One more thought about prayer...

Jesus’s thoughts on prayer deserve more attention because of the famous teaching surrounding what we often call the “Lord’s Prayer.” Depending on which gospel you are reading, Jesus offers up this model of prayer in response to a request by His disciples to teach them to pray, or as an insertion of that prayer into His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

Quite frankly, Jesus’s response is telling. The prayer Jesus teaches them is not a new idea. Jesus did not introduce them to the Lord’s Prayer, nor did He create the prayer from His own mind. Most scholars agree that the Lord’s Prayer is a condensed version of what we know as the Jewish Amidah Prayer. Otherwise known as the “Standing Prayer,” this is a prayer that would have been uttered by Jews at the noon prayer time in the Temple. Tradition holds that Jewish men would stand in groups of twelve and utter this prayer together.

Spending a few minutes online searching for the Amidah Prayer will produce results to keep you busy for hours. While one can find several different versions of this famous prayer, we do know that the modern Amidah was not being used in the days of Jesus. Even referencing the modern Amidah Prayer, a reader might notice that Jesus’s prayer is a summary of the content of the longer version. We’ve found significant evidence for the following prayer being circulated in the first century as the Amidah of Jesus’s day:
avenu shabat shamayim; ye’kedesh shemchah; tomlich malchukah; y’aseh bashayim uve’aretz; et lechem hu’kenu ta’lanu he’yom

“Our Father, the One who dwells in heaven,
May Your name be holy.
May Your kingdom come as we do Your will here on earth, as it is done in heaven.
Give us today the bread of today.”
And some versions even add the following line:

“And deliver us from the evil one, cursed be he.”

In essence, this means that when Jesus’s disciples ask Him to teach them how to pray, Jesus responds with one of the most well-known prayers of His day. Jesus was saying, “You know how to pray. Just pray. And mean it.”

Jesus does, however, make one striking alteration. In no version of the Amidah, either past or present, can you find a mention of us forgiving others. There are requests for God to forgive us, but nothing about forgiving others. Again, we see forgiveness and mercy being central to Jesus’s message. We will cover this in greater detail at a later time, but it’s important to notice — especially for Jesus followers who have become so used to the idea of forgiveness that it means very little — that this is a radical idea. For ancient Jews, God forgives sins. We are called to love our neighbor, show mercy to our neighbor, and many other things — but forgiveness is a job for God alone.

This suggestion of Jesus, that we should partner with God in the work of forgiveness, is one that will get Him in serious trouble. This insertion into a basic, everyday prayer for Jesus’s disciples is more of a thunderbolt than many of us realize. It’s enough to make us ponder whether or not we give forgiveness enough thought in our life. There is something about the act of forgiveness and God’s coming Kingdom.


Done in Secret

The next movement of this “Sermon on the Mount” is a discussion about hypocrites. Jesus has some teaching points about giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting. They are as follows:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

If I were to hit the pause button, I would point out that Jesus directly connects “righteousness” with giving to the poor. This is a connection that is made in Jewish thought starting with the Hebrew language. The idea of tzedekah (“righteousness”) is connected to hearing the tze’ekah (“cries of the oppressed”). Even in Jewish communities today, you will find a tzedekah box; this is a box to collect funds for the poor and other acts of benevolence. In Jewish thought, your “acts of righteousness” are not “doing the right things,” but the right thing you should be doing is hearing the cry of the oppressed. It seems like there is a blog post hiding in that idea alone…

This is followed by thoughts on prayer:
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

And this is followed by the theme of fasting:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

First, a note on “hypocrites”: Much to the disappointment of all the haters out there, this is not a teaching on hypocrisy. The word for hypocrite is actually the word for actor. The Hellenistic actors in the theater would fit the descriptions seen above. When famous actors were in town, their arrival on stage would be signaled with the blast of a trumpet (you often could not see the famous face when it was in costume and so far away). They would paint their faces to communicate a mood to the audience. Jesus’s larger point here is not the horrible character of hypocrites, but the life of an actor. An actor is one who makes a living at putting on a show. That show may or may not be accurate to reality, but the point is the actor is doing it for the show. Jesus has the audacity to claim there are “actors” in the synagogues — there are people who are actually walking the path of obedience for the sole purpose of being seen. This is what is being condemned in the teaching.

Second, a note on the “reward”: The reward is juxtaposed against the reward of the actor. Jesus warns his hearers that if they do these things to be seen by others, that is all the reward they will get — fleeting recognition from other people. They will get no reward from God. It is important to note the tense of that reward; the reward is a PRESENT reward, not a FUTURE one. Therefore, when Jesus claims that if you do these things with a pure heart, not to be seen by men, you get a much deeper reward; you get a reward from God. This reward is not speaking about the future; it makes no sense to look at the hypocrites reward as present and the worshipper’s reward as future. The reward you get is NOW. God goes about doing a work in your heart now, not installing an extra jewel in your crown for heaven.

Finally, a note on the “secrecy”: One of the most perplexing parts of this teaching is the exhortation by Jesus to do these things “in secret.” I cannot count the number of times that I have been told I am not allowed to discuss fasting because Jesus told me to do it in secret. This is completely bogus. Jesus told me that if I fast in order to be seen by men, that will be all the reward I get; but if I fast for reasons only God can see, I will experience a better reward. One must remember that merely a page earlier, Jesus told his listeners to “let their light shine before men, so that they might see their good deeds and glorify their Father who is in Heaven.” Jesus wants the deeds to be seen! His teaching about “secrecy” is directed at motivations of the heart. This is important, because our walks should be modeled before others. Our faith is not a private one. It is one that should echo the words of Paul, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

At any rate, Jesus’s words in this section invite us to examine our motivations truly. Do we find ourselves going through the motions in order to be seen by others? The answers may surprise us. We are warned there is not much reward in this. But if we truly desire to follow God with a pure heart, there is incredible work to be done.


...But I say unto you

So now that we understand Jesus’s intent in reinterpreting the Text, we can look at His big point. Jesus takes a handful of positions that are held and taught in His day about Torah, and He declares that, in fact, there is a better way to read it. While I cannot deal extensively with each and every teaching of Jesus on this blog, I do deal with these individual teachings more in depth here.

Suffice it to say, Jesus will suggest that Torah is actually dealing with issues of the heart. This is more revolutionary than most of us realize, because Jewish thought saw the Law as being a fence that controls the external. What happens internally is multifaceted and unbridled, but externally, the Law keeps us in check. Jesus’s understanding invites us to see the Law as something that was designed to change our insides, not just control our outsides.

Jesus will reinterpret the major understandings of murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, justice, and enemies. Let’s start with murder:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
Contrary to most popular thought, Jesus is not “upping the ante” for God’s expectation. Jesus is claiming that this was always God’s expectation — that the prohibition against murder is actually about anger and hatred in your heart. The same ends up being true for adultery:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Again, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that Jesus “raised the bar” of expectation in the realms of lust. In fact, Jesus is claiming this was always God’s expectation, and it has to do with our hearts. It’s about how we see women, not just our outward behavior. We could pull apart each of Jesus’s teachings in this section (and I invite you to listen to my teaching at the link above), but for the sake of space, I will shift to a closing thought.

Jesus claims that God’s always been after a changed heart. God’s been looking for a partner who will see the world the way He sees the world — not just someone who will follow a set of rules. These “rules” have never been about “behavior modification”; they have been about the condition of our hearts. And Jesus claims it has been this way since Sinai.

Truly, Jesus will harken back to Sinai itself when He makes the statement that we are to love our enemies. Check it out:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus claims the very thing that makes us like God is our ability to love our enemies. He points out that everybody loves their friends; there is nothing that sets you apart from others if you love merely your friends. The only thing that sets you apart is if you love your enemies. That’s what makes you like God. Well, wait a minute, what was the story about being like God and showing the world what God is like? Wasn’t that our call to be a kingdom of priests? Wasn’t the role of a priest to put God on display? That would be the perfect teaching for Jesus to make in light of loving our enemies.

And Jesus seals the deal with His final statement. While it is translated from the Greek correctly, it would have been a direct quote from the book of Leviticus. In that regard, the verse would not read as “perfect”; it would read, “Be holy, as your heavenly Father is holy.”

And the definition of holy? To be set apart.

And that quote from Leviticus fits Jesus’s teaching perfectly — much better than a statement about perfection does. (This is one of the instances that makes me think Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.)

Leviticus was the book that invited us to be different, to be “priestlike.” And the thing that will set us apart from the world will be our ability to love.

To love everyone: our neighbors, our friends, our enemies.

It’s the same story. It’s the same story we saw back in Leviticus. It’s the same story we see today.


You’ve Heard It Said…

After Jesus says that He is not here to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, He goes on to do that very thing. In true rabbinic style, Jesus goes about the art of interpreting Torah. One of the striking refrains that stands out in this section of the Sermon of the Mount is Jesus’s statement, “You’ve heard it said… but I say unto you…”

This is a common rabbinical statement made by a teacher who carries authority. The teacher is announcing to his listeners that they are about to hear a new interpretation of the same texts they are familiar with. This, however, is not a job for just any rabbi. Later in rabbinical history, we know that there were certain rules and stipulations about who could interpret the law and how they could do it. This wasn’t a job for any reader of the Text.

While this may come as a blasphemous idea to Protestant ears, not just anyone was allowed to do the work of interpretation. Interpretation was (and still is) tricky business. In order to reinterpret the Text, a teacher had to have s’micha, which is the Hebrew word for “authority.” If a rabbi did not have s’micha then he was not allowed to offer a new interpretation. A rabbi received s’micha by having two other rabbis with s’micha commission him with it. While this is a later rabbinic practice, it is easy to find this cultural understanding in the gospels.

Listen to the words of Matthew that immediately follow the Sermon on the Mount:
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

Jesus taught as one having s’micha and not just as a regular teacher. That’s gutsy; the people caught that this Jesus guy had some chutzpah.
But it does beg the question: Did Jesus have s’micha?

The reader could point to Jesus’s baptism. The words of John the Baptist (a person who has s’micha, at least in the eyes of the people) blesses Him and tells the crowd that Jesus is greater than he is, followed by the voice of the LORD coming from heaven announcing God’s pleasure on Jesus as His son. That’s a convincing s’micha commissioning if you ask me.

Nevertheless, Jesus certainly teaches with s’micha. A rabbi would offer a prologue to his new interpretation by offering these words: “You’ve heard it said ____________, but I say unto you ____________.” It was a rabbi’s way of saying, you are familiar with this teaching, but I’m here to give you a better understanding. Again, this is not something that any rabbi is allowed to do; rabbis are bound in their interpretation to the teachings that have come before them. But a rabbi with authority can chart new paths.

Like we’ve pointed out previously, Jesus is trying to make the case that he is not here teaching something outside of Torah. Instead, He claims to be here showing the world how they were always supposed to be reading it. According to the rabbinical claims of Jesus as a teacher, His teaching of Torah is what God was really after when the law was given at Sinai. This is important because it shows God is not here to change game plans — He is not here to do away with the Jews or take their “place” away — He is here to throw the blinds open on what has always been true. Jesus is here to clean up our understanding.
It’s actually a more profound wrestling match than we might realize. I find that most of us give the teachings of Jesus a treatment that relegates it as a great “thought to consider,” but hardly authoritative. I think most of my readers will claim that statement is far too harsh, but practically speaking, I think you will find it to be true. Jesus’s teachings are far too rabbinic and confusing — at times too “mystical” — for our western preferences. Take, for instance, the way we interact with the teachings/letters of the apostle Paul. We are far quicker to accept the teachings of Paul at face-value than we are the teachings of Jesus. This is a grave error and one that has led to massive misinterpretations of the Text (let alone horrific, destructive teachings throughout church history). As Brian McLaren says, “Christians have accepted Jesus as their savior, but Paul as their Lord.”

Those are merely some thoughts to chew on.

One must be confronted with the authority of Jesus in the gospel accounts. Everything that the follower of Jesus interprets in the Bible has to be seen through the lens of Jesus. When Jesus says that the right way to interpret the Text is through love God and love others, then you are now forced to read your Bible through that lens (as a follower of Rabbi Jesus). You do not get to disagree. For some readers who thought my treatment of the conquest and the Book of Joshua was too far-reaching, they must consider that whatever our interpretation of the book is, it must be aligned with Jesus’s yoke of love God and love others. Jesus said all the Law and the Prophets are interpreted through that lens — period. As a follower of Jesus, I have no other option.

I work under the s’micha of Jesus.



Jesus’s next statement will need just as much attention to help us understand the context. Let’s take a look at it before we proceed:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Now immediately we need to deal with some of our western assumptions. I was often raised with the teaching that Jesus “fulfilled the Law” or that He “fulfilled all prophecies.” What was being communicated to me was that Jesus had “accomplished” those things. What was never explained, however, is why that doesn’t even make logical sense. It treats the Torah and its mitzvoth as a video game that has 613 levels. When Jesus accomplished all 613, He “beat the game” and we were able to put it away.

The mitzvoth is not a game show. It’s not a challenge to be accepted and completed. It was God’s directive of how to live. So, in order for us to understand what’s being said, we’ll need to understand the rabbinic language.

When a rabbi says that he is “fulfilling” Torah, it means that he is interpreting it correctly. If another rabbi were to interpret Torah in a radically different way, he would accuse the other of “abolishing” Torah. To fulfill and abolish refers to the proper or improper interpretation of the Text, respectively. This would usually be accompanied by action. A rabbi claiming to fulfill Torah would also be issuing an invitation to watch his “walk”; in the way that he walks out the Text, his literal and practical interpretation would show the Text to mean what it says.

If anyone doubts this reading of abolish and fulfill, they may consider the following words of Jesus, which state that not even the least stroke of a pen will pass away from the Law until heaven and earth disappear. And His next statement, that any man who teaches someone not to obey the Law is the least in the Kingdom.

This will also make sense in that the following page of your Bible will be full of Jesus interpreting the Law.

Once we understand this, it raises a question: Why is Jesus making this statement in the first place? Is somebody accusing Him of abolishing Torah?

This is a great place to realize that the teachings of Jesus (for now, particularly those found in the Sermon on the Mount) are so radically different that people may be tempted to assume He is throwing out Torah, or teaching against some of its writings. Jesus is clarifying that, in fact, He is fulfilling it in His interpretation. This is a hefty claim, as Jesus would be saying this is how God has always intended it to be interpreted. From the day the Law was given at Mt. Sinai, God has always had these following principles in mind.

So what is it that makes Jesus’s interpretation so radical? Well, we’re about to see it over and over and over again. Jesus is pretty adamant about loving people — all people. Loving your neighbor, loving your brother, loving your persecutors — even loving your enemies. Jesus will be insistent that mercy is the way of righteousness (see the center of the Beatitudes), forgiveness is the path of restoration, and radical love is the heart of God.

The question now is whether or not we believe Jesus is who He said He is. Because if He is, then His teachings will give us much to wrestle with, as they will come with an authority that has never been seen in a human interpretation.

We face the same wrestling match as anyone who heard His words on the hillside that day.


Hope of the World

Jesus follows up the Beatitudes with a statement that His listeners are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. I want to focus on this “light of the world” imagery and try to pull it apart, so let’s take a look at the teaching itself.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

In order to understand Jesus’s statement about “a town built on a hill,” we will need to understand a bit about ancient cities and where they were built. If you were to go to an archaeological dig in Israel today, most often an ancient town would be found on top of (or inside of) what’s known as a tel, which is an ancient collection of buried cities built on top of one another. You needed to build a city in a particular location for a whole host of reasons; things like water, commerce, and defense dictated where a city would need to be constructed. This means that a new city will need to be built in the same location as the old one. So you will need to build on top of the ruins of the last city. Therefore, a city ends up being built on top of a city that was built on top of a city, forming a tel, and you end up with “a city on a hill.”

An example of a tel (Tel Lachish)

Not only this, but if you keep on digging, you would find the most wealthy homes are built inside the city walls. The prime real estate is found inside the city, because of ideas like protection and convenience. Simply put, the rich live “in town.” The middle class will often build their home into the wall. This ancient form of housing is called casemate. The homes are a component of the wall itself. This multistory complex (think apartments) is also useful in defense, as the city can fill the homes with stones, and the wall increases from 10’ wide to 25’ wide. You also see casemate housing being referenced in the Tanakh: when people are being lowered out of windows in baskets (e.g., Rahab, David, etc.), they are being lowered outside the city walls from one of these homes.

This, however, puts the poor in an awful predicament, often having to fend for themselves and find their own housing. They are not allowed in the city, and they are not afforded room around the outside of the city walls; they cannot live at the bottom of the hill, either, which is all farmland. Often, the poor have to take refuge close to the town “dump” — a designated area for sewage and trash. This area is often referred to as the place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in the context of the poor. It is the place “where the worm never dies and thirst is never quenched.”

So, in concept, a city on a hill (which looks like a shining light in the darkness to a weary traveler, by the way) is the hope for the poor. They look to the city to find what they hope to be protection and shared abundance. Many scholars are beginning to think this is what took place at the city gates. The gates (built primarily for defense of the city under siege) were not often needed as defense structures; most cities would only see a siege once every century. What would you use such a large structure for the rest of the time?

The city gates at Tel Gezer

Archaeology continues to show that the city gates served not only as the “city hall” and courthouse, but also for the social welfare system of the city. Simply put, the gates are where the world of abundance meets the world of need.

Again, a city on a hill is the hope of a world in need.

“You are a city on a hill…”

The people of God are the hope of the world. I say this fully aware of the famous quote from the famous pastor who said, “The Church is not the hope of the world — Jesus is.”  Point taken. However, let us be perfectly clear: Jesus plans on being the hope of the world by working through His followers.

This has always been the case. God has always been looking for partners. God has always been putting His people at the crossroads of the earth. God has always chosen to redeem the world through people choosing to put Him on display to a world in chaos. If we are a city on a hill, what will people find when they look to us? Do they find sustenance, compassion, mercy, and justice (mishpat)? Do they truly find a light shining in darkness? Do they catch a glimpse of a God who, from day one, has been putting the world back together?

“You are a city on a hill.”



In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’s public teaching ministry begins with what many of us know as the Sermon on the Mount. Most scholars will be quick to say they don’t believe Jesus actually gave this long “sermon” of a teaching, but instead Matthew is arranging many of Jesus’s teachings into a “package” that he wants his Jewish readers to see as one large teaching.

But even before Jesus starts teaching, the record of Matthew is already interesting. Chapter 4 ends with a description of Jesus going throughout the Gailiee and teaching in their synagogues. We are told that He healed many folks and crowds came out to see Him. Matthew includes a description of who is in these crowds. There are people from the Galilee (religious Jews), people from the Decapolis (pagans), people from Jerusalem (Sadducees?), Judea (Herodians?) and the region beyond the Jordan — a quick way of saying everybody was there.

Jesus, after seeing the crowds, goes on to call His disciples to Himself and teach them. The “them” in the passage is slightly ambiguous. We have a few things helping us to determine what Matthew is saying. First, a rabbi would never address such a large crowd with this kind of teaching; however, we’ve already stated that it’s quite possible Jesus didn’t actually teach this entirely in the “sermon” form we see today. Second, in typical Greek, the “them” would be a reference to the closest antecedent, which would be the disciples. The key word in the last sentence would be “typical,” because if there is one thing I learned from Greek in my Bible training, it’s that the “rules” of the Greek language are much more fluid than we’d like (hence the reason Greek ruined my GPA, but I digress).

It would be safe to say that Matthew is pointing out the crowds for a reason and a purpose; you might also remember Matthew’s agenda concerning the outsider. This crowd has lots of people who simply “don’t belong.” This point of consideration will become important as we learn from the sermon on the mount.

Jesus opens with a famous passage that we like to call the Beatitudes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Now, I’ve heard many a sermon about the Beatitudes being a list of things Jesus is inviting us to aspire to. However, there are a few things that may be incorrect about this approach. If this is true, then Jesus is announcing that God’s favor rests upon somebody else. When you become meek, when you get to the place of peacemaking, when you get to _______________, then you find the blessing of God. Not only does this run counter to many of the things we find in Jesus’s teachings, but this line of reasoning doesn’t work with all the statements. Consider the term “poor in spirit” or “those who mourn.” Do you want to aspire to mourning? Is Jesus really telling people to pursue a state of mourning? Do we really want to be people who find ourselves poor in spirit? This seems upside down.

Instead, Dallas Willard once suggested that the Beatitudes are, in fact, pronouncements of God’s blessing on all the people the world thinks are missing out. In essence, this would mean Jesus starts His teaching with pronouncements that look like the following:

God is for those who are spiritually bankrupt.
God’s favor in on those who mourn.
God is for those who are meek.

This sounds like an intriguing idea, but don’t we end up with the same problem as our other theory? It doesn’t work for all of the statements. Being merciful isn’t a negative quality. But Willard invites us to consider the context of Jesus’s teaching. In fact, being merciful would be a terrible quality. In a world being torn apart by Imperial Rome, to show mercy to your enemy would be an incredibly offensive idea. To be a peacemaker would be akin to asking for persecution.

So, in fact, the Beatitudes might be a list of pronouncements; Jesus might be announcing to the crowds — full of Jews, Gentiles, Herodians, Pharisees, and Romans alike — that God is for the ones they think He has abandoned.

That would fit Matthew’s agenda of the mumzer quite nicely.

And if we peer a little deeper into the teaching, we may begin to wonder if the list is a chiasm.

Poor in Spirit
    Those Who Mourn
        The Meek
            Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness
        Pure in Heart

The stunning, thunderbolt center of Jesus’s teaching would be a stark message to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus might be saying, “Are you interested in righteousness? Do you hunger and thirst for it? Do you want to see it? Try showing mercy.” Into a world that is being rocked with injustice — into a crowd that has a mixture of Romans and the Jews they are mistreating — Jesus suggests that true righteousness looks like mercy.

And Jesus isn’t going to let up on this idea throughout His teaching. Jesus will continue teaching that we would pray for those that persecute us and love our enemies, and He even tweaks an ancient Jewish prayer to be a statement about forgiveness.

This Jewish rabbi is serious about loving people. So buckle up, because this ministry of Jesus is just getting started…


How to Bring Order Out of Chaos

Immediately following the baptism of Jesus, He is driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit. Here, Jesus is tested as the Israelites were tested in the wilderness. This time, however, the situation will be a little different. But before we go there, let’s go back to the beginning.

The very beginning.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty

Tohu va’vohu, we once said. Formless and void; wild and waste. If you put nothing into a blender and hit “whip.” Chaotic nothingness. Chaos.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

The word for “spirit” in the Hebrew is ruach. Ruach is used for “spirit” and “breath” and “wind.” Surprisingly, the same three words are interchangeable in the Greek, as well; the word is pnuema and it means “spirit/breath/wind.”
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light…

God speaks and order begins to come from the chaos. God places man in the center of this story and invites him to partner with the Creator in managing, stewarding, exploring, and enjoying this new order. But this partnership is tested, and, as we all know, the testing ends in great tragedy.

If we break down this story of creation, it centers around chaotic waters. Large bodies of water always symbolize chaos (and eventually evil) in the Jewish mind. We could whittle the story of creation down to this:


What is the next story with large bodies of water? The flood. Consider the list above in light of the story of the flood:

The world had descended into chaos.
God covers the world in chaos.
The ruach blows over the water and the water begins to recede.
God speaks to Noah, commanding him to come out of the ark and…
…partner with God to bring order to chaos.
But this partnership is tested and ends in tragedy.

What is the next story with large bodies of water? The exodus from Egypt.

CHAOS — The Israelites had descended into chaos.
WATER — The Red Sea stands between them and order.
SPIRIT OVER WATER — The ruach blows over the water and the water divides.
GOD’S SPOKEN WORD — God speaks to Moses (either at the Red Sea or Mt. Sinai, you pick) and sets up a…
ORDER IS EXPECTATION — …partnership with God to bring order to chaos.
TESTING/TEMPTATION >> TRAGEDY — But this partnership is tested and ends in tragedy (whether this is the testing in the desert or the Golden Calf).

What is the next story of large bodies of water? The crossing of the Jordan.

CHAOS — The land of Canaan had descended into chaos.
WATER — The Jordan River stands between the Israelites and order.
SPIRIT OVER WATER — The ruach blows over the water and the water is stopped up.
GOD’S SPOKEN WORD — God speaks to Joshua and asks His people to…
ORDER IS EXPECTATION — …partner with God to bring order to chaos.
TESTING/TEMPTATION >> TRAGEDY — But this partnership is tested at Jericho and ends in tragedy as Achan refuses to follow instructions.

It’s my hope that we’re seeing a pattern, yes? Well, this pattern is still found in the story of Jesus’s baptism. Consider:

CHAOS — The world finds itself in chaos.
WATER — Jesus comes down to the Jordan River to be baptized.
SPIRIT OVER WATER — The ruach hovers over the water (and Jesus, who is in it); the “hovering” has not been seen since the story of Creation. Could the author be insinuating that we have a “new creation” on our hands?
GOD’S SPOKEN WORD — God speaks from heaven…
ORDER IS EXPECTATION — …and Jesus will now spend the rest of his ministry partnering with God to bring order to chaos.
TESTING/TEMPTATION >> TRAGEDY — But this partnership needs to be tested…

But now, the testing will — for the first time in human history — end with a victorious triumph over chaos. And in this story of Jesus’s testing, we are given a blueprint or a formula (if you will — I write this very tongue-in-cheek) for success. How does Jesus model for us what it looks like to bring order to chaos?

This time, when man is tested, He will respond: “It is written…”

Jesus has the Text in Him. Jesus is prepared and ready. Jesus knows the path.

But just like we looked at with the Essenes, it’s not enough simply to know the path. A man must walk it. He must trust the story of God. He must be willing not only to get the Text in himself, but he must also trust that Text. So, first I ask you: What would have happened if Jesus didn’t have the Text in him? And I know that many Christians would say that the Spirit would provide the answer, but that’s not what Jesus modeled! The Spirit wasn’t what provided the answer; in fact, the Spirit is the one who drove Him into the desert to be tested in the first place.

So what would happen to you if the Spirit drove you into the desert this week to be tested? Would you have the Text in you? Would you be ready? Jesus was.

But it’s not enough only to know the Text. You also have to trust it. Satan knew the Text, as well; he quotes it during the second test. (Did you know that he misquotes the Text? How would we know that if we don’t have the Text in us?) So, simply knowing the Text isn’t enough. You also have to walk in it. It’s not enough for Jesus to know that “Man does not live by bread alone…” He actually needs to wait upon every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.

To know the path.
To walk the path.
To bring order to chaos.
To be a part of the new creation.


Tavilah T’shuvah

One of the ways that the gospel writers introduce us to Jesus is by setting the stage with the “stage setter” himself, John the Baptist. Matthew starts out chapter three this way:

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,

‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’ ”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

Matthew describes this character who is pursuing the life of being that voice crying out in the desert. This figure is a man of rustic character, wearing camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. The question is raised in the mind of the reader: Who is this man? Is he a mad man? Why would he be wearing such a distinct outfit.

It’s in the Text. Second Kings 1 to be exact:
When the messengers returned to the king, he asked them, “Why have you come back?”

“A man came to meet us,” they replied. “And he said to us, ‘Go back to the king who sent you and tell him, “This is what the Lord says: Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending messengers to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!” ’ ”

The king asked them, “What kind of man was it who came to meet you and told you this?”

They replied, “He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.”

The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.”

John the Baptist showed up wearing his Elijah costume. When the king heard the description of the “man” who had spoken to the messengers, he immediately knew who they were describing. Apparently, people knew about Elijah and how he dressed. John the Baptist is making the claim that he is a prophetic Elijah figure. If John the Baptist was a western American, he would stand on a chair and declare that he thought he was Elijah. He would then give his defense in a three-point treatise where all three points started with the same letter.

John the Baptist isn’t a westerner, however; he is an easterner. And so he shows up wearing his Elijah costume.

His message is one that Elijah would resonate with, as well. It would be helpful to go back and review the teaching about Elijah here.

John the Baptist shows up and calls everyone to repentance. We’re told that entire crowds come out to be baptized. In the gospel of Luke, we are told about the characters in this crowd. Some are tax collectors, some are soldiers, many are cultural outcasts. Some students of the Text have pointed out it is possible John was performing mikveh for a bunch of people who were not allowed to perform mikveh at the Temple. This would be easy to swallow considering John is the son of Zechariah, and very possibly a product of the Essenes (maybe even the Essenes at Qumran).

John stands in the water and invites people to a “baptism of repentance” — what is called tavilah t’shuvah. This mikveh was an Essene baptism. While the Pharisees performed mikveh as a regular, ritual cleansing, the Essenes performed a baptism of repentance. It required that the baptized be truly repentant BEFORE they enter the water. John is calling the people to change their behavior and mark this repentance with the waters of mikveh.

And then, John looks up to see the Pharisees and Sadducees:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”

John is not a fan of what the leadership has done to the people of God. He’s inviting the people to repent and follow after God, not the misguided devotion of the Pharisees or the corrupted system of the Sadducees. This is one fiery Essene holding revivals out in the desert, outside of bounds of the religious systems of power.

But then, John reveals the theology that drives his ministry:
“The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

John’s understanding is that Messiah is coming, and He’s bringing the kingdom of God with Him. This kingdom of God is coming with fire and judgment. John uses electric language about an ax at the root of the trees and a winnowing fork purging the threshing floor and a baptism of fire (harkening the reader to the first baptism of fire — Sodom and Gomorrah). John believes that judgment is at hand and the people need to repent.

Is this a correct assessment of the situation?

It seems to me that Jesus said he came not to condemn the world, but to save it — to shine light in dark places. What’s going on here? In order to answer that question, I’m going to put this post on hold and let the reader speculate on their explanation until a story later in the gospel accounts (and no, it won’t be the next post). What is John’s understanding of the world? Is he correct?


A Gospel of Two Kingdoms

Back in the beginning of our study, I argued the narrative God was telling through His Text was “A Tale of Two Kingdoms.” We spent much of our time in the Old Testament showing how these two agendas continued to pop up as the central theme to the story of the people of God. Whether it was their time in the desert, learning how to lead with their voice and not the stick, the tension of living in shephelah, the challenge of living with abundance, or the way that we approached the socio-economic realities of our world, we kept seeing an agenda of empire and an agenda of shalom.

This narrative makes a prominent appearance at the very beginning of the gospel records. There are two birth narratives in the New Testament, one in Matthew and one in Luke; in a very interesting fashion, both of them set the stage for the life of Jesus in a world of contrast.

The gospel of Matthew draws out the deep background of the rule of Herod the Great. It showcases how paranoid Herod was that a future ruler would ever pose a threat to his kingdom.

Depending on how reliable one finds our historical sources (extra-biblical as well as biblical), Herod was the richest man ever to walk the face of the planet. If history is correct, there would not be even a close second; Bill Gates would mow Herod’s lawn. One of my teachers taught me that Herod’s income came in at well over a hundred times the national GDP of his country (don’t ask me how the math is done on those numbers, but just imagine even a fraction of that being true).

In Israel, everywhere you go you can see signs of the impact that Herod had on the world. Herod desired to be the greatest man who ever lived. He took this pursuit very seriously and did everything so wildly over-the-top that to this day, we are not sure how he and his architects did what they did at that point in history. The list is quite staggering. Whether the stones that we still find on the Temple mount (we’re talking about the sheer size of the stones, the perfection of the construction, the magnitude of the project), the underwater harbor poured in the self-built city of Caesarea, the construction and opulence of the famous fortress of Masada — even a cursory study of one of these sites would impress any student.

Yet, the King of the Universe wraps Himself in flesh and is born in a stable in Bethlehem, which isn’t just the backwater town of Joseph and his family. Bethlehem also happens to be the location for one of Herod’s three great palaces, the Herodium. Herod built an entire palace on top of a mountain that he had constructed.

Yes, I said that Herod built a mountain.

The ruins of the Herodium

And to steal a phrase from my teacher, Ray Vander Laan, the subversive nature of God’s plan is that He will send His son to be born in the shadow of the palace of the “greatest” man to walk on Roman soil. There are two kingdoms that are being put on display in Matthew’s gospel.

One king is the richest man ever to live. He constructs incredible buildings that stagger the mind and accomplishes incredible feats of human engineering. His ingenuity and wealth are second to none. He builds mountains where there aren’t any, pipes in water to places that it could never previously reach, and corners the market on beauty and innovation. He is the most powerful human being that the world has ever seen. His life is decorated with silver, gold, and the richest of fare.

The other king is born to a poverty-stricken, rejected family from the rural town of Nazareth. He is born in sheep crap surrounded by the ash of shepherd’s fire and the feces of cattle. His birth is announced to the marginalized of society and his advent is celebrated by shepherds.

One king is the leader of Empire. The other is the king of Shalom.

Luke’s gospel seeks to accomplish a similar juxtaposition. With a very brief phrase, Luke sets his audience on alert:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.

And in those five words, Luke says more than we probably realize. These words are chosen deliberately by Luke. It should be noted that in no historical setting can Quirinius be the governor of Syria during the birth of Jesus. I have watched some biblical literalists do incredible gymnastics to try to explain how this is accurate; however, in no possible scenario is Jesus born during the census of Quirinius. We do not have record of a census taken by Augustus for those details, either, so this could be a marginal addition by somebody trying to make sense of the story, or Luke may be trying to make a statement that we are missing context for, or we may not have all the pieces of history yet. Regardless, it’s worth noting that something is taking place there.

At any rate, Luke is trying to set his own stage for his own narrative about the tale of two kingdoms. His version of the Christmas story puts us in the juxtaposition between two other kings.

One king thought himself to be god incarnate. The son of an ascended Julius Caesar, Augustus claimed that a mighty star in the sky (apparently seen by many), referenced today as “Caesar’s Comet,” was actually his father Julius ascending to his rightful throne as god. If Julius was god, then that would make Augustus the son of god. From this point in Roman history, emperors would — almost without exception — claim incarnate deity among their many attributes. Augustus was exclaimed by Roman propaganda (we already looked at the “gospel” plague found in Priene) to be “the Son of the Most High,” the “eternal Prince of Peace,” the “King of kings,” the “Lord of lords,” etc. It was often proclaimed that there was no other name under heaven which a man could be saved from terror except that of Caesar Augustus.

And yet in a stable is born a baby, who Luke claims to be the true King of kings, Lord of lords, Prince of Peace, and Son of the Most High God.

One king plays the part well. The other king challenges everything we expect of the Ruler of the Universe.

It’s a Tale of Two Kingdoms. And we’re being invited to consider our deepest assumptions about the world. What is real power? What is wealth? Where does security come from? Who is God? What is God trying to save me from?

What do I really want and what do I strive for? Empire? Or shalom?

Would I have even noticed the King of the Universe, born in a stable, or would I simply look for a better Caesar? Is this a problem?

Who is truly King?


Written in the Stars

Ruins of Hellenistic theater
In the deep backcountry of Turkey sits the region of Galatia. In 2010, I had the opportunity to hike in this terrain and ascend one of the mountains in this region. As we began to get closer to the top, we ran across the ruins of an old, small, Hellenistic theater (dating to around 400–200 BC). This was odd, considering there was no ancient city or village located on this mountain; this served as a clear indicator that whatever happened on this mountain was significant to the people who lived in this region. The situation became more perplexing as, only a few hundred yards up the road, we ran into some other ancient ruins that dated a couple thousand years older than the theater. We continued to ascend the mountain, until we arrived at an ancient temple at its peak.

It turned out to be the temple to MenEskenu, of ancient Phrygian origin, around 4000–3000 BC. The temple was a place of astrological worship to the god connected to the constellation (what we would call) Taurus. All around the ruins were carvings and markings declaring “the Bull” (Taurus) was in “the house” (temple?).

Central to ancient pagan religions has always been the worship of the stars. In ancient cosmology, the belief was that the earth existed in a “vault,” a bubble of existence which was surrounded by chaotic waters. You can find this belief spelled out clearly in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, as well as Hittite belief, Babylonian/Chaldean/Sumerian belief, and even Hellenistic Greek belief. They believed the stars were great people who had gone before them (you may remember the Apostle Paul encouraging his readers to live like “stars” in the universe).

However, there were seven “stars” that didn’t hold to the same movement as the cosmic ocean — the sun, the moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Often, pagan worship connected these seven stars to the gods of their system. Those gods were so powerful that they existed outside the movement, constraint, and influence of the cosmic ocean. Obviously, the zodiac played into these beliefs in many different ways. But in the days of Jesus, on the spring solstice, the sun (the big “star”) would rise into the “house” (i.e., the sign) of Aries. If you go out and look up into the morning sky this March 21, you will see the sun rising into the sign of Aries.

However, in 167 BC, a Greek philosopher/astrologer made a startling discovery. As he studied ancient astrological thought in Egypt, he noticed all records indicated the sun rose every spring into the house of Taurus (hence, “the Bull is in the House” in the ancient Phrygian temple). Assuming the ancient Egyptians had made an error, he travelled to Babylonia, only to find their records said the same thing. Out of this discovery, a stunning conclusion was reached. There must be some god who is so big that he entered the system (from outside of the system), altered the cosmic ocean, and left the system.

That is one powerful god.

Needless to say, the rise of Mithra worship was underway — the worship of a god so big that he was outside the system. In the first century, the worship of Mithra was the fastest-growing religion of the Roman world (Christianity being the second). This belief was rocking the world as they knew it. What we understand today is that the earth has a  very slight wobble in its rotation that causes it to move in reference to the zodiac (or maybe vice versa?) every 2200 years or so. In just over one century, we will actually move into the house of Aquarius. They did not understand these scientific truths and instead assumed that “somebody” had changed the heavens.

This entire conversation is to say two things:

First, who are the magi who come to visit Jesus? My belief is that the magi are, in fact, Mithra priests from the region of Babylon. If this is the case, it would help explain why they knew WHEN and WHERE to come looking for Jesus. One of their very own prophets would have spoken about this many centuries before. Balaam, a Chaldean star-gazer, was once called in to prophesy against the children of Israel. Here is what he said:
“I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
    a scepter will rise out of Israel.

He will crush the foreheads of Moab,
    the skulls of all the people of Sheth.
Edom will be conquered;
    Seir, his enemy, will be conquered,
    but Israel will grow strong.
A ruler will come out of Jacob
    and destroy the survivors of the city.”

You don’t suppose a few pagan priests would be willing to trust the Text, do you? Well, if they did, that Text led them to the birth of the Prince of Peace. This would sure fit the agenda of Matthew, an author who portrays the gospel of the outsiders and those who don’t belong. Attending the birth of the King of Kings will be a bunch of people who don’t belong.

Second, it is incredibly interesting to notice how Mark deals with his gospel in light of the fastest-growing religion of his day. Mark is the only gospel writer who states that at Jesus’s baptism, the heavens are torn open (versus simply being “opened”). His gospel will end with the tearing of the curtain. Now, the temple of Herod had two curtains; there was the famous curtain before the Holy of Holies and the curtain at the entrance to the Temple itself. This would be the only curtain a Roman audience would be familiar with. We know from Josephus that the front curtain had the zodiac on it.

That means Mark deliberately bookends the life and ministry of Jesus with the heavens being torn open. His message? You are now reading about a God that is so big he tore open the heavens and entered our world. He messed with the system and then left to return to His place outside the system.

Simply put, that’s awesome.

I continue to be amazed at what these gospel writers are able to do within their writings.


JOHN: Grafted

Most have presumed that the gospel of John is written as the latest of the gospel accounts, in an effort to help fill in all the gaps that the “synoptic” gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) missed. While I agree that the gospel of John is certainly written late, I do not believe that his intent was to help tell some of the lost stories of Jesus’s ministry. As the case has been for Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I believe the story is much deeper once we look at the audience of John.

As a matter of context, it’s helpful to know that John is often referred to in historical circles as “the pastor to Asia.” By “Asia,” they would be referring to the modern-day region of Turkey, what was known in the Greco-Roman world as Asia and Asia Minor. John was the pastor of Asia, and church tradition has John frequently traveling amongst the seven churches of Revelation (and there’s a good chance that he did). Church history, on the other hand, has him living at Ephesus and Sardis. John is a disciple who has taken his leadership into the Greco-Roman world and into the Judaism of the Diaspora (“Diaspora” refers to the dispersion of the Jews who went to live throughout the regions of Rome, Macedonia, Greece, Asia, and Asia Minor).

It would be too much to write about who John is and how his gospel works, but you could listen to my teaching of Luke and John here.

It will be enough to say that John’s gospel is a gospel of a grafted people. By grafted, I am referring to a Jesus community that consists of both Jews and Gentiles. This Jesus movement that spread through Asia and Asia Minor was a movement that invited all kinds of people to the table. This community consisted of committed Jews and passionate Gentiles. This means that John’s gospel would need to be written in such a way that it communicates the message of Good News to both groups simultaneously. John is known for many unique attributes. One example would be the “I am” statements.

I am the bread of life.
I am the Good Shepherd.
I am the light of the world.
I am the resurrection.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.

These statements can be found in Jewish teaching, predating the gospel of John, in reference to Torah. One of John’s main teaching points is that Jesus is Torah, wrapped in flesh. Any Jew who heard Jesus’s “I am” statements would hear in them a claim to be Torah. But what if a Greek heard these same teachings? They would be ignorant of the teachings of Torah and the traditions surrounding them. However, they too would have experiences that shine light on Jesus’s teachings. When Jesus claims to be the bread of life, they would hear the claim of Demeter, the goddess of provision — who also claimed to be the bread of life. They would hear Dionysius in Jesus’s claim to be the resurrection. Each of these teachings would carry incredible weight for a Gentile in the Roman world.

Ruins of the Temple of Demeter in Pergamum

Both groups would hear the same message: Jesus is what you’ve been chasing your whole life.

John writes his gospel in such a way that both groups hear the same message in two separate ways in the same Text — simultaneously.

It’s almost impossible to wrap your head around how an author is able to do that throughout an entire gospel. And this is a characteristic of John’s writing in his other books as well. John is a masterful cultural storyteller. John isn’t simply trying to “fill in the gaps” that the other gospels missed. John is trying to tell the stories of Jesus that relate to the culture he’s ministering to.

John is living in shephelah; and his gospel is a shephelah gospel.

John wants the world to know — the whole world, the world he’s living in — who this Jesus is and who He can be in their lives. He’s willing to take the life of Jesus and pick out the stories that help accomplish this purpose, and the stories which confront the Roman agenda in the clearest way, in order to reach his goal. As John will say in one of his letters:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.


LUKE: Ordered

The good doctor Luke is the one author of Scripture that we can say is a Gentile author. Actually, I’m not sure we can, since Luke would more than likely be a proselyte (a convert), converting to the Jewish faith before the introduction to the Gentiles. Everything about Luke’s account (predominantly from Acts) puts him as a fellow follower of the Way — a Jewish faith movement — and a working companion to the apostles.

Nevertheless, we can be fairly confident that Luke has Gentile roots and comes from pagan stock. In fact, some would say that if Luke is a doctor, then it would mean that he was trained in the worship of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. We will talk more about this pagan belief later, but the Greco-Roman version of health care was seen in Asclepion worship; if this is the case, he has very pagan roots indeed.

Many have used Luke’s Gentile roots to make the case that Luke is trying to write a gospel that is more detail-oriented than his Jewish counterparts. We’ve talked before about how western Gentiles would be much more concerned with accuracy, details, and a literal rendering of the historical account. Many have proposed that Luke set out to do this very thing. The introduction to Luke’s gospel seems to point in this direction, as well:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

It would appear that Luke is telling Theophilus that he is attempting to give an “orderly” and accurate account, so that he might know with certainty what happened. For many years, Textual critics maligned Luke for his inaccuracy, stating that too many details are off in his account of history. However, as the search through archaeology continues, we have often found Luke to be the most accurate in his accounts of history.

However, the translation of the Greek in this passage may be a bit more interpretive than we usually assume. There is a book written by M.D. Goulder called The Evangelist’s Calendar which proposes the gospel of Luke is written to accompany the weekly parashah readings in the synagogue. This would assume that the early church was indeed a Jewish movement and that they wanted to read about the life and teachings of Jesus as a part of their worship services. In this light, Luke would be writing his gospel to be separated into weekly readings, thus changing the purpose and design of his gospel — as well as its intent and agenda — entirely.

The Greek could literally be translated, “I too decided to write an ordered account for you…” The word in the Greek, if translated “ordered” (instead of “orderly”) would mean in order or sequenced. This would definitely fit a view of Luke being written as a lectionary accompaniment to the weekly parashah readings in the synagogue. This would also explain the discrepancies that we find in Luke’s account in reference to chronology (if Luke is trying to write an accurate account, why does it appear to be the least chronological?) and other small details.

Now, this is simply one of many theories, but Goulder is far more studied than I am on the matter, and I encourage you to read the book if you get the chance and can stomach scholarly writing. (The book is very hard to find and used copies can run hundreds of dollars.)

Nevertheless, it would be very safe to say that Luke is writing his gospel to be a gospel of order. Which order (orderly or sequenced)? We may never know. However, Luke is certainly not without his own literary genius and brilliant tools of written communication. In fact, the more I study Luke, the more that I find deeply seeded literary devices (chiasms, parallelism, etc.) and brilliant teaching points. One of Luke’s main agendas under the surface appears to be that Jesus is the second Moses.

Was Luke written to a Gentile? The name Theophilus (“Friend of God”) is a Greek one; but it is one that speaks of God. It could also be a code name for God’s people or a particular body of faith or a church. It could also be a Jewish name of a more Herodian bent.

Was Luke written to Jews? The theory of Goulder would point toward a Jewish audience, as would the theme of a second Moses and the presence of eastern literary tools.

At the end of the day, we may not have answers to the many questions that are raised, but the truth of the matter is that Luke provides us with one of the most thorough accounts of Jesus’s life, as well as one that differs from the two gospels that appear to have shared source information.


MARK: A Roman Gospel

Mark’s gospel ends up being significantly different than Matthew’s. The main difference between the two will be Mark’s audience. Whereas Matthew was a Jew writing to Jews, Mark will be a Jew who pens a gospel to the Roman culture. This will shape the message and agenda more than anything else.

The first thing that a reader notices about Mark is the pace.
Mark is much shorter and carries a much faster pace through the gospel. Romans are westerners who like to be entertained. They are not easterners who value a treasure hunt buried in the Text or an expectation that you would want to work through tough questions in order to unearth amazing truths. Romans want you to get to the point and tickle their fancy. And so Mark writes a gospel that is a fast-paced tale of all the things Jesus did. He bounces from story to story, keeping the characters moving and Jesus busy.

Mark also plays on the value system of the Roman culture. The Greco-Roman culture was built on four pillars of Hellenistic life: education, health care, entertainment, and competition. If you pay attention to the stories Mark chooses to tell and the way he chooses to tell them, you begin to notice that Jesus is being portrayed as quite the impressive character. He's a master teacher (education), an incredible healer of all kinds of conditions (health care), an entertainer of crowds who are constantly “amazed” (entertainment), and better than any other man being offered for consideration (competition).

I think there is a reason that many of us prefer the gospel of Mark. In short, we are Romans! We are westerners who are cut from the same cloth. It’s for the very same reasons we enjoy the shorter, faster, more entertaining gospel of Mark. But Mark has an agenda much deeper than simply entertaining his readers. And he starts to head down his main path as the gospel nears the end.

One of the many differences that you can find in the gospel of Mark appears to come during the telling of the crucifixion story. An astute Bible student may notice that in the gospel of Mark, Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh before He is on the cross; in every other gospel, He is offered vinegar mixed with gall, both before and on the cross. This seems like a minor detail (or a major one for biblical critics), but in fact, Mark is doing something much deeper under the surface. In order to explain this, I would like to describe the coronation of a Roman Caesar. (While I heard this teaching from Ray Vander Laan, the man who did the definitive work on this was the Oxford scholar Thomas E. Schmidt.)

We don’t have a comprehensive account of every coronation of a Caesar, but we do have a few. One of the best records we have is of the coronation of Emperor Nero. From the records that we do have, one could conclude that the typical coronation had nine steps:

1. The Praetorian Guard gathers to hail Caesar as lord and god.
2. Royal robes, a wreath crown, and a scepter are placed on Caesar.
3. They lead Caesar through a procession, lined with incense altars.
4. Caesar is followed by the sacrifice (a bull, in Nero’s case), and he carries the instrument of death.
5. They arrive at Capitoline Hill; Caesar is offered wine mixed with myrrh, but he refuses it, pouring it out.
6. The bull is killed; Caesar pronounced death or life on a host of prisoners, demonstrating that he has the power of life and death.
7. The emperor ascends the steps of the temple with the High Priest on his right and his commander on his left.
8. Caesar is acclaimed “lord and god” as people sing his praises.
9. They wait for a sign from the heavens (in Nero’s coronation, according to history, there was an eclipse).

If one takes this list and reads through Mark’s account of the crucifixion, they are stunned to find what Mark is doing. Take the list above, open your Bible to Mark 15, and connect them to the following passages:

1. 15:16
2. 15:17–18
3. 15:20
4. 15:21
5. 15:22–23
6. 15:24
7. 15:27
8. 15:29–32
9. 15:33

Mark tells the crucifixion as if it was Jesus’s coronation. Mark’s trying to make the case that Jesus’s crucifixion was not a moment of defeat — it was His greatest moment of triumph.

This is a stunning agenda to attempt to communicate to a bunch of Romans. Mark is essentially trying to tell them that the world they live in is completely backwards and upside down. He’s saying that the way of empire doesn’t actually bring true peace. That in weakness — in the laying down of His life — Jesus showed empire to be the farce that it is.

And then, there is the ending. If you look in your Bible, you will notice a note that says that Mark 16:9–20 is not in the earliest manuscripts. To be quite frank, I do not believe that Mark 16:9–20 should be in our inspired Text. I believe that the early Christians attempted to “clean up” the ending to Mark’s gospel and fix something that was never broken.

If you read Mark 16:8, you can see why they would think such things. Would Mark really end his gospel with women running away, trembling and afraid?

Of course he would.

Because any Roman who reads Mark’s gospel — and accepts it — is going to feel just like those women. If they affirm the truth that Jesus is a better king, their Roman life as they know it is over. They have much to fear. And so, much like the story of the prodigal son, Mark leaves the ending open-ended and unwritten, inviting the Roman readers to consider what they believe to be the truest true about the world and what brings real peace. This is our great challenge as “Roman” readers. Do we really want to choose the “triumph” of Jesus? It runs counter to everything that our worldview says is power. Yet Mark confronts our worldview and invites us to consider — as we possibly sit trembling and afraid of the implications — whether or not we’d like to believe this “gospel” of a better kingdom.


MATTHEW: The Mumzer

As we look at the gospels, there will be a set of questions that we will always ask when considering the context of that narrative. Who is the author? who does the author work with? who is the audience? and other questions will help us begin to approach each particular narrative with the appropriate posture of interpretation.

In short, Matthew is a Jewish author who happens to be writing for a Jewish audience. Much of my opinion about the gospel of Matthew will go against popular scholastic opinion, was inherited from my learning under Ray Vander Laan, and was shaped by listening to others teach on Matthew’s gospel. While I don’t believe this is nearly as important as we seem to make it, regarding the question of when each gospel was written (in terms of order), it is my personal opinion that Matthew was in fact written first. I also happen to believe that Matthew was originally penned in Hebrew. These are not the typical opinions. There is no external evidence to support the idea of a Hebrew version of Matthew, but there are many clues within the Text itself. I do not discredit all of the discussion about the source material “Q,” or even doubt its existence (in fact, I see that discussion as very fruitful), but I do see Matthew being the first record and Mark being penned later. This is neither here nor there for the purposes of this blog, so we’ll continue moving forward.

In order to understand the agenda that Matthew has behind writing his gospel, we need to look no further than the first chapter of his gospel. Bible students will immediately raise their eyebrows at that suggestion, as they remember that the first chapter of Matthew starts with a thorough genealogy. I believe this is one of the most intentional decisions made by Matthew in his gospel.

If a Jew were to read Matthew’s genealogy, they would quickly notice how odd the genealogy is. From a Jewish perspective, the genealogy is one of the worst ever recorded in biblical history. The passage is riddled with problems:

The passage contains multiple references to women. Women are not typically included in Jewish genealogies. The maternal lineage does not become important until later in history; the mention of fathers takes all priority. Women are not mentioned in a genealogy unless absolutely necessary.

The women Matthew mentions in Jesus’s genealogy are not women you would ever want to go out of your way to point out. Under normal circumstances, the author would work incredibly hard to bend the lineage around these stories and avoid bringing them up all together. Each of these women comes from a frustrating past, therefore marring the genealogy. Tamar slept with her father-in-law. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was a pagan, a Moabitess forbidden to enter the assembly of God. Bathsheba is part of the worst moment of King David’s life. The purpose of a genealogy is to prove the purity of a person’s pedigree. Why does Matthew deliberately go out of his way to mention these women?

If we consider for a moment who Matthew was and his background, it may shed some light on the agenda that lies behind his gospel.

Matthew was a tax collector. He was a traitor. He had turned his back on the people of God and agreed to work for Rome. If Matthew had any family to speak of in Galilee, he had turned his back on them and his faith community. Matthew was an outsider — a mumzer. (I use this term very loosely and poetically; the word in the Torah literally refers to a child of illegitimate birth — a “bastard,” without the derogatory stigma.) The day that Matthew was sitting at his collection booth and Jesus walked by, calling him to be a follower of a strictly-observant rabbi, must have been a stunning experience.

Somebody was giving the mumzer a second chance. Somebody had truly seen him and invited him into something amazing. The first act of Matthew is to throw a party and invite all of his “sinner” friends. This is a guy who is going to follow Jesus with a heart for the outsider.

So, when Matthew writes a gospel — the “good news” about a new King who is reigning — what is the thing that has always stuck out to him about Jesus? What is the thing that he wants all his Jewish readers to understand? What is his agenda?

I was always taught in Bible college that Matthew was written in order to prove that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. I believe this is incorrect. If this is Matthew’s goal, then he fails miserably. Matthew is written to say this Jewish Messiah is one who sees the outsider. Jesus is one who welcomes the mumzer. And Matthew is going out of his way, not to prove the purity of the Messiah’s bloodline, but the messiness of it, because this is a Messiah who understands the messiness of life. When you read Matthew’s gospel, you begin to see “the one who doesn’t belong” on every page. It’s the leper. It’s the Roman. It’s the gentile woman. It’s the demoniacs in the Decapolis. It’s the blind men and the bleeding woman. It’s the unclean, the pagan outcast, the rejected, and the despised around every corner of Jesus’s ministry.

Matthew sees himself in the ministry of Jesus. Matthew’s story is his agenda.

Our God is the God who sees the one who doesn’t belong. Our God is the God who would be born of a questionable pedigree, just to prove that He’s not here for everyone who has it all together.

God is looking for mumzers.


Gospel Narrative

In the next few posts, I’d like to unpack a general overview of the gospel writers and what they are trying to accomplish with their four accounts. In order to do this, I will need to lay some ground work and address some assumptions made by many students of the Bible.

I will not be making an attempt to “harmonize” the gospels. These attempts end up being the right answer to the wrong question — which is really just a wrong answer. One of the first things we have to come to grips with is that the Bible is not a piece of western historical literature. The goal of biblical history is NOT to give an accurate, detailed description of events. Historical narrative — especially gospel narrative — is written to tell a compelling story with an agenda. Attempts to harmonize the gospels stem from this apologetic impulse to make sure all the details line up and the “accuracy” of the accounts is verified. Simply put, the gospel writers were not concerned with telling you how something happened, as much as telling you something about who Jesus is.

Each gospel writer has an agenda behind their gospel. Oftentimes, this agenda is driven by that writer’s audience. The writer is trying to convey convictions about the person of Jesus to a particular group of people as they tell the audience about the life of Christ. In the day of the gospels, it was perfectly acceptable to bend details in such a way as to make a deeper point about the story. Accuracy was not their main goal; the sooner we come to grips with that, the sooner we will appreciate the gospels for the inspired, authoritative works that they are.

“Gospel” is an ancient term that was used by the Greco-Roman world to announce that a new kingdom had arrived on the scene. The gospel (or euangelion in the Greek) was “good news” that a new ruler was here. Alexander the Great brought a gospel, the good news that the kingdom of Greece (and all it had to offer its citizens) was here. The kingdom of Rome burst onto the scene with a gospel of peace in Caesar Augustus. In fact, here is the translation of a plaque we found in Priene (an ancient city in modern-day Turkey) announcing the gospel of Augustus:

“Citizens of Priene: Since Divine Providence has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of all mankind, bestowing on us Augustus Caesar as Savior of the World, for he has put an end to war and brought perfect peace. By the epiphany of his birth, he brought the gospel of peace to all mankind. For that reason, the Greeks of Asia have on this day declared that the New Year should begin from now on, on the 23rd of September, the day of the birth of this god. Never will another gospel surpass the gospel that was announced at his birth. He is not only Lord of the Empire, but Lord of the Earth and of the calendar and of time itself.”

The reader must understand when they read the “gospel of Mark” that they are reading a subversive piece of literature where Mark is claiming that he has good news that a new Kingdom is here. A new Prince of Peace is reigning and that all are being invited to recognize a better kingdom. These authors aren’t trying to just give an accurate record of history! They are trying to announce the coming of a better King in an artistic way.

After we address the four authors and what their agendas are, my plan is to walk through the life and ministry of Jesus. While most people would choose the gospel of Luke to do this, I will be using the gospel of Matthew as my original template. This does not mean I will always use the Matthew Text, as sometimes I will choose the way the passage is worded in another gospel. There will also be moments where I try to “harmonize” individual stories in order to address certain questions, but these moments will be few and far between. After Matthew, I will address a few of the stories within the gospel of John, all the while trying not to disturb the way in which I will attempt to address the book of Revelation later in our study.

To summarize, I believe it is incredibly important to learn how to hear each gospel within the context of the agenda of the author. The voice of Matthew needs to be heard as the voice of Matthew, and his gospel needs to be read and seen as a whole narrative, from beginning to end — with a purpose and a narrative arc and a point to be made. The same is true with Mark, Luke, and John. I will try to preserve those distinct voices in their diversity, not harmonize them together and ruin the voice in which the inspired Word is meant to be heard.

So, with nothing further to cover, let’s start with the gospel narrative of Matthew…


THE SILENT YEARS: Perfect Timing

We’ve looked at the five different responses within the first-century Jewish world to the problem of Hellenism and the Greco-Roman empire and influence. While we’ve touched on a few of the aspects of these different groups, I wanted to dedicate a post to reviewing and summarizing the different responses and how they will play into the cultural landscape of the gospel narratives and the stories of Jesus.

As I teach this material to my students, I often find there are universal experiences that demand very important observations. First, you will find yourself resonating with one of these groups. We have the same groups and responses at work today within the religious community; for certain, you can find Pharisees, Herodians, and even Essenes. That is actually very helpful to wrestle with. To understand oneself, to be able to objectively critique and evaluate your own experience, and to identify weaknesses and dangers in your daily walk is incredibly beneficial. So don’t resist or miss the opportunity to relate with the story. This, however, leads to another significant observation. This is NOT about figuring out which group was the most “correct” or the “right” group to belong to. To be sure:

Each group had its struggles. None of these groups had the methodology perfect; they all had an approach skewed by biases and misinterpretations. In short, on some level, each of these groups was wrong.

Each of these groups also brought something quite valuable to the table.
This will be hard for most of us to accept. Each of us will have a group that we will demonize and vilify and act as if there was no redeeming value to them; we will all talk as if the world would be better off without “that group.” (By the way, I have found this is often indicative of your own personal struggles; almost without fail, the group you hate the most is the one you struggle with becoming.) It is important to realize that each group offered something while struggling with something else.

With that being said, let’s take a moment to review the five groups and I’ll suggest what I believe to be the strengths and the weaknesses of each group. My language will certainly betray my own biases (as you can probably already tell from my writing, I identify most with the Essenes). But nevertheless, here goes nothing:

ZEALOTS — This group brought an incredible amount of passion and zeal to the table. This was their incredible strength, as it takes some chutzpah to actually get out and change the world — to go and DO something. The Zealots were nothing if not action-oriented. They put their money where their mouth was and aligned their behavior with their beliefs. Their obvious weakness would be their steadfast resolve to use redemptive violence, something that definitively goes against the teachings of Jesus. A Zealot would have been offended at the suggestion of Jesus to love his enemies; he had likely taken a vow to kill them. But Jesus saw their strengths and called a few Zealots to be his disciples; he saw the passion and zeal and knew that if he could just change the weapon in their hand and rewire their passionate hatred into zealous love and compassion, he’d be on to something.

PHARISEES — This group definitely gets the worst treatment in the gospels. Their negative side is in the open for all to see. Their self-righteous devotion to what they perceive as the correct path is what will keep the Kingdom from coming. Jesus was ruthless against their weaknesses, frequently telling them that the sinners (the people the Pharisees blamed for the world’s ills) were entering the Kingdom ahead of them, while their own piety was blinding them to seeing things through God’s eyes. However, they were incredibly devoted to the path of God and living a life that was set apart. Jesus exhorted His followers to do what the Pharisees say, just not what they do. They had the truth correct, but they had forgotten about loving others and chasing after the marginalized. If the Pharisees would keep their rugged devotion to obedience and not let it get in the way of truly seeing and loving people, they would be a formidable force for the Kingdom. But self-righteousness is so hard to overcome; it makes the victim blind to God’s peace

SADDUCEES — To be sure, the Sadducees had been called to their role by God Himself. This is their strength. They have a role that is appointed, commissioned, and ordained by God to help the people in their relationship with God (you may recognize the roles of the priest here). However, having spiritual power is incredibly dangerous and difficult to carry well. Many of us in today’s church culture can relate with abused religious leadership. And far too many of us have given up on religious leadership and have judged anyone who carries a title guilty until proven innocent. This is a tragedy for both parties. We need people to be called to the God-ordained offices of church leadership and they need to carry that responsibility with integrity. But we also need to respect our leaders, allowing them to be human, encouraging them to fulfill their duties as God intended.

HERODIANS — This may not be something that we want to hear, but most of us are Herodians. We wouldn’t last a day in the life of the Hasidim in the Galilee. Take away our running water, air conditioning, and smartphones, and we’d be crying uncle by lunchtime. We have convinced ourselves that we can live in the Hellenistic world that is American consumerism and serve God at the same time. We do not see our consumption as idolatry. And we may be right, but that is the danger and the weakness of the Herodian. They had exchanged the “set apart” life of the Pharisees for the comforts of the world. However, the positive of the Herodians is that they are perfectly placed for God’s mission. If they will snap out of their idolatrous slumber, they find that they are sitting right at the crossroads of the earth, perfectly placed to impact a world that’s buying into the wrong message and the wrong kingdom.

ESSENES — The positive of the Essenes is their passionate commitment to know the path of God and walk it. They had all the zeal of the Zealot, the devotion of a Pharisee, the calling of a Sadducee, and they hadn’t forgotten generosity, hospitality, and love to the outsider. But it didn’t matter. They ran off into the desert and separated themselves so much from the culture that they weren’t ministering to the people God so desperately wanted to rescue. This may sound very familiar to our discussion about shephelah. Please notice that over 2,000 years later, the wrestling matches haven’t changed one bit.

It’s very important to point out that Jesus calls all of these guys into His havurah (group of disciples). He calls at least two Zealots (Simon and Judas), five boys from Pharisee-ville (Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Philip), two Herodians (Matthew and Thaddeus, whose Greek name gives him away, specifically), and He is influenced and trained by an Essene (more on this later). There also appears to be connections to priestly families spread throughout, as well (you may remember Jesus’s uncle is a righteous priest named Zechariah). Jesus calls these guys together and tells them to get along! Can you now appreciate why they are always arguing about who’s the greatest? They aren’t taking about personal greatness; they’re arguing about worldviews. Every conversation that comes up is going to be divided amongst themselves; Simon is never going to read the Scripture in the same way as Thaddeus — they can hardly stand being in the same room!

One final point: Galatians 4:4 tells us God sent Jesus at just the right time. When all the pieces were in place, Jesus showed up. That means that there could not have been a more perfect time for Jesus to come than when He did. So why did God wrap Himself in flesh and enter the story when He did? There must have been something about this newfound love for the Text and how it was interacting with culture. The different responses amongst God’s people must have set a stage that God wanted to crash and fill with His truth.

What will we find as God comes and walks among us?