Through the Bible: John 1:7-18, John the Baptist and Jesus

We have been going through Tatian’s Diatessaron, a second-century harmony of the Gospels. We are in Section III, and today we are covering John 1:7-17.

John’s Gospel is the last of the Gospels written. It may well have been written in the AD 90’s. John would have been living in Ephesus in those days, watching over the churches in that area (Clement of Alexandria, Who Is the Rich Man Who Must Be Saved, ch. 42). The churches he would have been watching over are the ones we read about in the Revelation chapters 2 and 3, all of which are within about 100 miles of Ephesus in an area known as Asia Minor. The area is in the far west of what is modern Turkey.

John the Baptist

This man came to bear witness, that he might bear witness to the light, so that everyone might believe through his mediation. He was not the light, but [came] that he might bear witness to the light that was the light of truth that gives light to everyone coming into the world.

John’s Gospel is careful to point out that John the Baptist is not the light. In doing so, John gets away from John the Baptist and focuses on Jesus for a little while. He goes back to John the Baptist in verse 19.

The focus that John gives to distinguishing John the Baptist from the true light, who was Jesus, makes me wonder if there were people in Asia Minor who were still following John, but I know of no history of such a sect.

The Creator and the New Creation

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him. Those who received him, to them he gave the power that they might be sons of God, those who believe in his name, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a man, but of God.

This is our introduction to being born again. Jesus talks with Nicodemus about being born again in John chapter 3, but John does not wait until then to get to the subject. The context does not call for a discussion about the new birth. John brings it up out of the blue, making sure to insert it into the discussion of receiving him.

This is where the time frame of John, well after the other Gospels, matters. He is emphasizing things because he thinks they are being missed. It is obvious that John’s letters are battling problems in the church because he mentions “those who are trying to seduce you” (1 Jn. 2:26), talks about antichrists (1 Jn. 4:3), and even discusses a church takeover (3 Jn. 9-10). We don’t always think of John’s Gospel being written with the same concerns in mind, but it was.

John wants to centralize the new birth. It is one thing to devote ourselves to obeying God. It is even a good thing, but that commitment is not going to be an effective one without our being born again (Jn. 3:3-5). That is not new to John. Paul calls the new birth a new creation (Eph. 2:10; 2 Cor. 5:17), but he means the same thing. If we lean on ourselves, with no transformation from God, we will live in the powerlessness described in Romans 7. God has a deliverance from that powerlessness (described in Romans 8:1-13), which is the new birth.

Apparently some were forgetting the importance of the new birth towards the end of the first century because John takes the time to put the new birth back at the forefront and to remind us that it is a work of God, not of man.

The passage began by letting us know that the world was made by Jesus, and the people he came to were his own, not because they were Jews like him, but because he made them. I do not know how to give that the emphasis it deserves. The Creator was walking around in our midst, offering new life and giving the power to become children of God to those who received him. That is worth stopping to meditate on.

The Word became flesh and took up his abode among us. We saw his glory as the glory of the only Son from the Father, who is full of grace and equity.

Many missed who he was. Though he has ascended to heaven since the days his apostles saw him, he has sent the Holy Spirit to the earth to convict us of sin, righteousness, and judgment (Jn. 16:8). As those who know him, we have to trust that our testimony that Jesus is Lord and that God has raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9-10) is backed up by the conviction of the Holy Spirit. That is why there are so many Christians today, two thousand years later. Our Gospel does not come only as the word of man, but it is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16).

Those who do not yet know him, I warn not to miss him. It may seem like 2,000 years gives sufficient excuse for doubt, but God desires truth deep down inside (Ps. 51:6). He will hold you accountable for ignoring the conviction of the Holy Spirit that is in the world (1 Jn. 5:10).

Then the apostle John returns to John the Baptist, but even there it is to testify even more about Jesus.

John bore witness of him and cried and said, “This is the one that I said comes after me and was before me because he was before me.” And of his fullness we all received grace for grace. For the law was given through the mediation of Moses, but truth and grace were through Jesus Christ.

One of the great emphases of the Gospel of John is that the incarnation was not Jesus’ first trip to earth. John starts by pointing out that Jesus is the Maker of the world, but repeatedly he testifies that Jesus has been around a long time. Here, John the Baptist testifies that “he was before me.” Later, Jesus himself says he was before Abraham as well (Jn. 8:58).

The fact that Jesus is the eternal Word of God is the reason that he could bring more than Moses. Moses brought something good in the way of the law, but the sin that abides in us keeps us from following that Law (Rom. 7). Jesus, however, could do something more. As Romans 8:3 puts it, “What the Law could not do, God did.” The Law could not make us doers of the Law (Rom. 3:10ff), but God was able to do so through his Son (Rom. 8:3-4).

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Through the Bible: Luke 2:41 – 3:3; Matthew 3:1-3, John the Baptist

We are going through Tatians Diatessaron, a harmony of the Gospels compiled in the mid-second century. Today, we are in Section III, and we will be going over Luke 2:41-3:3 and Matthew 3:1-3.

[Jesus’] kinfolk used to go to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the feast according to their custom. When the days were finished, they returned. The child Jesus remained in Jerusalem, and Joseph and his mother did not know. They supposed that he was with the children of their company. When they had gone one day’s journey, they sought him among their people and those who knew them, and they did not find him. So they returned to Jerusalem and sought him again. After three days, they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, hearing them and asking them questions. All who heard him wondered at his wisdom and his words.

At twelve he could speak freely because he was not a threat to the teachers. When he got older the teachers in Jerusalem would not received him so favorably.

When they saw him, they wondered, and his mother said to him, “My son, why have you dealt with us in this way? Behold, I and your father have been looking for you with much anxiety.”

He said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Do you not know that I must be in the house of my Father?” And they did not understand the word which he spoke to them. He went down with them, came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother used to keep all these sayings in her heart.

Mary, like everyone else, did not fully understand who her Son was. She was getting a front-row seat as he slowly revealed himself, though, and Luke tells us she was paying attention.

And Jesus grew in his stature and wisdom, and in favor with God and men.

We talked about this in the last post. Luke uses statements like this as a transition to the next story. The fact that it is a transition—that is, not a sentence of central focus—means this is a typical picture of what growth should look like. Jesus grew not just in size and wisdom, but he gained favor in the eyes of both God and men.

In this case the transition is to the story of John the Baptist (that starts in Luke 3).

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor in Judaea; and one of the four rulers, Herod, in Galilee; and Philip his brother, one of the four rulers, in Ituraea and in the district of Trachonitis; and Lysanias, one of the four rulers, in Abilene; during the chief-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the command of God went forth to John the son of Zacharias in the desert.

Apparently Luke wanted us to get the time right in regard to the appearance of John the Baptist. Tiberius Caesar rose to power in AD 14, so that would put the beginning of John’s ministry in AD 28.

If you are not following the math there, think about Tiberius’ second year. The first year of his reign was AD 14, so the second year would be AD 15. His third year would be AD 16, and so on, until AD 28 was his fifteenth year. A professional sports career that was from 2001 to 2007 would be seven years, not six. Count them up and see. Subtraction doesn’t work for kings and professional sports careers.

He came into the region which is around the Jordan [River], proclaiming the baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins.

I left “unto” in there, which I would usually change to “to,” because baptism is a hot doctrinal issue. Is it or is it not “for” the forgiveness of sins. Interestingly enough, Tatian’s Diatessaron, from which I am pulling this text, has a couple conflicting readings. One is “unto” as here, and the other is “with.” The second would read, “proclaiming the baptism of repentance with the forgiveness of sins.”

Thus, Tatian’s rendering of this passage will not be useful for either side of the argument. I’ll address baptism when we are out of the Diatessaron and into Acts.

He was preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is come near.”

I almost missed that Tatian had jumped back to Matthew here. This is Matthew 3:1. I caught it because only Matthew uses “Kingdom of Heaven.” All the other New Testament books use “Kingdom of God.” The reason for this is that Matthew’s Gospel is directed towards Jews. Jews, always afraid of taking the name of the Lord in vain, found many ways not to say God’s name at all, including saying “heaven” whenever it could replace “God.”

There is a lot to be said here about what the Gospel really is. I have written on the Gospel of the Kingdom, and a friend wrote a concise history and explanation of the Gospel of the Kingdom. If the gospel of the Kingdom is a mystery to you, you should follow those links and clear up that misunderstanding.

For now, let’s just point out that John the Baptist was preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Now Tatian combines Matthew 3:3 and Luke 3:4-6 to give us the prophecy about John’s ministry.

This is he that was spoken of in Isaiah the prophet, “The voice which cries in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord and make straight paths in the plain for our God. All the valleys shall be filled, and all the mountains and hills shall become low; the rough shall become plain and the difficult place, easy. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

One of my favorite figures in church history is George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. I loved him because of his journal and his unrestrained love for God and God’s righteousness, not any particular Quaker doctrine. He took the Bible very figuratively. He loved this passage about John, and he took it to mean that Jesus would level the mountains of pride and valleys of sins in our lives. While I cannot be comfortable with George Fox’s figurative interpretations as being the only way to read the Bible, I love them as an additional way.

The context of this passage is preparing a way for the Lord. John began the announcement to prepare a way with “Repent!” Then he talks about leveling mountains and hills and raising up valleys. God wants a straight path, which is always a reference to walking righteously. Proverbs 3:5-6 and 2 Timothy 2:15 both talk about getting things straight. In each case, the Scripture is talking doing things in a righteous manner. In Proverbs 3, if we trust God, he will make our paths to be righteous. In 2 Timothy 2:15 if we are diligent to present ourselves to God, then he will teach us to rightly handle his Word.

Repentance has a hugely central role in following God. It is at the start and heart of every message in the Bible. The apostle Paul described his entire ministry as declaring that people should “repent and turn to God and do works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20). Repentance brings the mercy of God, and it always has (Ezek. 18:21-23). It is not just the way we begin, but the way we live (1 Jn. 1:7-2:2). We must always be willing to rush to the throne of grace, obtaining mercy and finding grace to help in our time of need (Heb. 4:16).

Tatian returns to John after this, and we will get to that in our next post.

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Through the Bible: Matthew 2:19-23 and Luke 2:40

We are going through Tatian’s Diatessaron, a second-century harmony of the Gospels. We are on Section III. Today’s post goes through Matthew 2:19-23 and Luke 2:40. (A harmony of the Gospels means Tatian is going through all four Gospels in attempted chronological order.)

Matthew 2:19-23: The Bible and Christ

When Herod the king died, the messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said to him, “Rise. Take the child and his mother and go into the land of Israel, for the ones who sought the child’s life have died.” Joseph rose and took the child and his mother and came to the land of Israel. When he heard that Archelaus had become king over Judea in the place of Herod his father, he was afraid to go there. He saw in a dream that he should go into the land of Galilee and that he should live in a city called Nazareth so that the saying in the prophet might be fulfilled, that he should be called a Nazarene.

I know it is unpleasant for a lot of you to read things like what I am about to write, but we should talk about it here, among believers, not encounter these things unprepared from those who do not want God as a ruler (Luke 19:12-27).

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, which we are reading here, Joseph is sent to Nazareth as though he was new to the city. In Luke’s account, Joseph and Mary were already living in Nazareth when Gabriel came to them (1:26-27). Luke has them leaving Nazareth for a census, then returning. Matthew writes as though they were living in Bethlehem when Gabriel came to them (1:18-2:1).

Matthew was an apostle, writing from memory about a story he heard from the people who lived it, even Mary herself. Luke was an investigator, asking questions of many, trying to determine the original story many decades after it happened (Luke 1:1-4).

The accounts should be added together. Matthew’s history contains much more detail and is more likely to be accurate. Luke covered the birth in Bethlehem probably thinking the family was always from Nazareth because it was well known that Jesus was a Nazarene.

Again, God is not concerned about inspiring exact historical knowledge. The little glitches in unimportant things, like how many stalls of chariots Solomon had (1 Kings 4:26 w/ 2 Chr. 9:25) or whether Jesus was going into or out of Jericho when he encountered Bartimaeus the blind man (Matt. 20:29-30; Mark 10:46: Luke 18:35-36) are ways to tell us not to get obsessed with details. Jesus healed blind men. He was born of a virgin in Bethlehem in fulfillment of a prophecy that revealed him as the Lord from heaven (Mic. 5:2). These are the important things.

The book is not the issue. The Man, the Messiah Jesus, is the issue. The book can tell you how to live. The Man from heaven, born of a virgin in Bethlehem, can give you the Holy Spirit and empower you to live the way the book tells you. As Jesus said himself, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have life, but these are they which testify of me. Yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (Jn. 5:39-40).

Do not deify the Bible. It is a testimony about a person. The Bible can make you wise for salvation through Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:15), but Jesus can actually save you. Perhaps some of these meaningless little contradictions are an attempt to cure those afflicted with an undue attachment to the sign that points the way rather than the One who is the way (Jn. 14:6).

By the way. No one knows where the prophecy “He will be called a Nazarene” is from. Obviously, Matthew didn’t know either because he attributes it to “the prophet.” The commentaries think the most likely spot is Isaiah 11:1 where the Hebrew word for branch is netzer. It is entirely possible he is referring to prophecy or prophetic book that is no longer known.

Tatian now jumps back to Luke 2:40.

Luke 2:40: Spiritual Growth

The child grew, became strong in spirit, becoming filled with wisdom, and the favor (grace) of God was upon him.

I like translating the Greek word charis as favor rather than grace. I wrote a booklet explaining that preference. For now, if you read a definition of grace in the New Testament, just about every lexicon will give you “unmerited favor,” so there’s no problem with my using “favor” as a clearer word than “grace.”

The fact that Luke is using this sentence as a transition from the birth narrative to the next story puts even more meaning to it. This is Luke’s picture of what growing means. I think he is saying, “We are done with the birth narrative. Let’s move on to the next story I know, which is when Jesus was twelve. I will transition by telling you that he was growing from his birth to age 12.”

If this is what he was saying, then he was also saying that becoming strong in spirit, filled with wisdom, and having the favor of God is what growing, in God’s eyes, looks like.

The reason this is important is because it tells us what to focus on for our own growth … and what not to focus on. Gain wisdom. Rest in the favor of God. Build a strong spirit. These things mark growth. Agonizing over your spiritual condition as though you had to find a way to gain God’s favor will not produce growth. You should rise each day like a little child, running to leap into the arms of your heavenly Father because Jesus has opened a way to the Throne of Favor (Heb. 4:16).

Awesome picture, isn’t it?

Luke uses a similar transition in 2:52 to jump from his story of Jesus at age 12 to his introduction to John the Baptist. We will get to that story in the next post, but I just want to add that transition to this one. There Luke writes that Jesus “grew in his stature and wisdom and in favor with God and man.”

Favor produces more favor. If God grants you his favor, then you will be a recipient of his gifts, right? That just follows logically? God’s gifts are spiritual. You will find righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom. 14:17) from the Holy Spirit that he is happy to give you as a loving Father (Luke 11:13).

Let’s live in the favor of God, not agonize over trying to obtain something Jesus already obtained for us (Heb. 4:16). That favor will teach you how to live in this world (Tit. 2:11-14).

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Through the Bible: Matthew 2:13-18, A Spiritual Bible

We are going through Tatian’s Diatessaron, a second-century harmony of the Gospels. We are on Section III. Today’s post goes through Matthew 2:13-18.

The Bible and Inspiration

When [the wise men] had departed, the messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph and said to him, “Rise, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay there until I speak to you, for Herod is determined to seek the child to slay him. Joseph arose and took the child and his mother in the night and fled into Egypt and remained in it until the time of the death of Herod. [This was so] that which was said by the Lord in the prophet might be fulfilled, which was, “From Egypt I called my Son” [Hos. 11:1].

Let’s definitely talk about the Bible here!

If you read the Bible slowly enough and if you ensure that you do not remember what you read previously, the Bible is clean and inspired and neat and tidy. If you never look up the references, that helps too. If, however, you read through it fast enough that you still remember Genesis when you get to Revelation, or if you look up all the references you hear in a sermon, or if you look up all the Old Testament references quoted in New Testament passages, then the Bible gets a little messy.

Here, for example, we see that Matthew tells us that Joseph, Mary, and baby went to Egypt from Bethlehem. This is more difficult to reconcile with Luke than the fact Luke left out the Magi visit. Luke said Joseph and family went back to Nazareth as soon as the sacrifices were done. Matthew says they stayed in Bethlehem for at least a year (explained below) then went to Egypt.

Tatian skipped the genealogies, so I did not get to tell you that Matthew skipped three generations of kings in his genealogy. If you find Jehoshaphat in Matthew 1:8, you will find that he lists Joram as his son (correct), then Uzziah as his grandson (incorrect). Ahaziah was Joram’s son, and then three generations later, Azariah, also known as Uzziah, was born. He had a son name Jotham. I suspect that the Joram/Ahaziah and Azariah/Jotham connection threw him. Whatever the cause, Matthew skips Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah (see list).

This causes another problem, because Matthew makes a point of saying there were three sets of fourteen generations (v. 17). That only worked because he skipped three kings. Otherwise, it would have been fourteen, seventeen, fourteen.

Commentaries give various ways to reconcile this. I get called a liberal—or sometimes a heretic—for saying that Matthew made a mistake. If you want you can choose one of the explanations the commentaries give, but since they seem far-fetched (at best) to me, I can’t.

I believe in the inspiration of not just the New Testament, but the apostles in general. As Irenaeus, one of the leading bishops of the second century said:

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us. At one time they proclaimed it in public and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed it down to us in the Scriptures to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed perfect knowledge … for after our Lord rose from the dead, they were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down, were filled from all, and had perfect knowledge. (Against Heresies, Bk. III, ch. 1, par. 1)

I believe this. I believe this was promised to the apostles in John 16:13. I believe Matthew was inspired when he wrote his Gospel.

I don’t believe that Matthew, Moses, or anyone else was inspired to write perfect history or perfect science. You can think what you want, but I think it is obvious that Matthew made a mistake. My brain loves truth. It will not let me live in purposeful contradiction. I can see Matthew made a mistake. I can’t get myself to pretend he didn’t.

Let me give another clearer case. In 2 Corinthians 9:25 we read that Solomon had 4,000 stalls for his horses and chariots. In 1 Kings 4:26, the Bible says he had 40,000.

I remember reading a Catholic Bible back in the 80’s when I was a young Christian. The comment on the verse in 2 Chronicles said the writer of Kings was prone to exaggeration. I was shocked! I was also deeply offended. How could they even suggest such a thing! The Bible is inerrant!

Over the years I have learned that it’s not. You can pretend that there are not contradictions, historical or scientific errors, but that is what it is: pretending. I just can’t do that.

Please remember I said I believe the apostles are inspired. I am not attacking our mutual faith in Jesus, nor in the Scriptures.

The general argument that people obsessed with inerrancy use to explain the conflict between Kings and Chronicles is that this was a copyist error. The original manuscripts, they say, agree with one another.

Why? So that God could say, “Look at the miraculous historical accuracy I put into the Scriptures, which you cannot see because I allowed copyists to change things and you don’t have the originals”?

To me, that’s just weird. If a prophet came to town and accurately exposed your deepest thoughts and also gave a word from God on how to resolve your deepest issue, but while he was talking he made an error and called you by the wrong name or got the name of your town wrong, would you then reject his prophecy? Of course we wouldn’t. We would think, wow, this guy really is a prophet, and he is also really middle-aged because he forgot the name of the town he was in.

Whether we like it or not, Matthew skipped three names in his genealogy. If this is going to make you ignore his testimony of Jesus’ life, then you are way too picky. If God has called you, then you should have his Spirit inside you. The words of Matthew have God’s Spirit inside them. That is what inspiration means. The fact that we don’t know whether there were 4,000 or 40,000 chariots in Solomon’s stall or that Matthew made a mistake in listing a genealogy … why would that make you doubt something that is spiritual, not intellectual.

The breath of God is in those words, and the breath of God is in you. As we read the Scriptures, the inspiration of God in the words and the inspiration of God in the words connect, producing guidance, encouragement, and revelation. We are not children of the letter; we are children of the Spirit, holding to a spiritual covenant (2 Cor. 3:6).

I like Origen’s explanation of mistakes and contradictions. Origen was the most respected scholar of the early third century. He was a prolific author, and a wealthy patron provided him with several scribes so that he could dictate without losing any of his words. He read enough to see the tiny, irrelevant contradictions in the Scripture. He said this about them:

So for that reason, Divine Wisdom took care that certain stumbling blocks—interruptions—to the historical meaning would take place. He did this by introducing into the middle [of the narratives] certain impossibilities and incongruities. (De Principiis, Bk. IV, ch. 1, par. 15)

What Origen is trying to communicate is that God wants us to look deeper, to really get the spiritual meaning of a text as well as the surface meaning. Thus, he put “certain impossibilities and incongruities” into the text to slow us down and make us search. He wants to reserve the deepest truths for those willing to work for them.

We’re not in Kansas anymore! I was in Kansas as a teenager from 1973 to 1976. It was very hot and very windy in the summer, but otherwise I liked it. A friend could tell me any dreamed-up bit of news back then, and I had no way of checking on it. Now I’m in Tennessee, and it’s 2017. The internet is in full swing, and it is available to everyone. There’s no getting around the small “impossibilities and incongruities” because they are listed all over the internet. We should recognize those among ourselves so that they are not introduced to us by wicked men and women who hate God and put the worst possible spin on things you don’t know about. I would much rather tell you about them myself and try to show you that they are not stumbling blocks to a real and robust faith.

Think about this objectively. How could a mistake on a genealogy possible affect the way you live? If I were your pastor, and I failed a driver’s test, would you trust my sermons less?

Origen would tell us that Matthew made a mistake, and God probably allowed it. We should look deeper. There is probably some other message God has for us. Perhaps that message is that we should not trust in the letter but in the Spirit because the letter kills but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6).

Take it from someone who has been watching the power of God for 35 years. In 1982, the Spirit of God and the four Gospels convinced me that Jesus was the Son of God. When I admitted that to myself and to a couple people with me, the power of God fell on me, and I was transported to another realm. My whole life and perception changed. I have been in love with Jesus ever since, and I have seen him work miracles, transform lives, and rescue me from dramatic circumstances: homelessness, two cancers, a son’s death, and so many adventurous stories that people who hear them start wondering if I’m lying.

I’m not. His presence and his very real intervention in the affairs of my life has rescued me repeatedly. To see such power, you have to give up everything. Jesus has some breathtaking words about that (Luke 14:26-33).

Living like that will protect you from worrying about meaningless mistakes by the men who wrote Scripture. The experiences will make you know deeply that this life is not about words, but about power (1 Cor. 2:4; 4:20).

That all said, truth requires me to tell you that Matthew left three kings—and thus three “begats”—out of his 14 generations from King David to Babylon. Truth requires me to point out that Luke said the holy family went back to Nazareth while Matthew says they went to Egypt.

Long post, but I have to cover one more thing.

How Long Was Jesus in Jerusalem

Herod then, when he saw that he was mocked by the Magi, was very angry and sent and killed all the male children which were in Bethlehem and all its borders, from two years old and under, according to the time when he had inquired from the Magi. Then the saying in Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, which said, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and much lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children and not willing to be consoled for their loss” [Jer. 31:14].

This is a horrific event. Having lost an 18-year-old son just two months ago, I can imagine, but barely, the pain that must rolled through Bethlehem. God will get his vengeance on Herod at the judgment.

King Herod did this based on the time that he got from the Magi. This means that he thought the Magi saw the star, and thus that Jesus was born, at least more than a year earlier, or he would have chosen a different age group to kill. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were in Bethlehem for a long time, at least a year.

Double Prophecies

This post is too long, but since we’re on the subject of how to interpret the Bible, let’s talk about double prophecies. In the first passage at the top of the post, the Diatessoron, quoting Matthew 2:15, says that the prophecy in Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”) is about Jesus, even though the context indicates it is about the nation of Israel.

All prophecy can have a double meaning. In Matthew 1:23, Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 and applies it to the virgin birth of Jesus: “The virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him Emmanuel.” This one is a really cool double prophecy. If you read Isaiah 7, you will see that Isaiah made a prophecy to King Ahaz that was fulfilled in Ahaz’ time. Isaiah’s original prophecy, in Hebrew, can mean a young woman as well as a virgin so we don’t have to interpret a virgin birth in Ahaz’ time.

By Matthew’s time, however, the Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek. The Greek version is called the Septuagint, and the early Christians considered the translation inspired. That translation used a word that can only mean virgin and the prophecy was applied to Jesus.

Though prophecy is sometimes a warning, at other times it is a proof. For example, no one really understood the prophecies about Messiah in Isaiah 53 before Jesus came. After he came, though, it was obvious that Isaiah 53 was about him. It is the same with the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14. The prophecy did not reveal that Jesus was born of a virgin. Instead, Jesus was born of a virgin, which revealed that Isaiah 7:14 was a prophecy.

Spiritual Christianity

All of the post above ties together to bring this final point: we are in a spiritual religion.

God winds all things together in a story, a real story with real people in a real world that can be measured, touched, and experienced. When we try to make the Scriptures into neat, tidy, beautiful, and sweet story, as though it were a Disney princess movie, then it is not real anymore. Those who want to wrap the Bible in gift paper and honor it are alarmed when they find its contradictions and its horrifying parts.

The real Bible is hard to swallow and frightens us, sometimes a lot. It is because the Bible is not a novel, written at a writers desk. It is raw, real-life spirituality from Abraham’s departure from Babylon to the death of Jesus’ apostles and the words, prophecies, and churches they left behind.

That raw, real-life spirituality is what God offers. It can fill the soul with joy in the worst of circumstances, change sinners to saints, open the eyes of the blind, and it can reconcile you to God.

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Through the Bible: Matt. 2:1-12, The Magi from Persia

We are going through Tatian’s Diatessaron, a second-century harmony of the Gospels, and we are now on Section III, which switches back to Matthew from Luke.

The Magis and Their Star

After that [the birth of Jesus] the Magi came from the east to Jerusalem and said, “Where is the King of the Jews which was born? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

“From the east” almost certainly means Persia. There have been all sorts of debates about what the star might have been, but there is one thing missing in the debates. The magi saw a star “in the east.” Jerusalem is not east of Persia. It is west. The magi could not have come from the east, then saw a star in the east, then followed that star to Jerusalem unless they went around the world. No, they saw a star in the east. This could mean they saw a star east of them, but much more likely, they saw a star while they were in the east. That star let them know that the King of the Jews was born, so they went west to Jerusalem to worship him.

I also suspect that they expected the Jews to know about their newborn King and to be as excited as the magi were. Their question presupposes that the Jews knew about this King.

Jewish Leaders and the Messiah

Herod the king heard, and he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.

I am sure “all Jerusalem” refers to the leaders of Jerusalem. The people would not be troubled by the birth of the Messiah who would deliver them from Rome. Herod was troubled, though, because Rome had installed him as king. The chief priests and the scribes would be troubled because they were selfish, evil people (with some exceptions like Gamaliel, Acts 5:34-39, and Nicodemus, John 7:50-52; 19:39) who cared more about their own position than about the deliverance of their country or the will of God. They would gladly reject and kill the Messiah of God than give up their positions of authority.

Texts of the Old Testament

[Herod] gathered all the chief priests and the scribes of the people and asked them in what place the Messiah should be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea. Thus it is written in the prophet, “You also, Bethlehem of Judah, are not contemptible among the kings of Judah. From you shall go forth a King, and he shall be a Shepherd to my people Israel” [Mic. 5:2].

This is an interesting quote. If you look in your Bible at Micah 5:2, you will not find “contemptible among the kings of Judah,” but “little among tho thousands of Judah” (KJV). This quote matches neither the Masoretic texts from which Catholic and Protestant Bible are translated, nor the Greek Septuagint, from which Orthodox Bibles are translated. There’s nothing to be done with this, just an interesting note of a textual difference used either by the scribes or by Matthew in recording the event.

Note: a friend of mine has several pages arguing for the authority of the Septuagint over the Masoretic text.

The Pre-existence of Jesus the Messiah

More interesting is where the scribes stopped, for that passage goes on to say, “… whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2, ESV). The Septuagint is even more revelatory, saying, “His goings forth were from the beginning, even from everlasting” (Orthodox Study Bible).

Micah 5:2 is just one example of many pointing out that Jesus did not begin his existence at Bethlehem. We all know John 1:1 with John 1:14, but there are many others: Philippians 2:5-8; Colossians 1:15-17; and Hebrews 1:2-3 are a few examples off the top of my head.

The Magi

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and inquired of them the time at which the star appeared to them. He sent them to Bethlehem and said to them, “Go and search for the child diligently, and when you have found him, come and let me know so that I may also go and worship him.” They, when they heard the king, departed.

I will venture a guess that the Magi probably went away puzzled that the Jewish leaders didn’t know about the birth of their new King and suspicious of the motives of both Herod and the scribes.

Lo, the star which they had seen in the east went before them until it came and stood above where the child was. When they beheld the star, they rejoiced with very great joy.

Now the star was leading them. It was the star “they had seen in the east,” which did not lead them to Jerusalem but instead was a sign that the King of the Jews was born. Somewhere the Magi had heard about the coming Messiah, probably from dispersed Jews, and they recognized the star as a sign that he was born. They came to Jerusalem and had to inquire where he might have been born. The Jewish leaders did not know because they were not looking for his entrance into the world like the Magi were, so the star came again to lead the Magi to where the child was.

They entered the house and beheld the child with Mary his mother, fell down worshipping him, and opened their saddlebags and offered him offerings, gold and myrrh and frankincense.

It is very interesting here that they entered a house, in Bethlehem, and they found Joseph, Mary, and Jesus there. Luke told us that they went back to Nazareth in Galilee as soon as all the sacrifices were done. We just looked at that in the last post. It is possible to try to reconcile Matthew and Luke by saying either that the Magi came before the 33 days of Mary’s purification was past or that when Luke said they left after they fulfilled the Law of Moses he did not mean immediately left. They may have waited a few months.

If you need something like that to satisfy you, then by all means, choose one or the other explanation. I find it much simpler to acknowledge that Luke said he wrote his Gospel as a historian. He was not there (Luke 1:1-4). While Luke was compiling his Gospel, Matthew was in either Ethiopia or Persia, so Luke did not have had access to his Gospel. Thus Luke didn’t realize that there was a visit from Persia. Matthew may even have emphasized it in his Gospel because he went to Persia in fulfillment of Jesus’ command to the apostles to go into all the world (Matt. 28:18-20).

They saw in a dream that they should not return to Herod, and they traveled by another way in going to their country.

I’m sure this dream was no surprise to the “wise” men. They surely noticed that Herod and the other Jewish leaders had evil motives and a deceptive tongue.

I would appreciate the prayers that God would give me time to go faster, at least every other day, through the Diatessaron. I am also trying to finish a book on the Roman Catholic claim that the pope has “full, supreme, and universal authority over the whole Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 882). I’m making good progress on that book, but sharing time writing both and trying to get my basement fixed at my Memphis house is time-consuming. Thank you for your prayers.

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Through the Bible: Anna’s Prophecy, Luke 2:36-39

We have been going through Tatian’s Diatessaron, a second-century harmony of the Gospels. We are at the end of Section II, which is taken from Luke 2:36-39. This is Anna’s prophecy, and I wanted to look at it in more detail:

Anna

Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher, was also [in addition to Simon, who was mentioned in the previous passage] advanced in years. She dwelt with her husband seven years from her virginity, and she remained a widow about eighty-four years.

If we take this literally, then Anna was over 100 years old. The commentaries were divided on this, but I lean towards thinking that Luke was trying to say she was 84 years old. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, ch. 9, Polycarp says that he has been serving Jesus for 86 years, and most historians take this to mean that he was 86 years old. No one knows how or when Polycarp was converted, so we can’t use that to help interpret his statement. I suspect that Luke and the writer of Martyrdom of Polycarp were both trying to tell us the age of the person as they wrote their book.

There’s no way to know this, however.

All the commentaries do seem to agree that “lived with her husband seven years from her virginity” is just a long way of saying she was married for seven years then had not remarried.

Finally, the fact that she is called a prophet is significant. Orthodox Jews believe the age of prophecy ended with Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (Chabad.org, par. 4). It is apparent that the first-century Jews did not know about this because they were calling Simeon, Anna, and John the Bapist prophets.

An interesting side note to this is that Justin Martyr, in a discussion with a Jew in the middle of the second century (about 120 years after Jesus’ death), told him that the prophetic powers all rested in Jesus and ended prophecy among the Jews. He tells Trypho, the Jew to whom he was talking, “… this fact you plainly perceive” (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 87).

She did not leave the temple and served night and day with fasting and prayer. She also rose in that hour [that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were in the temple] and thanked the Lord. She spoke of him with everyone who was expecting the deliverance of Jerusalem.

Again we see that the Jews were expecting the Messiah that they knew about from Psalm 2, the one who would rule the nations with an iron rod. Jesus will come back to fulfill Psalm 2, but until then we live in an age of mercy (2 Pet. 3:9). It is a time for God to bring the Gentiles under his rule in willful submission to the Gospel (Rom. 11). Once the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, then he will save Israel (Rom. 11:25-26).

When they had accomplished everything according to what is in the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to Nazareth their city.

The reference here is to the offerings they had to make when a child is born and to her offerings for cleanliness after birth. For a boy this would be 33 days (Lev. 12:4-5). We discussed this in the previous post.

At this point, Tatian moves from Luke back to Matthew, and the translators insert a section break. Let’s leave this post as a short one, and I’ll write up a post for tomorrow on section III and the Magi.

Up to now, there has typically been three days between these “through the Bible” posts. I hope to speed those up, but the Lord is the controller of circumstances. I have been dealing with a leak in the basement of my house in Memphis, which is rented out, and we have finally found it. I am going on vacation June 1, though I hope to be able to write these posts even then. If God will allow, I will try to put them up every other day once we get back.

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Through the Bible: Luke 2:21-35: Prophecy and the Birth of Jesus

We are going through Tatian’s Diatessaron Section II. The Diatessaron is a harmony of the Gospels put together in the second century. Today’s reading comes from Luke 2:21 and forward.

And when eight days were passed so that the child should be circumcised, he was named Jesus, [the name] by which he was called by the messenger before his conception in the womb. When the days of their purification according to the Law of Moses were completed, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him before the Lord. As it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male opening the womb shall be called the holy thing of the Lord.” [They were] to give a sacrificial victim as it is said in the Law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons.

Sacrifices

There is a lot going on in this passage. Way back in Exodus, when God rescued Israel out of Egypt by killing all of Egypt’s firstborn, human and animal, he said:

You shall set apart to the Lord all that open the womb and every firstling that comes from a beast you have. The males shall be the Lord’s. Every firstling of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of man among your children you shall redeem” (Ex. 13:12-13).

Donkeys are listed because they are an example of a firstborn beast that cannot be sacrificed. They had to be exchanged for a lamb, or it must be killed rather than sacrificed. Humans, of course, were not to be sacrificed nor needlessly killed, so they were bought back from the Lord. In verses 14-15 of that same passage we read that the Israelites were supposed to tell their children that God rescued them from Israel by destroying the firstborn of Egypt and that is why “I sacrifice to Yahweh all that open the womb and are male, but all the firstborn of my children, I redeem.”

A redemption is a purchase. When we say “redemption” in regard to ourselves, we don’t always think that. If you are redeemed, than you are purchased (1 Cor. 6:20).

It is important to recognize one thing about sacrifices. In most cases, only the organs, tail, and fat of the sacrifice was burned (e.g., Lev. 3:2-5). The rest was eaten. In a whole burnt offering, the sacrifice was wholly burned, but not in other sacrifices. The other sacrifices were eaten by the priests. That is probably why a lot of sacrifices had accompanying wine (Num. 28) and grain (Lev 2) offerings. The sacrifices and any money used for redemption were the priests’ sole means of support.

Joseph’s Poverty

Finally, an important thing to notice is that Joseph and Mary offered two young doves or pigeons. This was an allowance if someone could not bring a lamb (Lev. 12:8). Some have claimed that because of the wedding Jesus attended in Cana that he was from a wealthy family. The offering of two doves indicates otherwise. Joseph and Mary were poor or they would have brought the more acceptable offering of a lamb and a dove (Lev. 12:1-7).

Simeon

There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was upright and pious, expecting the consolation of Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been said to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen with his eyes the Messiah of the Lord. This man came by the Spirit to the temple at the same time his parents brought in the child Jesus to present a sacrifice for him, as it is written in the law. [Simeon] bore him in his arms and praised God and said,”Now loose the bonds of your servant, O Lord, in peace, according to your saying, for my eyes have witnessed your mercy, which you have made ready because of the whole world, a light for the unveiling of the nations and a glory to your people Israel.”

God Speaking to Us

It seems ironic that just this morning I heard Charles Stanley say on television, “Some of you don’t believe that God still speaks. Well, you’re wrong.” I agree with him. It is critical for us to be able to hear God speak.

  1. It is promised that all of us will receive the Spirit and that we will prophesy, dream dreams, and see visions (Acts 2:17-18).
  2. Paul told the Corinthians to pay attention in their meetings so that if they are speaking and someone else has something revealed to him, then the speaker should stop to allow the revelation to be spoken (1 Cor. 14:29-31)
  3. The mark of the children of God is that they are led by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:14)
  4. Jesus said we live by every word that is proceeding, present tense, from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). He did not say we would live only by the words that proceeded from his mouth two or three thousand years ago.

If God isn’t speaking to you, you’re starving. God speaks in many ways, including illuminating the Scriptures for us. We should obey the fullness of the Scripture (Matt. 5:17) even if a verse is not “speaking to us” at the moment, but God also puts Scripture passages on our hearts or in our paths to guide us. Other times he speaks directly to us because all of us who are of the New Covenant know him, from the least of us to the greatest (Jer. 31:31-34) and we all have that kind of relationship with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17-18). In fact, it is the mark of eternal life to know our Father (Jn. 17:3).

A Light to the Nations and a Mercy Made Ready for the Whole World

Simeon’s prophecy here is amazing. He did not just say, “Oh, wow, here’s the Messiah.” He proclaimed Jesus as a light for the unveiling of the nations and as a mercy prepared for the world. Paul talks about the unveiling that happens when we enter into Christ (2 Cor. 3:6). Simeon knew not only this spiritual unveiling, but that it would reach the nations. Even the apostles did not get this until God revealed the Gospel of the Gentiles through Peter (Acts 10:1-11:18).

Simeon also speaks of a mystery that Paul takes three chapters to explain in his letter to the Romans. God’s mercy is for the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike, but there is a process involving the partial hardening of the Jews that leads to that mercy being shown to the world. You can read about it in Romans 9-11.

And Joseph and his mother were marveling at the things which were being said concerning him. Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, he is set for the overthrow and rising of many in Israel and for a sign of contention. A spear shall pierce through your own soul so that the thoughts of the hearts of many may be revealed.”

If you have read the Gospels, you know how right-on this prophecy was. If not, we are going through a harmony of the Gospels, and you will get to see this soon.

I meant to go through Anna’s prophecy, too, but I found a commentary with information I have never heard before. That makes that section too long to be added to this post today. I will cover Anna in the next post.

As I’m going through this, I’m starting to really enjoy Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers. It’s worth looking at his comments on the sword through Mary’s heart. I don’t know what application to put on his thoughts, but they were interesting.

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Through the Bible: Luke 2:1-20: The Appearance to the Shepherds

We are going through Tatian’s Diatessaron. It is a harmony of the four Gospels put together in the mid-second century. We are in section II, which today returns to Luke 2 and continues the story of Jesus’ birth.

I need to start with a line in Matthew that I did not address yesterday. In the Diatessaron, which I linked in the first paragraph, it is in lines [4] and [5]. In your Bible, it is Matthew 1:21.

The Name(s) of Jesus

She shall bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He shall save his people from their sins.

Jesus name in Hebrew is Yeshua (Jews for Judaism & Wikipedia). It means “Yahweh saves.” That is why the messenger told Joseph and Mary to name him Yeshua.

The reason Yeshua has become Jesus in English has to do with the Greek of the New Testament. In Greek, there is no “sh” sound, so it had to be replaced with an s (the Greek sigma). Also, the ending of names change in NT Greek. Names end differently depend on whether they are the subject of a sentence, the direct object, or the indirect object. Because of this, all male names end in -os or -us. Finally, though Greek has a sound matching Ye-, it has no “y.” The result is that Yeshua transliterates into Greek as Iesus. Not very similar, but there’s not much else to do.

There are “sacred name” movements complaining about this (for example), but the apostles used Iesus, too. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, and Jude all used Iesus in Greek. When the Bible reached those speaking Germanic languages, of which English is one, the J was inserted for the I because in most Germanic languages, Je- sounds just like the Ye- of Hebrew and the Ie- of Greek. Unfortunately, English is also heavily influenced by the Romance languages (such as Latin and Spanish), so we don’t pronounce the Je- like German does.

The result is that Germans, English, and Spanish all spell his name “Jesus,” but all three languages pronounce it differently.

This all happened from the nature of languages, not from any evil or demonic purpose. God has a long history of healing and saving people no matter how people honestly pronounced the name of Jesus. So if you run across people calling you to accurately pronounce Jesus name as Yahowahshua or other bizarre spellings and pronunciations, just ignore them.

Luke 2:1-4 and the Taxation under Quirinius

Tatian chose to insert a small portion from Matthew about Joseph into his harmony of the Gospels, which we covered in the last post. Now he returns to Luke’s Gospel.

In those days there went forth a decree from Augustus Caesar that all the people of his dominion should be enrolled. This first enrollment was while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Every man went to be enrolled in his city. Joseph went up also from Nazareth, a city of Galilee, with Mary his betrothed who was pregnant. [He went] to Judea to the city of David that is called Bethlehem to be enrolled, for he was of the house of David and his tribe.

This enrollment under Quirinius (or Cyrenius) has been a subject of great debate. The most obvious reference here would be to a taxation conducted in A.D. 6, a decade after Jesus’ birth. (The person who calculated B.C. and A.D. did not do so until 525, and he was off a few years, so Jesus was actually born no later than 4 B.C. and possibly earlier. The link I just gave is a children’s math site that explains the BC/AD problem in very easy language.)

You can read various explanations of the problem of the date of Quirinius’ enrollment at BibleHub.com.

Luke 2:5-7: The Birth of Jesus the Messiah

While she was there she completed the time of her pregnancy. She brought forth her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them where they were staying.

For those of you who like me have never been certain what a manger is, dictionary.com says that it is “a box or trough in a stable or barn from which horses or cattle eat.”

Luke 2:8-20: The Shepherds See Jesus

There were shepherds staying in that region, keeping their flock in the watch of the night. Behold, the messenger of God came to them, and the glory of the Lord shone upon them, and they were greatly terrified.

We overuse “awesome” here in the U.S., but this is the true definition of an awesome event.

The messenger said to them, “Do not be terrified, for I bring you news of great joy which applies to the whole world! A Savior is born to you today, which is the Lord the Messiah, in the city of David. This is a sign for you: you shall find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger.”
   Suddenly many heavenly forces appeared with the messengers praising God and saying, “Praise be to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good hope to men!”

What a great rendering! “Heavenly forces” appeared. This was the the army of God. Perhaps they were beginning their attendance upon the baby who was really the Lord from heaven. God’s “Secret Service” had arrived to protect their King (cf. Matt. 26:33).

When the messengers departed from them to heaven, the shepherds spoke to one another and said, “We will go to Bethelehem and see this this message which has been, as the Lord made known to us. And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and [they found] the baby laid in a manger. When they saw, they reported the message which was spoken to them about the child. Everyone that heard wondered at the description which the shepherds gave to them. Mary, however, kept these sayings in her heart and considered them in her heart.
   Those shepherds returned, magnifying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard, as it was described to them.

Surely these shepherds were excited about the idea of Jesus overthrowing Rome on behalf of Israel. The Jews were expecting two different Messiahs, one the Suffering Servant (Messiah ben Joseph) and one a Conquering King (Messiah ben David). Of course, it was the Conquering King that most of them were really hoping for. They were thinking this was the end of centuries of oppression by the Greeks and Romans.

The messengers had told them the baby was the Messiah. There was no way, however, for the shepherds to understand the real meaning of “news of great joy which applies to the whole world.” Jesus will one day to return to conquer, but back in 6 B.C. or somewhere near that year, he was coming to suffer so that news of great joy could be brought to the whole world (Matt. 28:18-20). He was not going to deliver the nation of Israel, at least not right away, but he was going to deliver us all from fear of death, suffering, and everything else that might hold us in bondage (Heb. 2:14-15). He released the whole earth from bondage, so that all who call upon the name of Jesus can be saved, Jew and Gentile alike.

The Suffering Servant Offers Unlimited Emancipation

That is not to say that Jesus could not have conquered on his first coming. When he left, he told the apostles that all authority had been given him in heaven and earth. For those of us who believe and follow him, we know that this authority sets us free from every government. Our people triumph over every enemy because death is deliverance for us.

It’s a beautiful thing to God when a Christian does battle with pain. When he faces threats, punishments and tortures by mocking death and treading underfoot the horror of the executioner; when he raises up his freedom in Christ as a standard before kings and princes; when he yields to God alone and, triumphant and victorious, he tramples upon the very man who has pronounced the sentence upon him … God finds all these things beautiful. (The Octavius 37)

It is true that Jesus will return as Conquering King, but do not underestimate your power to triumph now. The early Christians were not always in danger of their lives. Sometimes they had relative peace. In those times, these kinds of exhortations were given:

Since, O son, you desire martyrdom, hear. Be like Abel was, or like Isaac himself, or Stephen, who chose for himself on the way the righteous life. You indeed desire something suited for the blessed. First of all, overcome the evil one with your good deeds by living well. Then, when he who is your King sees you, be secure. … Even now, if you have conquered by good deeds, you are a martyr in him.

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Through the Bible: Matthew 1:18-25

We are going through Tatian’s Diatessaron. It is a harmony of the four Gospels put together in the mid-second centuary. Today we begin section II, which is pulled from Matthew 1. The introduction mentions that Tatian skipped the genealogies in Matthew and Luke (par. 11,13), so this section begins with verse 18 of Matthew 1.

Today, I will be copying the translation of the Diatessaron right into the post with my usual updates to modern English. The translation is 120 years old.

Righteousness

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah happened this way: In the time when his mother was given in marriage to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a just man and did not wish to expose her. He purposed to put her away secretly.

Matthew, who wrote this, was an apostle. The apostles were given the duty of establishing churches and teaching those churches the faith that was entrusted to them by Jesus. On top of this, we believe that the Holy Spirit guided the apostles in this duty. It is for this reason that the early churches gathered up every writing that could reasonably be thought to have been written by an apostle. One of the most respected writers of the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons, wrote:

We have learned from no others the plan of our salvation than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they at one time proclaimed in public and at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures to be the ground and pillar of our faith. It is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed perfect knowledge … for after our Lord rose from the dead, they were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down, were filled with everything, and had perfect knowledge. They departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things from God to us. (Against Heresies, Bk. III, ch. 1, par. 1)

I make this point about the apostles because there is a very key statement in the passage we are looking at: “Joseph … was a just man.”

Joseph had compassion on Mary. If he had told the village that Mary was pregnant, she could have been stoned (Deut. 22:23-27). Truly, Joseph’s decision was a merciful one.

But we do not always attribute mercy to God. There are teachers, and they are not few, who would have us believe that the only righteous thing to do is to strictly adhere to what we read in the Bible, even if it seems unloving. Such teachers search the Scriptures to find every law they can and apply it in the strictest fashion. An example I have seen often over my years as a Christian, perhaps because of the circles I have traveled in, is divorce and remarriage. There are churches who will ask a remarried couple, who are newly come to Christ, to separate because remarriage is forbidden in the Bible (e.g., Matt. 19:7-9). They will do this even if there are small children in the family and even if the remarriage happened while the couple were not Christians.

Surely we can agree that the abundance of divorces in the church today are a terrible thing, and this is not God’s will. We see in this passage, however, that cruelly applying the law of God without regard for people is not God’s will, either.

It is the Holy Spirit who calls Joseph’s action, in protecting Mary, “just,” or righteous. (The Greek word that Bibles translates as “just” or “righteous” is the same word.) It was a righteous act for Joseph to avoid applying the law of Moses given in Deuteronomy 22 and to break his engagement with Mary privately.

Jesus, who as the Word of God (Jn. 1:1-3) was the giver of the Law, showed that Joseph’s actions were right by his own actions when he was presented with a woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11). (Note that in that passage, the Pharisees did not bring him the man caught in adultery as well. You can’t catch a woman in the act of adultery without catching the man as well.)

I took so many words to make this point because it is important. We are ministers of a new covenant, and that covenant relies on the Spirit and not the letter (2 Cor. 3:6). We do not forsake the letter, but we apply it spiritually and in love, not merely intellectually.

Angelic Intervention

When he thought of [putting her away], the messenger of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit. She shall bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

Again, the Greek word angelos means messenger, not specifically angel, and is used of humans in several places (e.g., Matt. 11:10 & Mark 1:2 regarding John the Baptist). This, of course, is a heavenly messenger, but “messenger” is the correct word to use, not angel.

All this was so that the saying from the Lord by the prophet might be fulfilled: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which, being interpreted, [means] “with us is our God.”

We looked at the divinity of Jesus on April 23.

When Joseph arose from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, took his wife, and did not know her until she birthed her firstborn son.

Catholics and Orthodox are going to fuss at me for this, but this passage does away with the idea that Mary was “ever virgin.” Mary was most blessed among women because God chose her to birth his Son on earth. If God has such favor towards her, then we should, too. It was prophesied that “all generations” would call her blessed (Luke 1:48). That is all awesome, but to slowly turn her into some kind of demi-goddess is idolatry. It began with “ever virgin,” and it progressed to a sinless life, a sinless birth (“immaculate conception”), and a bodily assumption into heaven (Munificentissimus Deus). We should call Mary blessed, not transform her into a second sinless person.

See you in the next post!

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Through the Bible: Luke 1:76-80, Repentance and Atonement

Note: This is a very long post. I think it the subject is worth the length of the post. Therefore, I will wait at least three days to post the next one. If you are going through the Bible with me, please take the next two to three days to get through this post. It is very,
very important.

Once again, I remind you we are going through Tatian’s Diatessaron, a harmony of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that was put together in the second century. Today we are covering just one small passage, Luke 1:76-80.

As for you, O child, you will be called prophet of the Most High. You shall go forth before the face of the Lord to prepare his way, to give the knowledge of salvation to his people for the forgiveness of their sins, through the mercy of the compassion of our God, with which he cares for us. [He will] appear from on high to give light to them that sit in darkness and under the shadow of death and to set straight our feet in the way of peace.

In the last post, I said that the phrase “to give the knowledge of salvation to his people for the forgiveness of their sins” was filled with meaning for me. Today we will be focusing primarily on that phrase.

John the Baptist, of whom this prophecy is given, is known for one main message: “Repent!”

In Luke 3:3 we read, “He went into all the region around Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (ESV). In the passage I quote above, we read that he going to give knowledge of salvation to his people for the forgiveness of their sins. Both those statements talk about the forgiveness of sins, but they start differently. One says that he is going to give knowledge of salvation for the forgiveness of sins, and the other says that what he did is bring a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

To me, this obviously says that repentance is the knowledge of salvation you need if you want to have the forgiveness of sins. If you don’t follow the logic there, ask me in the comments. The idea is that if a + c = d and b + c = d, then a must equal b.

Because of Protestant teachings over the last couple centuries, you probably don’t know that repentance can be the knowledge of salvation. You may, and that is fantastic. But you may not, so I am going to correct that for you.

To begin with let’s remember how much John the Baptist emphasized repentance. You’ll find in Matthew 3:1-6 and Luke 3:3-8 that his whole message was repentance. He was continuing a long tradition.

Cain

Let’s begin with Cain. At the start of Genesis 4 we find that God had no regard for Cain’s offering of grain, while he did have regard for Abel’s offering of sheep. It is commonly said that the problem with Cain’s offering is that it had no blood. That made sense to me since Hebrews 9:22 says that in the offerings of the Law, almost everything is purified with blood and without blood there is no release from sins.

Then I began to read the early Christian writings. I was surprised to find that they gave a different reason. They said that Cain’s offering was rejected because he did evil, not because it was a grain offering lacking blood. They thought this because the Bible directly says it: “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 Jn. 3:12).

Now I know this says he murdered his brother because his deeds were evil, not that his sacrifice was rejected because his deeds were evil. But if you look at Genesis 4:4-5, you will see that the reason Cain was angry with Abel was because his sacrifice was rejected. So Moses (author of Genesis) says that Cain killed Abel because his sacrifice was rejected, and the apostle John says Cain killed Abel because his deeds were evil. This ties the rejection of his sacrifice to his evil deeds. But there’s more!

In Genesis 4:6, God comes to help Cain with his problem. He asks him why he’s angry, and then he tells Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7, ESV).

The problem Cain had was sin. Doing good would have resolved his problem. The issue with Cain was not a bloodless sacrifice. Leviticus 2:1-10 and 6:14-18 gives the rules for grain offerings. Those were acceptable even under the Law. Cain’s problem was not a bloodless sacrifice. Instead it was a lack of repentance. Without repentance, offerings—whether for sin or not—are not accepted.

David

Again, the Bible explicitly states that the problem with an offering is always repentance, this time through David. In Psalm 51, David says God is not delighted with sacrifice (v. 16), but the true sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and contrite heart (v. 17). He then says that he will offer sacrifices (v. 19), but that is only after offering a broken spirit and contrite heart, which is about the best definition of repentance that can be found in the Bible.

Isaiah

Isaiah 1:1-20 is a much stronger repeat of what David said in Psalm 51:16-19. In the Isaiah passage God detests all the rituals and offerings of the Jews (1:11-15), and he lets them know what he wants is repentance and the doing of good (1:16-20).

Jeremiah

One of the oddest passages in the Bible is God’s statement in Jeremiah 7:22 that he didn’t talk to the Israelites about animal sacrifices when he took them out of Egypt. In 35 years as a Christian, I have never heard anyone quote that verse. The earliest Christians, however, quoted it regularly (e.g., Letter of Barnabas, ch. 2, early second century; Dialogue with Trypo, ch. 22, mid-second century; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. IV, ch. 17, par. 3).

The point is obvious. God doesn’t really care about sacrifices, he cares about obedience. If you read everything God says through Jeremiah from 7:1-23, you will see that he cares about “amend your ways and your deeds” (v. 5) and obedience (v. 23). Why he says he never mentioned sacrifices or burnt offerings throws me, but the point is clear, and it is the same thing we have found God saying through all those who preceded Jeremiah.

Ezekiel

In Ezekiel 18:21-23 we find a clear assertion of the same principle that we are seeing above and that is stated directly by Samuel the prophet in 1 Samuel 15:22, to obey is better than sacrifice. Ezekiel, however, gives us some explanation to go with it:

But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (ESV)

In all these passages we find that God is not looking for sacrifices that will cover sin, but he is looking for repentance that will allow him to forgive sin. Over and over he cries, “Forget about your repulsive sacrifices. They are repulsive because you are disobeying me. Repent instead, and I will forget all the sins you have ever committed, and you will live because of your righteousness. Please, repent and live. I take no pleasure in the punishment of the wicked.”

The New Testament

We think that Jesus’ sacrifice of himself is the perfect sacrifice that covers all sin. The purpose of sacrifice, however, has never been to cover sin. Sacrifice has always been tied to repentance and obedience, and it has always been useless, and even offensive, without repentance. Surely the passages above are enough to convince us of this, but I could quadruple the passages above without much effort.

We look at Romans 3 and Romans 7, which speak of how we all have sinned and all continue to sin, and we conclude that Jesus needed to pay for sins so that God wouldn’t be angry with us. We have the whole idea backwards. Jesus’ death was not for God. God was perfect already. He was merciful already. He promised to forgive the repentant already. We have seen that above.

We saw above that God wasn’t worried about sacrifices, he was worried about us, that we would repent. If we would repent, he said, then he would forget all of our wicked living and he would only look at our new righteous life (Ezek. 18:20-23). What a great system! What a merciful and kind God!

What is it that is missing from that great system in which we repent, then follow through in obedience, and God mercifully forgets all the wickedness we have ever done?

What is missing from that system is humans continuing in repentance. Over and over and over Israel broke the covenant God. They broke the covenant so much that God said one day he would make a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34).

The problem with the system is us. The missing ingredient is repentance and following through on repentance. Paul spends two whole chapters discussing why we don’t continue in repentance. Those two chapters are Romans 3 and Romans 7. At the end of Romans 7, he cries out for all of us, “Who shall rescue me from my body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).

He then answers his question with “… through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:25).

Jesus is the answer to a problem. The problem is that we do not continue in repentance. According to everything we looked at throughout the Old Testament, God would forgive our sins if we would just continue in repentance. As Romans 7 describes, the problem is that we had no power to live in repentance. We had no power to obey.

The Atonement

Romans 8 then tells us how God offered his Son to cure that problem.

There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. The Law of the Spirit of Life has set us free from the Law of Sin and Death. (Rom. 8:1-2)

God made a new law that would deliver us from the Law of Sin and Death that he had just described in Romans 7. How would this new law overcome the old one?

For what the Law could not do, God did. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, as an offering for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:3-4)

In some way, whether we understand it or not, Jesus broke the power of sin by becoming flesh and then becoming an offering for sin. We certainly know that one way he would do this is by giving us the Spirit. That every person in Christ would receive the Holy Spirit is the mark of the New Covenant, and it is the first thing that was announced to the Jews after the apostles received the Holy Spirit themselves (Acts 2:15-18).

Receiving the Holy Spirit allows us to walk in the Law of the Spirit of Life. The Spirit is given to us as a free gift for those who not only repent, but also believe in Jesus. It is one thing to repent as a powerless human being. That will never last. But to repent and be baptized into Jesus, now that is powerful. To be baptized into Christ is to put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). To be baptized into Christ means that you will received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). To be baptized into Christ is to be baptized into his death, so that you can rise up into newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).

Thus, once Jesus offered himself, and once we repented and were baptized into Christ, he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit and newness of life, so that if we walk by the Spirit the righteous requirement of the Law will be fulfilled in us.

This is why Paul repeatedly tells us that Jesus died so that we would obey him:

  • For this purpose Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Rom. 14:9)
  • He died for all so that those who live would live no longer for themselves, but for him who died for them and lived again. (2 Cor. 5:14)
  • … who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all unlawlessness and purify for himself his own special people zealous for good works. (Tit. 2:14)

As I point out these passages, I am not trying to tell you that Jesus died so that we would feel guilty and struggle and strive to do good better than the Jews did under the Old Covenant. No, I mean he died so that we could have a power to obey God that could not be obtained under the Old Covenant.

Romans 5:19 describes that power this way: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19, ESV). In other words, just as Adam made you a sinner, cutting off your power to obey, so Jesus makes those who believe in him to be obeyers, not only returning to you the power to obey, but granting you the Holy Spirit to guide you through this life.

This gift of new life and new power to obey is a free gift. It is called grace. Paul says that because of that grace, sin will no longer have power over you (Rom. 6:14). He tells us in the letter to the Ephesians that this free gift of grace, obtained through simply repenting and believing, would recreate us in Christ Jesus to do good works (Eph. 2:8-10). The gift is so powerful that it let us partake of God’s divine nature, give us everything that has to do with life and godliness, and rescue us from the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Pet. 1:3-4).

Repentance

The next thing to do is to get back to the spot in our text that got me started on this long teaching. I think it is important to understand the role of repentance and the things we get now that Jesus has given so much more than the forgiveness of sins in return for repentance. We get much more than what Old Testament believers received, as I just described.

I want to go through New Testament descriptions of the importance of repentance because that is what we were originally talking about, the “knowledge of salvation” that John the Baptist gave to prepare for Jesus’ coming.

  • Jesus message specifically and carefully begins with repentance. It is “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Mark 1:14-15)
  • The first command given to the first people to receive the Gospel from the apostles is “Repent.” (Acts 2:38)
  • The Gospel to the Jews is summed up as “the gift of repentance leading to life” (Acts 11:18)
  • Paul sums up his ministry among the Gentiles by telling King Agrippa that he went to Damascus, Jerusalem, Judea, and the Gentiles telling them to repent and do works befitting repentance. (Acts 26:20)

That last verse is distressing to most evangelicals. Why would Paul sum up his Gospel of faith (Rom. 1:16-17) as “repent and do works befitting repentance”?

The reason is that faith, repentance, baptism, and the atonement are all tied up in a simple story. Our merciful God has always taught us how to live, then asked us to obey his teachings. We repeatedly broke his laws, but kept calling us to repentance and offering us mercy if we would repent. Finally, when enough time had passed that we could be sure that we would never attain to the kingdom of God in our own power, “the power of God would make us able” (Letter to Diognetus, ch. 9).

Justifying This Long Post

One of the most common statements among Protestants is that Jesus “paid the penalty” for our sins. This statement, however, cannot be found in Scripture. Instead, the only thing the Scriptures say that Jesus paid for was us (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; 1 Pet. 1:18-19).

Jesus’ death was a sacrifice. It was an offering for sin. However, it was not a payment in the sense of, say, going to jail in the place of someone who robbed a bank. No it was a redemption price, purchasing us out of our slavery to sin and making us his own so that he could empower us to live the life of repentance and obedience that Jesus has always called us to.

The atonement is a lot more complicated than could be described in one post, even if it is three thousand words. The basic story I have told, however, is clearly described in Scripture and easy to understand. The “penal substitution theory of the atonement,” the title given to the more typical Protestant version of the atonement, falls apart as soon as one thinks through it.

  • “Paid the penalty” is never used in Scripture, even though a payment price is mentioned several times.
  • If Jesus paid the penalty for all sins, then how can Jesus judge us for sins on the last day? (Matt. 7:21-23; 25:31-46; 2 Cor. 5:10; etc.).
  • If Jesus paid the penalty for all our sins, then why are there so many warnings, written to Christians, about dying or not entering the Kingdom of God because of sins? (Matt. 7:21-23; Rom. 8:12-13; 1 Corinthians 10:1-12; Gal. 5:19-21; 6:7-9; 2 Pet. 2:20; all of Hebrews).

The “paid penalty” theory of the atonement has a clear history of development, starting with St. Anselm in the eleventh century (c. 1095). How likely is a theory that is new to this millennium to be true?

I am hoping that was enough to cure you of the penal substitutionary atonement and its consequent errors so that it is easier, as we go through the Scriptures, to just read them for what they say.

Back to John the Baptist

I hope I have convinced you that repentance is the “knowledge of salvation” that John the Baptist would bring in accordance with the prophecy of his father Zecharias. With that, let’s move on to the next section of Tatian’s Diatessaron by briefly finishing this one.

Moving On

The child grew and became strong in the spirit, and abode in the desert until the time of his appearing unto the children of Israel.

This verse is Luke’s transition from the birth of John to the birth of Jesus. He sort of sets John aside with a “he’s growing, and we’ll get back to him when he begins preaching to the children of Israel.”

Because this through the Bible was so long and so important, I am hoping you will spend some of your devotion time the next couple days considering these things. It will be three or four days until the next post.

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