Sunday Meditations: The Individual

Usually, my Sunday “meditations” (and we use the word loosely) are prompted by conversations during the week, but this is something I’ve thought about this week as a result of my daily recovery work – a lot of which has revolved around God’s dealings with me as an individual.

I was raised in a relatively small Baptist denomination, which was more Arminian and a hair more fundamentalist than evangelicalism at large tends to be these days, but the main pulse was similar.  The main story was that everyone was going to Hell, and the main task was to keep people from going to Hell, and the main way to do this was to get as many people as possible to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and mean it.  Church, then, was a group of people who had done this and were now focused on trying to get as many other people to do it as possible, all while avoiding a list of various practices designated as immoral.

At the core of this operation was the “gospel message” that went something like this:

You, as an individual, have sinned and, as a result, you are destined for Hell.  But God loves you as an individual such that He sent Jesus to die a death that appeased His wrath toward you as an individual, and if you will accept this on faith and pray a prayer to ask Jesus into your heart, you as an individual will go to Heaven, instead.

You may have noticed this story is heavily centered around you as an individual, mostly because I said “you as an individual” about a dozen times.  You have broken God’s laws.  God will send you to Hell.  God loves you.  Jesus died for you.  You can invite Jesus into your heart.  You will go to heaven.  You, you, you, you, you.  Everything is about you.  The whole story of the Bible ultimately spins around you as an individual and this all-important individual decision.

This plays very well in America, where individualism and self-determination are our highest virtues, and if we isolate certain passages (say, for instance, the Romans Road), and temporarily suspend the notion that these were written to a group of people and not to us as individuals, the Bible can be read this way.

But is this really what the Bible is?  Is this where the center of gravity of the story is, if we take the Bible as a whole?

Because the Bible, to me, seems to be telling the story of a people.

These people begin in Abraham, whom God chooses (as an individual, sure, but you’ve gotta start somewhere) to be the father of a nation that will grow immensely numerous.  God will be the faithful God of this nation, and they will be His faithful people.  The growth, prosperity, and the faithfulness of these people will bless all the other nations, and they, too, will turn to the true God.

And so the process begins.  Abraham’s sons become families that become tribes that become Israel.  She has her first big crisis when she is imprisoned by another nation, and God – keeping His promise to Abraham – sets her free to bring her out of Egypt into her own land.  She is able to fight off nations much larger than herself because God is with her, and she gains her own land and, eventually, is ruled by a series of kings.

This is not an unbroken line upward, however.  Israel is seen to be sort of flighty.  Sometimes, she is faithful to her God and all is well.  Other times, her national sins and disobedience end her up in very precarious situations while her prophets call her to repentance and to return to the Lord who will restore her.  Some kings are righteous and faithful and lead the nation in that direction; others are corrupt and breed faithlessness and injustice in the nation, and she suffers as a result.

As we move further in the story, Israel’s unfaithfulness as a nation finally provokes the curse of her covenant, and she is exiled from her land and brought into captivity to another nation.  Even in this situation, though, the story isn’t over.  Prophets continue to call Israel to repentance.  Sometimes, ground is gained.  Israel ends up being able to send people back to her land and rebuild her Temple.  But overall, the nation slides into a desperate sort of dissipation and dissolution.

But God will not let this be the end of the story.

He sends Jesus to Israel – His own Son – to call them to repentance and faithfulness and restoration.  Jesus begins to undo the curse and re-form the people into what God had always intended for them.  Israel’s leaders do not care for this development and, in conjunction with Roman authorities, have Jesus executed.  But this does not stop God, either, who raises Jesus from the dead and apocalyptically pours out His Spirit into this new Israel Jesus had been building around Himself, and the apostles carry on the mission.

But there is still so much rejection and opposition at work that God makes a drastic move to ensure the growth and restoration of His people – He grafts in Gentiles who believe, and they come in droves.  This phenomenon occupies the bulk of the New Testament until we get to John’s Apocalypse, which shows us in very graphic terms an end to persecution, vindication of these faithful people, and the overthrow of the Roman Empire itself – a huge explosion whose echoes resonate against the far-flung picture of a renewed creation.

It seems to me, and obviously I could be way off, here, that the overwhelming bulk of the biblical story is about God’s relationship to a people in history – specifically the history of the people who are the children of the promise made to Abraham.  It is God’s creation of this people, love for this people, the sins of this people, the salvation and restoration of this people, and the survival and growth of these people into the future that dictates the things that end up in the Bible.

Now, obviously, you can’t have a people without the individuals who compose it.  You can’t have national sins without individual sins.  You can’t have corporate repentance without individual repentance.  You can’t have a faithful people without having a faithful person.

But the individual experience with God has context, definition, meaning, and expression inside the story of the corporate people of God, not the other way around.

We can’t have the Army without individuals who have decided to join the Army.  However, when America deploys troops, the whole reason you get sent somewhere is because you’re in the Army.  It’s not like someone made an announcement, “Hey, everyone with a gun and a desire to pursue American interests in other nations, get on this plane and we’ll take you to Afghanistan so you can do your thing.”  You as an individual sign up to become part of a people, and it is this entity that is trained, equipped, and sent into the world to accomplish the mission.  Your life becomes defined by a larger, corporate context.

When the Kansas City Royals play, it isn’t a game played by whatever individuals show up to Kauffman Stadium that night wanting to play baseball (although, I admit, it does look that way some games).  No, you try out for the Royals and train with the Royals.  The Royals get scheduled to play games against other teams, and you go with the Royals to play these other teams because that’s what the Royals do.  If you were not a member of the Kansas City Royals, you would not take the field against Tampa Bay.  If you are, then you will.  If you retire from the Royals or get traded to another team, you no longer get on the bus with the Royals and play the baseball games the Royals are supposed to play.  Your corporate identity defines your experience.  It is your participation (or lack thereof) in that group of people that dictates what happens to you.

So, certainly, the Bible does not leave out individuals or their experiences, but individuals and their experiences derive from and are defined by their relationship to the group.  God makes a covenant with, pursues, redeems, protects, and glorifies a people.  If you belong to this group, you experience their highs and lows and historical relationship with God along with everyone else in that group.  If you don’t, you don’t.  Obviously, this experience affects us as individuals in our individual, daily lives (or it ought to) just as it did for Joe Israelite in the Old Testament, but the movie isn’t “God and I,” it’s “God and His People,” and this has some very practical ramifications for our priorities and mission and daily practice.

It affects how we understand and present the gospel.  It affects what we do as the church and what we do as individual believers and how we make coherent sense of that two thousand years after Jesus.

Sunday Meditations: The Ages

A few parallel conversations have had me thinking about the word “age” in the New Testament and its corollary “eternal.”

The Greek word usually translated “age” is aion from whence we get our English word “eon.”  It is a word that means a period of time that is characterized by some distinguishing characteristic or prevailing set of conditions.  We use the word this way many times when referring to historical periods like the “Bronze Age” or the “Industrial Age” or “the Middle Ages.”  The word doesn’t specify a period of time, but rather segments of time defined by a particular characteristic.  We can talk about the “age of the atomic bomb” or an “ice age.”

In Jewish thought, “age” has that meaning.  It doesn’t mean a set period of time, it means a period of time defined by a particular characteristic or circumstance.  The reign of a certain king, for example, or the Babylonian Exile.  Those are ages.  Probably the use of the word to describe the shortest amount of time is Jonah 2:6 in the Septuagint.  That phrase “the bars closed on me forever” is actually “the bars closed on me for ages (aionioi)” and is something of a hyperbolic way to describe three days and nights.  But the use of the word doesn’t mean a certain period of time; it means a period of time defined by being in this fish.  In Jonah chapter 2, he doesn’t know how long he’s going to be in there, and he refers to the period of time in the fish as “ages” even though it actually turns out to be a relatively short period of time (I say as someone who has not spent any length of time in a fish).

This is a good segue, then, into the concept of “eternal.”  Generally, the word translated as “eternal” is some variant of the word aionion, which means “of the ages.”  The idea here is something that will last beyond a specific age and into the future succession of ages to come, indefinitely.

This is one area where I wish translators had been a bit more literal, because there is a subtle difference between “a single, infinitely extensible period of time” and “a potentially endless succession of ages.”

The idea of an age grounds us immediately into history.  In order to call an age an age, you have to have some content to define it.  What makes this time period an age in contrast to other ages?  What defines the age?  How would you know when this age was up and a new age had come?  By nature of the case, we have to think about an age or the passing of ages as definitive historical events and circumstances.  This way of looking at time and eschatology is much closer, I would argue, to the mindset of the biblical authors than a more Greek philosophical static conception of a single period of time that has no bounds.  In both cases, we may end up with a period of time with no discernible end, but in the case of ages, that endless period of time is made up of an endless succession of historically definitive periods of time – ages – as opposed to just being an endless time with no particular historical progression in it.

This has particular implications for how we understand the New Testament and the various talk about ages.

For instance, Jesus tells his followers that he will be with them until the end of the age.  His disciples ask what the signs of the end of the age will be, and Jesus talks about the destruction of the Temple.  Perhaps my favorite reference is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he says the Old Testament happened to the saints of the past, but it was written down “for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”

It is a popular understanding that “end of the age” means “end of all time,” but this does not seem to be the intent.  The end of an age is a drawing to a close the things that define that age, and this will give way to another age that is defined by something else.  In English, we sometimes use the expression “the end of an era.”  It doesn’t mean the end of all time – it means a definitive period has come to a close and things will be drastically different, afterward.

This has some deep ramifications for our understanding of the New Testament.

For instance, if you think “end of the age” means “end of the world” or “end of time,” then passages like Matthew 24 are in the distant future.  The destruction of the Temple will refer to some distant future destruction of the Temple that will happen near the end of the world.  The persecution, wars, famine, etc. and the instructions to avoid catastrophe by fleeing to the mountains all refer to something that happens at the end of the world.  And then we run into trouble with statements like, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” so we have to push the referent for that statement out until the end of the world, too, so “this generation listening to me right now” becomes “that generation that is alive in the future whenever these things happen.”  And Jesus’ warnings to his immediate audience to be watchful for these things is only applicable in the sense that nobody knows when these things are going to happen.

It is, in fact, this understanding of “age” that drives a lot of the criticism that Jesus was just plain wrong about the future.  The Temple was destroyed and the world did not end.  That generation he was talking to did pass away, and the world kept on turning.

However, if an “age” is to be understood as a period of time defined by a certain state of affairs, these passages work naturally.  The “end of the age” isn’t the end of time, it’s the end of the present system of things.  It’s the end of this era.  It’s not the end of the world – it’s the end of the world as we know it (apologies to Michael Stipe).  The things that define this period in history will collapse and give way to a new period defined by other things.  If we consider that the disciples are asking when this big historical transition they’ve been expecting will happen and what the signs will be, then Jesus’ answer makes sense, not only in its own context, but also in terms of what actually happened, historically.

This also affects our understanding of things like “eternal life.”  Here, we have a succession of ages.  The idea is not that time stops and we all sit around on clouds or whatever.  The idea is that the life Jesus offers is life that carries into the next age – whatever that age happens to look like – and countless ages to come.  It contains promise both for the here and now and in a renewed heavens and earth and general resurrection.  It is a promise that God will keep you through history’s highs and lows, tribulations and blessings, and ultimately raise you from the dead.

Sunday Meditations: Toenail Clippers

Because I live in a first world country, I have two sets of nail clippers – one for my fingernails, and another, larger one for my toenails.  Obviously, the idea of using one kind of nail clipper for both sets of nails is just nuts.

Whenever I go to clip my nails, something that has always struck me is that the type of clipper I don’t need at that particular time is always right there at the top of my single drawer of man-grooming stuff.  But I have to dig around for the other one.  Never fails.  I can easily find the one I don’t need, but the one I need requires searching.

It occurred to me this week, however, that this is because of one, simple thing: when I am done with the clippers, I just put them back in the drawer.  Thus, the pair I used last is always closest to the top and easiest to find.  But the pair I need is usually the other one, because I haven’t used them, recently.

This is probably not news to you, but it was something of a small revelation to me.  This phenomenon of the clippers I don’t need being easy to find (but the clippers I need being buried) is not due to Murphy’s Law or a comical irony of life and the universe or God or Satan trying to make my life marginally more difficult – it’s a perfectly logical and natural consequence of my own actions.  My present action of just putting the clippers away in the drawer – perfectly logical and natural action on its own – has the unintended consequence of annoying me in the future.  It is because of time and a host of other actions that pass in between that kept me from making the connection.

This is a very small, trivial matter.  But it does make me think about things on a larger scale.  What are the things that distress me in the present that are simply the natural outworking of my actions in the past, but I fail to make the connection because of the time and events in between?  What are the things that I am doing in the present that will cause me issues in the future even though it might not seem like it due to the amount of time and events that will pass before Future Me has to deal with it?

What are the things in my life that I ascribe to others or God or the brokenness of the universe that are actually nothing more than the very logical, natural outworking of my own actions?

Perhaps most importantly, how can I get better at seeing those things and using them to make things easier for me in the future?  How can I avoid being at the mercy of myself?

Lost Sheep of Israel: Matthew 10:5-15

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

Matthew 10:5-15 (NRSV)

Having given the Twelve his own authority, Jesus now plans to release them into the wild to scale up the operation of liberating Israel.

You can see the focus on Israel right from the get-go.  Jesus specifically forbids them to go to any Gentile villages.  The intent is to recover the lost sheep of Israel.

It may throw us off, living on this side of Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Spirit, to see such a narrowly focused mission, but this is an important theme in the biblical story that often gets overlooked: the initial mission is to Israel, and it is in the context of what God is doing with and for Israel that Gentiles end up getting included.  Recall the proclamation of the angel at the beginning of Matthew, that Jesus would save his people from their sins.  Jews, not everybody.

It is this mission of saving Israel that will result in the inclusion and salvation of Gentiles.  At the end of Matthew, Jesus will send his disciples into all nations.  At this point in the story, however, we’re focused on what will become of Israel.  Gentiles will certainly be mentioned in the gospels, but they are singular events, worthy of mention due to their irregularity.  The focus of Jesus’ work, at this point, is Israel.  He is going to save them from the plight their sins have landed them in – the curse of the Law.

When the first Star Wars movies came out, it was easy to see that the movies were about Luke Skywalker.  But when the prequel trilogy came out, and we saw the whole scope of it, we realized that the movies were actually about Anakin Skywalker.  He was the prophesied one.  He was the one who brought balance to the Force.  The whole series is the story of his rise, fall, and redemption.  Luke Skywalker is a very important part of that story, but it’s actually not about him.  He is in the story only because the story is about Anakin Skywalker.

I sometimes feel modern Christians need to get out of their own heads a bit when looking at the biblical story.  If all you see is the New Testament, you might get the idea that the Bible is the story of God and humanity in general.  But when we incorporate the Old Testament and see the whole thing, together, we see that the Bible is predominantly the story of God and Israel.  The rest of humanity gets included as part of Israel’s story.

If we come at Matthew’s gospel from the standpoint of Jesus’ ministry being about all mankind throughout space and time, then Jesus’ instructions to his apostles are jarring.  They are a weird problem to be solved.  But if we understand that this is predominantly the story of God’s relationship with Israel, it makes a lot more sense.  We know the Gentiles will be included in all of this, but in this scene, the Gentiles are just not relevant.  Israel has sinned, grievously and repeatedly, and has fallen under the curse of her covenant with God.  Jesus, and now his apostles, are about the work of overturning that condition.  Gentiles aren’t even on the radar right now.  They will be, but that’s a later movie.  Theologically, we may note that God knows the future and this was always His plan and such, and that’s fine, but let’s not let that obscure what Matthew’s gospel is telling us right now.

The Twelve are to go from village to village, announcing to Israel that the kingdom of heaven – a concept of Old Testament hope and Jewish eschatology – has now come near.  And how will they know?  Because the sick will be cured, demons will be cast out, and even the dead will be raised.  The apocalypse, in other words, but pretty much the good stuff.

The Twelve are not to worry about provisions for food and shelter.  Someone providing these things for them is their sign that this is a village worth saving.  If someone won’t, or if perhaps they do out of a sense of obligation but will not listen to the message, the apostles are to leave the village and shake the dust off their sandals.

Ironically, the Gentiles now come into this passage, because shaking the dust off your sandals is what you do when you’re a pious Jew leaving a Gentile dwelling.  You shake all that nasty, unclean, Gentile dust off your shoes before you return to your Jewish dwellings.  Here, Jesus is instructing them to do this when leaving the dwellings of other Jews.  Why?  Because it is faith in Christ that is drawing new dividing lines in Israel.  “Clean” and “unclean” are on their way to becoming categories that are no longer defined by the Law; they are defined by trust in Jesus.  This redrawing of the boundaries will be instrumental in including the Gentiles down the road, as Paul will forcefully argue in Galatians and Romans.

And what will become of such people?  They will fall in the coming judgement.  Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their immorality in the Old Testament.  Jesus says that those lands will be better off than unfaithful Israel when God’s judgement falls on their village.  The apocalypse, in other words, but the bad stuff.

This brings into focus the polarities that have been with us all through Matthew’s gospel – the outwardly pious law-abiding Jews who want nothing to do with what God is doing for Israel in Jesus, and the sinful, dirty, lost Jews who rejoice to see it.

One of these groups will go home justified.

Consider This

  1. What does the biblical focus on Israel mean for how Jews and Gentiles should see each other, today?  How does this play out for some of Paul’s concerns for the early churches?
  2. Is the concept of salvation in this passage a purely spiritual matter, or does it have a more holistic connotation?  How does this influence how we understand what it means to be “saved?”

The Twelve: Matthew 10:1-4

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

Matthew 10:1-4 (NRSV)

In terms of Matthew’s narrative, this is the first time so far we have a reference to the twelve apostles as we know them.

In Matthew 4, Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John – and that’s the group for several chapters.  Then we have the calling of Matthew in chapter 9.  We do not get specific “calling” stories for the others.  We don’t know if they gradually trickled in over time during the other chapters, or this passage is jumping over / summarizing a period of time where Jesus selected more.  Some of them, we hear virtually nothing about at all at any point in the gospel.

This is just interesting to me because we often put together a meta-gospel in our heads, and in this gospel, Jesus starts out alone, and then picks up twelve apostles in a chunk.  We don’t usually consider that this happens progressively over time with various pieces of Jesus’ ministry occurring without some of these people present.

The most obvious significance of there being twelve is that there are twelve tribes of Israel.  These men do not appear to be a single person from each of the tribes, but they are Israelites and there are twelve of them.  Having twelve is significant, as we can see from the apostles themselves.  When Judas dies, the first order of business is to replace him.  Why?  Because you need twelve.  They are the seed form, the first wave, the firstfruits of the gathering of the elect and the restoration of faithful Israel.

This passage follows Jesus’ observation that Israel needs a lot of deliverance, and he needs more workers.  This seems to be the first wave of response.  Jesus takes his disciples and gives them authority to heal and cast out demons.

It is important that this is portrayed, not simply as a transfer of supernatural ability, but of authority.  Probably the most direct illustration of the connection between Jesus’ authority and his ability to heal is the healing of the paralytic.  The healing is a demonstration of the fact that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, and the observers are in awe that this ability has been given to human beings.

Jesus as the Son of Man now delegates his authority to these twelve, and once he does, they are able to do as he does.  This gives us further insight into the significance of the healing and exorcism miracles – they are not primarily demonstrations of the supernatural power Jesus possesses but a demonstration of the authority God has invested in him.

And what is that authority?  The authority to forgive Israel’s sin and repeal the penalties.

Israel suffers under occupation and oppression because she broke her covenant with God and persisted even after multiple warnings, minor judgements, and prophetic pleading.  Her present situation is that curse.  She is under an oppressive, pagan nation where even the Temple is under their control.  She is dispersed.  She is in crippling poverty.  And as we have seen in Matthew, the evil spirits and the maladies they cause are the spiritual version of this oppression.  The demons and the Empire are two sides of the same coin.  All of this comes from the curse invoked by Israel’s sin.

But now, here is a man who claims to be sent from God.  This man announces forgiveness of sins to those who are contrite and will repent.  This man announces an end to the present system and a new life on the other side of it for all who will follow him in faithfulness.  And how do we know he isn’t just another false prophet full of himself?  Because the signs follow him.  People are healed.  Evil spirits are cast out.  These are the signs that the forgiveness of sins and the freedom of Israel from her curse has come, and Jesus is the man who is doing it.  This is good, good news for the lost sheep.

Everyone from the man who finds himself working land that used to belong to his family for generations but now belongs to a Sanhedrin because of crippling debt – to the little girl who convulses in the grip of mental and physiological forces beyond her control – to the widow who cannot afford to feed her children – to the orphaned young man who has heard in the synagogue of YHWH and wants to be faithful but cannot afford a sacrifice….

Lift up your heads, ye poor and downtrodden, for your redemption draweth nigh!  His name is Jesus.

And he gives this authority to his disciples, beginning a cascading chain of deliverance that will crash its way past the boundaries of the gospels, into Acts, and into the ends of the earth.

Consider This

  1. When we witness today someone being delivered from sickness, poverty, or spiritual oppression, what does that tell us about God’s disposition toward the world and the role of His servants in it?
  2. In what way are our good works a testimony?  What are we announcing to the world through our service?

Sunday Meditations: Application

If we take seriously the historical parameters of a passage, can it speak to us outside of that specific situation?

One of the advantages of an approach that pares away the historical particulars of a passage to get an abstract, “timeless” truth is that it’s very easy to drop that truth into virtually any situation.  If the point of the story of David and Goliath is “you’ll win all your battles, no matter how difficult, if you trust God,” then you can easily apply that truth to a wide variety of circumstances across time and individuals.  The actual experience of Israel in her battles would suggest that this truth needs to be at least a little conditional, but you see what I mean.

By peeling away the historical specifics of a passage to get to an abstraction, we now have fodder for both sermons and personal Bible reading.  And self-help books.  And greeting cards.  It’s easy.

Take, for instance, Jeremiah 29:11:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)

If we take this from the moorings of its particular historical situation, the text as a basic principle can easily be used to give comfort and optimism in all kinds of situations, ranging from high school graduation to a first job to buying a new house to planting a new church or even trying to decide on the right brand of peanut butter.  No matter who we are or what our situation is, God has plans for our welfare to give us a hopeful future.

A good question is, though, is there any good reason to assume this is what God intends for us to take away from this text?  Is this the reason it was included in the canon?  Did the faithful community receive this writing for this purpose – a repository for abstract truths with no particular referent?

If we look to the historical situation surrounding the text, this is a word from God to the exiles in Babylon.  Prophets are claiming to speak in YHWH’s name that their deliverance will come right away, and Jeremiah is out to correct this notion.  The deliverance will not come right away, but it will come.  Therefore, the exiles should make the best of their current situation and persevere in faithfulness, carrying with them the hope that their deliverance will come, because God has plans for Israel – plans for her welfare and a good future, and not her exile, assimilation, or destruction.

When we read Jeremiah 29:11 in its context, this begins to rock our boat a little, because clearly this text was meant for a particular group of people at a particular time, and by rights has no immediate relevance to anyone who isn’t an Israeli captive of Babylon in the time of Jeremiah’s words (or the following seventy years).

So, on the one hand, we have a way of looking at the text where the historical setting is just window dressing.  The actual meaning of the text has nothing to do with its original author or audience, transcends all historical particulars, and can be used for any situation that might in any sense fall under the umbrella of the abstract truth.

On the other hand, we have a way of looking at the text where the historical setting is like a concrete wall around the meaning.  Anyone who isn’t an Israelite captive of Babylon at that time is not the intended recipient of the text, and the text would have no meaning for anyone outside of that group.

Are these our only options?

I think we can get some direction from the New Testament use of the Old Testament.

It should be noted that, when talking to Gentiles, Paul and the Apostles (great band name) do not really appeal to the Old Testament.  They talk about things like unknown gods and what has been made clear in nature and truths expressed in pagan poetry – things with which the Gentiles have a point of reference.  It’s not that they never mention the Old Testament to Gentiles; it’s just that by far and away their use of the Old Testament is for specifically Jewish groups or letters to groups that have both Jew and Gentile in them.

Part of that may be explained by the simple fact that the Gentiles wouldn’t know the Old Testament, but I would guess a larger portion of that is explained by the fact that the Gentiles have no relationship to the Old Testament.  The Torah is not their covenant.  The kingdom was not their kingdom.  The temple was not their temple.  The exile was not their exile.  In a very real sense, the Old Testament does not apply to them in any kind of direct way.  Yet, the apostles will announce the good news of the kingdom and Jesus to them, and they come to believe and receive the Holy Spirit.

The reason I point this out is that it may very well be that we assume all biblical texts have to be relevant to us, but maybe that assumption is wrong.  Maybe it’s ok to say that a lot of that text just isn’t directly pertinent to our present circumstances, and it doesn’t have to be.

I don’t think we need to resign ourselves to that, but I do think we need to be ok with it.  The assumption that a text has something to say to us is just that – an assumption.  We need to let the Bible tell us what it has to say and to whom and not dictate that to the Bible in advance.

But when the New Testament does use the Old Testament, it does give us some windows into how a text might speak to other communities past its own boundaries.

Take, for instance, Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31:15.

I’m not going to repeat everything I said when I talked about that passage, but the upshot is that Jeremiah 31 (continuing the train of thought in Jeremiah 29, in fact) is about the destiny of the Babylonian exiles.  Ramah was the city where Israelite captives were processed and shipped off to Babylon.  The prophet uses the image of weeping in Ramah for having to witness the loss of Israel’s sons, but her weeping will come to an end when the Lord brings an end to the exile and brings the children back.

Matthew uses this passage to talk about Herod killing Israelite children in an attempt to preemptively murder the newborn King of the Jews.

From a strict historical boundary, this use does not make a lot of sense.  Ramah is not Bethlehem.  The Israelites in the exile were not being murdered.  And so on.

But it doesn’t work well from an abstract truth perspective, either.  Matthew does not take Jeremiah 31:15 as, “Whenever you are sad about something, God will help you,” and that’s why it applies to the story of Jesus’ birth.

The reason Matthew can use Jeremiah with a straight face is because he sees Israel in captivity, and Herod’s predations are a rather dramatic and literal removing of Israel’s sons by those in power.  This is a tragedy for Israel.  There is weeping.  But it is the weeping before the promised hope.  This is the tragedy that comes before deliverance.  Matthew sees an end to captivity that Jesus will bring, and so, for him, Jeremiah’s prophecy about Ramah is an ideal descriptor.  In fact, he is counting on his readers’ knowledge of the Ramah passage to get his meaning across.  He is importing the meaning of the Ramah prophecy and using it to explain Israel’s present circumstances in his writing.

Or take for example Jesus beginning to quote Psalm 22 from the cross (also in Matthew’s gospel).  If Psalm 22 could only possibly be about David’s experience as a beleaguered king of Israel, then this would not make sense.  David did not die on a cross, for instance.

However, the abstract truth tack doesn’t work well, either.  Jesus didn’t look at Psalm 22 and go, “Here’s a Psalm about feeling like God has left you.  We all feel that way, sometimes.  Well, that’s how I feel now, so I think I’ll quote it.”  And in that vein, I should add that Psalm 22 is not a prophecy of the crucifixion, either.  It’s not like Jesus is mentally thumbing through the Old Testament scriptures he hasn’t fulfilled yet and came up with Psalm 22.

Psalm 22 is about Israel’s king who, despite his faithfulness, is surrounded by enemies who seek his destruction.  He is thoroughly distraught over this.  But he remembers how God delivered him in the past, so he will remain faithful.  Because of this, God will save him, and future generations will proclaim it, and God will have dominion over all nations.  Even the dead will serve Him and generations yet unborn into the future.

It is this meaning that Jesus brings forward into his own circumstances.  He is Israel’s king who, despite his faithfulness, is distraught and surrounded by enemies.  It is he who is in dire straits.  But he remembers the faithfulness of God and will remain steadfast hoping in the help of the Lord.  God will save him, and countless future generations will proclaim it.  God will rule the nations.  Even the dead will rise up.

Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 is not independent of its historical meaning – it thoroughly depends on its historical meaning.  Once you understand what Psalm 22 means for David and Israel, then you are in a prime position to understand what it has to say in Jesus’ circumstances.

This is where I’m at so far on the issue of how biblical texts can speak into circumstances beyond their own.  If we can get our arms around what the text is communicating in its home environment, we can take that meaning and transpose it for circumstances beyond the original.  But that activity is grounded in the original meaning, not an abstraction.

So, Jeremiah 29:11?  Perhaps I might send that to a group of Chinese Christians in prison for having an underground church.  Perhaps I might remind them that their forefathers, too, were in captivity, and it looked hopeless, and they wanted with all their hearts to be released immediately.  But God made a way for them to be cared for in the present because of His plans for their future.  Not every Israelite saw that day, but that day came, nonetheless, and that hope was meant to sustain them in their captivity.

But as liberating as high school graduation might feel, I’m not sure I’m on solid ground applying Jeremiah to it.

Plentiful Harvest: Matthew 9:35-38

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Matthew 9:35-38 (NRSV)

Jesus has been going around to the synagogues teaching and healing, and at some point, the magnitude of his task hits him in a new way.  He sees the poor, broken, and oppressed and is moved to pity because they were “harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

There are several passages in the Old Testament that compare Israel’s leaders to shepherds, and there’s more than one that describes the piteous state of Israel at various times as sheep without a shepherd.  But probably the allusion that fits Matthew’s situation most directly is Ezekiel 34.  The entire chapter is dedicated to this metaphor.  Here’s how it 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. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Ezekiel 34:1-6 (NRSV)

The passage goes on to describe how YHWH will seek out and gather His lost sheep, and he will judge the sheep that have gotten fat and ravaged the flock.  He will save His sheep and deliver them from the rough places, using some images that are very resonant with Psalm 23.  And what will God do when He saves His sheep?

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

Ezekiel 34:23-24 (NRSV)

It is probably not a coincidence that, just a few verses ago, the blind men that Jesus heals proclaim him the “Son of David.”

Ezekiel 34 finishes with an idyllic picture where God ensures that no more harm will come to his flock, nor will they suffer at the hands of the nations, and the world will know that Israel is His people.

Jesus sees that this is the current state of affairs with Israel, and he is moved to compassion for them.  He wants to save them, and he laments that there are so many that need saving but so few people who will work to save them.  He then commissions his disciples to spread out and, only to Israel, proclaim the good news that the kingdom has come, healing the sick and casting out demons as Jesus has been doing.  They join him as co-laborers in rescuing the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

The expansion of Jesus’ efforts to save Israel will not end here.  More disciples will be sent, and after his ascension, the Spirit is poured out, and Judean fishermen discover that they, too, are prophets and healers and exorcists, bringing the kingdom of God, warning of the impending judgement, and calling the lost sheep to repentance and salvation.

This is what Jesus prayed for and what he asks those who have joined him to pray for.  The time for saving his people is now, but the amount of work is vast.  Jesus is just one person.  As busy as he is, he can only heal so many people, cast out so many demons, teach so many people, warn so many people.  His prayers are answered by the apostles and, a little later, more disciples.  It is through the participation of these laborers that God sets up one shepherd over them.

The image of harvest is also one that Jesus will use to talk about his mission.  In Jesus’ parables, Israel is a vineyard that had been given to certain tenants to watch over, but these tenants were irresponsible and did not produce fruit for the landlord.  The landlord sends representatives to these tenants and, finally, his own son.  All are rejected by the tenants, and the son himself is killed.  The landlord puts the tenants to death and gives the vineyard over to others, and the stone that was rejected becomes the cornerstone.

Here, we see Jesus as the good shepherd.  We see him as the cornerstone.  We see him as the faithful caretaker replacing Israel’s former caretakers with caretakers of his own choosing, and the caretakers will not take this lying down.

As with many things in the New Testament, these events are long past.  The wicked shepherds have been judged.  The evil tenants have been driven out.  The sheep have been placed under their one shepherd.  Those things that were future events to Ezekiel and current or near-future events for Jesus are past events to us.

Yet the ravages that plagued Israel still plague the creation in some form or another.  If we look beyond the immediate New Testament story of Israel and the nations as they knew them, we see a creation full of people suffering who have no one looking out for them.  God has demonstrated in history that He will keep His promises not simply through the heroic efforts of Jesus, but by the Spirit-empowered ministry of Joseph Israelite and Jerry Gentile.  This shepherd is still our shepherd.  This king is still our Lord.  His God is still our God.  His Spirit is still our Spirit.

And what are we doing with our gifts and our privileged state of affairs?  What are we to be about if not blessing the nations?  What are we supposed to be if not inhabitants of the New Creation in the midst of this one?  And at the boundaries – at the points of intersection of this world and the next – what else should be happening if not forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and peace?

Care, in other words.

Consider This

  1. Living a life in service to God means, at least in part, being a servant to all.  In what capacity can you serve your corner of the world?

Satan vs. Satan: Matthew 9:32-34

After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.”

Matthew 9:32-34 (NRSV)

Here is yet another story that brings up the same elements we’ve seen throughout this chain of healing stories as well as some earlier healing stories in Matthew.  I’m not going to rehash them; you’re welcome to look at previous entries to see fuller developments of these themes.

But in the interest of having pointed them out, in this passage, we see:

  • A medical affliction and a demonic affliction being presented as the same thing
  • The liberation of Israel from her oppressors and a glimpse of new creation
  • Evidence that Jesus is the hoped for Jewish Messiah

These are big themes, important and central to Matthew’s gospel, but I don’t want to keep repeating the same things over and over, so I do encourage you to look back over the last few days’ worth of entries and/or the links above to some entries further back if you’re interested in seeing these discussed in greater detail.

One unique thing that gets thrown into this story is the reaction of the Pharisees who claim that Jesus can only cast out demons because the “ruler of demons” empowers him to do so.  In other words, they posit a sort of scam where the demons really want to enslave people, so they choose a champion and make it look like he’s casting them out.  People will follow this man, seeing that he is setting people free from demons and healing their afflictions, but the demons get the last laugh because Jesus is really their man and people are actually being led further down the path to enslavement.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus will turn their accusation into an apocalyptic declaration of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.  Here, Matthew just lets it lay where it is, possibly because he wants to underscore unbelieving Israel in contrast to the believing, getting healed Israel.  You have one group of people who is broken, needy, humbled, suffering, and oppressed, and they come to Jesus fully believing he can deliver them, and he does.  You have another group that is actually doing very well for itself, thank you very much, and they do not believe Jesus, and they actively work against him.

These two groups of people are pivotal in Matthew’s gospel and, in fact, form the bulk of the issues raised in the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s not surprising to find Matthew drawing those lines here as well.

But if I could allow myself a bit of extrabiblical speculation, one has to wonder about the logic the Pharisees are employing, here.

By Matthew’s account, Jesus is healing and casting out demons all over the place, wherever he goes, so much so that Matthew has to just summarize the activity, sometimes.  One wonders how a group of people could plausibly claim this was an elaborate plot by the demons themselves when the results seem so plentiful and relentlessly effective.

In theory, the principle works.  This is the whole deal behind undercover agents or double agents.  You appear to be working for one entity when the reality is your allegiance belongs to another entity.  You are earning loyalty and credibility only so that you can ultimately foil the entity that you appear to be working for.

But talk about your deep cover!  The magnitude of destruction Jesus is wreaking on the devil’s works is unheard of in Israel.  This would be like a Russian double agent in the Cold War permanently disabling all the nuclear silos in Russia to win the trust of the Americans.  It’s hard to imagine how this level of damage done in the name of “faking it” could justify the outcome of “fooling people.”  In fact, at that level, you’re not even really fooling people.  Wherever your professed loyalties might be, you’ve effectively neutralized the people you’re supposed to be working for, which is pretty much the goal of the opposing side.  Whatever you might tell yourself, the victory that you’ve handed over to America would be so comprehensive that you are, functionally, a pro-American agent.  It would be difficult to imagine what sort of damage you could do to America at that point that would make the whole exercise worthwhile.

Jesus seems to think this, too, at least in his defense in Luke, which boils down to, “If this is all a ruse by the devil, it is the stupidest plan ever.”  But no, it is not a ruse; it is the sign that the kingdom of God has come in their midst.

All this makes me think a couple of things.  Once again, these are my own thoughts inspired by the biblical text but are not actually present in the text.

First, there is an irony here, because what the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of – being a double agent – is actually how most of Israel’s religious leaders are portrayed in Matthew.  They outwardly appear to be loyal to God and His people, but in secret, their hearts belong to the present world order.  Their works actually are a ruse, when the reality is that they’re doing fine for themselves and are quite content for the world to chug along as it has been.  #NotAllPharisees, of course, but it’s still a dominant theme in Matthew.  And when the pressure is on, they run to their real allies – the Roman occupational force – and they tip their hand for the world to see.  They will destroy the healer of Israel through their alliance with the Roman Empire, thus showing that they never had the people’s interests at heart to begin with, but rather their own power and prosperity.  The facade will come crashing down in a way that’s undeniable to Matthew at least.

Second, I cannot count the number of times over the years that a Christian has described something as “demonic” that is actually destroying the works of the devil.  Whether it is a theology or a practice or a group of people (Charismatics get hit with this a lot, but they also hit everyone else with it a lot, so….), there are many times when someone is actually doing something that heals disease, helps people out of addiction, brings people out of poverty, promotes peace and an end to conflict – things that embody the new creation and a kingdom of shalom that get written off as some secret plot of the devil or just overtly ascribed to demonic activity.

I would say that those claims are very much like the claims of the Pharisees in Matthew 9 in the sense that behind them is this: someone who is not us is doing good.

In first century Jerusalem, the Temple is where you go to get sins forgiven, get prayed for, and if there’s to be any miraculous signs of God’s presence, it happens there in those walls.  Here’s this Jesus strutting around forgiving sins and healing people as if the Temple doesn’t matter.  Or, more directly, as if the people who derive their authority, status, and livelihoods from the Temple are not strictly necessary.  And whether it’s work or religion or government – as soon as you suggest that the official structures are not necessary, the hammer will come down.

People in other denominations, people with different theologies, people with different traditions, even people with different religions or no religion at all – these people all can and do work against the principalities and powers of this age, and they undo the works of the devil, whether they would see it in those terms or not.  We should probably be very careful to denounce those things as schemes of the devil.  We might find that our established conceptions of what God can and cannot do and who He can and cannot use will put us on the wrong side of what He’s actually doing.

Consider This

  1. What groups do you consider a “threat” who are doing good in the world?  Why do you consider them a threat?  What are you afraid is going to happen, and what are your reasons for believing that will happen?
  2. When you are baptized in an Anglican church, they ask if you “renounce the devil and all his works.”  What are the works of the devil?  What does it mean for your life to renounce them?

Sunday Meditations: Ruler of the Nations

Lord, the world today does not look much like Jesus is king.

While we see flashes of compassion, many nations are ruled the way they’ve always been ruled.  Ambitious people have sought power and received it.  They do the things that keep them in power and avoid the things that they fear will make them lose it.  They marshal money, forces of arms, and harness the selfishness of others to enforce their will and put themselves at the top.

All of this operates at smaller scales as well.  Cities, corporations, families, and individuals are all possessed by these spirits.  They have become vessels for principalities and powers, and they have broken the world, and pain and death have followed after.  These are not tragic exceptions, but the norm.

Your people have turned to idols, worshiping the gods of this world and their prophets.  There is very little difference in the things that we love, fear, and protect than anyone else.  We, too, follow after Mammon.  We, too, have rallied to protect our own interests even at the expense of others.  We have given our allegiance to nations who have no intention of reflecting your kingdom, but are kingdoms in their own right.  We have promoted people and agendas and loved them and served them.  We have wanted power.  We have wanted our way.  We have condemned and ostracized.  We have shunned the needy for our own greed.  We have loved violence.  We have pushed to swell our numbers by conversion while spreading fear of faithful works.  We have loved celebrity.  We have established dynasties.  We have done all these things in the name of observing Your laws.

And I am possessed by these spirits.  I am not better than my brothers or sisters.  I have loved my own reputation.  I have put my comfort above any other considerations.  I have hoarded my wealth.  I have hoarded my time.  I have hoarded my love.  I have torn people down and drawn lines in the sand to ostracize them.  I have sought to establish myself by my own powers.  I have admired what the world admires.  I have fretted about how I might appear in the eyes of others.  Many times, my meditations are on the things that pass away.  Powers rule my life without my even thinking about them.

So it has been for some time, and to look around, it does not appear to be slackening.

And yet, how long was Israel beset by her enemies?  How long was she ruled by principalities and powers that were idolatrous?  How long did the faithful wait for a day they hoped for, but died before seeing?

And today, of all days, I remember how you brought Israel back to life.  You are a god who keeps promises.

And so I wait in hope, as well.  I may die before I see the day.  My children my grow old and die before they see the day.  And their children.  And their children.  I do not know if I will find the tomb empty tomorrow, but I hope, because I trust.

I believe in your promises and long for the renewal of the world.  I dedicate my life to that testimony, if You will but show me how to live it in my own little corner of it and give me the strength you gave to my forefathers who died with Your witness on their lips.  If You will grant me the fidelity that survives wars and poverty and disease.  I will trust You, even if I die.

Strengthen me.  Strengthen my brothers and my sisters.  Bring this world system to a close and replace it with the creation You have shown our prophets in their wildest dreams.  Raise us from the dead at the end of such faith and faithfulness for Your name’s sake.  For this, in the midst of the assembly, I praise Your name.

Blind Men: Matthew 9:27-31

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” And their eyes were opened. Then Jesus sternly ordered them, “See that no one knows of this.” But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.

Matthew 9:27-31 (NRSV)

This is a story that appears in all four Gospels with some pretty decent variances.  It’s not my intent to try to reconcile these variances into one MegaStory that reflects what “really” happened.  I am not interested in that, and I stand a very good chance of missing what Matthew is trying to tell me by trying to somehow make his account mesh with the others.  What’s more, I would basically be saying that the purpose of a gospel is to give me an objective biography of Jesus’ life, such that discrepancies between the gospels are now problems to be solved instead different takes on the stories to bring out certain truths of particular interest to the author.

Instead, I’d like to look at some choices Matthew makes and why he might have told this story the way he did.

Matthew puts this story in a chain of healing stories.  In this, he follows Mark, although the chain is not quite the same.  Luke and John have this story occurring in the midst of other things.  In Matthew, this chain is headed by a story where Jesus announces a new, eschatological era has come upon Israel that should usher in celebration, and yet there are overtones that there are hard times, ahead.

As I’ve pointed out several times before, the healings and exorcisms are like huge, neon signs for Matthew that Jesus is the expected Messiah.

In the 30s of Isaiah, the prophet urges Israel to remain faithful despite their impending war with Assyria.  Instead, they should trust in God for their deliverance.  Isaiah predicts that Israel will be ruled in peace by a righteous king.  The prophet paints a picture of the destruction of their enemies in staggering terms involving eternal flames and stars being destroyed, and this is contrasted with the prosperity of Israel under her new king.  And then we get to Isaiah 35, where the faithful retake Jerusalem in a blissful reign that even the other nations are envious of, and in the midst of this, we see:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

Isaiah 35:5-6 (NRSV)

This is, in fact, the exact passage Jesus quotes to John the Baptist when John is in Herod’s prison and sends a message to Jesus asking if he is the expected Messiah.

Matthew clearly sees Jesus as this Messiah and wants his readers to know Jesus is this Messiah, too.  He is the man who fulfills the expectation of God delivering Israel from her enemies and ushering in a reign of peace and prosperity.

But where is the sign of this?  Well, one of the signs is that Jesus is healing people and casting out demons.  For Matthew, this is a strong apologetic that Jesus is the Messiah that Israel has been looking for.

This is another instance where Matthew has two people where the other gospels only posit one.  Matthew does this a number of times.  We don’t know why.  Some have thought that, since Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, having two witnesses is important to him, and that explanation sounds as good to me as anything.

Also, like the other healing miracles, the faith of the men is key to the outcome.  Jesus does not just waltz up and heal them.  He asks if they believe that he can do this.  It is through their trust that they are delivered, and this is a controlling paradigm for how Matthew’s Jesus approaches Israel.  This Jesus is issuing warnings about judgement and offering a way out.  Do you trust him?  Do you believe he can save you?  That will be the hinge that makes the difference between an Israel with faith who survives the coming calamity and a faithless Israel who will perish in it.

Finally, we see Jesus telling them not to tell anyone, so of course they tell everyone.  Here, as in other places, we see Jesus (through Matthew’s eyes) being sensitive to the timing and progress of his work.  Most likely, this is driven out of a concern for the survivability of the mission.  Despite what some of our well-intentioned songs might say, Jesus did not come to die.  He came to accomplish a mission that (almost) ended with him dying and inevitably involved him dying.  But dying was not the mission.  The recovery of the lost sheep of Israel was the mission.

If word gets out too fast to the wrong people, the forces that will inevitably move against Jesus will begin, and once those gears start turning, there’s no stopping them until Jesus is crushed between them.  In Matthew’s gospel, as in others, we see a sensitivity on Jesus’ part to timing and who knows what when.  Ultimately, Jesus’ death will be presented to us as a willing, planned decision on his part, not the random forces of history that spun up in response to him.  He is not presented to us as an unwilling victim who fell on hard times, but rather a man with a plan, and controlling the revelation of his works is part of the unfolding of that plan.

Ah, but the best laid plans of mice, men, and Messiahs, eh?  These men tell everyone, and perhaps Jesus knew that might happen, too.  Perhaps it is partially because of this that Jesus’ next steps in Matthew are to send followers out to villages to announce his coming.  The cat’s out of the bag, after all.

And what of you, reader, who sees Matthew’s Messiah?  Does he look like the deliverer of Israel to you?  Does this prophet and healer elicit feelings of trust and belief, or does he elicit feelings of scorn?  Do you believe in what God was doing in Jesus Christ so long ago?  Does this move you to trust this God?  Or are these reasons to simply let these stories pass us by of one more rabbi in ancient Judea who lived and died and time marched on as it always has?

Matthew wants his readers to believe.  Do you?

Consider This

  1. Isaiah is full of imagery about ancient Israel’s situations and expectations that the New Testament will later use to describe Jesus.  What are some other passages?  Is the scorn and rejection some felt for Jesus also apparent in those passages?
  2. What do you believe about who Jesus was?  Was he Israel’s Messiah?  What does that say about God’s promises?