The Resurrection: Mark 16:1-8

March 30th, 2013 No comments


The Resurrection

1When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

The resurrection of Jesus is, of course, reported in all four gospels. It’s the central doctrine of our faith, and without it, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Corinthians 15:14) See my posts on Matthew’s account of it here and Luke’s here. The Jewish Sabbath is from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. So the women were able to buy the spices they intended to use on Jesus’ body on Saturday night, but they couldn’t go to the tomb to do their work until Sunday morning, when it was light enough. I believe that Mary the mother of James was Mary the mother of Jesus. Jesus had a brother named James, who wrote the book of James. The job of treating bodies for burial was the responsibility of the closest family members. So it would make sense that Jesus’ mother would be among those who went to the tomb. Many Biblical scholars also believe that the myrrh that the Magi left when they visited the Christ child was intended for use at his burial. I can imagine Mary carrying this container of myrrh that she had saved for over 30 years to the tomb, finally expecting to use it, but never being able to! If this Mary was Jesus’ mother, why didn’t Mark say so? Matthew calls her the mother of James and Joseph (Matthew 27:56). We know Jesus had brothers other than James. It’s entirely likely that Jesus had a brother named after his father. The gospel writers often mentioned people by name because they were known in the early church. James was the head of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:12-21), and Jesus’ other brothers also became believers after the resurrection (Acts 1:14). Maybe that’s why this Mary was identified in this way. Salome was the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27:56). Mary Magdalene was a devoted follower of Jesus, and also a financial supporter (Luke 8:1-3).

As they went to the tomb, they wondered who would roll the stone away from the entrance for them, since it was too big and heavy for them to move. The disciples must still have been afraid to go there for fear of arrest by the Roman guard, which should still have been there, guarding the tomb. They had placed a Roman seal on it, which only they had the authority to remove. So the women must have been hoping the soldiers would move the stone for them, so they could complete the anointing of Jesus’ body. These were the same women who had witnessed the crucifixion and Jesus’ burial.

When the women came on the scene, the tomb was open and the guards were either unconscious or gone. I can’t help but wonder if one or more of the guards were converted as a result of this experience. We know now that the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire was greatly helped by believers in the Roman army. At least four Roman soldiers witnessed the resurrection of Christ. How could they help but be changed by that experience?

4But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

6“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ “

8Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

When the women arrived, they saw that they didn’t have to worry about who would help them roll the stone away. It had already been done. The stone had been rolled away, not so that Jesus could escape (we know from John 20:19 that Jesus in his resurrected body could pass through solid walls), but so that others could enter the tomb and see that he had risen. The fact that neither the women nor the disciples were expecting this shows how little they understood of what Jesus had been telling them. How many times had he told them he would rise again on the third day? We are often surprised by miracles. Why should we be surprised when a miracle happens if we say we believe in a miracle working God?

Mark says they were alarmed when they found the entrance to the tomb open. John says that Mary Magdalene thought Jesus’ body had been stolen (John 20:2, 13). What would you think if you went to the grave of a loved one and found the grave open and their body missing? Instead of the body of Jesus, they found an angel. The angel identified who they were looking for, as if they might think they went to the wrong tomb. He not only told them Jesus was risen, he showed them the place where his body was laid. These same women had followed Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and had observed his burial two days before (Mark 15:47). They had seen where they laid his body. So by showing them this place, the angel proved the resurrection to them. This started a long series of physical evidence given to prove the resurrection of Jesus.

When the angel showed them the place where Jesus’ body was laid, they saw the grave clothes in which Jesus had been wrapped. John gives a detailed description of them. From the appearance of the grave clothes, it was obvious that the body had not been stolen. If it had been, the thieves would not have unwrapped the body first, nor would they have taken the trouble to fold up the cloth “by itself, separate from the linen,” as John describes (John 20:6-7). Since John made a point of describing the grave clothes, and said that he saw and believed at that point (John 20:8), I have had the belief for decades that Jesus left them that way for a specific reason. I believe that when Jesus rose, he folded his grave clothes the way he had always folded his clothes during his life. I believe he left them that way for John’s benefit, because John was his best friend. John would see the grave clothes folded the way only Jesus would have done it, and would know Jesus was alive, because he had traveled and lived with Jesus for three years. John had seen Jesus fold his clothes that way many times.

But I also believe that Jesus must also have done this for his mother’s benefit. It would have been Mary who taught Jesus to fold his bed clothes neatly every morning when he got up. Mary was one of the first to see the place where Jesus was laid. She saw the grave clothes folded the way she had taught her son to do. She must have known he was alive the moment she saw that. Of course, I know this is all just speculation. But you can’t prove me wrong! Mary also had personal experience with angels. She knew that what they said was always true. Her son was risen.

In verse 7, Peter is singled out from the rest of the disciples. Some think he was no longer considered a disciple at that point because he had denied Christ, and had not yet been restored. I think it may be that, since this is really Peter’s gospel, it’s not that the angel didn’t want to count him among the disciples right then, it’s that Peter himself did not want to be considered a true disciple before Jesus restored him. It’s interesting to me that the angel singled Peter out to be notified of Jesus’ resurrection. None of the others were mentioned by name. Even when we have failed Christ miserably, he seeks us out personally and calls us by name in order to restore us to him.

Though Mark says that the women said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid, some manuscripts add, “Then they quickly reported all these instructions to those around Peter.” We know from the other gospels that the women did report that Jesus was risen to Peter and the other disciples, and that Peter and John went and saw the empty tomb for themselves, as I discussed earlier. It appears that the last part of Mark’s gospel was lost somehow, and that’s why the version we have ends rather abruptly.

There is some controversy regarding the rest of Mark’s account. The NIV says “the earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20.” But most of what is written there is corroborated in the other gospels. The other gospels have much more detail regarding the resurrection of Jesus than Mark does. We know that Jesus appeared to his disciples and showed them his scars. (Luke 24:37-40) He knew they would need that kind of proof to be able to endure the persecution that lay ahead for them. Most people will not endure torture and death for what they know is a lie. The martyrdom of the Apostles proves that Jesus really is risen. The historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection is undeniable. He is risen indeed!

The Crucifixion: Mark 15:21-38

March 29th, 2013 No comments


The Crucifixion

21A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). 23Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

The crucifixion of Jesus, of course, appears in all four gospels. See my post on Matthew’s account of it here, and Luke’s here. Crucifixion was not invented by the Romans, but they perfected it as an instrument of torture and intimidation. The use of crucifixion as a method of execution goes back to the Assyrian Empire in Old Testament times. Alexander the Great also employed crucifixion on the people he conquered. Crucifixion took many different forms, from simple impaling on a spike to the more familiar form the Romans used, but all forms of crucifixion had one thing in common; they all involved hanging a victim from a piece of wood or a tree while they were still alive, and allowing them to die a slow, horrible death while hanging helplessly. It wasn’t just about execution. If all the Romans wanted to do was kill someone, they could simply behead him, as they did John the Baptist (Matthew 14:9-10, blog).

By now we all know that the condemned did not carry the entire cross, which would have weighed upwards of 800 pounds. The traditional images we see are wrong. It’s not physically possible to drag a piece of wood that heavy for that long, especially after having been flogged. Instead, the uprights of the crosses were left in the ground, and the condemned had to carry the crossbeam, which was tied to their arms, across the backs of their shoulders. By the time Jesus was supposed to carry his cross, the soldiers had abused him to the point that he was too weak to carry it, or even to walk. Mark 15:20 says they led him, but two verses later, they had to bring him. Typically, the condemned had to carry the crossbar, which was tied to their arms. They were marched though the streets carrying crossbeams that weighed from 75 to 125 pounds. With Jesus incapacitated, the soldiers had to force someone else to carry his cross. No Roman would carry it for him, and if they forced a local Jew to carry it, it could start a riot. So they forced a stranger to do it. Many speculate that Simon was chosen by the soldiers because, being from northern Africa, he may have had black skin. But there were Jews living all over the empire at that time, so we don’t really know what Simon looked like. He may have been a pilgrim from Cyrene, a convert to Judaism in Jerusalem for Passover, or he may have been a Jew living in Cyrene. Roman soldiers could compel a Jew to do just about anything, and it might just have been chance that Simon was grabbed from the crowd.

It’s not remarkable to me that we know someone was forced to carry Jesus’ cross, but it is remarkable to me that we know not only his name, but his sons’ names, and where they were from. Why would Mark have made sure his readers knew this? Many scholars believe that Simon of Cyrene’s son, Rufus, is the same Rufus mentioned in Romans 16:13. He was a Christian, known in the early church. Since his other son, Alexander, is also mentioned, it seems likely their whole family became Christians, perhaps converted because of this experience.

They offered him wine mixed with myrrh. This was an anesthetic, intended to dull the pain. The women of Jerusalem had adopted this practice in obedience to the admonition in Proverbs 31:6-7. But Jesus refused it. Maybe he did not want to dull the agony. but to continue to suffer for us. It’s also possible that, in his fragile state, he thought if he took the narcotic mixture, he would pass out, and he needed to remain conscious until all was accomplished. Maybe it was both.

They crucified him. Jagged spikes were driven through his feet and hands or wrists. His back, torn open from the scourging, scraped against the upright of the cross every time he tried to breathe. Death by crucifixion was a long, slow, horrible way to die. It took hours, and sometimes days. Insects would light on the faces and eyes of the condemned, and birds of prey would peck at them. Usually victims of crucifixion died by suffocation, since they had to push themselves up to breathe, and every time they did, they had to push against the nails driven through their feet and scrape their torn back against the rough wood of the cross.

The gospels never actually describe what crucifixion was like. They assumed their readers knew all about it. But the images we see in art are almost certainly wrong. There probably was no platform to stand upon. Instead, the feet were nailed to the upright in one of two ways. They placed one foot over the other on the front of the upright and used one nail to affix both feet to it, through the top of the feet, if they wanted a quicker death. If they wanted more prolonged suffering, they placed the feet one on each side of the upright and pounded a long spike through the heel bones and the upright. The victims could support themselves longer on the cross when that method was used. Because the crucifixion of Jesus took place during Passover, and they needed the victims to die quicker, they probably used the former method with Jesus.

The arms were usually simply tied with rope to the crossbar. Nails were not always used on the hands or wrists. They were not needed, and nails were expensive. The only reason to use nails on the hands or arms was to increase the agony of the victim. It was cruelty, pure and simple. The debate over whether the nails went through Jesus’ hands or wrists is meaningless. It wasn’t the nails that held him up, it was the rope.

They divided his clothes. When you see a picture of Christ on the cross, or see it in a movie, Jesus is wearing a loin cloth. But that is only the modesty of the artist, or the movie studio trying to avoid an NC-17 rating. Jesus was crucified naked, as all who were crucified were. This was one more form of humiliation of the Jews by the Romans. Under Jewish law, stoning victims were permitted a loin cloth, but the Romans did not have the moral objections to public nudity that the Jews had. Their athletes competed naked in the public arenas, so to crucify criminals naked was no big deal to them. It was just another way to intimidate those who would commit crimes against Rome.

25It was the third hour when they crucified him. 26The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. 27They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left.[a] 29Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30come down from the cross and save yourself!”

31In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! 32Let this Christ,[b] this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

Taunting and mocking the condemned was common in the ancient world. It was part of the humiliation and shame of crucifixion. This behavior has been common throughout the history of public executions, including public hangings and beheadings in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. It seems that the false witnesses who leveled the charge that Jesus had promised to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days at his trial (Matthew 26:60-61) were there at his crucifixion, repeating the same thing. They had misquoted him at his trial, and they stuck to their story at his execution. If you repeat a lie enough, it starts to sound like the truth.

I also wonder if the ones who said these things realized that they were fulfilling prophecy. Psalm 22:7-8 says:

7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the LORD,” they say,
“let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

John tells us that Pilate wrote and placed the sign over Jesus’ head (John 19:19-22). But it wasn’t a confession of his Lordship, it was a public notice of the charge against him. Of all the insults that were heaped on Jesus as he hung on the cross, the most revealing is what the religious leaders said about him in verse 31. They admitted that he saved others. The whole city and region were littered with those Jesus had healed and saved from death, yet they still did not believe in him. By throwing this insult at Jesus, they were actually condemning themselves. Those who have seen first hand what Jesus can do, but still refuse to believe are without excuse, and will receive the harshest judgment. There was good reason the people Jesus was most critical of during his ministry were the very religious. We in the church have to keep that in our minds all the time. If we spend our whole lives hearing the gospel preached and seeing the change Jesus makes in people’s lives, but still fail to really believe, we are truly lost.

The Death of Jesus

33At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[c]

Now we come to the key moment in Jesus’ life, the moment for which he came. The moment when he drank the cup of his Father’s wrath for all of us, and became the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Many have supposed that the darkness at noon which happened at the crucifixion was a solar eclipse. Luke says that the sun stopped shining (Luke 23:45). But solar eclipses don’t last for three hours, and Passover is always held during a full moon. A total solar eclipse is impossible during a full moon, so this was something else. Besides, solar eclipses don’t last for three hours. But something blocked the light of the sun for three whole hours that day, and it wasn’t just a local event. It was seen all the way in Rome. The Roman historian Phlegon recorded this:

“In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (the same time that Jesus was crucified), there was an extraordinary eclipse of the sun: at the sixth hour, the day turned into dark night, so that the stars in heaven were seen; and there was an earthquake.”

Whatever it actually was, physically, many scholars believe it was the universe reflecting God. God turned away from his Son. He couldn’t look upon him because he became sin for us. Jesus had to experience God’s wrath for the sin of the world while on the cross. I mention some other theories about the darkness at noon in my post on Luke’s version of the death of Jesus in Luke 23:44-49. You can also see my post on Matthew’s account of the death of Jesus here. Some theologians believe, as it says in the Apostle’s Creed, that Jesus descended into hell when he died in order to defeat hell at the resurrection. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that hell is separation from God, and Jesus experienced complete separation from God for three hours while being crucified. That sounds like hell to me.

When Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, he wasn’t complaining that God had turned his back on him. He was quoting Psalm 22, which is prophecy of his death on the cross. He was declaring that prophecy fulfilled. Read Psalm 22 and see how it describes both the agony of Jesus on the cross, and also the victory he won with that sacrifice.

35When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

When Jesus cried, “Eloi”, some there thought he said “Eli,” and they either ignored or didn’t hear the rest. If they were Roman soldiers, that’s understandable, since their Aramaic was probably not that good. They would also have missed the fact that Jesus was quoting scripture. And it appears to me they were drunk. The wine vinegar they offered him was different than the wine mixed with myrrh that was offered to him as an anesthetic. This sour wine was a soldier’s ration, and also a common drink among laborers because it was cheap. I can’t prove this, but I imagine that the soldiers who scourged and abused Jesus drank while they did it, and got deeper into a drunken stupor while they tortured him. Alcohol breaks down inhibitions, and those who may have pangs of guilt for doing those things would be able to desensitize themselves by getting drunk. Drunkenness makes the mean even meaner. Once Jesus was helpless on the cross, I can see one of the soldiers offering Jesus some of the sour wine they had been sharing, as if to say, “See, we’re not such bad guys.”

37With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and[d] saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son[e] of God!”

See my post on Matthew’s account of the curtain being torn and the centurion’s reaction to Jesus’ death here. Most victims of crucifixion were exhausted or unconscious when they died. They died of suffocation, and when you’re suffocating, you can’t cry out. I have stated in other posts on the death of Jesus (as have many others) that this shows that no one took Jesus’ life from him, that he was in control of when and how he died. This is an elegant thought, but unsupported by scripture. There is, however, medical evidence in the gospels to indicate exactly what caused Jesus’ death. See my conclusions about what caused Jesus’ death here, in my post on the death of Jesus in Matthew. Some say that Roman soldier became a believer at that moment, since what he said can be taken as a confession of Christ. That seems like a stretch to me, but verse 39 does say he heard his cry and saw how Jesus died. That was when he said what he did. He experienced darkness at noon for three hours, and earthquakes. Then when he heard Jesus cry out when he should not have had the strength, and die the way he did, he knew this was more than just a man. If we can somehow hear Jesus’ cry and see how he died, it will have a profound effect on us.

Matthew and Luke also tell us that the curtain in the temple was torn in two when Jesus died (Matthew 27:51, blog, Luke 23:45, blog). But only Matthew mentions the earthquake, and he and Mark add the detail that the curtain was torn from top to bottom. The veil or curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place in the temple (Exodus 26:31-35) was large (60 feet long and 30 feet wide), and as thick as a man’s hand. I’ve always pictured the invisible hand of God tearing the veil in two from the top down. But it’s also possible that the earthquake caused the fall of one of the lintels that held the curtain up, starting the tear at the top. Josephus, the Talmud, and others do describe a catastrophe of this type in the sanctuary at this time. They took it as a sign of the coming destruction of the temple. But Christians see it as a sign that we can all now enter into the presence of God. We don’t need a High Priest to approach God for us. Jesus is our High Priest. (Hebrews 9) Like the darkness at noon, this earthquake was not just a local event. It too was felt and reported all the way in Rome.

Not long before, the Pharisees had demanded that Jesus provide a sign from heaven to prove that he was the Messiah. The kinds of miracles Jesus had been performing were, in the minds of the religious leadership, confined “to the earth.” Healings, exorcisms, and the like were considered signs on earth. Tradition held that a sign done on earth could be a counterfeit from Satan, but signs done from heaven (in or from the sky) were assumed to be from God. Jesus refused to give them a sign of that type then, because if he had done so, they would have accepted him as Messiah, and tried to make him king. He never would have been crucified, and none of us could be saved. The only sign Jesus promised to give them was the sign of Jonah, the sign of his resurrection (Matthew 16:1-4, blog).

But once Jesus was on the cross, everyone there got more signs from heaven than they wanted to see. First, the sky grew dark from noon until 3:00 PM. Then, at the moment of Jesus’ death, an earthquake. The curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. And at his resurrection, many holy people were raised from their graves to testify about him (Matthew 27:52-53). Now that Jesus’ mission on earth was accomplished, signs from God were everywhere, but the leadership still did not believe. They could not accept a Messiah who had allowed himself to die such a shameful death, and they certainly would not accept that God had replaced the system that had made them so powerful. If Jesus had caused darkness at noon, an earthquake, and revival of many holy people from the dead when the Pharisees had asked for a sign, I think they would have accepted him as Messiah then, because in their minds, the temple would have become even more powerful with a Messiah King on the throne. But to accept him as Messiah after his death and resurrection, even with all of the signs they had seen, would mean they would lose all of the power they thought they had. Do we believe in a Jesus who is only there to give us what we want, or the one who tells us to take up our cross and follow him?

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The Scourging Of Jesus: Mark 16:16-20

March 28th, 2013 No comments


The Soldiers Mock Jesus

16The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!”

The physical abuse of Jesus now began in earnest. The beating he had endured from the temple guard was minor compared to what he suffered at the hands of the Roman soldiers. Only Matthew and Mark record this part of Jesus’ suffering. Both Luke and John skipped over this part. Not that I blame them. It’s very unpleasant. See my post on Matthew’s account of this here. This passage really should begin with the latter part of verse 15: He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

I touched on the scourging of Jesus in my last post, but we should examine this part of our Lord’s suffering more closely, unpleasant though it is. If it’s hard for us to think about, imagine how hard it was for him to experience. Normally, two Roman soldiers took turns flogging their victim. Recent scientific studies on the effects of scourging show that it resulted not only in surface wounds to the back, but it also bruised the lungs and kidneys. After scourging, the victim’s back was left a mass of exposed muscle and tissue, which bled profusely.

Part of the purpose of flogging was to elicit a confession. If the accused confessed to the charges against him, the blows would lessen in severity or stop. But Jesus had no crimes to confess to, and remained silent. So his flogging went on at full strength. Keep in mind that Jesus had not slept for at least 24 hours. He was already in a weakened physical state from exhaustion and the beating he had taken at the hands of the temple guard. He had had nothing to eat or drink since his arrest. The 39 lashes with the jagged whips must have put him in a state of shock, and he certainly lost a lot of blood. The severity of floggings in the Roman Empire varied based upon the mood of the soldiers involved, and it seems that Jesus was dealt a particularly severe flogging here. We can gather that from the descriptions here and in Matthew, from the fact that Jesus was not able to carry his crossbar for long, and also from the fact that Jesus died within hours on the cross, where many survived for days while being crucified.

Jesus had warned his disciples that he would be flogged (Matthew 20:18-19), and that they also would be (Matthew 10:17), which they were (Acts 5:40. 16:23). They would find out the true meaning of discipleship, following in the footsteps of their Master, all too soon.

The Praetorium was the commander’s house in a Roman fortification. In occupied countries during the Roman Empire, it came to signify the Governor’s palace, where there would be a common area for soldiers to gather. After having scourged Jesus within an inch of his life, the soldiers were not through with him yet. Jesus was in or near a state of shock, and that was the only mercy for him in this ordeal. In shock, Jesus may have been only dimly aware of what was happening to him. On the other hand, he was acutely aware on the cross, so maybe he did feel every blow and hear every insult. I hope not, but if so, it makes his sacrifice for us all the greater. How many soldiers would have been involved in his scourging? Three or four? Half a dozen? However many there were, that would have been more than enough to continue beating up a bleeding, exhausted man in shock, but instead they called together the whole regiment or garrison. A garrison, also called a cohort, was 480 men, which was the total amount of soldiers stationed in Jerusalem at the time. This group was probably only those who happened to be in the Praetorium at that time of day, since many would have been stationed throughout the city keeping order during Passover, but it would still have been a large group of soldiers all abusing one helpless man. But of course, Jesus was not helpless. He could have called the armies of Heaven any time he wanted to. But he endured all of this willingly, because it was the only way to save us.

Each part of this mockery was a cruel parody of homage to a king. Kings wore purple, it was considered the royal color. In all probability, this was the robe that Herod had placed upon Jesus (Luke 23:11). They stripped Jesus naked and put that on him, and it would have stuck to the bloody wounds on his back. Then they wove the crown of thorns. Botanists say that there were many thorny plants growing in that area at the time, with long sharp barbs. Some soldier wove together a “crown” out of a thorny branch, using his metal gauntlet to protect his hand, then shoved it roughly onto Jesus’ head. The blood rushing down his face from that crown of thorns probably blinded Jesus. The standard greeting for Caesar was “Hail Caesar,” so shouting “Hail King of the Jews” was a mocking parody of that.

19Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

Matthew 27:29 says “they placed a staff in his right hand.” Putting that together with what Mark says in verse 19, we can surmise that they put some sort of branch or stick in his right hand as a mock scepter to complete the “mock king” picture. Roman centurions were given sticks to designate rank, and they could use those sticks to beat disobedient soldiers or subjects. It may be one of these that Jesus was given. Whatever it was, after they placed it in his hand, they then took it away from him and beat him over the head with it. This would have resulted in multiple concussions, dazing Jesus further. Another customary way to greet a king was to kneel and kiss his ring. These soldiers mocked Jesus by kneeling before him, and leaning in as if to kiss him, spit in his face instead. Then they ripped the robe or cape off his back, which was stuck to the bloody wounds, tearing more flesh from him, and put his own clothes back on for the march to Golgotha.

The irony of this is that all of the men who mocked Jesus here, who pretended to bow before him and call him king, one day will do that in earnest. These soldiers mocked him, but God exalted him to the highest place. Whether we acknowledge Jesus as our King in this life or not, one day every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11).

Finally, they tired of these cruel games, and led him out to be crucified. Those who were crucified were made to march through Jerusalem in a parade while a herald called out the crimes of the condemned. This was done to make people afraid of offending Rome. This is exactly what Jesus was referring to when he called upon us to take up our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34, blog).

Do we sometimes feel mocked or persecuted for our faith? There are many throughout the world who are persecuted and martyred for Christ to this day, but for those of us who live in a country with freedom of religion, we don’t really know the meaning of mockery or persecution. If we ever start feeling offended or sorry for ourselves because someone made fun of us, or because the media doesn’t give Christians a fair shake, we need to remember what Christ endured, and be thankful our lot is as comfortable as it is. The amazing thing about the suffering of Jesus is that unlike the Christian martyrs who followed him, Jesus had the power to stop this at any time, but he didn’t.

2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:2-3)

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The Trials of Jesus: Mark 14:53-65, 15:1-15

March 27th, 2013 No comments


Before the Sanhedrin

53They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, elders and teachers of the law came together. 54Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.

The trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin actually took place in three stages. John tells us that, after his arrest, Jesus was first taken to the house of Annas, the previous high priest and father-in-law of the current high priest, Caiaphas. (John 18:12-14, 18:19-23). Annas was the “power behind the throne” to Caiaphas, who was a mere figurehead. Annas questioned Jesus about his doctrine and followers, and Jesus answered that he had taught openly in the temple courts, and that Annas should ask those who had heard him. Jesus got punched in the mouth for that answer. Then Jesus was taken to the home of Caiaphas, where this illegal night trial took place. This trial of Jesus is also recorded in Matthew 26:57-68 (blog). It was illegal under Jewish law. Jewish law had many protections for the rights of the accused, much like the American legal system, but all of those protections were ignored by those who simply wanted Jesus dead. For example, trials were supposed to begin and end in the daylight. They had to meet again at dawn because this trial had no legal standing. Also, according to Jewish law, criminal cases could not be tried during the Passover season. Moreover, under Jewish law, trials always began by presenting evidence for the innocence of the accused. Here, only accusations of guilt were entertained. After this trial was completed, the “official” trial at dawn took place. That’s recorded in Luke 22:66-71 (blog).

Peter seemed to be inviting discovery, since he followed right into the courtyard area. Peter, and also John, according to John 18:15-16, followed Jesus and the arresting officers at a distance after his arrest, first to the home of Caiaphas, then to the home of Annas, though it may well have been the same extended family dwelling. John, though he doesn’t identify himself by name, says that he was the one who got Peter let into the courtyard, because he was known to the high priest. Much of the crowd that came to Gethsemane to arrest Jesus must have been there by the fire. It would make sense that most of those who went to Gethsemane with swords and clubs would not have been allowed into the trial itself, but told to wait outside in the courtyard. Yet Peter went in there, even after cutting off the ear of the High Priest’s servant! If he didn’t want to be recognized, why even go in there? It seems that in spite of the danger, he wanted to be near Jesus. He had to know what was happening to him.

55The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. 56Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.

57Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: 58“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’ ” 59Yet even then their testimony did not agree.

One would think that the chief priests would have gotten their act together enough to have their false witnesses get their stories straight, but apparently not. Under Jewish law, no one could be convicted of a crime unless two or three witnesses testified against him, and there were severe penalties for bearing false witness (Deut. 19:15-19). The accusation against Jesus in verse 58 is a reference to what Jesus said in John 2:18-21, where Jesus was clearly talking about his own body. It’s a classic case of being misquoted. They may have been purposely misquoting Jesus in order to try to convict him, but they may also have just misunderstood what he said, and were very offended by it. The temple was the pride of Israel, and throughout the Greco-Roman world, destruction of places of worship was a capital offense. It wouldn’t have been the first or last time someone was falsely accused because of a misunderstanding. Jesus could easily have pointed out that this was not what he had meant at all, but he said nothing. The charges were so ridiculous, they were not worthy of a response. So Caiaphas cut to the chase, and asked him the key question.

60Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 61But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ,[f] the Son of the Blessed One?”

62“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

The fact that Caiaphas stood up and approached Jesus shows how desperate for a conviction he was. Normally the high priest would remain seated and render judgment, but all the evidence they had put up against Jesus had gone nowhere. At that point, the only way to convict Jesus was to try to bully him into making some sort of confession, to try to get him to say something they could condemn him for. So the high priest asked Jesus straight out if he was the Messiah. If Jesus says yes, they can accuse him of blasphemy. If he says no, they can accuse him of being a false prophet.

The Sanhedrin’s concept of the term “Son of God” was different from ours. We’re used to the idea of Jesus as God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. But of course, Jews of that time had no concept of the Trinity. They didn’t know about God the Son, and the Holy Spirit had not yet been given. To them, the term “Son of God” sometimes referred to angels (Genesis 6:2) or kings (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7; 89:26-27). Caiaphas was probably using the term to ask if Jesus was the Messiah King.

Jesus could have mounted a magnificent defense of all he had done, the people he had healed, the dead he had raised, and all the rest, but he did not. It’s not surprising to me that Jesus did not respond to the false accusations, because they were not worthy of a reply. The fact that the high priest had to get up and confront Jesus showed that. But when the high priest asked him this question, Jesus responds by first saying, “I AM,” using the same words God used to identify himself to Moses (Exodus 3:14). He’s literally saying “The I Am is here” or “I Am the Lord.” He was saying, “I’m not just God’s son the way you think of it, a king anointed by God to rule over Israel. I’m God himself, who rules over all things, including you. I AM.” Then he quotes from Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13, both of which were well known as Messianic prophecies. What Jesus is saying back to the high priest is, “I not only am the Messiah you seek, I am the Lord. You may think you judge me, but in reality I come to judge you.”

63The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. 64“You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?”

They all condemned him as worthy of death. 65Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, “Prophesy!” And the guards took him and beat him.

At this, Caiaphas tore his clothes, a traditional Jewish response to hearing blasphemy. He asked the council what they thought about this, which meant he was asking for their verdict, though the official vote would happen in the morning. They all agreed that Jesus, as a blasphemer, was worthy of death. The penalty for blasphemy was stoning (Leviticus 24:16). There were, however, two big problems with this verdict. First, stoning was illegal under Roman law, though illegal mob stonings did happen. And second, blasphemy was not a charge that the Romans cared about. For Jesus to be executed, the Romans would have to crucify him. So the Sanhedrin convicted Jesus for blasphemy, but then the chief priests told Pilate that Jesus opposed paying taxes to Caesar, and had set himself up as a king in opposition to Caesar (Luke 23:2). Both accusations were lies. Under Jewish law as well as American law, trials are supposed to be a dispassionate presentation of evidence culminating in a verdict. This trial was nothing more than an attempt to provide legal cover for murdering an innocent man.

Mark says they blindfolded Jesus so he could not see who hit him, then asked him to “prophesy.” Aside from being cruel mockery, this was also a misunderstanding of what prophecy is. It’s not fortune telling. It’s not necessarily telling the future. It’s delivering the Word of the Lord. These men were Levites who worked in the temple, and should have known better. I’m sure it was considered a great honor to have that job. It was their responsibility to keep the unclean from entering the temple, and here they were, acting as thugs, beating up an innocent man.

One thing that we don’t find out until later, in the Book of Acts, is that Saul of Tarsus was a member of the Sanhedrin. He was probably there for this trial. He would have been one of those who cast his vote against Jesus, as he did later against Jesus’ followers (Acts 26:10). I can’t prove this, but I believe that it was at this point that God probably began working on Saul. I think it’s likely that Saul’s hatred of Christians until his conversion stemmed from guilt over this trial, and was compounded by later trials he took part in, including the trial of Stephen (Acts 8:1, blog). Even in the darkest of times, God is working to advance his kingdom.

Jesus Before Pilate

1Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.

In order to save space in an already very long post, I’m skipping over Peter’s denials of Christ. If you’d like to read my post on that passage, you can find it here. The trial of Jesus before Pilate also appears in Matthew 27:11-26 (blog), Luke 23:1-25 (blog) and John 18:28-19:16. After having put Jesus through an illegal trial and beaten him up, the Jewish high council bound him and handed him over to Pilate. Why didn’t they simply kill him themselves? First, the Romans had made it illegal for them to do so in 7 A.D. Stonings still happened from time to time, as in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60, blog), but since Jesus was so popular with the people, if the Jewish leaders put Jesus to death themselves, the crowds might have turned against them. By having the Romans do it, they could always blame the Romans. The reason the Jews had to have their trial of Jesus in the wee hours of the night, before the rooster crowed, was because Roman trials were held early in the morning, just after sunrise. If they wanted Jesus executed on Friday, they had to hand him over to Pilate early Friday morning.

2“Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.

3The chief priests accused him of many things. 4So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”

5But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.

Luke and John record much more of this trial before Pilate than Mark does. We know that Jesus was actually tried by Pilate twice, plus once by Herod. But since I’m commenting on the Book of Mark, I’ll stick with what Mark says about it. The primary charge against Jesus was that he called himself King of the Jews, that he held himself up as a king in opposition to Rome. This charge was completely false, but it was one that would get Pilate’s attention. Jesus claiming he was God would not have mattered at all to Pilate. The Romans had hundreds of gods. what’s wrong with one more? But if he claimed to be king, that was a problem. There was only one king, and that was Caesar. Their charge that Jesus called himself a king must have seemed ridiculous to Pilate, given what Jesus’ appearance must have been like. Here were these well dressed men of Jewish nobility accusing a beaten and bloodied peasant of claiming to be a king. I don’t think Jesus looked much like a king at that point. He looked like a victim. So Pilate’s first question strikes me as sarcastic. “Are you the king of the Jews?” “This is what Rome should fear?” Jesus’ response was not a straight out “yes.” The “yes” that’s in the NIV in verse 2 is not in other translations. His actual answer was something more like, “You said it.” If he had responded by saying, yes, he was King of the Jews, he would have been calling himself Israel’s true king, and the trial would have been over then and there. That would have been treason against Rome. Pilate was used to men groveling before him, begging for their lives. That’s why he was so amazed that Jesus would not defend himself.

6Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

9“Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, 10knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

12“What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.

13“Crucify him!” they shouted.

14“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

15Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

The crowd that gathered that morning was there because of the custom of releasing a prisoner, and they were probably all supporters of Barabbas. They had gone there with intention of asking for his release. But Pilate, not satisfied that Jesus was guilty of anything, saw this as a way to release an innocent man. But he had two things working against him. First, the crowd was there to get Barabbas released, not Jesus. Second, it was a Jewish crowd, and the Jewish leadership was stirring them up against Jesus. The Jews hated Pilate, so of course they would side with their own religious leaders against whatever Pilate wanted. Barabbas was exactly what they were accusing Jesus of being, a rebel against Rome, leader of an insurrection.  Though reluctant to execute an innocent man and release a real enemy of Rome, Barabbas, Pilate was afraid of a riot breaking out, which would get him into a lot of trouble with his superiors. History shows that Pilate was a cruel governor who crucified hundreds, if not thousands of Jews during his time. So in the end, he relented and did as the crowd demanded.

All too often I have heard it said that the same crowd that was cheering him during his Triumphal Entry was shouting “crucify him” at his trial. There is no evidence for this assertion. Jerusalem was a large city, even then, and there were thousands of pilgrims there for Passover from other places. The crowd that shouted “Hosanna!” was a crowd that followed Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, and entered the city with him from Jericho. The Triumphal Entry, as we think of it, happened before Jesus actually entered the city proper (Luke 19:28-44, blog). The crowd that followed Jesus to Jerusalem and shouted praises to the Son of David were probably hiding in fear for their lives during this trial.

So Pilate handed Jesus over to be scourged, then crucified. Scourging was an extremely brutal punishment. I quote here from David Guzik’s Commentary:

The victim of a Roman scourging was tied against a post, and struck with a whip that had bits of glass, sharp rock, and metal tied to the end of leather cords. The whip would be struck at the top and dragged down the back, until the victim’s entire back was a bloody, open wound. Many people died just from this scourging.

Keep in mind that Jesus had not slept for at least 24 hours. He was already in a weakened physical state from exhaustion and the beating he had taken at the hands of the temple guard. The 39 lashes with the jagged whip must have put him in a state of shock. Also keep in mind that he could have stopped this at any time, but he let it go on out of love for us. But even this torture and the crucifixion to follow was not the source of his greatest agony. That came from drinking the cup of his Father’s wrath, from carrying the weight of all of our sin. As Oswald Chambers said in My Utmost For His Highest, (paraphrasing) “The reason salvation is so easy for us to receive is that it cost God so much.”

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Gethsemane: Mark 14:32-52

March 26th, 2013 No comments


Gethsemane

32They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

35Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36“Abba,[e] Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

The account of Jesus and his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane appears in all four gospels (Matthew 26:36-46, Luke 22:39-46, John 18:1), but the details differ from gospel to gospel. Read my post on Matthew’s version here and Luke’s here. Gethsemane means “olive press.” It was a place where olives were pressed to make olive oil from the surrounding olive groves on the Mount of Olives. Jesus led the remaining 11 disciples there to find a place to pray. Why did they not simply stay in the upper room? Maybe Jesus didn’t want to cause trouble for whoever owned the house. That person was probably a supporter of Jesus, and Jesus wanted to protect him. Mark tells us that Jesus told his disciples where to sit when they got to Gethesemane, but then took Peter, James and John with him to the place where he would pray. Those three had been included in some of the most amazing times of Jesus’ ministry, and now Jesus wanted them to help support him in his hour of need. Jesus was vulnerable with them, and let them see how troubled he was. If Jesus felt the need to ask for support from those who were closest to him in a time like this, how much more do we need the support and prayers of our closest spiritual brothers and sisters in difficult times?

The phrase that strikes me in verse 35 is that Jesus fell to the ground. Luke says Jesus knelt to pray, and Matthew’s account is even more graphic. He says Jesus fell with his face to the ground and prayed. (Matthew 26:39)  Have you ever been so overwhelmed with sorrow that you could not even stand? What troubled Jesus so much wasn’t just the physical torture and humiliation that he knew was coming. It was also, and perhaps mainly, the burden of carrying the sin of the whole world. He was made sin for us (2 Cor 5:21). Jesus was sinless and holy, and the horror of bearing all the sin of everyone who had ever lived and ever would live was almost too much for him, especially since he knew that his Father would look upon him and see all of that sin, and turn away.

The customary posture for prayer in that culture was standing, with eyes raised to heaven. Jesus’ posture in this moment shows two things: the depth of his grief, and his submission to his Father’s will. It’s one thing to stand before the Lord, and another to bow the knee to him. But to fall prostrate on our face before God takes a level of humility and submission that most of us never get to. It shows that we are completely subservient to God. We are totally at his mercy. We are nothing, and he is everything. Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, pleaded with his Father while lying prostrate, with his face in the dirt. What does that tell us about what our level of submission should be?

Even though Jesus knew what he had to do, and had been telling his disciples about it for weeks, when the time came, he asked his Father if there was any other way to save humanity. Don’t you think God wanted to grant that request? The fact that the Father didn’t make another way shows that there was no other way. If there is another way to salvation other than through the sacrifice of Jesus, then Jesus died an unnecessary death. Jesus called his Father Abba, which was a child’s intimate term, the equivalent of “daddy.” Jesus had the most intimate relationship with his Father, and his actions here made it possible for us to have the same kind of relationship with God.

Jesus’ prayer is a restatement of part of his model prayer, the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13, blog). There, he taught his disciples to pray your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, and lead us not into temptation (or testing), but deliver us from the evil one. Jesus’ prayer here was essentially the same prayer in reverse. He asked his Father to deliver him from the evil one, and from this time of testing, if it were possible. But then he added not as I will, but as you will. As we see over and over in the gospels, Jesus lived the things he taught.

In the end, Jesus submitted to the Father’s will. For me, this passage proves that, despite what some preach, the Bible does not really teach that believers can simply pray the “prayer of faith,” and expect to get whatever they ask for. If even Jesus did not receive what he asked for in this instance, and had to qualify his request by saying “not my will, but yours,” what makes us think we can claim more authority with God than Jesus could?

37Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? 38Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”

39Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. 40When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.

41Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

Jesus wanted Peter, James and John to pray. Not to support him in prayer, but to pray for themselves, so they would not fall into temptation. Jesus prayed, and he found the strength he needed to face his coming trials. The disciples slept, and they all abandoned him when the pressure was on. Jesus also wanted them to keep watch for Judas and the temple guards that he knew were coming. In spite of all Jesus had said, the disciples still did not know what was coming. John knew that Judas would betray Jesus, but apparently Jesus had not spelled out for them that he expected Judas to arrive at Gethsemane with troops to arrest him at any moment. If he had, they probably would have been more alert, but then there might have been premature violence, and a more or less peaceful arrest might not have been possible. Jesus needed needed his disciples to survive this night, so that they could become the leaders of his church later on.

It’s hard to understand how the disciples could sleep when they saw what distress their Master was in. But remember that they had just eaten and drunk wine. Anyone who’s ever fallen asleep on the couch after a big meal must disqualify themselves from criticizing the disciples for this. When Jesus came back and found them sleeping, he wasn’t reprimanding them, but trying to encourage them to strengthen themselves spiritually for what was to come. If Peter in particular had watched and prayed like Jesus told him to, maybe he would have found the strength not to deny Jesus.

Jesus went back and prayed the same prayer three times. What does this tell us about persistence in prayer? And Jesus did not receive what he asked for, but because of his persistence in prayer, he did receive the power to do what God wanted him to do. That’s what prayer is really about, achieving intimacy with God, so we can call him “daddy,” and through knowing him, receive the power to do what he asks of us.

Jesus Arrested

43Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.

44Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” 45Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. 46The men seized Jesus and arrested him. 47Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

While Jesus was still telling Peter, James, and John to wake up, Judas arrived with the temple guards. Where were the other eight disciples? Maybe the crowd came by a different way than where they were, but I would think they would have seen or heard them coming, and would have warned Jesus and the others. Why did Judas need to identify Jesus with a kiss? Wouldn’t the chief priests and temple guard have recognized him, since Jesus had been teaching in the temple courts all week? No, the temple guard were Levites who worked in two shifts, day and night. Jesus had been teaching in the temple courts during the day, and these guards would have been the night shift. So they might not have recognized Jesus without some way to identify him. The chief priests and elders were not necessarily there for the arrest. The chief priest sent his servant to take charge of it for him. The elders awaited them at the chief priest’s house, where the first and second trials were held. They would have recognized Jesus, but they probably weren’t there.

A kiss was a sign of friendship in that culture, commonly offered between family members and close friends. (Genesis 27:26, Genesis 31:28, 1 Kings 19:20) As one of Jesus’ disciples, this greeting from Judas would not be out of place except for the context. When Judas thought of this, it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but when he actually did it, it came off as insincere and insulting. I’m not sure, even at this point, that Judas’ intentions were entirely evil. Many think Judas believed that if he had Jesus taken to the chief priests, Jesus would be forced to show himself as the Messiah. I don’t think it even entered Judas’ head what was about to happen to Jesus. His fantasy scenario may well have been that when Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, he would have to show them who he was, the chief priests would proclaim Jesus king of Israel, and they would all live happily ever after. Many make the mistake of thinking they know better than God. We cannot force God’s hand. It will always turn out badly if we try.

John’s gospel tells us that Peter was the one who cut off the servant’s ear, and identifies the servant as Malchus. Only Luke tells that Jesus healed the servant’s ear. Again, Peter leaves out details regarding himself in his account. (Scholars regard Mark’s gospel as being told from Peter’s point of view.) He doesn’t say that it was he who cut off the man’s ear, and he doesn’t say that Jesus healed the man. But maybe this part of Mark’s gospel is not from Peter, but from Mark himself. He was there, as we will see. Maybe he didn’t want to embarrass Peter further when he was about to relate Peter’s denial of Christ. Peter, not unlike Judas, thought he knew better than God in that moment. If Jesus had not healed Malchus, Peter certainly would have been arrested along with Jesus.

48“Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? 49Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” 50Then everyone deserted him and fled.

The religious leaders were too afraid of the crowds to arrest Jesus in broad daylight where everyone could see. They waited until they could seize him in the dead of night, when the crowds weren’t around. If you have to make sure no one sees what you’re doing, you’re not doing anything good. At this point, Jesus’ prediction in verse 27, “All of you will desert me” comes true. As I said earlier, Jesus had spent the previous hour in earnest prayer, and he had the strength to face arrest, while the disciples had spent the hour sleeping, and did not have the strength, so they fled.

51A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, 52he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

Most Biblical scholars believe this young man was John Mark, the author of this gospel. I did not realize until today that many suppose that the Last Supper was held in an upper room at a house owned by Mark’s family. We know from the account of Peter’s escape from prison in Acts 12 that the home of John Mark’s mother, Mary, was a place the followers of Jesus often gathered to pray (Acts 12:12). So it would make sense that this would have been a place for Jesus and his disciples to “hang out” as well. This might explain why Mark was wearing so little at the garden. Maybe he was at the house, and Judas came there first with the temple guards, because that was where they were when Judas left them. When Judas found they were no longer there, he would have tried the Mount of Olives next, because Jesus went there often (Luke 22:39). Perhaps Mark grabbed something to wear in a hurry, and ran to Gethsemane to try to get there ahead of Judas so he could warn them. Why would Mark include this seemingly unimportant detail? Maybe to say, “I was there,” or maybe it was to take some of the embarrassment onto himself and deflect it away from Peter. If you’re willing to embarrass yourself in order to save someone else from embarrassment, that’s being a true friend.

The Last Supper: Mark 14:12-31

March 25th, 2013 No comments


The Lord’s Supper

12On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

13So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. 14Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”

16The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

I’m skipping ahead in the week to the Last Supper in order to cover the “events” of Holy Week. Most of my life I’ve thought of that week in terms of its events; the Triumphal Entry, the cleansing of the temple, the Last Supper, the arrest and trial, etc. But if you read through the chapters of any of the gospels, what you find is that Jesus did a lot of teaching that week. He taught in the temple courts for three days after he cleared out the money changers, and a lot of that teaching is recorded. John has four chapters of teaching at the Last Supper! But for my Holy Week posts this year, I’ll focus on the events. That’s why I’m skipping from the temple cleansing to the Last Supper. This event didn’t take place until Thursday, as we all know, but too many things happened on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to try to cover all of those events on those two days.

See my post on Luke’s version of the Last Supper here, and Matthew’s here. As with all the synopotic gospel accounts of this event, Mark’s begins with Jesus telling two of his disciples, whom Luke identifies as Peter and John, to “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.” This involved finding the room where the meal would be held, and making the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb and preparing it for the meal. This was an all day job. Jesus had obviously prepared for a place to eat the Passover meal with his disciples ahead of time. Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims, and there must have been a booming business in renting out furnished rooms where pilgrims could partake of this feast. It seems that Jesus had booked this room in secret, even keeping it from his disciples, since men did not carry water jars in that culture. They carried water in skins. So a man carrying a jar of water would be unusual, and easy to spot. It seems likely that all of this was done in order to hide the location of the meal from Judas, who could then report Jesus’ whereabouts to the chief priests and have him arrested there. It’s entirely possible that Judas tried that when Jesus sent him out, but they were already gone when Judas and the Temple guards arrived.  Since he knew Judas would betray him, maybe this was to keep Judas from arranging his arrest too soon. Some scholars believe that the Last Supper was held in an upper room at a house owned by John Mark’s family. I’ll talk about that more tomorrow in my post on Gethsemane. If that’s true, I can’t help but wonder if John Mark was the man carrying the water jar, since he mentions that detail.

17When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.”

19They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely not I?”

20“It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. 21The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

Now Jesus reveals his knowledge of Judas’ plot. I can imagine the sinking feeling Judas must have had when he knew he was “busted.” In John’s version, Jesus reveals to John who the traitor is, but apparently he didn’t reveal it to the whole group. In Luke’s account of this event, we learn that the disciples had two swords with them at the time (Luke 22:38). What do you think they would have done with those swords if Jesus had revealed to the whole group that Judas was about to betray him? But Jesus kept Judas’ secret, and sent him out ahead of the group so he could do what he intended to do. It strikes me that Jesus was giving Judas one last chance to change his mind, but Judas was committed.

In Middle Eastern culture, it was and is still considered the worst form of treachery to betray someone after having broken bread with them. Each of the disciples asked if he was the traitor, including Judas. Matthew tells us that Jesus did answer in the affirmative when Judas asked (Matthew 26:25). So there was no doubt in Judas’ mind that Jesus knew all about what he was planning, but Jesus did nothing to stop him. In fact, he sent him on his way, knowing what was to come.

22While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”

23Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it.

24“This is my blood of the[b] covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. 25“I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.”

26When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

This was no typical Passover meal. There are strict traditions about what is eaten and what is said, by whom and in what order when eating the Passover. If you’ve ever attended a Seder meal, you know what I mean. Perhaps they had already gone through the established ritual by this point. But now Jesus shared with them a new supper, the Lord’s Supper. The Passover was central to the old covenant, and the Lord’s Supper is central to the new covenant. Jesus is starting the new covenant right here, in that moment.

The Amplified Bible puts verse 24 this way:

25Solemnly and surely I tell you, I shall not again drink of the fruit of the vine till that day when I drink it [c]of a new and a higher quality in God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ promise not to drink wine again until he does so in Heaven has always struck me a little odd. After all, he hardly had the chance after that. But according to the Amplified translation, he’s not just saying he’ll wait until then, he’s saying it will be of a new and higher quality. I don’t think he’s just talking about better wine, though I’m sure the wine will be really good in Heaven. I believe he’s talking about the whole meal. The Passover meal, the central feast of the old covenant,  was a foreshadow of the Lord’s Supper, which ratified the new covenant (Mark 14:24, Amplified). The Lord’s Supper is a foreshadow of the Marriage Supper Of The Lamb. This is what Jesus is referring to in verse 25. Neither the Passover meal nor the Lord’s Supper could be considered real feasts, at least by any definition I know of. But the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, now that will be a feast! If you think Thanksgiving dinner is good, that will pale in comparison to the spread at that feast. Everything will be of a new and a higher quality in God’s kingdom.

It’s interesting to me that Mark and Matthew both mention that they “sang a hymn.” According to the definition of hymns that I learned in my church music courses in college, hymns did not exist then, so I wonder about the translation from Greek. There are other places in the Bible where hymns are mentioned (Psalm 40:3, Acts 16:25, 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:19), and I’m curious what was meant by that term. But the definition of what type of song they sang is not as important as the fact that they sang. How could Jesus sing, knowing what would soon happen? Because his attitude of praise was not based on his circumstances, but on his adoration of the Father, as ours should be.

The traditional psalms that were sung at the end of the Passover meal were Psalms 116, 117, and 118. Read those Psalms and imagine how they would have ministered to Jesus on the night before his death.

Jesus Predicts Peter’s Denial

27“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:
” ‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’[c] 28But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Matthew’s version of this passage is in Matthew 26:31-35 (blog). Luke’s, which is quite different, is found in Luke 22:31-38 (blog). After the mountaintop experience of the first Lord’s Supper, and all the wonderful teaching and prayer that John recounts in his gospel (John 13-17), now Jesus and his disciples descend into the valley experience. After all they had just experienced, it must have been jarring for them to hear Jesus tell them that they would all soon fall away. After a mountaintop experience with God, we are often tempted to think we are invincible, when in reality, we are very vulnerable. As 1 Corinthians 10:12 says, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” But even as Jesus warns them, he quotes yet another Messianic prophecy, as if to reassure them that though their falling away is not excused, it is expected and has been prophesied. Then he encourages them by reminding them again that he will rise again and meet them. He’s not condemning them, and he does not condemn us, even when we fail him. He goes ahead of us and meets us.

29Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

30“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice[d] you yourself will disown me three times.”

31But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same.

Jesus did not just predict Peter’s denial here, he predicted that they all would desert him. Peter gets a bad rap for this episode, but none of the disciples stood by Jesus when the chips were down. And after Peter insisted that he would never deny Jesus, verse 31 says that they all said the same. Since Mark’s gospel is considered to really be Peter’s account of his time with Jesus, Peter gets a lot of credit from me for including this story when he could have left it out. He left out his walking on the water and sinking (Mark 6:45-56) and he left out Jesus praising him after his confession of Christ (Mark 8:27-30), but he left in his most humiliating experience, denying Christ. I’ll have more to say about this later in this chapter, but I think this speaks volumes about Peter’s character. He’s not afraid to show us his worst failing as a disciple.

He and the other disciples were so sure of themselves. We may think we are brave, but we never really know what we will do until the pressure is on. All the disciples vowed never to desert Jesus, even if they had to die with him. But they all deserted him shortly thereafter, to their shame. But Jesus restored all of them, and in the end, all of them faced their own deaths bravely for Christ. Be careful what you promise God. He will hold you to that promise.

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Jesus Curses The Fig Tree And Cleanses The Temple: Mark 11:12-26

March 25th, 2013 No comments


Jesus Curses the Fig Tree

12 The next morning as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. 14 Then Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat your fruit again!” And the disciples heard him say it.

This story is also told in Matthew 21:18-22. See my post on that passage here. Mark tells this story in two installments, here and later in this chapter. Matthew condenses it down to one “episode.” This is one of only three miracles that I know of in the gospels where Jesus performed a miracle that was not a miracle of compassion. The other two are when when he calmed the storm (Matthew 8:23-27, blog), and when he walked on water (Matthew 14:22-26, blog).

It’s easy to see this story as inconsequential. What could a fig tree have to do with us? It’s also easy to think that Jesus was being unfair, or that it was just an act of frustration because he was hungry. But Jesus was on his way to cleanse the temple, and this was an illustration of his judgment on Israel. Part of the confusion for me is the fact that Mark says the reason there were no figs is that it was too early in the season. That’s what makes the curse seem unfair. How could Jesus curse a tree for not having fruit if it wasn’t the season for fruit? Was he just disappointed because he was hungry, so he cursed the tree in a fit of pique? No, because normally, on fig trees, fruit appears at the same time leaves appear. If a fig tree is fully leafed out, it should also have fruit that’s ready to eat. When Mark says it was not the season for figs,  that probably means that it was not quite time yet for figs to be harvested. This was Passover week, or the first part of April. Figs in Palestine are commonly ripe around that time. Right after Passover is when figs were harvested. So seeing leaves on the fig tree at that time of year, Jesus was right to assume there would be fruit. A fig tree with leaves but no fruit is like a case of false advertising. This made the fig tree an illustration of Israel at that time, having the appearance of righteousness, but not the fruit of righteousness. This is a lesson for us also. God does not approve of his children being all leaves and no fruit, all talk and no walk.

Jesus made sure his disciples heard him curse the fig tree. And Mark made sure this story was included in his gospel. He must have done so for a reason, and felt it was important. As John said in his gospel, if all the things Jesus did were recorded, the world could not hold all the books (John 21:25). So if we ever wonder what a passage in the gospels has to do with us, we should always remember that some parts of Jesus’ life and ministry are included in them, but many are not. Therefore, the ones that are included were put there on purpose.

Jesus Clears the Temple

15 When they arrived back in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, 16 and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace.[c] 17 He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.”[d]

See my post on Matthew’s version of the cleansing of the Temple here, Luke’s version here, and John’s here. What was actually going on here was that pilgrims would bring in animals for sacrifice, but the vendors in the temple courts were cheating them. They would tell the pilgrims that their animals weren’t flawless enough, and would offer to sell them “perfect” ones at exorbitant prices. Then they’d confiscate the animals the pilgrims brought, and turn around and sell them to other pilgrims. It was a huge money making racket. That’s what made Jesus so angry. Plus, every Jewish male had to pay a “Temple tax,” (Matthew 17:24-27, blog) which they could only pay using the Temple currency. So they would have to exchange their regular money for Temple money, and the exchange rates were outrageous. On top of all that, this was done in the outer courts of the Temple, which was the only place Gentiles could come and pray. They really had made a house of prayer into a den of thieves.

Like the fig tree, we may think this story has nothing to do with us. But we all know of cases where people are cheated into giving large amounts of money to dishonest “ministries.” Be very careful of giving your money to a TV preacher or some other operation that claims to be using it for ministry, but is really lining their own pockets. Any church or organization that does not submit to genuine financial accountability may be turning a house of prayer into a den of thieves.

18 When the leading priests and teachers of religious law heard what Jesus had done, they began planning how to kill him. But they were afraid of him because the people were so amazed at his teaching.

19 That evening Jesus and the disciples left[e] the city.

The religious leaders were already plotting to kill Jesus, and this just confirmed their plans. But they had to be careful about how they did it. They were afraid to arrest him in the open, because he was so popular with the people. It’s amazing that after this event, Jesus continued to teach in the temple courts for the rest of the week, and they never laid a hand on him until late Thursday night, away from the crowds.

The Withered Fig Tree

20In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”  22“Have[f] faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23“I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 24Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

This passage illustrates what is, for me, one of the points of the Gospel of John. I’ve repeated it in my blog on Mark’s gospel as well, and this is another example of it. That is, Jesus performed miracles primarily for two reasons; to glorify God, and to help people believe. Why did Jesus curse the fig tree? Partially for the reasons I talked about earlier, because it was an illustration of Israel’s lack of spiritual fruit. But he also did it to help the disciples believe. When Peter pointed out the withered tree, what was Jesus’ response? Have faith in God.

Verses 22-24 are some of the most misused and misunderstood verses in all the Bible. Many churches and famous preachers base their whole teaching on this passage, and they are wrong to do so. Jesus was not saying here that if you pray hard enough, and really believe, that God is obligated to do whatever you ask. That kind of faith is not faith in God, it’s just “faith in faith.” The expression “moving mountains” was a common expression among Jews at that time, and its meaning was the same as it is today. It meant that if you have faith in God, you can overcome any obstacle. Jesus cursed the fig tree to show the disciples what can happen if they have faith in God, not just faith in their own prayers.

In addition, all of the scholarship on verses 22-24 that I’ve read holds that Jesus was making this promise to the apostles in particular, not to us in general. He was continuing to confer the kind of authority onto his disciples that they would need to establish his church. The apostles did receive that power, and it was a power that none since have had, at least on a consistent basis. They did perform miracles very much like what Jesus had done. God gave them that power so that they would have authority from Heaven that could not be denied. It was necessary for God to do that then, because he had less than a generation to establish his church and make sure it was spread out far enough so that when Jerusalem was destroyed and Israel was scattered 37 years after Jesus made this statement, the church would not be destroyed along with it.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that miracles happen today. I know they do. But most people are not given the kind of authority that Jesus conferred upon the apostles. I believe that the only exceptions to that today are on the mission field. I do hear of incredible miracles that happen on mission fields that are not unlike what the apostles were able to do in the First Century. The reason for that, I believe, is that for those who minister in places where the Gospel has never been preached, it’s still, essentially, the First Century church. God grants special authority to those who do the work of the apostles in new mission fields. But I don’t believe that Jesus is saying that if I have enough faith, I’ll be able to command Mt. Evans to move into the sea. I do believe, however, that in the broad sense, if my faith is truly in God, and not in my own prayers, that I will be able to overcome the obstacles in my life.

25And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him and [g]let it drop (leave it, let it go), in order that your Father Who is in heaven may also forgive you your [own] failings and shortcomings and let them drop.

26[h]But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your failings and shortcomings. (Amplified)

Jesus taught a lesson similar to verse 25 in Matthew 5:23-24 (blog).So many times when passages of scripture are misused, those who do so don’t bother to use the whole passage in context, they just lift out a verse or two to make their point. These two verses are part of the same paragraph as the part about faith and moving mountains. It’s all the same thought, and we can’t separate them. Do those who preach “prosperity gospel” based on verses 22-24 also include 25-26 in their equation? Whenever the Bible makes a promise, there is always a requirement on our part to go with it.

Jesus is talking here about how our relationships with each other are key to our relationship with God. We can’t have a right relationship with God unless our relationships with each other are right also. The picture here is of someone presenting an offering at the temple, not a sacrifice for sin. Offerings are acts of worship. The person is in the middle of presenting their worship to God, and remembers that someone has something against them. They are to stop their worship of God and make things right with the other person before they can continue. Does that mean that, if I’m leading worship at church on Sunday, and see someone in the congregation that has something against me, I am to walk off the platform and go to that person, right in the middle of the service? I think it does, though I have yet to see it happen.

That just shows how vital our relationships with each other are to God. What’s the second most important commandment? Love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:28-31, blog). How are people to know that we are disciples of Jesus? By how we love one another (John 13:34-35). Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking our relationships with others are not as important as following rules pertaining to our lifestyle, what we might consider “moral issues.” But that’s just the way the Pharisees thought, and that’s just the kind of thinking that Jesus is teaching against here. According to Jesus, our worship is not acceptable to God unless our relationships with others are right. Nobody is won to Christ by being impressed with the rules we live by. What wins people to Jesus is when they see how we love each other.

The issue of forgiveness is a huge one that I feel is not stressed enough in the church. I believe there are many who believe they are saved who will miss Heaven over this issue. Take a poll of any church, and ask people to rank the following sins in order of severity; murder, adultery, and refusing to forgive others. I’d be willing to bet that most congregations would rank them in that order, murder being the worst, then adultery, then refusing to forgive. But Jesus never said that if we murdered someone, he would not forgive us. He never said if we commit adultery, he would not forgive us. But he did say here, and in Matthew 6:14-15 (blog), that if we don’t forgive others, he won’t forgive us. That’s very serious, folks. In the Lord’s Prayer, when Jesus said “Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors,” he didn’t mean “forgive us first, then we’ll forgive others.” He was saying, “forgive us to the same degree that we forgive others.” I believe that, in fact, Jesus is laying out an unpardonable sin. Not the one he talks about in Mark 3:28-29, (blog), but one just as dangerous, and unfortunately, just as common.

Is there someone who has wronged you, and you cannot bring yourself to forgive them? Until you do, the Bible teaches that God will not forgive your sins, either. It’s as simple as that. Any sin that Jesus himself says he will not forgive has to be considered an unpardonable sin. But like the more commonly known unpardonable sin (continually rejecting the overtures of the Holy Spirit), this one is not irrevocable. All you have to do is forgive. If God can forgive us after all we’ve done, then we can forgive others for what they’ve done. Do we want to be Christlike? Then we must forgive as he forgives. I hear sermons preached on lots of things that are less vital than this. I’ve heard lots of sermons on verses 22-24, but few, if any, on verses 25-26. That’s just wrong, and I believe God will hold those in spiritual authority over us responsible for it. As Jesus makes clear in this passage, faith and forgiveness are tied together. You can’t have one without the other. But if we forgive others, and have faith in God, we can overcome any obstacle in our lives.

The Triumphal Entry: Mark 11:1-11

March 23rd, 2013 No comments


The Triumphal Entry

1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ ”  4They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go.

The Triumphal Entry appears in all four gospels. See my post on Matthew’s version of it here, Luke’s version of it here. The time had come for Jesus to enter Jerusalem as the Messiah. Everything about this event fulfilled prophecy. Jesus was intentionally fulfilling prophecy with the things he did each step of the way in this event. He was entering Jerusalem publicly as the Messiah, at the exact time predicted by Daniel (Daniel 9:24-27). Up until now, Jesus did not want to be called the Messiah publicly because if he had allowed that, he would have been arrested prematurely. Now that the time for his arrest had come, he entered Jerusalem, not incognito or keeping a low profile, but in the most public way possible. According to Zechariah 9:9, the Messiah was to enter Jerusalem riding a young colt, the foal of a donkey. It appears that Jesus prearranged for just such a colt to be available for him to ride into the city. That’s how the disciples were able to take the colt by simply saying what Jesus told them to say. We’ll have more success in life if we’ll say what Jesus tells us to say.

Riding on a donkey is significant for Jesus. A donkey is the mount of a man of peace. A king coming to rule would ride on a war-horse, which Jesus will do when he returns to reign (Revelation 19:11-16). This also fulfills the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, which Matthew and John both quote in their version of this event.

Mark makes a point of telling us that this was a colt that had never been ridden before. Have you ever tried to ride a horse that has never had anyone sit on their back? I’m no cowboy, but I’m pretty sure horses and donkeys need to be broken in order to be ridden. They won’t let just anyone ride on their back the first time they try. I may be reading more into this than is really there, but this simple thing, to me, shows an aspect of the Lordship of Jesus, the fact that he could simply get on this young colt’s back and not be thrown off. I believe that if Jesus were here in the flesh, he could walk among a pride of lions in the wild, and they not only would not harm him, they would be rubbing against him with affection and purring like a house cat. The lions would know him and love him. I believe this unbroken colt let Jesus ride him because he recognized him for who he was and trusted him. Do we have that kind of simple trust in Jesus, that we’ll let him do what he wants with us just because we know and love him?

But the fact that this was an unbroken colt is also significant because a colt that had not been ridden was one that was set apart for holy use, in the same way that a sacrificial animal had to be one that had never been used as a working animal (Numbers 19:2; Deuteronomy 21:3). With this one act, Jesus is declaring that he is Messiah, King, Prince of Peace, and Lord.

7When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Hosanna![a]
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”[b]
10“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”

The crowd wasn’t just shouting whatever came into their heads. They were quoting scripture. They knew that “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” is from Psalm 118:26, and that it refers to the Messiah. They were recognizing his kingship. If you click on footnote [a] you’ll see the word Hosanna means save. By shouting “Hosanna,” some are probably saying, “Save us from the Romans.” But all of their actions, from laying down palm branches and their coats to pave his way to shouting praises that each of them knew were intended to address the Messiah, show that they believed that Jesus was the Messiah, entering Jerusalem to save them.

As I wrote in my post on Luke’s account of this event, my mental picture of the Triumphal Entry, which I probably got from movies and church Easter productions, turns out to have been wrong. According to the gospels, what we call the Triumphal Entry actually took place before they entered the city proper. They were on the Mount of Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem. It wasn’t that Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and the people of Jerusalem ran to greet him. It was the crowd of disciples who had followed him all this way who shouted the Hosannas, laid down their cloaks, and waved the palm branches. They had followed Jesus, some for days, some for weeks, some for months or even years. They had witnessed many miracles, including the healing of Bartimaeus (Luke 18:35-43, blog) and the repentance of Zacchaeus just a few days before (Luke 19:1-10, blog). They were the ones calling Jesus “Son of David” and quoting Messianic prophecy.

11Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

Malachi 3:1-3 describes how the Messiah will come to the Temple, but questions whether the Temple will be able to endure his coming. After Jesus entered Jerusalem, he went directly to the Temple. Verse 11 says he looked around at everything, as if surveying the situation. He knew that he was going to cleanse the Temple, and it seems to me he was either looking the Temple over first as a means of fulfilling prophecy, or he came to the Temple first intending to cleanse the Temple then, but decided to wait because it was too late in the day. Maybe the money changers had gone home for the day, so Jesus decided to come back when they were there. Whichever it was, Jesus was fulfilling prophecy each step of the way now. This would be the last week of his natural life, and he made the most of it.

Christmas Chronology: Matthew 2:13-18

December 21st, 2012 No comments


The Escape to Egypt

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”[c]

For the second time, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream. The first time, God sent the message in the dream to assure Joseph that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and to encourage Joseph to take Mary as his wife (1:20-21, blog). This second appearance in a dream is about saving their son’s life. Both appearances were to make sure that Joseph did the right thing so that Jesus could complete his mission. There have been times that I have wished that God would speak to me audibly so that I could know for sure what he wanted me to do and make the right decision. But even the greatest crises I have faced in my life don’t compare in importance to what Joseph faced. The salvation of the world depended on Joseph obeying God immediately. Maybe God doesn’t speak to most of us this way because our circumstances are just not that crucial in the light of eternity.

It seems from Matthew’s language that this appearance happened right after the Magi left, maybe the same night. Matthew indicates in verse 14 that Joseph did get up that same night, pack up his family and their belongings and leave for Egypt. Joseph’s obedience was immediate. There was no hesitation. This shows the kind of man Joseph was. First, he was a man who had a close enough relationship with God that he got this kind of communication from God. If we want God to speak to us clearly, we have to live close enough to him to hear his voice. Second, he was a man of faith and unquestioning obedience. When Gabriel appeared to Mary and to Zechariah, they had questions (Luke 1:11-20, blog, Luke 1:26-38, blog). But Joseph never questioned when God told him something. He just obeyed, and instantly. What if Joseph had said, “I’m too busy right now. I’ll do what God says later.” Jesus would have been one of the innocents slaughtered by Herod. The plan of salvation would have been set back, perhaps by centuries. When God tells us to do something, we’d better do it, and right away. We never know what the eternal consequences will be if we don’t.

As the angel told them to do, they left for Egypt. Egypt was a province of Rome at that time, and it had a large Jewish community. They had their own temple and synagogues. There were probably members of Joseph’s extended family, or clan there. They would have a place to fit in and live, and be beyond Herod’s jurisdiction. We don’t know how long they stayed in Egypt, because we don’t have reliable historical information to show when Herod died. But it probably wasn’t more than a year or two.

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”[d]

It probably took a few days for Herod to realize that the Magi were not coming back, so the Holy Family had a bit of a head start. Herod had asked the Magi specifically when the star appeared so he could calculate when the baby had been born (2:7). So he knew that Jesus couldn’t be more than two years old. This event, commonly called the slaughter of the innocents, is not corroborated in any secular history. But it fits with what we know of Herod’s ruthlessness. Plus, Matthew wrote this book to Jewish believers in the first century. This tragedy would have been a clear memory for those who were alive at that time, the way the Kennedy assassination is for those of us who were alive when that happened, or as 9/11 is for all Americans today. Matthew could not have put this in his gospel if it hadn’t really happened. Someone would have called him on it.

Twice in this short passage, Matthew cites fulfillment of prophecy. Peter and Paul also stressed Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy in their preaching to Jews (Acts 3:17-18, blog, Acts 28:23, blog). This was to show Jews of that time that this Jesus movement was not some Gentile fad. It was foretold by Old Testament prophecy. The hope of Israel, which had been desired by all Jews for centuries, had been fulfilled in Jesus. Yes, Christianity was open to everyone, including Gentiles, and they didn’t have to get circumcised and become Jews to be saved. But Jesus came to his own people first. Jesus was a Jew, and there is unbroken continuity from the promise made to Abraham to the promise made to David to the fulfillment of those promises in Jesus. He is the Savior of the world, and also the promised Messiah of Israel.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these reposts, and that they’ve been meaningful to you this Christmas season. May you and yours have a wonderful Christmas!

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Christmas Chronology: Matthew 2:1-12

December 19th, 2012 No comments


The Magi Visit the Messiah

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

This event only takes place in Matthew’s gospel. Some undetermined amount of time passed from the time of Jesus’ birth till the events of this chapter. I’ve heard many times that the Wise Men actually came about two years after Jesus’ birth. That assumption comes mostly from the fact that Herod ordered all boys under age two killed (v. 16). It’s also assumed that if the star appeared when Jesus was born, it would take the Magi time to prepare for and make the trip. They probably came from Babylon (modern day Iraq), Persia (modern day Iran), or Arabia. But the two year time span is the maximum amount of time that could have passed. Herod was simply covering his bases. The Magi probably actually arrived sometime between 1-2 years after Jesus was born.

Who were the Magi? They were not kings, as tradition later supposed. They were astronomer/astrologer/priests. They kept track of the motions of the stars and planets in order to predict important events for kings, such as whether there would be a good harvest. Astronomy and astrology were the same thing in the ancient world. The school of Magi in Babylon went back centuries, to before the time of Daniel. Daniel was made head of the Magi in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar because he was able to interpret the king’s dream (Daniel 2:48). Jewish tradition holds that Daniel instructed the Babylonian Magi to watch for the Messiah. Daniel also predicted the exact time of Jesus’ birth (Daniel 9:25-27), so it seems likely that these Magi, if they came from Babylon or Persia, were following Daniel’s instructions. They knew the date of the Messiah’s birth, and they were watching for signs in the heavens. All around the region that we would call the Middle East, there was an expectation that some important king was about to be born in Judea.

What was the star? That’s been the subject of much debate over the centuries. I am interested in astronomy, so I’ve read up on this some. I can tell you what it wasn’t. It wasn’t a comet or a meteorite. They don’t behave like Matthew describes. Besides, comets, especially, were seen as portents of doom in the ancient world, not as symbols of good news. I’ve also heard that it may have been a nova, or an exploding star. But none of those appeared in the skies during that time, and whatever the “Star of Bethlehem” was, it went unnoticed by Herod. Herod would certainly have noticed a comet, meteor, or nova. No one could have missed any of those things. The most plausible explanation, to me, was that it was a conjunction of planets that indicated to these learned men that a king had been born among the Jews. If you’d like to read further on this, I recommend Wikipedia’s article on it, and there is extensive investigation of it from a Christian scientific perspective at bethlehemstar.net. But it may not have been a natural phenomenon at all. It may have been entirely supernatural.

When the Magi arrived, they went to Jerusalem, probably expecting that this new king had been born to the royal house on the throne at that time, or at least expecting that everyone there would be aware of the new king’s birth, and would be excited about it. But they would turn out to be mistaken about that.

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]

Herod was not of the royal line of David. In fact, he was not even Jewish, he was an Edomite. He would certainly have been aware of the expectation that the Messiah would be born soon, though. So when this impressive caravan of foreign officials showed up at his palace asking about it, of course he would be disturbed. The chief priests and teachers of the law, familiar characters in the rest of the story of Jesus, make their first appearance in the gospels here. They were the ones who told Herod where the Messiah was to be born. The verse they quote (or misquote, or paraphrase) is from Micah 5:2-4.

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

As I mentioned earlier, it’s unlikely that the star was anything obvious to the untrained eye, since Herod was unaware of it. He had to ask the Magi when it appeared. But Herod had learned where the Messiah was to be born from the chief priests and teachers of the law, and now he learns when the child was born from the Magi. He has the where and the when. Now all he needs is the who. So he tells the wise men to report back to him after they find the child, under the pretense of wanting to pay homage to this new king himself.

Here is where one possible problem comes in. Luke says that after Jesus’ circumcision ceremony, eight days after Jesus was born, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus moved back to their home in Nazareth (Luke 2:39). So they would not still have been in Bethlehem more than a year later when the Magi came. Verse 8 of this chapter says that Herod sent them to Bethlehem. But Matthew doesn’t say that the Magi actually went to Bethlehem, or that they found Jesus there. He only says Herod sent them there, which he would have done, based on the prophecy. Look at what Matthew says in the next verses.

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

In verse 10, the star that had first alerted them that the new king of the Jews had been born reappeared and guided them to where the child was. In verse 11, Matthew talks about the Magi coming to the house. As we all know from Luke, Jesus was not born in a house. As I talked about in my post on Luke 2:1-7, Jesus was born in lambing cave, because there wasn’t room for them in the Bethlehem caravansary that was owned by Joseph’s family. Bethlehem was a small village just outside of Jerusalem. I don’t think the Magi would have needed the star to guide them if the baby Jesus was still in Bethlehem.

So here is my personal theory. The “star,” when it first appeared at the birth of Jesus, was actually a natural phenomenon that had meaning for astronomers expecting the Messiah, but would not have been noticed by the uninitiated. That sent the Magi on their journey to Jerusalem. This “star” did not continue to appear for the entire time of their journey. If it had, they could have followed it straight to the Christ child. It would not have been necessary to inquire of Herod as to where to go. Once they found out where the baby was to be born, suddenly the star reappeared to guide them. I believe that, at this point, the star was actually an angel. No natural celestial body could go ahead of travelers and rest over a specific location. They’re too high in the sky for that. I also believe that this “star” guided them to Nazareth, not to Bethlehem. That was the reason for its reappearance. Herod told them to go to Bethlehem, and the star appeared to show them where they really should go.

When the Magi came to the house where they found Mary and the Christ child, they bowed down and worshiped him. This was the way to address royalty. They made themselves prostrate before him. They weren’t necessarily worshiping him as God, they were paying homage to him as a ruler. Their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were the most precious products of their country. They were also standard gifts to present to a royal person. Of course, these gifts had a spiritual meaning and practical value. Many speculate that the gold was used by Mary and Joseph to support their family during their time in Egypt. Frankincense was used as incense by the priesthood, symbolic of Jesus as our High Priest. And myrrh was used for embalming the dead. Many believe that Mary carried this myrrh to the tomb on Easter morning to embalm Jesus’ body. But she never got to use it, because he wasn’t there!

In verse 12, God warns the Magi in a dream not to report back to Herod, so they went home by another route. Since the wise men arrived after Jesus’ first birthday, I don’t believe that they really belong in the story of Jesus’ birth. Sorry to ruin your Nativity scene, but they weren’t there with the angels and shepherds. But God’s timing is more important than our traditions. God sent these men to a poor, obscure family in Galilee to confirm again to them who their young son was, and to provide gifts that would help them. The wise men went to a lot of trouble and expense, and took months, if not years of their lives to give to Jesus and bow down to him. How much trouble are we willing to go to for Jesus? How far does our worship of him go? How much does it cost us?

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