Rebuilding the Foundations: Beginning at the Beginning

Yesterday I said we would have to tear down the old foundation to build a new one. That is true, but spiritual things do not exactly relate to physical things. On this spiritual foundation, we can limit the tearing down to making room for the new things we are building.

Step 1: The Sure Foundation of God

The sure foundation of God stands firm, having this seal (insignia): “The Lord knows those who are his” and “Let those who name the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness.” (2 Tim. 2:19)

This discussion and all that follow will not mean anything unless something practical comes from it. One way to test any teaching you receive is to compare what the teaching tells you to do with what Scripture tells you to do. Today, I am going to tell you to depart from unrighteousness. I hope that is not new to you!

I am going to take it one step further, though, and I am going to tell you that departing from unrighteousness is foundational. It is so foundational that, according to the apostle Paul, God wrote it on his firm foundation.

Not only did he write it on his foundation, but he did not write anything else except “The Lord knows those who are his.”

Here is a good time to say Selah. That word is used in the Psalms a lot, and most scholars think it means “pause.” Selah. You should pause and think about this.

God, through the apostle Paul, lets us know that departing from iniquity is not only foundational, but more foundational than almost anything else! Mind you, the foundation itself is Jesus, for no one can lay any foundation but Christ (1 Cor. 3:11), but the only two things written on the foundation are “The Lord knows those who are his” and “Let those who name the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness.”

Wow.

Here’s the important thing to think about. If you had only one, or maybe two, short inscriptions to make on God’s sure foundation of Jesus Christ, what would you write?

I am going to suggest that not many, if any of us, would choose “depart from unrighteousness” as so central a theme that it should be written as the only, or almost only, inscription on the foundation of God. And surely no one would inscribe “The Lord knows those who are his” before anything else.

God would.

In the next blog we will talk about why. Until then, I ask you please to think about the inscription on the foundation of God. I would also ask you to think about what would happen to a building if you got the foundation wrong, or even the things close to the foundation wrong. How likely would it be that the structures higher in the building would have worse problems than the foundation?

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Rebuilding the Foundations

Rebuilding the Foundations is the name of a teaching that I gave at a missions conference in Pittsburgh last year. About 40 missionaries and roughly the same number of donors were there. The mission is Heaven’s Family, and I am one of the donors because I love the work they do.

That teaching was so well-received that one missionary asked if he could translate it to Chinese and take it to China.

Over the next few blogs, or perhaps over all the blogs I write from now on, I will cover the tenets of that teaching. Here is my plug for what will be coming:

  • Rebuilding the Foundations is neither fluff nor run-of-the-mill. It is what it says it is, a theological rebuilding of Christian foundations.
  • It is a rebuilding, not novelty. Every step of this rebuilding is founded upon Scripture and was once the universal teaching of the Christian churches.
  • It will very likely require replacement of foundational teaching you have received. One can only build a foundation on prepared ground. The rubble of a previous foundation is hardly good ground for a new one.
  • I dare to tear down other foundations because what I am building is both biblical and historical. As said, it once was the foundational teaching of all Christian churches.
  • My main target for bulldozing are the foundation teachings I received in my trek through the Assemblies of God, the eight years I spent in charismatic churches, my experience with Baptist churches, and the theology I see taught in most Evangelical study Bibles.
  • I dare to bulldoze those foundations because of all the problems caused by those foundations: nominalism, worldliness, division, etc.
  • The foundational teachings we will cover are simple, easy to follow, and do not require a knowledge of history or original languages. The only reason they may be hard to understand is because of false traditions that many evangelicals adhere to and love.

I have had a number of new subscribers lately because of my videos on faith and works on Youtube. Welcome aboard. If you have been able to handle that series, you ought to love what is coming on this blog.

I hope I have piqued your curiosity. If it is piqued enough that you don’t want to wait, the basics of future blogs are available at RebuildingTheFoundations.org.

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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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