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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Mission of the Seventy-two—Luke 10:1-24

Please read today’s passage here: Luke 10:1-24

Luke records two occasions when Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim the Kingdom. In the first he sent out only the Twelve (Luke 9:1-9), and in the second Seventy-two. Most people are aware of the significance of the number twelve. There were 12 sons of Jacob, who became the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel that were freed by God from Egyptian bondage and guided by him through the Sinai deserts to the Promised Land of Israel under Joshua. When Jesus chose precisely 12 men to be his inner group of disciples (i.e., students) and authorized witnesses after his resurrection, he consciously modeled this group after the 12 tribes. For they, as Jewish believers, represented the true Remnant of believing Israel.

When he sent out this second larger group of his followers, it numbered 72. It is less well known today that in ancient Israel of Jesus’ day there was a tradition that there were 72 nations in the Earth. So the number 72 probably reflects the worldwide mission of the Jesus community after the Resurrection. As a companion of St. Paul in his missionary journeys, Luke was intimately acquainted with this aspect of the Post-Resurrection Jesus Community.

It may be significant that in Luke’s gospel the sequence of events is:
  • the sending out of the Twelve,
  • the Transfiguration and the Predictions of the Death of the Messiah, and
  • the sending out of the Seventy-two.
The mission of the Twelve symbolizes for Luke Jesus’ first task of presenting himself to the historic people of God (Israel) as their Messiah, to accept or to reject. Thus the number 12 reflects also the symbolic audience or target, namely Israel.

When historic Israel rejected its Messiah, it handed him over to the Romans to crucify and to be raised from the dead on the third day. This is prefigured by Jesus’ predictions of his death and resurrection (9:43-45) and by the Transfiguration (9:28-36).

After the resurrection, the mission of Jesus (through his disciples) changed from only to historic Israel to all nations under heaven, namely the 72.

In this second, larger mission, the disciples are to act as advance men. They are to go to towns and villages where Jesus would eventually come (v. 2).

Two lessons can be learned from this fact. First, they were not told to just pick places at random, but were called to go to specific cities that Jesus had plans to visit. And secondly, theirs was not the sole responsibility of teaching, since they knew that Jesus would follow them.

These two facts remind us as his disciples today that when God places a burden on our hearts to reach out to a particular individual or group, it means that he has plans to visit them spiritually through us or through another disciple who follows us. We can be sure that we are working with the risen Jesus and his disciples as members of a team, following a game plan that he has devised. Secondly, we can be freed from worry that we have not told the person or group all that needs to be said, since Jesus (perhaps in the form of another disciple) will always follow up. Commenting on this pattern, Jesus once said: "One person sows, and another comes along later and reaps" (John 4:35-38).

Jesus put the same restrictions on them as to what they could carry with them as he had earlier with the Twelve (v. 4). And they were given similar instructions about where to stay in the villages and how to respond to reception and rejection of their message (v. 5-11).

In Luke’s description of those instructions there is even more of an emphasis on the disciples’ blending in with the local customs. They are to eat what the locals offer them. Since these are still Jewish towns, there is no question that they would be given pork or other food that was forbidden by the law of Moses. Rather, the lesson is that a disciple of Jesus gratefully accepts what is offered to him. St. Paul later offered similar advice to Christians in the pagan city of Corinth about accepting hospitality from those whose meat might have been purchased in a local market where it had been taken from animals sacrificed to pagan deities. He said, “Eat without asking about the food’s origin. But if they say to you, ‘this was offered to a pagan deity,’ you may refuse.”

In the account of the earlier mission of the Twelve, we are told how the Twelve were to react to rejection of their message, but not how they were supposed to react to a favorable reception. In describing the mission of the Seventy-two, Luke gives both sets of instructions. To towns that accepted their message they were to say: “The Kingdom of God has come near you” (v. 9), with the implied conclusion "and it is yours, since you have accepted it". To those who rejected it they were to declare that they are no longer responsible for that town’s fate. This is what the shaking off of the town’s dust symbolized. And they were to announce that the Kingdom of God had come near to that town also, but had been refused and the opportunity for God's forgiveness was lost.

Jesus’ final comment on the towns that rejected—that their fate will be worse than that of the wicked town of Sodom on which fire fell from Heaven and consumed it—reflects the principle underlying the worldwide mission of the Church: it is important that every person be given an opportunity to hear the offer of forgiveness and eternal life, made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus, so that they might enter God’s Kingdom. But those who reject that offer exclude themselves from eternal happiness. They exclude themselves, because God’s messengers were sent out in order that none should be excluded. By rejecting God’s kind and loving offer, they commit a kind of spiritual suicide. God created humans with free will, and he will not violate their right to use it, even if they use it unwisely in order to reject God's own mercy and forgiveness.

Brothers and sisters, in a very real sense you and I are among that group of the Seventy-two. We are part of the worldwide mission of Jesus’ disciples. Like them, we are to be an integral part of the social groups we enter: business groups, academic societies, civic groups, neighborhood associations, sports clubs. We are not supposed to isolate ourselves or pretend to be moral superiors, although we passionately pursue lives that honor Jesus. We take what is offered to us, including opportunities to share the good news with friends and neighbors. To all we give the encouraging news that in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection God’s Kingdom has come near and is accessible to anyone who will believe. We hope that it will not be necessary to remind any who firmly reject that message of the sad fate that they are dooming themselves to. Still, it may eventually become necessary to do so. Uncomfortable truths cannot simply be left unsaid.

But lest we end this lesson on an unecessarily somber note, without seeing the bright side as well, consider the words of Jesus that follow in v. 21-24.

21 At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. 22 "All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."
23 Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it."
Although even extremely learned and brilliant scholars can fail to see God's truth, if they do not recognize their need of God's forgiveness, even the simplest person with little or no education at all can understand and joyfully accept the message of Jesus when he or she comes humbly seeking God's forgiveness and love. To this second category of people Jesus "chooses to reveal" the Father (v. 22). It is not unfair that Jesus does not choose to reveal the Father to the other class of persons, since by their proud refusal to confess their need for God's forgiveness they have excluded themselves.

Those who claim they are not hungry cannot complain that they are not given food.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

True Greatness—Luke 9:46-50

(Image courtesy of

Please read today’s passage here: Luke 9:46-50

People are fascinated by discussions about who is the best or the greatest in every area of life. My wife and I like to watch sports on TV. It doesn’t make much difference what the sport is: baseball, football, basketball, tennis, golf. We like watching both college and professional athletics. In individual sports like golf or tennis there are world rankings. In team sports there is always discussion about who is the best individual athlete on any team. Is Tom Brady a greater quarterback than Eli Manning? There are even arguments on talk shows about who was the greatest quarterback of all time, or the greatest basketball player of all time. We seem to always have to rank people.

Some people even like to rank Christian writers or speakers—"So-and-so is the greatest preacher I've ever heard"—a practice that seems to me to go against the very principles of Christian discipleship. In the passage we study today a question arose about ranking in God’s kingdom. Comparing the way the incident is told in the gospels of Matthew and Mark with the version in Luke, another aspect becomes striking. In Matthew the question seems more abstract and detached: “Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” This might even apply to the Old Testament figures, although probably Matthew understands the motivation for the question. But Luke (and probably also Mark) makes that motivation much clearer. Luke says they were discussing (or arguing) about which of themselves was the greatest. This seems almost incredible. How could Jesus own personal disciples have been driven by such crass selfish ambition and to even argue about it as they traveled? The very fact that they argued showed how wrong their attitude was.

Now it must be admitted that we do not know that each disciple argued that he was the greatest. Maybe there was simply a discussion in which two or more opinions were voiced: one group favoring Peter and another James. Luke’s words “which of them” shows, at any rate, that they were not including John the Baptizer. Perhaps they had remembered Jesus’ words that “he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he [i.e., John]”. But they didn’t really get Jesus’ point. For they merely equated those who are "in the Kingdom of Heaven" with the Twelve. No one else counted.

Another way in which we might try to “sanitize” the disciples’ argument is to say that they were merely interested in which of them should be responsible for which duties, the “greatest” merely meaning the one who would undertake the most difficult duties. We play this game ourselves at times in order to justify our hidden craving for importance. “I have more free time than you. Let me relieve you of the extra work. I’ll be the president.” But Jesus sees through all pretense. He saw the raw ambition and pride that underlay this apparently “innocent” discussion.

So he took brought a child into their midst. Not any particular child—just a child. Then he said something unusual: “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For who is least among you all is the one who is great.” Matthew records that Jesus also said—perhaps at this point in time; perhaps at another time, but pertinent to this incident—“Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:2-4).

Matthew’s version makes a lot of sense. Certainly the disciples’ quarreling over rank and greatness was a denial of the essential condition for entering God’s Kingdom: namely, confession of one’s own unworthiness. Countless teachings of Jesus reinforce this idea. The story he told of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector at prayer is a vivid example. The Pharisee boasted to God of his works, while the Tax Collector wept and cried out for mercy to God because of his sinfulness. Jesus said the second man entered the Kingdom, and first man did not.

But Mark and Luke do not include that saying. Do they too assume it? Or is there more to how they saw Jesus’ strange words? Taken at face value, Jesus’ words have to do with “receiving” another person. Yet on the three levels of Jesus saying—God, Jesus, child—is there any truly common element? When one wishes to “receive” God or Jesus, one is accepting their claims on one’s life. One is expressing a willingness to serve and follow them. Is Jesus saying that each believer should be willing to accept the claims of the humblest and least important member of their community upon their service? Is he suggesting that at times they might even need to listen to the leadership advice of a simpler follower of Christ? I do not wish to dogmatically assert these possibilities. It seems to me at least likely—in view of Jesus’ words on another occasion to the effect that “if you do a kindness to the least of these my ‘brothers’, you have done it to me” (Matthew 25)—that he means that there is no possible ranking of people within the community of believers that justifies failing to meet the needs of any fellow believer, because he or she is less well-liked or admired. Everyone in the flock of Jesus has a claim on the others for love and support.

The Costs of Discipleship—Luke 9:57-62

Please read today’s passage here: Luke 9:57-62

I have a very bad habit that my wife has been trying to break me of for years. When someone in the publishing business asks me to write something, I can never say “No”, even when my schedule will not permit me to fulfill the commitment. I take on responsibilities irresponsibly.

I have heard people tell me that they cannot believe the gospel of Christ, that all your sins can be forgiven just by believing that he died for you and rose again. “That’s too simple”, they say. “That’s far too easy to be true!” But the fact of the matter is that, while it really is true that finding forgiveness in Christ is almost too easy to be true, being his disciple—which is what all who find that forgiveness will want to be—is anything but easy.

While Jesus was engaged in his public ministry, he attracted lots of people who were fascinated by what he had to say. But most of them wanted an easy association with him: one that would not cost them anything. They were comfortable in their present circumstances and were extremely reluctant to give up any of what they had. As I think all of us reading Luke this winter have seen, Jesus’ ethic was not an easy one at all: it was very demanding. So when he was approached by onlookers who offered to follow him as his disciples, he told them just how much it would cost them. And in most cases this discouraged them.

In today’s passage, Jesus is approached three times by different individuals, and gives a slightly different reply to each. Mark does not record this incident, but Matthew does. In Matthew’s telling there are only two individuals, and he identifies them—not by name, but by occupation or social status. The first is a scribe, and the second is “another of Jesus’ disciples”. While Matthew’s details are undoubtedly historical, Luke sees no value for his purposes in confusing his readers (many of them Gentiles, to whom “scribe” meant something entirely different than in its Palestinian Jewish setting) with these details. He simply records three persons who either came to Jesus and asked to become disciples or responded to Jesus' invitation to follow him.

The first man doesn’t actually ask anything, but makes a promise: “I will follow you wherever you go”. Since Jesus’ ministry at this point was an itinerant one, the obvious surface meaning of this promise is that the man who made it is prepared to leave his home and join Jesus’ traveling band. That was a praiseworthy decision on his part. But he might not have understood the conditions in which the Twelve traveled with Jesus. Jesus’ reply, like the stories he liked to tell, was very colorful and vivid:
“Foxes have holes; birds have nests; but I have nowhere to lay my head”.
Life with Jesus would not be a comfortable one. The travel conditions were rough, and the opposition to Jesus which was starting to grow would eventually lead to his arrest and his disciples having to go into hiding. Now, it is not wrong to want to be comfortable. But if you wish to serve God with all your heart, you cannot have both comfort and Jesus. Jesus once said: “No one can serve two bosses: you cannot serve both God and Money”.

To a second man Jesus actually issued an invitation to follow him. But he replied “Let me first go and bury my father.” When you read Jesus’ rejection of his offer, you may think him exceedingly cruel “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. As for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Does Jesus have no feelings at all for this grieving man whose father has died or is dying?

But you must understand that the invited man was not saying that his father had just died and needed burial or was now on his death bed and would die very soon. Had this been the case, the man would not have been in Jesus’ audience, but by his father’s bedside. No, he was using a standard Jewish saying which meant that he needed to stay in his father’s household serving him until his father died. Then he would be free to do his own thing. He wanted to be sure to collect his share of his father’s estate first, and then follow Jesus.

This was respectable behavior, but not what was required for joining Jesus’ traveling party. By the time that man’s father eventually died, Jesus would have been long crucified and raised from the dead and ascended to heaven. Far too late. The lesson here is that there is often a window of opportunity to serve Jesus in certain ways. And when that opportunity opens, a true disciple has to be willing to make great personal sacrifices in order to fulfill it. If you feel God calling you to serve him in some important task, put all else aside and say “Lord, I’ll do it.”

A third man offered to follow Jesus, but only after he first said goodbye to those at his home. To him Jesus said:
“No farmer who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit of the kingdom of God”.
The imagery is of a man who tries to plow a straight furrow while always looking back over his shoulder. Anyone who has ever tried that knows it is a sure recipe for an unacceptably crooked furrow, overlapping the adjacent ones. A disciple who is always wondering if he made the right decision to leave his comfort zone and follow Jesus will never have his mind on the task or his heart on the Lord he professes to serve. If you have found joy in believing in Jesus, and you want to serve him, then forget about the so-called “sacrifices” that this kind of living may make necessary. Or "what might have been" in your life, if you had not chosen this path of discipleship.

Some of you may think as you read this, “Does God have to make it so difficult for those who want to serve him?” But in reality, God is doing us a favor. For these tests are here to help us to discover if we really do want to serve Jesus. In the end Judas discovered that he really did not believe in Jesus as the Savior-Messiah. For him money and comfort were more important. So he betrayed his Master for 30 shekels of temple silver. It is only by counting the costs of service that we know if we really have hearts for God, or only for ourselves.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Rejected by Samaritans—Luke 9:51-56

[Map courtesy of Wikipedia]
Please read today’s passage here: Luke 9:51-56

It’s a fact of life that it is easier to bear rejection by people whom you consider elite than by those you might think beneath you. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he experienced the unfair criticism and mockery of the ruling classes of the Jews, and by the leading “scholars” of his day, the “scribes”.

Every rebuff was met by Jesus’ calm replies, based upon the Scriptures and the solid simple wisdom of his parables (stories). Rarely is there any sign of Jesus becoming ruffled, much less angry. Yet when he sent the Twelve out to the spread the good news of the arrival of the Kingdom of God in the person of Jesus, he explicitly told them that, if any willage refused to give them a favorable hearing, when they left that village, they were to shake off even the dust of its streets from their sandals. This was a sign to that village that the disciples were no longer responsible for their judgment by God. The disciples had discharged their responsibility to give that village the good news and God’s invitation to believe and share in the Kingdom. If it chose to refuse, it had only itself to blame.

There were occasions when Jesus scolded entire villages for their failure to respond to God’s word. In Luke 10:13 we read:
“Doom, Chorazin! Doom, Bethsaida! If Tyre and Sidon had been given half the chances given you, they'd have been on their knees long ago, repenting and crying for mercy. Tyre and Sidon will have it easy on Judgment Day compared to you.”
This was standard practice of Old Testament prophets and nothing new or different.

But in today’s passage we have something different. Samaria was an area where the people did not adhere to standard Judaism. Samaritans did not accept the entire Old Testament as authoritative Scripture—only the Law of Moses, what we call the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy). The rest of our Old Testament was to them wise and edifying, but not as authoritative and binding upon belief and conduct as the Law. The Samaritans did not worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. They had their own temple. They did not observe the festivals such as Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, etc. in the standard way. They had their own priesthood which was not genealogically descended from Aaron as that of the Jerusalem temple. All observant Jews of that day looked down on Samaritans as irreligious and immoral, in some ways worse than pagans because they mixed truth with error.

Early in Jesus’ public ministry, not long after he was baptized by John, we read in the Gospel of John (ch. 4) that he passed through Samaria on his way and stopped at a well, where he had a private talk with a Samaritan woman, a woman who had lived with several men, at least one of whom was not her husband. Jesus treated her with great politeness and kindness. But he did not gloss over the fact that she was violating God’s laws regarding marriage and sex, and that as a sinner she needed the forgiveness of God. She was touched by his love for her and also by his wisdom and understanding of God’s word. The result was that she believed that he was the Messiah, the Savior promised in the Old Testament (i.e., the Pentateuch for her).

But on this occasion that Luke tells us about, as Jesus passed through the villages of Samaria, he was rejected by many. Two of his disciples, James and John, who were brothers, the sons of a man named Zebedee, and blood relatives of Jesus, were very offended. Elsewhere we are told that these brothers had the nickname “sons of thunder”. Here we see why: they asked Jesus if he wanted them to use the supernatural powers he had given them for healing and exorcisms in order to call down lightning bolts and the thunder of God’s wrath upon these Samaritan villagers! Our grandparents would have called these brothers “firebrands”, hot-headed boys who might do something foolish. They believed they were only seeking to defend Jesus’ honor. It was one thing for the Scribes and Pharisees, the elite of Jerusalem, to snub him. But these Samaritans! Who did they think they were?

Yet Jesus refused. Luke simply writes that “he turned [to them] and rebuked them. And they went on to another village”. Jesus was following his own teachings. “If someone strikes you on the cheek,” he once told them, “just turn the other cheek and let him hit you again” (Matthew 5:39). The time will come some day when the decisions of men and women in this life will be judged by God. But that time is not now. Nor is it for us, God’s servants, to do the judging for him. Instead, by going on to the next village Jesus showed himself to be the patient and persistent Savior, always seeking another chance to save the few who are willing to allow him. St. Paul once wrote to his young partner in ministry Timothy:
“And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them a change of mind, leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26)
This is one of the most important lessons Jesus had to convey on the nature of discipleship. It is one that we must all learn and re-learn.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jesus is Transfigured—Luke 9:28-36

Please read today’s passage here: Luke 9:28-36

In this stretch of 3 or 4 chapters Luke is interleaving events which demonstrate the stupendous reality of Jesus’ divine origin and Messiahship with warnings to the disciples against trumpeting this fact abroad at this time.

The warnings also seek to prevent a feeling of “triumphalism”—the false confidence by the disciples that the road will be easy from this point on, and that they can expect no reverses, much less apparent disasters. Instead, they are cautioned that Jesus will be rejected by the leaders of his people, delivered to the authorities for trial, executed in the most shameful way (crucifixion)—but also, raised to life again within three days.

To us, looking at this from our Post-Easter perspective, we see nothing to be particularly discouraged about. In fact, the prospect of Jesus dying for our sins and then triumphantly rising from the dead seems positively exhilarating! But the disciples did not have this perspective. Seen through their eyes—to the extent that they were not so confused by these sayings and the flurry of spectacular miracles showing Jesus’ divine identity—for Jesus not to be accepted as God’s promised Savior and King was the worst possible scenario conceivable. Therefore Jesus had to caution them repeatedly, knowing that even with this preparation they would be utterly overwhelmed by the apparent disaster of his arrest, trial and death by crucifixion.

The section we study today describes another of the revelations of the divine nature of Jesus. In my title I wrote “Jesus is transfigured”. The word “transfigure” is not the same as “transform”. “Transform” can mean an inner as well as an outer change, which can result in a new identity. Jesus’ identity, however, was always the same: it did not change. He was always the Son of God, as since conception he was always a true human being. What changed briefly in this event was his external appearance. His true inner identity was allowed for a few minutes to shine through his humble exterior in a most glorious way. “Transfigure” is a better English word to describe such a change, and that is the meaning of the Greek phrase used by Luke: "the appearance of his face was altered".

Now let’s look at the details of Luke’s account. First, he tells us that—like the earlier scene when Jesus asked the disciples who they believed him to be—Jesus had been praying in private, but in the presence of his sleeping disciples (v. 28-29, 32). Suddenly his face changed its appearance, and his clothes became dazzling white. Not only Christians and Jews, but followers of many ancient Near Eastern religions (Babylonians, Egyptians, Hittites), associated brilliant light with Deity. Perhaps it was because the Sun, which was so crucial in the daily life of everyone, and which was regarded by pagans as a god, consisted of a blinding light. But frankly, we do not know for sure why brilliant light was a sign of Deity. But it was.

Next two other figures appeared in their midst and were talking with Jesus. These two—like Jesus—were emitting light (the text says literally, they were “in glory” [Greek ἐν δόξῃ]). When the disciples awoke, they saw and heard what was happening to Jesus and the two other figures. Although having just awakened and being a bit disoriented, somehow Peter recognized the two as Moses and Elijah (v. 33). Since no one living at that time had ever seen either of these two, unless God simply revealed their identity directly to Peter’s mind, the only way he could have known who they were was by hearing Jesus address them by name. The text tells us that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his upcoming death and resurrection (v. 31). Perhaps when Peter awoke, he heard Jesus address the two by name.

Why were Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus about his death? The three gospels are completely silent about this, which is a pretty strong indication that this story was not invented by the early church. If it had been invented, the details would have been carefully explained. Since so much remains enigmatic, it bears all the marks of a genuine historical recollection of the three apostles, for which even they could not give a complete explanation.

Jesus had been praying at the time. What was he praying about? Strength and fortitude to carry out his mission? Later, in the garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his death he would indeed pray for courage and strength to carry out God's will through death. Did he now ask to be able to confer with these courageous figures from the early days of Israel’s history? Both had often faced death threats. Both had been greatly discouraged and pleaded with God to excuse them from their missions. So, maybe this could have been a reason for their appearance. But Jesus certainly did not need the advice of Moses or Elijah. It was they who would need to learn from him, not vice versa.

If we today were to try to give a reason for the conversation, we might suppose that Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet represent the two divisions of the Jewish Scripture in those days: the law and the prophets. And that they represent the scriptural anticipation of the death of the Messiah: prophets to whom only a part of the event had been revealed and who were therefore all the more curious about how it might be fulfilled. The Apostle Peter later wrote about Old Testament prophets and their curiosity about what they were predicting:
1Pet. 1:10-12 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.
Even if we cannot explain the event in terms of Jesus’ own needs, we can see its value for the witnessing apostles. They needed to see that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). They needed to see that his glory exceeded that of the greatest figures of Israel’s history. And they needed to hear from the very mouths of Moses and Elijah the importance of the upcoming suffering and death of their Master. If Moses and Elijah knew that this suffering and death were the most important events of human history, the disciples should not try to dissuade Jesus from following this Divine Plan, even if it trashed all their own preconceived hopes for his winning the approval of the nation and its leaders.

Peter—who may in all fairness have been speaking just what James and John were also thinking—was ecstatic, not realizing what he was saying. He wanted the disciples to set up three booths there, one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. What in the world did that mean? Booths in the mind of ancient Jews spoke of the years after they left Egypt, in which they wandered in the deserts of the Sinai peninsula. Even the Ark of the Covenant, the outward symbol of God’s presence with Israel, was housed in a booth (“booth” is also another word for “tent” or “tabernacle”). We don’t need to try to figure out what Peter meant, since the text says that he himself didn’t know what he was saying (v. 33)!

As he spoke, the group was overshadowed by a cloud, reminding them of the cloud of glory in which God appeared to Israel in the desert wanderings. From the cloud came God’s own voice, saying: “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” If ever there was an authentication of Jesus to mortals, it was this. Yet it was given not to a huge crowd of onlookers, but to three from Jesus’ inner circle: Peter, James and John.

The voice indicated that, as important as the Scripture (consisting at that time of the law of Moses and the Prophets) was to Israel, here was a person whose words would supersede that earlier revelation. Not contradict, but supersede. The three apostles represent the earliest form of the Church’s leadership. Paul would later refer to them as “the pillars”. To them, and through them to the Church throughout its history, God’s voice from Heaven underscores the supreme teaching authority of Jesus, his Son. We are above all else to hear him.

At the end of this revelation Luke says (v. 36) that “The disciples (i.e., the three) kept quiet, telling nothing of what they had seen at that time to anyone”. Much later, Peter did refer to the event in his Second Epistle to Christians in Asia Minor (read 2 Peter 1:12-19). But it was only until Easter that the disciples were intended to be silent about this event. After Easter the whole world must know.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

“Who Do You Think I am?”—Luke 9:18-27

Please read today’s passage here: Luke 9:18-27

Sometimes in reading a passage in the Bible it is a good idea not only to look at what immediately preceded it—to see where it is “coming from”—but also what immediately follows—to see where the argument is headed.

In the case of this passage it is particularly helpful to do so. In Luke 7:18-23 a somewhat discouraged and confused John the Baptizer sent disciples from his prison cell to Jesus to ask if he was indeed the Expected Savior from God, or not. Jesus’ answer was that John should compare reports of Jesus miracles with the predictions in the Scripture and draw the proper conclusion. And as Luke tells of the mission trip of the Twelve (Luke 9:1-9), he tells of Herod Antipas’ reaction to hearing about the ministry of Jesus in verses 7-9 and his reception by the people of Galilee. What he hears there are the same opinions that the Twelve will report to Jesus in answer to the first of his questions in this passage: “Who do people believe me to be?” This is the background for today's passage.

As for where this session of question and answers is headed, the next major event in Luke’s narrative will be the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration (vv. 28-36), where testimony as to his identity will be given by God himself in a voice from the sky (v. 35). God will tell us who Jesus is. So in this long section of his gospel Luke is building a case for the true identity of Jesus. He is also asking his readers to form their own belief based upon his narrative.

Luke does not provide a specific chronological setting for this episode. His use of “once when Jesus was praying in private, and his disciples were with him” (v. 18) shows that the setting that he considers important for his readers is the setting of privacy and prayer. Privacy, in that he was not surrounded by the usual crowds, or even by the broader circle of disciples. This session was intended only for the inner circle. Prayer, in that Jesus and possibly also his inner circle were engaged in communion with God.

Often the gospels refer to Jesus praying alone, as most of us do in our daily quiet times with God. But the very existence of what we call “The Lord’s Prayer”, which he taught to his disciples, shows that sometimes Jesus must have prayed privately with his own intimate circle. That is, they have a small prayer circle, at which times the disciples could learn even better from the very example of Jesus how to pray to God.

The question: “Who am I?” Can have several senses. If I were to ask you that question, you might say: “Of course, you’re Harry Hoffner!” And since that is my name, your answer would be correct. But if you thought: “Obviously, he knows his own name. He must mean what is his occupation: what he does for a living,” you could answer: “You are a (retired) college professor, a researcher and a writer.” That too would be correct. From reading this column you could also be even more perceptive and say: “You are a Christian, who wants to understand and obey God’s Word in the Bible.” Then you would be penetrating beyond surface perceptions and getting to my real core.

The Twelve had seen the same miracles that the crowds had whose opinions they now gave to Jesus. But they had also lived with him. Perhaps only his parents Mary and Joseph had a longer intimate association with him. Still, it is safe to conclude that his disciples knew more intimately than anyone else. Only God knew him better. Now he was asking them what they believed about him.

The crowds’ beliefs were of lesser importance to Jesus. Towards the end of this passage we'll see that he commanded his disciples not to tell anyone outside the circle of his immediate disciples what they knew about him! Apparently, Jesus knew it was God’s will that the crowds come to their own conclusion. Apparently, he also felt the popular conception of “Messiah” did not fit his true mission. Apparently, he knew that it was God’s will that the people as a whole and their leaders would not accept him as the Messiah, but put him to death (see verses 21-22; also Acts 2:22-24). No, the opinions of the crowds were elicited in his first question only in order to test whether his own inner circle saw more than the crowds did. Their conception of him was important to him.

The common denominator of the crowds’ opinions was that he was a prophet, for John the Baptizer, like Elijah (and Matthew’s addition Jeremiah), was a prophet, although as we read earlier a very special one. What was the conviction of the Twelve? All three synoptic gospel writers agree that the common opinion shared by the Twelve was expressed by Simon Peter. It was “You are the Messiah”. Matthew gives a fuller form that adds “the Son of the living God”. Since both the Hebrew word Messiah and its Greek translation Christos mean “anointed (one)”, Mark’s longer form “Christ of God” (literally, the One Anointed by God) adds nothing significant. It is likely that Matthew’s long form is his own elaboration. Not, I would assure you, to falsify or claim more that the shortest form. But merely to explain or “unpack” the word “Messiah” for his own audience.

This is not the place for a long detailed explanation of the meaning of the term Messiah in Jesus’ time. Suffice it to say that the concept of anointing by God places the origin of the concept in the days of the first Israelite kings (Saul, David, Solomon), whom—you recall—were anointed as kings. The anointing consecrated them—set them apart as men especially holy to God. Do you remember how David refused to lift a hand against King Saul, when the latter was seeking to kill him, and David had opportunity to strike him first? David said to him men, “Far be it from me to raise a hand to strike the Anointed of God” (see 1Sam 24:6, 10; 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2Sam 1:14, 16; 19:21 [scroll down the resulting window to see all these verses]). And when after Saul’s death, an Amalekite sought to curry favor with David by claiming to have been the one who dealt Saul the death blow, David had him killed after asking him “Why were you not afraid to deal a death blow to the Anointed of God?” (2Sam 1:11-16).

In time, God revealed that he was going to send one like David—only even greater than he—to assume rule over his people at the end of history. Isaiah and other prophets added that this One sent would also be a Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) who would suffer and die for the sins of Israel (and the world as well). This final Anointed king and servant came to be popularly known simply as the Anointed One (Hebrew Messiah; Greek Christos).

In Jesus’ day the Suffering Servant aspect of this Messiah was still known, but was either played down in favor of the aspect of the Messiah as the mighty King who would destroy God's enemies, or it was simply attributed to a different future figure. But Jesus united both Suffering Servant and King in his person. In a sense, he acted to destroy God's true enemies—not Roman soldiers, but demons who brought painful diseases— during his earthly life by expelling demons from suffering Israelites and by defeating Satan at the cross through his death for our sins and his rising to life again. Yet until he comes again at the end of history, when his kingship in its fullest form will be shown, Jesus' kingship is mainly shown inwardly through his rule over the lives of us who are believers.

Peter’s confession was met with Jesus' command that I mentioned earlier: the disciples were not to share this view with the world at large (v. 21). I do not believe that Jesus meant that the Twelve were not to share this view with other true disciples in the wider circle. He might have meant that, but I consider it unlikely. Rather, they were not to use this title of him in their public ministry, such as the mission trip that they had just finished. This was because of the false expectations abroad that the Messiah would drive out the Romans, an expectation that Jesus knew was not God's will for him.

What are we to make of this passage so far as what God wishes of us today? First, like the apostles, we too need to have a proper understanding of who Jesus was and is, in order to understand what we should expect (and not expect) from him. We need to know that as the Suffering Messiah, he suffered death not for any misdeed of his own, but for our misdeeds. Dying on that Roman cross, he bore God's punishment for the sins of every human being who ever lived or will live. Consequently, we may expect from him that he can wipe the slate clean of all our failures and misdeeds, when we trust him to do this. Secondly, as the Ruling Messiah, we need to want him to guide and rule our daily living. A king who doesn't rule is not a king. These things we can learn from who Jesus is.

From his command to the disciples not to tell this to the broader public we may learn other lessons. Obviously, after the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus no longer forbade his disciples to declare his true identity to the world at large. On the contrary, he commanded it. Today we joyfully share with the world the full truth of who Jesus was and is. Our message is much richer than simply “he is the Anointed One of God”. We proclaim him as the Son of God—the God-become-Man, who suffered death in his humanity and as a true man took upon himself on our behalf the sins of the world, and then rose again successful in this mission. Exalted to the throne of God, he now presides from Heaven over the Church he formed and will come again in glory to set up his eternal kingdom of righteousness and peace at the end of history.

Is there, then, no sense in which we should heed the command not to tell others that he is the Messiah? Perhaps only in the sense that there are times when we have to know when is the best time and circumstance to provide certain truths to those who are either opposed to the gospel or who are only beginning to grasp it. Not everyone understands what we mean when we say—as I did in the preceding paragraph— that he is the "God-become-Man", that he united in himself full deity and full humanity. Not everyone understands that God cannot simply forgive everyone, regardless of whether or not they believe in Jesus or wish him to help them change their lives for the better, bringing them into harmony with God's will. When we share God's truth with others, we have to ask ourselves where these friends are in terms of understanding the basic concepts of the Bible. And then we must shed the insider "lingo" we use with others who have a more thorough understanding, and put things in everyday terms. I once thought a good title for this Luke study would be “Luke in small bites: easy to digest”. Because overwhelming someone with too much information and in large doses only causes mental indigestion. It also causes the friend to lose interest very quickly.

In that sense, then, we might learn from Jesus’ words that there is a time and a place and a manner to give information about Jesus to people who are interested to know about him. Not everything can be explained immediately. Trying to do so may only confuse. So we go slowly and step-by-step. And we ask our friends to have patience if not everything is crystal-clear immediately. On the other hand, we do not try to make the gospel palatable by diluting or sugar-coating it. We do not present a false picture of Jesus, just to make him more likable or "exciting" to our friends. Giving others a false impression of Jesus will only lead to eventual disappointment, when they discover from reading the Bible on their own that he was really not like what they were told. Jesus is likable and exciting enough just as he really was.

So let's focus on "eating a healthy diet" ourselves from Scripture and on "chewing" it thoroughly, by asking ourselves lots of questions about how this passage relates to the way we think and live each day. Truth that you yourself have “chewed on” and digested will be much more likely to help you "feed" others.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Feeding 5,000 Listeners—Luke 9:10-17

Please read today's text here: Luke 9:10-17

In a very real sense what Jesus had sent the Twelve Apostles out to do in the preceding episode was to “feed” the people of Galilee with truth necessary for their survival spiritually. The Jewish people were—at least in a physical sense—the “people of God”, since God had called Abraham, their ancestor (Gen. 12:1-6) and had freed them from slavery in Egypt through his servant Moses (Exodus). As his own people, the Jewish people were God’s responsibility. Like a father or mother who brought a child into the world, God could not just leave them to fend for themselves. But from a different perspective, this relationship also obligated the people of Israel (the Jews) to obey him and to keep their relationship to him strong and steady through listening to his words in the Scripture and through the prophets he sent to them.

So when Jesus sent the Twelve out to proclaim the kingdom of God, to call the nation to re-examine their relationship to their God and Redeemer, and to welcome the Messiah whom God had sent in the person of Jesus, he was performing God’s duty to “feed” the people whom he created to be his own special nation.

It is appropriate then that when the apostles returned from this mission, Jesus used a situation of genuine human need to demonstrate what his mission was in an acted-out way. Instead of using words, he used a spectacular and miraculous action: the creation of enough food to satisfy a hungry crowd of 5,000 men and uncounted women and children who may also have been present.

The need arose because the crowds had literally “hung upon his words” and followed him into areas far from any place where they could find food. Now many were literally ready to pass out from lack of food and drink. In verse 12, his apostles—seeing the situation—urged Jesus to dismiss the crowds and tell them to go to nearby villages where they might find food. In verse 13 Jesus’ answer to the apostles must have shocked them. He said “You give them something to eat!”

In the light of what I said above about how this was an acted-out explanation of what the apostles had done on their preaching trip, notice that Jesus does not say “I will give them something to eat”, but rather “You give them something to eat”. Although the miracle of providing the food resulted from Jesus’ own power and his relationship to God the Father, the food would be distributed by the apostles, not by Jesus. And symbolically this was to show that God would feed the people spiritually his word and his forgiveness of their sins through the preaching and ministry of these Twelve Apostles.

But the Twelve were no more perceptive to Jesus’ mysterious way of talking to them than you or I would have been, had we been there. They thought only of the physical situation—no food—and of the impossibility of their providing from their own small bag of food enough to feed this huge number of people.

Seeing their lack of understanding, Jesus gave them simple step-by-step instructions: First, have the people sit down on the grass in groups of 50. This may have been so that afterwards they would know just how many people they had fed: 100 groups of 50 men (plus women and children).

Then Jesus acted as the father at the family dinner table and prayed over the food (verse 16): 5 loaves and 2 fishes. Did the disciples think this was going to be a fiasco, when he tried to feed so many people with so little food? Perhaps. Much depends on whether their faith in him was growing, faith that he was capable of anything.

In verse 17 Luke summarizes the results very succinctly: They all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was 12 baskets of broken pieces. The fact that there were leftovers proved that everyone had eaten enough.

In the Apostle John’s gospel, where he tells this story, he records the crowd’s reaction: “This is indeed the Prophet who was to come into the world”. But Luke is content to let the incident speak for itself to his readers. An author’s silence is usually a sign that he thinks the story has been clear in its message.

So what is that message? As I said at the beginning, this incident was intended to be seen as part of the preceding one about the mission of the Twelve Apostles. They represent the entire Church of Jesus, which includes you and me. If you are counting on Jesus to forgive you of all the misdeeds you ever commit in your life, because of his death for you on the cross, then you are part of this community represented by the Twelve. You and I too have a service for Jesus. Sometimes it requires some speaking. As during their itinerant mission in Galilee the disciples shared words that Jesus gave them, so you and I read the Bible regularly—as we are doing together in this blog—and from that reading we are being taught by Jesus. What you learn today and tomorrow, you can easily share with those you love—your family and your friends. And when we share what little we have—as the Twelve in today’s lesson shared what little they had (5 loaves and two fishes), we find that it miraculously multiplies in the sharing, so that not only are others fed, but we ourselves understand much more deeply what we have learned and shared.

And if this applies to what we learn from Jesus (i.e., from the Bible), it also applies to other resources we have. Sometimes we know of others in need, and we look at our own busy calendars and limited budgets, and we say “How can I give anything to help them, from such a small income?” God can lead you to know what he will “multiply” from your own limited income. You may be surprised how God will make it possible to share your money or time with others and still have more than enough to meet your own needs and those of your family.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Mission of the Twelve—Luke 9:1-9

[I accidentally never posted this lesson at the time it was due! It should have been posted right before the "Feeding 5,000 Listeners" lesson. Please read it now prior to reading about the Transfiguration. Sorry! And by the way, not only Scripture passages are underlined, but words like "Suffering Servant". Anything underlined is a hyperlink to other text. I do not use underlining for emphasis in this blog. It always indicates a link to something important elsewhere on the Web.]

Please read today's text here: Luke 9:1-9

Up to this point, at least in Luke’s gospel, there has been no mission of Jesus’ disciples separate from his own personal presence. Here is such a mission. As such, it is a kind of preview of what the apostles’ lives will be like after his ascension into Heaven. Yet, that the account is not a mere fiction—an unhistorical reading back of post-Easter missions into the story of Jesus—is evident from the differences. Only Luke uses the term “gospel” in describing the disciples’ message. Mark says merely that they urged people to “repent”, and Matthew says they preached “the Kingdom of Heaven”. As they went, they were to heal diseases, expel demons and raise the dead—activities that were not regular in the earliest post-Easter missions of the apostles, even if they occurred sporadically.

That Jesus in fact did send the Twelve out to preach without his accompaniment is undoubtedly historical. Aside from multiplying his own presence and message, such assignments were excellent training. The apostles learned from their successes and failures, and by identifying themselves thus with Jesus’ own public ministry it strengthened their ties to him and their faith in him. Mark (6:7) says they were sent out in pairs, which meant one could pray while the other preached.

They were not to take extra tunics or extra pairs of sandals or a purse. This was to teach them trust in God whose kingdom they were proclaiming, and in Jesus who sent them out. D. B. J. Campbell (The Synoptic Gospels: a Commentary, 67) thinks the purse refers to a “collecting wallet” used by beggars and argues that Jesus did not wish his disciples to be mendicants. J. Jeremias (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 112-13) suggested that, like the scribes of Jesus’ day, they were not to receive pay for their services, but could accept hospitality.

They were told to accept hospitality of food and lodging, and were not to shift their lodging from one house to another in the same village, lest they offend their original hosts there.
If a village rejected them, they were to shake off the very dust of the village from their sandals as a sign that by rejecting their message the village was rejecting God himself.

“His instruction about proper responses to unbelieving cities (Luke 9:5; 10:11) is carried out by the missionaries in Acts (13:51)” (L. T. Johnson, Writings of the NT 206).

Rejection of the Twelve was so serious, because—as Jesus said elsewhere in Matt 10:40, with variant versions in Mark 9:37; Luke 10:16— “whoever receives you, receives me, and whoever rejects you, rejects me” (so Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 284).

In v. 6 Luke reports that they did as they were told and found success—going through the villages assigned to them, preaching the good news (“gospel”), and healing. The Apostle Paul, who apparently knew this account in its pre-written form, regarded it as the basis for his claim that the Christian mission involved miraculous healings, which of course he too performed (so David Wenham, “The Story of Jesus known to Paul” p. 308, in Green and Turner, 1994).

In vv. 7-9 Luke reports the reaction of Herod Antipas, the Jewish ruler of Galilee, to their mission. While public opinion had it that the miracles of Jesus and his disciples were Elijah or one of the prophets raised from the dead, Herod’s view was that it was John the Baptizer, whom he had beheaded, who had risen from the dead. Why do all three synoptic gospel writers record this reaction? Perhaps, first, to show Herod’s guilty conscience over his murder of John. But more importantly, to show that both Herod and most of the people entirely missed the point of these miracles. They saw only the supernatural element in the healings and exorcisms of Jesus and his disciples, not the way in which they pointed to a critical intervention of God in the course of history—the appearance of the Messiah and the offer of the repentance and forgiveness to God’s people.

We too can be dazzled by the displays of power and fail to notice the quiet lessons of Jesus’ miracles. What is he trying to say to you and to me in the narratives of his public ministry? Will we let the Savior make his personal offers to us of forgiveness and renewed godly living as we read?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Storm and the Demon Called "Legion"—Luke 8:22-39

Please read today's Scripture here: Luke 8:22-39

In all three synoptic gospels these two episodes are successive, indicating that they are to be studied together. Whether readers were supposed to understand the first in the light of the second or the second in the light of the first, the gospel writers knew that each had light to shed upon the other.

The Storm at Sea Luke 8:22-25

Therefore it probably isn’t a stretch to understand Jesus’ words to his disciples “Let’s go across to the other side of the lake” as anticipating the need of the demon-possessed man from Gerasa.

While they sailed, Jesus fell asleep. When a sudden storm arose with winds and waves that threatened to scuttle the boat, the disciples wakened him in terror. At this, Jesus rebuked both the wind and waves and the disciples.

What questions does this raise in your mind? If Jesus was really the Son of God, should he have not known what was coming? Why then did he allow himself to fall asleep? In Psalm 121:3-8—which these sailors may have often needed to recall and depend upon— it says of God:
“God will not allow your foot to slip; your guardian does not sleep. 4 Truly, he who watches over Israel never slumbers nor sleeps. 5 The LORD is your guardian; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. 6 By day the sun cannot harm you, nor the moon by night. 7 The LORD will guard you from all evil, will always guard your life. 8 The LORD will guard your coming and going both now and forever.”
The Scripture says God “never slumbers or sleeps”, but “watches over Israel” to keep her safe. Should Jesus not have done the same for his disciples?

As Christians we believe Jesus was both divine and human. As a human being, Jesus was subject to fatigue, hunger and the need for periodic sleep. As we saw in the episode of choosing the Twelve, he sometimes spent the entire night in prayer, without any sleep. And the toll of ministering to the large crowds certainly must have left him physically exhausted at times. Humanly speaking, Jesus fell asleep because he was exhausted from his ministry. Humanly speaking, there were many eight-hour periods in which at least he had to appear to be “off duty”.

But God as a Triune Being—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is never “off duty”. When Jesus, therefore, chided his disciples for their lack of faith, he was not necessarily scolding them for doubting his own ability to save them: he was challenging them to always trust in the watchful care of their Father in Heaven, about whom Psalm 121 speaks.

When Jesus allowed himself to fall asleep in a boat crossing a lake, he had to commit his own safety during sleep to his Heavenly Father. Perhaps as a child at Mary’s side, as he prepared for sleep, he had learned Psalm 121 and used it as a prayer. Now he wanted his disciples to learn the same lesson. If they only trusted in a humanly present Jesus in the years to come after his resurrection and ascension, they would be a sorry lot indeed! Part of learning to be a follower of Jesus was to learn to trust his Father in Heaven, as he did himself.

The effect of this experience on his disciples (v. 25) was fear and amazement, that this Jesus, whom they had already seen raise the dead, could also make the winds and waves obey him. The fact that they were amazed after the storm had ceased might indicate that, when they sought to awaken him, they did not expect that he would be able to still the storm, but that they wanted him to have a chance to save himself by swimming. To us, the readers, that might seem strange, since one who could raise the dead ought to be able to save himself in a supernatural way, not a natural one. But in times of sudden danger very few people think clearly and logically. The disciples' first reaction was to awaken the one whom they most trusted in times of danger.

In many ways this is a perplexing story. Even at the end we are left wondering: In time of danger is a believer to have such faith that he does not call upon Jesus also? No, it was not the rousing of Jesus that showed their lack of faith: it was their fear and unbelief that God would save their lives, even with Jesus awake, that Jesus saw in them. True disciples of Jesus in all times must avail themselves of whatever natural resources they can in times of danger, while at the same time calling upon God in prayer and believing that he will protect them. We can and should pray for God to heal us from our injuries and illnesses, but not neglect to go to the doctor!

Many commentators have suggested that this episode was also intended by the gospel writers as a metaphor—a picture of the life of the Christian Church through the ages until Jesus returns. In fact, the figure of a boat in a storm-tossed sea with Jesus in it occurs often as a symbol in altarpieces and stained glass windows of churches. It is a good visual reminder to Christians of all ages that, although we may expect the Church to have many adversaries and to experience times of persecution so strong as to seem to threaten its very existence, Jesus is the unseen Presence in the boat, and he will not allow his Church to perish.

The Demon-possessed Man from Gerasa

When they beached the boat on the eastern side of the Lake, at a town called Gerasa, they were “welcomed” there, not by a delegation of town leaders, but by the town’s “monster”—a wild man who didn’t live in a house but ranged among the tombs on the outskirts of the town and wore no clothes. Mark 5:3-6 tells us that he was supernaturally strong and was able to break chains that the villagers put upon him to control him. Matthew (8:28) adds that he often blocked the way of travelers, so that they could not pass through the area. There is also a pitiful side to his possession, which only Mark tells us (5:5-6): he was constantly bruising himself with stones. A modern physician might diagnose his case as a form of mental illness, for some such people throw themselves against a wall or the ground and intentionally injure themselves. But we are not concerned here with scientific explanations. The Scripture simply attributes this man’s state to possession by a very large number of demons.

From the description of this man we would certainly conclude that he was being tormented by powers within himself. Yet when he met Jesus, a voice from within him indicated that his tormentors were now afraid of a greater torment by the Power they saw in Jesus. The cry from within him recognized Jesus as “Son of the Most High God”. Whatever else may be said about the meaning of the phrase “son of God” among Jews at the time of Jesus, the context here shows that the person so addressed had power to drive out demons and consign them to torment.

It has often been commented upon that in the gospels the demons know Jesus’ true identity, while his critics among his own people fail to do so. Evil spirits had no reason to deny his true identity when confronted by the Son of God. The voice says “me” (v. 28), indicating a singularity, yet later it identifies itself as Legion, meaning a whole host of demons comprised this singularity.

In the course of verbally expelling the demons, Jesus asked their name (v. 30). In Jesus’ time there were people who claimed to have the power to exorcise demons, and there was a kind of technique. One part of it was to learn the name of the power to be expelled. I am not saying that Jesus’ power depended upon magical tricks, merely that he followed somewhat the form that was customary. His real power came from God and from his own nature as the Son of the Most High God. The evil spirits within the man gave as their “name” the Latin word legion, because Palestinian Jews at this time knew how numerous and dangerous was a legion of Roman soldiers. Was this a kind of threat addressed to Jesus, or merely the demon's explanation to him of why the villagers had been unable to cope with the possessed man with chains? Probably the latter, since the text also tells us that the demons begged Jesus not to banish them to the Abyss, which probably means Hell.

The next sequence seems a bit strange to us. Why did Jesus not send them straight to Hell, but send them into a herd of pigs, who would immediately plunge to their deaths in the lake? Would the demons, deprived of their porcine hosts, have been free to seek out another human host? Would they have been consigned to Hell after the pigs died? The gospel writers do not answer these questions for us. We are given to understand that Jesus knew what was best under these circumstances.

But the upshot of this exchange of hosts and the consequent death of the herd of pigs was that their owners, who had been only mildly inconvenienced by the suffering of this demon-possessed man, were now enraged over their loss of revenue from the pigs! Even though they saw now that this troubled man was sitting calm and composed at the feet of Jesus, this did not mollify them. In fact, in v. 37 Luke tells us that they asked Jesus to leave their territory! By saving a tormented man and restoring him to sanity and decency, he had upset their economic applecart, and the resulting situation was—to their inverted point of view—worse than before!

The healed man, on the other hand, wanted to join Jesus’ group of disciples and travel with him. But Jesus ordered him to stay put and be a witness where he had before been a sideshow feature. A suffering, tormented and violent man provided entertainment for the people of Gerasa; a righteous man and a witness did not.

Incidentally, the fact that pig raising was a basic element of the economy of Gerasa joins other evidence from ancient sources to indicate that the east side of the Lake of Galilee was largely non-Jewish. So this trip across the Lake by Jesus was a mission to the Gentile world. In individual cases, such as with the Roman Centurion, we see that Gentiles received Jesus with faith and open minds. But this episode shows that this pattern was not always true, especially when economic motives were involved. The Gentiles could be as selfish and obtuse as Jesus’ Jewish critics.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Lampstands and True Kin—Luke 8:16-21

(Image courtesy of

Please read today's text here: Luke 8:16-21

These two episodes have no link that is stronger than what links them to the episodes preceding. Everything is focused on discipleship: its true nature, its risks, obstacles and rewards. The soils showed both the hindrances (soils 1-3) and the potential rewards (soil 4 with its 100-fold yield).

The Lamp and its Stand (v. 16-18)

The Lamp represents Jesus' disciples. We know this because of what Matthew records him saying:
“You [disciples] are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16
If one lives as a true disciple—good soil—it is impossible for your light to be hidden from others. Some people's beliefs are shown by their dress: the skullcap worn by orthodox Jews, the Sikh's turban. Jesus' disciples will be known by their behavior, and principally by selfless love for others.

The final verse, 18, also has a word of advice to Jesus’ hearers that builds upon more of the preceding than just the parable of the Lamp. Let me paraphrase what I think he is saying:

Don’t just stand here listening to me out of curiosity. That is very dangerous. One can become desensitized to the truth from my mouth. Listen carefully, weigh my words, look into your hearts, and act upon what you hear and understand. More truth and more guidance will be given to whoever assimilates and acts upon what he has already heard. (100-fold!) But to the passive listener, the curiosity-seeker, even what he has heard will be taken from him—like the seeds gobbled up by the birds. Be careful how you listen to those who speak and teach to you the Word of God. Be careful how you read it daily. It is a horrible thing to become “immune” to the teaching of God.

True Kindred of Jesus (v. 19-21)

Whether or not the "brothers" of Jesus mentioned here were real children of his mother Mary or cousins, the point of the story is that she and they were close family relations, and as such could have been thought to have prior access to him. One day, when he was surrounded by crowds of listeners, which made it impossible for them to penetrate to him, they sent word through the crowd that they were seeking him. Sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you want your mother to be able to reach you at any time in an emergency? Of course, we have no way of knowing that this was an “emergency”. Perhaps she thought so.

But Jesus had been teaching about discipleship and the rewards of true discipleship. One of those rewards is a special intimacy with Jesus himself. Jesus didn’t play favorites during his earthly ministry. Because Peter, James and John seem to have formed an inner circle according to some passages in the gospels, it is possible for some to get this false impression. But Jesus, like any good teacher, could at times draw one student closer and at other times another. All for the purpose of effective teaching, not because he had “pet” students. In addition, those disciples who listened most closely and changed their lives more drastically to conform to his teachings could not help but be more attune to Jesus, to understand what he meant more quickly. This was not the result of Jesus’ choosing one over another, but one disciple being more diligent than another.

Anyway, the thrust of his teaching had been on the fact that true disciples could become closer to him than any biological relationship. This now was the test of the sincerity of his teachings. Would he interrupt his teaching to give special preference to his mother and brothers? His reply to the messenger articulated his message to the disciples surrounding him:
“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (v. 21).

Now, Mary too was a devoted disciple of Jesus. So we should not use this verse to say that those of us who hear and obey Jesus are closer to him than she was in her status as an obedient disciple. But we can say that both she and we as obedient disciples are loved by him more than a son’s natural love for his own mother, and—when I think of how I love my mother—that is saying a lot!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Parable of the Soils — Luke 8:1-15

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Please read today's passage here: Luke 8:1-15

In case you were wondering if the “sinful woman” who anointed Jesus’ feet in the previous chapter was Mary Magdalene, let me disabuse you of that idea. There is absolutely no evidence that Mary Magdalene, out of whom—according to Luke 8:2—Jesus had cast seven demons, was either a prostitute, or the woman who anointed his feet in Simon’s house, or that she eventually became Jesus’ wife or girl friend! Forget the many sensational books you see in Borders and Barnes and Noble! People should stop foisting their own imaginative creations on the ancient texts. The note about the seven demons is the only hint we have from a reliable ancient source as to what Mary’s pre-history might have been. And so far as her relationship to Jesus is concerned, it was no more—but also no less—intimate than that with his other disciples. What these women did in providing the “logistics” of the travels of Jesus and the Twelve (v. 3 “provided … out of their means”) was a great contribution, for which they deserve the “honorable mentions” given here by Luke. It is interesting that according to Luke these women supporters were not just housewives with time on their hands, wanting to do some good as volunteers. Nor were they condescending career women, doing community service. Rather they were women whom Jesus had either freed from demon possession or healed from serious diseases (v. 2, notice the plural “women”). As such, they give us a model for Christian service: true service to Christ flows out of the grateful hearts of individuals whom Jesus has forgiven their sins and healed of their former lifestyles.

The above paragraph (vv. 1-3) begins to describe circumstances typical of Jesus’ travels. As he moved from place to place, these women would be with him, helping in any way needed. The travels also provide both the setting and the motivation for the parable of the soils that Jesus told (Luke 8:4-15)—perhaps on more than one occasion. It was the sight of the different groups of people emerging from each of the towns he visited, with their different backgrounds, different appearances, and perhaps even different motivations, that elicited from Jesus this reflection on the different results that will be seen in their lives after their encounter with him and hearing his words. Would there be any great difference or not?

You might think that the “sower” (so the word means literally; the NIV paraphrases it as “farmer”, which is fine too) represents Jesus as he travels. Perhaps in one sense he does. But when Jesus explains the parable later, he simply says “the seed is the Word of God” (v. 11) and makes no special comment on the identity of the sower. In a sense, the sower’s identity is unimportant. The important part is the message and its reception.

In Jesus’ parable the farmer’s land consisted of four different kinds of soil: (1) trampled hard along paths, (2) rocky and therefore shallow, (3) thorny, and (4) “good”. If he knows the qualities of each, the farmer still does not neglect to scatter seed on each. He does not use all his seed just on the “good” soil. So also, Jesus does not refuse to share his message with the cynical and unbelieving, although in this very passage he confides to the true disciples that there is a built-in “filter” provided by the parable format, allowing those with sincere and perceptive hearts to understand, while those without such will fail to grasp the meaning. Again and again in the gospels we see just this very thing happening. Even at Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, false witnesses accused him of plotting to destroy the Jerusalem temple, because they failed to understand a cryptic remark he had made about his own death and resurrection.

I suppose it was a dangerous business, allowing your enemies to misconstrue your words and using them to bring you to trial. But Jesus was willing to take that risk in order to fish in those waters for the rare critic whose open heart might lead him to believe. Neither should you or I “play it safe”, when it comes to sharing the message of God’s love in Jesus with our office mates and coffeehouse friends who do not presently believe. A little bit of mockery is a small price to pay for perhaps helping a friend to find the peace of forgiveness and the warmth of the knowledge that God loves him.

Now let’s look at the kinds of things that prevent the word of God from bearing fruit. The first was ground by the paths trampled hard. The seed could not sink in, and so it was prey to the birds who landed on the paths and ate it all before it could germinate. The Devil cannot take the Word of God out of our hearts, if we allow it to sink in. When I hear a good sermon or Bible lesson and think about actions I should take as a result, that means the seed has sunk in. No devil can remove it: it is too late. But if I hear the words and either blow them away with criticism, or say “That was a nice sermon; now where shall we go to eat after church?” Not much if anything has sunk in. No plans have been made, no resolutions, no life changes. That “seed” is now fair game for the birds.

The second type is shallow, rocky soil. The smaller rocks help aerate the soil, and since the soil is also shallow, so that the root doesn’t need to go down far, the first growth is rapid and spectacular. But when the hot sun hits such ground and dries the little moisture in the aerated shallow ground, goodbye plants! Jesus says this represents those who accept the message without thinking about all the ramifications, including that there may be a cost to believing it. Their initial response is so joyous and boisterous, that we don’t realize that the very exuberance may be a clue that the choice was too quick to be a solid one. We rejoice with them. But then the times of testing come. Former friends mock the new faith. The new lifestyle cuts off previous sources of fun and perhaps income. In some cases, family members disassociate themselves. Violent conflicts arise with parents who oppose career choices based on the new faith. A considered and sober choice to believe will be prepared for such eventualities, and will look prayerfully to God for strength to persevere. But a quick and superficial “decision” will not.

The third type is soil filled with thorns and weeds that choke out competitors. The wheat or barley sown by the farmer doesn’t stand a chance there either. This represents a new believer who does not see the necessity of weeding his life of practices that directly sap his spirituality. They may not be sensationally “bad” things either. But they compete with necessary spiritual nourishment: regular fellowship with other believers, either in church or in a Bible study group; regular private Bible study and prayer; regular service projects such as community service involvement or helping out in youth groups or Sunday School or choir. All these things take time and money. They are part of the necessary activity of a healthy Christian. But other attractive activities can compete and crowd these things out. If you let that happen, your life in Christ will wither and die. No fruit at all!

Fortunately, Jesus does not leave us depressed, but gives a fourth kind of soil. It is simply called “good”. That doesn’t mean that some of the other soils didn’t have the same mix of nitrates and other elements that the “good” soil has. But the last type does not have the other harmful qualities. It is “good” because it is not trampled hard, not rocky and shallow, not filled with thorns that compete. Such soil will produce much grain—Jesus says one-hundredfold. That’s a lot of wheat!

Have you examined your harvests recently? Is any fruit coming out of your life? Have you found reading the Word of God uninteresting? Do you find yourself spending less time in fellowship and mutual encouragement in spiritual things with other believers? Are you focusing more on your own entertainment than on specific service projects to people in need? If so, watch out! You may be one of the first three soil types. God may be trying to sow his Word in your life, but you are preventing it from doing its work, because you refuse to make your own soil “good”.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Pharisee & the Sinful Woman — Luke 7:36-50

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Please read today's text here: Luke 7:36-50

The censoriousness of the crowd toward both John the Baptizer and Jesus, which Jesus condemned in the preceding episode of Luke, leads logically to Luke’s telling of this incident in the home of Simon the Pharisee.

There were hundreds of men named Simon in Jesus’ day. It was one of the most popular names among male Palestinian Jews. Simon is merely a spelling variant of Simeon, the name of one of Jacob’s twelve sons and the ancestor of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. In the century leading up to the birth of Jesus the name was honored by being borne by a High Priest who was one of the brothers of Judas Maccabeus, as well as by several other High Priests.

Given the description of this man’s behavior and attitudes, he was probably proud of his name, as he was proud of his status as an observant Pharisee. He probably invited Jesus to dinner in his home more for what this would do for his own reputation in the community than out of real love and regard for Jesus. People would say: "did you hear? Jesus the great healer and teacher has chosen to dine with Simon!" If his invitation to Jesus was to enhance himself and did not show any real love for Jesus, he was nevertheless careful not to let his coolness toward the Galilean healer and teacher show too clearly, lest it reflect badly upon himself as a “boorish” host. But we can be sure that he avoided any show of too much positive emotion.

An invitation to his home would probably be something you or I would love to have an excuse not to accept. Yet Jesus went, for he was—as he once put it to his fishermen disciples—"fishing" for men, and he wanted to save sinners who thought themselves to be "righteous" (read "respectable") as much as sinners who knew themselves to be sinners. He dined with both tax collectors and Pharisees. This probably irritated the tax collectors less than it did the Pharisees!

In order to impress his neighbors as well as his honored guest, Simon's meal was a lavish Roman-style banquet, but with kosher food. In banquets in Graeco-Roman Palestine the home-owners left the doors to the street open and did not have bouncers at the door to block access. If someone truly unruly came in, he or she could always be ejected later, in a way that would not reflect poorly upon the master of the house. And so it was that, as Jesus was reclining—in the Roman way—upon a dinner couch at table with Simon and his family and friends, a woman came in unobtrusively from the street. She was a woman known previously to have an unsavory reputation. Perhaps as a prostitute. But perhaps in some other way: as a thief or as someone possessed of demons. To Luke it is unimportant that we know the details of her reputation. He did not want to embarrass her, once his gospel was read in Galilee. In fact he suppresses her name to protect her. But he wants us to know that Simon saw her come in and was scandalized by her presence.

Crouching behind the recumbent Jesus, the woman took his feet in her hands to kiss them in an act of tender love and gratitude. Please make no mistake! This was not an obscene or even sexual action. It is likely that Jesus had already met the woman before and helped her to repent of her former life and find freedom from her vice, whatever it had been, through faith in him. Now she sought him out in order to show her deep gratitude for changing her life.

She brought a very expensive perfume to anoint his feet, a gift estimated at roughly the annual salary of a working class person. As she bowed to kiss his feet and prepared to anoint them with the perfume, her deep love and gratitude caused her to break into tears, and those tears fell on Jesus’ feet. Heedless of the embarrassment that any other woman might feel, she unbound her long hair and used it to dry Jesus’ feet.

Simon was utterly incensed! Not only was this a woman with a scandalous past—he may or may not have known of her recent change for the better—but she was touching the rabbi Jesus, and he was allowing it in public! This confirmed Simon’s secret misgivings about Jesus. No true prophet would allow this: he would know instinctively that she was a sinner!

But Jesus, as in the previous incident with the onlookers to his exchange of words with John’s disciples, knew Simon’s thoughts—as a true prophet would! And so he used the custom of learned rabbis to put a difficult question to his host. Imagine, if you will, that two men owed different amounts to a moneylender—one 50 dollars, and the other 500 dollars. If the lender wrote both debts off, which of the two debtors would be more grateful to him? Slam dunk! Simon couldn’t miss getting an “A” on this test. “Surely, the one who owed him the most”, he answered. “Right”, answered Jesus. “Now let’s think about what this woman has done to me and contrast it with what you did as my host. When I arrived, your welcome to me was cordial but cold: no kiss on the cheek. But she has been kissing my feet. Your slave punctiliously washed my feet at the door, for it was expected. But you yourself would never think of doing it yourself. Yet this woman bathed them with her tears and dried them with her hair! How do you account for the difference, Simon? Is it not as you yourself concluded about the debtors? You suppose that there is little if anything sinful in your life that needs my forgiveness; so your “love”—if I may call it such—is formal and cool. This woman knows her true state: she understands what sin is and how much it was a part of her life, and her gratitude to me for forgiving her knows no bounds.”

Turning to the woman, who may have been listening with embarrassment, Jesus said to her, “Go in peace, my daughter! Your faith in me has brought you God’s forgiveness.” With these words Jesus either brought Simon to a realization of just how much he had underestimated him—for only God can forgive sins, therefore Jesus is God—or brought him to the conclusion that Jesus was a lunatic or blasphemer, falsely claiming deity for himself. Luke draws the curtain at this point, so that we do not know which conclusion Simon reached. In a sense, Luke wants his readers to ask themselves what they think of Jesus after this story.

Well, what do you think? And how does this story make you feel your own attitudes need changing toward Jesus and/or towards people around you who need Jesus?