Monday, September 18, 2017

Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria (Acts 1:8; 8:4-25)

Acts opens with this: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Still, it's a marvel that the Jerusalem church would take the gospel to Samaria, because history had driven a wedge between Jerusalem in the South and and Samaria to the North.

Saul came from the North, David from the South; and after Solomon's death, long-simmering North-South divisions ended up in outright schism. After that, David's sons ruled the South by a God-ordained dynasty and built the God-ordained temple on Mount Zion. But non-Davidic kings ruled in the North and even built a faux temple on Mount Gerizim, one of the two mountains from which Israel echoed blessings and curses just before they entered the promised land. This in turn formed the ritual for a covenant renewal ceremony (Deut 11:29; 27:12-26; Josh 8:30-35). Hence its significance to Israel.

Exile came to the North two hundred years before the Southern exile, and one result was a lot of Gentile intermixture among families in the North. So the Samaritans were viewed as at best a half-breed offshoot of God's covenant with Israel (2 Kgs 17:24-41). After the exile, those tensions only increased when the returnees began rebuilding in the South. The Jews refused Samaritan attempts to get involved in rebuilding Jerusalem (Ezra 4:1-3); in turn, the Samaritans undermined Jewish attempts to rebuild Jerusalem's walls, society, and temple.

Even their canon of Scripture varied, which meant their messianic hopes differed widely. The Samaritan canon consisted of a specially edited Pentateuch (Genesis - Deuteronomy). That excluded the prophetic histories of the Davidic line that led to Judah's royal messianic hopes. It also excluded the latter prophets' messianic prophecies of Daniel's heavenly "Son of Man" (Dan 7:13); Isaiah's "Immanuel" (Isa 7:14), light to the nations (Isa 9:2), and suffering Servant of the Lord (Isa 52:13-53:21); and Jeremiah's new covenant (Jer 31:31-34), which Jesus initiated with the new cup (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25).

So the Samaritan's "messiah" wasn't a Davidic figure who would bring in a renewed manifestation of God's rule; rather, he was a pseudo-Mosaic figure who would restore the institutions and patterns of Samaritan worship on Gerizim. They weren't looking for a New Jerusalem, they were looking for a New Gerizim.

And yet, the Jewish Messiah from the Davidic line sent his disciples out to take the gospel to all the world, even to Samaria--and they went! Seems like they had taken seriously the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20), and the original job description for the people of God to bless the nations (Gen 12:1-2).

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Logos

John 1:1–18

John and the Other Three Gospels

John says nothing about when or where Jesus Christ was born, doesn’t mention his baptism or wilderness temptation. He says nothing about his transfiguration, the last supper, how he sweated blood the night he was arrested, his Sanhedrin trial, or his cry, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”

Perhaps most important, John doesn’t record a single one of Jesus’ parables; rather, as the Word made flesh, his very life functioned like his parables. When he feeds a hungry crowd from a lad’s lunch bag, he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again” (John 6:35). When he raises Lazarus from the dead, he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die” (11:25–26). He said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won`t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (8:12). He said, “I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures” (10:9). He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (14:6). Behind all this was his insistence, “The Father and I are one” (10:30). And that’s the reason John’s story begins not in Bethlehem but in the eternal past.

Jesus Christ the Eternal Word

John’s account starts out, “In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Because the Greek term for “word” is logos, some commentators want to put a philosophical twist on this. They say John describes Jesus as the embodiment of the rationalistic ideals of Greek thought. But the “Word” that John describes is clearly the “Word” of the Old Testament. The word that was spoken in creation day after day, which made it so. The word that came in many and varied ways through the prophets. Indeed, John continues his identification of the Logos this way: “God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone” (1:3–4).

By the Logos God pronounced, “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1:3). And following that same sovereign Logos, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (John 1:5). On the other hand, “He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him” (1:10). He even “came to his own people, and even they rejected him” (1:11).

That didn’t stop the Logos from achieving his purpose in becoming human and making his home among us (1:14). He came and revealed God to us (1:18). He came to give new life as children of God to all who believe him (1:12–13).

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Has this path through history using the Jesse Tree helped you to see the Old Testament hopes that Jesus Christ fulfilled?
  • Has this path helped you see Jesus Christ, who revealed God to us? Don’t reject Jesus Christ, either by outright rejection or by passive neglect of his claims on your life. During this Christmas season renew you commitment to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Magi

Matt 2:1–12

The Magi

Historical Record

I suppose most of us have watched three little kids walk down the aisles in their bathrobes and paper crowns often enough that we don’t even wonder at this story of eastern sages visiting the Christ child after following a star. But the whole story ought to give us a bit of a pause. These guys weren’t prophets following the voice of God, they were eastern court advisers following a star.

Records of Jesus’ time abound with notes of messianic hope, and eastern sages were roaming the region examining these messianic mysteries, and mostly coming up with a lot of baloney. On the one hand, Jewish historian Josephus wrote that “one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6.5.4). On the other hand, the Roman poet Virgil wrote his “Messianic Eclogue,” but this praised Caesar Augustus as “Savior of the World.” The first century a.d. Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “There was a firm persuasion… that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire” (Tacitus, Histories, 5.13). The second century a.d. Roman biographer Suetonius wrote, “There had spread all over the Orient and old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 4.5).

That had sent the eastern magi on the prowl Seneca noted that magi had journeyed as far as Athens to sacrifice to the memory of the philosopher Plato (Seneca, Epistles, 58.31). Tiridates, King of Armenia, visited Nero in Rome and brought his magi along (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 13.1). So it should have been no real surprise that eastern astrologers might have their ears to the ground on this—or their eyes to the skies. They were expecting to hear of the birth of the world’s king.

But it is surprising to read in the New Testament that God helped them along. These magi were probably astrologers, which would normally lead us to identify them as charlatans at the least, and as occult agents at the worst. As court envoys from the east they would certainly have been trained not only in diplomatic protocol, but also in the occult studies that were in vogue in courts from Persia to Parthia. Extrabiblical tradition says they were from Persia, and Marco Polo named them as Baldassar, Gaspar, and Melchior and claimed to have seen the place where they were buried, “all three entire with their beards and hair.” So much for the historical record outside the Bible.

The Magi’s Worship

What is the significance of the magi in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth? They represent the kingdoms of this earth coming at the Nativity to pay homage to the Lord’s Messiah. They were paying fealty to “the king of the Jews” (Matt 2:2a), whom some thought would be the King of kings. These magis crossed Herod’s borders asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” Since Herod hadn’t brought his wife home from the maternity ward of Mount Sinai Medical Center, he quite naturally found this question a bit upsetting. These magi claimed, “We saw his star as it rose” (2:2b). Efforts to identify this astronomic phenomenon have all failed to develop a solid answer. Haley’s comet came through in 11 b.c., about five years too early. Besides, it would take some quick-stepping camels to follow that streak across the sky. Some refer to a brilliant convergence of Jupiter and Saturn around 7 b.c., which is a year or two early and would not have moved in such as way as to guide anyone anywhere. From 5 through 2 b.c. Serius, the dog star, kept showing up, but there’s no way to connect that with the magi either.

The magi may have bowed and scraped their way into Herod’s throne-room, but they said, “We have come to worship him”—not you (2:2b).

Herod’s Plot

The paranoid “King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this” (2:3). The very report of magi arriving from the east could have meant dangerous things afoot in the political realm. And these magi brought news of a potential rival to the throne of Judea. Was this some sort of intrigue against him that the Parthians were cooking up—after all, they were the Roman’s chief rivals for power in the region at that time. Maybe they were planning to throw their weight behind this “newborn king of the Jews”?

So Herod made some inquiries with his advisers, who pointed out that if there were any newborns who might claim the throne, they would have to come from David’s royal home town, as the prophet had foretold (2:4–6; see Mic 5:2). Herod ascertained the time that this birth must have occurred, and told him to go find that child and then report back to him so we could go and worship him too (2:7–8). Any wise men who believed that should have lost their “wise man” credentials.

The magi went on their way and stopped where the star indicated, in Bethlehem (2:9–11). They entered the palace where the holy family was living and “bowed down and worshiped” Jesus (2:11a). “Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts” (2:11b). Some gifts were gold, perhaps pointing to the royalty of this son of David. Some were incense, perhaps pointing to the divinity of this Son of God. And some were myrrh, perhaps point to the passion of the Lamb of God. Certainly all this fulfilled the psalmist’s promise: “The eastern kings of Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts. All kings will bow before him, and all nations will serve him” (Ps 72:10b–11).

Dreams and angelic visits were such a part of the Nativity story. “When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod,” although this certainly would have violated the normal diplomatic protocol (2:12).

What do we make of this? Two points come to mind:

God brought these pagans to the Messiah. 

God used what we would consider highly suspect means. He used a star. A Jew or an eastern sage could have seen this, but the magi would have interpreted it through the framework of pagan astrological omens. Notice that God also used an Old Testament prophecy, even though it was interpreted through the scholarly lens of degenerating Judaism. Matthew starts with this international tone and ends with the Great Commission to all nations (28:18). The story begins with a recrod of a Lord Jesus who is for all. Simple shepherds come to the birth site guided by angelic message; the religious elite who know by exegesis where the birth is won’t come. Pagan astrologers come to the birth site guided by their own astrological interpretation and borrowed Scripture interpretation; the religious elite who know by exegesis where the birth will be don’t come.

At the same time, Jesus was coming to his own but not being received. 

Today, much of the world is showing a new receptivity to the Word of God. At Jesus’ coming, the Scriptures were heard by two audiences, Jewish Scripture readers and pagan star readers. Ironically, it was the pagans who eagerly followed the Word once someone told them about it.

This story doesn’t teach us that God will meet the sincere seeker, no matter what their convictions might be. Some say, “God helps those who help themselves.” We will do better at understanding this story if we acknowledge that the magi sought Jesus Christ because God had already sought the magi. One commentator says, “The star, the people of God in Jerusalem, and their Holy Scriptures are the external means of grace used by God in bringing the magi to Christ” (F. D. Bruner). We should realize that anyone coming to Jesus Christ is coming at God’s bidding, whatever the means that God might use.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Note how useless the orthodox understanding of Scripture is if your heart isn’t prepared to respond to it in obedience and worship.
  • How will you reactd to the demands of the Messiah for worship. Will you set out an orthodox representation of those demands and then ignore them, or will you fumble your way to a flawed but sincerely stance of worship—will you be a disciple?
  • What will you do at the foot of the Christ-child this Christmas season? Will you truly celebrate Christmas by worshiping Jesus Christ; or will you profane it with mere celebration while you remain at the helm of your own fate. Will you bow the knew in obeisance to the King of kings and Lord of lords?

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Jesus' Birth

Luke 2:1–20

Born in Bethlehem, City of David

Think of the stress that Joseph and Mary must have been facing. They were not yet married but had a baby on the way, for which there was no explanation that would satisfy most gossips. It was Roman tax time and the Romans were calling everyone back to their family homes to pay up. So off they went to Bethlehem. Escape from their neighbors’ malicious gossip might have seemed a relief, but the trip would certainly have been bad time for a very pregnant Mary. The Romans had arranged it for tax purposes, but God had arranged it to fulfill messianic prophecy that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2).

It’s interesting to note how God went about sending out his birth announcements. He didn’t send them to the Jerusalem symphonic guild, but to shepherds who heard by angelic choir. He didn’t send them to the diplomatic elite in Jerusalem but to pagan magi from the east who came and let slip the nature of their mission so that Herod found out by round-about means.

The angelic choir told shepherds about this greatest of all sons in the Jesse Tree. This was going to be the Son who brought peace everywhere that God’s favor rested. So these shepherds went off and became the first gospel preachers. They told everyone the Gospel (“good news”).

We’re still hearing this good news, and perhaps even from unlikely sources. Perhaps you heard it from your own children who you sent to church rather than taking them yourselves. Perhaps you heard it in a radio broadcast even though you hardly ever listen to the radio. Perhaps you even heard it from some now-discredited preacher. But then the shepherds were hardly the likely voices for great imperial pronouncements about the King of kings. And what can we say of how the message came to the magi?

Perhaps even you could be a gospel messenger, spreading this good news. Certainly you should pass the good news on to your children, as you have been doing with this Jesse Tree this month. Perhaps you have others who would be your natural audience if you would only speak up with the good news.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • If you were a shepherd who had just heard that message, who would you meet in the next seven days? “The shepherds told everyone” (Luke 2:17), shouldn’t you?

Friday, December 23, 2016

Joseph: Trusting God

Matt 1–2; Luke 2:41–51; 3:23–38

Mary had the tough role, but Joseph’s role in the birth of the Messiah wasn’t so comfortable either. Who would have blamed Joseph if he had done through with the divorce he was considering? And notice, this decent man had been planning to do all that he could to avoid embarrassing Mary publicly (Matt 1:19).

A angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and gave him pretty much the same explanation that Gabriel had given Mary: This has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, not by some other man. Here’s the name you’re supposed to give him: “Jesus.” And all of this fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of the “Immanuel” child (Matt 1:20–23, see Isa 7:14). So, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife” (Matt 1:20).

“When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus” (Matt 1:24–25). And thus he shouldered a heavy responsibility. He took his very pregnant fiance off to Bethlehem when taxes came due. Sat by while she gave birth and began receiving visitors from near and afar. He must have wondered at all the royal imagery that the wise men from the east signified with their precious gifts. “I’m just a Galilean carpenter. What’s this they’re saying about our son?”

The next time the Lord sent him a message in a dream was to tell him, Take the boy and his mother, and run for your lives. Herod’s in a slaughtering rage trying to kill all the little boys who might prove to be a Messiah and claim his throne. So Joseph pulled up stakes and ran for Egypt until he saw Herod’s name the International Herald Tribute obituary pages. Then the headed home.

In one sense, Jesus must have given them an easy ride as parents. This one who was God made flesh probably didn’t get into trouble with drugs and girls—I doubt if he even threw spitballs in class or got after-school detentions for pulling the girls’ pigtails. On the other hand, how easy could it have been for simple trades people from the hills to raise the King of kings and Lord of lords. They would head off to the temple, and Jesus would hunt up the scholars for intense Scripture discussions that would have sailed way over their heads. Mary and Joseph would exchange stories, and one of them would bring up Simeon’s blessing: “And a sword will pierce your very soul” (Luke 2:35).

Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus ancestry through Mary, who was the mother of the Christ child. Luke’s doesn’t blush to trace Jesus’ line back from Joseph, even though he didn’t sire the child himself. Joseph must have served as a loving and faithful husband to Mary and father to Jesus, but he fades out of the Gospel story early on. Only the apocryphal works provide any detailed history of Joseph’s subsequent life and death. But heaven must have a warm welcome prepared for this faithful and humble servant to put aside his own dignity to protect Mary’s, laid aside his own paternal rights in obedience to heaven’s call, and loved his God, his wife, and his Son.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Compare and contrast the openness of Mary and Joseph to God’s guidance with your own receptivity to God’s call.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Luke 1:26-38, 46-56

Jesus’ Birth Foretold (Luke 1:26–38)

The angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to Mary. He came to a Galilean village named Nazareth (Luke 1:26), to the virgin Mary who was promised in marriage to Joseph, “a descendant of King David” (1:27). Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored woman. The Lord is with you!” (1:28), which left Mary “confused and disturbed” about what that might mean (1:29).

When Gabriel explained the “favor” in terms of pregnancy it only increased her confusion and concern: “But how can this happen! I am a virgin” (1:34). Gabriel explained how it would come about, and what her child would become. How: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (1:35a). Result: “The baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God” (1:35b), “He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” (1:32–33).

Unlike Zechariah, who responded with incredulity to the angel’s announcement, Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true” (1:38). Indeed, when her aged relative Elizabeth met her, she said, “You are blessed because you believed what the Lord would do what he said” (1:45). One wonders what Gabriel must have thought, the great plan of God rests with a simple village girl!

Jesus’ Birth Extolled (Luke 1:46–56)

Mary responded to Elizabeth with a great song of praise for the Lord. One can imagine many other responses. Many girls would have fallen into deep depression, worrying about how this would ruin her reputation and put the jinx on her upcoming wedding. This belly won’t fit in my wedding dress—and Joseph won’t stand for this. One would almost expect to hear a litany of lengthy prayers asking God what was up with this plan. One can imagine her echoing Habakkuk’s words: “I will wait to see what the Lord says and how he will answer my complaint” (Hab 2:1). But Mary moved from instant obedience to insistent praise.

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” (Luke 1:46–27). Rather than complain, God what have you done to me, she said, “He took notice of his lowly servant girl” (1:48a). She could only do this because she had complete faith in the message of the Lord that Gabriel had delivered. She may have feared that neighbors would talk, but she also knew “all generations will call me blessed” (1:48b). She kept focusing on what God was doing, now on how she was sacrificing. She didn’t reluctantly agree, “God can do this thing through me”; rather, she said, “He has done great things for me” (1:49b).

In fact, she didn’t even exult merely in her personal experience. She praised God for what he had been doing down through the generations, how he was keeping the patriarchal promise that had first been activated with Abraham (1:50–55). She recognized that what was coming to shape in her belly was God’s plan for the salvation of Israel and the world. And she praised God.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • At this Christmas season we can thank God for Mary’s ready obedience, and we should call her “blessed above all women” (Luke 1:42).

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Zechariah and Elizabeth: Hopeful Anticipation

Luke 1:5–25, 67–80

Birth of John the Baptist Foretold (Luke 1:5–25)

Around the time of Jesus’ birth to the young maiden Mary, God provided another miraculous birth, this time to an aged and barren relative of Mary’s. The old couple were Zechariah and Elizabeth, a priestly family. Following a pattern that the Old Testament developed several times to keep God’s covenant moving, God promised a miraculous birth to a barren couple. This had happened with the patriarchs and their wives and with Samson. And it would happen again most miraculously with Mary.

Zechariah was a priest serving his rota in the temple. Standing at the incense altar he heard God’s promise of a son to him and his aged wife. God gave him orders about naming the child “John,” and about committing him to something like the Nazirite vow (1:15a). God then promised, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth” (1:15b), a promise that echoed the promise about prophets and deliverers (Judg 13:5, 7; Isa 49:1; Jer 1:5). Of course, Zechariah had some trouble getting his mind around that idea, just as Abraham and Sarah had when they were told their days in the nursing home would be livened by the birth of a child. And Because Zechariah had a difficult time believing it, God promised him a sign: “You will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born” (Luke 1:20).

When Zechariah got off duty as a priest he went home and had slept with his wife. At their age, Elizabeth may have found even that a bit of a surprise. And imagine her amazement when she got pregnant. I don’t know whether morning sickness or a big belly gave her the first clues, since there wouldn’t have been any missed periods to give the first alert. Of course, Zechariah’s frantic scribbling may have passed the news to her—perhaps on the night they gray, wrinkled couple conceived John in geriatric intimacy.

Before either John or Jesus were born, their mothers visited each other, and rejoiced at the thing that God was doing in their families. In fact the greeting of Mary, who was bearing Jesus in her womb, provoked quite a response. “At the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped within her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). The result was a brief prophecy: “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed” (1:42). Under that same Spirit she identified Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (1:43). And she blessed Mary, “You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said” (1:45).

Birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57–66)

In due course, Elizabeth gave birth to a baby boy, to much rejoicing. When it came time to circumcise and name the child, the announced his name as “John,” which surprised everyone (Luke 1:60, 63). They could have been expecting Zechariah Jr. or the name of some favorite uncle or grand dad. But this one belonged to the Lord not to his aged parents. “Awe fell on the whole neighborhood” (1:65) and news spread” The question arose: “What will this child turn out to be?” (1:66).

Zechariah’s Prophecy (Luke 1:67–80)

The Holy Spirit not only opened Zechariah’s mouth after he properly named the child John. He was also “filled with the Holy Spirit” and prophesied (1:67), by way of answering the people’s question (1:66). Zechariah’s prophecy was actually twofold: It told of the coming Savior that God was sending (1:68–75), and he said his own son John would be a prophet preaching to prepare the way for that Savior (1:76–79; see Mal 3:1; 4:5; Isa 40:3–5).

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • None of us ought to expect to place ourselves in the shoes of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the Virgin Mary. They were people that God chose to act through and advance redemptive history in unique ways. But their response to promise, whether in incredulity or belief, can exhort us to respond with faith when God calls on us in our own humble service.
  • None of us ought to expect that our child is a John the Baptist, to say nothing of a Christ. But these mothers raised their sons to be used of God according to his promise. Commit yourself to raising your child in such a way that they will be open to serving God. And encourage them to do it when the times come for them to act on God’s call.