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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.

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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. 

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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).

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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. 

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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).  

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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). 

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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.    

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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.   

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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.  

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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). 

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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. 

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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].

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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(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. 

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(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.

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Two Miraculous Conceptions

1:5–25

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.

1:26–38

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).

1:39–45

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. 

1:46–55

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.”

1:57–66

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.

1:67–79

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.

1:80

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.

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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). 

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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.

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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).

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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.

Shalom

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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).  

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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). 

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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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The Circumstances of Isaiah’s Ministry

We’ve all seen shows that aren’t in chronological order. My wife and I have gotten into “Better Call Saul.” Sometimes, the beginning of each episode shows what happens after the main premise of the show. At other times, the beginning is a flashback to before the main premise. Isaiah is kind of like that. The prophet’s ministry begins in Isaiah 6, but the first five chapters set the stage by laying out the circumstances that precipitated his ministry. The fact is, these first five chapters should not be read as chronological, because they aren’t. Scholars don’t agree about the structure, though many theories exist. For our purposes, we’ll treat these chapters as introductory despite how disjointed they seem. 

The structure of the early chapters is one of the puzzles of the book, but may be laid out as follows: 

  • Isaiah 1: wickedness of Judah and Jerusalem.
  • Isaiah 2:1–4: the hope of a renewed Jerusalem. 
  • Isaiah 2:5–4:1: judgment on the oppressors. 
  • Isaiah 4:2–6: the renewal of Zion. 
  • Isaiah 5: God’s disappointing people. 

Starting out, we get a glimpse of not only Jerusalem’s future, but it’s spoken of as if it’s in the past. Notice the language of the first chapter: “Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire … Zion is left as a … besieged city” (1:7–8). Leading up to this is the point—Judah and Jerusalem have rebelled (1:2). They are referred to as “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah” (1:10; cf. 3:9). Whether or not Isaiah wrote some portions with hindsight (cf. 5:13) is debatable. Some have suggested that it was written in hindsight, others that it’s some literary device common at the time. Because of the disjointed nature of these chapters, it may be better to just appreciate it as is, noting when the tone shifts. 

The sins of Judah and Jerusalem are the key themes, and God’s judgment will come. The righteous will be spared the oncoming trouble despite how distant it was (4:3–4). The wicked would still worship, much to the chagrin of God (1:11–15). God doesn’t always want worship, especially when it doesn’t match our character. What he wants is our whole hearts (1:16–17; 21–23, 27). For this reason, he calls for justice and righteousness. He saw a lack of them in Judah (5:7, 20). 

When we read these terms, especially “justice,” we mustn’t think in terms of modern parlance. Anything and everything is a matter of justice—environmental justice, social justice, gender justice, etc. Justice is justice, and any modifier tells one that it’s more a group’s desire than actual justice. Mišpāṭ (“justice”) refers to government, the exercise of authority, and decision-making. It’s paired with ṣědāqâ (“righteousness”) because when justice is perverted, the right thing isn’t done in relation to other people. Righteousness here must be understood as relational and not as personal holiness—at least not in this context. These two words suggest “the faithful exercise of power in community.”

The powerful of Judah and Jerusalem had a duty to look after those less fortunate, but that wasn’t happening (1:23; 3:13–26). Orphans and widows weren’t being treated fairly (1:17, 23). Foreign ways infiltrated God’s people (2:6), and they trusted more in instruments of warfare than God (2:7). When Israel was suffering under the Egyptian yoke, they cried out to God (Exod. 3:7, 9). Now, in Isaiah’s day, they cry out to God against their countrymen (Is. 5:7). Judah and Jerusalem are Egyptian oppressors now. This is the language used here. 

Yet, a future hope remains (2:2–4). Early Christians understood these verses to refer to the incarnation (“latter days”) and subsequent birth of the church. The Lord’s house was often a metaphor for the church (1 Tim. 3:15), and those who went to the mountain of the Lord in Jerusalem also went from there preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. Acts follows this geographical route—beginning in Jerusalem, then Samaria, and to the ends of the world. Rather than being warring nations, we are brothers and sisters who’ve laid down our arms. As Christians, we are a nation (1 Peter 2:9). The nations of the world still war, but God’s nation does not. The long sought reality was the hope of Israel, and our story as the church is the fulfillment and continuation of God’s love of his people whom he set apart to be lights to the world.  

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Isaiah’s Call

What does it mean to see God? We know that no one has seen God because the gospel tells us this (John 1:18; 6:46). Isaiah didn’t see God so much as his glory (John 12:41), but what he saw in this vision was life changing. Some may wonder why this isn’t the first chapter of the book. After all, the calling of a prophet should precede his message. The greater part of the first five chapters are poetry, setting the conditions that spurred God’s employment of Isaiah. There’s a literary genius to the structure, but we’ll not delve into literary criticism. Not only did Isaiah’s life change, but the makeup of Judah did too.   

There’s a particular irony in Isaiah’s calling. He was given a vision of heaven’s court in the year King Uzziah died (6:1; 740 BCE). The irony is that King Uzziah was banned from the temple—a shadow of a heavenly reality (cf. Heb. 9:11–12, 23)—after he presumptuously entered to burn incense on the altar of incense—something only a priest could do. This specific altar was outside the holy of holies, and as close as one could get to the literal presence of YHWH. Uzziah was subsequently struck with leprosy and lived the rest of his life as a leper, banned from the temple. During his isolation, his son served as coregent, overseeing the affairs of the kingdom (2 Chron. 26:16–21). While the king was prohibited from the temple, Isaiah sees something greater than the temple—he sees God in heaven. This scene expresses the changing of an era. An age of stability has ended, and the ensuing problem of the Assyrian threat began. 

What Isaiah saw was the actual temple—doorposts, smoke, altar, and burning coals. Yet, it’s the heavenly temple and not the one at which he worshipped in Jerusalem. The year of Judah’s king dying, Isaiah sees the king of heaven—seated on a throne, high and lifted up. He’s not in a palace, but a temple (v. 1). The reminder is that YHWH still reigns and is in control no matter who reigns and wars on earth. Isaiah seeing God as reigning, surrounded by hosts, was to reinforce to the prophet and Judah that despite threats on earth, God wars in the heavenly places against those evil forces (cf. Eph. 6:12). 

Isaiah, next, sees seraphim. This is the only place they are mentioned, but elsewhere, the term is used in reference to serpents and their venom (Num. 21:4–9). The conclusion has been made by some that these angels were winged serpents of some sort. The Nehushtan was destroyed during Hezekiah’s reign (2 Kings 18:4) and may have very well occupied space in the temple when Isaiah received his commission. Next is the trisagion chanted by the angels—it is antiphonal and causes the foundations to shake. This reminds me of a passing car whose bass is so loud that your car or windows rattle. Such is the nature of their voices and praise. YHWH is one of the “hosts.” Other passages attest to God being surrounded by multitudes (cf. Deut. 32:8 [LXX]; Job 1:6–11; 2:1–6; Ps. 82; 1 Kings 22:19–23; Ezek. 14:4–5), but this might be better rendered “armies.” Isaiah would have understood it that way, and in the coming struggles with the Assyrians, it would have been significant (Is. 13:4; 24:21; 31:4). 

Imagine for a moment seeing the most august scene ever. There’s the majesty of God, flanked by fiery angels from whose wings you can feel the breeze. They continually chant this chorus with such beauty that it sends chills down your spine. At the same time, their voices are so rich and powerful that the foundations quake. Not only do the words of their chorus strike you, but the performance of them is something you feel pierce your very being. Smoke engulfs the area, and it reminds you of what you’ve heard your ancestors saw in Sinai many centuries ago. The effect is terror. You pause from the awe of taking it in to the realization of where you are and what you’re like, and who you’re before. 

‘Woe is me; I am  lost!” Why does he feel so? The ending of the passage tells us why, but not so much in English as in Hebrew. “The king, the LORD of hosts, my eyes have seen.” It’s vital to note here that the term used of Uzziah is the same used of God—hammelek. The death of the king threatens stability, but God is all the stability that Judah needs. Isaiah appears before God in a state of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. In our present existences, no one can see God and live (Exod. 33:18–20; cf. Gen. 32:30; Judg. 6:22). This was what frightened Isaiah. He assumed the sins of the people as well as his own and believed there was no way to survive this. However, the very God whose holiness can consume the profane (cf. Lev. 10:1–2; 2 Sam. 6:6–7), can also cleanse. In similar temple imagery, one of the seraphim takes burning coal to cleanse the prophet, atoning for his sin. Isaiah need not fear. He is cleansed. He can remain. 

Isaiah’s commission began with seeing God. Now, it turns to hear him. Isaiah readily accepts God’s commission, but the message he is to deliver will fall on deaf ears. The wonders that he’ll work will be seen by blind eyes. The hearts of the people are already turned against God, and Isaiah’s ministry will be unsuccessful in terms of people responding positively to it. When the prophet inquires how long this will last, we see that God has decided to judge Judah. It’s going to last until judgment comes. Why bother? God bothers because he cares. He bothers because he wants them to know that they have heaped up judgment on themselves, not only through Isaiah’s ministry, but even through all those who’ve come before him. Success here isn’t defined by how many people respond to the prophetic call, but how faithful the prophet is to God in delivering the message. Fidelity to God—that’s success. 

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A Prelude to Isaiah

The above image is a painting by James Tissot (c. 1896) titled “Isaiah,” from the Jewish Museum

The prologue to Isaiah in The Wycliffe Bible reads, “Isaiah is worth to be said not only a prophet, but more, a gospel, for he declares so openly … of Christ and of [the] Holy Church, that you guess him not only to ordain and profess a thing to come, but to ordain a story of things passed.” Reading Isaiah as Christians leads us to look for nuggets of Messianic material. Having read the New Testament, Isaiah is quoted at large, with passages being connected to the life of Jesus. I want us to resist the urge to read Isaiah that way primarily. Why? That’s likely not how the original audience read it. They were concerned with their lifetimes and the prevailing circumstances and not something centuries ahead. Nevertheless, in the unseen and distant future, some things would occur, and in the immediate context, we’ll see how they would have understood it and how it became just a part of the larger story of God’s people—even to the time of Christ. 

Isaiah was written during a crisis by a prophet bearing that name—which means “Yah is Salvation.” So anytime you see a name ending with –ah or –el, that’s Hebrew for God’s name. For example, Samuel means “name of El” or “El has heard.” Jeremiah’s name means either “Yah will exalt” or “appointed by Yah.” The first thirty-nine chapters detail the crisis Isaiah faced, spanning four kings, the prophet having access to them (7:3). Isaiah’s ministry was from 740–681 BCE, receiving his prophetic call when Uzziah died (Is. 6:1), 740–739 BCE. His access to the kings and priests (8:1–2) has led to the suggestion that he was aristocratic, royalty, or priestly. 

During his tenure as a prophet, he’d see the tiny kingdom of Judah exist in a world of three superpowers—Egypt to the south, Assyria to the north, and Babylon to the east. In 721 BCE, he’d see the northern kingdom of Israel fall to the Assyrians. Judah sought the military aid of Egypt to protect them from Assyria, but Isaiah would preach that Judah needed to trust in God alone. In 701 BCE, he’d see the Assyrians attempt to besiege Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah. After, Hezekiah invites the Babylonians over to see the wealth of Judah and to provide protection from the Assyrians. Isaiah rebukes Hezekiah for this, saying that Babylon would destroy Judah—something that would occur in 586 BCE. In 681 BCE, he detailed the Assyrian King, Sennacherib’s death (37:38), being put to death himself during Manasseh’s reign by, according to tradition, being sawn in two. 

We all have ideas of what a prophet is, but we need to understand (biblically) what a prophet did. The Hebrew nabi is translated as “prophet” but can also be translated as “spokesman.” The prophet spoke for God, delivering His message. But, as Isaiah 6 will disclose, they also saw visions of heavenly matters to talk to their current events (cf. 1 Kings 22:19–23; Ezek. 1, 10; Dan. 7:9–14). One way to think of a prophet is to think of a holy person who counsels kings, peoples, and priests. Their counsel was often the word of the Lord, but at times, it was based on just natural wisdom from being a holy person of God (cf. 2 Sam. 16:23). Prophets could also have a voice in the heavenly court through prayer (Gen. 20:7, 17; 1 Kings 13:4–6), and Moses was said to have received the law through the mediation of angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2) when he was immersed in the clouds (Ex. 24:1–2, 9–11, 15). 

His message is one of judgment and hope. God’s judgment will purify Jerusalem to make it possible for God to fulfill His promises. The first promise is a Davidic king whose kingdom is forever established (2 Sam. 7:12–16). All kings of Judah were descendants of David, but their kingdoms were only temporary. The Kingdom of God through Jesus would be this specific rule of which the Lord promised on the grand scale, while in the context, it may refer to Hezekiah. The second promise was fidelity to the covenant (Exod. 19:5–6). The third promise was that Israel would be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:2–3). 

I’m going to suggest we read Isaiah the following way: 

  • Isaiah 6 details the prophet’s call and the focus of his message. 
  • Isaiah 1–6 speaks about Old (current) Jerusalem and New (future) Jerusalem. 
  • Isaiah 7–12 addresses King Ahaz. 
  • Isaiah 13–23 tells about the fall of Israel’s neighbors, including Babylon. 
  • Isaiah 24–27 speaks about the lofty city (sinful Jerusalem).
  • Isaiah 28–35 detail the rise and fall of Jerusalem. 
  • Isaiah 36–38 records the rise of King Hezekiah. 
  • Isaiah 39 records the fall of King Hezekiah. 

This is only the first section of the book with its themes. Once we get to the second section, we’ll set a similar structure, and I’ll address the notion of 1 & 2 Isaiah. 

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Eschatology (End Times) Lesson Outlines

Life After Life

  1. What happens when someone dies?
    1. The spirit leaves the body—“for as the body without the spirit is dead” (James 2:26). 
    2. The spirit returns to God—“then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). 
  2. Where does a person go when they die?
    1. Jesus told the thief that they’d be in paradise—“today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus said something similar to the Ephesians—“To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). 
    2. Peter preached that Jesus was in hades—“for you will not leave my soul in hades, nor will you allow your holy one to see corruption” (Acts 2:27).
    3. The rich man and Lazarus went to hades/Abraham’s bosom—“So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in hades…” (Luke 16:22–23a). 
    4. We go to be with the Lord—“For I am hard-pressed between [life and death], having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:23). “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?’” (Rev. 6:9–10). 
    5. Note: paradise, hades, Abraham’s bosom, and heaven are interchangeable. It would appear that they are one-in-the-same in a manner of speaking. These passages suggest: 1) when we die, we are with Jesus, and since He’s in heaven at God’s right hand, when we join Him, we join Him where He is. 2) When God returns, He’ll bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus (dead Christians). 3) The souls of the martyrs are beneath the altar in heaven with God and Christ. 
  3. What is life after life like?
    1. One of the best passages to understand this is the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31. We learn a few things from this passage:
      1. “And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:23). Notice that the rich man, Abraham, and Lazarus all retain their identities, recognize one another, and the rich man can feel. 
      2. “Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented” (Luke 16:24–25). From these two verses, we notice that they can communicate, the rich man and Lazarus are noted as feeling either pain or comfort, and that what happened in life follows them to hades. 
      3. “And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us’” (Luke 16:26). There is no crossing from one side to the next, so there is no second chance. 
    2. This naturally brings up the question: “If we already know where we’ll be when we die, what’s the point of the judgment?” From what I gather, judgment is when we stand before the Lord to give account. There will be no hiding because heaven and earth flees from the presence of the Lord (Revelation 20:11–13). When Adam and Eve knew they had sinned, they hid from God (Genesis 3:8). There will be no hiding. We will have to stand before God to answer. 
  4. Before judgment comes the resurrection. 
    1. Passages attesting to the resurrection—“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2).” “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:28–29).” “I have hope in God … that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15).
    2. Passages attesting to the redemption of our bodies—“Even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23). “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body” (Philippians 3:20–21). “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).
    3. What will our resurrection bodies be like? Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians 15:35–55:
      1. Corruption vs. Incorruption (v. 42)
      2. Dishonor vs. Glory (v. 43)
      3. Weakness vs. Power (v. 43)
      4. Natural vs. Spiritual (v. 44)
      5. Living vs. Life-giving (v. 45)
      6. Earthly vs. Heavenly (vv. 47–48)
      7. Mortal vs. Immortal (v. 54)
    4. We aren’t meant to live eternally as disembodied spirits—“For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:2–4). 

The Judgment

  1. Thinking about judgment:
    1. When we think of judgment, we’re likely to think of the event with negative connotations in mind. However, judgment is a good thing, as the Scriptures remind us (cf. Psalm 2, 98; Isaiah 11:1–10). God’s judgment will set things right once and for all. Jesus’ death was the single act to reconcile us to God and no longer dread judgment, but we must realize that it won’t be a great day for some people. 
    2. Any sin is a personal affront to God. 
      1. “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God” (Gen. 39:9)?
      2. “If a person sins and commits a trespass against the LORD by lying to his neighbor about what was delivered to him for safekeeping, or about a pledge, or about a robbery, or if he has extorted from his neighbor …” (Lev. 6:2)
      3. “So David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord’” (2 Sam. 12:13).
      4. “Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight—that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge.” (Ps. 51:4). 
  2. Jesus, our Judge:
    1. “For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). 
    2. Our standard will be Christ’s words (John 12:48). 
    3. We will be judged concerning our:
      1. Hearts: “[Christ] will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts [at His coming].” (1 Cor. 4:5)
      2. Words: “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the Day of Judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matt. 12:36–37)
      3. Deeds: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 Cor. 5:10)
  3. Condemnation:
    1. Those who give lip service to God will not be saved: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matt. 7:21–23)
    2. Those who do not regard others will not be saved: “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ “Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
    3. Those who don’t know God and obey the gospel will not be saved: “in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” (2 Thess. 1:8–9). 
  4. What doesn’t save:
    1. Sincerity—Jacob sincerely believed that Joseph was dead for years until they were reunited. 
    2. Zeal—Saul of Tarsus was zealous for God, but he murdered many Christians (Romans 10:1–3). 
    3. Religious acts—Cornelius the centurion was well spoken of and often gave alms and prayed, but Peter was still sent to provide him with the gospel (Acts 10:1–2). 

A New Heaven and Earth

  1. What to remember: 
    1. Thus far we’ve studied what occurs when a person transitions from life on earth to the afterlife. 
      1. A person goes to be with the Lord in a place that’s called by various names: heaven, hades, paradise, and the bosom of Abraham. 
      2. While here, we will know whether or not we’re among the saved or condemned. 
      3. Then comes the resurrection at the second coming of Jesus, followed by the judgment. 
      4. After the judgment, a person either goes to the lake of fire (hell), or they go to be with the Lord. 
    2. We will have resurrection bodies in which we will then join God in the new heaven and earth. 
    3. If you would like a copy of the previous two outlines, feel free to email me at schunter@ymail.com (yes, it’s ymail and not gmail). 
  2. Passages regarding God’s concern for creation:
    1. God saw that everything He made was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). 
    2. Every creature of God is good (1 Timothy 4:4–5). 
    3. Man’s sin subjected creation to futility (Genesis 3:17–19; cf. 5:29).
    4. Disobedience to God by us defiles earth (Isaiah 24:5–6). 
  3. Key passages:
    1. In Romans 8:18–25, creation:
      1. Awaits the revealing of the sons of God (v. 19).
      2. Has been subjected to futility by God for redemption (v. 20).
      3. Will be delivered from corruption (v. 21).
      4. Currently groans within itself (v. 22).
      5. Like us, creation awaits adoption, redemption (v. 23). 
    2. Ephesians 1:7–10.
      1. Note “things” in “heaven and earth.” 
    3. Colossians 1:15–20:
      1. Christ the head of creation (vv. 15–17).
      2. Christ the head of the new creation (vv. 18–20).
      3. The church is the source of the restoration and fulfillment of creation in Christ. 
    4.  2 Peter 3:10–13:
      1. The heavens and elements are destroyed by fire (vv. 10, 12). 
      2. Because such will be destroyed, we ought to be holy and godly people (v. 11), because, in the new heaven/earth, righteousness dwells (v. 13). 
    5. Revelation 20:11–21:27 leads us to believe: 
      1. The new heaven/earth follows judgment (21:1).
      2. Our current heaven/earth is no more (21:1).
      3. God’s dwelling is with humanity once more as in Eden (21:2).
      4. In the new heaven/earth, God wipes away our tears, death is conquered, and sorrow and crying and pain no longer exist because they were a part of the current heaven/earth (21:4). 
      5. Contrasting with the first heaven/earth, God and Christ is the temple of the new heaven/earth whereas earth itself had been (21:22). The first heaven/earth had darkness, but not the new (21:23–25). Unlike the first heaven/earth, no defilement shall enter into the new heaven/earth (21:27). 
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“Predestination”

Whenever you hear the word “predestined,” it’s essential to ask the user to define the term. Some people understand it concerning a person’s life is predetermined by God. This would remove any personal accountability, or it should, from the person’s actions. After all, God predetermined it, so why should we pay for it? I believe Romans 8:29 gives us a clearer picture of predestination than anything. 

For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. (NKJV)

Alternate translations are also helpful. 

Because those he knew in advance he then marked out in advance as being in conformity to the image of his Son, so that he might be firstborn among many brothers. (DBH trans.)

Those foreknew, you see, he also marked out in advance to be shaped according to the model of the image of his son, so that he might be the firstborn of a large family (NTW trans.)

Both David Bentley Hart and N. T. Wright substitute “marked out in advance” for “predestined.” The Greek term proorizo is elsewhere translated as “determined before” (Acts 4:28) and “ordained before” (1 Cor. 2:7). “Marked out in advance” is a suitable translation because it leaves out the element of “destiny.” 

Nevertheless, the order of the passage places God’s foreknowledge at the beginning. This speaks to God’s omniscience at the front of what follows (cf. 1 John 3:20; Heb. 4:13; Is. 49:9–10). Just because God knows ahead of time doesn’t mean that He causes the outcome. He can work within it, but He doesn’t drive it. Some may think it a contradiction that God knows everything ahead of time because then we reflect on passages where God is said to have repented, regretted, or even changed His mind. The former two seem as if He was caught off guard by what occurred and, therefore, regretted it (cf. Gen. 6:6–7; 1 Sam. 15:10–11). I believe the biblical authors meant to convey that God can lament a situation despite knowing about it ahead of time. People whose loved ones are dying do all they can to prepare for the inevitable, but they still cry when the loved one passes away. They knew it was coming, but that fact doesn’t halt the emotion they feel upon its actual happening. When we study passages that say that God changed His mind (Exod. 32:14; 2 Sam. 24:15–16), we are forced to grapple with passages that speak of His unchanging nature (Num. 23:19; Mal. 3:6). Once more, the authors aren’t conveying that God didn’t know something but that He knew at what point He would change. These are not contradicting premises. 

Because God foreknows, He “predestines” it to be. For those of us who are Christians, God knew we’d be amenable to the gospel. Because of this foreknowledge, He determined that we would be conformed to the image of His Son. Our volition hasn’t been violated, and God hasn’t determined ahead of time that we would obey. He just knew it would happen, so He set things in motion to accomplish what He knew would occur (Rom. 8:30). I contend that predestination should be understood through the paradigm of God’s foreknowledge. We omit God’s foreknowledge if we don’t read it this way and take Ephesians 1:5, 11 as the paradigm. Paul wrote that God “chose” (v. 4) us and “purposed” (v. 9, cf. 11), which one could understand as Calvinists do. A synthesis of both passages is vital and should be understood together.

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When the Kingdom of God Encounters Legal Trouble

In the New Testament, we read about something that isn’t present in the Old Testament—the Sanhedrin. This council became the governing body of the Jews after the Babylonians destroyed the monarchy and subsequent exile. Though Israel had a king in the New Testament, he did the bidding of Rome, and it’s clear that Israel didn’t respect his authority given that entanglement. The Sanhedrin grew during the Hasmonean dynasty when they revolted against the Greeks to preserve their religion and identity as God’s people in a period often referred to as Intertestamental. This dynasty of priests recruited legal experts and priests—the former usually being Pharisees and the latter Sadducees. The Sanhedrin consisted of seventy men who were religious and civil authorities. They oversaw the temple and carried out religious duties. They also were a policing force as well as a court of law. Peter and John drew legal trouble for preaching Jesus as Christ (Acts 4:1–3). When they addressed the Sanhedrin, they boldly proclaimed Jesus (Acts 4:8–12). The body attempted to stop them, but they appealed to God as the standard of what they would do (Acts 4:18–21). 

This is how power works. Power corners the market on authority. The authority they had was a responsibility to a nation, and anyone who dared threaten that stability was an enemy. Because they ordered them not to speak in Jesus’ name, they set the stage to punish them if they broke that command. Power issues edicts followed by threats. Why? Because they’re authoritarian and demand to be obeyed. Jesus and the Kingdom’s manner is a threat to how they operate (Acts 4:23–30) because His ways threaten to upset the order by robbing authorities of their power. This was why He was crucified. The Jews offered up Jesus to maintain their standing with the Romans (cf. John 11:49–52), and the Romans crucified Jesus to keep the peace among the Jews. None of what Jewish leaders did stopped the movement Jesus began. However, the attention the Way received was of concern to many (cf. Acts 5:13). Peter and John were arrested a second time and, subsequently, beaten (Acts 5:40). Yet, the Sanhedrin knew that the tide was turning against them (cf. Acts 5:26).  

Notice the players: two former fishermen against highly educated holy men. Luke even points this much out (Acts 4:13). The leaders were astonished because they were “uneducated” and “untrained” (idiotes). The Kingdom of God doesn’t rely on credentials. Nor does it depend on someone having civil power. When a person has that kind of power, it doesn’t necessarily mean serving God. They can, but God doesn’t rely on that. If He did, we wouldn’t see His power but think it’s in our hands. So instead, He worked through them despite not having religious or civil authority. That’s the Kingdom of God. No seeking of esteem or grandeur. Just simple people allowing God to use them.

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A Different Kind of King

We all know that Herod was king of Israel when Jesus was crucified, but what may elude us is that all kings of Israel, from the return from exile to that date, were puppets of the ruling power. The last actual king was Zedekiah: “Then they [the Babylonians] killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, put out the eyes of Zedekiah, bound him with bronze fetters, and took him to Babylon” (2 Kings 25:7). Jews returned to Jerusalem under the authority of the Persians. Then, they were ruled by the Greeks, and in Jesus’ day, the Romans. All of the prophecies about a king that would come to rule Israel were held tightly by the nation, but they expected a mighty warrior who’d raise the armies of God and conquer the occupiers. That wasn’t what God had in mind. 

When we read the gospels, Jesus never ascribed the title “Messiah” to Himself. In the first centuries BCE and CE, many figures bore that title. They were militaristic and often led insurrections only to be quashed by the ruling power (cf. Acts 5:36-37; 21:38). Israel wanted their Messiah to be the type of king that succeeded in this venture. He would liberate Israel from Gentile rule. The nation would be exalted on the world stage once more and returned to its former glory of the days of David. Jesus, however, preferred the title “Son of Man” (Dan. 7:13). He likely avoided the title Messiah due to the way it had been used. 

The Roman Empire, and preceding republic, often granted triumphs. It was a religious and civil ceremony where a successful military leader, likely a general, was publicly celebrated and sanctified. On the day of his triumph, he wore special attire that identified him as a near-divine or near-kingly figure. Often, his face was painted red as an imitation of Rome’s highest god, Jupiter (Zeus). Then, he rode a four-hour chariot through the streets of Rome with his army, captives, and any spoils of war. He’d then conclude by offering sacrifice to Jupiter. Jesus had a triumph of His own wherein He was acknowledged as King (John 12:13; cf. Mark 11:9-10). 

Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the week He was crucified worried the religious leaders. Subsequently, they sought His death (cf. John 18:14). However, it’s necessary to note that Pilate did not constantly live in Jerusalem or thereabouts. He would arrive in the city in a procession akin to a stately or royal procession before the high holiday of the Jews. Therefore, King Jesus’ triumph followed Pontius Pilate’s grandiose arrival. While on trial, Jesus and Pilate had a discussion revolving around Jesus being called a King (John 18:33-37). Jesus sets His kingdom apart from earthly kingdoms. Warfare is the modus operandi for earthly kingdoms, but Jesus’ kingdom isn’t from the world. Not only is His kingdom different in origin, but it’s also different in kind. 

Jesus was crowned, not with gold, but with thorns. He was robed, not with regal majesty, but mockery. He wasn’t bowed to but struck by the hands of Roman soldiers (John 19:2-3). What sort of kingship is Jesus’? It’s self-sacrificial love. It’s service and suffering. It isn’t the seeking of power or the use of military might. As Christians, do we belong to this kingdom, or are we so entrenched in politics that we fail to live the lives of citizens of heaven? 

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Caring Enough When a Christian Needs Restoration

Christians aren’t immune to worldliness and sin. If anything, we may be more susceptible to it because of our profession of faith. Before, we didn’t give as much conscientious thought to trying to be good. We either were or weren’t. It’s easy to be unattached and just live life, but when we confess Jesus and are baptized, we often paint a target on our backs not only to the adversary but to anyone who wishes to troll our imperfections in light of our faith. 

The majority of Scripture doesn’t paint a picture of unblemished saints but people in covenant with God who often stray from the precepts of that covenant. If you’ll notice, a more significant percentage of the New Testament is devoted to correcting misbehavior than is not. Think about it. Can you name a book of Scripture that doesn’t expose the sins of God’s people? Maybe Esther? Yet, throughout the whole of the Bible, we see God’s love for an often straying people. 

Several passages speak about a Christian who has departed the faith or is overtaken by sin and what the rest of us, who are not, should do. 

Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20; cf. 1:15)

Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. (Galatians 6:1; cf. 2:11-13)

But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. (2 Thess. 3:6; cf. vv. 14-15; 2:15)

But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. (1 Cor. 5:11)

Here’s the rub: most of us feel inadequate and unqualified to be the person who points out another person’s sin and draws a line in the sand. The people who feel qualified make us question their motives and character because, after all, only the self-righteous Pharisee is comfortable doing that. Right? Meanwhile, the rest of us struggle with our temptations, and some of us with our private sins. So why should we point out another person’s sins?

There’s a difference between being a struggling sinner and an embracing sinner. We who struggle with our sins may feel remorse. We often also pray for forgiveness and try to do better. Whether or not we succeed is another matter, but it is a struggle. For others, they don’t struggle with sin. They simply embrace it and make it a part of who they are. I believe this is the difference between the Christian who has strayed and the one who has not. We don’t have to draw a line in the sand because God has done that for us. However, one might wonder when to take action if that line is somewhat obscure.

For example, what does it mean to “wander from the truth,” be “overtaken in any trespass,” or to walk “disorderly?” Furthermore, the sins Paul mentioned to the Corinthians are generic. We can define them however we’d like, either broadly or narrowly. I’ve seen brethren use it in ways that I’m not sure the Holy Spirit intended. “Wander from the truth” means different things to different people, but what did James mean? Walking disorderly is the same, so I have many questions about this process. I believe we should care for our brethren, the good and the bad. We should encourage them all, but those who have wandered and been overtaken should be loved back to God. 

This specific query is focused on knowing when to take restorative actions. If it’s something that alienates a person from God, then we should act. On the other hand, if it’s a matter of personal scruples (Rom. 14; 15:1), we should learn to bear with those and not make them points of faith, which many in the churches of Christ tend to do, sadly. Unfortunately, some people make things a matter of faith that are scruples.  

How do we proceed from here? I believe, first, that we should heed the warning that Jesus gives (Matt. 7:1-5). Next, we deal with ourselves as a starting point, and then we determine the sort of judgment we’re using. Is it of God or man? Is it Scripture-based or tradition-based? Is a soul in peril, or do they just have a different point of view from me? Finally, we should carry out this task according to Paul’s instructions: “Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:15). 

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Early Christian Views on the Life of Unborn Children

For Christians today, the conclusion is forgone that life is precious. Regarding most pro-life movements is the emphasis on the lives of the unborn. The struggle to obliterate the barbaric custom of aborting the unborn is as much a reality now as it was in the first century to the earliest Christians. Nevertheless, the battle wages on and Christians continue to advocate that unborn lives be regarded as worthy of the same rights and privileges as those already born.

Political rhetoric attempts to sway the conversation to the side of choice. Attempting to be sympathetic to those who make the decision to abort a life, many hold that the decision is itself agonizing and that women must be in control of their bodies and decisions about their “health.”[1] While the rhetoric often frames the conversation and vilifies those of us who are pro-life, it must be stated that this author is as pro-life for the unborn as he is for the living. I would want to appeal to those who contemplate such a decision to end a life to not do so on the grounds of our religion and the esteem that God our Father has for life.

A Theology for Life

When God created humanity, He created them in His own image (Genesis 1:26–27). Having been made in God’s image, anyone who took life was to lose their own for the reason that they destroyed the image of God: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). In the ancient East, appearing in God’s image implied a “representation of identity relating to the office/role and the value connected to the image …  The image of god did the god’s work on the earth. The biblical view is similar as people are in the image of God, embodying his qualities and doing his work.”[2] Because each human bears God’s image, this is the source of human worth and personhood.

The language used of those unborn gives us a greater understanding of God’s esteem for those in the womb. These pre-born image bearers of our Father have as much worth and personhood as those outside the womb.

For You formed my inward parts;

You covered me in my mother’s womb.

I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Marvelous are Your works,

And that my soul knows very well.

My frame was not hidden from You,

When I was made in secret,

And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.

And in Your book they all were written,

The days fashioned for me,

When as yet there were none of them.

Psalm 139:13-16

This particular Psalm gives us an idea of the great care with which God acts during the gestation period of the unborn. While science gives us a technical explanation, the Psalm enlightens us with a poetical explanation of God’s workings. Therefore, we read in another Psalm that “the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3). It was the fruit of Mary’s womb that Elizabeth blessed (Luke 1:42). A child is not a burden, but God’s gift.

God reveals that He knows the unborn even before they form in the womb (Jeremiah 1:4–5). Yet, while in the womb, they are regarded as living beings and the discussion about when life begins is unnecessary (cf. Luke 1:41). In the Mosaic Law, if the unborn were harmed, retribution was necessary (Exodus 21:22–25). We also see this reflected in our own laws when a pregnant woman suffers harm along with her unborn child. The treatment of such matters is as if harm were done to two people, but were the vessel to decide that the unborn were unwanted or a burden, they would need only to “chose” and the treatment of the unborn as a person is neglected for the idol of choice.

Abortion in Greco-Roman Society

Hippocrates (c. 460–375 BC) was a pioneer of medical theory as well as the oath that all physicians swore by upon beginning their practice of medicine, and still do today from my understanding. A part of the Hippocratic Oath states, “I will not give to a woman [an abortifacient].” Abortion was rather common in antiquity, but Greco-Roman society wasn’t entirely careless regarding the unborn. In some cases, abortion appears as wrong as we believe it to be today. For example, in Athens, if a man died while his wife was pregnant and she aborted the pregnancy upon his death, she was charged to have committed a crime against her husband. The legal theory was that her abortion was criminal since the unborn child could have claimed the late father’s estate, so it was more a matter of property rights than a moral statute. Fast-forwarding closer to the advent of Christ, we see that not much had changed in this regard.

Ovid’s work Amores was first published in 16 BC. In this work of poetry, Ovid mentions abortion in the early Roman Empire and the unborn child as a “burden” (Am. 2.13). However, in the next elegy, he refers to the fetus as “tender” and the destruction of it as by a “warlike method.” This particular elegy is against abortion because it robs society of her Caesars and other heroes. Furthermore, were this a common practice, Ovid suggests, there would be no humanity. He asked why women would “thrust and pierce with the instrument and give dire poisons” to unborn children, which explains how abortions were performed then (Am. 2.14). The methods of abortion were sometimes as risky for the mother as they were for the unborn baby and many women died from having attempted to terminate their pregnancy.

The Roman statesman, Cicero mentions a disdain for abortion similar to the Athenian law mentioned above. A mother had been bribed by alternative heirs to terminate her pregnancy, which she did. The mother, in turn, was condemned to death because she cheated the father of his posterity and the Republic of a potential citizen (In Defense of Cluentius 32).

The philosophical school of Stoicism held that life began once a child was born. The breathing of a person outside the womb was the moment life began. This thinking allowed abortion to be acceptable, and Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC–AD 65), a Roman statesman and philosopher, was able to use this belief in the legal system. Seneca wrote that “unnatural progeny” were destroyed, which was likely a reference to an incestuous conception. He also wrote about drowning children that were born abnormal and weak (On Anger 1.15.2–3), but I’ll talk more about infanticide in the next chapter. The Stoic idea that unborn babies were not humans came to influence Roman law and only further justified the practice of abortion.[3]

Not all Stoics, however, consented to abortion being a good thing. Musonius Rufus (c. AD 30?–102) saw abortion as inhuman. He saw its purpose as solely of enhancing the firstborn’s inheritance more than anything, which amounted to greedy motives. The lawgivers, he contended, functioned to discern what was lawful and good for the state, as well as what was bad and detrimental to it. The lawgivers, he recalled, urged the increase of the homes as something fortunate. So fortunate was the increase of the homes “that they forbade women to suffer abortions and imposed a penalty upon those who disobeyed” (Discourse 15). His discourse on this matter is likely a referendum against the common practice of abortions in the first century.[4]

Juvenal wrote that wealthy women would not endure labor, but would dull the pain with drugs or obtain an abortion (Satire 6.593–96). He also wrote how Emperor Domitian (c. AD 81–96) impregnated his niece and then gave her abortive drugs. The niece in question, Julia, died in AD 91 as a result of the abortion (Satire 2.20–24). Here we see another example of why abortions were performed (incest). Wealthy people may not have just wanted to deal with it, so they selfishly terminated the pregnancy. However, there was another reason for terminating a pregnancy. Slave women might terminate a pregnancy to avoid bring up a child in slavery.[5] The slave women would have had to have done this in secrecy because a slave’s child was the property of her master and not her own.   

In the second century, the Greek gynecologist, obstetrician, and pediatrician, Soranus of Ephesus, wrote his work Gynecology which explains how medical knowledge at the time treated various related matters. In this work, he distinguished between an involuntary abortion—what we’d call “miscarriage”—and the willful termination of pregnancy. He also distinguished between a contraceptive and abortive. The former was to prevent conception from taking place while the latter was intended to expel the unborn from the woman’s body (Gyn. 1.59–60).

In discussing when an abortive was given, he noted that some would not give an abortive if a woman wanted to terminate the pregnancy due to adultery or because she wanted to preserve her youthful beauty—again, two reasons why abortions took place then. An abortive would be given if it were discovered that the woman’s body, according to the science then, were determined to be unable of birthing a child and thus risk the mother’s wellbeing. However, Soranus preferred contraceptives to an abortive as a preventative risk, because “it is safer to prevent conception from taking place than to destroy the fetus” (Gyn. 1.60). He then went on to list various concoctions that could be used as a contraceptive or abortifacient, but if used to terminate a pregnancy, serious side effects followed that posed significant risks (Gyn. 1.61–63). Yet, this didn’t prevent him from explicitly naming how one might terminate a pregnancy (Gyn. 1.64–65).

While more citations could be supplied to the ends of showing how common abortion was, we also noted a couple of pagans who were against it, but not for the same moral reasons early Christians stood opposed to the practice. Additionally, there were others who opposed abortion in antiquity, but Christians gave a clearer understanding of why it was wrong that distinguished them from others. It’s now to this focus that we turn.

Early Christians as Pro-Life

What we must admit is that there are no clearly stated prohibitions against abortion in the New Testament. However, early Christianity borrowed their moral understanding of various issues from Judaism, so we, first, look the Jewish historian, Josephus (c. AD 37–100). He wrote about the Jewish prohibition against abortion on the basis that it was a matter of Jewish law.

The law, moreover enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind: if anyone, therefore, proceeds to such fornication or murder, he cannot be clean.

(Against Apion 2.202)

The Ten Commandments were used by early Christians just as they were by Jews—as teachings that pertained to moral living. Notably, the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” was given a greater exposition in Christian thinking. When in the late first, early second century, a document known as Didache was written, attention turned to the sixth commandment and stated, “You shall not murder … you shall not engage in sorcery; you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide” (2.2). This document understood the sixth commandment as extending to the unborn. The reason I included “sorcery” as a part of this understanding is that the Greek term translated “sorcery” is the word from which we get “pharmacy.” Therefore, “sorcery” here likely included taking abortifacients—drugs that induced abortion. Our modern understanding of the sixth commandment was clearly understood as extending to the life of the unborn.

Also in keeping with the Mosaic Law, the paths of life and death (Deuteronomy 27–28) are recast as darkness and light in another early Christian writing.

But the path of darkness is crooked and full of cursing, for it is the path of eternal death and punishment, in which way are the things that destroy the soul …  Here are they who are persecutors of the good, haters of truth, lovers of lies; they who know not the reward of righteousness, who cleave not to what is good nor unto just judgment … murderers of children.

(Barnabas 20.1–2)

Christian writers believed that life began at conception. Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 160–215) inferred from Luke 1:41 when John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb that very belief (Instructor 2.10.96). Athenagoras, in the late-second-century, pointed to Christianity’s rejection of abortion as proof that Christians were moral when he wrote that the Christians “say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion” (Leg. 35).

Later church councils forbade abortion and actually levied punishments against any who murdered their unborn. The Council of Elvira (c. 4th century) reflects such beliefs.

If a woman conceives in adultery and then has an abortion, she may not commune again, even as death approaches, because she has sinned twice. (Canon 63)

A catechumen who conceives in adultery and then suffocates the child may be baptized only when death approaches. (Canon 68)

Even some of the most notable early church theologians supported this stance. Both Augustine (c. AD 354–430) and John Chrysostom (c. AD 347–407) viewed abortion as murder.

What are we to make of this information? Life is precious and worthy of being protected. Moreover, even without the testament of church history, the Scriptures give sufficient enough evidence for us to believe this once one examines the passages that speak about the life of the unborn. However, for those who desire greater proof, early Christian history is without apology in holding that life begins at conception, so the unborn ought not to be aborted. These two beliefs led to another moral issue. The problem that arose as a result of unwanted children led to the abandonment of children throughout the Roman Empire, so what did Christianity do? They practiced pure and undefiled religion and cared for the orphans.


[1] Perhaps the best source that I’ve read about pro-life principles from a philosophical and practical standpoint is by an obstetrician and former politician, Ron Paul, Abortion and Liberty (Lake Jackson, Texas: The Foundation for Rational Economics and Education, 1983). For a complete classical evaluation of abortion, I’d urge a reading of Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1982). 

[2] John H. Walton, ed., Genesis, in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 21.

[3] Cf. Justinian, Digest 35.2.9.1.

[4] Caesar Augustus issued edicts in 18 BC and AD 9 promoting childbearing, but he did not explicitly outlaw abortion (Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, 27). 

[5] Dio Chrysostom (c. AD 40/50–110/120), Discourses 15.8.

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Gregory the Theologian on Celebrating the Birth of Christ

Contrary to the popular claim that Christmas is pagan in origin, early celebrations had little to do with pagan rituals. Instead, they began as a sincere desire to celebrate a part of the life of the Savior—His Incarnation. Disputes existed as to whether or not to count Jesus’ conception or birth as that specific day. Some believed conception was preferable to birth.

Gregory the Theologian, writing in the fourth century, suggested 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. Yes, some of the same things we do today would be defined as heathen by this fourth-century theologian.

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This Native American Heritage Day

My Choctaw grandmother’s maiden name was “Tubby.” I always wondered what kind of Indian name that was, until I researched it. “Tubby” derived from “Tubbee”–which was my great-great-grandfather, Simpson’s surname as spelled out on the Dawes Rolls.

“Tubbee” was the ending of our ancestor’s name, Mushulatubbee. The records of this name were written by white men, and they likely wrote it how it was pronounced. There are variations in the spelling of his name, however, but it goes to show how up until my grandmother’s time, some of our people’s identity was erased. When we think of “tubby” today, we think about a chubby person. Then, we think, “What an odd Indian name.”

A monument to Mushulatubbee in Oklahoma gives his name as originally being “Amosholi T Vbi.” It can be translated based on its compounds: “vbi” means “to kill.” The “t” in the middle joins two words when one ends and the other begins with vowels. The “v” is pronounced as “ah” as in “father.”

So, the maiden name of my grandmother, “Tubby,” is originally pronounced as “tahbee,” meaning “to kill.” The first part of Mushulatubbee’s name, “amosholi,” can be translated as “resolute,” or “determined.” Hence, his name given to him as a war chief when he led raids against the Osage is “Determined to Kill” in English.

From the time of Indian Removal, when indigenous peoples were forced to assimilate, they were taken to boarding schools and their names changed. The Choctaw Academy in Kentucky shows evidence of this. Meashpulah’s name was changed to John Allen; Elahtahbee’s name was changed to Samuel Cornelius; Annutona’s name was changed to C. A. Harris; Okelumbee’s name was changed to Samuel Worcester.

A Choctaw lady just a few years younger than my late grandmother, in the 1950s, was relocated to Henning, TN. Government officials came to her home and told her parents that if they didn’t send her and her siblings to school, then the government would take them. She and her siblings stayed at a white families home through the week to ride the bus to school and they’d go home on weekends. They were forbidden to speak their native language.

Tubbee was the suffix to Choctaw names of the warrior class. Mushulatubbee was a warrior and Chief. His descendants, as with many others, were forced to assimilate. They had no say and choices were made for them regarding certain things.

As a way to honor my ancestors and demonstrate my own indigenousness, I petitioned to have my name amended. I’m now Steven Chad Hunter Oklatubbee. “Okla” means “people,” so I’m from the Tubbee people. Literally, “killer people.” While I’m no killer, I can choose to honor those who couldn’t choose for themselves by making a choice.

From the time I was a child, I was told that because I was more white than Choctaw, my indigenous blood didn’t matter. Yet, my father is obviously not white. Nor was my grandmother. I was nearly convinced that this part of me didn’t matter. When my grandmother died in 2018, I realized that my link with my Choctaw people was severed. I’m taking it upon myself to make sure my children know and are proud.

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Nearing Moab

I want us to keep in mind that we’ve all been given moments of mercy, not what we deserve. So much of what we can say about Israel in Numbers in some way or another could be said about us. We, too, are obstinate, rebellious complainers. Maybe not all the time, but enough of the time that we should deserve what God might give us. Yet, we have mercy. 

Miriam was dead, Aaron had recently died, and Israel was getting closer to the Promised Land. Everything that occurs from the waters of Meribah to the end of Numbers does so in one year, and it’s a busy year. After a thirty-day mourning period for Israel’s first high priest, a brief skirmish broke out when a Canaanite king heard that Israel was in transit to the land. Then, after they were utterly destroyed, Israel returns to her ways of disobedience and striving against God. 

Speaking against God and Moses because of discouragement (Num. 21:4), Israel hits replay on a somewhat regular complaint that they’ve had, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread” (Num. 21:5). God sent seraphim nahasim (fiery serpents) among the people so that many of them died. This may seem mean on God’s part, but He had already said that this generation wouldn’t see the Promised Land. Rather than seeing God as the one misbehaving, we ought to see Israel’s behavior as faithless and blasphemous. Once more, the people go to Moses (you know, the guy they spoke against) and ask that he pray to God. God gives a moment of mercy: a fiery serpent is fashioned out of bronze, and anyone bitten who looked upon it did not die. 

As Israel continues their trek through the wilderness, they send messengers ahead asking for safe passage. When it’s denied, they are once more forced to fight and defeat their enemies. As they enter the plains of Moab, the king of Moab, Balak devises a plan. Because Moab and Midian were petrified at the prospect of Israel entering their territory, Balak sends for Balaam to come and curse the people (Num. 22:6). However, God intervenes (Num. 22:12). Balak sends for him once again, and Balaam replies (Num. 22:18). God instructs Balaam to go with them should they come again, but he is only to speak the words given to him by God and nothing else. 

As Balaam goes the following day, an exciting thing occurs. As he rode his donkey, the angel of the Lord stands in his path, but only the donkey sees it. She turns aside, Balaam strikes her. She crushes his foot against a wall. He strikes her. She laid down, and he hit her. The Lord opened the donkey’s mouth to speak to Balaam, then his eyes were opened, and he saw the angel of the Lord. Perhaps to emphasize to him that he ought to be careful to speak only what God tells him, Balaam gets the point (Num. 22:38). Balaam pronounces several prophecies in favor of Israel. God blesses these disobedient, complaining, obstinate people. We see here a moment of mercy. 

While in Moab, Israelite men consort with Moabite women and begin their idolatry (Num. 25:1-3). God orders the judges of Israel to kill their men who played the harlot. Israel, meanwhile, weeps at the doors of the tent of meeting when one Israelite man takes a Moabite woman to the tent of meeting. Phineas, a priest, so moved with zeal, runs them both through with a spear. Seeing this and knowing Phineas’ heart, God relents from the harm He is visiting upon the guilty. Once more, we see a moment of mercy. 

As the year goes on, another census is ordered, and inheritance laws are given. Then, Moses is instructed to go atop Mount Abarim and view the land Israel is to possess. God reminds Moses of his rebellion and wouldn’t enter the land (Num. 27:12-14). Moses only requests that a worthy successor be chosen to take his place once he’s gathered to his people. God selects Joshua (Num. 27:18-21). This is a moment of mercy because God doesn’t leave Israel without a leader. Offerings are made, and laws are given, then Israel settles east of the Jordan (Num. 32). Next, God gives instructions for the conquest (Num. 33:50-56). Further administrative commands are given, but before Israel takes the land, they’re to be reminded, once more, of the law of Moses. That’s what Deuteronomy is, a second giving of the law. 

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Israel in Paran

Most of us have been on a trip we looked forward to. Leading up to the trip, we packed, planned, and made sure we were prepared. Then comes the time to leave. We set out and go on our way, excited and ready to arrive. However, traffic jams, plane delays, and other things make the actual travel part miserable. We become impatient, tempers flare, and before you know it, if we’re not careful, the trip could be ruined by a conflict due to these circumstances. 

Israel is en route to Paran, and as they neared the area, the people began to complain (Num. 11). After God gave a solution, one might think that all is well. Now, however, there’s discord among the leadership. The High Priest, Aaron, and Moses’ sister, Miriam (a prophetess), begin to oppose Moses’ leadership. Jealousy seeped in among them, and they, first, took issue that Moses was married to an Ethiopian woman. Talk about nitpicking. Of course, when you consider the law and its command not to marry among other nations, we might see why they became frustrated. Nevertheless, rather than staying on point with finding issues in his choice of spouses, they turn to Moses’ leadership (Num. 12:1-2). 

Even more interesting is Numbers 12:3, which has led to the (wise) suggestion that the book was redacted. Otherwise, could we believe that Moses would have said that about himself? No matter, because this was said, God heard it and dealt with the issue, explaining Moses’s special relationship with Him. This resulted in a plague upon Miriam that Moses interceded on her behalf (Num. 12:6-16). 


The challenge to God’s authority figure, Moses, doesn’t end here. As Israel encamps in Paran, spies are sent to scope out Canaan. This isn’t a quick day trip. They spend forty days spying out the land (Num. 13:25). The land itself looked appealing, but it was populated with solid people. Caleb quieted the people and urged them to possess it, but those who went with him deterred the nation (Num. 13:30-33). Caleb and Joshua were the only ones of the spies to demonstrate faith in God’s ability (Num. 14:6-10). 

God, as you might imagine, is tired of Israel’s demeanor. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time they’ve misbehaved either (Num. 14:22), so their punishment is that they will not enter the Promised Land (Num. 14:23). Those who led a rebellion of unfaithfulness suggested returning to Egypt, and God judged them except for Caleb and Joshua because they had faith. After the news that they’d not enter the Promised Land, the people didn’t take this consequence well but did an about-face and mounted an assault to enter the land, but were repelled. 

The rebellion doesn’t stop there. Korah, a Levite, challenges Aaron and Moses’ authority. Everything up to this point occurred in one year, but Korah’s rebellion occurred nineteen years later. This also didn’t end well (Num. 16), so God demonstrated His chosen by causing Aaron’s staff to bud before the entire nation (Num. 17). Afterward, instructions are given regarding the Levites (Num. 18-19). Another nineteen years later, Israel sets out to continue their journey and arrive at Kadesh. Moses’ sister dies and is buried in Kadesh. 

Yet, another issue arises, demanding attention. There’s no water, and, as you might imagine, the Israelites become melodramatic once more, wishing they would die—these people. Moses has a horrible lapse in judgment too. God told Moses to take Aaron’s rod, speak to the rock, and it would give water, but Moses, in anger at the congregation, strikes the rock twice. God isn’t thrilled about this. As a result, Moses is accused of not hallowing the Lord and will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land (Num. 20:10-12).

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Reading Numbers

Oxford University is believed to be the world’s second-oldest university. Some records show classes as early as 1096, but the establishment of the university isn’t altogether clear. Around the year 1230, they began appointing a vice-chancellor to run the school. In 2015, after 785 years, the first woman was nominated to be vice-chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson. Given the rise in women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century, and many laws granting women equality in the ’60s and ’70s, you might have thought that this day would have arrived sooner. Yet, as we always say, “better late than never.” Some might say, “That took longer than it should have.” 

When you think about the Book of Numbers, think, “That took longer than it should have.” From Exodus 19 all the way through Numbers 10, Israel is in Sinai. From Sinai to the Promised Land is a two-week journey, but Israel will wander in the wilderness for forty years. It takes longer than it should. The name of this book in Hebrews is not “Numbers,” but bamidbar, which translates to, “In the wilderness.” The book can be broken up into three sections: chapters 1-10 are in Sinai; chapters 13-19 are in Paran; chapters 22-36 are in Moab. The chapters not mentioned in this list are the chapters of their traveling from place to place. 

Why is it called the Book of Numbers? In the opening of the book, God orders that Israel be numbered. He even tells Moses how to organize the people in the camp. God’s presence is central to the people, His dwelling place being in the tabernacle (Num. 2:17). Surrounding him are the Levites and priests, and surrounding them are the rest of the tribes. God’s presence in the center of the nation is meant to convey that He is central to their existence. Over the tabernacle is a cloud indicative of His presence, and when the cloud moves, they move (Num. 9:15-19). The Levites break down and carry the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant (Num. 1:47-53). The ark leads the way to communicate that God leads Israel, and the tribe of Judah follows immediately behind with the other tribes in tow. 

So why did it take longer than it should have? Because Israel followed God, and God hindered them from the Promised Land. This book is about why, and the why, simply answered, is Israel’s unbelief and sin. 


Chapters 1-10

Notice, first, where we are in time. We are two years removed from the Exodus (Num. 1:1). God has Moses organize and number the entire nation, which we can guess took some time. Then, He orders for the special role of the Levites (Num. 3:5-13). From there onward, the Levites as a whole are numbered, and the various heads of the families of the Levites are given their special roles. The sons of Kohath were responsible for carrying the holy furniture of the tabernacle (Num. 4:1-20). The sons of Gershon were to carry the structure of the tabernacle (Num. 4:21-28). The sons of Merari were to carry, if you will, the nuts and bolts of the tabernacle (Num. 4:29-33). Imagine a package arrives for a new desk, but it’s one you have to build. In one bag are the nuts and bolts, then there are the actual parts of the desk, and, finally, the things you put in and on it. This is sort of the division of the Levites as it regarded the tabernacle. They were charged with maintaining the sacred space. 

God gives instructions regarding lepers, restitution, and unfaithful wives (ch. 5). Then, He gives the outline for the law of the Nazarite, a person who wanted to consecrate themselves to God for a specified period. One specific aspect of this vow, among others, was that a Nazarite’s hair was to remain uncut while keeping the vow (e.g. Samson). Aaron is given the word of the Lord as to how he can bless the children of Israel (Num. 6:22-27). Hereafter, the leaders of Israel present offerings to the Lord and they celebrate their second Passover. Afterward, God ordered two silver trumpets, shofars, made to sound to call Israel to relocate and in battle. Then, they leave Sinai. 

Everything seems to be going well. That is until Israel begins to complain only after three days of travel. These people seem to be more of a settled than moving people. They complain because they miss the land of slavery’s food, and they’re sick of manna (Num. 11:4-6). Even Moses becomes exasperated (Num. 11:11-15). Leadership isn’t always pomp and circumstance. The only time many leaders hear from people is when there are complaints. Be sure that you don’t only go to the elders of ministers when you’re unhappy. I’ll tell you now if that’s all you approach me for, it won’t be long before I actually quit listening to you and you’ll lose any effectiveness you may have. Complaining isn’t a spiritual gift, so don’t use it as one. 

God gave Moses aid in seventy elders on whom He gave His Spirit. One man shouldn’t bear the burden alone. Even seventy among the many of Israel is too little, but it’s better than nothing. Then, he listened to the people and promised to give them meat for one month, to the point that they loathed it. How quickly we go from zeal to dissatisfaction. Only because circumstances change and we aren’t as comfortable as we once were. Sometimes following God and His plan takes us out of our comfort zone and makes us move. Israel wasn’t meant to reside at Sinai, and they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. God was taking them to a wonderful land, a place better than where they were and had been. But, getting there was too hard. Don’t be afraid to put in the work. Don’t allow comfort to paralyze you. If it seems or is known to be God’s plan, trust Him and go.

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Reading Leviticus

When most believers try to read the Bible in a year, they’ll begin with Genesis. By the time they get to Exodus 25, it isn’t as easy because the readings are step-by-step instructions about the tabernacle, its construction and furniture. Then, once you get to Leviticus, the average reader becomes so despondent that some give up the project altogether. However, there’s a difference between reading and understanding. Once Leviticus is understood, it makes sense.

Let’s look at the bigger picture, and we’ll see how Leviticus is actually a book of grace. First, return with me to the Garden of Eden. There, God and humanity had perfect fellowship that was uninterrupted. Until, that is, sin entered the picture. Afterward, God removed humanity from Eden, where His presence dwelt, and, eventually, humanity began to have to sacrifice an animal to atone for their sins. The first mention of an altar appears after the flood, and it was built by Noah. Just so we don’t forget, God offered the first sacrifice. Remember when Adam and Eve knew they were naked? They sewed fig leaves to provide clothing, but a little later on, God made for them garments of animal skins—which suggests that the first sacrifice was made then.

What does Leviticus have to do with Eden, you ask? What God wants more than anything is for humanity to dwell (tabernacle) with Him. He chose Israel as the vessel for this goal, but, first, Israel has to set the stage for all humanity. The tabernacle is the way that God can live among His people, and how His people can dwell before Him. Because God is holy, He cannot let sin, an injustice against heaven’s laws, go unpunished. However, because He is holy, He balances wrath with grace by offering ways that humanity can avoid judgment. Some Protestant readings of Leviticus suggest that the book is a way for Israel to not incur His wrath, and because humans are depraved they deserve God’s wrath and judgment. They might even point to Leviticus 10:1–2 as a proof of that. I read it differently. Leviticus is a book of grace where God offers to Israel how He can remain among them, and how they can dwell before Him in holiness.

Reading Leviticus reveals clusters of chapters that focus on various sacrifices and their meanings. The beginning and ending chapters consist of this material. As we move inward, we’re met with laws regardings priests, and further inward we’re shown the purity laws that must be followed. Once we reach the middle of the book, we’re introduced to the Day of Atonement—the one day that the high priest may enter the holiest place behind the veil, in God’s very presence, and make atonement for the entire nation. Encompassing the whole of the book is the theme of holiness.

God calls Israel’s attention to Himself as a recognition of all that is holy. You’ll often read God give instructions and then declare, “I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 11:44; 19:2; 20:26; 21:8). He, then, demands that Israel follow His ordinances and commandments as a show of their commitment to Him and as an exhibition of their own holiness (Lev. 18:4, 30; 22:31–32; 26:46). He always warns Israel against societal conformity. He does not in any way want Israel to do as the Egyptians did, nor as the Canaanites do (Lev. 18:3, 24–28). This is an especial notable concept for American Christians. We will not be judged on how American we are, and our level of patriotism will not be the standard. Our allegiance to Jesus will be. Holiness in Leviticus extends to how God is worshipped (Lev. 10:1–2), sexual relations (Lev. 18:6–22; 20:10–21), and how we regard our neighbors (Lev. 19:16–18; 19:32; 20:9). The second greatest commandment that Jesus gave originated in Leviticus. It isn’t a Christian command so much as one that God gave His people as far back as the covenantal relationship.

For the Christian, Leviticus and the theme of holiness is important. We have been recreated in holiness, so we are no longer slaves to sin but righteousness (Rom. 6:15–19). God has called us to holiness (1 Thess. 4:7), and without holiness we shall not see God (Heb. 12:14). This is but one concept that is as important to us as Christians as any, and it originates in Leviticus.

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Paradise Restored in the Tabernacle

Moses, having received the pattern for the tabernacle, now puts blueprints into action. After calling for a free-will contribution from Israel, the assembly brought so much that they had to command them to stop (Exod. 36:3-7). God’s people, knowing of a need to glorify and honor Him, always steps up and meets that need. The wonderful part about this is that it is as true today as it was then. The construction ensues and the reader is reminded time and again that everything is done as Moses commanded, or as God commanded Moses (Exod. 38:22; 39:1, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31-32, 43; 40:16). Finally, after made and consecrated, God inhabits His tabernacle (Exod. 40:33-38). His presence dwells above the tabernacle, by day as a cloud and, by night, as a pillar of fire. Israel now knows that they dwell among God, and He among them, priests mediating between the two.

The specifics of tabernacle construction mirror that of paradise, the Garden of Eden. Upon completion of the earth as with the tabernacle, the same Hebrew term is employed for their completion (Gen. 2:1; Exod. 39:32; 40;33). After the completion of each, a blessing is pronounced (Gen. 2:3; Exod. 39:42-43). Finally, the comparison is that God now dwells among Israel just as He did among Adam and Eve. This cohesive theme throughout all of Scripture shows that if we understand the beginning, we’ll understand the end, the same being shown throughout Scripture. In a manner of speaking, paradise is restored but imperfectly. The original paradise, the word the Greek Septuagint uses for the garden of Eden, was heaven on earth and sinless. The new paradise demands sacrifices for atonement. Nevertheless, we see God’s aim to be with His people and among them.

Christians in churches of Christ, no thanks in part to Alexander Campbell’s Sermon on the Law, often relegate the Old Testament to something of a bygone era and not really significant to the church today. This is not a sentiment that I share, because Scripture has proven this to be untrue. Exodus, however, provides us with several items of significance for the church.

  • Jesus is the new lawgiver. Just as Moses ascended Sinai to receive the law to give to Israel, so God incarnate from the Mount gives the law to His followers.
  • The Lord’s Supper was born out of the Passover meal.
  • Jesus’ death is modeled as a sacrificial lamb.
  • Paul compares baptism to the Israelites walked between the waters of the Sea of Reeds as they exited slavery into liberty.
  • Hebrews depicts Christian living on earth as sojourning in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.

Insignificant? Absolutely not.

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The Divine Pattern

Decades ago, Goebel Music wrote a voluminous book, Behold the Pattern. While much of the information is helpful, he may have been capable of putting things more succinctly. Nevertheless, those of us in churches of Christ are patternists when it comes to the life of the church. As God gave the divine pattern of the tabernacle to Moses atop Mount Sinai, so Jesus endowed the apostles with the Holy Spirit to reveal to us a pattern for being Christians. Furthermore, that pattern extends to the organization and worship of the church.

The earliest account of worship appears in 1 Corinthians 11-16. While it isn’t written as a word-for-word instruction manual on how to worship, we can deduce enough from this passage to know how the early Christians worshipped and what not to do. Some disagree over whether the beginning of chapter 11 or the demarcation of 11:17-18 is the point at which Paul addresses the assembly. If we hold to the latter, which I may be more prone to, the focal point of worship begins with the Lord’s Supper. A reading through chapters 12-14 discloses that prayer and song was a part of that gathering. Prophecy or revelations of knowledge may have been akin to our modern sermon. In chapter 15, Paul invokes the Scriptures regarding Jesus’ death and arise from the grave, which may suggest that Scripture reading had a place in the worship (cf. 1 Tim. 4:13). When we arrive at 16:1-2, a contribution was given weekly, and if we take the weekly to apply to everything preceding the offering, then the Lord’s Supper, singing, praying, preaching, Scripture reading, and offering were what the early Christians did in worship. Not only should we do what they did, but we should embody the heart of Jesus too. It isn’t enough to simply do it absent the mind and heart of Christ.

As it relates to the organization of the church, 1 Timothy 3 discloses that elders and deacons were overseers and servants of the church. Timothy himself was referred to as a deacon, but the term is translated in English as “minister” (1 Tim. 4:6), which may denote a separate function. Elder, bishop, overseer, and pastor were one-in-the-same and not different offices (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Today, however, many fellowships follow more the Ignatian separation of pastor, elders, and deacons, or some version thereof.

Eden, Sinai, Tabernacle, and Temple

In trying to show a cohesive unit throughout Scripture, I’ve often referred back to creation and Eden. I’d like to show you nine ways that Eden was a Temple and that the later Mount Sinai and tabernacle/temple were built upon Eden.

  1. The Temple was where God’s presence dwelt, and He made Himself known to Israel. His walking with Adam and Eve is prototypical of this reality (Gen. 3:8).
  2. When placed in the Garden, Adam is to “cultivate” and “keep” it (Gen. 2:15), which were words used elsewhere regarding priestly service in maintaining sacred space (Num. 3:7–8; 8:25–26).
  3. The tree of life was the model for the lampstand in the Temple.
  4. The Temple was made with wood carvings of landscapes reminiscent of Eden (e.g., pomegranates, palm trees).
  5. The entrance to the Temple was to the east (Ezek. 40:2, 6), as was the entrance to the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24).
  6. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the Ark of the Covenant were touched on pain of death—both being the source of wisdom (e.g., Ten Commandments).
  7. A river flowed from Eden (Gen. 2:10) and the Temple (Ezek. 47:1–2).
  8. There’s a tripartite structure to the Temple (outer court, Holy Place, and Holy of Holies), the mountain at Sinai (base, middle, and summit) and Eden (Eden as Holy of Holies, the Garden as the Holy Place, and the outer world as the outer court).
  9. Eden, Sinai, and the Temple are all associated with a mountain (cf. Ezek. 28:13–14).

I would hope it would be safe to say that a unified cohesion exists concerning the significant theme of Scripture. Now, however, we turn to the pattern God gave Moses. God, in these instructions, spoke to Moses six times, the seventh being the Sabbath law. When God created the heavens and earth, he spoke six times and on the seventh rested. The tabernacle is, therefore, a microcosm, a new creation.

Patternistic Religion

Scripture marks three times that God reminds Moses to build the tabernacle according to the pattern he received. The first time entails the Ark of the Covenant pattern and the lampstand (Exod. 25:40). The second time appears after constructing the sanctuary, something into which the former two shall be housed (Exod. 26: 30). The final admonition appears after instructions on the veil between the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place (Exod. 27:8). As Christians, we are collectively (1 Cor. 3:16) and individually (1 Cor. 6:19) the holy of holies because God’s Spirit dwells in us.

The Ark of the Covenant has over it the mercy seat where two cherubim face one another to guard it, just as they were placed to protect the entrance to Eden. Moses received the law from the summit of Sinai. Since they were deposited in the Ark, the mercy seat now functions as the summit of Sinai, thus making this place a portable Sinai. The mercy seat is vital because the High Priest could only enter the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:1–3, 29–34). He was to sprinkle the blood of a bull and goat on the mercy seat to remove the people’s uncleanness, transgressions, and sins (Lev. 16:14–16).

Later, the author of Hebrews informs us that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins because these annual sacrifices would have only been one-time and not yearly (Heb. 10:1–4). What are we to do? Interestingly enough, when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the fourth century BCE, a word was used for “mercy seat” that appears as another word in the New Testament. Rather than translating the word as “mercy seat” in the New Testament, it’s translated as “propitiation” (Rom. 3:23–25). On that mercy seat, the footstool of God, the summit of Sinai, was the conduit between humanity and God. Jesus Himself is that mercy seat—the place where sacrifice and atonement meet. The place where the righteousness of God is revealed and the wrath of God abated.

If we want to understand the end, we must, first, understand the beginning. Jesus promises that those who overcome shall eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God (Rev. 2:7). Interestingly enough, when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the word that replaced “garden” in Genesis is the word paradise. The original audience of Revelation would have understood that the tree of life was in Eden, the holy of holies. They would have understood Paradise as the garden. When Jesus promised the overcomers that they would eat of the tree of life in paradise, they envisioned Eden. The end takes them back to the beginning, the very initial design that God had in mind.

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Reading Biases Back Into Scripture: COVID-19 and End-Times Propaganda

Last Thursday, I returned to the office after lunch and was handed a sheet of paper delivered for me. The deliverer wasn’t someone we knew and not a member of Glendale. On the paper was this person’s beliefs about the COVID-19 vaccine. They had broken down the word “Corona.” They attributed, falsely, I might add, numerology to each letter that resulted in the number 666. They, then, wrote what was in the vaccine, which, to them, was code for Lucifer and other such demonic associations. This person, then, cited 1 Corinthians 3:16; Revelation 13:16–17; Matthew 4:10 for their justification. If I had the opportunity, I would speak with them. Since I wasn’t here and they were unknown to the office staff, I can’t even contact them to discuss this. I wouldn’t attribute evil motives to the person. I believe that they genuinely believe this. However, as Jesus once said, “They do err not knowing the Scriptures.”

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter, he addressed divisions in the church and answered some questions. He urged unity in 1 Corinthians 3:16 to the church as a whole because they were the temple of God. This passage has nothing to do with what a person puts in their body. People, even in the churches of Christ, have often invoked 1 Corinthians 6:19 for that purpose. Even then, that passage has absolutely nothing to do with what a person puts in their body. Instead, it has to do with what a person does with their body—serve God holiness or engage in sexual immorality. Paul explicitly notes that sin is done “outside” the body and that sexual immorality is a sin “against” the body (1 Corinthians 6:18). He doesn’t, for one second, speak about what a person puts in their body. Jesus addressed that in Matthew 15:10–20.

The passage where John the Revelator wrote about 666 and the Mark of the Beast appears in Revelation 13:16–18. Since mandatory vaccination and passports are a topic of discussion, this person equated their belief in the conclusion of the numerology. If a person doesn’t have a passport, they cannot transact business with the Mark of the Beast from this passage. You may or may not remember that I preached through the entire book of Revelation a couple of years ago. I specifically addressed the Mark of the Beast, and if you click on the blue highlighted part, you’ll be redirected to those notes.

I am not a medical doctor or scientist, so I can’t speak authoritatively on the vaccine. I know many of you have taken it, and many have not. I don’t think we should judge one another either way for having received it or not. Let’s not let the Enemy divide us over this. If you’ve not taken it and are on the fence, I would encourage you to speak with your primary care physician about it. Don’t take a politician’s guilt-tripping, a bureaucratic medical doctor’s urging, or even a health department’s advice to take it. Your primary care physician knows your history and current state of health, and they can give you the absolute best advice. This is what I did months ago, and my decision was based on that advice, and not on those who do not know me or the state of my health.

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Meeting God at Sinai

Three months have passed since Israel left Egypt. Since they left bondage. Now, the sign that God promised to Moses is coming to fruition (Exod. 3:12). On this mountain, they were to “serve” God. This is a cognate of “tend” (ovda) in Genesis 2:15, which denotes priestly service (cf. Num. 3:7–10). This is fitting because God tells Israel that He intends for them to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6). God’s royal decree to Adam and Eve was to “subdue [the earth]; have dominion” over every living thing (Gen. 1:28). God gave the first humans both a royal and priestly service. The fall interrupted their ability to carry it out. He has now passed that service to Israel. Priests mediate humans to the divine and the divine to humans. As a “holy nation,” if they keep God’s commands, they would mediate between God and the nations, a promise God had made to Abraham (Gen. 12:3). As far as a timeline of events goes, beginning in Exodus 19—through Leviticus—and ending in Numbers 10 is one year of Israel camping at Mt. Sinai.[1]

Meeting God

Thus far, Moses and God have spoken with one another. Moses goes and informs the people of what God has said, and he returns to God to relay their affirmation of these very things. Then, God is preparing to appear in the presence of the Israelites, but before they do so, they are to prepare (Exod. 19:10–13). This would occur over three days. We have to imagine that they’ve been traveling for a few months and probably haven’t bathed or changed clothes. Perhaps they stunk and needed to do laundry. Still, the cleanness they were to appear as was appropriate for appearing before God. Boundaries are established around the mountain to show the demarcation between the sacred and the common. Wherever God is, there is holiness. Were sinful commoners to approach such holiness, the result would be catastrophic. When the third day came, Israel saw a frightful sight (Exod. 19:16–19). God once more orders Moses to remind Israel to respect the boundaries set.

The following few chapters demonstrate God’s ordering of society. Various commands, general and specific, are given—the most famous of which is the Ten Commandments. The first three have to do with respecting God, and the last seven have to do with one’s neighbor. Thus we see the first and greatest command reflected here and the second, which is like unto the first. After that, specificity reigns until chapter 24 and is referred to as the Book of the Covenant. Afterward, Moses, his brother and nephews, and seventy elders go up the mountain. Moses recounted all of God’s words, and the people assent to His law.

Early in the morning, Moses built an altar at the base of the mountain. He set up twelve columns for the twelve tribes of Israel. Offerings and sacrifices were made, the blood was taken and used to cleanse the altar and the people. Then, he and those bid to come up the mountain do so. They see God and eat and drink. Sacrifice was always followed by a communal meal of the worshippers. Notice the similarities of these events to Christianity: the Word of God is given, recorded, read, and assented to by God’s people. The sacrifice of Jesus, His body and blood, are what we partake of every Lord’s Day as a community of God’s people. We, too, eat and drink, and we do so in God’s presence. The continuity is astounding.

The preacher of Hebrews informs us of our New Covenant in light of this first covenant (Heb. 9:18–20). These sacrifices, however, were ineffective at the atonement of humanity to God (Heb. 10:1–4). Those can never take away sins like the blood of Christ (Heb. 10:11–14). God set up this system to prepare us for that which was to come. We eat from an altar far superior to the one given to Moses and Israel (Heb. 13:10). Under the Old Testament, priests were given portions of most sacrifices, but laypeople couldn’t partake. As Christians, we all partake.


[1] Enns, Exodus for Normal People, 22–23.

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YHWH, God of Slaves and Destroyer of Egypt gods

A Shepherd Meets God in the Wilderness

The story begins with Moses tending his father-in-law’s flock, but he went by a different name when we last read about his father-in-law. Here in the opening of chapter 3, he’s Jethro (as well as 18:1), but he was Reuel (2:18). As if things aren’t confusing enough, he’s called Hobab in Numbers 10:29 and Judges 4:11. Now, because our translators don’t want us to be too confused, they refer to him as Jethro in Exodus 4:18, but in Hebrew, his name is Jeter. Oy vey! Since we’re on multiple names, Moses came to Horeb, also referred to as Sinai.

Moses comes upon a burning bush (seneh) in Sinai (sinay). Nice pun, no? Anyway, it’s burning but not consumed. God has previously disclosed Himself as fire (Gen. 15:13–17). As he turns to inspect, God calls out to Moses and stops him. He’s on holy ground. This is unlike anything else, so it can’t be regarded carelessly. We later read that God dwells on seneh (Deut. 33:16). Still, when He later instructs Moses on the tabernacle, it becomes a portable Sinai. Nevertheless, God knows the suffering of His people. He has heard their cry (Exod. 3:7, 9)—the same word used by Sodom and Gomorrah’s inhabitants (Gen. 18:21; 19:13). God wants Moses to do this thing, and the sign will be that they will worship Him at the very mountain where Moses stands (Exod. 3:12). God will “stretch out” His hand (shalahti), and it will cause Pharaoh to “let go” (yeshalach) in Exodus 3:20.

Moses objects several times (Exod. 3:11, 13; 4:1, 10), but God answers him at every turn, even giving him signs. The signs that God gives Moses in Exodus 4:1–9 represent a couple of things. The snake may have been the cobra that Pharaoh typically wore around their headdress. Pharaoh’s power was absolute. He was as good as a god in ancient Egypt, but, later, when his magicians duplicate this miracle, and Aaron’s rod swallows up theirs, it’s a foretaste of the downfall of Pharaoh (Exod. 7:8–12). The second miracle of Moses’ hand turning to leprosy and back to normal foretastes the plagues that are to come. Moses’ final objection is that he just doesn’t want to do it (Exod. 4:13). God becomes angry but offers Aaron as the mouthpiece.

Moses has requested permission from his father-in-law to go to Egypt and see his countrymen. Jethro bid him “Godspeed,” and Moses left. In the meantime, God spoke to Moses’ elder brother, Aaron, and asked him to meet Moses in the wilderness. After they met and talked, they go to the elders of Israel and tell them all that God has told Moses. They bow their heads in trusting what has been said to them, so the showdown begins. Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and say that Yahweh has ordered that they go on the three-day journey to worship Him. Still, Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge Israel’s God. He thinks they have too much time on their hands to contemplate such a thing, so he multiplies their labors by requiring the same daily quota. Instead of the materials being brought to them as previously, they’re to procure them independently. It’s too hard, so they gripe at Moses, and Moses gripes to God. Yahweh reassures Moses about what He’s going to do, and Moses relays the message. Because Israel’s oppression is worse than before, they refuse to listen to Moses. For the first time in the story, God speaks to Moses and Aaron (Exod. 6:13). This is a sign of things to come—the high priesthood—because the genealogy that follows reveals that they are Levites, priests.

Plaguing Egypt

The plagues would be an undoing of God’s order, just as He allowed chaos to reign in the deluge, so He’d let chaos temporarily reign in the plagues. Each of God’s creative acts finds its negative counterpart in the plagues. Interestingly, each domain that God plagued also corresponds to the realm of a reigning Egyptian god or gods. We read ten times, “And God said,” in creation (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28–29). We also see a unique plague corresponding to most creative acts.

This particular episode has mixed in it the creation of observance, a memorial that would last through generations.            

  • Plague 1: “bodies” or “gatherings” of water (Exod. 7:19) correspond to when God created the seas in Gen. 1:10. Hapi was the god of the Nile, and it turning to blood symbolizes the god’s slaying as well as payback for Egypt’s slaying of Israelites children.
  • Plagues 2–4: This triad of plagues (frogs, lice, and flies) are associated with the three elements of the earth—water (Gen. 1:20), land (Gen. 1:24), and air (Gen. 1:22). This is all contra Genesis 1:28. The goddess Heket had the head of a frog and controlled fertility. Geb was over the dust of the earth, and Kephri was the god of creation and had the head of a fly.
  • Plague 5: Pestilence among livestock reverses Genesis 2:18–20. There was a marked distinction between Israel and Egypt (Exod. 9:6–7; cf. 8:22). Hathor was a goddess depicted with the head of a cow.
  • Plague 6: This plague corresponds to the creation of humanity in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27). They weren’t made sickly but whole. God’s affliction of the flesh reminds the people that they aren’t superior to others, and Pharaoh isn’t a god. Isis was the goddess of medicine and peace.
  • Plagues 7–8: These two demolish the vegetation, which was a reversal of God giving it (Gen. 1:12; cf. Exod. 10:15). Nut was the goddess of the sky, and Seth, the god of storms and disorder.
  • Plague 9: When God darkened the earth, He took creation back to the state that existed between Genesis 1:4–5. Ra was the sun god and personally backed Pharaoh, so this was enormous.
  • Plague 10: Osiris was the god of death, but Pharaoh was considered the god of Egypt. The taking of life was the reversal of God breathing life into humanity (Gen. 2:7).

God instructed Moses on the Passover. A male lamb without blemish was to be taken and sacrificed for each household according to its number. The blood was to be applied to the doorposts and lintels of the houses. This meal was to be eaten in haste, and they were protected by the lamb’s blood. Egypt, however, suffered the loss of its firstborns. Keep in mind, a firstborn isn’t always an infant or toddler. I’m a firstborn, and many of us, regardless of age, are too. This doesn’t specify children but firstborn. On that note, God gives the law regarding the firstborn. Every firstborn of their livestock and children are God’s. Children may be redeemed by a sacrifice as well as donkeys, but the firstborn belongs to God. We later see this when descendants of Levi are substituted as the firstborn child (Num. 3:11–13). Descendants of Levi were sacrificed to serve the Lord all the days of their lives. This sort of reminds us of Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac: luckily, God provided the substitute for Isaac’s redemption.

Israel now leaves Egypt, but a detail emerges that we’d do well to notice. Moses procures the bones of Joseph (Exod. 13:19; cf. Gen. 50:25). This oath made by the children of Israel looked ahead to a day when Israel would leave Egypt. When they arrived, they did so in good standing with the Egyptians and were welcomed because of who Joseph was to Egypt. Similarly, you and I will be accepted by God because of who Jesus is and what He’s done. Our attachment to Him, the lamb of God, causes God to stay His hand and pass us over when judgment comes.

Slavish Tendencies

Shortly after leaving Egypt, Israel is once more faced with the dilemma of liberty. It isn’t always cheap, and it often means self-reliance more than anything. So, they complained (Exod. 14:11–12). Pharaoh and his army close in on Israel, but luckily, it wouldn’t be long after this complaint that they’d walk through the Sea of Reeds. One might think their mood would have vastly improved after that miracle, not to mention the fact that God placed Himself as a cloud between them, giving Egypt cloudy darkness while giving Israel light. Their mood wouldn’t improve much after that. They’d left on the 10th of the first month, and now on the 15th of the second month, just a little over a month since they departed Egypt, they grumble once more (Exod. 16:3). God provides for them and gives them instructions about the Sabbath. These complainers: do you think they followed His words to the T? Nope (Exod. 16:20). Now, God isn’t too pleased (Exod. 16:28–30). It’s not too long before they complain again (Exod. 17:3). Wouldn’t we think that having seen what they saw and having lived through what they endured would be a good enough reason to rejoice like they had in chapter 15?

Similarly, Paul wrote to the Roman Christians something similar (Rom. 6:16–23). The Roman Christians still behaved as if they had before. No transformation. No change. But they had heard the good news, obeyed the gospel, and kept on living as they had. God no more expected Israel to live as slaves as He does. We are Christians to live as slaves. We are either slaves to sin, the taskmaster that oppresses us and kills us, or to righteousness. The latter is life-giving through Jesus Christ, our Lord. The former is life-taking. As Christians, when we live after the precepts of our God and follow His path, we demonstrate that we have truly been redeemed. Many of us acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, but do we live as if Jesus is our Lord? In the ancient world, one’s lord was their master. They couldn’t do anything to shame their lord, and if their lord gave an order, they were obliged to follow it. We have a good Lord who loves us, and rather than barking orders, He tells us what to do because it’s what’s best for us. Shall we be slaves to Egypt and sin, or righteousness and God?

Recreation

In our first lesson on Exodus, I pointed out how Moses used language akin to the creation narrative in Genesis as well as the flood. In the previous study, I pointed out how the plagues were demonstrative of God removing His order from certain creation elements to punish the Egyptians. Keeping with this theme of creation, when the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds, we note a recreation theme, just as it was post-flood. Notice in Exodus 14:21 how a “wind” drives the water back to create “dry land.” The word translated wind is the same word that can be translated as “spirit”—ruach. We remember how the Spirit of God, His ruach, hovered over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2). On Day 2 of creation, God divided the waters, and some were below, and others were above. On Day 3, God further separated the waters below to reveal the dry ground. Notice the theme?

Crossing the Sea of Reeds is a replay of creation. In Genesis, the earth came out of the water, but in Exodus, waters are split to reveal dry ground. As the distinction between land and water was created, the earth was made habitable to humans. This dry ground is life-giving to the Israelites. Then, in a replay of the flood, the waters crash down on the unrighteous Egyptians, just as God flooded the earth. Waters are tamed to bring life and released to bring death (1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 3:5–6). Notice how Paul ties the Christian initiatory rite of baptism to Israel (1 Cor. 10:1–2).[1] As water saved Noah and his family, and Israel and their family, the waters of baptism save us too (Rom. 6:3–6). We are, therefore, a new creation just as the earth was recreated after the flood, and Israel was created anew by passing through the waters. This is why we live as slaves to righteousness and God rather than to sin.


[1] I must give credit to Peter Enns and his book, Exodus for Normal People (Perkiomenville, PA: The Bible for Normal People, 2021). A lot of the information in these lessons that I’ve preached have come from him and his book.

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What Exodus Has To Do With Creation

A recurring theme in Genesis was the threat of famine that sent the Hebrews to Egypt for food (Gen. 12:10; 26:1–2; 42:1; 46:1–4). The last time it occurred in Genesis, the entire family of Israel wound up there due to the seven-year famine Pharaoh dreamt about. That sojourn ultimately led them to settle in the land of Goshen. What began as an effort to sustain themselves would turn into a reversal of fortune. Somewhere along the continuum of time, things changed, but this is expected since Yahweh had promised Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years (Gen. 15:13–14). Yet, He would bring them back to the land of Canaan after the fourth generation. Before they’d return, things would get worse before they got better.

What Moses is Showing Us

In the early chapters of Exodus, we notice a retelling of the creation story in a sense, but through the history of Israel. Israel is depicted to the ancient reader as fulfilling the vocation of humanity from the beginning. The first evidence being the divine order to fill the earth and subdue it (Exod. 1:7; cf. Gen. 1:20, 28; 9:1; 17:6). Whereas it was commanded of Adam/Eve and Noah, God told Abraham that He would make it happen for him. In each instance, God is narrowing down His purpose for creation through specific ones. He began with Adam (human) and Eve (life). After their expulsion from Eden because of sin, the line was narrowed through Seth, and the mandate was once again given to Noah. As sin persisted, the vocation was given to Abraham to be realized in Israel. They had multiplied and filled the land.

Israel is God’s vessel for demonstrating His creative purposes. It’s meant to be through them that humanity comes to know the God of creation and form a relationship with Him. When we read at the beginning that they “increased abundantly” (Exod. 1:7), it might be better that we substitute that translation with “abounded.” This is the same word used to describe the sea creatures in Gen. 1:21, and it’s also used post-flood in 8:17; 9:7. These usages point initially to the creation and, then, to recreation. The author hints that a new creation is being carried out through Israel, and it is accomplished in part by their multiplication.

Fulfilling God’s divine vocation resulted in the Egyptians taking notice. To Pharaoh, the growing number of Israelites was a threat. However, the more he tried to stop it, the little it did to accomplish his goal. If anything, Pharaoh’s oppression intensified Israel’s growth (Exod. 1:12). With Pharaoh wanting Israel to diminish and God wishing them to fill the earth, a show-off and clash are sure to result. The last time such an occasion reared its ugly head was at the Tower of Babel. Those present had pitted themselves against God, and He scattered them. Pharaoh is about to do the same, and those of us who know the story know it won’t end well for the King of Egypt.

Rather than Israel subduing the land, they were stopped (enslaved). Humanity was suppressed by sin resulting in the fall. Being further subdued resulted in the flood, so the enslavement warrants a liberation just as God had previously given. As Israel continued growing and evil pervaded in their enslavement and oppression, Pharaoh ordered the murder of all male newborns. Of course, the scheme didn’t work because the Hebrew midwives kept it from happening (Exod. 1:17, 21). One specific Levite couple had a “beautiful” son. Literally, this is the same word translated as “good” seven times in Genesis 1—tov. This reminder points to the fact that this son will be used in God’s scheme of recreation.

Pharaoh began ordered newborn males to drown in the Nile. This boy’s parents put him in “an ark of bulrushes” (Exod. 2:3). In Genesis, the flood destroyed the whole human race. Still, in Exodus, Pharaoh wanted male children drowned in the Nile, threatening to destroy Israel. As the ark saved Noah, so an ark saved Moses. Noah saved humanity; Moses would save Israel. Sadly, this wasn’t the story for everyone and likely explains why God later takes the firstborn among Egypt and drowned the Egyptians in the Sea. Moreover, as God parted the chaotic waters above a vault and below as the sea, so He’d part the waters of the Red Sea for Israel’s escape. As the flood destroyed the earth’s inhabitants, God’s releasing of the parted sea would drown the Egyptians.

Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s court, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. He kills an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. Afterward, he tries to play peacemaker between two other Hebrews who make it known that they are aware of what he had done to the Egyptian. Pharaoh also learns and seeks Moses’ life, so Moses flees. He finds women being harassed at a well and rescues them, one of whom would become his wife after the manner of Isaac and Jacob. He meets a Midianite priest who becomes his father-in-law, and chapter two ends with a simple verse that our English complicates. “God saw the Israelites. God knew.”

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