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Chronology in the Gospels

Monday, February 03, 2020

In our reading this week, we will encounter the story of Jesus cleansing the temple in John 2:13-17.  In one way, this is a rare Johannine connection with the Synoptic Gospels.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all also record the temple-cleansing story. 

However, the three Synoptics record the cleansing of the temple as having taken place during the last week of Jesus’ life.  John, by contrast, places the narrative very early in his account of the ministry of Jesus.  What gives?

Some have suggested that Jesus actually cleansed the temple twice:  once at the beginning of His ministry and once at the end.  I think this is unlikely.  When Jesus drove out the moneychangers, the chief priests understood it—correctly—as a challenge to their authority.  It led directly to His arrest and crucifixion.  Such a dramatic gesture would not have escaped retribution early in His ministry either, and it’s at odds with Jesus’ own efforts to conceal His identity and mission until the hour has come.

Instead, the true answer is both simple and revealing.  John records the same event as the Synoptics in a different place because precise chronology was less important to writers 2000 years ago than it is to us.  Today, when we open a biography, we expect the biographer to take us through the life of his subject in consecutive order.  If they start hopping around instead, we get confused.

However, these cultural expectations lead us astray when it comes to the gospels.  All four Evangelists use a loose chronology.  They put birth narratives at the beginning, the crucifixion toward the end, and the resurrection at the end.  Luke, the only Gentile of the quartet, and (so far as we know) the most educated, cares more about chronology than that.  In Luke 1:3, he expresses his determination to write “an orderly account” (ESV) or “in consecutive order” (NASB). 

The other three writers, by contrast, are perfectly willing to move material out of chronological sequence in order to make a thematic point.  Matthew collects all of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13 in order to, among other things, illustrate the disciples’ growth in comprehending those parables.  Mark records the story about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit much earlier than it happened, in Mark 3:22-30, as commentary on the unbelief of Jesus’ family.

Much the same thing is going on with John’s temple-cleansing account.  We need to read it in parallel with the other narrative of John 2, the story of Jesus turning water into wine.  John is using both as a preview of his defense of Jesus’ divinity, giving us a hint about what kind of Messiah we should expect.  Jesus will be someone who transforms, but He also will be someone who confronts, cleanses, and purifies.  Both themes will be prominently on display through the rest of John’s gospel.

It’s important for us to understand this for two main reasons.  First, it should remind us of the dangers of reading first-century narratives through 21st-century eyes.  This mistake is most obvious in the skeptics who deny the historical validity of the gospels because they don’t follow our society’s historiographic rules, but it can be a problem for believers too.  When we assume that a Bible author writes something for the reasons that we would have written it, that assumption often will lead us astray.

Second, it should open our eyes to the intricacy of the gospels.  Many Christians think of them as “books of stories about Jesus”, and they are that, but they are also much more than that.  As Jesus did with the parables, the gospel writers are telling particular stories and arranging them in a particular order to convey spiritual truths to those with ears to hear. 

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John aren’t going to spoon-feed us like Paul does.  They’re going to give us a starting point for reflection and expect us to figure it out.  Figuring it out isn’t easy, but the more we look, the better we will understand, and the more we will grow.

Week 5 Summaries and Questions for the Life of Jesus Reading Plan

Sunday, February 02, 2020

The Life and Teachings of Jesus - Week 5 – February 3-7:

If you haven’t downloaded your copy of The Life and Teachings of Jesus 2020 Reading Plan it’s always a good time to get started. So, since it's the first of the month take this oppotunity 

Monday – John 1:19-28: In John’s sublime prologue (1:1-18), he tells us that John the Baptist came “to bear witness of the light” (1:7). Now the gospel writer fleshes out John’s testimony in three-parts. Part one (today’s reading) is for a religious delegation and is negative in nature. Part-two (tomorrow’s reading) is for a general audience with a positive message. Then, part-three (Wednesday’s reading) John’s testimony specifically targets two of his disciples. The negative testimony in vv. 19-28 has a specific setting in an encounter between John and a delegation from Jerusalem to question him. John’s preaching and baptizing had come to the attention of the Jewish religious leaders. A group of priests and Levites were dispatched to investigate. John answered each question with great humility. The popular preachers go so far as to state that he, unlike a slave who was required to remove his master’s sandals, was not even worthy of performing this action in relationship to the Messiah.

In your own words, restate John’s mission. In what way(s) is this to be your own personal mission as a believer?

Tuesday – John 1:29-34: Following the religious delegation’s departure, John saw “Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (v. 29).  This is the second testimony of John regarding Jesus. Unlike our previous reading, John’s declarations here are positive in tone. The use of a lamb for sacrifice was very familiar to Jews. John uses this expression as a reference to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for the sins of the whole world.

How did Jesus take away the sins of the world like a sacrificial lamb? (see John 19:17-30; Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 9:1-10:18)

Wednesday – John 1:35-51: As the sequence of days continues (cf. 1:29, 35), John’s testimony targets the hearts of two of his disciples, Andrew and an unnamed man (presumably John, the author of the gospel).  These two seek out Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael to come see Jesus.  Together this group of men becomes Jesus’ first disciples.  This is the “call” of the disciples according to this gospel account, not by their fishing nets and boats such as in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Moreover, in contrast to the other gospel accounts, their reason for following Jesus is given.

In today’s reading, Jesus gathers His first disciples. How does each man respond to the testimony he hears about Jesus? What factors do you think influenced each man’s response? In what way(s) can you relate?

Thursday – John 2:1-12: John relates the first great sign performed by Jesus to demonstrate His deity, the turning of water to wine. Only God can create something from nothing. John uses the word “sign” (v. 11) to show that Jesus’ miracles were not merely displays of power but had significance beyond the mere acts themselves. There are seven signs in John’s gospel (see: 2:1-12; 4:46-54; 5:1-17; 6:1-14, 5-21; 9:1-41; 11:17-45). According to John, he records these signs “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).

According to v. 11, the purpose of Jesus’ miracle is not to save the groom from embarrassment but to display Jesus’ glory. What aspects of Christ’s glory does this miracle reveal to you?

Friday – John 2:13-25: When you picture Jesus what do you see? Perhaps you see a Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild. (Or maybe you see Jim Caviezel.) Regardless, the picture that we have of Jesus, in today’s reading is an angry Jesus with a whip in His hand. During the Jewish feast, worshipers came from all over Israel and the Roman Empire to Jerusalem. Because many traveled long distances, it was inconvenient to bring their sacrificial animals with them. Opportunistic merchants sold over priced animals, while money-changers charged exorbitant fees to acquire the proper coins for the temple tax. The religious leaders (no doubt getting a kickback) allowed the temple to become “a house of trade” (v. 16) instead of “a house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13). Jesus corrected the situation in dramatic fashion.

How does John’s picture of Jesus thrashing a whip either fit with, or not fit with, today’s popular concept of Him? Explain your own reaction to this picture of Jesus.

Dressing for the Assembly

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Sometimes, it seems that certain spiritual topics keep coming up in conversation.  For me recently, that topic has been the necessity of dressing up in church.  Both in person and online, I’ve participated in a number of earnest discussions on the subject.  I thought it would be worthwhile, then, to share my thoughts on the matter.

First, I want to address the idea that our clothing choices in the assembly are about God.  Proponents of this view will ask whether we would dress up to see an important human being (the President, for instance) and conclude that we ought to dress up even more to come into the presence of the King of heaven.

The problem with the argument, though, is that it assumes that God is like us, and that we communicate respect to Him in the same way that we do to other humans.  According to Scripture, that’s not true.  1 Samuel 16:7 reports that God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance. 

He doesn’t have to judge our reverence for Him based on how we dress.  He knows the truth.  The reverent heart is acceptable to him, regardless of outward appearance, and the irreverent heart isn’t, again regardless of outward appearance.

Instead, we dress for one another.  That’s fine.  God is mindful of our frame, and He knows that we are silly creatures who use colored bits of cloth wrapped around our bodies to communicate an astounding variety of messages about ourselves. 

Indeed, even the commandments that God issues about clothing make it evident that He is concerned with its impact on other humans.  He is not affected by our nakedness.  He sees it anyway.  He is not intimidated by our ostentatious displays of wealth.  The earth is His, and all it contains.  However, He knows that we care about those things, so He instructs us to dress in a way that will not hinder others.

 Here, I think, is the principle that should guide us as we decide how we should dress for the assembly (and everywhere else, for that matter).  How can we dress in a way that will serve others and help them on to heaven?

This is a simple question with a complex answer.  For instance, there is a sister who worships with my congregation sometimes who struggles with crippling anxiety.  She doesn’t have much money, and she feels like she doesn’t belong.  I am certain that the only time in her life when she encounters men in suits is when she comes to church.  Every time I see her, I try to reassure her that she has a place with us.  Is it possible, though, that my suit is sending a different message than my mouth is?

On the other end of the scale, I know there are brethren at Jackson Heights who aren’t comfortable when I preach a sermon without a coat on.  They are very gracious about it and never would confront me, but they are quick to tell me how nice I look when I do wear a coat!  These are good people who are entitled to respect from me, and I need to take them into account in the way that I dress too. 

Typically, I end up wearing a coat sometimes and resorting to shirt and tie the rest of the time, and I hope that the combination makes my preaching as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.  In other places, the correct answer may be “coat all the time”, “coat never”, or even “tie never”.  By contrast, a one-size-fits-all answer arrived at without regard for the people involved is frequently going to be wrong.

In short, love others.  Dress accordingly.  Your judgment won’t be right in every instance, but in every instance, your spirit will be pleasing to God.

The Coming Judgment

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

When we study the Bible, it’s easy for us to read it through 21st-century eyes and forget that it describes first-century events.  Things that are not particularly important to us today often were very important to them, and we can find ourselves overlooking significant Scriptural themes because they aren’t relevant to us.

Consider, for instance, the ministry of John the Baptist as presented in Luke 3.  It is certainly about preparing the way for Jesus, which we commonly recognize.  However, to an equal extent, it is about warning the people that they need to repent because of the judgment that is coming.  “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees,” John warns in Luke 3:9.  “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

We might be inclined to read this as a generic warning about the consequences of disobedience, but it is anything but.  The fire here is not the fire of hell—at least, not directly.  Instead, it is the fire of God judging the physical world once again.  We see similar language in Isaiah 29:6, where, like John, Isaiah is warning God’s people to fear the fire of His judgment.

Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in the Assyrian invasion of 701 BC (another event which we do not properly appreciate), and John’s prophecy would be fulfilled when the Romans crushed the Great Revolt of the Jews in 70 AD.  Just as the former was “a day of the Lord”, so too would the latter be.  God would judge His people for their sins, particularly the sin of betraying and murdering the Messiah whom He had sent.

Even though it is always offstage, the fall of Jerusalem to the legions of Titus is one of the central events of the gospels.  We can’t understand the ministry of John without bearing it in mind, and to a large extent, we can’t understand the ministry of Jesus either. 

Paul tells us in Galatians for that the Son came in the fullness of time, but there is also a sense in which He came in the nick of time.  As was so often the case in the Old Testament, the sons of Jacob were on a collision course with disaster, and like the prophets of old, Jesus came to attempt to turn them aside:  from their hypocrisy, from their self-righteousness, and from their conviction that the kingdom of God meant earthly dominance for His people.  Many of the Lord’s calls to repentance that we read generically are, like the warnings of John, specifically about the dangers of opposing Rome.

Fundamentally, the Old Testament is a story of failure.  The Israelites received the Law, broke it, and did not repent even in the face of predictions of doom.  During the ministry of Jesus, the tragedy will be played out one last time.  Despite all of His wisdom and power, the Jews will choose death instead of life.  Their leaders will choose King Caesar over the King of heaven, only to be destroyed by Caesar for their faithlessness 40 years later. 

Out of this disaster, much good would spring, especially for us.  Without the cultivated olive branches being broken off, we could not be grafted in.  However, neither should we forget the violence and the significance of the breaking.

Week 4 Summaries and Questions for the Life of Jesus Reading Plan

Sunday, January 26, 2020

If you haven’t downloaded your copy of The Life and Teachings of Jesus 2020 Reading Plan it’s always a good time to get started.

Week 4 January 26-31:

Monday – Mark 1:1-8 (cf. Matthew 3:1-6; Luke 3:1-6): If Mark intends for his gospel to have a title, this is probably it, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (v. 1). Echoing Genesis 1:1, the introduction of Jesus is no less momentous than the creation of the world. Then Mark quickly moves to discussing the work of John the Baptist. John is important in all the gospels, not for his own sake, but as the beginning of the unfolding story of redemption which centers on Jesus.

In your own words, describe John’s mission (vv. 2-3), work (vv. 4-5), appearance (vv. 6), and preaching (vv. 7-8). What do you think it would be like to meet John?

Tuesday – Luke 3:7-18 (cf. Matthew 3:7-12): With a forceful and uncompromising tone, John bursts on the scene proclaiming a message of repentance and judgment. As the “crowds” flock to John, he challenges their motives (vv. 7-9; cf. to Matthew 3:7, “Pharisees and Sadducees”), calls for them to live out their repentant spirit by “bearing fruit of repentance” (vv. 10-14), deflects their Messianic expectations from himself (vv. 15-16) and warns them of the Messiah’s judgment to come (v. 17). Luke summarizes John’s work by saying, “With many exhortations he preached good news to the people” (v. 18). 

Repentance and judgement aren’t always popular topics. How could you explain that these two elements of John’s message are indeed “good news” (v. 18)?

Wednesday – Matthew 3:13-17 (cf. Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22): The first appearance of John in Matthew’s gospel takes place in the context of John’s baptism. Unique to Matthew’s account is the exchange between John and Jesus in vv. 14-15. John, recognizing his inferior state (ref. Matthew 3:11-12) to the Savior states, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (v. 14). The substance of Jesus’ reply is clear enough: John is to overcome his objections and carry out the baptism as requested, “Let it be so not, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15). Jesus never rebelled against the Father’s will (see: 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22), so He did not need to be baptized for repentance of sin. However, the exact why behind Jesus’ words to John, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” is not spelled out in Matthew.

Using the following verses: John 1:31-34; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 2:3-11; Hebrews 2:17, how would you answer someone you questioned why Jesus was baptized?

Thursday – Luke 3:23-38: Whereas Matthew records Jesus’ lineage from Abraham thru David to emphasize Jesus’ Jewish heritage, Luke traces Jesus through seventy-seven men back to Adam to connect the Savior with all of humanity. From Matthew’s perspective, Jesus is the fulfillment of Abrahamic and Davidic promises, but in Luke, Jesus is the fulfillment of humanity’s hope of redemption. By placing Jesus in a human lineage that ends with God, Luke signals His dual identity, human yet divine, both Son of Man and “Son of God.”

Reflect on this idea, Jesus is one of us! He stands with humanity, sinful humanity nonetheless, which He came to redeem. How does this idea deepen your appreciation of Him?

Friday – Matthew 4:1-11 (cf. Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13): Immediately after identifying with humanity through baptism and heritage, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted as a man. Three times the Devil tempts Jesus (vv. 3, 6, 9), three times He counters with the authority of Scripture (vv. 4, 6, 10; cf. Deuteronomy 8:3; 6:13, 16). The scriptures make God (the Holy Spirit here in Matthew) the author of “testing” (see: Genesis 22:11; Deuteronomy 13:3; Psalm 81:7), not in seeking to make a person fall but in the sense that He proves the depth of a person’s commitment. Having proven His commitment to God’s plan, Jesus will now embark on His public ministry. Jesus’ temptations appear to have little resemblance to ours. Yet, Hebrews 4:15 tells us that He was “in every respect tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

Think of your fiercest temptation. In what way(s) is it like one of Jesus’ temptations? How will you combat your temptations in the same way Jesus did?

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