Friday, November 30, 2012

Matthew's Centurion (part 1 of 2)

When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to Him, appealing to Him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”  And He said to him, “I will come and heal him.”  But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” – Matthew 8:7-8  (ESV)

At first glance, this passage does not strike us as one of the most significant passages in the Gospel of Matthew, but it should.  There is much to be learned here, especially as it relates to Jesus’ mission, the message of the Gospel, the proclamation of the Kingdom of heaven, God’s covenant faithfulness, and healing. 

Just before we reach this story of the centurion, we read in the seventh chapter of Matthew, Jesus saying, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father in heaven’.” (7:21).  Jesus follows that with another “Lord, Lord” reference, saying, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your Name, and cast out demons in Your Name, and do many mighty works in Your Name?’  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness’.” (7:22-23)  Those words come near the close of what is generally referred to as “the sermon on the mount.” 

Shortly thereafter, right after Jesus has made these “Lord, Lord” statements, we read “When He came down from the mountain…a leper came to Him and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, if You will, You can make me clean’.  And Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean’.  And immediately his leprosy was cleansed” (8:1-3).  One thing we can notice here, is that contrary to Jesus becoming unclean by touching the leper, Jesus actually makes the leper clean through His touch.  This is contrary to the declarations of Leviticus concerning leprosy.  This would not be looked upon as insignificant by those that viewed this encounter, nor by those that would hear or read about this encounter.  Apart from that, the thing of which we should take greater notice is that, for the first time in the Gospel of Matthew, a person has come to Jesus and called Him “Lord”; and this has followed closely on the heels of the ominous “Lord, Lord” statements that were spoken on the mountain.  Additionally, not only did the leper call Jesus “Lord,” but he also knelt before Jesus while using the title.

When Jesus gave His “Lord, Lord” warnings, what was missing from the words of prophesying, casting out demons, and doing many mighty works, was a kneeling before Jesus, in recognition that He was truly Lord.  This might cause us to reflect on what Paul would write in Philippians, perhaps reflecting on the Jesus tradition of which he was aware and that was circulating in his day prior to the composition of the Gospel records, “that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:10-11).  The other thing missing was the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord “to the glory of the God the Father,” as the prophesying, the casting out, and the doing of works was proceeded by the words “did we not.” 

In the fourth chapter of Matthew, we read that Jesus “went all throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease and affliction among the people” (4:23).  The Gospel, of course, is intimately connected with the Kingdom, because the Gospel message is the proclamation of Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords.  It is only shortly before this that we read of Jesus first saying “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (3:17b).  We must note that He first made this proclamation, not in Jerusalem, but in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (3:15b).  We also take note of the fact that this is also the first mention of healing in the Gospels, and it is bound up with Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of Heaven.  As it relates to the leper of whom we have already learned, we can make the connection that his recognition of Jesus as “Lord,” and his kneeling before Him as Lord, as though he recognized Jesus as the Sovereign of a Kingdom, is what brought the healing, as the life of the age to come (the new creation, in which there is to be no sickness and no disease), breaks into the world where Jesus is recognized as Lord.  In the leper’s words and actions, the Gospel of the Kingdom was preached. 

This interaction with the leper occurs just before Jesus enters Capernaum and encounters the centurion.  Great crowds had followed Him down from the mountain (8:1), and undoubtedly, many had witnessed the interaction with the leper.  Though Jesus had told the leper “See that you say nothing to anyone” (8:4a), it is quite likely that, due to the crowds, the news had spread rather quickly.  This information would have come to the ears of a Roman centurion, who would be charged with keeping peace and order.  A man with large crowds following Him, about Whom such things was being reported, would put the centurion on alert.  This makes his interaction with Jesus all the more interesting.      

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Advancing The Gospel

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel – Philippians 1:12  (ESV)

This is what defined the Apostle Paul.  His mission, wherever that mission took him, was to advance the Gospel of Jesus the Christ.  His mission was to tell the world, to tell all who would hear him even if they did not want to hear him, that Jesus the Christ was Lord.  Paul’s mission was to inform all men everywhere, whether they would come to believe it or not, that there was no greater principality or power or ruler than the resurrected Christ, Jesus the Messiah of Israel, the One to Whom “was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him” (Daniel 7:14a).  Paul’s message was that the realm in and over which this King Jesus ruled, was an “everlasting dominion which shall not pass away,” and a Kingdom “that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14b).  All, regardless of status or rank or privilege or supposed power, were to hear this message.    

So what was it that had happened to Paul, as we read in our text, that had really served to advance the Gospel?  He was in some form of imprisonment.  This is what was serving to advance the Gospel.  How so?  Well, it has to do with his mission, which, as said above, was to inform all people, without exception, that there was a true Lord and King Whose name was Jesus.  Being in prison, Paul said, had served to make this message “known throughout the whole imperial guard” (Philippians 1:13b). 

Effectively and for all practical purposes, Paul was in prison for claiming that there was another King, and that this King possessed a greater power, both here on earth and in the heavens, than did Caesar.  Paul was in prison for saying that Jesus was truly the Son of God, and not a mythical, play-acting son of god as was pretended by Caesar.  Paul had declared that Caesar’s instrument of power over the people, that being the cross, had been taken by a true King and been turned from an instrument of subjection and forced submission to imperial power, into an instrument of eternal life (the life of the age to come) which served to convey the message of Resurrection power.  Paul was declaring that Jesus had stripped Caesar of his power by His actions on the cross.  Paul said that when Jesus came out of the tomb, in a bodily Resurrection, that He was declared by that to be the true Son of God, with real power (Romans 1:4).  This flew directly in the face of the claims of Caesar and the cult of worship that was associated with his rule. 

With that established, Paul echoed what he may have known to be the words of Jesus, putting Caesar in his rightful place, by saying, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:7).  Regardless of what is here being communicated, Paul seems to make it clear that one thing that was not owed to Caesar was worship.  That belonged to Christ alone. 

We must bear in mind that this message was being made known to the whole imperial guard.  This was being made known to those who were most likely immersed in emperor worship, or forced to participate at some level, as part of the Caesar cult.  Paul was not being sensitive to their culture and religion, nor was he changing his message in the least little bit.  Though some were obviously being changed by this message of power, it is reasonable to presume that not all came to belief, so we can imagine this was not making his time in prison any easier.  Nevertheless, he did not back down, saying that not only was it being made known to the imperial guard, but that it was being made known “to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ” (1:13b).  Who these “all the rest” were is unknown, but we can surmise that some were people of influence, because the message of the Gospel appeared to be having an effect, especially as it relates to the governing authorities (Caesar’s household, as we shall shortly see).  We can make that connection because Paul says that “most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the Word without fear” (1:14).  It was the very fact of Paul’s imprisonment, and his continuing to proclaim and prove the message of Jesus as Lord of all without change or alteration, that created an environment in which there need be less fear of persecution by the authorities (though the persecution would come, Caesar and his authorities could merely kill the body). 

The very proclamation of the Gospel message (Jesus is Lord of all), without addition or insistence upon any type of sanctifying performance, was what was changing hearts and minds, and creating fallow ground for the continued propagation of the Gospel, the growth of the ministry, and the extension of God’s covenant to the people that were desired to be a part of His Kingdom.  The Gospel itself, as Paul would write to the Roman church, was and is “the power of God unto salvation” (1:16), which aped the claims of Rome and Caesar, who was also looked to as a bringer of “salvation” to the world.  When Paul looks at his imprisonment and can say that what was happening to him was really serving to advance the Gospel, it can truly be said that the preaching of Jesus as Lord was indeed turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6).  This was so much the case, that Paul comes to the close of this letter to the Philippian church, writing “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household” (4:22).  Yes, the Gospel was being advanced.       

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Life & Immortality & Light

…and which has now been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, Who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel – 2 Timothy 1:10  (ESV

Our Savior.  Our Christ.  Jesus the Messiah.  This is the One Who had taken the Apostle Paul into His grip and set him upon the mission which would consume the totality of his being until he breathed out his very last breath.  As we read those titles, especially that of Savior, let us always bear in mind that these were risky claims that Paul and his fellow Apostles and saints were making on behalf of Jesus.  There was insurrection and revolution in these words, as it was Caesar that also bore the title of “Savior” (soteros here in the Greek) in that day.  It was Caesar, through the power of Rome, that was recognized and roundly worshiped as the man responsible for bringing the world out of the crushing darkness of barbarism, into the marvelous light of the glory of Rome, bringing life to all through its “Pax Romana” (Roman peace), and through the immortal empire that was never to fail or fall. 

Paul made such claims about Jesus, saying that it was through the Gospel---that message that Jesus was Lord of all (rather than Caesar), with at least partial evidence of this being that He was raised from the dead (and the judgment of the world’s powers)---that Jesus brought life and immortality.  It was through the appearance of Jesus that eternal life (the life of the age to come) was manifested, and not merely as something to be expected after death, but as something that is present in the world through all who are brought to believe in these factual claims about Him.  Rome expanded its empire and extended its power in the same way that all empires before it had done, which was through the bringing of death.  For Rome, the cross was the symbol of its power over all who dared stand in opposition to its claims.  By undergoing death upon this dreaded symbol and then rising to new life, Jesus asserted His mastery over death and informed all principalities that all power belonged to Him.  In the Resurrection that followed His dying upon Rome’s symbol of death and power, Jesus abolished death and brought new life to those that were going to be His people.      

It was because Jesus was raised from the dead as the firstfruits of those who would also be raised from the dead, that Paul could speak of immortality; and indeed, in his great passage about the Resurrection in the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of that which is mortal putting on immortality (15:53) because Jesus also put on immortality.  This was not merely a spiritual immortality, but a literal, physical immortality, sharing in that same type of imperishable and immortal body in which Christ walked His very creation after His Resurrection, before ascending to heaven to symbolize (among other things) the overlapping of heaven and earth in Him.  Together with that, though the Roman empire was spoken of as an empire without end, with Rome itself fancied as the eternal city, Jesus Himself spoke of a Kingdom, the one over which He sat as King, which was an everlasting Kingdom that would indeed never come to an end.  This would be a truly immortal Kingdom, and it would be inhabited by those who had been thrust into immortality by their allegiance to Jesus.

Paul informs Timothy that it was for the proclamation of this message that he had been “appointed,” by the Christ Himself no less, as “a preacher and apostle and teacher” (1:11).  He goes on to tell Timothy that the telling of this message, in the face of all threats, intimidations, persecutions, and indications to the contrary (the message of the cross being foolish and weak, conveyed in a foolish way by foolish men), “is why I suffer as I do” (1:12a).  Why did he suffer?  He suffered because he challenged the entrenched power structures of his day with this message of a King above all other kings, Whom all must acknowledge as supreme, and to Whom all must bow the knee. 

This gained the Apostle beatings, rejections, stonings, dismissal by his own people, mocking from those that were not his people, and imprisonment.  Nevertheless, Paul says “I am not ashamed” (1:12b).  Why was he not ashamed in spite of all these things?  He says “for I know Whom I have believed” (1:12c).  He knew the One He served.  He knew that He had died and then came out of that tomb.  He knew that He had been shown forth to be the true Son of God in power.  He knew that He was King of kings and Lord of lords, with all principalities and powers in ultimate and final subjection to Him.  Paul knew that eternal life and Resurrection power had been shared with him, and that he was empowered by the same power, at the hands of the same Spirit that rose up Christ from the dead.

Paul knew that he had been entrusted with a message to proclaim to all the world---to all who had been appointed to eternal life as manifested by their belief in Jesus as King.  Paul knew that He had a King that would never fail, would never pass away, and Who would always guarantee and remain faithful to His Word.  Paul told Timothy that he was “convinced that He (Jesus) is able to guard until that Day what had been entrusted to me” (1:12d).  Paul was convinced that Jesus would always maintain His claim as Ruler and Master and Savior and Lord, so that Paul would not have run the race in vain, nor, having been entrusted with this message of the Gospel, would he ever have a reason to be ashamed of the claims that he had made on behalf of the risen Messiah.         

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Mother's Gospel

And He said to her, “What do you want?”  She said to Him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your Kingdom.” – Matthew 20:21  (ESV)

This request is quite telling because of what it is that immediately precedes it as the narrative unfolds.  It comes from the woman known only as “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (20:20a), that being James and John, the proverbial “sons of thunder.”  What immediately precedes it is her coming up to Jesus “with her sons, and kneeling before Him” (20:20b).  They kneel before Jesus.  The kneeling is key, and it is connected to what it is that they have just heard Jesus say. 

Now, as we look through the Gospel of Matthew, we read about people coming to Jesus on a regular basis.  In Matthew 8:19, a “scribe came up” to Jesus.  In 9:14, “the disciples of John came to Him.”  In 13:10, 13:36, and 18:1, “the disciples came” to Jesus.  In 15:1, “Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem.”  In 15:30, “great crowds came to Him.”  In 16:1, “the Pharisees and the Sadducees came…to test Him.”  In 18:21, “Peter came up” to Jesus.  In 19:3, we again see that the “Pharisees came up to Him and tested Him.”  Finally, in 19:16, we see that “a man came up to Him.” 

These, however, are not the only times that people have come to Jesus.  There are another set that we will now examine.  In Matthew 8:2, we find that “a leper came to Him.”  What did this leper do?  He “knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, if You will, You can make me clean’.”  Shortly thereafter, in 8:5, “a centurion came forward to Him, appealing to Him,” and said, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly” (8:6).  In 9:18, “a ruler came in and knelt before Him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died, but come and lay Your hand on her, and she will live’.”  In 9:28, “blind men came to Him.”  When Jesus questioned them as to whether or not they believed He could heal them, they replied by saying, “Yes, Lord.”  In 15:25, a Canaanite woman “came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me’.”  In 17:14-15, “a man came up to Him and, kneeling before Him, said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son’.”         

In the first set of people that we saw coming to Jesus, nobody was kneeling.  What do we see in the second set?  Four times, we see people coming to Jesus and kneeling before Him.  Each of those occasions is accompanied by an addressing of Jesus by use of the word “Lord.”  The two that do not recount any kneeling before Jesus, nevertheless, still show Jesus being recognized and addressed as “Lord.”  In the first set, not only did we see no kneeling, we also did not see any use of the word “Lord.”  To go along with that, we also do not see any healing.  The author appears to make the point that when Jesus is addressed as Lord, healing takes place.  When there is no kneeling, and when there is no calling Jesus “Lord,” for the most part, we only hear questions.  As we think about all of this kneeling, we make note of the fact that when the mother of the sons of Zebedee comes to Jesus, her sons are there with her.  All kneel.  This is the first time that we read about any of Jesus’ disciples kneeling before Him.    

How does this help us in looking at the actions and request of the mother of the sons of Zebedee?  Well, we have to look at what it was that came before she came and knelt before Jesus.  Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem.  Throughout His ministry, He had been feeding a growing awareness or expectations that He might very well be the Messiah of Israel.  His disciples have just heard Him say, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world (or ‘in the regeneration’), when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (19:28).  We can trust that the mother of the sons of Zebedee hear these words as well, or at the least, had them told to her by her sons.  This use of “Son of Man,” with its connection to Daniel that so permeated the air in first century Israel, was unmistakable messianic speech, as it spoke to the hope that Israel’s enemies were going to be put down by the very hand of their Creator God.  These words were being said after Jesus “went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” (19:1).  He was working His way towards Jerusalem, “and large crowds followed Him” (19:2). 

After talking about the Son of Man and twelve thrones, Jesus goes into a dissertation about the “kingdom of heaven” and a “vineyard” (20:1).  In this, His listeners were hearing very clear statements connected with Israel, the expected activity of its God, and its Messiah.  Right in the middle of all of these grand declarations, which had to be causing great excitement among His disciples, Jesus says, “we are going up to Jerusalem.  And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and He will be raised on the third day” (20:18-19).  Now, this should have stopped them all dead in their tracks.  They should have been taken aback by this language.  According to Jewish expectation at that time, and if this Jesus was the Messiah, these things were not to happen.  Jesus should most certainly not be saying such things. 

His disciples were not deterred by these words.  Indeed, they did not seem to regard them at all.  It is directly after this that Matthew has the mother coming to Jesus, apparently still thinking about His declaration about the Son of Man and His glorious throne, and the twelve thrones for His disciples, making her request that her two sons sit on those thrones to Jesus right and left hands (positions of great honor).  Apparently, there is something of a communication that she (and presumably her sons) had missed His statements about His death and His Resurrection, and all of that wasn’t a part of Messianic expectation of the day anyway.  Honestly though, we can’t fault her too much for that, as the rest of the disciples were too busy being indignant at James and John, because of their mother’s request, to notice what Jesus had said.  Of course, had they actually heard Him, Peter would probably have just taken Jesus aside again to rebuke Him for making such statements, just like we find him doing in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew. 

Nevertheless, with all of this, let’s remember the kneeling together with the substance of the request.  In those things, we find that this woman recognized that Jesus was Lord (though it was left unsaid), that He was the promised King of Israel, that He was indeed the Messiah, and that His kingdom was going to be established.  In her kneeling and in her request, she preached the Gospel, proclaiming that Jesus is Lord.  

My Criminal Gospel (part 3 of 3)

Paul was preaching revolutionary, criminal ideas, and the worst thing was that those who opposed him did not know how to stop this revolution because there was no violent uprising associated with it that could be warred against and put down.  This revolutionary war was being waged with the weapons of peace and love and faith and hope, so the best that its opponents could do was put its proponents in prison or simply kill them off by the hundreds.  However, this never seemed to work, as the more they were bound, the more the message spread; and killing them publicly merely gave them a platform to preach the message of the Christ to more people, as they went to death with no fear of death, for they believed that their Lord had conquered death, and in that conquering, because they believed themselves to be in union with Him in death as well as life, they believed that death had no power over them either.  In the face of persecution and death, they truly believed and proclaimed that “If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him” (2:11b-12a).  This had the effect of causing the movement to grow, which was contrary to all expectations, much like the Resurrection itself.

Moving on to the fourth and final chapter of Paul’s second letter to Timothy, who is presented as his son in the faith, Paul writes, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, Who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the Word” (4:1-2a).  Paul’s charge to Timothy was the same that he himself had received when commissioned to the role of Christ’s Apostle.  He was to preach the Word of the living presence of Christ Jesus the Lord and of His reign.  He was to preach that Jesus the Christ was the final authority and the only One Who would ultimately be the Judge of life and death.  In that day, Caesar and empire were looked to as the ones that held that right, but this was not truly the case. 

He was to preach that Jesus had not only appeared to hundreds of eye-witnesses who could offer proof of His physical Resurrection, but that He would one day appear again.  He was to preach that Jesus was the King of a kingdom, and that kingdom was an everlasting kingdom which would not be destroyed, a kingdom that held dominion over all the kings and kingdoms of the earth.  This was largely the Word that Timothy was charged to preach.  This is the Word that we are charged to preach, never forgetting that the preaching is in both word and deed, looking to the New Testament examples offered by Jesus and His church, so that deeds of love would be the hallmark of those living godly in Christ Jesus.

With this charge in mind, Paul writes, “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (4:5).  When Paul told Timothy to be sober-minded, was he telling him not to drink too much alcohol?  Let’s not be silly.  The imploring to sober-mindedness was in light of the nature of the message that Timothy had been and would be preaching, as it was fraught with danger.  Remember, Paul is in prison, enduring sufferings and persecutions for the message.  Paul wanted to be sure that Timothy never lost sight of that.  He wanted him to always keep in mind that suffering for the message was always going to be near at hand, and that if and when it was experienced, Timothy need not think that he was somehow outside of the will of God or was somehow not fulfilling his ministry.  In fact, it would be a great indication that he was sending forth the message properly. 

He was to do the work of an evangelist.  What was an evangelist?  An evangelist was one who sounded forth an “evangel.”  That is, somebody who boldly pronounced the “good news,” or “gospel.”  In the day in which Paul wrote, the evangelist was a person, generally a slave, that went out proclaiming that Caesar was coming to visit a town or city, or that a son had been born to Caesar, or that it was Caesar’s birthday, or that Caesar had won another victory, and in that victory Caesar had extended his salvation and his peace, in his self-estimated role as the savior of the world.  That was what was treated as “good news.”  That was “gospel,” and making these things known was the role of an evangelist.  So Paul tells Timothy to think of himself in this role, as did Paul, as a slave, proclaiming the good news of the true King. 

Yes, the King had visited, a truly Divine Son had been born, a King had won a great victory, true salvation and peace had come, and yes, all of this was through and about a Man Whom Caesar had condemned to a cross, but Who rose from a grave.  Declared to be the true Son of God in power, this Jesus was a King unlike the world had ever seen or known.  This was not only a criminal Gospel, but the Gospel of a criminal.  To this King, crucified as nothing more than one more traitor to the glory of Rome, but resurrected as Master and Lord and Savior, was due all glory, all allegiance, and all honor.       

Monday, November 26, 2012

My Criminal Gospel (part 2 of 3)

Throughout the remainder of this second letter to Timothy, Paul continues to point out the criminal nature of the message of the Gospel.  After mentioning the fact of his suffering and being bound in chains, Paul brushes it off and says that even though he might be bound, “the Word of God is not bound!” (2:9b).  Clearly this was the case, since so many of Paul’s letters (though he was certainly not claiming “Word of God” status from his letters) were written from prison.  Apart from some of the records of the Book of Acts, the letters are the only source that we have for Paul’s preaching, so Paul’s inability to move about freely had no bearing on the mobility of the Word of God, the Gospel, that was being preached.  Knowing that his physical limitations were of little consequence in the larger scheme of things, Paul says, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect” (2:10a). 

This theme of suffering for the Gospel (Jesus is Lord) is carried on throughout the letter.  In the third chapter, Paul mentions “my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, Iconium, and at Lystra---which persecutions I endured” (3:11a).  He did not dwell on the nature of the persecutions, but on the nature of His Lord, saying “yet from them all the Lord rescued me” (3:11b).  With this said, Paul goes on to make a most interesting and fascinating statement, which unfortunately, is held in a faulty understanding by most all of us.  Paul writes, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (3:12). 

Now, how is it that we don’t really understand this statement?  Basically, it’s because we have a poor conception of what it means to live “a godly life.”  If we are honest with ourselves, when we think about “a godly life,” most of us think that what is meant by that is not drinking too much, not doing drugs, not cheating on our spouses, not killing anybody, being nice to people and animals, going to church, not robbing banks, not cheating on our taxes, reading the Bible, memorizing Scripture, not beating our kids, working hard at our jobs, giving to charitable causes, and so on and so forth.  With some additions and subtractions, this is what we think about when we hear or read that term “godly life.”  Now, if we think about this, will living that way bring any real persecution?  No, of course not.  Living in that way will generally bring some measure of honor and respect.  These things do not invite persecution. 

So what does it mean to live a godly life?  The Greek word for “godly” here is “eusebos.”  What this word denotes, above all things, is a manner of life that is marked by a constant God-awareness.  Not only that, but it is in the genitive case, so it also speaks of source, or from where something is generated, if you will.  So “godly” is a manner of life of God-awareness that has us living an acting with a constant awareness of the fact of the kingdom of God and its King, and acting accordingly.  Paul has written about living “a godly life in Christ Jesus.”  So how should we understand this?  Expanding the thought, we could say “living with a solidarity and allegiance inducing belief that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  “In Christ Jesus” is an identifier of loyalty, denoting that a person has joined up with the covenant people, and is now participating in the plans and purposes of the Creator God.  Indeed, our God-awareness, that reverential attitude of awe towards God that is sometimes called the “fear of God,” is an attitude of faith that says that Jesus is Lord, and that all rulers and authorities and powers are subject to Him. 

That living of a godly life in Christ Jesus results in a proclamation that says that every knee will bow to Him and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  The living of a godly life in Christ Jesus, and the attendant and required proclamations (in word and deed) from those that hold to such beliefs, are bound to ruffle a few feathers and cause a fair amount of consternation to those that believe themselves to be the masters of their own lives or the ruling powers-that-be.  This is the godly life in Christ Jesus that brings persecution, not the perception of a godly life as roughly outlined above.  This is why Paul was continually suffering, enduring persecution, and finding himself bound as a criminal.  The message that he brought was a subversive message in his day, and because human nature is unchanged, it remains subversive in this day as well, which is why it is treated as a criminal message in many places throughout the world.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

My Criminal Gospel (part 1 of 3)

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my Gospel. – 2 Timothy 2:8  (ESV)

This is followed by a very interesting statement.  Paul continues on to write, “for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal” (2:9a).  How often do we take a moment to pause and consider the things that Paul says?  How often do we make this consideration in light of the Jesus about which we think, talk, sing, and preach?  Paul says that because of the Gospel that he preaches, he suffers.  For the Gospel that he preaches, he is bound in chains as a criminal.  Isn’t the message of the Gospel simply that God loves us so much that He sent Jesus to die on the cross so that everybody can live happy lives and go to heaven?  Why would that induce suffering?  Why would that cause someone to be bound as a criminal.  Well, that message would not cause such things to happen, because that is not necessarily the message of the Gospel.

The Gospel, “my Gospel,” as Paul says, is that Jesus Christ is Lord.  The kingly message of the Gospel is that Jesus “was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His Resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:3b-4a).  Having been raised, thus being vindicated in everything that He implied that He was in both His message and activities, and everything that the prophets had declared the Messiah to be, He is, as Paul says, “Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:4b).  This statement from the opening verses of Romans is echoed here in the second chapter of Timothy.  Not only is He “our Lord,” but He is Lord of all creation.  He is the King over all kings.  He is the Ruler of all rulers.  All, without exception, are subject to Him and to His kingdom.  This was so, in part as Paul indicates, because He was risen from the dead. 

The Roman cross seemed to have conquered another pretender to glory, but that cross had been overcome, and it no longer held the power that it had once held.  Empires had been raised and razed through the power of death.  They may have fancied themselves as peaceful and enlightened and tolerant, but in the end, a significant portion of emperors ruled through the threat of death.  In His Resurrection, Jesus had conquered death as well, while showing that death held no ultimate power over Him.  It was also being claimed that if one was in union with Him, which entailed recognizing His Lordship and believing in Him as the Son of God and Savior, that neither the threat of death by the cross (the symbol of the world’s powers) nor death itself held any power over the one that believed that either.  In a world in which Caesar reigned supreme, and in which Caesar was king, and ruler, and lord, in which “all the world” was subject to him, and in which it was Caesar that was known and hailed as the divine son of god, this was a startling message. 

This Gospel that Paul was preaching and with which he was charged to carry to the ends of the earth, was a threat to the stability and orderliness of the Roman empire.  The Romans had a practice of adaptation in their conquering, in which, for the sake of peace and unity and harmony, conquered peoples were allowed to hold on to their religions, so long as they were willing to recognize the Roman deities, and more importantly, were willing to recognize Caesar’s claims to divinity, joining in the worship of Caesar as divine. 

The Jewish people were exempted from this requirement, owing to the fresh memories of the Maccabean revolts and the reputation that had been won by the Jewish people.  The early Christ-followers, such as Paul, refused to accede to this.  Not only were they unwilling to accept Caesar’s claims or the claims that were made on his behalf by the denizens of the Caesar cult, but they were going out preaching that there was only one God, and one true King, and that His name was Jesus.  They were preaching that all gods, or all so-called gods, were subservient to this Jesus, and more than that, that all kings and rulers, though they may have had God-ordained responsibilities and functions, were subservient to Him as well.  Naturally, this not only threatened the fragile “peace” of the empire, but it challenged the power of the Caesar and all of Rome.    As we keep these things in mind, it is no wonder that Paul, and indeed, the rest of the Apostles of Jesus and so many early believers in the Christ, suffered as they did and were treated as criminals. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Immediately (part 4 of 4)

As Mark’s Gospel narrative has Jesus working His way towards His death and Resurrection, He makes His way to Jerusalem.  Preceding what has become known as His “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, “Jesus sent two of His disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat.  Untie it and bring it’.” (Mark 11:1b-2)  This probably elicited a strange look from those receiving this directive, so Jesus quickly follows up and says, “If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will bring it back here immediately’.” (11:3)  Here, Jesus’ commands are filled with the language of immediacy.  This cannot have gone un-noticed by His disciples.  Most certainly, it should not go un-noticed by us. 

We don’t find the word used again until we reach the fourteenth chapter, and we find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, having finished His sorrowful prayer.  Jesus is speaking to sleepy disciples “And immediately, while He was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” (14:43).  Judas had given this group a signal, informing them that the One that he would greet with a kiss was the man that was to be arrested.  “And when he came, he went up to Him at once (euthus=immediately) and said, ‘Rabbi!’  And he kissed Him” (14:45).  Once again, even in the area of the activities in and of the darkness, Mark earnestly drives the story-line forward, always pressing, always wanting his readers to experience the drama of the events that are unfolding.  The author wants us to experience the intensity, the significance, and the un-paralleled importance of what is at hand, not only as he outlines the entirety of Jesus’ ministry, but especially now, as he is leading us to its climactic conclusion. 

With his language of “immediately,” Mark has created an aura of expectancy.  Just imagine yourself in the first century, and that you are reading this story for the first time.  Remember, the story has not been divided into chapters and verses, but is one, continuous narrative, and it is likely being told (or dramatically performed) in a single sitting.  There is no “New Testament.”  There are no Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John.  Perhaps you have heard of this man, Jesus, but you do not know the details of His life.  As you read this story, you are not going to read it in bits and pieces.  If you are listening to the story, it is not going to be left as a cliff-hanger.  Most likely, you are going to keep going until you reach the end.  The language that is used makes doing anything else virtually impossible.  There are no interludes, no grand elaborations, and no moments of rest.  With Mark, the story of Jesus is a race to the finish, and the sooner, the more immediately that the reader finds Jesus being captured, unjustly crucified, buried, and raised from the dead, the sooner the reader can understand that this Jesus is Lord.

Returning to the text, we come to the end of the fourteenth chapter and the infamous incident of Peter’s denial of his association with this Man that will soon be on the path to crucifixion as a false, blasphemous Messiah and insurrectionist against Rome.  Jesus had informed Peter, contrary to his insistence against such a thing, that he would deny Him three times before the rooster crowed.  Peter, for a third time, swears “I do not know this man of whom you speak” (14:71b), “And immediately the rooster crowed” (14:72a).  For those that have joined up with His covenant movement, Jesus wastes no time in bringing His words to remembrance.  Such is the power of our Lord.    

As we turn to the final usage of the Greek word “euthus”, we do so while bearing in mind that the underlying reason for the urgency being communicated to the reader by the extensive use of “immediately,” is the content and message of Jesus’ first recorded words in Mark’s Gospel.  Those words were “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (1:15).  The Gospel, the “evangelion,” or the “good news” in those days, were messages concerning Caesar, concerning the King.  That was well understood.  Jesus first words, as presented by Mark, were declarative of the kingdom of God and the need to believe in God’s King.  Why make mention of that here and now?  Because in the first verse of the fifteenth chapter of Mark we read “as soon as it was morning…they bound Jesus and led Him away and delivered Him over to Pilate” (15:1).  We could also read that as “And immediately when it was morning…” 

Here, the One about Whom the Gospel was to be believed---with all immediacy and urgency as is well-communicated by Mark---was taken before the representative of the man then considered to be the ruler of the world, the provider of salvation, and the one who brought peace.  There, Jesus would be asked “Are You the King of the Jews?” (15:2a).  With full understanding of what that implied, as Israel’s Messiah King, the One Who would rule over God’s covenant people, and by extension, because of God’s promises to His people and His faithfulness to His promises, would be the ruler of all creation and the true source of absolute salvation and peace (as opposed to what was then said about Caesar), Jesus replied “You have said so” (15:2b), which was a way of saying “Yes, indeed.”  “Pilate was amazed” (15:5b) at this reply, and rightly so, but almost immediately, Pilate sentences Jesus to be crucified.  That was how Pilate immediately responded to Jesus’ Gospel.  What is our response? 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Immediately (part 3 of 4)

Creating an undoubtedly great stir, Jesus will go on to feed what is referred to as “the five thousand.”  Rather than staying to bask in the glory that this would bring, “Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side” (6:45a) of the lake, as He went up on the mountain to pray.  From that vantage point, Jesus was able to see His disciples struggling against the wind.  He was going to pass by them, walking on the water, but changed His mind when they saw that His presence terrified them greatly.  Sensing this, “immediately He spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I.  Do not be afraid’.” (6:50b)  Surely, this is more of the immediate message of the Gospel. 

Over and over, as the Gospel stories proceed apace, through Jesus, with His words and actions, the author tells us “Your King is here.  All has been put under my feet.  I have conquered death and disease.  I have promised and delivered to you complete salvation (a joining with the Creator God by joining with the covenant people through belief in Jesus as King), redeeming you from the cursed corruption of this world through your faithful proclamation of me as Lord and subsequent allegiance to Me.  By the power of the long-hoped for resurrection of the dead that in-breaks the world here and now, I share with you the life of the age to come.  What need you fear?”  Just as Jesus got into the boat with His disciples, we join with Him (union) through the believing proclamation of the Gospel in both word and deed.  Jesus was now with them when they reached the other side of the lake, and “the people immediately recognized Him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard He was” (6:54b-55).  Yes, the very presence of Jesus, which now is manifested through the preaching of His Gospel and action according to it, communicates the same power.

Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon, to the house of a Syrophoenician woman.  He did not want anyone to know that He was there, but this was an untenable desire.  “Immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of Him and came and fell down at His feet” (7:25).  Because this Gentile woman showed no delay, neither did Jesus.  Her daughter was relieved of demon oppression.  Jesus returned from the region of Tyre, making His way back to the Decapolis.  Here, he conducts His famous feeding of the four thousand.  Upon its completion, as before, He did not remain with the people, to bask in the adulation of the masses, but “immediately He got into the boat with His disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha (or Magadan/Magdala)” (8:10).  There was always more to be done.  Yes, in the power of the eternal life in which we share by the faithful allegiance to the Gospel (Jesus is Lord), there is always more to be done in His service, as the Christ works through us to extend redemption and covenant participation to His people and His creation. 

Jesus would be transfigured, and seen on the mountain with Moses and Elijah.  He came down from the mountain to find a crowd with some of His disciples.  “Immediately, all the crowd, when they saw Him, were greatly amazed and ran up to Him and greeted Him” (9:15).  A boy with an unclean spirit was brought before Him, “and immediately it convulsed the boy” (9:20b).  Upon this, Jesus makes mention of the requirement of belief upon Him for healing to take place.  “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” (9:24)  With confession of unbelief that included a revelation of the belief of the father, Jesus responded with deliverance, immediately. 

In time, Jesus would encounter a blind man, who asked for the recovery of his sight.  With his request, the blind man revealed his understanding of Who Jesus was, having called him the “Son of David” (10:48), recognizing Him as King of Israel.  This was the very manifestation of saving faith (faith that binds a man to the covenant God, people, and purpose) and Jesus responds to this gifting, saying “Go your way; your faith has made you well” (10:52a).  “And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way” (10:52b).  This formerly blind man, demonstrating the faith to believe the Gospel, desired nothing more than to follow his Lord and Master, his King.  Such is the inherent power of the message of the Gospel.  It is the power of God unto salvation.        

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Immediately (part 2 of 4)

As we move to the second chapter, Jesus addresses a paralyzed man, and declares to him that his sins are forgiven.  Some scribes, upon hearing that, thought to themselves, “He is blaspheming!” (2:7b)  The author informs us that Jesus perceived what was being thought about Him, “And immediately…said to them, ‘Why do you question these things in your hearts?’” (2:8)  Having said that to the doubters, Jesus turned to the already forgiven man and said, “rise, pick up your bed, and go home” (2:11b).  What was the response?  “And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out” (2:12a).  It seems that the one to be called “Lord” had instilled in him a sense of urgency as well. 

As we continue to trek through Mark, we find Jesus healing a man, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath.  With Jesus having done this, “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against Him, how to destroy Him” (3:6).  As was already said, the forces that were arraying themselves against Jesus had a clear sense of urgency as well.  Jesus would go on to deliver the parable of the sower, speaking about the seed that would be scattered as the “sower went out to sow” (4:3).  Some of that seed, Jesus said, “fell on rocky ground, and immediately it sprang up” (4:5), but because “it had no root, it withered away” (4:6b).  That is an immediacy to be avoided, which we find out as Jesus explains the parable to His disciples. 

In the explanation, Jesus likens the seed to the preaching of the word of the Gospel.  When some hear the word, “Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them” (4:15).  For others, “they immediately receive it with joy” (4:16b), but because the word has no substance, because it is shallow, ambiguous, vague, filled with platitudes, lacking in a variety of necessary contexts, or offered with no sense of narrative flow so that it has no roots to penetrate deep, “immediately they fall away” (4:17) when persecution and trials arise.  The immediateness of the message of the Gospel cuts both ways.  However, when that seed takes root, it “sprouts and grows” (4:27).  This seed produces the fruit that Jesus desires, which first and foremost is the preaching of Him as Lord and its correspondent bent of action towards the establishment of God’s kingdom along the lines preferred by the Jesus of the Gospels, and “at once He puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (4:29b).  The proclamation in word and deed of the unadorned Gospel message is what brings forth a harvest.     

Then we find Jesus arriving in the country of the Gerasenes.  “Immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit” (5:2b).  This unclean spirit called himself “Legion” (5:9), indicating that it was a large number.  Jesus responded by casting the “legion” of demons into a herd of pigs, which subsequently ran into the sea and were drowned.  This is full of a great deal of imagery, as the symbol of the Roman legion that was responsible for that territory was the pig.  Having been freed from his captivity, the man begged Jesus to let him become one of His followers.  Jesus said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how He has had mercy on you” (5:19b).  The man responded by preaching the Gospel, essentially proclaiming Jesus as Lord (in contradistinction to the Roman legionnaires that represented Caesar who was at that time recognized and hailed as the lord of all), as “he began to proclaim…how much Jesus had done for him” (5:20b).  A harvest was reaped, as “everyone marveled” (5:20b).   

We then come upon the familiar story of the woman with the issue of blood.  We find that as she touched Jesus garments, “immediately the flow of blood dried up” (5:29a), as she was healed of her disease.  Having felt a surge of His healing power, Jesus “immediately turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched My garments?’” (5:30b)  This had occurred while Jesus was on his way to the house of a man named Jairus, whose daughter was “at the point of death” (5:23b).  When He finally reached the young girl, Jesus touched her and spoke to her, “And immediately the girl got up and began walking” (5:42a).  All who witnessed this “were immediately overcome with amazement” (5:42b). 

In the twenty-fifth verse of chapter six, Herodias’ daughter, having pleased King Herod with a dance, “came in immediately with haste to the king” and asked to be given the head of John the Baptist.  Though the king was vexed by this request, “immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head” (6:27a).  With this, it seems possible that Mark points us to the fact that the immediate nature of Satan’s kingdom of darkness stands in stark contrast to the kingdom of our God.  That which we are charged to do and to preach is a serious charge because it is serious business.  The Gospel must be preached, quickly and boldly, because lives are always and immediately at stake.    

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Immediately (part 1 of 4)

And immediately they left their nets and followed Him. – Mark 1:18  (ESV)

The Gospel of Mark presents a fast-paced story.  At sixteen chapters, it is the shortest of the four Gospels.  Mark is concerned with presenting the facts and the acts of the life of Jesus, and does not allow itself to get slowed down in the least.  In the first chapter we read, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel’.” (1:14-15)  From the first, this was Jesus’ message.  Mark gets to it quickly.  Where Matthew and Luke don’t have Jesus speaking until the third chapter of their writing, Mark spends very little time building a foundation for Jesus’ ministry.  There is a sense of urgency to Mark.  We see that urgency in the verses we just quoted, as we read things like “The time is fulfilled,” “the kingdom of God is at hand,” and “repent and believe.”  Mark calls this the Gospel of God and Jesus says that it is to be believed.  This Gospel, of course, is that Jesus is Lord. 

As we contemplate that sense of urgency in Mark, we’ll notice a word that is used on a regular basis.  Though it is used in the other Gospels (five times in Matthew, once in Luke, and three times in John), the stunning frequency of its usage is peculiar to Mark.  That word, in the Greek, is “euthus,” and it is best translated as “immediately.”  Placed alongside and in the context of the message that Mark says Jesus came preaching ,which is that of the Gospel of the time of the kingdom of God being at hand, what this message implies for God’s covenant people Israel, and the need for repentance and belief (getting on the side of the mission of the Creator God via a loyalty to Jesus and the way of His mission), this word should take on an even greater significance than that which it already possesses. 

The first time that we see this word used is in the tenth verse of chapter one, in the context of Jesus’ baptism by John.  We read “And when He came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove” (1:10).  Following this, “The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness” (1:12). 

The third time we see it in Mark is in the text with which we began.  Jesus saw Simon and Andrew and said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (1:17).  As an aside, we’ll notice that Jesus puts the onus on Himself to make them become fishers of men, rather than telling them that they should become fishers of men.  He promises to be involved.  He is not going to be a distant monarch.  The response of these two men is that “immediately they left their nets and followed Him” (1:18).  A little further on, Jesus sees John and James, and “immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed Him” (1:20).  There, the immediacy is not placed on the following (though it is also immediate), but on the call, as Mark gives us an insight into how Jesus felt about the urgency of His message.  We read that “immediately, He called them.”

Moving along, we find that “they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching” (1:21).  Jesus wastes no time.  He taught “as One Who had authority” (1:22b), which we would expect, considering the nature of His message, which was the Gospel of the kingdom of God, presumably with Himself as its King.  With that authority on display, “immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit” (1:23a).  As we can see, the powers of darkness understood the urgency as well.  As Lord, Jesus rebukes this unclean spirit, and “at once,” which is kind of like “immediately” (euthus) “His fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28). 

In the twenty-ninth verse of the first chapter, we read “And immediately He left the synagogue” (1:29a).  We are told that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was sick.  What happens?  “Immediately they told Him about her” (1:30b).  As we go forward, we find a leper coming to Jesus, kneeling before Him and begging to cleansed.  Jesus touches the leper, “and immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean” (1:42).  After his healing, Jesus “sent him away at once” (1:43b).  Eleven times in the first chapter of this fast-moving Gospel of Mark alone, we find him using the word “euthus.”  If we take the Gospel stories as a guide to our own kingdom activity, this fact should gain our attention.   

Monday, November 19, 2012

God In The Camp

“A god has come into the camp” – 1 Samuel 4:7b  (ESV)

In the fourth chapter of the first book of Samuel, as part of the story by which Israel understood itself, defined itself, and presented itself to the nations, we read that “Israel went out to battle against the Philistines” (4:1b).  The battle did not go well.  “Israel was defeated by the Philistines” (4:2b).  It is said that four thousand men of Israel were killed.  Naturally, the elders of Israel were quite distraught about this situation, and they wondered why the battle went the way that it did.  They asked, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?” (4:3b)  Such an interesting question.  They understood themselves to be God’s covenant people, with an internal understanding of promises of victory in battle as they gained and maintained dominion over their land of promise, so the cause for loss in battle was to be searched for outside of the sheer strength of their enemies.  For that reason, they speak of their defeat as having been wrought by the Lord, rather than by the Philistines themselves.

The question is followed by a declaration, as they said, “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies” (4:3b).  At first glance, this seems like the correct response, and the right thing to do; but if we look carefully, we’ll notice that they are not necessarily on the right track, which will be borne out by what we find happening in just a few verses.  Though they rightfully put things in the Lord’s hand by asking why it was that the Lord had defeated them before the Philistines, when they shift to speaking about the next steps to take, the language subtly shifts.  They talk of bringing “the ark of the covenant of the Lord” to this place of battle, but then say that they are going to do this, not so that the Lord of the covenant will be with them and save them, but that “it,” that being the ark itself, that “it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”   

“So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, Who is enthroned on the cherubim” (4:4a).  Here, we can’t help but make a note of the fact that great, swelling words are used to describe the ark, and speak of the Lord of hosts, but in the midst of that, we cannot forget the words that were previously spoken.  In bringing the ark, they have plainly said that they expect the ark to save them from the power of their enemies, rather than the Lord Whose faithful and covenant fulfilling power the ark represents.  Also, the fact is almost comically mentioned that “the two sons of Eli. Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God” (4:4b).  Right there, we have a clue that things are not going to go well for Israel here, because these two guys are not spoken of very highly.  In fact, they are referred to as “worthless men,” who “did not know the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:12).  They “treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt” (2:17b), and they would “lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (2:22b).  We are told that “it was the will of the Lord to put them to death” (2:25b), and that “both of them shall die on the same day” (2:34b).    The men going to battle, with the ark or without the ark, would have been well-advised to keep these two far from them. 

So, “As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout” (4:5a).  They were so excited that the ark had come into the camp.  Not the Lord, but the ark.  Now, the ark may have been thought to be, as the ultimate focal point of Israel’s portable temple, the actual resting place of their God.  Therefore, in a sense, the bringing of the ark into the camp may have been, in their mind, the same as bringing the Lord into the camp, but it seems that the text as a whole does not want to convey this idea. 

The Philistines heard this and said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” (4:6b).  Making inquiries, “they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp” (4:6c), and “the Philistines were afraid” (4:7a).  Why were they afraid?  Reinforcing the “resting place” concept, they thought “A god has come into the camp” (4:7b).  They were right.  A god had come into the camp.  Not the God, but a god.  The ark had come into the camp, and the Israelites looked to the ark, rather than looking to or remembering the Lord of the ark.  The Philistines were right in saying that a god had come into the camp, because Israel had reduced the ark of the Lord into nothing more than an idol.  Because of this, and bearing out the idea that the author wants to convey the idolatry and its associated problems that would lead to Israel being defeated by its enemies, “the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home.  And there was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers.  And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died” (4:10-11). 

In the first battle, only four thousand died.  Once the idolatry of Israel in regards to the ark was manifest, which is that which always brought God’s judgment upon them and upon all of His covenant people in accordance with the promises of His covenant faithfulness, thirty thousand died and Israel was stripped of that which had become little more than an idol.    

Sunday, November 18, 2012

God's Time Of Visitation (part 3 of 3)

Is such guiding of “feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79b) really a reference to the way in which God intended His covenant people to interact with the world around them?  When Zechariah speaks of giving “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (1:79a), is he really referencing what God had charged Israel to be for the Gentiles, and by extension, what God charges to all those that He brings into covenant with Himself through Christ?  Let’s see.

In the sixty-eighth verse, Zechariah speaks of “Israel” and “His people.”  In verse sixty-nine, he uses the term “us.”  In the seventy-first verse, we read of “our enemies” and those who hate “us.”  In verse seventy-two, we see “our fathers.”  The seventy-third verse presents “us” again.  In verse seventy-four, we find the use of “we” and “our,” with “our” used again in verse seventy-five.  The seventy-seventh verse presents “His people” yet again, along with the use of “their” in conjunction with sins.  Verse seventy-eight again says “our” and “us,” and verse seventy-nine once again posits an “our.”  Clearly, these words are given a corporate understanding, and are not to be taken primarily in a personal sense, with God revealing Himself and His light to individuals, so as to speak of this in terms of personal salvation and a personal relationship with God. 

Through the One Who was to come, of Whom John the Baptist was serving as His messenger---much like a slave would go before the Caesar in proclamation of the king’s greatness---God’s people would be brought into the way of peace, to be a light for the revelation of the glory of God.  As a follow-up to Zechariah’s prophecy of this way of peace, Luke records the message of the angels that was delivered to the shepherds of the field, as they exclaimed “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased” (2:14).  As we hear the words of the angelic host, something that should be remembered here is that such words would not be uncommonly spoken or heard in those days.  That slave that went before the Caesar would make such a declaration, speaking of the “glory” of the lord and god-man Caesar, and of the “peace” that he brings to his subjects that are pleasing to him.  In this case, however, they were being spoken by “a multitude of the heavenly host” (2:13b), which would tend to lend the message a greater degree of credibility.    

As we keep things in the context of a continuing narrative here in Luke, we can see that this declaration by the angels seems to be connected with a guiding of feet into the ways of peace.  The announcement, and its ultimate connection to the Gospel of the Christ, the declaration of the Lordship of Jesus, and the loyalty inducing belief in that Lordship that is brought about by the Holy Spirit’s evidencing exercise of faith as shown by the belief, is what brings peace.  That is what reconciles a man to his Creator God, and brings that man into renewal and restoration through the sharing of the power of the age to come (Resurrection power) that returned Jesus to life from out of the grave.  In the power of what was accomplished by Christ’s faithfulness to the long-standing covenant, and by the open confession of allegiance to the claims of the Christ as a man believes and proclaims the message that Jesus is Lord, that man has victory over death and the grave, also sharing in the life of the age to come, as both a repository and harbinger of that life.  That is a battle that has been fought and won.  Could there be a greater peace?  Should this not elicit, from God’s covenant people, “Glory to God in the highest”? 

In attempting to understand the implications of this time of God’s visitation, as it is referred to by Zechariah, we are brought by Luke to the story of Simeon.  Simeon is said to be “righteous and devout” (2:25).  When Jesus is brought to Jerusalem, Simeon takes Jesus into his arms and says, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace” (2:29a).  There’s that use of the word “peace” again.  It seems to be a recurring theme in Luke and of God’s visit to His people.  Simeon says that, in seeing Jesus, “my eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples” (2:30-31).  This was part of the hope of Israel in that day, that their God would save them, redeem them finally from their ongoing exile from what He had promised to them. 

God’s purposes, however, went far beyond that.  The salvation of Israel, represented by Jesus, Whose Name means salvation, was for the purpose of Israel (the Creator God’s covenant people) being “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (2:32a).  This echoes what was said by Zechariah in the first chapter.  Additionally, this being the light of revelation was also “for glory to Your people Israel” (2:32b).  God’s covenant people truly attain to and reflect His glory, not when they are saved and assured of heaven and are satisfied with the hope of an escape route from hell at the end of life, but when they are being a light for the revelation of the Gospel (Jesus is Lord).  The proclamation of the Gospel is what spreads God’s glory, restoring fallen men and a fallen creation, as an allegiance to Jesus as the Christ brings a glorification together with Him.  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

God's Time Of Visitation (part 2 of 3)

The words of Zechariah’s prophecy “were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’  For the hand of the Lord was with him” (Luke 1:65b-66).  Because of what has already been presented, in terms of Israel’s expectations of God’s imminent working on their behalf, according to the example that was embodied in their Passover remembrances, we can now more easily understand the discussions concerning John and the question concerning what it was that he might become or do.  The expectant manner in which the words of Zechariah were received, existed because of the people’s knowledge and understanding of God’s covenant, alongside the way that they thought about themselves.

The people had also heard Zechariah say, in regards to his son, that he would be a prophet that would “give knowledge of salvation” (1:77a) to the Lord’s people.  This salvation was connected to “the forgiveness of their sins” (1:77b).  Here, we must think about the foundational message of John the Baptist.  That message was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).  It was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4b).  He said to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.  And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’.” (Luke 3:8a)  The repentance for forgiveness and the need to bear fruit was connected to the kingdom of heaven. 

For nearly two hundred years, some of the people of Israel had been attempting to establish the kingdom of the people of God (the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven) by force of arms and violent revolution.  Their task, however, according to the covenant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.  Rather than doing this, they had separated themselves from the Gentiles, insulating themselves and isolating themselves from foreign peoples, becoming more firmly entrenched in their nationalistic desires and goals.  Now, in light of their being ruled by Gentiles for hundreds of years, some repeatedly sought out opportunities to violently throw off the yoke of Gentile rule, ushering in the kingdom by such means.  Obviously, they could not do this and be a blessing at the same time. 

Where Abraham had succeeded, Israel had unfortunately failed.  By Abraham’s life, which largely appears to be one of outward blessing of the people with which he came into contact, the Creator God was glorified; and Abraham, through the great wealth that stood as part of the evidence of his being blessed by his God, was a blessing to many.  Due to his being located and positioned, by God, in the land bridge and trade route that connects Europe, Africa, and Asia, he was able to be a blessing to people throughout the world.  Undoubtedly, when peoples from around the world interacted with Abraham, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men of his day, they would learn about Abraham’s God and the covenant into which that God had brought His servant Abraham.  By God’s communication of the message of His faithfulness, through Abraham, many people would most certainly have been blessed. 

It is in this light that we can consider John’s admonishment to the people to not say things like “We have Abraham as our father,” in connection with their need to repent and seek forgiveness of their sins.  They were not following in the faithful footsteps of Abraham.  Indeed, Abraham’s example stood against them.  They were not faithfully upholding the conditions of the covenant, and most certainly not being a blessing to foreign peoples, especially since they sought to conquer and drive out the very ones that were in their midst.  For this, they needed to seek repentance, and to bear fruits in keeping with that repentance, such as being a shining light, to the Gentiles, of God’s covenant faithfulness to His people.  This repentance for forgiveness of their unfaithfulness to the covenant (failure to bear the divine image/sin), and the bearing of fruit in accordance with the repentance, would better enable them to recognize God’s coming action to establish His kingdom through Jesus.  This kingdom, most assuredly, would not be established by the taking up of arms. 

Israel had been failing in their task, but as Zechariah would go on to say, “because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high” (1:78), God was going to give His covenant people another chance to succeed.  God was going to give them the opportunity, through the kingdom that He was going to be establishing through His Christ, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (1:79a).  This responsibility, being a light, had always been and will always be the task at hand for the people of God’s covenant.  Rather than bringing the kingdom of His covenant people to pass through violence, Zechariah says that the Lord, through His redeeming and saving King, was going to “guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79b).  Yes, God was going to show His people, then and forever, that His kingdom was going to be established through the proclamation and corresponding activity of the Gospel of the Prince of Peace, though ironically, the peaceful proclamation of the Gospel is what would bring a sword against those who speak it forth.  Such was and is the method of God’s visitation.          

Friday, November 16, 2012

God's Time Of Visitation (part 1 of 3)

And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” – Luke 1:67-68  (ESV)

Following his initial declaration of blessing and praise and the visitation of the Creator God, with his tongue having been loosed from its enforced silence as had been declared by the angel Gabriel, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, goes into what amounts to a dissertation regarding God’s covenant with His people.  He says that, according to the covenant, “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (1:71).  He confirms that this does, in fact, stand in relation to the promises of His covenant, as he goes on to say that the saving from the enemies and hatred is “to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant” (1:72). 

To which covenant is Zechariah here referring as he is filled with the Holy Spirit?  He is referring to “the oath that He swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days” (1:73-75).  In this, Zechariah is employing the quite common prophetic practice and theme of the use of exodus language, in conjunction with the reference to the Abrahamic covenant, specifically pointing to the promise that the Lord had made to Abram (before his name was changed to Abraham), when “the Lord said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.  But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions’.” (Genesis 15:13-15) 

At the point in time that Zechariah is uttering these words, Israel has been re-established in the land with something like self-rule, following the conclusion of the Babylonian exile (though according to the Scriptural record, the exile was only partial, with a portion of the people standing in for the whole), for over four hundred years.  In fact, it has been over five hundred years since the second Temple was put in place.  Yet, Israel dwelled in a land of promise that they did not possess.  In effect, just as Israel had dwelled and served in Egypt, Israel now found themselves under the heel of oppression in a land that was not theirs.  Since their return from exile, the land had alternately been under the dominion of Persia, Greece, Egypt, Syria, and now Rome.  Because it had been over four hundred years, the nation was very much looking to the time of another exodus.  This time, however, it would not be the exodus of the people from their own land, but an exodus of foreign powers, namely Rome, from Israel’s promised land. 

Part of what resulted from the constant hearkening back to God’s great deliverance of Israel from the slavery of Egypt, as especially commemorated in the feast of Passover in which the people were instructed to always remember the deliverance from Egypt, along with the consistent invocation of the Abrahamic covenant, was an expectation that the time had come (and perhaps it was even overdue) for their God to act on behalf of His people, to bring them their Redeemer, to raise up their Messianic King---their “horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David” (1:69).  Luke, via Zechariah, gives voice to this hope.  In addition, the Israelite nationalist revolutionary movements from the second century B.C. and forward, which stoked a revolutionary fervor that existed through and after the time of Christ, stood as witness to what it was that God’s chosen people were expecting. 

There was a hopeful expectation on the part of some in Israel, in that day, that God, just as He had done for His people in Egypt, would bring judgment on the nation that they were serving.  This underlying context of unrest and upheaval and covenant and hope must be understood if we truly desire to have any chance at understanding the message and ministry of Jesus and the foundation of His church.  As he is said to have spoken by the Holy Spirit, Zechariah communicates a belief that the birth of his son, together with the information that would have been undoubtedly provided to him by Mary’s visit to his wife Elizabeth (the listener/reader is forced to draw conclusions), along with the associated angelic visits and messages--- not the least of which was his own inability to speak for an extended period of time and his subsequent ability to speak when he confirmed the message of the angel in regards to the name of the child born to he and his wife--- was evidence that God’s miraculous intervention on behalf of His people, His visiting and redemption and salvation, was being heralded as being at hand.  To this end, he declares, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways” (1:76).