Out of the Wilderness, Came John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Jesus at the Temple

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

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

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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].

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.

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.

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.

Gospel Genealogies

Matthew 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel of John: A New Genesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting the Record Straight: Luke’s Prologue

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

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

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

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

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

Some interesting facts about Luke:

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

Repealing Roe v. Wade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalom

A Second Chance in the Land

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

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

(Hab. 1:1–4)

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Plan of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

A Conquered Judah in Babylon

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

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

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

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

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

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