From Prison

Matthew 11:2–30; Luke 7:18–35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Centurion’s Faith and a Widow’s Son

Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–17

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

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

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

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

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

●       Both were widows

●       Both had lost their only son

●       Both sons were touched by men of God

●       Both sons were revived

●       Both sons were delivered to their mothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

That One Verse Everyone Knows and Misuses

Matthew 7:1–8:1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Have Heard It Said, But I Say To You

Matthew 6:1–34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Way of Living

Matthew 5:13–48; Luke 6:27–36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appointing the Twelve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healing on the Sabbath

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the Pool of Bethesda

John 5:1–47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Among an Undesirable Crowd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ Popularity Grows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Begins Healing and Casts out Demons

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Invitation to Follow Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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