Saturday Meditations: The Jerusalem Council Statement

Preamble

“Know that the LORD Himself is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves…” Psalm 100:3

Faithful Jews at the dawn of the first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Judean culture has become increasingly pagan and Greco-Roman and God’s Spirit is now being poured out upon Gentiles as well as Jews who have faith in Christ, they have embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being in covenant with God. By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for His followers. Many deny that God created Saturday to be a day of rest or instituted circumcision or created animals clean and unclean for His glory, and that His good purposes for us include our personal and physical commitment to abstain from any work on the Sabbath, cut off the foreskins of our penises (if male), and that all should abstain from eating unclean animals. It is common to think that yom shabbat and circumcision and unclean animals are not part of God’s beautiful plan, but are, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences. The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.

This secular spirit of our age as well as the ignorance of Gentile converts presents a great challenge to the faithful people of God. Will the covenant people of YHWH and followers of the rabbi Jesus lose their biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from God, and unashamedly proclaim His way as the way of life? Will she maintain her clear, counter-cultural witness to a world that seems bent on ruin?

We are persuaded that faithfulness in our generation means declaring once again the true story of the world and of our place in it—particularly as those who are in covenant with the true God who made the heavens and the earth. Scripture teaches that there is but one God who alone is Creator and Lord of all. To Him alone, every person owes glad-hearted thanksgiving, heart-felt praise, and total allegiance. This is the path not only of glorifying God, but of knowing ourselves. To forget our Creator is to forget who we are, for He made us for Himself. And we cannot know ourselves truly without truly knowing Him who made us. We did not make ourselves. We are not our own. Our true identity, as male and female persons, and the animals’ true identities, as clean and unclean, is given by God. It is not only foolish, but hopeless, to try to make ourselves, the days of the week, foreskins, or animals what God did not create them to be.

We believe that God’s design for his creation and his way of salvation serve to bring Him the greatest glory and bring us the greatest good. God’s good plan provides us with the greatest freedom. God promised faithful Israel and Gentile proselytes that we would have life and have it in overflowing measure in the age to come. He is for us and not against us. Therefore, in the hope of serving God’s people and witnessing publicly to the good purposes of God for penile and dietary cleanliness revealed in Scripture, we offer the following affirmations and denials.

Articles

Article I

We affirm that God has designed observing the Sabbath (Saturday) as a holy day of rest from work, circumcision, and the distinction between clean and unclean animals to be creational and covenantal observances and laws, breathed out by God, and meant to stand until heaven and earth pass away.

We deny that God has designed his covenantal signs to be bloodless or Saturday to be common or dietary laws to include seafood or swine.  We deny that the decision to become circumcised or what you do on Saturday or what animals to eat is a mere human preference.

Article II

We affirm that God’s revealed will is for all faithful Jews and Gentile converts to the faithful service of YHWH to be circumcised, avoid any work on Saturday, and abstain from unclean foods.

We deny that any desire to expend effort on Saturday or to eat delicious pork or not have your penis cut up a little ever justifies dietary immorality or covenant infidelity.

Article III

We affirm that God instituted His special covenant among humanity by the sign of circumcision and created the Sabbath as a day of rest as well as creating animals with intrinsic natures, characteristics, roles, and specific domains to live in, defining special covenantal roles for them in Scripture.

We deny that the divinely ordained differences in days, animals, or penises render them unequal in dignity or worth.

Article IV

We affirm that the creational and divinely ordained signs of the Sabbath and circumcision and the divinely ordained differences between animals reflect God’s perfect plan for creation and his covenant people.

We deny that resting on Saturday, circumcision, or dietary laws are a result of the Fall and a tragedy to be overcome.

Article V

We affirm that the differences between Saturday and other days, circumcised and uncircumcised, clean and unclean, are integral to God’s design for self-conception as human and inside or outside the covenant.

We deny that physical anomalies, psychological conditions, or a poor perception of time nullify the God-appointed link between the passing of days, the biological sign of the covenant, and the biological need to eat and covenant fidelity.

Article VI

We affirm that those born with a physical disorder of sex development, thus being unable to receive the sign of circumcision, are likely cursed by God.  They are welcome to being cared for by the community but are not allowed to enter into the congregation of the Lord.

We deny that ambiguities related to a person’s biological sex render them incapable of living a fruitful live in joyful obedience to God.  You may have the desire to participate in corporate worship in the Temple or synagogue, but you are not permitted to act on it.

Article VII

We affirm that self-conception as a created human or faithful or unfaithful should be defined by God’s holy purposes in covenant and redemption as revealed in Scripture.

We deny that adopting an uncircumcised self-conception, or a human who does not need to rest on the seventh day self-conception as a faithful follower of God, is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation, covenant, and redemption.

Article VIII

We affirm that people who experience the desire to remain uncircumcised or to get things done on Saturday or to eat unclean foods may live a rich and fruitful life pleasing to God through faith in Jesus Christ, as they, like all followers of YHWH, walk in purity of life.

We deny that a desire for picking up sticks on Saturday or leaving your foreskin intact or a desire for pork is part of the natural goodness of God’s creation, Law, or that it puts a person outside the hope of salvation (except picking up the sticks on Saturday, because that carries the death penalty).

Article IX

We affirm that sin distorts our desire for food or rest or avoidance of pain away from the covenant with God and toward dietary/foreskin-possessing/working-or-resting-whenever immorality – a distortion that includes both Jew and Gentile.

We deny that an enduring pattern of wanting to do things on Saturday or eat unclean animals or not be circumcised justifies doing things on Saturday or eating unclean animals or being uncircumcised.

Article X

We affirm that it is sinful to approve of conversion without circumcision, considering all days alike, or eating unclean animals and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from our faithfulness and witness.

We deny that the approval of conversion without circumcision, doing whatever you want on Saturday, or eating unclean animals is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful followers of God should agree to disagree.

Article XI

We affirm our duty to love our neighbor as ourselves, including when we speak to or about one another as created human beings inside or outside the covenant with God.

We deny any obligation to speak in such ways that dishonor God’s design of the days of the week, animals, or image-bearers as male and female even if the males are not circumcised.

Article XII

We affirm that the grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and that this pardon and power enable His faithful people to put to death sinful desires and walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.

We deny that the grace of God in Christ is insufficient to forgive all dietary or foreskin-related sins and to give power for holiness to every believer who feels drawn to avoiding circumcision or eating foods God has declared unclean.  Breaking the Sabbath carries the death penalty, however, so… guess you’ll just find out what happens, in that case.

Article XIII

We affirm that the grace of God in Christ enables Gentiles to forsake uncircumcised, pork-eating, Saturday-working self-conceptions and by divine forbearance to accept the God-ordained link between Saturday being the created day of rest, circumcision being the sign of the covenant, and unclean foods to be shunned and one’s self-conception as inside or outside of the covenant.

We deny that the grace of God in Christ sanctions self-conceptions that are at odds with God’s revealed will.

Article XIV

We affirm that Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners, and this apparently includes Gentiles, now, and through Christ’s death and resurrection forgiveness of sins and eternal life are available to every person who repents of sin and trusts in Christ alone as Savior, Lord, and supreme treasure.

We deny that the Lord’s arm is too short to save or that any sinner is beyond His reach.  We do want to remind you that, in Article X, we said you were unfaithful if you disagreed with us.

Advertisements

Sign of Jonah: Matthew 12:38-42

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!

Matthew 12:38-42 (NRSV)

This story comes next in a series of clashes Jesus has with the Pharisees.  The Pharisees are trying to publicly trap Jesus into saying something that will substantiate a charge of blasphemy or sedition, starting with Jesus’ “lawbreaking” of gathering grain to eat on the Sabbath.  Jesus has turned every situation back on them.  They are coming off looking like the people who don’t care about God or Israel.

By the time we get to this passage, Jesus has had at least three such clashes involving gathering grain on the Sabbath, healing a man on the Sabbath, and casting out an evil spirit.  We need to keep this in mind when the Pharisees and scribes ask him for a “sign.”

The Pharisees are not actually interested in seeing a sign from Jesus.  They have seen the healing and the casting out of evil spirits.  They have heard his message and heard the stories.  They already have plenty of justification for believing Jesus’ message, believing that he is their Messiah, believing his warning of a coming judgement, and responding appropriately by bearing the fruit of repentance and coming to the aid of persecuted Israel.

This is a trap, and Jesus isn’t going to have it.  Maybe the Pharisees believe Jesus won’t produce a sign, or maybe they think they’ll be able to spin the sign in some way that works against Jesus, or maybe they’ll be hoping the sign involves breaking a law or saying something blasphemous.  Whatever the case, Jesus identifies them as evil and adulterous in their request and tells them that the sign he will give them will be that the Son of Man will be buried for three days and nights as Jonah was in the belly of the big sea animal for three days and nights.

Sounds straightforward enough.  Jesus will be in the ground for three days, and this will be the sign that validates his message, but there’s more going on here than just a rote prophecy that Jesus will be dead for three days.

The reason Jonah gets used isn’t simply because Jesus is trying to think of what else happened for three days and nights; he gets used because he carries a message of imminent judgement to the city of Nineveh – a Gentile city that was historically an enemy of Israel – and tells them they will only escape judgement if they repent, and they do.  Thus, Nineveh escapes judgement.

Jesus is importing that situation to explain himself.  He, too, is a prophet sent by God to announce a coming judgement and urge repentance.  He has come, not to wicked Gentiles, but to Israel – people who have even more reason to believe and repent.  And what happens?  Most do not believe; they do not repent.

In this way, the story of Jonah and Nineveh becomes a condemnation to those who hear Jesus and will not believe.  Even wicked Gentiles repented when Jonah brought the word of God to them, but much of Judea will not repent.

This is why Jesus can summon the powerful image of Jonah condemning the Pharisees, or the Queen of Sheba – another pagan who recognized that the King of Israel had true wisdom, and she crossed many miles to hear him.  This in contrast to Israel’s leaders who have a greater King among them and just want him to shut up.

The message is clear, and Matthew has alluded to it in other places – the Gentiles have demonstrated more faith than that portion of Israel that scoffs and persecutes.  Once again, the very people who should have been first to welcome Jesus and obey his instructions are the people who seek to kill him.  We cannot help but think of Jesus’ warnings a chapter ago, where he reflects on the pagan Gentile nations who would have repented at Jesus’ message, but his own people will not.  And like the cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, destruction hangs over the cities of Judea like a sword.  And when that terrible day comes, their own history will condemn them.

Consider This

  1. Jesus preached a message of imminent judgement and the need for repentance and the spiritual reformation of Israel in his day.  Do current generations face an impending judgement?  What would that look like?
  2. Like the Israel of Jesus’ day, has the Church been complicit in making the current generation what it is?  What might repentance and reformation look like for us?

Sunday Meditations: Being What You Are

One way to look at God and yourself is to see yourself as trying to be the sort of person that pleases God.

In this scenario, God has a legal standard that you have failed to meet, but now you are “saved,” and you can now commence trying to live up to the legal standard (by the power of the Spirit!).  God loves you, but He is most often vaguely displeased with you.  On occasion, you might do the right thing and make Him smile, but for the most part, He’s just sad about you.  You sin and it drives God away, then you repent and try to be good and He shows back up.

In this system, being a saint – a holy, righteous person in whom God is well pleased – is something to look forward to in the future.  It is something you are constantly working on yourself to become.

Another way to look at God and yourself is to see yourself as a person God is already pleased with who has already been made into a saint.

In this scenario, there is no longer a legal standard for you to meet.  God has already declared you righteous, and His disposition toward you does not fluctuate with your behavior.  He is always with you, always for you, and He does not hide His eyes from you when you sin.  There is nothing you can do to restore your relationship to God or regain His favor or invoke His pleasure because your relationship and His favor are inviolable and cannot depart from you.

In this model, we do not sin because we fall far short of who God wants us to be; we sin because we act inconsistently with who we truly are.  Sanctification is not achieving new levels of holiness, it is believing more fully and maturing more deeply into what God has made us and letting go of the old patterns and loves we used to depend on to get us through life.

You may say that you are a terrible Christian and a sinner who routinely grieves God.  God says that you are a new creation and adopted child and living Temple of the Spirit whose robes are washed white.  Thus saith the Lord.

Good Fruit, Good Words: Matthew 12:33-37

“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Matthew 12:33-37 (NRSV)

This is a continuation of Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees.  In this instance, they have accused him of being able to cast out demons because he is partners with the ruler of demons.  Jesus has pointed out this objection is idiotic and given a warning that those who are speaking against the spirit of God will not be forgiven.  This passage continues that thought.

Jesus is pointing out that the reason the Pharisees say what they say (i.e. the work of God’s Spirit is actually Satan) because they are actually wicked on the inside, he calls them a “brood of vipers,” and he uses the illustration of bad trees producing bad fruit.  Hmm.  Where might Jesus have come up with such a great imagery?

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Matthew 3:7-10 (NRSV)

Yes, it is John the Baptist.  Long before the Temple powers started giving Jesus a hard time, John the Baptist was on their case, warning the common folk about their true natures.  Jesus picks right up where John left off.  We don’t always give John a lot of air time when we talk about the Gospels, but his impact on the trajectory of Jesus’ ministry is hard to overstate.  Don’t get me wrong, they both seem to recognize that John is a forerunner – a preparer – for Jesus who is the actual Messiah.  Nevertheless, a lot of the things John says and does are things that Jesus uses in his own ministry.  Some scholars speculate that Jesus may have spent a good chunk of time as a disciple of John, and while that may be more speculative than the texts warrant, it does remind us of the influence John’s prophetic ministry and message had on the shape of Jesus’ own prophetic ministry and message.

John, too, preached an impending judgement about to befall Jerusalem, and he, too, called a broken Israel to recommit themselves to their God, repenting and being baptized, because deliverance and the kingdom was at hand.

And when the religious officials show up, John is angry at them.  He is actually upset that someone warned them about the coming wrath!  I guess they don’t call him “the Baptist” for nothing.  Heh heh!  Um, anyway….

It is John’s contention that, even though Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, scribes etc. have the appearance of faithfulness, this appearance is only skin deep, and at their core are oppressors, lovers of money and power, identical souls to the pagan Empire who have been propped up by them, oppressed Israel like them, and will fall with them.  This is Jesus’ position as well.

Here is a place where our familiarity with the Gospel accounts obscure the impact to the original audience.  We’ve always been taught the Pharisees are the bad guys, such that the word “Pharisee” is virtually synonymous with “legalistic hypocrite.”  This isn’t really fair to first century Pharisees as a whole, although it’s not a bad description of the specific ones who followed Jesus around trying to get him killed.

But it’s because we’re familiar with that story that John and Jesus’ words don’t really sting us.  Well, of course.  It would be like Luke Skywalker pointing at the Emperor and going, “You are a really terrible person.”  We know the story, so it shocks no one.

But to the original audience, Jesus is saying this about their role models – about their pastors, their godly people in the service of the Lord, their mentors and advisors.  It would be like someone walking up to Tim Keller or John Piper or your pastor and talking about how they are, at core, bad trees producing bad fruit and they will not make it through judgement day.  Just about everyone would be aghast, right?  How would you react if the very people you thought defined faithful service to God were accused of being a deceptive brood of vipers whom God would judge?

If you can sort of imagine that, you might be able to imagine what it was like for most of Jesus’ audience.  Your pastor says this man is of the devil.  This man accuses your pastor of being a viper who opposes God Himself.  Who would you side with?

Well, under normal circumstances, you would probably side with your pastor, because why wouldn’t you?  Unless you were intimately familiar with things about his life or his heart that would give credence to the accusations, why would you believe some homeless dude who said bad things about him?

Unless, perhaps, you had seen that dude heal the sick and cast out evil spirits.  Unless you had listened to his words, seen his works, seen how he loves and cares for Israel and contrasted that with the cool isolation and exaltation of your church leaders, and you thought to yourself, “Truly, this man is the Son of God.”

As we come to the end of the passage, we should note that Jesus is still leveling charges against the Pharisees and not making a general, theological declaration.  Theologians may debate if we are justified by faith or justified by works, but nobody I’m aware of has championed the view that we are justified by words.

But Jesus’ whole point is that the words of the Pharisees – accusing the work of God in Jesus of being a Satanic plot – reveal what’s really in their heart.  They don’t really care about God or Israel; they care about themselves and their station and the benefits that come with it.  And therefore, their words condemn them, and they will not escape the wrath to come until those trees bear fruits of repentance.

Consider This

  1. Although Jesus is able to connect the words of people with the state of their heart, this can be very difficult to do for various reasons.  What are some ways you can discern a genuine faith and concern for God’s people over a desire to promote ego or gain prosperity?
  2. What criteria do we use to determine who “leaders” and role models are in the church?  Are these good criteria?

Binding the Strong Man: Matthew 12:22-32

Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see. All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Matthew 12:22-32 (NRSV)

As is Matthew’s wont, stories of miraculous physical healing are combined with casting out demons, and here is one – part 3 in a series of “Pharisees Trying to Make Jesus Look Bad,” a reality show coming to a Judean town near you.

Because Jesus can cast out demons, the crowd wonders if Jesus is the “Son of David,” meaning that they see this as a sign that Jesus is the promised king and deliverer of Israel.  This shouldn’t be surprising to us by now.  We’ve seen enough in Matthew to know that Jesus’ clash with demons is a political clash and not just a spiritual one.  When the people see Jesus casting out spirits, they see in this their deliverance from their oppressors and relief from their present woes.  Their reaction is not that this man must wield great spiritual power, but that he must be their Davidic king.

The accusation the Pharisees level against Jesus THIS TIME is that the only reason the demons obey him is because Jesus is in cahoots with their master.

Jesus, for his part, points out that this accusation is stupid, because why would Satan bestow upon Jesus the power to dismantle Satan’s kingdom and destroy his works?  Furthermore, if it is Satan who grants Jesus the power to cast out demons, then how do the Pharisees’ own followers cast out demons?

It seems clear the Pharisees did not carefully think through the ramifications of their declaration.

Because of course the Pharisees have to acknowledge that, if their own disciples can cast out spirits, it can only be because of the power of Israel’s God working through them.  And if that is the case, then the spirit of Israel’s God is working through Jesus, and if God’s spirit is working through Jesus, then Jesus is who he says he is and his message is validated.  The long awaited new kingdom of God has come to Israel in that day, and Jesus is her king, and a judgement is right around the corner for the present kingdom that currently occupies Israel.

To further prove this, Jesus asks the Pharisees how you can possibly take a strong man’s property without first binding the strong man?

This question crops up in Jewish literature both within and outside the Bible.  Possibly it was a saying at the time.  “How can you rob a strong man unless you tie him up, first?”

In the Bible, one of the places it appears that may be important to Matthew’s account is Isaiah 49:

Can the prey be taken from the mighty,
    or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?
But thus says the Lord:
Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken,
    and the prey of the tyrant be rescued;
for I will contend with those who contend with you,
    and I will save your children.
I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,
    and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine.
Then all flesh shall know
    that I am the Lord your Savior,
    and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 49:24-26 (NRSV)

Isaiah 49 is about God’s vindication of His servant, faithful Israel, whom He will deliver from oppressors (Babylon, in this case), restore to the land, and make a light to all the other nations.

It is God’s mission in this passage to rescue the captives of a strong man – a tyrant.

In Matthew’s passage, the tyrant is Satan and his possessions are… well, possessed people.  Jesus is taking the possessions away from him, but he cannot do this unless the strong man is bound.  The fact that he can do this shows that God has bound the strong man (or is foreshadowing that He is about to, depending on where you like to think this happens).

It is in fact this very image we find in Revelation 20, where an angel imprisons Satan in a pit, an event that is followed by the judgement and reign of Jesus along with the martyrs raised to reign with him in the “first resurrection.”

Jesus argument, as it often is, is that the Pharisees are witnessing these great events right now, and the crowds see it and believe in what God is doing.  The Pharisees, however, not only do not believe, but they ascribe it to the work of the devil.

This brings us to one of the trickier passages in Matthew – that you can speak against the Son of Man and be forgiven, but you cannot speak against the Spirit and be forgiven, either now or in the next age.

This statement gives our systematic theology of salvation fits, because doesn’t God forgive you no matter what you’ve done if you repent?  The commitment to this doctrine is so strong that many have even argued that this “unforgivable sin” is rejecting Jesus’ offer of the gospel – typically meaning that you haven’t prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and converted.  The advantage of this view is that the people who are “unforgiven” are the people who didn’t ask for it and were going to Hell, anyway.

The other popular interpretation is that this “unforgivable sin” is if you ascribe the work of God’s Spirit to the devil.  So, you have to be careful when you say that speaking in tongues is actually demonic possession, for instance.

At core, I think both of these sentiments capture a facet of what Jesus is saying, and another clue is his statement that the people who commit this sin will neither be forgiven in the present age, nor in the next one.

At Jesus’ point in history, “this age” is Israel under Roman dominion, dispersed through the Empire but spiritually centered around the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.  It is into this age that Jesus appears and does his work, healing, forgiving, restoring, and reclaiming.  This is all a single package.  In Matthew, being forgiven of your sins and being healed are two sides of the same coin.  In fact, Jesus tells us that the physical healings are proof that God is forgiving sins.

“This age” is about to come to a drastic end that will redefine everything.  The age that follows will be an age where Jesus reigns and faithful Israel is back on top.

I believe what Jesus is saying is that anyone who believes that what God is doing in Jesus is actually a work of the devil will neither experience this forgiveness, healing, and restoration now (as the Israelite common folk are) nor will they pass through the judgment into the next age, and if by some miracle they could, they will discover that the next age will not be kind to them.  They will find themselves stripped of all their power, while the very people they oppressed will be in charge.  That latter scenario, in fact, is a pretty good description of what happened in the Roman Empire as a whole, even though the judgement happened in Judea much, much sooner.

In other words, they will live under the curse of the Law now, and they will continue to suffer the curse of the Law well into the future.

We might imagine, back in Isaiah’s day, Jews who assisted Babylon in keeping their people in captivity.  We might imagine such people, upon hearing Isaiah’s prophecies, trying to turn the people against him, perhaps accusing him of being in league with the devil.  We might imagine that such people would perish in the Babylonian war with Persia, and we might imagine what might have happened to the surviving captors when Babylon was no longer in power, Cyrus ruled, and he let Jerusalem govern herself under Torah.

Once again, the Pharisees have tried to undermine Jesus in the public eye, and all they have done is given him greater opportunity to cement his identity and cast doubt upon theirs.  What has taken center stage is the world-changing, history turning thing God is doing in Jesus.

Consider This

  1. If God had bound Satan such that Jesus was able to take Satan’s captives away, does this have implications for the church’s mission and efforts, today?
  2. When you think about the “lost,” today, what have they been lost to?  What owns people, today?  What does their captivity look like?

Sunday Meditations: Forgiveness

Forgiveness has been my official theme for almost three weeks, now: looking over resentments I’ve held onto or wrongs I’ve felt were done to me that have gone unaddressed.  These are things that I need to turn over to God’s justice rather than my own to be handled in the way He sees fit.

Forgiveness is important to those of us trying to be more like Jesus.  He forgave sins, asked God to forgive the people executing him, and talked several times about the importance of forgiveness in those who would be faithful, going so far as to say that God would not forgive the sins of those who were unwilling to forgive others.  In fact, this theology is right in the middle of the Lords Prayer.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

It is a prayer that God’s forgiveness would be like our forgiveness, which is kind of a lot of pressure.  Given our frailties and the frailties of Jesus’ followers at the time, it is doubtful this is meant to be a theological equation in the sense that, if you do not perfectly forgive, God will withhold forgiveness from you.  However, the relationship is not incidental.  Jesus says more than once in more than one way that God forgives the sins of people who forgive those who sin against them, and if you are unwilling to do this, you should not expect that God will forgive your trespasses, either.

This is a hard teaching and hard to do in wise ways, sometimes.  We might, for instance, forgive someone who is very dangerous for us to be around.  Forgiveness may mean coming to a place where we give up our personal rights of retribution, but it may not mean moving back in with them.  Some sins cross into abuse and criminal behavior and there is just nothing easy about figuring out how forgiveness works in those scenarios, even as we acknowledge that a follower of Christ must figure them out when they arise.  Just deciding not to forgive is not an option.

In my case, however, the tricky issues of forgiveness are rarely about how to deal with the “trespasser” going forward.  I think it is possible to forgive someone and make wise decisions about what your relationship is going to look like in the future in a way that is best for both parties.  For me, the tricky issues of forgiveness have to do with the benefits I get from not forgiving.

You see, if someone else is in the wrong, it makes me feel as though I am in the right.  The sharper among you may point out that it is quite possible for two people to both be in the wrong, but that’s for rational people thinking about the situation rationally.

If I have something to hold over you that you have done wrong, it makes me feel better about my own behaviors while at the same time justifying them.  As long as I have the “right” to demand retribution, I can feel whatever I want to feel and do whatever it seems right to me to do, and I can feel justified in doing so.

The combination of resentment and self-righteousness is more powerful, numbing, addictive, and rationality-destroying than most drugs.

While I might think it is hard to forgive because I was really, really wronged and the other person does not seem very sorry, the reality for me is that it’s hard to forgive because I’m giving up leverage and self-justification.  If I don’t have something to hold against you, then I have to face my own feelings and behaviors unmitigated by “what you did.”  They have to stand on their own merits and, when that happens, I find they are unacceptable.  I find that I have built idols out of my wounds that I turn to for solace and encouragement, and like every other idol, they have to go.

Maybe that’s peanuts for you, but honestly, I find it kind of terrifying.  What will I look like when I am no longer evaluating myself against harms, real or perceived, done to me?  When you take those justifications away, what is left?  When I no longer have the right to treat you like crap, well, now I’m just treating you like crap, aren’t I?  When I can no longer explain my behavior in terms of what someone else did to me, now it’s just stuff that I do.

Forgiveness isn’t just giving up overt retribution for an offense; it’s giving up the host of negative responses I have crafted because of your offense, or the things I engage in because of the way what you did makes me feel, or the pride I feel in being the wronged party.  Basically, anything about myself that I have propped up with “what you did” has to go.

That doesn’t mean you get to escape the consequences of what you did.  That doesn’t mean that I have to work to make a close friendship out of our relationship.  It does mean that whatever destructive characteristics or behaviors I have that are “justified” by the fact that I have been wronged have to go, and I do not get to label them as righteous because I have suffered an injustice.  That’s part of forgiving, at least the way I see it.

And perhaps this is why Jesus cannot envision his followers not forgiving one another.  If you are the image of God in the world, you do not get to harbor resentments, or cart someone’s past offenses out as ammunition for something else, or indulge in baser character flaws because you now have the right to do it.  If the world is going to look the way God wants it, we have to be a people who can forgive as well as be forgiven – both things change us.

And both things direct our trust and hope toward God.  It is only by trusting God that we could ever turn our retributive rights over to him and find our solace there instead of taking our comfort into our own hands.

My Servant: Matthew 12:15-21

When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.

He will not break a bruised reed
or quench a smoldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.

    And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Matthew 12:15-21 (NRSV)

Jesus finds out that the Pharisees are now plotting to kill him, so he decides it’s probably time to take his operation somewhere besides their synagogue.  Makes sense.

Lots of people follow him, and he continues his ministry of healing.  He “cured all of them,” which seems like a very time consuming activity.  But as is his wont, he asks the people not to tell anyone that he’s the Messiah.

Earlier in Matthew, we’ve seen this happen as a concern for the survivability of Jesus’ movement.  If the region begins to proclaim Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah who will rescue Israel from Roman dominion and rule the Jews, this is bound to bring down heat from both the Empire and the Jews who currently rule the Jews.  No one in power is going to sit by the sidelines and see what happens when people start talking about Israel’s Messiah having arrived, and so we’ve seen in Matthew that Jesus is concerned the word doesn’t get out too quickly or too broadly.  He doesn’t want this work snuffed out prematurely.

In this passage, Matthew alludes to this and then some by quoting Isaiah 42.

Isaiah 42 is part of a series where God announces that Israel has served her time in exile and it is time to deliver her from Babylon.  In this series, God refers to Jacob/Israel as his “servant” (Isaiah 41:8).  It is difficult to tell exactly if Isaiah is talking about Israel meaning the entire Jewish people or a faithful subset – probably those who will return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem.

But whatever the case, the Lord talks about how His servant is blind and deaf and incapable of doing much except turning away from false gods.  Because of this, the nations will identify with the servant because they, too, are blind and deaf.  But God Himself will deliver him and Israel will rule the world.  When the nations see this, they will rejoice.

It’s an interesting collection of chapters for a number of reasons.  For our passage in Matthew, the two important parts are the servant being mostly passive and just focusing on faithfulness so that God Himself will do the army-smashing, and the repeated mentions of the pagan nations who will see this and be freed and healed as well.

Mentions of the benefits to Gentile nations are not unheard of in the Old Testament prophets; they’re just particularly rare.  The focus of the prophets is squarely on Israel, and in that light, the Gentile nations are oppressors and bad guys.  They worship false gods, lead Israel astray, enslave her, etc.  The nations are portrayed as enemies.

But, on rare occasions, a prophet will talk about how Israel, in her deliverance and restoration, will be the first among nations that Israel’s God will call to Himself.  Israel is the first, the head, the collective priesthood that mediates between God and the rest of the world, but still, the idea is that the nations who are enemies and oppressors, now, will become worshippers and followers of YHWH and find their own prosperity in this service.  And why will they turn?  Because they see what YHWH does for Israel and they want in.

Matthew, like the Old Testament, is not terribly concerned with Gentiles.  The focus is primarily on Israel.  Even at the very beginning in chapter 1, Matthew tells us that Jesus will save his people from their sins, and he calls Jesus Emmanuel, hearkening back to another prophecy in Isaiah when the birth of a child named Emmanuel would be the sign that God was about to deliver Israel from the Assyrians.

That doesn’t mean that Matthew is saying Jesus is irrelevant to Gentiles.  It’s just that, in this gospel, the Gentiles are minor, occasional characters who pretty much only show up to give Jesus an occasion to say something to Israel.  The focus is on what Jesus is doing for Israel and her fortunes, and we run the risk of misunderstanding Jesus if we try to make his mission about all humanity prematurely.  We will get there, but there is not here.

And even in this passage, Matthew’s focus is not on the bit about Gentiles, but is rather on how God’s faithful servant Israel (Matthew sees Jesus as ideally embodying this in a way Israel has failed to do until now) will be subdued and relatively passive so that God Himself will bring down the thunder.  Jesus is not trying to start an insurrection; that’s not what the servant in Isaiah does.  The servant in Isaiah focuses on turning the people from idols and announcing the imminent Day of the Lord, but the servant does not lift a finger against Babylon.  That is God’s work.  The servant is gentle, quiet, humble, restorative, not even breaking a reed or snuffing out a small flame.

In Matthew’s mind, Jesus fulfills this by doing his healing work and keeping it quiet.  He is avoiding an uprising.  He is deliberately trying to keep an armed confrontation between Rome or the Temple and his crowd of followers from happening.

Then we get to the part about the Gentiles.  If you look up the actual text in Isaiah 42, you may discover that it doesn’t say what Matthew says it says.  This is because your English translation of the Old Testament is based on the Masoretic (Hebrew) text.  However, Matthew is quoting from the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Old Testament – which ends the way we see, here.

While this may give some of the more fundamentalist among us the willies, I’d like to point out that the idea that the Gentiles will hope in God’s servant is an accurate summary statement of what the OT prophets say about Gentiles and Israel in the future, and that material is found abundantly in Isaiah 42 as well.  If you read the entirety of the chapter and the surrounding chapters, the idea is clearly that Israel will rule the world and, as a result, the other nations will be healed, given sight, released from bondage, etc.  The nations experience the benefits of YHWH as their God because this is mediated through Israel, which, if you recall God’s promise to Abraham, was always the plan.

I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.

Genesis 22:17-18 (NRSV)

In a nutshell, this is a great summary of Isaiah 42.

Also, the Septuagint translators had access to different source texts than the Masoretic.  In many cases (although not all), as we’ve discovered older and older Old Testament manuscripts, we’ve come to see that the Septuagint typically reflects these older manuscripts where the Masoretic does not.  This helps us understand that the Septuagint is a viable Old Testament source worthy of study all on its own; it may have had access to texts that were lost to the Masoretic.  If you’re interested in this at all, one of my favorite popular-level works on the subject is When God Spoke Greek by Timothy Michael Law.

My point is that, even though the citation in Matthew does not match what you see in your Old Testament, there’s no reason to get ruffled about it and, honestly, if you expect the New Testament to always quote the Old Testament word for word, you should prepare yourself for a lot of uncomfortable situations.  Matthew doesn’t, for example.  In fact, in at least one place, his quoted verse doesn’t even exist.

But the point is that Matthew is applying that Old Testament eschatological hope – going all the way back to Abraham – to Jesus doing his work, now.  Although we won’t really get it full force until the very end of Matthew, it is exactly Matthew’s expectation that the nations will hear what God has done for Israel in Jesus and want to become followers, too.  They will want to repent of their sinful ways and worship Israel’s God and experience the benefits that, up until that point, have been largely reserved as a hope for Israel, herself.

And good thing, too, for us Gentiles.

Consider This

  1. Jesus appears to be taking the tack of focusing on spiritual reformation, forgiveness, and destroying the works of the devil by healing the sick, reconciling sinners, etc.  If there’s any deliverance from the political powers that be, he seems to expect that God will handle that.  How, if at all, should that influence the focus, efforts, and work of Christians in the world, today?
  2. If you are a Gentile, does Matthew make you feel a little pushed to the outside?  How do the other New Testament writings tell the story of the role of the Gentiles in God’s work of redemption?

Lawful to do Good: Matthew 12:9-14

He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

Matthew 12:9-14 (NRSV)

Jesus and his followers were just out in a field, and this becomes the setting for a little verbal contest between Jesus and the Pharisees that ends up with a pretty controversial claim by Jesus: that he is the Son of Man, that he is greater than the Temple, and as such, the Sabbath laws are subservient to him (and all mankind, as it happens) and not the other way around.

From a narrative standpoint, that makes this passage interesting, because Jesus leaves the field to go into the Pharisees’ synagogue.  If you flip these two passages around, it seems like it would make more sense: he goes into the synagogue, has a disagreement with them about healing on the Sabbath, they leave and the miffed Pharisees follow them, they have the field incident, and Jesus goes to DEFCON1.

Matthew, however, has these passages in a different order.  Jesus’ boldest claims come first, out in a field where there happen to be some Pharisees watching him, and then he packs up and goes to their church.  I’m not sure why this is the sequence other than the default, “This is how it happened.”  Matthew clearly intends this passage to follow the previous one, as it says “their synagogue,” and the “their” would seem to indicate the Pharisees from the previous passage.  So, it’s not like we had two, separate stories and they just got redacted weirdly.  It may be that it’s as simple as these things just happening in this sequence.

Well, whether Matthew deliberately arranged them this way or whether he’s just going off memories of how it happened and this is how it happened, he presents a Jesus who has a lot of guts.  Imagine getting into it with a group of Westboro Baptist protesters and saying things that drive them into a rage, and then going, “Hey, I think I’ll go to your church this afternoon.”

Although Jesus does not make the radical claims he made in the field, the situation he addresses is more dire.  Here, it isn’t simply a matter of eating when one is hungry.  We have a man with a withered (xeran – dried up) hand.  Jesus does what Jesus does, which is heal him, thus signifying that he is Israel’s Messiah who has brought the restoration and reclamation of Israel, forgiving their sins in God’s name and overturning their curse.

But he does this on Saturday.  These Pharisees anticipate this.  They even ask Jesus a leading question.  Once again, this makes the sequence of these passages puzzling to me because Jesus just harvested grain on the Sabbath and gave some pretty radical reasons why he was justified in doing so.  Obviously, the Pharisees here are trying to nail Jesus for violating the Torah; they aren’t genuinely curious about his views.  But still.  They already have puh-LENTY of evidence to nail him for blasphemy and disregarding the Law of Moses.  This seems unnecessary.  But, hey, he’s already in your synagogue, I guess there’s no reason not to try to rack up a few more incidents to share with the Sanhedrin.

Jesus answers them with an argument that is much less theological in nature than the field conversation.  Here, he meets the objection basically by saying, “Don’t you condone working on the Sabbath to get your ox out of a ditch?  Isn’t this more important than that?  Doing good on the Sabbath is totally legal.”

There may be a subtle dig at the Pharisee’s love of money, here.  Getting your ox out of a ditch is mostly about economics in the first century and less so about animal rights.  You use an ox to grow food and transport goods.  If your ox is stuck, you can’t do that.  Jesus is using a hypothetical example where the Pharisees’ livelihood is in jeopardy on the Sabbath – the implication being that of course they would fix that.

But here we have an Israelite, and not just any Israelite, but a faithful one who is in the synagogue.  These are the people that the religious leaders are supposed to be valuing, caring for, sacrificing for, helping, etc.  They are supposed to be far more valuable to the Pharisees than an ox, not only because a human being is more important than an ox, but specifically because these are the people that Israel’s leaders have been given charge over.

Jesus is a pretty clever dude when you think about it.  This was supposed to be an opportunity for the Pharisees to trap him, but he has trapped them.  “You would get your ox out of a ditch, wouldn’t you?  So, wouldn’t you want to help a faithful Israelite?  Your own people whom God gave you charge over?  You want me to help faithful Israelites, right?  Or do you think your oxen are more valuable than your own people?”

Clever, clever.

What is at stake, here, is exactly the sort of thing that got Israel in trouble in the first place.  One of the characteristics of Israel that invoked the curse of the Law is exactly this – Israel’s leaders valuing their possessions while treating their people like crap.

There are lots of passages about this.  The entire book of Malachi comes to mind.  Zechariah’s portrayal of a shepherd.  Perhaps one of the more direct referents is Ezekiel 34.  Here’s how that chapter begins:

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

Ezekiel 34:1-4, NRSV (Emphasis mine)

Jesus is doing what the Pharisees and other leaders in Israel should have been doing this whole time.  The Pharisees won’t strengthen, heal, or bind up the injured, because they’re being “righteous” – keeping the Sabbath laws.  But God wants mercy and not sacrifice, and Jesus will heal this man, thus showing who the true shepherd of Israel is.  Jesus is God shepherding Israel, Himself, which is exactly His proposed remedy for the situation.

“For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” – Ezekiel 34:11

I hope this brings into clearer focus some of Jesus’ imagery about sheep and shepherds, but that’s not in our passage, today.

Whenever we hear Jesus talking about the Law, at least in Matthew, we see it as an opportunity for contrast with Israel’s leaders.  They want to know how most thoroughly to observe the regulations.  Jesus wants to teach how the Law can be practiced in a way subservient to the idea that Israel is to love God with all her heart, mind, soul and strength, and also love her neighbor as herself.  If your practice of the Law causes you to do those two things, you are practicing the Law rightly in Jesus’ mind.  If your practice of the Law causes you to drift from those things, God doesn’t care at all for what you are doing, and He will not be impressed by your technical legal obedience.

You may protest, “But isn’t a zeal for keeping the Law loving God?  And isn’t confronting people with their shortcomings loving them?”  I can’t know for sure, but I’m almost positive this was a common thing to hear from Pharisees.

Because, according to Jesus, no, it isn’t.  These people kept the Sabbath and jumped on people who didn’t, and Jesus did not interpret this as an act of love for God or man.  These people strenuously tried to comply with God’s Law and just as strenuously pointed out Israelites who did not, and Jesus thought of this as oppression and pride – markers that you belonged to the present evil age.  He did not interpret it as love, no matter how you spun it, theologically.

That’s something to consider, isn’t it?  God’s perspective isn’t that zealous pursuit of His commandments and calling others out on their sin is intrinsically loving.  It is only loving if such pursuits enable you to demonstrate actual love.  Keeping the commandments doesn’t demonstrate you love God.  Calling out the sinful behavior of others doesn’t demonstrate you love them.  Those things can be done in a loving way but they only are loving if you are actually loving.

The Pharisees are the ones who zealously want to keep the Sabbath and enforce the Law.  Jesus is the one who says, “I know what the Law says, but this guy needs to be healed.  My violation of the Sabbath is lawful because I am doing good for this man, regardless of what the letter of the commandment is.”

That’s something to consider, indeed.

Consider This (Indeed)

  1. Are there instances where you or the Church in general have zealously pursued obedience to the letter of a commandment from God, and it resulted in keeping you from demonstrating love? (Reminder: Obeying the Law and pointing out sin is not inherently an act of love.)
  2. If loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves are the controlling principles of obeying God, even superseding what might seem to us to be obvious ramifications of a commandment, does that affect how we understand obeying certain commandments, practically speaking?

 

Sunday Meditations: Spiritual Warfare

I’m experiencing some synchronicity on this topic between Marcus Warner visiting our church to talk about the Deeper Walk Institute, some casting out narratives coming up in Matthew for when I get back to writing some devotional entries, and my being sick, today.

When I was much younger, I really dug the Charismatic movement.  I was raised fundamentalist Baptist, and the Charismatics just seemed to have something I was missing – a fire and a zeal.  Life in the Spirit seemed very real to them in comparison to my dry, dusty Baptist pursuit of the Christian faith, which primarily revolved around not listening to Fleetwood Mac and making sure I was in church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night.

During this time, I particularly got into spiritual warfare.  If you’re not familiar with the topic, the core idea is that there are demons out and about in the world and Christians are supposed to fight them, spiritually.  For most spiritual warfarers, this usually has the look of a somewhat tamer exorcism.  Many books and videos have been produced on this subject, and I was somewhat surprised to see that the DWI spends an entire course out of their four course series on the topic.

I have to admit that I’m very leery of the idea of spiritual warfare as presented.

First of all, whenever someone has written far, far more about a topic than the Bible itself spends on that topic, I have to wonder if we aren’t overreaching our data.  Typically, spiritual warfare material will include things like “generational strongholds” and make a great deal out of the power and effects of the occult and fine-tuned distinctions between “soul” and “spirit” on which their mechanics depend.  The Bible just doesn’t give us a whole lot of information about how the whole evil spirit thing works, but that doesn’t really stop anyone from extrapolating wildly.  Of course, one could say this about just about any theological topic, but it just seems particularly weird to do so in this area.

Second, having lost my youthful fundamentalism, I’m very skeptical about supernatural claims.  That may sound odd, considering that I’m a Christian.  It’s not that I don’t believe supernatural things can happen; it’s that I would consider such things to be very, very rare and their occurrence would communicate something significant to the audience.  A worldview that has invisible demons everywhere being the source of human troubles is too much for me.  People can experience all sorts of afflictions of body and spirit and turn to acts of great or habitual evil without any extra help, and while it may give a college student an extra burst of willpower when his youth group leader casts out the “spirit of masturbation,” I’m very skeptical that anything metaphysical has actually happened.

Third, there seems to be a disparity between the way the gospels portray Jesus’ et al casting out of evil spirits and the contemporary manifestation.  In Jesus’ ministry, casting out demons was a corollary to physical healing.  The people Jesus cast a spirit out of had some serious physical and mental problems that left with the evil spirit.  The healing miracles and exorcisms are so closely related that I half wonder if casting out an evil spirit is simply another way to tell a healing miracle story.  For instance, exorcisms only happen in Galilee and nearby regions.  Everywhere else, just healing miracles.  The Gospel of John records zero exorcisms.  It appears to me that miraculous healing and casting out an evil spirit are two sides of the same coin in the gospel narratives; the way in which they are presented has to do more with the way the audience would have perceived it.

I want to hang out here a moment, because for all the books and videos on spiritual warfare, there are very few books or videos on how to heal someone in Jesus’ name.  Both are presented as regular parts of the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, and both are commanded to Jesus’ followers.  Where are all the books and courses on miraculously healing someone?

It seems to be that the big difference is verification.  If someone is blind or can’t walk or is greatly psychologically unstable, and you try to heal them, it’s pretty clear whether you’ve succeeded or failed, and I’m guessing there have been more failures than successes in that department.  Evil spirits, though, are invisible.  You can have a “successful” exorcism or binding of Satan or whatever because there is absolutely no way to verify that anything happened.  Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I suspect this is a major part of why every Christian and their dog thinks they can cast out demons, but nobody thinks they can touch a person with a wounded leg and heal them.

To me, the portrayal of these things are so closely connected in the Bible that it makes sense to put them both in the same categories.  If you think supernatural healings are rare in the church, today, then it seems consistent to also think that about casting out demons.  I suppose the reverse is also true, but I’ve never run across anyone who seems to think that supernatural, miraculous healing is as common as spiritual warfare.

Finally, we also have to take into account the eschatological situation of Jesus and his apostles.  Jesus has come to destroy the works of the devil, inaugurate the Kingdom of God, liberate and restore Israel, and forgive her sins and remove the curse of the Law.  It is within this context that we see a lot of healing and exorcisms.  This is evidence to the observers that the Kingdom of God has come and Jesus is the one who’s bringing it.  It also marks the binding and defeat of these powers.  Satan is bound.  The Temple falls.  Rome converts.  We live on the other side of this great battle, and insofar as it makes sense to talk about dark, spiritual forces, we should expect that they would be greatly lessened after the ministry of Jesus, not continuing on full force like nothing ever happened.

In the same way, now that the meaning of those kinds of supernatural acts is no longer current, why would we expect the acts to continue in the same way?  It would be like expecting to have visions of clean and unclean animals on a sheet, today.  But Gentiles are already grafted into the Kingdom, all foods have been declared clean, so why would we expect that vision to recur?  The circumstances in the plan of God that vision communicated have come and gone.  If such a vision did happen again, we would assume that something new must be meant.

But on the other hand, we also have to take seriously the narrative of the Church as she continues her journey.  While many of the “spiritual warfare” episodes today may just be so much psychodrama, can we write off every account to that?  We hear power encounter stories from our brothers and sisters in the mission field; could it be that, in other countries, the circumstances are such that casting out an evil spirit still has meaning to the audience – a meaning it simply would not have in a modern, Western nation?

And then there are divine healings, such as the one James Mercer witnessed in his parish.  I suspect that many such stories are just theological explanations for things that happen naturally, but here is an example of one that seems to defy such an explanation.  Could it be that God is still healing miraculously and everything that would entail?

I feel like I have to say yes, and when such instances do happen – whether a miraculous physical healing or some kind of spiritual fire and light showdown in the backwaters of Honduras – we should not only be grateful for the work, but endeavor to read the sign.

Lord of the Sabbath: Matthew 12:1-8

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

Matthew 12:1-8 (NRSV)

This is one of the episodes in Jesus’ life that I could easily see happening, today, either among Jews on Saturday or Calvinists on Sunday.  Jesus’ disciples pick grain to eat on the Lord’s Day, and the religious gatekeepers have an issue with this.

On paper, they have a valid objection.  The Law clearly forbids work on the Sabbath and makes no direct exceptions.  Interpreters of the Law – the biblical scholars of the day – had teased out all kinds of implications of this commandment (cf. the Westminster Larger Catechism) leaving the Jewish people with essentially permission to breathe and move around a little.  The Law continues to hold sway in this way.  The Sabbath has always been a definitive marker of the Jewish people, and to this day, some Orthodox Jews won’t even flip a light switch on the Sabbath.

Jesus begins his defense by bringing up counter-examples in the Old Testament of people breaking the Sabbath due to hunger.  David and his companions are one example, and the laws concerning priests are another example.  The priests are especially noteworthy, because not only do they glean their food for the day from offerings, but they also are about all kinds of work in the Temple.

I’m surprised Matthew does not record some wag piping up, “Oh, so you believe the Bible has contradictions in it.  Why don’t you just admit that you don’t believe the Scriptures, Jesus?” because that’s the sort of thing people say to me when I point out areas of the Old Testament that don’t gel.  “The priests and David weren’t really breaking the Sabbath, because if you look at the text carefully….” but Jesus says they are breaking the Sabbath.  Perhaps he’s putting air quotes around that phrase, but we can’t know that from the text.

But Jesus’ intent is not to invalidate the Law, per se, but rather to point out that the Sabbath laws give way to larger considerations, such as the king of Israel and his companions being hungry (you see where Jesus is going with this, right?) or the priests serving in the Temple.

The clash between himself and the religious authorities of his day is something that has worked its way into Matthew in many passages, but here, Jesus brings it to a head on collision.  “Something greater than the Temple is here.”

Well, that escalated quickly.  What began as a theological justification for picking grain to eat on the Sabbath (with some veiled allusions to Jesus and his disciples being comparable to David and his companions as well as priests) ended up in a straight up challenge directly to the Temple, and the Temple is not going to take this lying down.

To substantiate this claim, Jesus invokes Hosea 6:6.  “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

In Hosea, Ephraim (Israel) and Judah have fallen into grave disobedience, allying and intermarrying with other nations, their rulers, and their gods to seek protection and prosperity.  They have left their trust and love of YHWH who had delivered and preserved them up to that point for other loves and other sources of security.  I’ll pause a moment to allow any pastors reading this to make a sermon point out of that observation.

In light of this, YHWH despises the external obedience that Israel and Judah produce.  You can bring your sacrifices all day long to the Temple, but you won’t find God there.  You’ll find an empty shell of a priesthood going through the motions.  But God doesn’t want their sacrifices and burnt offerings (although, it should be noted in the Law, God absolutely wants their sacrifices and burnt offerings); He wants their love and trust back.

A similar theme opens Isaiah right in chapter 1.  In verse 11, YHWH basically says, “Who asked you to bring me sacrifices?”  Well, You did, but the point is that God does not want burnt animal carcasses.  The sacrifices are only meaningful if they reflect a desire to repent and restore the relationship Israel has to her God that has been disrupted by her sins.  Without that desire, now we’re just killing goats for no particular reason other than the fact that the Law requires it.

In Hosea, this situation is followed by prophecy that Israel will be invaded by foreign powers, sacked and ravaged by them, and live in captivity under them.

Jesus is framing his current situation against the situation described in Hosea.  He is telling anyone who will listen that the Temple of his day is as effectual as the Temple of Hosea’s day.  Israel’s heart is far from God.  She trusts in other things, now.  But she goes through the motions all the same.  For Jesus, the Temple and the leaders in it who perpetuate the current state of affairs (which we know is not every single one of them, but almost all) are that empty shell.  Her offerings mean nothing to God and will not stop His coming judgement.  What God wants is not the raw observance of the Law; He wants Israel’s love and trust back.

Jesus challenges the Pharisees to understand what’s really going on, here.  The Temple they serve is a sham and God despises it.  God’s judgement is coming, and the only hope for Israel is genuine repentance and a return to the Lord.

Jesus identifies himself as that mechanism.  He is the king David was meant to be.  He is the priest that the priests were meant to be.  He is the temple that the Temple was meant to be.  He is the one who will lead Israel back to what she was meant to be – a kingdom that loves the Lord her God with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loves her neighbor as herself.

This in and of itself is probably enough to put the lid on Jesus’ coffin as far as the religious authorities are concerned, but he steps it up to DEFCON 1 at the end by declaring, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

To refresh your memory, the Son of Man is an apocalyptic figure in Daniel 7.  In this vision, the Ancient of Days destroys the great kingdom that oppresses Israel, then he gives all glory and rulership to a man – the Son of Man – who rules forever.  Within the confines of the vision, this figure is identified as faithful Israel.

Jesus appropriates this title and image for himself.  He is faithful Israel – the firstborn of many brothers and sisters.  He declares himself to be this apocalyptic figure who is faithful Israel who will be given all authority when God destroys Israel’s oppressors.  And because he has all authority, he is lord of the Sabbath.  If David gets to decide what is and isn’t lawful on the Sabbath, how much more so does Jesus, the Son of Man, the epitome of faithful Israel and her true king whose authority will last forever?

If you find yourself debating what is and isn’t lawful to do on Sunday, I highly recommend you omit Jesus’ last point from your argument.

But it works for Jesus, and as is typical of his rhetorical mastery, he takes the objections of the learned and turns it around on them.  What began as an accusation of breaking the Sabbath has ended as a declaration of war.  And hope.  Bad news for those who are benefiting from the current power structure; gospel for everyone else.

Consider This

  1. If Jesus has authority over the Law itself, how does this affect how we understand and interpret the Law?  How does it affect the role, if any, the Law has in your life, today?
  2. Does the church face a scenario, today, where there are powerful leaders who observe outward obedience but have made allies with the worldly powers that be?  Does this passage imply a message to them?  How do you think they would respond?