The Scriptural Inaccuracy of Your Nativity Display

Luke 2:8–38; Matthew 2:1–18

Luke’s Gospel emphasizes that God continually looks at those often overlooked by society—the shepherds being but another example. The terms “good tidings,” “savior,” and “the Lord” were all used regarding Caesar Augustus in Roman propaganda. Yet, it was specific to Romans while this good news was “for all the people” (v. 10). The doxology (v. 14) may be juxtaposed to Caesar Augustus’ Pax Romanum because only Christ can bring one peace (John 14:27; 16:33; Phil. 4:7). Each time an angel gives this message of Christ, they figure prominently in these portions of the story of Jesus’ life.

For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Heb. 2:2–3) 

The shepherds made known what angels told them. Mary treasured these things, suggesting she may not have understood them. This treasuring occurs again in Luke 2:51, which indicates her pondering on others’ testimonies because multiple testimonies made for an exact case in the Jewish legal system. 

After having Jesus circumcised (vv. 22–24), she was then to wait thirty-three days before being purified once more (Lev. 12:2–6; cf. Exod. 13:2–12; Num. 18:15). The nature of Mary’s sacrifice indicates her poverty. Still, she brought along with her Jesus to present him to the Lord for his service, much like Hannah did with Samuel (1 Sam. 1:22–28). In, perhaps, yet another message of reinforcement for Mary appeared Simeon—a righteous and devout man. Simeon had God’s Holy Spirit upon him, so he would know the “consolation of Israel” when he saw him. This is the fifth reference to the Holy Spirit, so Luke wanted to prove—as he would later write in Acts (cf. 2:16–21)—that Mary lived in the last days before the coming kingdom, or reign, of God. Simeon now saw with his eyes what he believed in faith—the salvation of God (Augustine Sermon 277.17). 

Luke now turns to a prophetess. His treatment of women differs from the other Gospel writers: consider Mary (Luke 1:26–38, 46–56), Elizabeth (1:39–45, 57–66), Anna (2:36–38), the widow (7:11–17), the sinful woman (7:36–50), the women who accompanied Jesus and financed his ministry (8:1–3), the healing of a woman and Jairus’ daughter (8:40–56), et al. Anna’s appearance and rejoicing at Jesus has been thought to be expressive of salvation being available to women too (cf. Bede Homilies on the Gospels 1.18; Origen Luke 17.9). This was a sentiment later shared by the apostle Paul (Gal. 3:28).


From the time the wise men (magi) saw the star until Herod learned their deception was under two years. Nativity displays show the wise men coming to the manger, but the text reports that they went to the house where they were (v. 11). Even the term “young child” indicates a toddler more than a newborn infant. Also, there are often three wise men in nativity displays, but the text doesn’t say how many came (cf. vv. 1, 7). History has numbered three wise men based on the three gifts given to Jesus—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—as well as a sixth-century Greek treatise that gave three names as Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar (Excerpta Latina Barbari 51b). But, again, we don’t know how many there were, so we cannot say for sure. There could have been three or thirty or three hundred. 

Joseph receives another message from an angel that Herod is seeking the life of Christ. They fled to Egypt and remained there till Herod died. Matthew uses a passage about Israel for Jesus, demonstrating that Jesus embodies Israel. What Israel was meant to do is done in Christ. Herod’s cruelty and paranoia led to the murder of male children two years and younger. This is referred to as the massacre of the innocents. He was just under six miles from where Christ was born, and he wouldn’t search for him to worship him. The wise men came from a distance that took them a significant period to travel, and they continued searching for Jesus. Sometimes those closest to Jesus are farthest from him. Jeremiah initially meant the weeping of Rachel to relate to a period of captivity in Babylon and the murder of children during the invasion of Judea. All mothers were portrayed as Rachel, weeping for their sons being killed and led into captivity. Herod is acting as Pharaoh did—killing all male children.


The Birth of Jesus

The only time of the year that the birth of Jesus receives attention is usually at Christmastime. Some people are content to leave Jesus in the manger for the rest of the year, forgetting that he grew to be an adult, ministered for three years, and gave his life for humanity. Before we get to the adult Jesus, we learn about the Incarnation of Christ. This miraculous event was told to Mary by the angel Gabriel, and now it occurs. But, first, let’s pause to address the matter of Christmas.


We know that Jesus was born in the days of King Herod (Matt. 2:1). However, Josephus recorded that Herod died in 4 BCE (Antiq. 17.8.1), and another vital record of the year of Christ’s birth would have been the census mentioned in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:1). Quirinius served two terms as governor of Syria: the first term was from 4–1 BCE, and the second term was during 6–11CE (Schaff History of the Christian Church 1.2.16). Therefore, Jesus must have been born between 4–6 BCE because Herod had all male children murdered two years and younger (Matt. 2:16). 

The earliest suggested date of Jesus’ birth comes from Clement of Alexandria (ca. 160–220), an Egyptian theologian. When Clement lived, the Gnostics were a sect that sought to advocate tenets of Greek philosophy and sacred doctrine. While many sects of Gnostics seemed to have existed, one particular belief among many was that anything material was inherently evil. They agreed that Jesus was “manifested”—from the Greek term epiphaneia (Epiphany). The discussions of when Christ was manifested led ultimately to his birth date since some argued that Christ’s birth was his manifestation. Clement wrote that May 20th was the likely date. He also suggested April 19th or 20th as possible dates.

Clement acknowledged an Egyptian Gnostic group called Basilideans. They held that Christ’s baptism was the date of his manifestation or Epiphany and designated January 6th as the particular date. This date became the agreed-upon date for Christmas in ancient Christianity. They celebrated not Christ’s birthday but his baptism. Joseph Kelly explained that Christians believed Christ was baptized on his birthday in his book, The Origins of Christmas. These two events made January 6th significant since it was the date of his birth and baptism, so they taught. John Cassian, the fifth-century Balkan Christian, is recorded to have agreed with this sentiment.

Around this time, some North African Christian scholars began disagreeing with January 6th and proposed March 25th. Since this was at the time of the spring equinox, and since this time was symbolically held to have represented rebirth, Hippolytus (ca. 170–235) considered this date as that of Christ’s death and the anniversary of creation itself. Hippolytus linked creation and Christ’s death and the redemption it brought. Tertullian (ca 160–220) held this same view. While March 25th wasn’t advocated by either of these two as Christ’s birthday, others regarded it as such. Another African came along and rebutted March 25th and suggested March 28th as Christ’s birth date instead. A part of the justification was given by Malachi 4:2 and the mention of the Sun of Righteousness. They interpreted the Sun as being Jesus. They also believed that the Sun was made on the fourth day of creation, and that must have been when Christ was born and resurrected. Hence March 28th was thought to have been the fourth day of creation that coincided with his birth and resurrection. In the third century, Julius Africanus listed December 25th as Christ’s birth date as a matter of chronology. Unlike many before him, Africanus argued that Christ’s birthdate wasn’t the date of his Incarnation. Instead, Christ’s Incarnation was the date of his conception nine months before on Marth 28th. Thus December 25th was born and eventually chosen as Christmas. At this time, it wasn’t a festival but only a chronological understanding.

A fourth-century Christian, Gregory the Theologian, wrote that Christians celebrated Christ’s birthday, then, as a way to tell the story of how God wanted to restore humanity through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus who came in the flesh. Christians, so Gregory wrote, celebrated God coming to man so that man might return to God by putting off the old person to put on the new person renewed after Christ through baptism (Oration 38.4). Furthermore, he encouraged that the celebration not be observed as the heathens observed their festivals. “Let us not adorn our porches, nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, not enervate the nostrils with perfume, or prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin” (Orations 38.5). To read Gregory’s words is to understand that any Christmas celebration was meant to exalt Jesus and distinguish Christianity from paganism through the very festival itself. 


(Matthew 1:18–25) Betrothal, the husband’s acquisition of a wife, preceded the marriage proper—when the husband took the wife into his home. This could last up to a year, and usually, the bride’s father arranged the betrothal and dowry price, and for women, as early as twelve years of age was the time they were betrothed (B. Yebam. 62b). This relationship period was considered marriage and could only be dissolved by divorce. When Mary was found pregnant, Joseph wanted to divorce her in secret and not make an issue of the whole thing. Yet, in a dream, an unnamed angel instructed him otherwise. The name “Jesus”(Greek)  means “God saves”—in Hebrew (Yehoshua).  Interestingly enough, this name is Joshua and is the Hebrew equivalent of Jesus.

God informed His people that they’d be saved in the days of the Messiah (Jer. 23:5–6). Jewish readers wouldn’t have understood this as personal salvation from sin but as political salvation from an enemy in the first century. They prayed for the day when God would deliver His people from their enemies. Since the exile, Israel had been a vassal state of Persia, Greece, and Rome. Accompanying this salvation was a new covenant and forgiveness of sin (Jer. 31:31–34). The first Joshua was the military savior, but Jesus was the spiritual savior who gave liberty from the guilt and consequence of sin (Rom. 3:23–24; cf. 6:23). While primarily for Israel, this salvation is extended to all humanity (John 3:16–21). Since we will all die and face the Judge, we can obtain salvation and be justified before the Judge or ignore it and be sentenced by the Judge (Heb. 9:27).

The birth of Jesus from a virgin was the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. Some believe Jesus is the only fulfillment of this prophecy, but that wouldn’t have brought comfort to Ahaz in the immediate context of Isaiah 7 if something far off was meant. Nevertheless, Jesus is a fulfillment of this prophecy on the macro-level but not on the micro-level. The Hebrew term in Isaiah could mean a virgin, but it was a young woman more often. Matthew borrowed from the Septuagint, which, in the place of almah, is the specific term parthenos (“virgin”). Jesus’ presence on earth was indicative of God being with his people. Joseph awakens and changes his mind based on what the angel told him. Note that the angel is unnamed, though some have said it’s Gabriel, given Luke 1. 


(Luke 2:1–7) The reign of Caesar Augustus brought the Pax Romanum (“peace of Rome”) after years of civil war. What’s noteworthy is that Caesar Augustus’ reign had a Messianic aura about it, so when Luke mentioned him in light of the story of Christ, Luke proposed that Jesus was the actual Messianic figure. The ancient Roman poet Vergil (of the Augustan era) wrote a national epic of ancient Rome entitled Aeneid after its chief character Aeneas—a name borrowed from Homer’s Iliad (cf. book 5). Therein Aeneas strives and struggles to fulfill his destiny by arriving on Italy’s shores—Rome’s founding act. In his epic and his other works, Vergil specifically “prophesies” about the reign of Caesar Augustus as the anticipated reign of the Roman people.

Here is the man so often promised you,

Augustus Caesar, a god’s son, and bringer

Of a new age of gold to Saturn’s old realm

Of Latium. He will take our rule past India,

Past Garamantia, past the solar pathway

That marks the year, where Atlas hefts the sky

And turns the high vault set with burning stars. (Aeneid 6.791–97, trans. Sarah Ruden) 

Vergil’s epic was published in 19 BCE, so by the time of Luke’s Gospel, the notion of Caesar Augustus being a “Messiah” was firmly implanted in the Roman mind (cf. Ecl. 4.4–52). Augustus’ reign was synonymous with peace and prosperity. Still, Jesus’ rule in the kingdom of God would solidify the very concepts of peace and prosperity.

The purpose of Quirinius’ census (cf. Schaff Hist. of Church 1.2.16; Eccl. Hist. 1.5) was likely for a tribute or direct tax. Luke may indicate that Quirinius was governor around 6 BCE. If it was during this time, it shouldn’t be confused with Josephus’ account of when Judas the Galilean arose in rebellion (Acts 5.37; cf. Antiq. 18.1.1ff). Joseph going to his ancestral home may have been sensible to paying taxes. He may have had ancestral property (cf. Lev. 25:23–28) in Bethlehem that could have been rented out to relatives. However, if Joseph had ancestral property, one might suggest that he would have stayed there instead of permitting Christ to be born in a manger. 

The term translated “inn” is elsewhere translated as “guest room” (Luke 22:11). Still, the word given as a proper, commercialized “inn” is used in Luke 10:34 of the Good Samaritan’s hospitality to the injured traveler. The term for “manger” isn’t a barn with stalls as we might envision it. Instead, the “manger” was often an adjacent room to a family room where people sheltered animals. If Joseph had ancestral property (cf. Christiad 3.546–47), he would have expected to stay in the “guest room” if he had rented the dwelling. However, if this was the assumption when he and Mary arrived, the “guest room” was occupied.


Two Miraculous Conceptions


Zacharias was serving at the temple. As a priest, he was a son of Aaron, and his wife was too. He and his wife were careful to live in a time of tumult (Dio Cassius 49.22; Macrobius Saturnalia 2.f.11). Zacharias was chosen to burn incense and have proceeded this way:

“The incensing priest and his assistance now approached first the altar of burnt-offering. One filled with incense, a golden censer held in a silver vessel, while another was placed in a golden bowl burning coals from the altar. As they passed from the court into the Holy Place, they struck a large instrument (called the Magrephah), at the sound of which the priests hastened from all parts to worship and the Levites to occupy their places in the service of the song. At the same time, the chief of the ‘stationary men’ ranged at the Gate of Nicanor. Such of the people were to be purified that day. Slowly the incensing priest and his assistants ascended the steps to the Holy Place, preceded by the two priests who had formerly dressed the altar and the candlestick and who now removed the vessels they had left behind and, worshipping, withdrew. Next, one of the assistants reverently spread the coals on the golden altar; the other arranged the incense. Then, the chief officiating priest was left alone within the Holy Place to await the president’s signal before burning the incense. It was probably while thus expectant that the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias. As the president gave the word of command, which marked that ‘the time of incense had come,’ ‘the multitude of the people without’ withdrew from the inner court and fell before the Lord, spreading their hands in silent prayer.” (Edersheim, The Temple

When the angel appeared to Zacharias, he was notably startled and with good reason. One story of offering “strange fire” resulted in the death of the priests (Lev. 10:1–2; cf. Exod. 30:9), so perhaps Zacharias wondered if he and his offering were pure? On the other hand, it could also be that his distress resulted from the reverent fear that many lacked in his time. Regardless, Gabriel assured Zacharias that he would not lose his life.

Gabriel was the angel who stood before the Lord (Luke 1:19; cf. Number Rabbah 2.10). Whenever he appears in scripture, he is Messianic in his message (Dan. 8:15–27; 9:20–21). When he appeared before Daniel, it was evening, so when he appeared before Zacharias, it was evening as well (Luke 1:11). Luke pointed out that he stood to the right of the altar of incense, which would have been nearer to the entrance of the holy of holies. Since Zacharias saw him standing there, he may have very well believed that Gabriel came from the presence of God.

One must consider that Zacharias, as a priest, might have been a Sadducee because the priests and Levites typically were of this sect (cf. Acts 5:17; 23:8). Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, spirits, or angels (Luke 20:27; Acts 23:8). If he were a Sadducee, Zacharias would have thought that his posterity would have been his sense of immortality on earth. For an angel to have given this revelation would have been a contradictory belief to him. Regardless if he were a Sadducee, God removed reproach from him and his wife amongst their villagers—that of not having a child. However, due to the aged priest’s unbelief, he was struck dumb and thus unable to offer the closing benediction: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24–26). Barrenness was named among the great reproaches by the rabbis. Seven types of people were believed to have been excommunicated from God. Chiefly among those was the Jew who had no wife or whose wife was childless. Furthermore, according to Jewish law, a man could divorce his wife for childlessness. These factors allow us to appreciate Elizabeth’s gratefulness all the more.


Timing from Elizabeth’s gestation, Luke recorded that in the sixth month of her pregnancy, Mary, who was likely in her early or mid-teens, was visited by Gabriel with the message that she would bear the Son of God. This fact would later give rise to the doctrine known as Theotokos, which means “God-bearer.” Hippolytus or Origen may have named this third-century doctrine, but Alexander (bishop of Alexandria) used the term for the first time. The Council of Ephesus (c. 431), which emphasized the oneness of Christ, and the Council of Chalcedon (c. 451), which stresses the twoness of Christ’s nature (cf. Phil. 2:5–11), accepted its usage. Theotokos was a way of affirming the full deity of the Son of God from his conception in the womb.  

The promise to give Jesus the throne of his father David reiterated God’s commitment to David: “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:16; cf. Gen. 49:10). This was how the early Christians understood the reign of Christ (cf. Acts 2:30–31; 7:49). When Luke referred to God as “the Most High” and Jesus as his Son, Luke may have been counteracting the pagan belief that Zeus (Jupiter) was the most high and that Apollo was his son (cf. Acts 16:17). Whereas Zeus consorted with mortals to produce offspring, God overshadowed Mary with the Holy Spirit to make his son so that Mary remained a virgin—a belief distinguished in the early church to avoid portraying Israel’s God as one of the pantheon (cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 33).


When Mary visited Elizabeth, after the baby leaped in her womb, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She affirmed what Mary had listened to a short time ago. However, Mary may not have fully understood what the angel meant. 


The Magnificat is what this praise is often called because that is the first word in the Latin Vulgate of this passage. Following the model of Hannah’s song (cf. 1 Sam. 1:11; 2:1–10), Mary used a similar style and pattern for her praise to God at this revelation. Ralph Martin says of this song that it is “a sublime confession of the faithfulness of God to His servants.” In this song, Mary praises God: 1) for looking on her lowly estate (vv. 48, 52), 2) for her being called blessed by all generations (v. 48; cf. 1:42, 12:27–28), and 3) for God’s reign over (a) our hearts (v. 51), (b) kings and rulers (v. 52), (c) the poor (v. 52) and rich (v. 53), and (d) the faithful (v. 54). Mary, in Luke, is certainly given an amount of attention that Protestants deny her, which may suggest that she ought to be looked upon with more tremendous admiration than rejection because of others’ actions towards her. She is undoubtedly “blessed.”


At John’s birth were two matters common to any newborn Jewish boy: his circumcision and naming. According to the Law, John was to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life (cf. Gen. 17:10–12). When the time came for him to be named, the common practice would have been that John receives a family name (cf. Luke 1:59, 61). However, as the angel mandated, Elizabeth acted by having him named “John.” Those present at his birth could not imagine him having any name other than that of his father or another male from his family. When the popular custom was questioned, those present deferred to the mute father. However, by writing on a tablet, Zacharias declared his son’s name “John.” In Semitic cultures, names were more than mere titles by which one was called. Instead, names were typically based upon a person’s character or a physical trait, such as Esau and Jacob. Esau meant “hairy,” and Jacob meant “heel grabber,” which was indicative of his deceitfulness. So when the Lord wanted the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth named “John,” it was because John’s name meant “God is gracious.” This was the person and ministry of John—God’s graciousness to humanity.

When the scene of John’s birth closed, he went to dwell in the wilderness until his appearance much later (Luke 1:80). However, John’s formative years are as obscure as Jesus’. What is known about John from Scripture is that he came like Israel’s greatest prophet of all—Elijah (Mal. 4:5; cf. Luke 1:17). The person of John the Baptist is given in Malachi 4:5. Within this passage is the fact that God would send Elijah to turn the hearts of God’s people back to Him. An appropriate commentary on John’s person as Elijah is given in the Intertestamental writing, where this passage is almost quoted verbatim in Sirach 48:10–11. Therefore, John’s purpose was to return before the coming of the Messiah to reconcile God’s people to Him.

Since John the Baptist was likened to Elijah, we must ask ourselves how the two were alike. We  may make several comparisons. First, they both endured a period of preparation: Elijah at the Brook Cherith and John in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:3; Luke 1:80). Second, they dressed alike in modest clothing that would have been worn by the poor of their respective days (Matt. 3:4; 2 Kings 1:8). Third, they preached sharp, short messages (Matt. 3:7–12; 1 Kings 17:1). Finally, they had powerful foes: Elijah had Jezebel and John had Herodias and Herod Antipas. Elijah spent his ministry trying to convince the Israelites to turn away from Baal and turn to God. His name means “my God is Yahweh.” This was the entire focus of his ministry—making Yahweh the God of Israel. John’s ministry was one of reconciliation amid religiosity. His name was indicative of his ministry—God’s grace.


The Benedictus is named thus for the same reason as Mary’s Magnificat. Zacharias’ prophecy, or psalm, is as concerned with redemption as Mary’s song but with a greater emphasis on ceremonial worship (vv. 68–75). Zacharias also alluded to John’s ministry (v. 76f). Once unmuted, Zechariah exclaimed praise to God via the Lord’s Holy Spirit, whereas the human wisdom which failed to comprehend God’s promise at his service in the temple resulted in dumbness. Perhaps now Zechariah understands what he was unable to earlier—that his son would be the forerunner for the Savior of humanity.


Since virtually nothing is known about the formative years of John’s life, one is left to speculate what aided him in becoming the prophet of God that he was. Since John’s parents were elderly when he was born (Luke 1:7), a reasonable probability exists that he received instruction from his priestly father. However, since we do not know how long Zacharias lived after the birth of his son, we may only assume. John may have received some sort of informal training directly from any other number of sources. However, most Jews that were observant of their religion would have spent time in the synagogue receiving instruction. The instruction they received would have been unlike that which John displayed. Moreover, the synagogue’s teaching was tainted by Pharisaical traditions and dogmas. Still, some education may have been from there.

Another consideration would be the probability that John was an Essene. Several sources attest to the possibility of this fact. The facts that would support this theory are: 1) the Jewish historian Josephus recorded that this sect adopted orphans (Wars 2.8.2 [120]), and supposing that John’s parents may have died and left him an orphan makes this fitting; 2) How John used Isaiah 40:3 was similar to the usage found in the Dead Sea Scrolls in which it was seen as the mission of those of the community to prepare the way of the Lord; 3) the practice of baptism common among the Essenes; 4) the wilderness activities of both (cf. Luke 3:2), and 5) the ascetic tendencies of John compared to that of the Essenes. While these supporting arguments are not conclusive arguments that John was an Essene, the evidence is striking. However, another possibility exists. John may have been a member of the Essenes, but he may have grown discontent with their activities. The focus of the Essenes was inward and not an evangelistic focus. Various other sects are identified in biblical and extra-biblical literature (cf. Acts 24:5). Some were not within the immediate area of the Dead Sea, while some migrated to and from that area. Whatever the case is, we do not conclusively know the influence under which John may have grown, but he was led by the Spirit when he arrived in Judea.


Gospel Genealogies

Matthew 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38

Twenty-first century Westerners care very little about genealogies. Typically, when folks grow old and gray, they begin to research their lineage. Genealogical research almost seems cultish and something reserved for the elderly. Yet, to ancient Easterners, they were very important. 

For our forefathers did not only appoint the best of these priests, and those that attended upon the divine worship, for that design from the beginning, but made provision that the stock of the priests should continue unmixed and pure; for he who is partaker of the priesthood must propagate of a wife of the same nation, without having any regard to money, or any other dignities; but he is to make a scrutiny, and take his wife’s genealogy from the ancient tables, and procure many witnesses to it; and this is our practice not only in Judea, but wheresoever any body of men of our nation do live; and even there, an exact catalogue of our priests’ marriages is kept; I mean at Egypt and at Babylon, or in any other place of the rest of the habitable earth, whithersoever our priests are scattered; for they sent to Jerusalem the ancient names of their parents in writing, as well as those of their remoter ancestors, and signify who are the witnesses also … those priests that survive [war and invasion] compose new tables of genealogy out of the old records, and examine the circumstances of the women that remain. (Josephus, Contra Apion 1.7)

Understanding how and why genealogies were made help account for the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts. Aaron Demsky of Bar Ilan University proposes that two types of genealogies existed—linear and segmented. Linear genealogies often list descendants up to ten generations as a matter of biblical family law (cf. Deut. 23:3–4) or as a literary device to abbreviate a story. Shorter linear genealogies often introduce biblical figures such as Saul, Ezra, and Mordechai. Segmented genealogies divide a person’s heritage into brother branches or children of different wives, showing the kinship between tribes or clans. These maternal and filial branches reflect the tribal areas for the purposes of redemption (Num. 26:52–56; Jer. 32:7). Furthermore, in instances of polygamy and concubinage, the primary wive’s offspring are distinguished as first heirs from the other wives or consorts. 

Matthew begins his Gospel with the geneaology while Luke includes it later on. Matthew traces Jesus’ heritage through David to Abraham to demonstrate his Jewishness while Luke goes all the way back to Adam to show that Christ was not only a son of God but was also representative of the human race. Luke’s later placement has been suggested as rebirth since the genealogy appears after Jesus’ baptism. 

Matthew’s numbering is three groups of fourteen which total forty-two while Luke uses eleven groups of seven totaling seventy-seven. The numerology would have been significant to the Jews from Matthew’s Gospel while also to the Gentiles from Luke’s Gospel in the Pythagorean system. Because the numbering mattered, Matthew’s isn’t a complete genealogy. Five kings were omitted. The consonants corresponding to 14 in Hebrew are dalet-vav-dalet—David. The last of Matthew’s listings have only 13 names which has led to the suggestion that the church would have been number 14. 

One of the most popular interpretations to account for the differences between the two genealogies is that Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage while Luke traces Mary’s. One difficulty with this view is that Joseph’s name is listed for both, while Mary’s name doesn’t appear. Given the nature of patriarchal society, Joseph may have been listed instead. Luke’s genealogy begins by listing Jesus’ age of thirty. Counting from this age until his death, three Passovers are observed throughout the gospels which are how we arrive at a death age of thirty-three. Thirty implies maturity—David began reigning at thirty and Joseph entered Pharaoh’s service at thirty. Luke almost gives the caveat by stating, “As was supposed” (3:23). Luke also uses “son of” while Matthew, “begot.” Matthew and Luke state that Jesus was not Joseph’s biological son, so the latter may note that he was the legal son of Joseph, grandson of Heli—Mary’s father, perhaps. A couple of other points of divergence between the two are that Luke traces from Jacob to Heli while Matthew traces from Jacob to Joseph. Also, Luke diverges from David to Nathan (cf. Zech. 12:12), while Matthew has from David to Solomon.  

Matthew’s genealogy begins by citing that it is a geneseos of Jesus—a connection to creation. It was also unusual because it cited women, non-Jews, and morally questionable events. Tamar conceived by presenting herself as a prostitute and lying with her father-in-law. Rahab was a Canaanite, Ruth a Moabite, and Bathsheba was wed to a Hittite and an adulteress with King David. Abraham is often recognized as the first convert, and these women may have suggested a connection between Jew and Gentile. Moreover, Jewish tradition praises these women rather than focusing on their sins as we’d tend to do. 

Some commentators suggest that Matthew gives the royal line of descent while Luke gives the priestly line since Jesus is both King and Priest. Were I to trace my lineages, I could trace to a Chief of the Choctaw and a Scottish Laird, and these are just on my paternal side. To make Jesus’ genealogy a matter of doubting the historicity or inspiration of the two accounts is not necessary when we examine how we might trace our own. Joseph didn’t have two fathers, but one may have been his father and the other his grandfather. In Scripture, grandchildren are often referred to as “sons of” whomever is listed (cf. Matt. 1:1, 20). 


The Gospel of John: A New Genesis

Before John produced a written account, Paul wrote about “new creation.” To the Corinthians, he wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), and to the Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). There are two manners in which new creation appears in the New Testament: as a present reality and a future expectation. The current fact was what Paul and John wrote about in the passages above, and the gospel was in the present tense, but they also each wrote about the future expectation of new creation (Rom. 8:18–23; Rev. 21:1–5). Most of us have owned used things but have referred to them as new. For example, my wife’s car is new to us but preowned. When we bought our home a few years ago, it was new to us but was built in 1984. A new creation in the present tense is similar. 

Until this point (c. 96), John’s gospel had only ever been oral. The former fisherman, now an older man with gray hair, was the last apostle of Jesus remaining. He had seen the church grow by leaps and bounds. He’d testified of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah with signs and wonders. With him was Polycarp, a protege who’d be martyred when in his eighties (c. 156). Jerusalem had been destroyed just over twenty-five years earlier. In the last few years, the Jews assembled in Jamnia (c. 90) to establish a school of religious study of the Jewish Law. According to tradition, one of the first appointed deacons, Prochorus (cf. Acts 6:5), was with Peter, who’d set him a minister of Nicomedia. However, Peter was crucified just before Jerusalem fell (c. 64), so Prochorus joined John and aided him. Now, John was about to send Prochorus to oversee the work at Antioch, but before he was to depart, Prohorus was to help John with one crucial work. 

John had read Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He thought them each well-written and accurate accounts of the ministry of Jesus, though only Matthew was by a fellow apostle. However, the Synoptic accounts overlooked the earlier years of Christ’s ministry. John believed that the church ought to know about this period of Jesus’ ministry since he witnessed it. John wasn’t taking this task lightly because the Spirit had been speaking to him about writing another gospel account.

Nevertheless, as an aged man whose eyesight wasn’t the best and whose hand wasn’t steady, Prochorus would serve as his amanuensis—John would speak, and Prochorus would write. The Spirit had told John, “Write a new genesis,” so John knew what he’d do. So, as Prochorus sat poised at the writing table, John first spoke, “In the beginning.” 

John’s gospel retells the Genesis story, but instead of being separated from God, humanity is reconciled to Him this time. Rather than falling prey to sin and futility, freedom is given through the sacrifice of God on a cross. Yes, Jesus is God, and John identifies him as such in the prologue and throughout. Instead of being ruled by sin, the new Adam, Christ, conquers it so that His new creation can exist and operate in the newness of life. The entire framework of this is accomplished in the guise of the temple. When we read Genesis 1–2, ancient easterners would have read it as God creating a temple in which to dwell. We call it heaven and earth, but the story sounds much like the construction of an ancient temple. Images were placed in the temple, and when God rests, readers/hearers would have associated that with Him taking up residence after a period of conflict. The conflict was ordering creation from chaos. 

God constantly desired fellowship with humanity. His plan to achieve this: He takes on flesh and once more merges heaven and earth in the Incarnation (John 1:1–3, 14). This time, the divine humbles Himself to take on flesh (cf. Phil. 2:5–8). Humans have approached God through the temple for centuries, a sacred space designated where humanity and God met. Before this, it was the tabernacle, and when Jesus came in the flesh, He came to “dwell” (literally, “tabernacle”) among us (John 1:14). God steps out from the Holy of Holies to walk among humanity and redeem it. 

God begins recreation. That is, He’s making all things new. Following the creation story itself, John shows that Jesus is God and created the heavens and earth. The earth was void and without form upon creation, and darkness reigned. This is the beginning of God’s creating a new temple without defilement. In Christ are the fullness of Temple, sacred space, and rest (cf. Matt. 11:28–30). Temple is no longer a building on a specific site but the person of Christ Himself (John 2:19–21). Jesus is redefining Temple for us all because God placed man in His Temple Garden (Gen. 2:8), but now He who sets us notes that we have displaced ourselves. Therefore, He comes to us where we are. 

God spoke light into existence in the first creation to illuminate His temple (Gen. 1:3–5). Living without light would be impossible. The sun and the moon, which give us light, also provide us with power, the sun especially. Today’s excellent discussion is to rely more on things solar-powered, but even forms of energy that are not solar power are powered themselves by the nutrients the sun gives. How cold might earth be without the sun? It would be uninhabitable, that’s for sure, to see a connection between light and life. You can’t have the latter without the former. 

Now, the light of God has come to the world, and John the Baptist’s mission was to declare the light (John 1:6–9). The first day of recreation corresponds to the first day of creation: light. Jesus later said he was the Light (John 8:12; 12:46), and throughout this gospel, we see Him mentioned as such. Jesus asks that we all believe in the light for eternal life (John 12:36). The reconciliation process has begun (2 Cor. 5:18–19), and it takes the face of recreation in Jesus.


Setting the Record Straight: Luke’s Prologue

The past few years have been ripe with disinformation, misinformation, alternative facts, etc. Facebook has become a catalyst for spreading such, with algorithms set to pop up what suits one’s fancy. We have no certainty about what is trustworthy anymore, but truth-seekers can sift through the material—identifying both the true and false. It’s easy to use our preferred sources because they validate our preconceptions, but we should use caution because they may blind us in the process. When Luke wrote his account of the good news, he wrote against the backdrop of other circulating versions. He carefully investigated the matter, knew eyewitnesses, and drafted an orderly arrangement to straighten the record. 

Eusebius (4th-century bishop) wrote that the order of the Gospels is according to their composition. He noted that the apostle John, after obtaining copies of the Matthew, Mark, and Luke (synoptic gospels), “welcomed them … and confirmed their accuracy” (Eccl. Hist. 3.24). Eusebius identified other gospels such as the Gospel of Hebrews, Peter, Thomas, Matthias, and others (Eccl. Hist., 3.25; cf. Origen, Luke 1.1–3), but these were disputed. Luke noted that “many” had tried to write narratives (Luke 1:1), so he wrote in response to inadequate or false gospels. His own, however, was from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2)—neither of which he was. The other accounts contributed to confusion rather than clarity. Luke wanted to give an orderly arrangement (Luke 1:3). His meaning of “orderly” differs from what we might initially think. He doesn’t give a chronological but a topical account. His arrangement differs from Matthew’s and Mark’s but contains some of the same material though placed in a different order. 

He notifies the reader that he has investigated the things about which he writes—“having had a perfect understanding of all things from the very first” (Luke 1:3). This phrase could be translated, “Since I had carefully followed all of it from the beginning.” It’s like saying that a person had kept up with the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard debacle from when it was simply accusations. Luke followed things closely and used various sources, one of whom might have been Mary, the mother of Christ. The first two chapters are full of information that she would have known (Luke 2:19, 51). Peter (cf. Luke 6:14) and Mark might have also been a source for Luke, given the call for Mark—Peter’s companion—in 2 Timothy 4:11 and his presence in Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 24 with Luke.  Being a traveling companion of Paul, Luke would have no doubt received information from him. Paul quoted from Luke 10:7 in 1 Timothy 5:17–18 and referred to his gospel (Rom. 2:16; 16:25; 2 Tim. 2:8), which has led to the speculation that Luke wrote Paul’s gospel, though it doesn’t bear the latter’s name. Nevertheless, we mustn’t discount the work of the Holy Spirit to have provided information otherwise unknown to Luke since this Gospel gives attention to the ministry of the Spirit (Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67). 

The audience of this gospel was likely Gentile-Christian to whom Luke explains various details of Jewish customs. He also uses the Septuagint when quoting from the Old Testament. One scholar suggests that Luke was written toward the end of the first century and to the third generation of Christians—predominantly Gentile. His writing more or less explains why fewer Jews than in the first decade of Christianity believe in Jesus. Both the Christians and Jews have the same Scriptures, but many Jews rejected Jesus as the Christ. Yet, Luke aims to show continuity between the story of Israel and the church. He doesn’t see it as two separate religions but as the continuation of the one.  

Theophilus’ (“he who loves God”) identity has been widely debated as that of either a Roman official (cf. Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25), a financier of Luke’s work, or a wealthy Christian who housed a church. Another possibility was that Theophilus was Luke’s inspiration—not in the sense of the Holy Spirit’s inspiring one—and the mention of his name was a mere dedication of the work to Theophilus. This writing was to give him certainty of what he’d already learned. 

Some interesting facts about Luke:

  • His gospel account appears in all early lists of the New Testament canon.
  • His gospel and Acts are written in sophisticated Greek.
  • They are also written as ancient epics were (e.g., Homer, Odyssey; Virgil, Aeneid).


Repealing Roe v. Wade

It will come as no surprise if you’re reading this, that I am pro-life. Not pro-birth, but pro-life. If you want to stop reading at this point, that’s at your discretion.

Many people are disturbed about the leaked SCOTUS opinion, and others believe they’ve won the victory of a lifetime. Both are somewhat correct but also wrong. Abortion is not being outlawed because of this repeal. Repealing Roe only returns the matter to the states rather than the federal government legislating it. True, some states will seek to outlaw it, but others will not. State legislatures will decide the matter, so you actually have a say in who you vote for in your state based on this and other issues. This isn’t a threat to democracy, it’s actually the greatest exercise of democracy. The reason some senators and congressmen are enraged is in part that the power is being taken out of their hands and placed in the state’s hands. They run on these platforms and win elections based on them. Now they have been proven insignificant, so they will try to regain their significance.

Our founders framed the nation as a federalist system, which means that an area is controlled by two levels of government. In our country, that’s the federal and state governments. The constitution enumerates the rights that the states surrender to the federal government, and any matter not addressed in the constitution is to be left to the states as per the tenth amendment. Many jurists on the left and right have believed that Roe wasn’t altogether kosher. Even Ruth Bader Ginsberg believed the decision was an overreach. The thought is that the Supreme Court should have struck down the law as unconstitutional and left it at that. Instead, the court wrote an entire opinion that became enshrined as law. There’s probably a better way to put it, but this will suffice.

Those who say they’re pro-life (myself included) should not think their job is finished. If anything, they should now, if they already haven’t, begin advocating for affordable or free contraception, healthcare, childcare, and various other programs that would deter abortion. The goal is to remove every reason a mother might think that her best option is to abort. That would go a long way towards helping the issue overall. According to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, 75% of abortion patients are poor or low-income. Addressing this and other issues may help. Furthermore, when ACA was signed into law, a 7% decrease in abortions was reported between 2014 and 2017 because many uninsured women obtained healthcare. Pro-lifers often dismiss such things, but if we truly care, we’ll look at the data and advocate.

Those who are pro-choice should realize that for the past two years, bodily autonomy was a silly notion to some of these same people as they wanted to force everyone to wear masks and be vaccinated, even going so far as to use agencies to achieve such ends. Unelected bureaucrats in said agencies, mind you. Then there’s the discussion around the lack of a definition of what a woman is. All of a sudden, now that this issue has risen to the surface, the binary reality of the sexes has become the paradigm once more. Many things that some of these folks advocate for contradicts in some way what they stand for, and the only consistency is that they are constantly inconsistent. Black Lives Matter unless they’re in the womb. Women’s rights matter, but what about those girls in the womb?

As for myself, I was born to two teenagers. I was unplanned. I know there are more reasons for this discussion, but I’ll speak about mine. I’m glad to be alive. My parents could have decided to abort me, but they didn’t. I truly feel for those who believe this is their only option. I think we can also agree that in many circumstances a pregnancy results from irresponsibility. Data shows that less than 1% of abortions are the result of rape or incest. This is why I believe we should advocate for contraception or even abstinence. My personal belief is to exercise one’s right of choice in the bedroom, or just wait until marriage and have a plan. I shouldn’t have had to suffer because of my parents’ irresponsibility. I shouldn’t be dead because of it either.

Those of us who are pro-life (at least speaking for myself) have no interest in making decisions for women, but we want to advocate for the unborn. In cases where a mother’s health is at risk, I totally get the need to make the difficult decision. A friend of mine who lacked healthcare at the time was facing death because of a pregnancy, so an abortion, in her case, saved her life. I’ve also read about non-viable fetuses remaining in the womb to the mother’s detriment. Yes, in those cases, it isn’t abortion per se, but an evacuation of the womb. Perhaps what would help is to redefine such things in these cases. The term “abortion” is stigmatized, and there’s really more to it in some cases than just terminating life.

When a woman finds herself pregnant, child support should begin then. The father is often not factored into this discussion. He should step up and be responsible for caring for her and the unborn child. She shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of all of the responsibility. I was irresponsible as a teenager myself, and when I learned that I was going to become a father, I wanted to do everything I could for my girlfriend (now my wife of over 20 years) and unborn baby. That baby is 20 years old, and one of the most special people in my life. I am fortunate, but not everyone shares my circumstances, which is why those less fortunate need greater help.



A Second Chance in the Land

“Maintain justice,” God commands (Is. 56:1; cf. 61:8). Not only had idolatry been a problem for Judah, but perverted justice had too: 

O LORD, how long shall I cry, and you will not hear? Even cry out “Violence!” And you will not save. Why do you show me iniquity, and cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; there is strife, and contention arises. Therefore the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore perverse judgment proceeds.

(Hab. 1:1–4)

Much of what follows is God explaining justice. The foreigner and eunuch might have otherwise believed themselves excluded (Deut. 23:1–3; cf. Lev. 21:18–20), but God welcomes them and urges the same of his people (Is. 56:3–8). The corrupt rulers of Israel have led many astray, but some have even known to follow the Lord despite the instruction of their leaders (57:1–2). God plans to refuse the idolater (57:11, 13), but if an idolater returns to God, he will accept and heal them (57:15–21). Yet, the one who perverts justice and engages in idolatry presumes that they are still favored because of their worship, but worship will not cover their sins, especially if they exploit others and the holy days (58:3–10, 13–14). This behavior landed them in exile (59:1–4, 14–15), so returning home should accompany repentance (59:20). God wanted his people to be a part of injustice’s solution (59:16).  

Considering all that Judah has done, chapter 60 paints a beautiful picture of God’s forgiveness and restoration. “Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you down, but I have had mercy on you” (60:10). “Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age” (60:15). Isaiah saw a restored Jerusalem as a renewed Jerusalem (60:19–22), and John saw the heavenly Jerusalem as something similar yet better (Rev. 21:9–11, 22–26). 

Either the servant or the prophet announces the good news to rebuild what had been torn down (61:1–4). When Jesus read from Isaiah, he identified himself with this servant (Luke 4:16–21). Rather than rebuilding the city of Zion, he rebuilt the people of God by preaching the good news of the kingdom of God and restoring those to God who had been “exiled” from him despite being in Judea. One of my favorite passages in Isaiah is 61:10 (cf. 62:5), “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” Similar imagery of Christ and his bride, the church, appears in Ephesians 5. 

In Churches of Christ, brethren have sometimes erringly taken verses and transposed them for our theology. For example, Isaiah 62:2 has often been used to describe how we came to be called “Christians,” but that wasn’t what Isaiah was speaking about. Just two verses later, the explanation of verse 2 is given, “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.”Also, verse 12 adds,  “They shall be called, ‘The Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD’; and you shall be called, ‘Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.’” Just because a verse might suit a preconceived belief doesn’t mean that’s the best way to use that verse. The whole of chapter 62 is to show how God will forgive and bless Judah and Jerusalem, and 63 explains why God punished them and remembered his mercy towards them (v. 11). A prayer of repentance is given in 63:15–64:12. The servants of the Lord will be blessed, but those who rebel will suffer (65:1–16). 

In Isaiah 65:17, a familiar theme arises—new heavens and new earth. This is something that both Peter (2 Peter 3:13) and John (Rev. 21:1) write about too. Isaiah’s new heaven and earth have one significant difference—death remains (65:20). It no longer exists in John’s new heavens and earth (Rev. 21:4). I don’t take Isaiah’s as an end-times (eschatological) reading because death is still present. Everything listed can be read as juxtaposed to exilic suffering, with the former things being that which is written in the preceding verses. Furthermore, the messianic promises have yet to be fulfilled, so this can’t refer to the new creation that is post-resurrection and judgment. As we read chapter 66, God’s worshippers who also engage in pagan rituals and unjust living have their offerings regarded as actual sins (66:3). The end-times new creation doesn’t need sacrifice, nor will there be unrighteousness, as depicted in verse 4 (cf. Rev. 21:8). Finally, Isaiah’s new heavens and earth will be “before” God (66:22), but God will be “in” John’s (Rev. 21:3).  


God’s Plan of Hope

Isaiah 49–55 belongs in the greater narrative of 40–55—post-exilic material. That’s to say, the exile has occurred, and God is speaking to his people about his plans. Israel’s sins have been atoned for, and God has promised his forgiveness and hope to them. However, they’re still coming to grips with Zion’s falling. As God has previously tried to do, he continues to explain that they shouldn’t misunderstand—their sins were the cause (50:1). 

Israel, the servant of the Lord (49:3), is to be a light to the nations going forward. God’s salvation would reach the ends of the earth as they did this (49:6; cf. 42:4, 6). Isaiah wished to comfort the exiles (50:4), reminding them of how he was treated before and how God would vindicate him (50:5–11). The righteous need only to continue being faithful because God will return them to his goal of creation—Eden and the garden (51:1–3). In this case, however, the imagery is applied to a return to Jerusalem. 

Since some were living in a foreign land and under constant worry (51:13), God promised that they wouldn’t go to the grave in Babylon (51:14). For those still in Zion, they too were worried—what had happened? They felt abandoned by God, and in some respect, they were (54:7–8). Yet, a messenger comes to Zion with the news—“Your God reigns” (52:7) and that he will return to Zion (52:8). 

The suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13–53:12 was Israel and is the final of several servant songs throughout Isaiah (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11). Israel, the servant, was severely wounded, but his resurgence would astonish the nations (52:14–53:1). Israel grew from Jacob as a young nation—nothing overtly special about his appearance. Very common indeed (52:2–3). What Israel suffered through conquering and exile made it seem as if God rejected him, and his wounds were for the transgressions and iniquities of the people (53:4–5). Everyone was guilty of this sin (53:6). His suffering was God’s way of restoring all people to himself, and the servant’s grief led to his exaltation. The early church saw in this passage the suffering of Jesus (Acts 8:32–35). Did they misappropriate the passage? Certainly not. Jesus was the embodiment of Israel (Matt. 2:13–15).  

God promises an eternal covenant of peace with Israel (ch. 54), and he invites them all to himself in a state of repentance (55:6–7). When Israel looks at how she’d treat others, they may think that an eye for an eye is the method for those who’ve wronged them. However, God’s ways are far different (55:8–9). Unlike a mortal man, he does not regard others as humans would. This was his promise, and because he has given his word, it would not return empty but come to pass (55:11). 


A Conquered Judah in Babylon

Jerusalem lies in rubbles. Many inhabitants have been carted off to Babylon, especially those of the aristocratic (e.g., Daniel) and priestly (e.g., Ezekiel) lineages. The exiles weep about their homeland in a foreign land (Ps. 137). Those remaining in Jerusalem receive a word from the Lord (Is. 40:2) given 150 years earlier, looking to this very moment. Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah and was contemporary with Jeremiah, who prophesied in the decades leading up to the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon. If you were to read Scripture chronologically, you could insert Zephaniah, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah between chapters 39–40 of Isaiah. Yet, in Isaiah, a 150-year leap is made to those who’ve witnessed the city’s destruction. 

They’re wondering, “Now what?” The worst has happened. What they’ve dreaded has occurred. No Davidic king occupies the throne. Those who remain will suffer heavy taxation, foreign occupation, and rule. They will also live with the trauma of seeing Jerusalem fall and the changes that follow. They feel abandoned by God (40:6–8, 27), but he assures them that they are redeemed (43:1, 25; 44:22–23). God was abandoned by them first (cf. 42:24–25). What’s odd is how God’s people often feel neglected, seldom examining whether or not they had ignored him previously. Israel had continued worshipping God, which cannot be a metric (1:11–15). 

Nevertheless, the cry anticipates God’s return (40:3–5) as a tender king (40:9–11). God reassures Israel that though their present circumstances might seem contrary to the idea, they are still his people, his servant (41:8–10; 42:1–4). As God’s servant Israel needed to worship God (43:22–24) and not idols (44:9–11). Though they have suffered by other nations, whom God allowed doing so to punish their sins, those nations won’t get off easy for their wickedness (41:11–13; 43:14). 

Since God used Assyria to chastise Israel and Babylon Judah, God will use Persia to restore Judah (44:24–45:7). He had previously referred to Assyria as his ax to cull the forest of the nations and Israel. Still, the ax would break—denoting the end of Assyria, which happened at the hands of the Babylonians. Jeremiah had described Nebuchadnezzar as God’s servant (Jer. 25–26). Isaiah refers to Cyrus as God’s shepherd (Is. 44:28) and messiah (45:1). Judahites in Babylon don’t respond positively to a foreign king being their messiah and not a son of David (45:9–13; 46:8–13). On the one hand, they want deliverance from Babylon, but they don’t like how God will bring it.

Babylon sees herself as God (47:7–8). Israel isn’t much better because God’s faithfulness and grace do not alter Israel’s mood (48:1–15). God finally declares that they should have kept his command, and they would have enjoyed peace (48:18). Unfortunately, Israel has consistently been deaf and blind. It has led them to captivity and ruin, and persisting in it will not bring them the peace God promises. 


Isaiah? Deutero-Isaiah? Trito-Isaiah? Who Authored Isaiah?

Few scholars hold the traditional view that Isaiah wrote the entire book. The majority acknowledges that the prophet wrote chapters 1–39, and from there, disagreement exists as to how many other authors or sections make up the book. Chapters 40–66 are often agreed to have had one or more authors. The language of chapters 40–55 reads like after the exile, and the remaining chapters read like returning from exile. These two sections are respectively referred to as Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah. Some believe there are two divisions, while others hypothesize there are more than three divisions. Indeed, authorship would not have been a concern to earlier audiences, and it’s only a topic due to a scientific method of interpreting literary texts alike—a combination of higher and lower criticism. Scripture, therefore, is reduced to academic work and not as highly esteemed as divinely inspired. 

As far back as 1100 CE, Moses ben Samuel denied Isaiah was the author of specific chapters. A few years later, Ibn Ezra (ca. 1167) questioned certain sections as being from the hand of Isaiah. Finally, in the 18th century, Johann Doerderlein suggested that Isaiah could not have foreseen the fall of Jerusalem, the 70-year captivity, the return, or the Persian king, Cyrus. Since his thesis, scholarship has advanced in supporting dual or multiple authorship. This is readily accepted in academic circles and in some churches too. 

From chapters thirty-nine to forty, we skip ahead about 150 years. The opening passages of chapter forty suggest Israel’s sins have been paid for and that they need to be comforted (40:1–2). When we left off in chapter thirty-nine, Hezekiah had survived the Assyrian assault and sickness that threatened to take his life. Isaiah told him that Jerusalem’s destruction would not happen in his lifetime, concluding eighth-century Isaiah. Jerusalem fell in 586 BCE, and exiles returned after 538 BCE. Isaiah 42:24–25 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem as a past event, but this isn’t altogether a reason to believe in multi-authored Isaiah. The early chapters of Isaiah speak of things as both present and past—especially the first five chapters, which are not wholly chronological. However, Isaiah 43:14 reads as if the Jews were in Babylon, and Cyrus is explicitly named in 44:28. When we arrive at Isaiah 66:20, the second temple is under construction. The language of multiple timelines is a big reason for the thesis when placed alongside the other mentioned details. Plus, after chapter thirty-nine, Isaiah isn’t mentioned again. 

The belief in multiple authors has some merit, but it denies the prophet’s ability to speak about and predict future events. The German schools of biblical studies rely heavily on this scientific method of interpretation, contributing to scholarship significantly. Still, it depends upon naturalism without leaving room for divine inspiration or the miraculous. This was, in part, a result of David Hume’s Enlightenment philosophy which grew from Newtonian reasoning. He believed that a miracle was a violation of the laws of nature, as he so wrote in Of Miracles in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, so they simply did not exist. This would remove the ability of a prophet of God to be moved by God’s Spirit to talk about future events with the voice of God, thus limiting God. Hume would write, “It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experiences, which assures us of the laws of nature.” Because he and most of his peers never “experienced” such a phenomenon, the divine is reduced to naturalism. Philosopher Peter Kreeft observed, “In fact, all the essential and distinctive elements of Christianity are miracles: creation, revelation (first to the Jews), the giving of law, prophecies, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Second Coming and Last Judgment.” 

The cases of multiple authors can be convincing, but I hold to the traditional view that Isaiah is the primary source of the book bearing his name (cf. John 12:37–38; Is. 53:1). The oldest extant copy of Isaiah dates to 175 BCE and is a single scroll without any notes from copyists about a shift from chapters 39–40. Archaeologists found twenty-one copies of Isaiah among the Dead Sea Scrolls and six manuscripts of commentaries on Isaiah. Isaiah has also been referenced as the only author of the book. It is the most quoted book in the New Testament, with Isaiah as only ever cited as the author and the quotes attributed to him from the various sections of texts that scholars dispute (cf. Matt. 3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; et al.).  

I agree with John Oswalt, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Seminary, that the entirety of the book was assembled over the years by Isaiah’s disciples from his speeches, remarks, and other verbal communication. Isaiah, therefore, is the source of the entire book, but its compilation was likely the work of disciples. Just a few centuries before Isaiah, we read about schools of prophets (1 Sam. 10:5, 10; 19:20). In the first passage from Samuel, the Targum (Aramaic translation of the Old Testament dating to 516 BCE) uses the phrase “band of students.” In the second passage, Samuel is the leader of the band of prophets. Elijah and Elisha exhibited the disciple-teacher relationship within a prophetic background (2 Kings 2:3). Elisha served Elijah (2 Kings 3:11) and was anointed by him (1 Kings 19:16). Isaiah and his disciples and learned ones may be another example of this relationship (Is. 8:16; 50:4). Given the notion of destruction and exile in the earlier chapters of Isaiah, it makes sense that he would have spoken to future generations. Later, his disciples may have redacted portions of his speeches and writings to fit the times, which scribes often did (compare Gen. 14:14 to Judg. 18:12). We also can’t discount the usage of dictation to scribes, which biblical authors often employed (cf. Jer. 36:4; Rom. 16:22), when accounting for variations in syntax. 

The matter isn’t a hill to die on but another perspective to the recently formed (18th century) and common thesis. Some might contend that the evidence of Cyrus’ name is compelling, but the name may have been inserted by later scribes based on the description provided. The same may be said of other portions that lead readers to conclude multiple authors regarding Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah. Scribes could have changed the language to show the fulfillment of specific prophecies. We don’t know. The only copies we have are from the second century BCE and later, and a study published in 2021 concluded that two scribes wrote the Great Isaiah Scroll. The final form of Isaiah may have emerged in the post-exilic period. Still, it doesn’t mean another version may have predated what we have that’s original to the eighth-century prophet. 


King Hezekiah’s Reign

Isaiah has been building up to the reign of a righteous king (cf. 32:1; 33:16), and in chapter 36, we finally arrive at the reign of Hezekiah. Isaiah and Hezekiah witnessed the northern kingdom fall to the Assyrians. Now, the Assyrians are at the backdoor of the Judahites—taking the fortified cities (36:1) because Hezekiah had rebelled against them (2 Kings 18:7–8). Hezekiah panics and offers to pay tribute to stop the siege—his father, Ahaz, having aligned with the Assyrians, Hezekiah wanted to only trust in God. Sennacherib names his price, but it doesn’t stop there (2 Kings 18:14–16). When Sennacherib sends a message, the scene is similar to Isaiah’s prophecy in 31:1–9. It’s a folly to trust in Egypt, which Israel tried to do under King Hoshea (2 Kings 17:1–4; cf. 36:4–6). Egypt couldn’t stop the Assyrian conquering of Israel, so Judah and Jerusalem had best not even entertain the idea. God, however, has promised to deliver Jerusalem. 

Rabshakeh (a royal title meaning “chief of the officers”), Sennacherib’s mouthpiece, derides any talk of Hezekiah trusting in his God (36:13–20). They believe that Hezekiah has offended God (36:7; cf. 2 Kings 18:3–6) and that YHWH sent the Assyrians to punish him (36:10). Given his language usage, Rabshakeh may have been privy to Judah’s internal affairs (compare 36:6 with 10:5–6). Nevertheless, his words so upset Judah’s high officials that they tear their clothes and tell Hezekiah what was said, and he, in turn, rips his clothes and adorns himself with sackcloth (36:22–37:1). What else is a king to do but inquire of God’s prophet (37:2)? 

God’s message to Hezekiah is, “Don’t worry about what’s being said because I will distract him” (37:6–7). Rabshakeh is still so focused on Judah and Jerusalem even while Sennacherib moved on to war against others, so he was sure to try to keep them in fear (37:10–13). Hezekiah doesn’t dwell on the message. He doesn’t get unraveled by it. Instead, he takes it to God and prays (37:14–20). Isaiah delivers God’s reply to Rabshakeh’s message to Hezekiah, and the word is that Assyria will not succeed in their endeavor to take Jerusalem. Before any of this ever came to be, God promised to break Assyria (14:24–25), and he does so (37:36–38). The Assyrian threat has subsided, and Sennacherib has died at the hands of his sons.  

Having prayed for deliverance from the Assyrians, Hezekiah now prays for deliverance from death (38:1–3). God grants his request and sets his reign distinct from his father, Ahaz’s (38:8). Ahaz had been subject to Assyria, resulting in hefty tributes and Assyrian gods introduced into the temple. Hezekiah had torn down all such altars and shrines, the very thing Rabshakeh believed offended God (36:7) was something that pleased him. Hezekiah recovered from his illness, but the Babylonians would learn of this and send messengers with a letter. Hezekiah would show them all the riches of his dominion (39:1–2). Isaiah’s reply to Hezekiah’s actions is matter-of-fact (39:3–7). Hezekiah’s reply to that seems even odder (39:8), but some linguists suggest that the king accepts God’s judgment and then, under his breath, mutters or thinks the last line. The Chronicler, however, reads the scene differently (2 Chron. 32:24–31). Hezekiah had become proud but then humbled himself to God. Hezekiah knew Judah would fall, but not during his reign.


God’s Judgment of Judah and Jerusalem

Many commentaries equate God’s intentions in Isaiah for the earth with the end-times (Is. 24:1–3) since he had previously pronounced judgment against the world for sinfulness (13:5, 9, 11). However, the language of 24:5 is reminiscent of the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:16; cf. 6:5). Several references to “the land” also lead us to think about Judah and Jerusalem (Is. 26:1)—“the land” is a reference to them (24:3, 13, 23). The same can be said of “this mountain” referring to Zion (25:6–7, 10). Judah here appears as a microcosm of the world. A great responsibility is placed on God’s elect. We were meant to have been royal priests from the garden, maintaining sacred space. Instead, God made his dwelling place among Israel, which shrunk to Judah and Jerusalem. Now that they have sinned, the world God envisioned has become smaller and smaller—sacred spaces now being corrupt. The leaders of Judah have sinned (28:7–8, 14–15) and Jerusalem (29:1–8). Jerusalem, however, pretends piety when God knows differently (29:13). 

As Ahaz trusted Assyria for his relief, they trusted Egypt (30:1–3; 31:1–3). Contrasted to those who trust Egypt are those who trust God (30:18–26). God’s people in Judah and Jerusalem are divided—some trust in earthly powers while others trust in God. Those spoken against tend to be the elite, as shown here. The simple folks are those who look to God. They have no standing among the elite, so the day of judgment is to them a day of reckoning (29:18–20). If there’s one thing we must all learn, the “experts” aren’t always right. They could defer to them as religious leaders when they thought of priests and prophets. Yet, God spoke against them for their drunkenness. Similarly, it may not be wine on which folks are drunk today, but on power, influence, or complacency (32:9–15). 

Hope is available (26:3–6). Finally, the chief cornerstone of 28:16–17 resembles the restored city of 1:26 and looks to a new faithful community. This stone is a precious cornerstone to many, but to others, a snare (28:13). God also promises to deliver Jerusalem (31:4–9), foreshadowing when they will attempt to siege Jerusalem in 701 BCE. A reign of righteousness is upon Jerusalem (32:1–8; 33:17–24), and this applies not only to Hezekiah but also to Jesus. Jesus often identified himself with figures from the Old Testament: 

  • Jonah (Matt. 12:39)
  • Solomon (Matt. 12:42)
  • The Temple (John 2:19)
  • The brazen serpent (John 3:14)

Peter described Noah and his family’s salvation through the water as a type of baptism, while Paul said Adam was a type of Christ. 5:14). So we may be safe in saying that Hezekiah was also a type of Christ, for the most part. He was one of the final faithful as Jesus. Here are similarities between Hezekiah and Jesus:

  • Hezekiah cleanses the temple (2 Chron. 9:1, 5, 15–16)
  • Hezekiah restores Jewish fidelity to God (2 Chron. 30:6–13, 26–27)
  • He prays for sinful Israelites (2 Chron. 30:18–20)
  • Hezekiah’s reign was faithful to God (2 Kings 18:1–7)
  • Hezekiah’s healing after being told he would die was three days, just as Christ rose from the grave on the third day (2 Kings 20:1–6)  

In Hezekiah’s days, Zion would be a city of glory (35:1–10), and the Lord’s glory in Christ would also occupy it. Jesus’s ministry on earth would resemble Hezekiah’s reign, but to a greater degree.


The Fall of Judah’s Neighbors

God is called “LORD of hosts” over 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, over 60 times appearing in Isaiah. “Hosts” can be understood as a significant number or an army. The notion of an army seems to be more plausible (cf. 2 Kings 6:15–17) because by the time we arrive at chapters 13–23, where God pronounces judgment, the language is interesting when we follow it. God calls his “holy ones” and “mighty ones” (13:3). God musters these for battle, coming from the end of heaven (13:4). Earlier in chapter 6, we saw an assembling of the heavenly court, God, with the seraphim. There’s one similar passage to Isaiah 6, and that’s 1 Kings 22:19–21. In both of these passages, God is seated on a throne, he asks for a volunteer, the court has a verbal exchange, a volunteer announces himself, and the mission is to deceive God’s people who have angered him with their sinfulness. 

A heavenly court is attested to not only in the passages mentioned and in Job 1:6–11; 2:1–6; Zechariah 3:1–5. Isaiah 6:10 seems like a problematic passage when God commissions the prophet to dupe the people essentially. However, when taken with the passage from 1 Kings 22 and Ezekiel 14:4–5, it makes sense that God would answer them according to their heart’s desire (cf. Is. 19:14). Against whom, then, will this heavenly army war? Other hosts of heaven were assigned to oversee the nations, but some became rebellious and received worship as gods (Deut. 32:8 [LXX], 17; Ps. 96:5; Dan. 10). The battle of the faithful and rebellious hosts ensue with the results being mirrored on earth—sometimes the angels fighting against the physical enemy. Divine warfare is a motif in Exodus. Each plague corresponds to YHWH attacking one of Egypt’s gods: e.g., the first plague is directed at Ḥapi, the Nile-god; the second at Ḥeqet, the frog goddess; the fifth at Apis, the bull and Hathor, the cow; the eighth, ninth, and tenth plagues at Ra. 

Angels minister to those who are to obtain salvation (Heb. 1:14), so it would stand that they would offer protection of the righteous one (Ps. 91:2, 11–12). A common belief was that earthly rulers mirrored the actions of the divine beings, so when the king of Babylon is spoken against, later believers associated some of the jargon used of him with Satan (Is. 14:12–15). Lucifer, meaning “Day Star,” is plausible as usage for Satan, given other passages about stars and their link with angels (Job. 38:7; Rev. 12:3–4). 

By the time we arrive at Ahaz’s death—anywhere between 715–725 BCE—Philistia is urged to not rejoice at the transition of monarchs. Ahaz had agreed to Assyrian domination, but that would change upon the end of his reign and the beginning of Hezekiah’s. Hezekiah changed allegiance to Egypt and led a rebellion against the Assyrian king. Isaiah 14:29 seems to refer to Ahaz as a serpent, and a viper comes from him like a seraph. Hezekiah, we will learn, subdued the Philistines (2 Kings 18:8), and did much good for Judah and Jerusalem as the rest of Isaiah’s oracle points out (14:30–32; cf. 2 Kings 18:6–7).  

The remaining oracles are poems of promised judgment against evildoer nations. God judges Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Syria and Israel, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Jerusalem. Yet, God gives a couple of rays of hope. First, he will have mercy on Jacob and settle Israel in their land (14:1–2). Second, God will set one on David’s throne to judge with justice (16:5). Judgment sounds harsh, but God will give grace too. 


Isaiah Goes to Ahaz

In the final years of his life, while a leper in seclusion, Uzziah’s son reigned with him. Yet, the reign of Jotham doesn’t figure prominently into Isaiah’s ministry. Since the prophets often presided during times of crises, Jotham’s reign did not need prophetic intervention. Yet, things changed when Ahaz became king. By the time of the events of chapter seven, Israel has allied with Syria to make war against Jerusalem. The king of Assyria had chipped away at Israel’s territories (2 Kings 15:29), so the weakened kingdom believed an alliance with Syria was necessary. When Israel and Syria go against Jerusalem, Ahaz requested the help of Assyria (2 Kings 16:7–8) thus demonstrating a lack of faith (cf. Is. 7:4–9). The goal of Israel and Syria was to install a puppet king over Judah (Is. 7:7), but God didn’t allow it.  

Isaiah urged the king to ask for a sign, but he refused to do so. God, nevertheless, gave Ahaz a sign to reinforce the promises previously made about the Davidic line. A young woman would bear a child and call him “Immanuel” (God with us) thus confirming that God was keeping his promises. When Isaiah gave this sign by the Lord, I’m sure he did not have the future messiah in mind. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be understood that way, which I’ll get to shortly. There are four possible ways to understand the sign as they understood it. 

  1. King Hezekiah was the promised son. This is a very popular interpretation and some conclude that Hezekiah is referred to in 8:8. Furthermore, the description of the government in chapter nine seems fitting to Hezekiah in the immediate context, especially when read with chapters 36–39. I favor Hezekiah as the fulfillment of the prophecy, but I also hold that the next option is viable.   
  2. Others contend that this is Isaiah’s son mentioned in 8:1–4, whose name means “Speed the Spoil, Hasten the Prey.” He is referred to as a sign (Is. 8:18) and that argument could be made that 8:8 references him, but Isaiah and his wife already have a child (7:3). The son mentioned in 8:1–4 seems to be a sign to Isaiah while Immanuel was a sign to Ahaz.  
  3. Another interpretation is that it refers to an unknown woman fulfilling the promise, but if she were unknown they wouldn’t be aware of the sign when it came to pass. This is viable but highly unlikely. 
  4. Some believe Jesus is the only fulfillment of this prophecy, but that wouldn’t have brought comfort to Ahaz if something far off was meant. Jesus is a fulfillment of this prophecy on the macro level, but not on the micro level. The Hebrew term could mean a virgin, but more often it was a young woman. Matthew borrowed from the Septuagint which, in the place of almah is the specific term parthenos (“virgin”).  

Hezekiah, I contend, is the micro fulfillment of this prophecy, but Jesus is the macro fulfillment of the prophecy. The sign is about God saving his people, and he saved Judah and Jerusalem through Hezekiah. However, Judah and Jerusalem would continue in their infidelity, which necessitated God’s judgment and his ultimate savior of his people and all humanity—Jesus. 

The prophecy can be viewed as a type/antitype sort of thing, such as we see in 1 Peter 3:20–21. As Noah and his family boarded the ark, they were saved by being on it when water came. When we board the ark that is Jesus, through baptism, we too are saved. Similarly, Hezekiah was righteous and brought about God’s will, and Jesus is the one who has perfectly brought the will of God. The micro interpretation has to do with the immediate context of the author and their audience. The macro is the whole redemptive story of creation, so there’s an immediate and greater meaning to the text. The prophet gave us immediate meaning, and the Holy Spirit gave the church greater meaning. This is how Matthew used the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures—Jesus was the embodiment of Israel. 

God promised to punish Samaria (Israel) and Assyria, and that a remnant of Israel would return. Assyria is depicted as an ax in God’s hands to reduce Israel to briers and thorns (9:19), but in using the ax, it would break and be reduced to briers and thorns (10:17; cf. 10:34). Deforestation of Israel appears in 9:8–10:4, and out of this deforestation is a rod from the stem of Jesse (11:1). It’s very easy to read this chapter as messianic because so much applies. After Judah successfully defended herself, a new age of government and peace is expected. The predatory and preying animals dwelling together in harmony is a way of communicating peace among nations, given the language used about them (cf. 5:29; 9:12, 20–21; 10:14), and through Christ, the nations have ceased warring in that people have become Christians and identify as such rather than as the nations from which they hail. It’s easy to see Jesus in this passage (cf. 6:13) and I’m willing to accept this passage as a future hope, albeit one that’s distant.  

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