Monday, December 31, 2012

John's Inquiry (part 2 of 3)

Are we to understand that somehow John was disappointed in Jesus?  Was John offended at the way Jesus was conducting His ministry?  Were these words of “takes no offense” directed at John?  While all of that is possible, because we don’t really have a basis upon which to determine John’s mindset as he sat in prison, the likely answer is no.  Considering the context of the words that He spoke, and the fact that His experience in Nazareth (at least according to a comparative chronology) would have come before this question from John, along with the record of Jesus going on to offer high praise and honor to John in the following verse, it is far more reasonable to presume that it is the Nazareth incident that Jesus would have in mind when He provided His answer to John and said “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at Me.” 

Though Matthew’s story makes no reference to the attempted murder of Jesus in Nazareth as reported by Luke, because Jesus’ response to John’s disciples in Matthew contains words quite similar to those that provoked the harsh response in Luke, because the people of Nazareth certainly took offense to Jesus’ words, and even though we treat the Gospel stories differently because they have different purposes (the separate stories of John’s disciples and Jesus’ Nazareth experience are isolated to Matthew and Luke) and don’t necessarily rely on one to make sense of the other, making the connection that Jesus may have been thinking of Nazareth as He spoke the words of “take no offense” seems to be a reasonable step.

Not only did Jesus insist that a state of blessing arises from not being offended at Him (Matthew 11:6), He makes it equally clear, through the pronouncement of the terms of His ministry, that apart from dashing certain messianic expectations, there was truly no reason to take offense.  Unless, that is, somebody wants to take offense to the way that Jesus went about the business of His work of causing the blind to see, the lame to walk, lepers to be cleansed, the deaf to hear, the dead to be raised, and the poor to have the good news of the breaking in of God’s kingdom preached to them.  Jesus was not thundering down from on high, condemning people according to His checklist of “sins of the flesh,” or setting Himself up as the ruler and arbiter of the people in an attempt to exercise an overt control over their lives and actions.  He flatly rejected any and all attempts of the people to force Him into this position.  Of course, there were those that did take offense (especially the Temple authorities), but we can be reasonably certain that John the Baptist was not one of them, as “Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John” (Matthew 11:7), doing so in a very positive manner. 

After John disciples had gone away, presumably to return to John with Jesus’ response in confirmation of his inquiry, Jesus says, “What did you go out to see?  A prophet?”  (11:9a).  Here, Jesus honors John the Baptist by classing him with the prophets of old, those who did so much to call the leaders of the people to account, adding “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet” (11:9b).  More than a prophet?  Yes, “This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way before You’.” (11:10)  With these words, Jesus has continued the subtle reinforcement of His statements about Himself that can be taken to confirm His status as Messiah.  Here, He quotes from Malachi. 

Looking to the prophectic work, we find those words followed with, “Indeed, the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to His temple, and the messenger of the covenant, whom you long for, is certainly coming” (3:1b).  These words from Malachi, in Jesus’ time (and certainly at the time of the composition of Matthew), were taken to be a clear reference to one who would precede the messiah, as well as to God’s messiah Himself.  So Jesus, in assigning this accepted role of “messenger” to John (with this concept of the one to come and the one preceding him reinforced elsewhere in the Gospels---the “who do you say that I am” question and its attendant responses), has continued to indirectly declare His own Messiah-ship.  He further reinforces this claim about John (and therefore also about Himself) by adding “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come” (11:14).  Clearly, Jesus takes no issue with John at all, and gives no negative thoughts to his inquiry, as He will also say, “among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (11:11a).    

Sunday, December 30, 2012

John's Inquiry (part 1 of 3)

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds Christ had done, he sent his disciples to ask a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” – Matthew 11:3-4  (NET)

In light of the flurry of first-century messianic figures in Israel, the question that John asks his disciples to put to Jesus is one that is both legitimate and understandable.  Just like a great number member of the nation of Israel in that day, as Israel stood under Roman occupation, John seems to have carried, based on his message, some expectation that Israel’s God was going to break in to history through His Messiah, to go about establishing His kingdom.  To John, the deeds of Jesus, in the areas of healing sickness and disease, casting out demons and giving of sight to the blind, looked very much like the Scriptural portents that indicated what types of events would accompany the time (and the person or persons---messiah figure) through which Israel’s God would become King.  A the same time, the words that Jesus was speaking, and the way in which He was going about building a following, differed from much of the expectations of the messiah that had been created by Scriptural interpretation, Israel’s sense of itself, and the actions of the previous would-be messiahs. 

In consideration of these things, and though some do, we should find that there is absolutely no justifiable reason to chastise John for asking the question of Jesus.  Frankly, it would have been the question on the minds and on the lips of nearly everybody with whom Jesus came into contact.  Surely, John was not the only one to ask this question of Jesus’ messianic status; but Matthew, so as to be able to provide a context for further statements about John that were to come from Jesus, puts the question into the mouth of John ahead of all other questioners. 

How does Jesus respond to the question?  Does he send John’s disciples back to him with a stern rebuke?  Does Jesus say, “How dare you ask such a thing?”  No, of course He doesn’t.  Considering the subversive nature of His ministry---as He appears to be cutting across all of the religious and political movements within Israel in that day (that would seem to be at least one of the ideas to be garnered from the Gospel presentations of Jesus), and also considering the fate of every single person that had claimed the status of messiah for themselves (death on a cross at the hands of the Romans)---Jesus answers in the only way possible.  He offers a gentle answer, albeit indirect but in the affirmative, saying “Yes, I am He.”  How does He do this?  He says, “Go tell John what you hear and see: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them” (11:4b-6). 

Though we do not utilize Luke to interpret Matthew, as the authors had different intentions for their biographical offerings, looking to other portraits of Jesus does allow us to get a better sense of the way in which Jesus was understood in His own time and relatively shortly thereafter.  Of course, we also consider that Matthew and Luke had a common source (often thought to be the Gospel of Mark) that provided the underlying structure of their own works.  So if we look to the Gospel of Luke in consideration of the response of Jesus in Matthew, how do we hear and see Jesus announcing Himself?  While in the synagogue in Nazareth, he read from a scroll, saying “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19).  He then added, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read” (4:21).  Naturally, that sounds somewhat similar to the answer given by Jesus in answer to John’s quite reasonable question.  Of course, in those words, Jesus was reading from the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah---reading the words that were possibly expected to be found in the mouth of God of Israel’s Messiah---and applying those words to Himself. 

We can presume that John, with a messiah-expectant mindset (especially in light of the new exodus movement that he was leading---an exodus is accompanied by a deliverer/redeemer), would have understood the implications of this statement reported by Matthew just as well as did the people that heard Jesus that day in Nazareth (as reported by Luke).  On that day in Nazareth, after Jesus added a few more words of explanation, and when those words that indicated the direction of His messianic program did not necessarily appeal to His group of hearers, “the people in the synagogue were filled with rage” (4:28b).  It is with that in mind that we can return to what Jesus said to John, and perhaps better understand why it is that Jesus, after providing His subtle answer in confirmation of the substance of John’s inquiry, adds “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (11:6). 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wide & Narrow Ways (part 2 of 2)

So what is Jesus thinking about when He speaks of the narrow gate and difficult way that leads to life, with few who find it?  Is this indeed a vague, amorphous, and ambiguous statement, lacking in content and coherence, with no concrete point of reference, which thereby lends itself to completely random and subjective interpretation?  Not at all.  What do we find Jesus saying before this?  He says, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.  For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure  you use will be the measure you receive.  Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own?  Or how can you say to  your brothers, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ while there is a beam in your own?  You hypocrite!  First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly t remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (7:1-5). 

Can we not hear Jesus scolding His people for their failure to be a light to the Gentiles, but instead, judging them from their lofty perch.  Israel looked down upon the Gentiles but as far as Jesus was concerned, Israel held the greater sin, having been given the light of the Creator God’s covenant and the knowledge of Him.  It was a wide gate and easy way to sit in judgment upon the Gentiles, and far more difficult and narrow way, in light of the Gentile occupation of the land of Israel, to show them compassion and love according to the intentions of God’s covenant.

Following that, Jesus goes on to speak of asking, seeking, and knocking” (7:7), and also of faithfully meeting the requests and needs of a son when asked (7:9-10).  In the context of Israel being under God’s curse (occupied by a foreign power), this would hearken back to the words from the second books of the Kings and the Chronicles, as well as the popular (in that day) and ever-so-determinative story of Daniel, in which prayer of repentance, by the nation, from their fallen position, would lead to their restoration.  Their God would certainly meet the needs of the nation referred to as the son of God, if Israel  would but embark upon the path of His purposes. 

In the verse immediately preceding our text, Jesus says, “In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets” (7:12).  When we keep the words and ministry of Jesus in the context of His pronouncement of the kingdom of God, and the breaking in of that kingdom, and of His implicit inclusion of Gentiles as beneficiaries of that kingdom, we can only wonder how difficult such a thing would be for the common member of the nation of Israel in that day. 

Israel sought to throw off the Roman yoke and to drive the Gentiles out of their God-given land.  By and large, Israel wanted nothing to do with Gentiles, unless those Gentiles adopted the marks of the covenant (circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, food laws), thus becoming Jews (in effect admitting that, as Gentiles, they were less than human).  Members of the nation would not enter the house of a Gentile.  They would not break bread with a Gentile.  Jesus, on the other hand, did all of these things, and did them quite openly.  In many ways, Jesus did not live up to what had become the standards of righteousness that would have been imposed in His day for a member of Israel to be recognized as being a covenant member in good standing.  In the eyes of many, with the way the Gospels present Him, Jesus would have been dishonoring Himself, constantly bringing Himself into a state of impurity, and generally showing ingratitude to Israel’s God by His actions.  As far as many were concerned, He was traveling down the wide way to destruction (associating with Gentiles and those outside the accepted covenant boundaries), and deliberately by-passing the narrow way to life (not stepping outside of the boundaries).    

Israel wanted God to break into history and provide them with His mercy, and for them, this would look very much like judgment on all Gentile nations.  We must ask how all of these things may fit with treating others as you would want them to treat you?  Israel consistently looked to the law and the prophets for vindication in these anti-Gentile, pro-national-Israel desires, but Jesus (remembering His kingdom context) reminds the people of their unfortunate and misguided biases, of their God-given mission to be a light to the Gentiles, and their failure in that regard.  Israel being a light is what would fulfill the law and the prophets, which repeatedly point to their God’s plan for the people of all nations coming to Israel because of their reflection of the glory of their God (through their faithfulness to God’s covenant with them), with Israel and all peoples (and indeed the entirety of the created order) being blessed in the process. 

If Israel wanted God’s vindication and its exaltation to its place above all nations, they were going to have to treat the Gentiles, and especially their despised rulers (the Romans), as they wanted to be treated by God.  Truly, this was a difficult path to the life that their God intended for them, and it seems that there were few in that day that wished to travel that path.  The road of animosity towards the Gentiles was far easier to travel and far more popular, and it’s the one that the people wanted Jesus to travel as well.  Ultimately and unfortunately, this was the one that Israel traveled, and it ended with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.   

Friday, December 28, 2012

Wide & Narrow Ways (part 1 of 2)

Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there who are many who enter through it.  But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it. – Matthew 7:13-14  (NET)

These words are drawn from Jesus’ famous “Sermon On the Mount”.  Though there can be little doubt that Jesus spoke these words on more than one occasion and in various places, the setting in which Matthew sets them forth, as Matthew goes to great lengths to make the point that Jesus is a new Moses, has Jesus sitting on a mountain and teaching His disciples (5:1)---offering a different set of commandments from a different mountain (the implicit reference to Moses and Sinai).  At this point, the record of Matthew shows that Jesus has only called to Himself four of His chosen twelve, but that “large crowds followed Him” (4:25).  Additionally, we find that the crowds, which seem to be referred to as His disciples, would be “amazed by His teaching, because He taught them like One Who had authority” (7:28b-29a). 

It is important for us to remember that the words of our text are presented in the context of a continuous series of thoughts that make up chapter five through seven of Matthew.  Now, there is a reason that it is generally referred to as a “sermon,” and that is because it presents a series of ideas that press towards a conclusion.  We find that conclusion as the seventh chapter comes to a close, when Jesus says, “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock.  The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock.  Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed!” (7:24-27) 

Jesus’ entire discourse built to that point, as in His teaching, as He farmed the fallow grounds of the Galilee (from whence revolutions in Israel sprang) to form His new and revolutionary group (though a different sort of revolution) He began to set Himself apart from those that had come before Him.  There had been numerous people before the time of Jesus (including numerous messianic claimants) that had drawn crowds to themselves, with John the Baptist being one of those that had drawn significant audiences (without any messianic claims, though it is possible that there were those who looked to John as a messianic figure as he proposed a new exodus movement as symbolized by his baptizing in the Jordan); but inevitably, they pointed to the prophets or to Moses or to some person of renown in order to lend them credibility and legitimacy.  Jesus, on the contrary, seems only to point to Himself and His words, providing His own credibility.  This was unique.  Obviously, with such poignant words, undoubtedly offered over and over, we can surmise that Jesus intended His teachings to be taken seriously and to be accurately understood and applied by His hearers.    

When we hear a sermon, or a speech of any kind for that matter, we do not expect the speaker to flit about from topic to topic, offering up disconnected thoughts that have nothing to do with what comes before or after; but rather, to present, with minor digressions useful for making or elaborating points, a unified system of thoughts and ideas.  However, for some reason, when we come to these words of Jesus concerning wide and narrow gates and ways, and the destruction and life attendant upon those ways, we have a strange tendency to disconnect it from its larger context.  Doing that, we put these words into Jesus’ mouth as some type of amorphous and ambiguous statement, lacking in substance, that is just sitting there waiting for us to fill it with the content of our subjective musings concerning what it is that constitutes sin.  How ridiculous, presumptuous, and short-sighted.  Rather than look for what it is that Jesus is communicating, we project on to Jesus’ statement nothing more than our own opinions about what actions should be described as “wide gate” actions that lead to destruction, and “narrow gate” actions that lead to life.

Preparing For God (part 2 of 2)

Continuing our correlation of the Levitical/Deuteronomic cursings (and Israel’s understanding of themselves and their plight alongside that comprehension, while also recognizing that it is possible that neither Leviticus nor Deuteronomy had taken their final written forms before the composition of Amos, but Amos’ apparent heavy reliance on the understanding of covenant curses implies knowledge of them) with the fourth chapter of Amos, we also find that “The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you until He has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.  The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heart, and with drought and with blight and with mildew” (Deuteronomy 28:21-22a).  Also, “The Lord will make the rain of your land powder.  From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed” (28:24). 

Apparently, God takes very seriously the fulfillment of His plans and purposes through the people of His covenant, as He continues and says “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies…  And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth…The Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed” (28:25a, 26a, 27).  Going on, we find that “You shall carry much seed into the field and shall gather in little, for the locust shall consume it.  You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm shall eat them” (28:38-39).  “All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and statutes that He commanded you” (28:45). 

All of these things can be intimately connected to health and wealth.  These curses are a destruction of that which represents the wealth of a people.  In Deuteronomy 8:18, we read “You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He Who gives you power to get wealth.”  Why does God give His people the power to get wealth?  He does so in order “that He may confirm His covenant that He swore to your fathers” (8:18b).  What was that covenant?  To find that, we return to the book of Genesis, and to chapter twelve, when God says to Abraham, as He announces a covenant that will be continued through Isaac and Jacob, to the nation of Israel, and on to those that are the children of Abraham by faith (post-Christ), that “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:2-3).  God blesses His people so that they can properly respond to His blessing in gratitude, as the world’s great patron, that they may extend the cycle and circle of grace and be a blessing to all the earth.  He also promised that whoever dishonored Abraham would be cursed.  Truly, it must be said that the nation of Israel itself dishonored Abraham, in forsaking the faith that had been granted to him and becoming unfaithful, and so they were cursed. 

Israel, whom God had chosen to perpetuate the covenant, had failed to perform according to that covenant given to Abraham, but because Israel had failed, that did not mean God had failed.  He is the faithful God that would keep His covenant of blessing.  He would set things right.  How would He do that in light of the fact that His covenant people had failed?  We find the answer in our text, where the Lord said, “prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” (Amos 4:12b).  Though at first glance, it does appear to be an ominous statement, as we consider it we find that it is actually a statement of God’s profound blessing, as God continues to work to bring about His covenant promises, in spite of the failure of the people that He had appointed to the task of representing Him in His world.  Yes, in spite of everything, God looks forward and says, “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel” (4:12a).  In conjunction with this looking forward, God references the curses of the fourth chapter and says, “because I will do this to you” (4:12a). 

Because in His supreme faithfulness to His promises, He would do and had done all of these things to His people; so likewise, in supreme faithfulness, a Messiah would be born, would suffer, die, and rise again.  While there are many facets and implications to the Christ event, part of what was accomplished through it was the Creator God’s gathering together and uniting a new covenant people, in Christ, in recognition of the realization of the hope of the Resurrection, bringing the life of the age to come into the present in union with Christ (belief in Jesus and allegiance to His kingship), and by which the Creator God of Israel would bless the whole of the creation, including all of the peoples of the world (not just national Israel).  Jesus would be set forth as Israel’s king and God.  Though executed as a challenger to Caesar, and charged with being “King of the Jews,” He would go largely unrecognized in these roles, even though Israel had been repeatedly told to be prepared to meet their God.  

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Preparing For God (part 1 of 2)

Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel. – Amos 4:12  (ESV)

What precedes this statement that we would think of as being rather ominous?  Beginning in the sixth verse of this chapter, and keeping in mind that the prophet and his audience would have Israel’s historical narrative in mind as the framework within which to understand what is happening in and to Israel, we hear their God telling His covenant people that “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places” (4:6a).  Now, we would normally think of “clean teeth” as a good thing, but in this case it means, as indicated by what follows it, that there was no food.  The Creator God of Israel had sent famine upon His covenant people.  We have a tendency to think that calamity will somehow always drive a person to seek God, but that is simply our modern interpretation.  Such thinking does not necessarily line up with the example of Scripture.  In the case of Israel, which we will continue to see as we look through the remainder of this chapter, this did not happen.  After speaking of the cleanness of teeth and the lack of bread, God says, “yet you did not return to Me” (4:6b). 

We go on to find the Lord saying “I also withheld the rain from you” (4:7a).  He said that He “would send rain on one city, and send no rain on another city; one field would have rain, and the field on which it did not rain would wither” (4:7b).  With this, it was also said that “two or three cities would wander to another city to drink water, and would not be satisfied” (4:8a).  In spite of directing this upon His covenant people, God said “you did not return to Me” (4:8b).  Lest one think that the rain that came on one city or a particular field could be construed as a blessing for the people of that city or the owner of that particular field, the Lord continues on and says, “I struck you with blight and mildew” (4:9a).  Both blight and mildew result from the presence of water, and serve to ruin crops.  Accordingly, just in case there were plants that escaped the blight and the mildew, the people are reminded that “your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured” (4:9b).  Nothing was escaping God’s cursing, even when there seemed to be a blessing at hand, and the Lord declares that even then “you did not return to Me” (4:9c). 

Things just go from bad to worse for the people of the Creator God, as we see in the tenth verse that “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses, and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils” (4:10a).  Yet surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly by this point in time, we find that the people “did not return” (4:10b).  Having done all of that, with no proper response on behalf of these people that He had elected to be a witness of His power and glory and blessings to all of the nations of the earth, and to serve as the vehicle by which He would bless all the earth, we find God now saying, “I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning” (4:11a).  In this, they could have seen themselves as Lot, who had been directly rescued by God from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but they did not, and they “did not return” (4:11b). 

Why would all of this be a cause for return?  Would it not simply be a reason to become even more angry at God, if indeed He was controlling and sending all of these things?  It should have been a cause for return, because it should have been recognized by His covenant people for what it was, which was God’s faithfulness to His promises to them.  Those promises can be found in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  In the twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, we can read about the curses for disobedience that God promised to bring about if His people were unfaithful to His plans and purposes for them.  Through Moses, the Lord said, “Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.  Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock” (28:16-18).  Tying this to Amos, certainly, this will produce a cleanness of teeth and a lack of bread.  Reading on, we find that “The Lord will send on your curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds” (28:20a).  Why is this promised to happen?  “Because you have forsaken Me” (28:20b) is the clear answer, as God’s people would venture outside of their covenant responsibilities and obligations, and fail to provide the appropriate response of gratitude to the grace shown to them. 

Separation Ended (part 2 of 2)

Now, just because chapter two of Ephesians has come to an end, that does not mean that Paul is changing his line of thinking.  He continues on with this theme of Gentiles now being brought into the family of God, and joined together with national Israel as those under God’s covenant.  Paul realizes that this ending of the separation of humanity from God, along with the ending of the division between Jew and Gentile, is a magnificent and perhaps unexpected turn of events.  Even with the understanding that Paul has been given, it seems that he refers to God’s choosing to operate this way as “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (3:4b-5). 

In the seventh verse, Paul goes on to say “Of this Gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace.”  This ministry, Paul says, “was given me by the working of His power” (3:7b).  In this, he appears to admit that the ministry to the Gentiles, this ministry of the Gospel, proclaiming Jesus as King, was not something to which he had been looking or striving.  Indeed, his desires had been quite contrary to the situation in which he now found himself by the working of God’s grace and power, as prior to his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, it has been Paul’s intention to persecute the Way of Jesus (and its pronouncement of Him as Messiah and King of the Jews) to the death.  Prior to being bound in the power of God and being made a bondslave to Him through Christ, Paul saw this Gospel message as nothing short of a damnable and highly pestilent heresy, and its adherents as worthy of imprisonment and death.  As he reflected on them, Paul would probably look at this dramatic turn of events in his own life as nothing short of a mystery of God’s power as well. 

Getting back to the mystery referenced in the fourth verse, we see Paul writing that “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (3:6).  Those who were members of the nation of Israel were not expecting this.  They believed that God’s promises had been reserved to themselves alone, and that the inauguration of the rule of their Messiah as King was to elevate them, as Abraham’s descendants, above all other nations.  Now, this “mystery” that Paul says “was made known to me by revelation” (3:3a), had set things moving in a new direction.  Through Christ, Who had been declared to be the Son of God in power by the Resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4---something we know was part of Paul’s thinking, though he doesn’t bring it into the letter to the Ephesians, probably because the Caesar was to be found in Rome, not in Ephesus), as the King of the Kingdom of God that was now in place to extend God’s covenant blessings to the entire world, all of mankind had now been brought into the picture, as had been promised to Abraham, though this part of the promises made to him (Abraham) had been lost from view by God’s chosen people.  Through allegiance to the Creator God of Israel through allegiance to His Christ, God’s elect from the Gentile nations had been made fellow heirs, members of the body of God’s people, and partakers in the promised blessings that God made to the whole of His people through Abraham. 

From here, Paul goes on to write about the role that God had given to him.  Referring to the gift of God’s grace for the purpose of ministry, Paul says that “this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8b).  Through the preaching of Christ, which included the preaching of God’s unending and unbounded faithfulness to His people, highlighted by the example on offer by Jesus, Paul was “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God Who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known” (3:9-10a).  This bringing to light can only be done if Christ is preached as the One sent forth from the Creator and covenant God.  It is in Christ alone that “we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in Him” (3:12).  Yes, through confession of Jesus as King (evidence of faith), all peoples have access to God’s judgment of “righteous, and so to are justified before Him.” 

Pointing to the preaching of the Gospel, and of a world set right with God through Christ and the granting of eternal life in union with Him, Paul indicates that the very preaching of this Gospel of Christ is empowered through the operation of the Spirit.  Indeed, Paul seems to believe that it is only the operation of the Spirit within a person that could cause that person to confess that a crucified man was raised from the dead and is now enthroned as King of the cosmos.  It is the evidence of eternal life (sharing in the life of the age to come), and this eternal life comes from the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead and goes forth for the purposes of renewing a fallen and corrupted creation, which is very much the duty of the covenant people, as they work alongside and on behalf of their King. 

This has all been carried out “according to the eternal purpose that He (God) has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (3:11).  The uniting of all of humanity in the Christ, and its attendant gift and responsibility of eternal life showed Paul the God “Who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (3:20a).  God Himself, through His people as they live according to the model provided, would be faithfully working out His purposes and plans, bestowing His blessings upon His people and upon His creation, so that we might be able to live out the faith, “according to the power at work within us” (3:20b).  This would all take place, the separation between Jew and Gentile and between man and His Creator would be ended, with a new kingdom of the rule of Christ through the operation of the Holy Spirit inaugurated, so that “to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever” (3:21).      

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Separation Ended (part 1 of 2)

Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. – Ephesians 2:12  (ESV)

Separated.  Alienated.  Strangers.  No hope.  Without God.  These are quite descriptive terms that the Apostle Paul is using to paint the picture of a dire situation for those that are outside of God’s covenant of promise.  That covenant of promise had begun with Abraham, and had been extended, through Isaac and Jacob, to the sons of Jacob, or Israel.  Those that were not part of national Israel, those who were “Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision” (2:11b), did not have the hope of experiencing the fulfillment of God’s promises. 

That was the case until Christ came.  In being “separated from Christ,” that is, separated from the expected fulfillment of God’s promises through Israel’s expected Messiah, the Gentiles were not a part of God’s redemptive plan for all creation.  “But now,” Paul says, all that has changed, for “in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13).  You who were far from being a part of God’s covenant people have been brought near to God by Christ.  Prior to that, there had been enmity, not only between man and God, but between Israel and the Gentiles. 

That enmity, that hostility, was primarily directed towards the Gentiles by Israel for a couple of reasons.  The first reason had to do with the presence of the Mosaic law (and that down to which the Mosaic law had been whittled---the covenant markers of circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and food laws) which Israel held to as what it was that distinguished them from all of the rest of the peoples of the world, which became to them an unfortunate source of pride, and which the Gentiles sought to get them to violate so as to remove their marks of national identity and so make them an easier people with which to deal and over which to rule.  The second reason for the hostility stemmed from that very rule of the Gentiles, over the land and people of Israel, for even though it was the manifestation of God’s cursing on Israel for their own failure to extend God’s covenant to the whole of the world and so glorify their God, prompted Israel to naturally resent their rulers. 

Paul addresses this situation and writes, “For He Himself is our peace” (2:14a).  Jesus is the one that brings this hostility to an end, because He “has made us both one” (2:14b).  How has He done this?  Because He “has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14c).  Partly by what He did on the cross, through the physical, bodily suffering and sacrifice that He endured, Jesus broke down the wall that separated God’s chosen people (national Israel), from the rest of God’s chosen people, that being the renewed Israel, that were a group that was to be gathered out by God from all of mankind.  Jesus did this “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (2:15).  The covenant of God expressed exclusively for His chosen people (Israel) through the law was no longer necessary, for now the covenant would be expressed exclusively by His chosen people, which now included all the people of the world, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

In this proclamation of the Gospel, which included that Jesus had defeated sin and death (borrowing from enhancing the gospel proclamation that Caesar Augustus had defeated darkness and dissolution), the evidence of which was His Resurrection, and that Jesus the Messiah was not only the King of the Jews, but the King of all peoples and the One for whom every knee would bow, Paul says that Jesus has served to “reconcile us both (Israel and Gentile) to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (2:16).  There was no longer a dividing line when it came to God’s covenant to Abraham.  He had promised that all families of the earth would be blessed through the seed of Abraham, who was looked to as the Messiah; and that seed, Jesus, had now done what was necessary to bring that about.  What was the greatest blessing?  It would have to be that “through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (2:18), where previously, all had been separated, by sin, from God. 

All had been “strangers and aliens,” but through Christ, Paul tells the Gentiles that “you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (2:19).  Israel alone had been the saints, or the “called-out-ones” of God, but now the grouping of those referred to as God’s called-out-ones, God’s chosen, would extend to all the races of man.  Now, not even the Temple in Jerusalem, from which Gentiles were barred from entering, need be a source of division, for Paul looks to a new Temple for a new people of God, that is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (2:20-21).  There is an underlying Jesus-as-Temple theology built into all of this, as Paul declares that the God of Israel has moved beyond what might be thought of as the confines of the Jerusalem Temple, through the work of Christ, and that “In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (2:22).   

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Preparing For The King (part 5 of 5)

Beyond that, we read that “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased’.” (2:13-14)  While angelic announcements are not infrequent or unknown to members of the nation of Israel, as we continue to bear in mind the recipient of the story, it is worth considering the possibility of this angelic announcement borrowing from the imagery of the Roman imperial cult, with multitudes singing the praises of the Caesar. 

Yes, while we readily understand that Jesus is the source of our peace (“shalom” in all its array of implications, especially that of the end of exile), and that He is most definitely the Prince of Peace (in contrast to the Caesar, who is thought of as the bringer of peace---the pax romana, though this is ironically achieved through military conquest), and that we are able to stand in allegiance to Him and His kingdom through the faithful proclamation of Him as our Lord, and though we indeed, in union with the Christ, have the gracious gift of the peace that passes all understanding (does it pass all understanding because of the totality of the Jesus story, including the paradoxical victory via crucifixion and relatively absurd notion of His Resurrection?), we have to continue to look at things in the context in which they are presented. 

It is perfectly legitimate to find the spiritual message that is to be found in any given passage or statement, but we should not do so at the expense of overlooking the plain, historical implications.  So we here reiterate that this multitude of angels, probably a legion of angels just for good measure (we cannot forget the famed and feared Roman legions), sang out about “peace on earth.”  Theophilus would have, almost undoubtedly understood this in light of the Augustus story and his “pax Romana”, or the “peace of Rome” that had been extended throughout the empire, owing to Rome’s formidable military might (the Roman legions) and its system of law and order and justice. 

Just as we have seen so many times before, throughout these first two chapters of Luke, this declaration of peace on earth was another challenge to the ruler and the ruling power of the day.  Rome had achieved a certain level of peace under its emperors, with the peace of the people under its rule achieved through a nearly endless series of wars.  This new King, however, was ushering in a new kingdom of peace, in which “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3b).  This peace was going to be extended, not through military conquest, but through a work of God by His Spirit, because of His faithfulness to His covenant, to bring people under willful and joyous submission to this King through the instrumentation of faith.  We find this in that statement in regards to “those with whom He is pleased,” recognizing that this is no longer exclusive to Israel, but now includes men (and women) from all nations.  This peace was going to be achieved because a people of a new kingdom of people were going to be brought to believe a true Gospel, with is that of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior, through Whom the world was going to be set right with God, redeemed from the curse of sin, death, and the grave---the true enemies of man. 

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon…and the Holy Spirit was upon Him” (2:25).  By the Holy Spirit, he was gifted to understand that a King was coming.  “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (2:26).  When Jesus’ parents brought Him to the temple, Simeon “took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to Your Word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel’.” (2:28-32).  Simeon sums up the hopes of Israel, of all peoples, and the whole of the creation.  He spoke of peace, of salvation, of light and glory.  He spoke in covenant language of what was to be done by Israel’s Messiah-King.  The stage had been set.  The time had arrived.  The world was prepared and now made to know that its King was present.  A new kingdom had been ushered into the world in the most surprising of ways, and of that kingdom, there will be no end.  Glory to God in the highest indeed!     

Monday, December 24, 2012

Preparing For The King (part 4 of 5)

Moving along from Zechariah’s declarations concerning his son and the King, we meet up with the “shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8b).  Here, Theophilus is presented with what, for him, is going to be a familiar refrain.  However, that refrain is going to be directed at a different person than the one to whom it generally directed.  Ultimately, this is less about the shepherds themselves, and more about what it is that the shepherds are going to hear, when “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were filled with fear” (2:9).  In the midst of this amazing sight, what did the shepherds hear?  They heard the angel say “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (2:10). 

There are those words “good news” again.  By now, we are able to quickly make the connection and draw the analogy related to that connection.  Theophilus will understand that the “good news” is another reference to a King, and there is little reason to doubt that even a group of simple shepherds would have understood what it was that being said.  Going further, the angel says that this good news, this Gospel (the birth of the King!), is going to serve as the source of joy for all the people.  All the people?  Is this meant to convey the idea that even though Caesar ruled an extraordinarily large empire, that it is nothing compared to the coming kingdom, and that the new-born King of which they are about to hear, is going to be a King over the entire world?  Is this a king to whom every knee will bow?

Continuing on, we find that familiar refrain used when we read  “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord” (2:11).  Following quickly on the heels of the “good news,” the shepherds hear this amazing statement.  More importantly, Theophilus and all who would read this “narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us” (1:1b), have stumbled upon an incredible proclamation.  Once again, and this would not be lost on anybody, we have a challenge to Caesar.  Once again, we have testimony being presented about a King.  How so?  Well, as we have already discussed and expounded upon, the word “Lord,” or “Kurios” here in the Greek, was a title held by Caesar.  Not only that, but in that day, it was not uncommon to hear Caesar also referred to as “savior,” with the Greek word “soter,” serving this purpose.  This first announcement concerning the birth of Jesus had all of the elements of a royal proclamation. 

When seeking to understand the story of Jesus, and particularly the birth narrative, it cannot be repeated enough that these honorific titles, reserved for the Caesar when used in the context of “good news” (evangelion), are being foisted upon another that, by all appearances, had no legitimate claim to them.  The Caesar (specifically Augustus) is the one hailed as the “savior of the world”.  For the world under the heel of Rome in that day, it is Augustus that is the lord of all.  It is he, truly, that is the anointed one (a christ, a messiah) for the whole world and all the peoples of the world, as well as the one responsible for bringing joy to all peoples, with peace and good will towards men. 

These words being penned by Luke and heard by Theophilus (and eventually all peoples) were not then new in the least.  They were quite familiar, but were (and because of the Resurrection, are) being co-opted and applied, quite unexpectedly and retroactively (as Luke writes his narrative well after the events of the life of the Christ, though he undoubtedly shares the oral traditions concerning Jesus that had sprung up and taken shape quite early), to a man that had been crucified by the order of Rome.  We can never lose sight of the fact that the things that are now being said about Jesus, first to shepherds (according to Luke) but now to a member of the Roman aristocracy, along with the titles that are on offer, were routinely declared about and applied to the one then recognized and widely worshiped as the king of the world and the son of god.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Preparing For The King (part 3)

In the world of that day, it was Caesar that was great, it was Caesar that was the son of the most high, it was Caesar that was clearly ruling over the people of the house of Jacob, it was the Roman empire that was never going to end, and it was Caesar that was called the son of god.  Clearly, this is a revolutionary and subversive message that was being proclaimed by the community that claimed allegiance to Jesus.  Is it any wonder that it was so persecuted?  It is no wonder that Rome went to war against this message of Jesus and attempted to destroy the people that would dare to proclaim that Jesus was King, not just of Israel, but of a kingdom that encompassed the entire world---a kingdom that exceeded that of the vast Roman empire.

That message continues to be reinforced as the story unfolds.  When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, Elizabeth greets her and calls her “the mother of my Lord” (1:43).  “Lord” there is “kuriou.”  In first century context, and in the context of what has already been presented in regards to the titles bestowed upon Jesus, this is more kingly language.  As Theophilus, and anyone else who would happen to read this, would immediately be reminded that it is Caesar that is generally referred to as “kurios,” or “Lord.”  While “lord” is certainly an honorific title, used in both formal and informal pleasantries, the construct of Luke makes it very clear that references to Jesus as “Lord” indicate that he is such both like Caesar and ultimately of the Caesar. 

From there, with an apparent understanding of, and with reference to what had been told to her about her Son and His role as King by the angel, Mary goes on to speak in language reflecting the covenant that God had made with Abraham, saying “He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.  He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (1:51-56).  Again, as we read through this, we cannot lose sight of the fact that this information has been collected and sent to a believing Roman government official who would, no doubt, be sharing this with his circle of friends and associates, perhaps even hearing it in the first time in the company of that circle.  All of the kingly language, and preparations for a people and a world to receive its King would not go un-noticed. 

A few verses later, the author has Zechariah picking up where Mary left off, continuing the reference to the covenant that God had made with Israel through Abraham, which they hoped would be fulfilled in their messiah---in their King.  It is said that 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 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, 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’.” (1:68-75) 

From there, Zechariah re-directs his thoughts toward his own newly born son, saying that he “will be called the prophet of the Most High” (there’s that kingly language again), and that he “will go before the Lord (kurios) to prepare His ways” (1:76).  As we reflect on this, could we not agree that not only was John sent to prepare the way for the King, but that Theophilus was being encouraged to continue preparing the way for the King in service to that King, and that we, having “certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (1:4), also are charged with an ongoing preparation for the way of the King through the preaching (in both word and deed) of the Gospel?   

Friday, December 21, 2012

Preparing For The King (part 2)

As we read through Luke, and as it relates to a people being prepared to receive their king, we have to keep in mind that this writing had a specific purpose.  That purpose is stated in what came to be recognized as the first four verses of the work.  There, we read, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the words have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (1:1-4). 

So what we there find is that this work is directed to a man referred to as “most excellent Theophilus.”  Scholarship and archaeology have come to point out that the title “most excellent,” when used preceding a name in official communication with stated purposes not unlike what we find here in Luke, was often directed towards Roman government officials of what was called “The Equestrian Order.”  This must be borne in mind because of the language that we will find being used, beginning with the record of Gabriel informing Zechariah, that he “was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news” (1:19b). 

This use of “good news” is not to be taken lightly, and along with Luke’s purpose of presenting a global king and kingdom, it demands to be heard within its immediate cultural context so as to grasp its import and impact.  The Greek word used here for “good news” is “evangelisasthai,” which is a derivation of “evangelion,” the word that is commonly rendered as “gospel.”  Because the word that is presented as “good news” was generally and primarily reserved and used in reference to the Emperor (Caesar) or to events that enhanced the glory of the Roman empire, this would have been highly impactful to this Roman government official to whom this book was directed.    

As Theophilus continued reading (or listening as it was shared by a tradent), he would come to the story of Mary.  With Mary, the language of preparation for a King would become even stronger and more pronounced.  As the author communicates a similar experience to that of Zechariah, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, telling her that she had “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30).  Favor, in a world defined by honor and shame, and in which the patron and client relationship was prevalent, pervasive, and determinative, would have been a crucial component of the message to Mary, and it would not have been lost on someone such as Theophilus, who, like everyone else in his world, would have been well-versed in the dynamics of the patron client relationship, and the ongoing desire to secure favor from a patron. 

It is worth digressing for just one moment to point out that Mary had not found this favor through any efforts of her own, but that God’s favor was being bestowed upon her, the evidence of which would be the fact that she was told that she would “conceive and bear a son,” and that she would “call His name Jesus” (1:31).  This was most definitely the unmerited favor of God poured out upon Mary, and she is placed in the position of client to her patron, the Creator God of Israel, now owing Him service, gratitude, and loyalty. 

This name, Jesus, which means “Jehovah Saves,” was quickly followed up by a few more titles.  The kingly language comes at us and Theophilus quite quickly, as we read that “He will be great” (1:32a), that He “will be called the Son of the Most High” (1:32b), that “the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David” (1:32c), that “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (1:32d), and that “of His kingdom there will be no end” (1:32e).  Is there any doubt as to the mission of Jesus and what Luke desires to make known about Him?  A bit further on we read that Jesus shall be called “the Son of God” (1:35b).  That’s quite an impressive list to read, especially in a world that is ruled by Caesar, and is the one for whom such language (especially “son of god”) is generally reserved.  

Preparing For The King (part 1)

For he will be great before the Lord.  And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. – Luke 1:15  (ESV)

This verse, which of course must be heard within and according to the entire narrative and purpose of the author’s work, which is the presentation of a true global ruler, speaks of the man that we know as John the Baptist.  Immediately after declaring that “the Baptizer” will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, the writer goes on to say that “he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (1:16).  Because of what is said by this early Jesus-believer in the course of his writing, reflecting the belief of the early church when it comes to the role of the Holy Spirit in the world, we can quickly make the connection that it is not strictly John the Baptist that will be doing this turning through his ministry, as important and crucial for laying the groundwork for Jesus (and most likely influencing Jesus) that his ministry would be. 

What is not to be missed is that, though he will be the vessel that the Creator God of Israel uses of course, it would be that God, through the Holy Spirit, turning many to Himself, the Lord their God.  We go on to read that “he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah” (1:17a), and that he will also serve to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children” (1:17b).  Most importantly, however, we find it said that he will be turning, through the Holy Spirit at work in him to bring this about, “the disobedient to the wisdom of the just” (1:17c).

We can find this to be a most compelling statement, especially as we reflect on those words “wisdom” and “just”.  Here, one can’t help taking the liberty of doing a bit of justifiable though relatively free word substitution, and re-reading that phrase to find John turning “the disobedient to the Christ of God the Father.”  That is a safe substitution, in light of the fact that we know that our God is indeed just, and that the Apostle Paul refers to Jesus the Christ as the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). 

Now, do we make these substitutions for no reason?  Of course not.  We do so in order for the purpose of better understanding what is being communicated through the Scripture.  Here, we are simply pointing out that part of John the Baptist’s ministry was to prepare a people currently in a state of the curse of exile (though in their land, they were ruled by a foreign power), and who would have thus, according to their self-understanding and the narrative by which they defined themselves, understood themselves to be a disobedient people.  John was preparing a people to be turned to Jesus and to His message about Himself.  That’s not much of a stretch of logic, as we find John offering up his purpose statement throughout the Gospels, saying that he was there to “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and to “make His paths straight” (Luke 3:4). 

These things that were being said about John here in the first chapter of Luke were being said by Gabriel, an angel of the Lord.  When John says that he was preparing the way of the Lord, he is hearkening back to what the readers (hearer) is informed was told to his father, Zechariah, by Gabriel.  Undoubtedly, the reader is to presume that these words had been passed on to John as a young man, and that John would naturally have reflected on them throughout his life.  So when John speaks about his ministry of preparation, he is referring to the fact that it was said by the angel that he would be used “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (1:17d).  This begs the question as to what the people were being prepared to do.  The answer is that they were being prepared to receive their king.  With that, we have to understand that God’s people were in constant expectation of their messiah, their king in the line of David, though there was certainly internal disagreement as to the type of messiah they were expecting.  It is along these lines that we think of the turning of “the disobedient to the Christ (the Messiah-anointed one) of God the Father.” 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

God's Covenant

They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to His law. – Psalm 78:10  (ESV)

That’s quite an indictment.  As if that was not bad enough, we go on to hear that “They forgot His works and the wonders that He had shown them” (78:11) as well.  Who did not keep the covenant?  Who refused to walk according to His law?  Who forgot His works and His wonders?  Well, that would be God’s people, of course.  The Psalmist is referencing the people that God had declared to be His treasured possession, the children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham.  Whenever we find that word covenant, we will do well to hearken back to Abraham, and the covenant that God entered into with Abraham, because that is the story that a member of Israel would have in mind when “covenant” is mentioned.  At the same time that the effort to remember that is made, it is also to be remembered that all that become children of Abraham through the faith that shows itself forth through and as belief in Jesus, also stand in the line of that covenant and should always be cognizant of that fact. 

The covenant to Abraham can be found in Genesis, and in it, God promises to bless those who bless Abraham, and also to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham.  This use of “Abraham” must be understood as incorporating, and makes reference to the family of Abraham.  As the Scriptural narrative goes, this covenant is passed along to Isaac, who was the son and evidence of God’s promise to Abraham, to Jacob (Israel), and to the renewed Israel, those who are sons and daughters of Abraham by faith.   

The Psalmist says that they, meaning Israel, did not keep God’s covenant, as evidenced by the fact that they refused to walk according to His law.  This is interesting, as Abraham kept God’s covenant though Scripture indicates that he was never given any specific law by which to walk.  His call was to represent the Creator God (to bear the divine image) by being a blessing to those with whom he came into contact.  So why the seemingly greater burden on Abraham’s descendants?  This goes to the purpose of the law.  God gave His people the law for numerous reasons, one of which, to be sure, was to mark them out as a people set apart for Himself. 

God promised His people, when He gave them His law, that through its keeping they would be blessed.  It appears that Israel is supposed to operate according to the understanding that through their keeping of the law, and the subsequent blessings that God would rain down upon them, that all the families of the earth would be blessed.  How so?  At least partially because the nations of the world---those that were nearby Israel and those that were far off---would hear of and experience the blessings upon this particular nation and would come to find out why they had been made so prosperous. 

The people of Israel would be able to respond that they were blessed for one reason only, which was because they were, in grateful response to the obvious provision of His hand, following the law that their God had given them, and that Israel’s God alone possessed the power to deliver such prosperity and blessing.  In this, the God of Israel would be glorified, and knowledge of Him would be extended beyond Israel, to others of earth’s families.  By this, God’s great blessings would be made manifest. 

Israel, however, had forgotten their God’s works and wonders.  According to the Psalmist, who would always have the long story of Israel in mind, they sinned against Him (78:17) by not trusting that He could provide for them in the wilderness, according to His promises.  They challenged His power by speaking against Him (78:19).  From the beginning, almost immediately after their exodus from Egypt and the receiving of God’s laws, it was made clear that Israel was going to be unable to walk according to that law and so be a blessing according to God’s covenant, because “they did not believe in God and did not trust His saving power” (78:22).  This was quite the contrast from that which we find in the original recipient of the covenant, that being Abraham, of whom it is said that He simply believed God, and trusted in His power to perform according to His promises. 

Like those that believe in the Gospel message that Jesus is the resurrected Lord of all, in spite of His shameful execution, Abraham trusted God even when the promise seemed ridiculous, such as having a son with his wife, when they were both approaching one hundred years old, and believing even though he did not see the massive displays of God’s power, as would Israel, both before and after their escape from Egypt.  Unlike Israel, Abraham not only believed in God’s promise, but also trusted in His saving power, when he took Isaac to the mountain to offer him as a sacrifice, seemingly believing that God would raise his son from the dead if necessary.

The thirty-seventh verse of this chapter says that “Their heart was not steadfast toward Him; they were not faithful to His covenant” (78:37).  Naturally, this is where believers can often be found as well.  Not being faithful, Israel stood outside of God’s covenant, deserving no more than the cursing detailed in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  However, we go on to read “Yet He, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; He restrained His anger often and did not stir up all His wrath” (78:38). 

In the Christ and the Christ-event, God did this for the entirety of His desired covenant family as well.  It was these, having had their iniquity atoned for and the decree of destruction set aside, through whom He would bless the world and all of creation.  This blessing would be manifested through the eternal life (the presence of the life of the age to come) that they would have in union with Christ (calling Jesus Lord and living accordingly), being renewed creations in Him and harbingers of the new creation, and would be executed as a result of the faith that believes in Him, through which God would carry out His plans and purposes for His creation, because He is faithful.             

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Unrighteous Judge (part 2 of 2)

So after finishing His account of the words that reflected the mindset of the unjust judge, how did Jesus respond?  He pointed to faithfulness of the Creator God of Israel.  He answered by saying, “I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 18:8a).  Yes, by way of this, Jesus insists that God will be faithful to the promises that He makes to His covenant people.  We can imagine the smug Pharisees and rulers, as Jesus says these words, believing themselves to be the widow of the parable, being God’s elect, while their evil Gentile rulers were represented by the unrighteous judge.  Then Jesus adds an important “Nevertheless.”  Jesus says, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes will He find faith on earth?” (18:8b) 

That was a big question.  The Son of Man was a term for the messiah, the expected king who was expected to do nothing more than enable national Israel to cast off its bonds.  Jesus asked if the messiah will find God’s elect people trusting the God to Whom they claim to cry day and night.  Will the messiah find, in God’s people, the spreading of the knowledge of God’s covenant faithfulness throughout the whole of the earth?  The implied answer is “no, He will not.”  The widow, representing the Gentile nations, had demanded “justice against my adversary” (18:3b).  We can surmise that, in this scenario, it is God Himself that is the adversary.  The Gentile nations, filled with divine image-bearers that Israel had failed to reach, wanted the justice of God’s righteousness applied to them, so that they could stand against the adversaries of death, decay, and the grace that was the lot of all mankind.  Israel, by and large and as a whole, had broken and disregarded the trust that had been given to it and kept the knowledge of God to itself.  In this day, as believers in Jesus as King claim to be the covenant people of the Creator God, we must be careful that we do not do the same.  Believers must remember that the call to missions, offering the proclamation of Jesus as King and Lord of all (the Gospel) to all nations and making disciples is the greatest of duties.   

Just in case His hearers did not grasp the point that Jesus seemed to be making with the parable of the persistent widow and the unrighteous judge, He moves on to the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  Somewhat clearly, continuing in context of the Gospel as a whole and that had been created by the prior parable, the Pharisee represents Israel.  He stands by himself and prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (18:11). 

Ultimately, this is how Israel looked upon the Gentiles.  The Pharisee thinks quite highly of himself, as one of God’s very special covenant keepers, saying “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (18:12).  It seems that the Pharisee, in this story, wanted his God to know how much he sacrificed for Him.  The Pharisee wanted to remind his God of how he cries to Him day and night.   Drawing the contrast, Jesus says, “But the tax collector, standing far off” (18:13a).  The Pharisee (representing the failing portion of Israel, with specific direction to its leaders) made sure that the tax collector (Gentiles and those of Israel looked up on as being outside the covenant because they did not keep to the then current covenant markers) stood far off.  This tax collector “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven” (18:13b), indeed, how could he, without the knowledge of the covenant God that Israel was supposed to spread but had refused to do so?  All that he could manage to do, in a general awareness, was “beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’!” (18:13c).  It is possible to hear an echo of the Apostle Paul here, in that even without Israel’s help, when it came to the Gentiles, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (Romans 1:19).   

What does Jesus say?  He says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (18:14).  It is the tax collector of the story that joins up with the covenant people.  Do we not hear the widow of the earlier story crying out with the tax collector, saying “Give me justice against my adversary”? (18:3b)  The Pharisee stood in the place of the unrighteous judge, while the tax collector served as the widow.  Like the unrighteous judge, the Pharisee was more concerned with self-preservation than with the offer of justice.  Jesus continues on, saying “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (18:14b).  This is the standard “reversal of position” language that regularly fell from the lips of Jesus, which would have carried even more meaning in a society defined by honor and shame.  By now, the point being made should be quite clear.  Israel looked upon the Gentile nations with contempt, especially those that ruled over them, rather than looking at them in thankfulness as evidences of God’s faithfulness towards them, as they were the instruments of God’s cursing, by which He faithfully disciplined them according to His covenant promises.  God had not forsaken them.  They had been faithless, but He remained faithful, executing His redemptive plan for all mankind through Israel and its Messiah. 

Because Israel had neither truly feared God, as evidenced by their idolatry and disregarding of God’s laws for them; and because they clearly had no respect for man (as a whole), choosing to isolate themselves from Gentile nations rather than engaging them at the level of extending God’s covenant blessings to them, they did not serve as God’s righteous judges through which He could administer His judgment of “righteous” to the families of the earth.  As the renewed Israel, Jesus believers that are children and servants of the King of Kings, must be ever so careful to not fall into the same snare through isolating themselves in their communities, looking only to those communities as being the true divine image-bearers, or to nothing more than a future blissful state, in an attempt to escape this world. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Unrighteous Judge (part 1 of 2)

And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says.” – Luke 18:6  (ESV)

What did the unrighteous judge say?  Backing up a couple verses, we find the judge saying, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming” (18:4-5).  Not only does the judge say this of himself, but this is what is reported of him in the second verse, which tells us that “he neither feared God nor respected man” (18:2b).  The widow in this parable was one that kept coming to him and saying “Give me justice against my adversary” (18:3b).  After reporting the words of both the widow and the judge, we find Jesus saying, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says” (18:6).  From there, He goes on to say, “And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to Him day and night?  Will He delay long over them?” (18:7). 

When we look at the verses of this parable, it is natural for us to see Jesus shifting His focus following His statement about what the unrighteous judge has said.  It is natural, because believers tend to think of themselves as God’s elect and the ultimate recipients and beneficiaries of God’s justice.  However, it is possible to reframe the statement in a way that finds Him continuing along the same path without a shift in the focus of His message.  Before doing that, it is necessary to consider the context of the setting.  The context is His being asked by the Pharisees a question concerning the kingdom of God, and when it would come.  In response, Jesus told them that “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (17:21b).  Based on the wider perspective of Luke’s Gospel and its kingdom movement, we know that with this statement, Jesus was talking about His kingdom.

With that as the context, and with Jesus’ antagonism of the Pharisees and the rulers of the people a recurring theme throughout the Gospels, it is possible to see Jesus casting the nation of Israel itself in the role of the “unrighteous judge.”  How can this be?  Israel had been charged with extending the blessings of God’s covenant to all peoples.  This was to be done, at least partially, through their keeping of the law, which would bring them untold blessings, and cause the Gentiles to come to Israel to find the source of their blessings, through which they would receive the knowledge of God.  Israel had not done this.  They had forsaken their Creator God.  Repeatedly, their history informs us that they had turned to idols.  They had been destroyed and exiled, and even though a portion of the people had been returned to their land, they were still under the heel of oppressive rulers, which was what God had promised to them if they forsook His covenant.  In this, it could be said that they neither feared God nor respected man, because they did not keep their God’s laws and they did not care to be a light to the Gentiles for the glory of their God. 

So if Israel is the unjust judge, then the widow is all of the Gentile nations, coming to Israel that they may know Israel’s Lord.  If we frame the parable in this way, we can see that any keeping of the covenant that extended God’s blessings beyond the people of Israel, so that they might be bestowed on Gentile nations (the families of the earth), was done reluctantly and with an eye towards nothing more than self-preservation, rather than the glorification of God. 

Keeping in mind the Pharisees’ question about the Kingdom of God, and our positioning of Israel as the unjust judge, we can then move on to the questioning statements “And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to Him day and night?  Will He delay long over them?” (18:7).  We can hear this as a question concerning Israel’s total restoration from their cursing and what was really a continuing exile, since the land of promise was not truly their own.  The words of the unjust judge represent Israel’s expectation of triumph over its oppressors and rulers, through their messiah, as they presume on their God, speaking of themselves in haughty terms as God’s elect, declaring that they are crying to Him day and night, and imploring God to cease His delay and return power to national Israel.