statue of Jesus blessing

Uncover Blessings Concealed in Beatitudes / Spiritual Meditations

Every day we hear someone say “I’m blessed” referring to just about anything.  It’s usually the receipt of something: a goal achieved, support or endorsement, a gift or acquisition, money.   Although the words “I’m blessed” imply that the receiver credits God for the gift, which may be legitimate, the type of blessings spoken of by Jesus, the apostle John and the Psalmists are quite different.

What we consider a blessing is often still the same as it was when Jesus walked the earth.  At the time he taught the Beatitudes, the “blessed” ones were considered to be those who lived on a higher plane than everyone else.  Either:

  • They were gods.
  • They were humans who had gone to the world of the gods.
  • They were the wealthy, upper crust. They were those with many possessions. The blessed were those people and beings who lived above the normal cares, problems, and worries of normal people.

Matthew (reflecting Jesus’ thoughts) uses the word  “blessed” in a totally different way. It is not the elite who are blessed. It is not the rich and powerful who are blessed. It is not the high and mighty who are blessed. It is not the people living in huge mansions or expensive penthouses who are blessed. Rather, Jesus turned it upside-down and pronounced God’s blessings on the lowly: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek, and the mourning.

So, when you read the Beatitudes do you see yourself in one or more of those blessed groups?  This is the way I always looked at them; as separate groups. That is until I started doing some research.  Then I had a real eye-opener.

With the help of my friend Rev. Nathan Carlson. I’ll tell you what I found.

Setting the Scene

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.  (Matt 5:1-2)

Matthew wrote his gospel many years after Jesus spoke on the mountainside. In his view, the ‘crowds’ included  the new groups of  Christians who would be reading his Gospel. His intention was for a closer look at this part of the teaching, targeted to disciples already living in a post Easter, post Ascension, post Pentecost times.  Therefore, although the ‘disciples’ who were mentioned may have included only Jesus’ current 4 disciples, it most likely referred to all those who were part of the crowd, or indeed, all readers of Matthew’s gospel, including you and me! 

Some have understood the beatitudes as teaching the true meaning of either Torah or prophetic pronouncements upon Israel. And the beatitudes borrow heavily from themes and phrases found in the Prophets and Psalms, which you can see by reading the Relevant Scriptures at the bottom of this article. Thus, Jesus could be viewed as explaining the meaning and fulfillment of texts well known to his Hebrew listeners who would have interpreted Jesus’ teaching as concerning the coming of the promised land of Israel. 

Therefore, note that there are multiple parallel thoughts running through the beatitudes: the Hebrews on the hillside were expecting the creation of the state of Israel, Christians (who existed at the time Matthew wrote his gospel) were expecting the Kingdom of Heaven on earth at Christ’s second coming, and  those who believe that the Kingdom of God is the individual’s inner relationship with God anticipates that relationship for each seeker of God.

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.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,

The purpose then of these beatitudes is not to prescribe actions necessary to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, but to describe the type of characteristics expected to be seen in those who are in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven, here, refers specifically to God’s reign on earth.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit for Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

Whereas Luke (Luke 6:20-26) only mentioned the poor who are in a state of financial and physical need and excluded those who are wealthy, Matthew included the qualifier “in spirit”, opening the inclusion of everyone. Various meanings of the words “in spirit” have been suggested, however, Rev. Carlson believes the best use for them relates to those who are entirely dependent upon God’s grace, mercy, sovereignty, and care. There is supporting evidence throughout the Gospel of Matthew and it makes sense with what follows in these verses.  For the Jewish community, the poor are those missing a homeland – themselves.

Blessed are Those who Mourn for They will be Comforted

This should be understood as those who mourn the loss of the things of this world that reflect the will of God and the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. They will be comforted by the restoration of the kingdom, whether it be land, the second coning or our inner connection with God.

Blessed are the Meek for They will Inherit the Earth

If you equate “meek” with “milk-toast”, you are not alone.  But my friend and Hebrew/Greek/English translator, Dr Frank Leeds, gives us a much more accurate way to visualize what the Greek speaking folks of the time understood ‘meek’ to mean.

Greek is loaded with ‘picture’ words and English simply does not have the language to fill in the difference.  Meek is a horse term which the New Testament is full of.  Here is the picture:  A horse is by its very nature, scared to death of fire.  It sees fire and it bolts away to save its life.  When the Romans used horses for military purposes, they often used them at night and soldiers at night needed torches to see properly. Light a torch and the rider had a crazy horse to deal with.  However, by training a horse, a torch could be passed in front of its eyes and it wouldn’t move.  Taking its cue front the calm of its rider rather than the fire of the torch, the horse was declared to be “MEEK”.  What was going on around the horse, no matter how frightening, the horse took its perspective of life from its rider not from its environment.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek” he is saying, “Blessed is the man who does not get all bent out of shape and scared to death about what is going on around him, but is strong enough to take his cue from his master.  It is a description of the person who does not ‘fly off the handle” but remains perfectly in control. It is about a person who has reached beyond his or her nature.  It is a person who takes their cue from God.

So, the meek reflect the character of Jesus as the suffering servant. Those who have been used and abused by tyrannical political systems and have the strength to not fight back. Those who exhibit the peaceful nature of the Kingdom. Those who confront power not with power but with God’s love and promise as their fortifying backbone.

Can you now accept being called ‘meek’? I can.

Promised to the meek is “the earth”. In the prophet’s words in Isaiah, the same concept is used to signify the earth being not the globe but the promised land of Israel.  This is the long-awaited hope of the people of Israel; that that for which they mourned the loss, will be restored to them. Or It will be given to those who reflect the nature of Jesus with the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Blessed are Those who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness for They will be Filled

Like Luke, Matthew raised up those who are hungry, but also those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  The idea of hunger and thirst relating not just to the physical body, but also to the spiritual body, already existed in Psalms. What does it mean, however, to hunger and thirst for righteousness? This addition cuts several directions.

  • First, righteousness indicates a right relationship with God. This meaning absolutely applies to this verse.
  • The second meaning of the word in Greek means justice, specifically God’s justice. This then has something to do, potentially, with the judgment at the end of the time.
  • Considering the oppression of Israel’s people by the Romans, ‘justice’ also refers to the coming of God’s will to provide Israel with a homeland.

The fulfillment of these would be a right relationship with God and for the Kingdom of Heaven to be perfectly represented in the new ‘earth’ spoken of in the previous verses.

Blessed are the Merciful for They will be Shown Mercy

Mercy, the act of forgiveness even in the face of the unforgiveable (as Jesus demonstrated on the cross for his crucifiers and mockers) unveils the true nature of the Kingdom of God in the present kingdom.  This then is a mark of a right relationship with God which will be made apparent as those who are merciful have already received God’s mercy and at the final judgment will receive God’s mercy.

Blessed are the Pure in Heart for They will See God

This has often been mistreated as a matter of Christian thought and is worth exploring. Some recent and historical Christian teaching has suggested this to be a matter of moral or ethical purity: “I need to keep my mind pure; I need to keep my actions pure; I need to keep my mouth pure”. This value, while commendable, does not seem consistent with the original language. The original Greek used the term “katharoi” whose first meaning is “purified by fire”. One commentator suggests that a good translation would be “Whose heart is unalloyed”. The person whose heart is not a mixture of two things, but single minded, of single purpose, of single devotion; this is the one who Jesus speaks of here. Then we can see that those whose hearts are single-mindedly focused on God without including any other gods or devotion to anything else alongside God; those people will be the ones who see God.

Blessed are the Peacemakers for They will be Called Children of God

The focus here is on the Hebrew word “Shalom”. Shalom is not a passive peace but a peace forged out of the hard work of reconciliation between God and humanity and humanity and itself. Peacemaking in the sense of uniting individuals’ hearts with themselves, uniting conflicting people with one another, uniting people to God who have been estranged, and even uniting the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven with the current reality. These people are the peacemakers. The conclusion of this verse should be translated Sons of God. Sons of God is a phrase used early in scripture to denote the angels in heaven. Therefore, peacemakers on earth act as the angels in heaven bearing God’s message to all.

Blessed are Those who are Persecuted Because of Righteousness, for Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

This verse does not address all who are persecuted, but rather those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, which as we have seen is living a right relationship with God and their desire to see the justice of the Kingdom of God reflected in the world. This concludes the words spoken by Jesus on the hillside to the crowds. Notice that up to this point all the beatitudes begin with “blessed are those.” This will be important in a moment.

Bracketed by verse 3 and 10 in which the received blessing is the Kingdom of Heaven, Mathew may have, and likely did, include verse 4-9 as being the same blessing, while providing further augmentation of what characteristics would be found in those who reach the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are You when People Revile You and Persecute You and Utter all Kinds of Evil Against You Falsely on My Account.   Rejoice and be Glad, Because Great is Your Reward in Heaven

Jesus in this moment inserts Himself into the equation in the same place as righteousness in the verse before. He becomes, for Matthew and us, the righteous one. This verse is seen by some as a Matthew insertion because it points to the time after Jesus was on earth in the flesh. Verse eleven makes little sense in a context in which many are following Jesus and during which there is little present threat to Him or His followers.

It speaks directly to Matthew’s community of Christian Jewish followers ostracized by both the synagogues and Rome.  The reward for faithfully following Jesus through all of this, for standing up for Him and claiming Him is that “your reward is great in heaven.”

Conclusion

We can clearly see that the nine beatitudes were written as much for those who were in the Christian church of Matthew’s day as well as spoken to the first disciples and the crowds.

Even amid persecution and separation from the synagogues and other Jewish groups, Matthew saw Jesus as still calling this community to peacemaking and reconciliation. They, and those who followed after them, would be persecuted for maintaining a right relationship with God – especially as found through Jesus – and their reward was the Kingdom of Heaven. We can also see how the beatitudes today relate, not how the church OUGHT to live, but how the true people of God WOULD live. It is less prescription and more description of the nature of the lives of disciples.

They were poor, potentially, for being disinherited from sacred Jewish spaces, mournful for their loss, meek in taking their cue from God to avoid conflict with oppressors, hungering and thirsting for right relationships with God and for justice, merciful in that they still desired to extend the Gospel to those around them and were quick to forgive those who had wronged them (think Saul/Paul), pure in heart as they believed in and sought God above all things including family and possessions, persecuted by the Roman authorities and those around them, and persecuted from within their own Jewish community and ostracized from it. This, then, for Matthew and his Jesus marked the traits of the authentic community of the people of God and identified the promises for which their hearts longed.

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Relevant Scripture

The meaning of the word ‘beatitudes’ (μακαριότητα in Greek) is ‘the joys of heaven’ or ‘a declaration of blessedness’.  As you will see here, they are not limited to only those in Matthew 5.

Blessed are all who take refuge in Him. (Psalms 2:12)

Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalms 32: 2)

Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside from false gods. (Psalms 40:4)

Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the Lord delivers them in times of trouble. (Psalms 41:1)

Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.  Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. (Psalms 84:4-5)

Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right. (Psalms 106:3)

Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him. (Psalms 128:1)

But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:16)

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”  “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (Rev 14:13)

Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (Rev 19:9)

Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. (Rev 20:6)

fisherman waist high in water throwing fishing net and facing into sun.

Why was Israels Catch & Release Like Habakkuk’s Fish?/Spiritual Meditations

Most of the time when I read the Old Testament, I am understanding only what is in front of me at the moment.  My friend Dr. Frank Leeds III has a much broader perspective and lays out for us how it all fits together historically.  In this post he tells us the fascinating hows and whys of the Babylonian catch and release of the Israelites, as well as some amusing results and long-term repercussions. He writes:

Bibles are so plentiful in these days of digital printing that it is easy to forget that they are a very ancient collection of manuscripts. In the very earliest of them Moses required and instructed the people to “keep the commands”. To the casual reader the word ‘keep’ is generally assumed to be ‘obey’. It is much more than that. The admonishment is “to guard them with your life”, to always have them, because your life and your children’s life depends on them. Paraphrasing Moses, “If you do not teach your children the Torah, they will think you’re crazy, because no one has ever experienced what you have and you must teach your children what you have seen and heard and experienced as the Lord leads us out of Egypt.”

Coming out of Egypt was not the only “EXIT” that was provided to the children of Israel. The following is another story of an exodus. We are told, “I have set before you two paths. One leads to life and the other to destruction”. Choose wisely. You too dear reader will have times in your life where you will need an EXIT because you are on the wrong road. May the Holy One of Israel provide it to you as you call upon his authority over life.

Habakkuk’s Lament

The prophet Habakkuk asked the following from the Holy One of Israel.

Are we only fish, to be caught and killed? Are we only sea creatures that have no leader? Must we be strung up on their hooks and caught in their nets while they rejoice and celebrate? Then they will worship their nets and burn incense from them. “These nets are the gods who have made us rich!” they will claim. Will you let them get away with this forever? Will they succeed forever in their heartless conquers?

The context of this prophet’s questioning comes after being informed that Israel and her terrible Kings [although they did have some good ones] were going to be overrun and conquered by a nation that was far less righteous than they were. He spoke of Jewish kings who taxed the people heavily so they could build big palaces for themselves. They dishonestly gained wealth and ignored the poor. They trusted in their ill-gotten wealth as their security blanket. So, the nation must learn afresh what life is all about and what is important. Thus, I wish to tell you another story about life.

King Solomon’s Folly

Life is a process, but all stories must begin somewhere. For this one, I have chosen to begin with King Solomon. In the minds of many, he is known as the wisest of kings. At the start his kingship his prayer and heart’s desire was to be wise and his early reputation was that of a wise king. His wisdom was displayed in his decision about which mother was the real mother of a child when he threatened to have the baby cut in half to resolve the conflict. (1 Kings 3:16-28)

I suppose we all have our wise moments whereby we shine in the sun. In looking over his entire life, however, he was not just a fool, but a fool of gigantic proportions. His self-centeredness not only corrupted his person but laid the foundation for the destruction of the nation of Israel. Why do I say that?

It was Moses who laid out the criteria for the people to know when they had a good king. Here is what he said:

When you have a king, the king must not acquire a great number of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you. “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law…he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not to consider himself better than his brothers … (Deuteronomy 17:14-17)

Compare the above standard with Solomon’s reign. To his credit he did build an extremely gorgeous temple in Jerusalem. When built, it stood as the pride of the nation and a beacon for the surrounding nations, or did it?

Contrast for a moment the building of the tabernacle under Moses’ leadership and that of the temple under Solomon.

For the tabernacle, everyone contributed a tiny portion. They all put their two cents in, so to speak, so the tabernacle had everyone’s participation. Following, people contributed to the cost as they felt led to do so. Some gave a little more. Many gave significant amounts. When it was completed, it was all paid for and they had excess money. Every penny was accounted for and the people were told, “no more is needed.”

With Solomon, he built the temple in a similar fashion to Pharaoh’s methods. He used slaves and he even made slaves of his own people to get the project completed. He got it built and that would be considered a great success, if that were the only reason to have it built in the first place. But he enriched himself with the collection of huge amounts of gold. He then added collections of silver. How about wives? He collected those as plentiful as gold coins. And then there is the prized collection of horses, which he got from Egypt.  He built magnificent stables that were better than the homes of the poor.  Solomon’s leadership was all about Solomon and the use of his kingship to line his own pockets. It is a very familiar story throughout history. By the end of his reign, the temple no longer stood for the righteousness of their loving God, but it became a symbol of corruption. By contrast, his father – King David – never rode a horse. He rode the peoples’ transportation – a donkey.

Now, I happen to live on the water and have been able to have a small boat most of my life. The rule of the water way is: “A person is responsible for the wake that he leaves behind.” Solomon left a mess. So much so, that when he died, the people revolted because of his poor leadership and the nation split into two parts: A Northern and Southern Kingdom and no longer a united Israel.

A variety of kings follow for each kingdom but when history came to King Josiah, it found him very different from Solomon. By the time we reach the Prophet Jeremiah, the son of Josiah, is the target of the prophet’s wrath [cir 640 BC] as he describes the greed and warnings to another bad king.

Woe to him who built his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing not paying them for their labor. He says, “I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms”. So, he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red. Does it make you a good king to have more and more cedar?  Now, take a look at your father, did he not have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 22).

The prophet then makes it clear, this self-centered kingship that centers on lining one’s own pockets is a disgrace that leads to destruction. He then tells the nations they will be destroyed. They have made alliances with Babylon to fight against Assyria and they did likewise with Assyria to fight against Babylon. Now, the whole world knows their word is no good and the temple is a symbol of shame.

A side note about the promise of ‘destruction’. This is not, ‘you did bad therefore I will punish you’. Rather it is, ‘you did bad and your bad behavior will take you down the path of destruction’. That is true for all of us. When we make poor decisions, we are left with poor options…unless we change our ways.

Anyhow, the prophet declares, the temple is now a symbol of evil and must be destroyed.

Now to the Catch part of “Catch and Release”

The Babylonians head east and conquer Israel just as the prophet proclaimed. They begin by destroying the temple. They remove its precious jewels, gold, and silver. They then take it apart piece by piece. Anything of value is removed. Items that are too large to carry back to Babylon are cut in half for ease of transport.  In time, the temple is no more and much of Jerusalem is destroyed.

As the temple is being destroyed, all the leaders, the politicians, the ‘movers and shakers’ are taken to Babylon. After that, they remove all the artists and musicians. When these people get to Babylon, they lament as in the 137th Psalm.

By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, and tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “Tear it down to its foundation!” O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us - he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

So, the leaders are gone and so are the artists and musicians. Next to be deported are all the people with skills [the butchers the bakers and the candlestick makers – stone masons, etc.] Eventually, young men of ‘army age’. What remains in Judah are women and children and grandparents.

After this, the Babylonians look at the Northern Kingdom, particularly Samaria, and here they do things differently. They remove all the men of marrying age and replace them with Babylonian men. This way, they have support in the north, and these men marry the Samaritan women.

What follows in Israel is a management plan. Very large areas simply had to be broken into small areas for management purposes.

When the Hebrews arrive in Babylon, they are not made slaves. Rather, they are given ‘good land’, just as they had been in the Egyptian exile. The purpose of King Nebuchadnezzar was not to enslave them but rather to keep an eye on them relative to the balance of power in the area. As a result, they prospered. They had good land and they were exposed to new trade routes.

In their old land of Israel, people often joke that the Lord led them to the only area without ‘oil’, which is correct. However, the main trade routes between the region north and south of the Mediterranean Sea went through their turf. In fact, the mountain pass that everyone had to go through was Megiddo, from which we get our term Armageddon. Whoever controlled that pass controlled that part of the world, so they were very knowledgeable of trade in this area  Now, in Babylon, they were on a different trade route and, with their earlier experience, their knowledge was doubled and allowed them to  prosper.

Seventy years go by. A new force in the area is a man called Cyrus. For me, he is the Sam Walton of the area. Walton is the gentleman from Arkansas that developed WALMART CORPORATION. I mention him because no one saw him coming. The big stores in the USA were J.C. Penney, Kmart, and Sears. Before these big box stores knew that Sam Walton existed, he was gobbling up their market shares. In brief, he was eating them for lunch, and he passed them before they even knew he was approaching. Likewise for Cyrus. He learned early that it was easier to manage people that were happy than people who were your enemies. He conquered many of the smaller areas and before anyone knew what happened, he conquered Babylon.

Now we switch to the ‘Release’ part of our story.

The man, Nehemiah, goes to the King and requests permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. From what I can understand, Nehemiah was an extremely wealthy and generous man. The King gives him permission to do so which seems consistent with Cyrus’ style.

Nehemiah goes and as you can guess, the logistics are overwhelming. The area has been destroyed and there wasn’t even any place for builders to live. So, houses needed to be constructed as well as much else..

During this process, Cyrus declares “The Lord God of the Most High has come to me and told me to let these people go.” He then declares to the Hebrews in captivity, that they are free to go. “Go where?” they ask. “Anywhere within my realm” the King declares. That is half of the known world. “Do we have to?” they ask. “No” they are told. “You may go or stay. Whatever you prefer”.  Remember, this is 70 years later so these people have never been to Jerusalem. Babylon has always been their home.

Let me ask you the reader. Did you ever make a significant locations change? If so, It was probably because of your job. People move to a location where they can support their family. It was a job that brought me from New Jersey to Florida. The Israelites in Babylonia did not suddenly pick up and move one day; they gave it some thought. For all of those involved in ‘trade’, they chose to go where they had business contacts. Some of these followed their grandparents contacts when they were in Jerusalem. Others added contacts from trade during their time in Babylon. As a result, they eventually moved all around the Mediterranean Sea. Some chose to stay in Babylon. Some went toward India.

Some went to Jerusalem. This is where it gets really interesting, at least to me. A group of people moved from Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. While there, the Samaritans came and offered to assist. It sounds like a good move to me, but it immediately presented a problem.  Nehemiah and Ezra, who organized the reconstruction, had an underlying motive. They understood that the temple was destroyed because Israel’s corrupt kings failed to live up to the standard of the Lord God and the failure of the people to abide. As a result, they made a commitment to rebuild the temple and to stick as close as they could to the Torah. [Nehemiah 8 & 9]

This included, but was not limited to:

  • To separate themselves from all foreigners.
  • To stand and confess their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.
  • To set their seal to a confirmatory document to which they bound themselves under oath to keep the divine law.
  • To refuse intermarriage with Gentiles.
  • To abstain from trade on the sabbath.
  • To leave the lands untilled.
  • To release all their Jewish debtors every seventh year.
  • To pay a third of a shekel of silver each year for the maintenance of the temple service and to contribute tithes, first fruits, and various freewill offerings for the same purpose.

Additionally, they had other manuscripts that gave the history of their past kings and the prophets. In their intent to be as pure as possible as a people, they added these ancient manuscripts to the Torah. These combined manuscripts then became the basic ‘constitution’ of their rebuilding of Jerusalem. This is the Hebrew Scriptures, as I refer to them, or what is commonly referred to today as The Old Testament.

Now, back to the Samaritans. These people no longer spoke Hebrew. In fact, the intermarriage was so significant [remember that the men had been moved to Babylon and the Babylonian men were moved to Samaria] that there were questions as to whether they were really Hebrews anymore. For the sake of ‘purity’ the Samaritans were told “Thanks but no thanks on your offer to help us rebuild the temple.”

Did the Samaritans find this offensive? They were outraged!!! As expected, outraged people often try to get even. They went to their Satrap [manager of the area] and he wrote a letter to the new King of Babylon. (King Cyrus had died by this time and the new King was Darius.) In essence, they said to Darius, “if you go back and check your records, you will discover that there was a reason that King Nebuchadnezzar took this people from Jerusalem to Babylon. It was because they could not be trusted and their ‘word’ was no good. If you let them come back to Jerusalem, you will live to regret it. You will have a new enemy on your hands.”

As a result, Darius had all the records checked to see ‘why’ and ‘what’ King Cyrus had proclaimed. When the records were found, they revealed the following orders from King Cyrus.

1. The Hebrew people were free to remain in Babylon, or go to Jerusalem, or go anywhere they so choose.

2. All the gold, the silver, the precious jewels that were in the temple were in storage, and everything in the warehouses that came from Jerusalem was too be returned.

3. In addition to returning everything that was taken from Jerusalem, the treasury of Babylon was to make a very handsome donation to help rebuild the temple.

As you can guess, the people of Samaria were furious that their plan had backfired. The people of Jerusalem were ecstatic. Given this very strange turn of events, one can understand why there were hard feelings and resentment still flowing many years later at the time of Jesus and the reason that the Samarians rejected the idea that God could only be worshipped at the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. One can also understand why today in Israel, there is a main boulevard named after King Cyrus.

The Hebrew people moving not only to Jerusalem, but all around the Mediterranean Sea, and westward toward India.  Although the temple was  rebuilt, it was no longer the center of their physical life. For their spiritual life, study of the Torah and community, they formed synagogues. With their common Torah studies, their continued observance of the Passover meal established by Moses and taught their history to their children. The Jews continued to be Jews and to be bound to each other via the synagogue.

Conclusion

The Israelites were caught as prophesied but released in a fashion that defied human understanding. No one saw it coming. In all our lives, there are times when we get caught, trapped, left without options that we can see. Just like the EXIT provided by God in the EXODUS, these ‘caught’ people were released and set free when they least expected it. When you, the reader, find yourself trapped, trust the Lord that the ‘Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow’.

Dr. Leeds posted another fascinating article that tells us what transpired between the Old Testament and the New Testament that set the stage for Christ’s arrival. You will be amazed and delighted by God’s timing.

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childlike drawing of Garden of Eden

There’s More in the Garden of Eden|Spiritual Meditations

 

Based on one of the visons of the 14th century Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, Elaine A. Heath writes about what more can be gained by a closer look at the Garden of Eden story. 

(Dr. Heath is McCreless Assistant professor of Evangelism and director of the Center for the Advanced Study and Practice of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University and an ordained United Methodist minister. She has served several churches and taught at several seminaries.)

Genesis 3 has traditionally been used to teach the doctrine of original sin. In its reading, the narrative demonstrates how each of us moves from a position of blameless vulnerability as children towards becoming persons who are caught in a web of wounds and sin from which we cannot extract ourselves. 

The purpose of the human story unfolds with the complex relationship between vulnerability and sin far more apparent than is the case with what are so often superficial readings of the text, whether fundamentalist, wooden literalism, or a dismissal of the text as mere myth.

Julian of Norwich received a vision from God which she contemplated for years. This contemplation led her to the conclusion that “wounds proceed sin – original wounds – and for this reason the eyes of the Lord look upon the human predicament “with pity and not with blame”.    

Before the fall, Adam and Eve are like children, naked and unashamed, playful and free in the garden of God‘s provision. They live in community with each other and God. The only boundary given to them, according to the text, is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They are not to eat from its fruit, God warns, or they will die. Adam and Eve cannot know what “die” means, because they have not eaten of the tree. To know is to participate, and they have not “known“ evil. For an unspecified amount of time, they leave the tree alone. They are blameless, naïve, beautiful, and, like children, capable of being deceived. They are vulnerable, capable of being wounded.

Then one day one of the creatures speaks to them. God has not warned them to be suspicious of other creatures or to avoid the serpent. They have dominion over the creatures, including the serpent. The mystery of iniquity in the serpent is present, but its origin is unnamed in the text. Like children, Adam and Eve are trusting of the familiar creature who shares the garden. They are unaware of the danger that lurks before them, so they listen vulnerably to the serpent’s words. They do not “recognize” evil because they have not tasted evil, have not yet eaten of the forbidden tree.

So, as the Scripture tells us, the serpent deceives Eve and Adam, who was with her. The text says that Eve saw that the fruit was delicious and beautiful. (Did she see the serpent take a bite, perhaps, without apparent consequence?) Wanting to be like the God she loved (“you will be like God, knowing good and evil“) promised a good outcome by the confusing but familiar creature that she had no reason to fear. She accepted the fruit and gave some to Adam.

What kind of disobedience was this, on the part of Adam and Eve? Was it pride and willful rebellion, or as is so often claimed? Was it gullibility because Eve was easily duped as a woman, and shame for weakness on the part of Adam who should have known better than to follow his wife’s foolish lead, as in traditionally presented? Or was it the disobedience of naïve children who really cannot understand the enormity of their actions?

Adam and Eve cannot know how this event will forever change their future and the future of others. When they eat the fruit, they swallow a pervasive shame that begins with their sexuality (they make loin clothes) and extends to every part of life. Their previous freedom to trust God, each other, and themselves, and the wonderment and peace between them and creation, are broken, and a sequence of death-dealing consequences is unleashed. No aspect of life is left untouched.

The story of Adam and Eve is your story and my story in our loss of innocence and our wounding and our eventual bondage to sin. It is the universal narrative of original wounds. Sin originates in wounds that come from living in this broken world. Regardless of the kinds of original wounds we receive, the mystery of iniquity is part of the world into which we are born. The world is already marked by sin, by death, and by evil. No life is untouched.

The marvelous good news in the midst of this universal tragedy is that love is God’s meaning -toward Adam and Eve, toward every human. The promise of I Corinthians 15:22–28 (below) is that wounds and sin do not have to have the last word. Love, not death, wins the day. As Julian of Norwich saw, “all manner of things shall be well.“

Relevant Scripture

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.  But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet. Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (I Cor 15:22-28)

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Reference

The Mystic Way of Evangelism by Elaine A. Heath

 

Jesus praying

Jesus’ Prayers: a Feast for the Soul /Spiritual Meditations

If there is one word to describe the way Jesus prayed, it would be ‘intense”. Before He named the 12 disciples, He prayed all night. While in the Garden of Gethsemane, near the end of His human walk, He spent hours in prayer.

He spoke to God as His Father or “Abba”, a term a child would use for their own father and would go to God really trusting Him to be the divine love and the divine wisdom of this world. He prayed for guidance in where to preach and teach, who to choose, in healing and resurrection and to cast out demons. His prayers were from deep within where there was a hunger, a desire, or a need that was beyond words. When in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus said to the disciples, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death”. There was His connection with God, for God is not found on the surface of a person’s mind or their intellect but in their soul.

With a few exceptions, Jesus prayed in solitude; in the wilderness, in a secluded place, on the mountain. There were reasons Jesus wanted those exceptions heard.

The Raising of Lazarus

In John 11, Jesus spoke to God within the hearing of many as He called Lazarus from his tomb of 4 days. He told God “so that they believe that You sent Me”.

Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”  So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes, and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me.  I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.” (John 11:40-42)

Jesus Foretells His Death

In John 12, Jesus spoke His prayer for all to hear so that God would be glorified in His response.

“Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour.  Father, glorify Your name.” Then a voice came out of heaven: “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.” So the crowd of people who stood by and heard it were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, “An angel has spoken to Him.” Jesus answered and said, “This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes.  Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”  But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die. (John 12:27-33)

This was an important moment. Jesus, in agony, made his final decision of obedience unto death, in servanthood and sonship. Such obedience is indeed the glorification of God. And God answered: I have glorified My name and I will glorify it again. It was judgement; it was the overthrow of Satan; it was salvation. Who comprehended it? Was it merely the sound of thunder or was it the voice of an angel: both material and spiritual perception of revelation were mixed, depending on whether one was in the light or in darkness.

The High Priestly Prayer

This intercessory prayer is the most extensive and profound prayer of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Jesus prayed this for the benefit of those present, after He finished His final instructions to the disciples and before He was betrayed, arrested, and crucified. Justin Taylor writes that

Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” (John 17) is only about 650 words. It takes only 3 minutes and 30 seconds to read it aloud. But it will take all eternity for us to fully understand it!

One could easily give a full lecture on this chapter, but I will only touch here on points which I do not think are easily noticed. To learn more, I would encourage you to read a full commentary.

In this prayer, as Christ’s crucifixion approached, He told the disciples what was to come for Him and for them. John 17 is often called the “High Priestly Prayer”, as Jesus, the great High Priest, consecrates Himself to His coming death through which He will make atonement for the sin of the world. In the death of the Son, God’s love is revealed most profoundly, for love is the laying down of one’s life.

Yet there is a good deal more to the prayer than just this theme, for it deals with some of the great doctrines of the Gospel – the relationship of Father and Son, (v. 1-5), the relationship of the Son to the disciples and of the disciples to the world (v. 6-19), and the relationship of the Son to later generations of believers and their relationship to the world (v. 20-26)

At the beginning of the prayer, as Jesus turns to address the Father, His speech implies that He is taken up into the eternal presence. He speaks as if His work were already complete (for example, v. 4). Indeed, He even says, “I am no longer in this world” (v. 11, completely obscured in the NIV). But right after that He says, I say these things while I am still in the world (v. 13). He is right there with His disciples just before His death, but He is praying from the realm of eternity.

Jesus’ intercession for his disciples from within God’s presence anticipated His role after His ascension. The disciples’ relation to God had enabled them to recognize the Son and believe in Him. Their knowledge and faith were not as complete as they thought it is, but Jesus affirmed they have reached a decisive point. They had believed in Him and stayed with Him, even when most of His followers abandoned Him (6:60-69). There was still an enormous amount they do not know, and Jesus told them as much when He promised them the Holy Spirit to instruct them (14:26; 16:13).

Father and Son

Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh [sometimes translated ‘all Creation’], that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.

Initially, it seems unfitting for Jesus to pray that He might receive glory for Himself. Looking more closely we find there are several observations concerning this request for glory which puts the matter in a different light.

  • Jesus requested the He be glorified in order to bring further glory to the Father
  • Jesus requested the glory which rightfully belonged to Him. When the second person of the Godhead left heaven to become God incarnate, He temporarily set aside His glory (Phil 2:5-8).
  • Christ’s glory was earned at the price of the cross

“I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; 10 and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. 12 While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition [Judas Iscariot] so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.

The Disciples in the World

13 But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. 14 I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. 18 As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

20 “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 21 that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.

Their Future Glory

22 The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; 23 I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.

The value of this thought is that it gives solidity to our ideas of a future life. Our Lord said not only ‘that where I am, they also may be,’ but adds ‘with Me.’ That is not a superfluous addition, but emphasizes the thought of a communion which is intimate and blessed.

The crown of this utterance of Christ’s will is ‘that they may behold My glory.’ In an earlier part of this prayer our Lord had spoken of the ‘glory which I had with Thee before the world was.’ But probably the glory ‘given’ is not that of essential Divinity, but that of His future heavenly work. To His people ‘with Him where He is,’ are imparted fuller views of Christ as Savior, deeper notions of His work, clearer perception of His role in providence and nature. This is the loftiest employment of the spirits who are perfected and lapped in ‘pleasures for evermore’ by their union with the glorified Jesus.

25 “O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; 26 and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”

Jesus Teaches How to Pray

Having highlighted the major prayers of Jesus, spoken for the good of those hearing them, I think it logical that we should consider His instruction on prayer. Here again, I will only address ideas that may not be easily noticed.

So many were the corruptions that had crept into the duty of prayer among the Jews, that Christ saw it needful to give a new directory for prayer. Because “we know not what to pray for as we ought”, He helped by giving a series of headings by which a time of prayer, long or short, may be guided. Not that we are tied to this form because we speak with God as we would to our own father or friend. Note how simple to remember and succinct each heading is, yet it should be prayed with understanding and without vain repetition

There are six petitions; the first three relating more immediately to God and his honor, the last three to our own concerns, both temporal and spiritual; as in the ten commandments, the four first teach us our duty toward God, and the last six our duty toward our neighbor. The method of this prayer teaches us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and then to hope that other things shall be added.

11 It happened that while Jesus was praying in a certain place, after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples.” And He said to them, “When you pray, say:

[Luke’s Version of the Lord’s Prayer]

‘Father, hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come. [doing God’s will on earth]
‘Give us each day our daily bread.
‘And forgive us our sins,
For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”

[Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer in chapter 6]

9‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
10 ‘Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread.
12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]

A note about “our daily bread”. Jesus refers here to basic sustenance for today without thought for tomorrow but relying on God’s provision. We pray, “Give it to us”; not to me only, but to others in common with me.

Note also that those that come to God for the forgiveness of their sins against Him, with a plea for grace, must have forgiven those who have offended them, else they curse themselves when they say the Lord’s prayer.

I you are interested in a closer look at the Lord’s Prayer, I would encourage you to watch this video Bible study by Pastor Nathan.

Back to Luke

Then He said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children [e]and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.

This is often interpreted as indicating a need to keep after God with repeated requests for the same thing. However, Jesus is indicating that if a reluctant man will answer the need, how much more will God do so since He is anxious to meet our needs.

“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.

Here Jesus is referring to our request for the Holy Spirit to come into our lives as is seen in the following verses.

11 Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? 12 Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? 13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” Luke 11:1-13

All Things Will be Granted You?

Because these verses are so frequently misunderstood, I will mention Mark 11:24-25.

24 Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. 25 Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.

It is a distortion of the intention of these verses to take them to mean that a person can be a powerful magician. God acts through us in accord with His will and not ours. However, even considering only these two verses, while noting that verse 24 is a vital principle in prayer, we must remember that there is a condition in verse 25 that must be fulfilled.

The Essence of Prayer

Prayer should be a desire for spiritual fulfillment.  It is at it’s foundation a contemplative soaking in the infinite love of God.

On our behalf, Jesus prayed “that they [meaning you and I] may all be one, even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us“.  One with God’s Kingdom.

By seeking first the Kingdom of God and being satisfied to let God add other things unto us as He sees is best for us, we open ourselves to fulfillment.  Let our prayers be an inner stillness in which God’s words flow into us reminding us Son all that I have is thine”.

God knows your needs before you do.  it is important that we leave behind all our preconceive notions or ideas of our material hopes, ambitions and desires, because there is no assurance that God will fulfill them on our terms. Trust our loving God to take care of you without telling Him how to do it. We tend to do this about the things we care the most about, when He is in a position to know what is best for us.

It is not the nature of God to withhold from you and then give you those very things because you pray for them and have been good.  The more you realize that God is not a rewarding God or a punishing God, but that the nature of God is infinite love and infinite wisdom, the more clearly you will see that there is little need to repeatedly tell God of your wishes or ask him to fill them. Recognizing His sovereignty and giving our cares to Him shows our trust in God’s hands and allows us to relax in His everlasting arms.  

Yet each heart-felt prayer is a renewal of our connection with God and our most desperate intersessions and thanksgivings are those that generate the hunger, desire, or need that is beyond words and heard the loudest by God.

As Jesus prayed, let us seek to be one with God and Christ and “perfected in unity”. Prayer is the vital breath, the heartbeat of divine energy without which we cannot truly live.

Relevant Scriptures

Then Jesus *came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and *said to His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.”

And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” (Mark 14:36-39)

Additional Reference

Bible Gateway Commentary https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/John/Jesus-Concludes-Time-Alone

Bible Hub Commentaries-MacLaren Expositions https://biblehub.com/commentaries/maclaren/john/17.htm

Photo Attribution

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young boy praying with Bible

What to Know About the Bible / Spiritual Meditations

The Bible belongs to the whole world as no other book does. Phrases from its pages have become common idiom and illusions to its stories are widely understood. Yet relatively few people are familiar with it as a whole, and acquaintance for the most part is limited to a small selection of passages. Much is not easy to understand and not all is equally rewarding for all purposes. What every reader should first understand is the range and variety of the Bible, and what parts can best serve the purpose for which one turns to it.

The Briefest Summary of the Old Testament

The opening chapters of the OT deal with human origins. They are not to be read as history, but neither are they to be dismissed as myths. They teach that God created man to be obedient to him, and that in that obedience man’s well-being exists. By disobedience man turned from the true source of his life, so that before Adam and Eve were ejected from the garden, he hid himself from God. These chapters think of sin not as a theological abstraction, but as something real which recoils upon man. It broke up the first family, brought murder, strife and corruption, and ate into the heart of man.

These chapters are followed by the stories of the patriarchs, which preserve ancient tradition known to reflect the condition of the times, though they cannot be treated as strictly historical. It is for religion that they are preserved and the reader should be alert to understand not merely Gods dealing with the patriarchs, but what he is saying to us through these stories.

In a one illustration, the story of Abraham’s narrowly averted sacrifice of Isaac is more than a memory of times when human sacrifice was common, or of the first awakening of Israel’s ancestors to the recognition that God did not desire it. It is a story of a man who loved God more than all else and who was willing to surrender to God even the son in whose life his own was bound. There are sacrifices which God does not ask; there are none a man should be unwilling to make.

With the story of the exile and the settlement in Canaan we come nearer to the historical, though we are still dealing with idealized history. The main purpose of this narrative is to bring the reader to realize that God chose Israel to be His people and delivered her by His power, thus revealing His own character and laying on her the constraint of obedience. God’s election of Israel was to privilege but it was also to service.

Into this story the legal section of the OT has been fitted, and especially, all the provisions for the sacrificial rituals. Much bears the marks of the social and religious background of the times and not a little is without authority for the Christian. For the Christian, animal sacrifices are superseded by the sacrifice of Christ. The letter to the Hebrews links the death of Christ with the ritual of the Day of Atonement.

Other references in the New Testament (NT) allude rather to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. This chapter contains the most remarkable thought on sacrifice found in the OT. The Servant was one who willingly gave himself to be sacrificed, a morally blameless man instead of a physically unblemished animal, and his sacrifice was wider in its efficacy than any sacrifice mentioned in the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the OT).

When we come to the books of Samuel and Kings, we have much very good history. The unsurpassed account of the reign of David probably comes from the time of Solomon, and it is without equal as historical writing in the literature of any country at so early an age. All these books, as also in the latter books of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, are concerned with the lessons of history as much as with the history itself.

The Prophetic books offer special difficulty to the modern reader. They contain utterances of the profits to their contemporaries exposing the political and social ills of Israel without mentioning the context. The reader should seek to penetrate beneath all that belongs to that age to that which is significant to his own life and times.

The prophetic oracles are mostly in poetry, but the poetic book of the OT par excellence is the book of Psalms. Here we have poems which were created for religious use, many of them probably to accompany the rituals of sacrifice and feast and they have continued to serve us, publicly and privately today. Not all the Psalms reach the same height, but as a whole, they still nourish our spirit of devotion.

Of the OT wisdom books I will mention two. The book of Proverbs is mainly a collection of poetic observations used for the instruction of youth. They are governed throughout by the conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and that the way of wisdom is the way of integrity and of obedience to God’s will.

The book of Job carries one of the profoundest messages to be found in the OT. Its story is of a godly man who suffered grievous pain and loss, and who was tormented by his friends who came to comfort him until he was goaded into an appeal both to God and against God. God then answered him out of a whirlwind to remind him of the folly of passing judgment on God out of his ignorance. The author teaches that more important than discovering the reason for suffering is finding God in the suffering.

The Briefest Summary of the New Testament

When we pass from the OT to the new, we move to a different world. Yet the two testaments are bound together in a very real way. In the first three gospels we have stories of Jesus which are linked together by the use of common sources, while in the fourth gospel we have an independent account which is more concerned to interpret the significance of our Lord.

None of the gospels offers a biography of Jesus, yet by their study we may come to know him better than others are known from full and careful biographies. By the intimate study of the gospel we may know much about Jesus; but better than that, we may come to be infused with something of his spirit.

History is represented in the NT by the book of Acts. Yet here again history is not recorded merely for its own sake. The reader is told of the spread of Christianity until, in the person of Paul, it is carried to Rome, so a great deal of what we would like to know is left unrecorded. Yet we see the spirit of the early church and can understand its message. More importantly, we can realize that from the beginning it was perceived that the Christian faith was not something to be enjoyed alone, but was given to the church so that it may be communicated to all men.

In the letters of the NT are reflected some of the churches which were founded by the apostles, and – more importantly – we see the unfolding significance of the Christian message. The death and resurrection of Jesus are seen not simply as the facts of history but are charged with meaning for us.

When the cross of Christ becomes the means of our surrender by faith to him, in a profound sense, we die with him and are born anew in him. His resurrection becomes the means of our renewed life, whose essential character lies in the union of our life with him, so that he lives in us, and we are linked with his character and purpose and live no longer unto ourselves but become extensions of his personality in the world. The son of God lifts us to become the sons of God, in whom our Father is seen, and heirs of God, whose heritage is to share His spirit and purpose.

The final book of the NT came at a time of suffering and persecution, like the book of Daniel in the OT, whose character it so much shares. Neither scripture should be read as a cryptic plan of the ages, but as the expression of an underlying hope in God and a great faith that humble loyalty to him transforms suffering for him into a privilege. The wise reader is less concerned with the intricate symbolism then with the spirit which penetrates it.

The Unity of the Bible

There is a place for the study of every detail of the Bible considering the situation in which it arose with all the illumination of science, archaeology and history. But more important is the recognition that this is a book of the living oracles of God, which may speak to us and nourish our spirit when we approach them in devotion and humility. We should always remember the variety of literary form found in the Bible and should read a passage in the light of its own literary character. Legend should be read as legend, and poetry as poetry, and not with a dull prosaic and literalistic mind.

There are themes throughout the Bible which impart unity despite its diversity. Throughout, God is One and reveals Himself to humanity and who desires their fellowship. He reveals Himself in history and through persons, until He finally revealed Himself in One who is both God and man. In both testaments it is the same God who is revealed, and this above all else gives unity to the Bible.

At the same time, it must be recognized that much of the OT is superseded in the New, and there are ideas of God in the OT which are not to be approved. For though both testaments bring us revelation of God, the revelation came through men who could not always understand it in its fullness. Just as light is modified by the glass through which it passes, while none derives from the glass itself, so revelation whose sole origin is God, is modified and often marred by the personalities through which it comes. That is why the perfect revelation could come only through the perfect Man.

In both testaments God is revealed as compassionate and saving. He had compassion on Israel in her Egyptian bondage, and on those who were in the deeper bondage of sin. Throughout the Bible God is concerned to save humanity from sin, but in the NT we have the supreme expression of that concern when God, in Christ, takes upon Himself the curse of sin, that by the sacrifice on the cross deliverance might be complete. The saving character of God was revealed in bringing Israel out of Egypt; but it was revealed on a new level at Golgotha.

Again, in both testaments, religion is seen in terms of covenant, and the covenant is the response in gratitude for the deliverance that has been accomplished. When Israel was saved from Egypt she went to the sacred mount and there pledged herself in covenant to the God who had saved her. The new covenant in Christ calls for the cherishing of the larger revelation of God given to us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

Yet another theme that runs through the Bible and demonstrates its unity is faith. Faith is something more than a belief about God. When the Israelites stepped onto the sand left by the receding Red Sea, they showed more than their belief about God. And Christian faith is more than an intellectual persuasion; it is the abandonment of ourselves to Christ so that henceforth we live in him and he in us.

In both testaments the theme of judgment figures. When Adam sinned and isolated himself from God, his self-judgment lead to the judgment of exclusion from the garden. The prophets announced the coming judgment when Israel, by her disobedience, cut herself off from God. All judgment begins in self-judgment. So, too, in the NT: “he who does not believe is condemned already “ (John 3:18). This is the flip side of the teaching that man’s well-being consists in walking in obedience to God.

Yet the judgment of God is ever tempered with mercy. His mercy is shown in his patience and in sending his servants, the prophets, to warn and to reclaim. It is shown, too, in the sparing of the remnant. Sometimes it is a righteous remnant, spared for its own loyalty, and sometimes it is a remnant spared to preserve for another generation the revelation it so lightly regards.

From the earliest pages of the Bible the thought of the remnant appears. Noah and his family are the remnants spared at the flood, and throughout the prophetic words of judgment there appear promises of the remnant that shall remain – the remnant to whom alone the heritage of the covenant belongs, and through whom it is to be shared with those who do not belong to Israel according to heritage. And in the NT the church consists first of a remnant of Israel. The first disciples were all Jews, who inherited the revelation of the old covenant and the new revelation from the same God given in Christ. They brought the response of faith and obedience, and then shared their heritage with Gentiles who brought the same response.

Conclusion

A rich diversity of types of literature marks the Bible. There is progress in revelation; part of the OT was outgrown before the OT was itself complete, and more was superseded in the NT. Yet amidst the diversity runs a unity, and in all the progress there is the thread of a true continuity which derives from the God who speaks through it all. The goal of true study of the Bible is to hear His voice, and all who have ears to hear may hear it. The wise student of the Bible will welcome every aid to understand its background and meaning, for his supreme need is one no other book can supply: it is a humble desire to find God in His word and hear His word that you may find repose in gratitude and obedience.

Basic Q&A about the Bible

Why is it called the Bible?

By about the 5th century the Greek Church Fathers applied the term biblia – ‘books’- to the whole Christian scripture. Later the word passed into the western church and in Latin became ‘book’. The names ‘Old’ and ‘New Testament’ have been used since the close of the 2nd century to distinguish the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The word ‘testament’ is the Latin translation of the Hebrew word ‘berith’, which meant ‘covenant’ and referenced the covenants God made with His people.

What languages were the Bible originally written in?

The OT was originally written in Hebrew before the Babylonian Captivity. After it, Aramaic was used as it was the language acquired in Babylon. The NT was composed in Greek the common language used in that area of the world at the time.

Why are the Protestant and Catholic Bibles different?

The Protestant Bible consists of 39 OT books and 27 NT books. The 39 books of the OT are the same as those recognized by Palestinian Jews in NT times. The Greek speaking Jews of that period recognized the 39 plus 7 more and additions to Esther and Daniel. These became the Catholic Bible.

The Hebrew Bible and Protestant OT contain the same material, although they are organized a little differently. In the Greek (now Catholic) OT, the number of books and their arrangement is different than the Hebrew Bible. It is evident that the NT writers were familiar with the Apocrypha (the additional material in the Greek/Catholic OT) but there is no quotation from it in their pages. The books of the Apocrypha are all late in date, confirmed by the fact that they were originally written mostly in Greek. The more scholarly of the Catholic Church Fathers did not regard the Apocrypha as canonical although they permitted its use for edification.

All branches of the Christian Church agree on the NT canon.

Is the text in our current Bible the same as the original?

The Bible was written over a period of approximately 1400 years ending during the 1st century AD.   Until the invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century all copies of the Scriptures were made by hand, which resulted in some errors by the scribes. However, the Bible has come to us in a remarkable state of preservation. There is evidence that ancient Jewish scribes copied the books of the OT with extreme care. The evidence for the reliability of the NT is large and includes about 4500 Greek manuscripts dating back to about 125 AD as well as quotes taken from the NT material by Church Fathers in their writings beginning at the end of the 1st century.

How did chapters and verses come about?

The books of the Bible originally had no chapters and verses. For convenience of reference, Jews of pre-Talmudic times divided the OT into sections and these correspond to our current Bible. The chapter divisions we use today were made by the Archbishop of Canterbury who died in 1228. The division of the NT into its present verses is found for the first time in an edition of the Greek NT printed in 1551 in Paris. In 1555 the first version to include both chapters and verses as we see today was published by the same printer in Paris. The first English Bible with these divisions was printed in 1560.

When were the first translations of the Bible?

The OT was first translated into Greek between 250-150 BC. Parts of the OT were rendered into to Syriac in the early 1st century and a Coptic translation appeared probably in the 3rd century. The NT was translated into Latin and Syriac c. 150 and into Coptic c. 200.

According to Wikipedia “As of October 2019 the full Bible has been translated into 698 languages, the NT has been translated into an additional 1,548 languages and Bible portions or stories into 1,138 other languages. Thus at least some portions of the Bible have been translated into 3,385 languages.”

What is the Bible’s overall message?

The Bible is a collection of books recognized and used by the Christian church as the inspired record of God’s revelation of Himself and His will to mankind. Although the Bible was written over a long period of time by a great variety of writers, most of the authors of the Old Testament (OT) did not know each other. It has an organic unity that can be explained only by assuming, as the book itself claims, that its writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit to give God’s message to humanity. The theme of the message is the same in both testaments; the redemption of man.

References

The Oxford Annotated Bible revised standard version college edition published by Oxford University Press

Pictorial Bible Dictionary with topical index published by Zondervan

 

 

Jesus child walk away in forest

God Wouldn’t Want Someone Like Me / Spiritual Meditations

In all my years of ministry, it might be one of the hardest conversations that I’ve ever had with someone. A family member called me up early one morning (about 2 am) saying, “I think it’s my mother’s time.” After jumping in the shower so I could at least be presentable, I rushed the three or four blocks up the road with some sliced up whole wheat bread from our personal breadbox and some cranapple juice we had in the fridge so that I could administer “Methodist last rites” as requested by the person on the phone.

Walking into the living room felt like walking into a funeral home parlor. The mood was so somber that I guessed the person passing would be very young. A man approached me and led toward the stairs. I’d never seen him before in my life – to this day I don’t know how he got my phone number. “Mom never went to church that we know of” he said. “None of us do. We didn’t know who to call, but she started…. seeing things. She won’t drink, she won’t eat, and she started saying, ‘Just take me Jesus.’ I didn’t even know she thought twice about Jesus. So, we called you.”

Ever since that night, I have thought myself unbelievably lucky and blessed that, for whatever reason, this family reached out to me; a 23-year old, second year in solo ministry, new father and seminary student to attend at this woman’s bedside. For over a decade now, this one circumstance has shaped my understanding of the deep need and desire of individuals in their last days on earth.

Walking up the stairs of this house for the first and only time, the smell and the screaming were something terrible. I felt as if I had been transported into the middle of the film “The Exorcist” or something. What awaited me up there?

When I turned the corner, I saw her. Frail as could be, white as a sheet, curled up into a ball yet somehow sitting erect in her bed, wishing for death, and in absolute agony. As lovingly as I could muster, I walked towards her, placed a hand on her back and introduced myself, “I’m Pastor Nathan from the church down the street. Your family has called me here. They say you’ve seen Jesus and are ready to go.” She looked me in the eyes and said something I’ll never forget, “I saw HIM. He was standing there with my mother. I never knew He was real. I…. AM…. SO…. SCARED.” I looked at her with love and tears in my eyes and asked, “why are you scared if you think he’s here for you?” And the tears began to stream down her face as she entered into a coughing fit.

Her daughter, who was sitting near, said, “Well, mom has never believed. She always said she was an agnostic, but that’s probably because she didn’t want to just say she was an atheist. She always disliked Christians generally. She had me before she was married when it was socially unacceptable. She was married four times and had four divorces. She spent all her money quickly, and then in retirement had to move in with us. She doesn’t have a penny to her name and recently she was telling me that she didn’t think she was a very good person or mother. Now that she ‘saw’ something, she’s afraid of death.”

Who are the “Good” and the “Bad”?

This experience profoundly shaped how I understand the basic needs of most of us in this world, especially when it comes to the spiritual. Generally speaking, I think we fall into two categories as individuals.

  • Either we believe we are good people and so something good must be waiting for us after this life
  • Or We think we are not great people and we don’t think about what’s waiting for us or we don’t WANT to think about it.

The truth is, however, as we read the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament, we understand that while we might have all started out OK, something along the way has become fundamentally broken in us. Most self-thought “good people” tend to spend most of their lives actively fixing what is broken or ignoring the brokenness of the world believing that they won’t be impacted by it – leaving them whole and good.

When we read the New Testament, we see these attitudes strikingly on display. In the stories of Jesus, we see self-thought good people – Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, religious leaders – who talked about their religious piety and constantly criticized Jesus and the disciples for attending to the broken underbelly of the world. Their criticism was simple – if you’re a good, righteous, holy person then you can’t possibly associate with the broken, unholy, and unrighteous people.

Jesus and the Leper

In Leviticus 13:45-46, we get a glimpse of why the stories of Jesus and lepers, caused such a fuss among the religious elite,

“Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease, they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”

Anyone who the priests considered to be “unclean,” were thought to have been made that way as a punishment from God. Therefore, when Jesus related to them, even reaching out and touching them, He was associating with them and crossing the boundary set up in the minds of “good people”. That is just something you didn’t do in the Middle Eastern, Judeo worldview of Jesus’ day. If people were broken, in ill health, and suffering it was because of something bad they had done – in other words, they were “bad people.” To be a “good person” one must not associate with them.

Have things changed at all in our day? Don’t we still have a strong cultural current that says if someone is suffering it’s because they don’t work hard enough; if someone suffers from a mental illness it is because they are thinking wrong; diseases and even plagues are judgments from God? Certainly, we understand this view, even if many of us don’t subscribe to it in whole or in part. Yet the woman I met that night in the bed felt her death would be painful and she was awaiting her punishment, not because she cast herself in such a bad light, but because she had been told that everything she did was wrong. Yet at the last, as she was catching glimpses of the truth of Jesus, she wanted something different for herself. She wanted to be able to reach out and touch him. She wanted to be able to be with Him and NOT be afraid of Him. Is the scripture below so very different?

When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4)

This person came to Jesus as “unclean, unclean,” and approached Jesus through a crowd just as Jesus had come down from the mountaintop to teach the crowd and disciples about the shape and character of His ministry and what His disciples should do. This person could have suffered from any number of skin diseases because back then leprosy wasn’t exclusively what we think of it, in fact it may have been merely a case of psoriasis. This person had been confined to the underbelly of society. Is he so different from any of us? If we understand the fundamental truth that none of us are “good people” and we are all in need of a savior to do what we cannot do for ourselves, then can we not see ourselves in this man? And is this man not even further along than many of us because he recognizes his own need?

Jesus’ Earthly Ministry to the Broken

I’ve built this up long enough, let me share with you what this scripture passage is really all about and why it matters. We have here in these four verses, an entire shorthand for the Scriptures and the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. It begins with Jesus coming down from the mountain. The wording here parallels Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai after receiving the commandments directly from God. It also intentionally recalls God, in Jesus, coming down to earth and encountering the brokenness of humanity as typified in this leper.

God in Jesus had come to earth not to go to those who think of themselves as “good people” but to be with those who were ostracized, marginalized, felt penalized, and had been victimized by the brokenness and fallenness of this world. Jesus didn’t spend much time healing or ministering with the Herods, the Pilates, the Ceasars, the Pharisees, of this world. Only when people approach HIM with an acknowledgement of their own brokenness, of our own brokenness, can Jesus truly get to work. And this man, this leper did exactly that.

God, in Jesus, came down to this world to be in ministry and mission to the broken and acknowledging needy of this place. This leper approached him and cried out, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Now, imagine that scene. This leper, this outcast, this less than a person in many people’s eyes, approached Jesus, through the crowd of “good people” coming down off the mountain with Jesus. Imagine how that sea of humanity might have parted in front of him as all of those “good people” got out of his way, casting a wide berth so that whatever punishment of God had fallen on this man would not fall on them. And he approached Jesus with something that looked a bit like faith, did he not? He didn’t approach Jesus with a question, “can you heal me?” or even “would you consider it?” He didn’t approach Jesus with a doubt, “I heard you might be able to do something.” NO, he approaches with what looks like a confession, “if you choose, you CAN make me clean.” It was a bold statement from someone we never hear from again in the story. It was a bold statement about who Jesus is – to this man, Jesus is Lord. The Lord who CAN do something. The Lord who at the strength of His word or grace of His hand can reach out and effect the situation.

The Living Dead

Did you know that lepers were known in the Bible as “living dead?” In 2 Kings in the story of the healing of Naaman the leper, we read that the king of Israel declared that all humanity is powerless over leprosy and that to heal Naaman would be like “[bringing him] back to life?” Yes, lepers were the walking dead, and here was the walking dead crying out to Jesus for what? For healing? Or for life? This one who the world considered dead cried out to Jesus not just for a skin healing, but to be raised to life! And the way it’s phrased, “if you choose, you can make me clean” is an early confession that points to the Easter truth that Jesus is the Lord of life and death! Jesus, yes, this Jesus, CAN bring the dead to life – but it only works for those who know they need it. In this man’s quest for healing and resurrection, he had placed the entire onus of this healing, restoration, and resurrection not in his own power and will, but in the hands of Jesus.

God Wouldn’t Want Someone Like Me

We have to this point the image of Jesus coming down from the mountain, God stepping out of heaven, into a world where many believe themselves to be good, but one person has come up to Jesus with the confession of His own brokenness and the confession that only Jesus, God, the Lord, has the power to save, if He wills. And I think back to that bedside and that conversation with that woman who had come to the end of her days and faced the realization of who she felt she had been and decided that she wanted a different ending to her story and, in the last moments, when she had come face to face with Jesus, didn’t know what to do. So, someone was called to step in and help her find the path. And her question for me was never going to be “how can I be saved” or “how can I have eternity”. It was always going to be the question that resonates deep inside of every single one of us, “Does God, does Jesus even want me???” The leper said, “if you choose.” This gave God, this gave Jesus who contained and assumed the power of God, the ability to choose this person’s fate. The question the leper was asking went like this, “I know you can, but do you even want me, Jesus?!” And isn’t this the question that burns in your heart? And isn’t this the question that burns in the heart of the world? And isn’t this the question that arises from those who are lost, and hungry, and hurting, and in need of healing, and broken? Isn’t this the question and the pain and agony of existence rolled into one that we hear repeated over and over, “God, do you even want me?” Or putting it in the negative which we hear too often, “God wouldn’t WANT someone like me!” And on this woman’s deathbed was her question and confession. “Why has Jesus come for me? What would he want with me? He wouldn’t CHOOSE me! He’s not here for me! Is he?”

Yet we have in this story of this nameless, faceless leper at the foot of the mountain making confession and plea to Jesus, the answer all of us wait to hear. The one that our hearts hope to receive. We have the words of Jesus and the response that the world groans and longs for each moment of each torturous hour, when Jesus reaches back out to the man and says, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

We hear these words echo down through the ages when we listen for them. We feel them in our hearts in a new and vibrant way if we wait for them and long for them. Wherever we are and whatever circumstance we find ourselves trapped in or victimized by, however sin has manifested itself in our lives, however we have experienced our separation from God or from others. WE, WE TOO, can hear these words spoken through this text to us, into our lives and hearts today, “I do choose!” We can shout these words of assurance that “I, yes, even I have been chosen by God”. We hear these words of Jesus echo throughout this scripture into eternity to each of us saying “I. Choose. You.”

Jesus Christ Chooses You

The words I shared with that woman whose family had called me to be there before she took her last breath were these from Ephesians 1:4 “God chose us to be in a relationship with Him even before He laid out plans for this world.” In a different translation “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world.” And it didn’t matter to God, to Jesus, that she had waited her whole life before realizing that she was included in God’s heart and in God’s plan; that Jesus was there for her; that she was loved by Him; that He did choose her.

And for the first time since she was a little child in her mother’s church, she received communion that evening with a little sliver of bread from my kitchen. As it rolled around in her mouth, she did her absolute best to choke down the cranapple juice that stood in for the blood of Christ, even though her body wanted to violently reject it – she wanted it for the first time. She wanted to make that confession. She wanted to say that prayer. And she laid there and said, “I do believe, Jesus. I know you can do something.” And she wretched and she wasted, but she was also overcome by – peace.

I can’t tell you that there was a physical miracle that occurred, and she returned to health and lived many more years. I can tell you peace came over her that night and after she passed away a week later, her family told me that the last week of her life was the most peaceful and joyful they had ever experienced with her. That the pain had gone, the violent thrashing had gone, and when her time came, she “went with Jesus with a smile.” I believe that her peace came from knowing that God and Jesus Christ chose her.

Conclusion

John Wesley had an experience we call the Aldersgate experience because it happened at a meeting on Aldersgate street. He wrote in his journal about that evening and the power it had over him and how it set the course for his ministry, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” We can hear this story time and time again, through the leper, through Wesley, in the course of our lives, and from this woman. Yet what matters is this – do you know? Do you know and believe and trust that yes, Jesus is saying “I. Choose You.”?

Written by Rev. Nathan W. Carlson

Sign on urban wall

Eye Opening Events Between the Testaments/Spiritual Meditations

One of the most beautiful biblical stories is not found in the Old Testament or the New Testament, but in the space between the two.

There are those who would call this approximately 400 years, the years of silence. There are no prophetic statements made in this period. Nothing is written as the oracles of God as revealed through the prophets. The “word of the Lord” does not appear again until the Gospels when the angel of the Lord appears unto the priest and informs him that his wife will have a child named John.

Then the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid Zechariah, your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you are to give him the name John.  Luke 1:11

So what happened during these four hundred years? Was there silence? Were there activities? Life always goes on but was there anything significant in these years?

 I would like to tell you a story. If you went to high school or college, you may have already heard this story but it has been my experience in studying history that it is very easy to become so swallowed up by the dates, the names, and the places, that history can become as tedious as reading a phone book. For that reason, I promise not to list any dates. I will offer you few names and when I do, the information I will share with you regarding them will be skimpy by design. I do not want you to become so side-tracked with individual people, philosophies, places, and dates, that you lose the over- all picture.

Back to my goal: It is my intent and hope that this little read will allow you to hear the music. To hear the glorious music of the movement of history as it existed between the Old Testament’s ending with the promise of the anointed One to come at an appointed time [Habakkuk 2:1-4], and the New Testament’s claim that the One arrived “in the fullness of time” [Gal 4:4].

As you begin to hear the music, I hope you will bow afresh to the birth of Christ. Then I would encourage you to go back and check out the people, events, and dates. Catch the big picture and then fill in as much detail as you will. The detail can be found in numerous history books of your choosing for this period of time.

Little Israel at the Close of the Old Testament

At the close of the Old Testament, the Hebrew people were limited because the rest of the world did not understand their language. They were small in area. And they were small in numbers, made even smaller by the number of people that were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. When finally released, many of these people, who had never lived in the land surrounding Jerusalem, simply chose to live in any place where they had business contacts and could support their families. As a result, Jewish communities developed both on the north and south sides of the Mediterranean Sea, but mostly on its far East coast.

The land of Israel was located in a rather insignificant portion of the world. There was some traffic passing through on the North/South interchange but little on the East/West. Likewise, sailors of the Mediterranean had little need to go east to the dead end side of the Mediterranean. Thus, the land of the Israelis was relatively small and insignificant on the big picture scale.

One thing they did have was an unusual claim. Beginning with Abraham, and then later with Isaac and Jacob, and the prophets, they made the claim that the Holy One, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Invisible One in the visible universe, had spoken to them.

Now these people were not naive. After several generations of these ‘encounters’ they set up a way to ‘Test the Spirit’. Even though they had a trustworthy history of hearing “thus said the Lord” and it was so, they were more than aware of manipulations and other possible shenanigans. Thus, the three way test was this:

Whenever someone said “Thus said the Lord” they would pick up stones and be prepared to kill the one who would make such a statement. Then the would-be prophet would have to give a sign and the sign would have to come true. If it did not, the prophet was stoned to death. If the sign did come true, then the obligation was theirs to heed the advice or warning.

The prophets foretold that the Holy One would send someone. This someone would reveal the connection between the visible world and the invisible. His coming, they were told, would be at the appointed time. {Habakkak 2:1-4] The prophets then turn silent.

The Astonishing Spread of Greek Culture

If you were to look at a map of the Mediterranean Sea area at this time, you would see all of its coastal areas with the little area of Israel on the far east coast. But the lights of history shone on the area we know as Greece.

Perhaps, dear reader, you are Greek and would totally embrace the words of the bride’s father in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” who said, “When the rest of the world was still swinging on trees, we were writing philosophy.” There have been many great cultures of the world before and after the Greeks, but at this period in time, the father of the bride was fairly accurate.  Think of any Greek sir name you have ever heard of. With the exception of Aristotle Onassis, just about every one of them surfaced at this interlude between the testaments.

School of Athens painting

Raphael’s’ painting of the School of Athens,  portrays my thought. All of these ‘heavy thinkers’ come from this period. Raphael not only paints them, but he organizes them as well.  In the center of the painting we find the two ‘Big Boys’ in Plato and Aristotle. Their thinking can be roughly equated and separated into ‘right-wing’ and ‘left- wings’ or ‘right-brain’ and ‘left-brain’ activities.

Aristotle and Plato painting

Plato in red, with his hand up, was interested in the invisible things in life. His interest was in unity, or what the classical philosophers called “universals.” He wanted to know what holds everything together and his thinking was upward and outward. He was interested in transcendence. You beauty lovers, who may not be very interested in how it works, but are mesmerized by its beauty, would be considered followers of Plato.

Aristotle on the other hand, with his hand pointing down, was interested in what was visible, what he could see, and hold, and take apart. He was more interested in what is known as ‘immanence.’ Those of you who are interested in science and it’s many branches would be considered followers of Aristotle.

Not to belabor the point, but others sitting at the feet of Plato and Aristotle are: Zeno, Epicurus, Averocs, Pythagers, Aleibides, Xenophon, Aeschines, Parmenides, Socrates, Heraclitus, Diagenes, Euclid, Zoroaster, Plolemy.  You may not be familiar with all of them but you have probably heard of at least some of them.

These men changed the way people thought. By all of their questioning, they underscored the ‘individual’ rather than just one person in the ‘herd.’ As an individual, one had privileges, duties, and responsibilities. These people of Greece wanted to produce good citizens. A citizens ‘civita—civilized one’ was not to be ruled by a despot but would be able to rule themselves. Although it was many years later, Emmanuel Kant said there were four big philosophical questions:

  1.  What may I know? [epistemology]
  2.  What must I do? [ethics]
  3.  What may I hope? [eschatology]
  4.  What is man? [anthropology]

These Greek philosophers incorporated all of that.

You may be asking yourself at this time, “so what. What does this have to do with the significant events between the scriptures?” Please bear with me. The story goes on.

North of Greece, there was a ruler by the name of Phillip of Macedon. He was a warrior. He wanted to go to battle, to fight, to control. He also recognized that the people we call Greeks were not typical of humanity. They seemed more advanced than everyone else. They were more civilized, more cultured, more aware.

I have already acknowledged that there were other great cultures in the world so let me share two things that those other cultures did not possess. They did not have the number zero. You may be saying to yourself, “so what? What is the big deal with having a zero?” The Greek aquisition of the zero from the Egyptians became the basis of our economic system and our currency. Every time you handle money, move a decimal point, etc. you are indebted to the Egyptians for that magnificent zero.

Another thing other peoples did not have but borrowed from the Babylonians was counting by 12.  You are probably asking the same question:“So what?” Are you wearing a analog watch? There is a reason those numbers go from 1 to 12. You can thank the Babylonians for figuring out that system.

Anyhow, Phillip of Macedon was so impressed with the Greeks that he insisted that his son be taught by them in order to learn their ways and thinking processes.  He sent his son, Alexander, to the Academy to study with Aristotle. After absorbing a great deal from Aristotle and his new found Greek culture, and after Phillip dies, Alexander, decided it was time for him to do his own conquering.

His goal was not to destroy the world around him, but to conquer and expose these tribes or peoples of the world [nations is too strong a term] to the Greek culture.  In his path, he left the Greek language for people to learn. He left Greek food and culture. He built libraries where the people were exposed to the books of all of the philosophers previously mentioned. He constructed theaters where the questions of the philosophers were asked. Because he was opening up the minds of the people to cultures different than their own, it becomes a time when synagogues flourish and expanded westward as far as Spain and along the north African coast.

Having libraries, theaters, and synagogues may not seem like a big deal to you who have TV sets in your home or ipads, iphones, etc. but these were all channels of communication. It allowed people who were preoccupied, as we are, with providing food and shelter for their families, to learn about other people. It gave them a place  to listen and to know what others were thinking and doing. It encouraged them to think for themselves and to ask those haunting questions about what is real and what isn’t. What is important and what isn’t? Why am I here? What am I supposed to believe? In a world where everyone dies, what my I hope?

At the age of 33, Alexander the Great dies. The entire Mediterranean area is marked with his footprints and the Greek language, Greek books, Greek theaters, and synagogues are everywhere.

The Roman Takeover

With the death of Alexander, a different people began to expand. Unlike the expansion of Alexander with the desire to conquer and to spread the virtues of Greek culture, these people expanded with the idea of control, power, and money. Beginning in the area we call Rome, a series of smaller expansions turned into larger and larger expansions. They wanted to ‘annex’ all of their neighbors. Motivations often became mixed. They quickly discovered that if they could build A, and someone else could build B, together they could be A&B. Likewise, if this new ‘merger’ could build A&B, and another people  could build C, then the combined group could build A, B and C.

map of roman empire

It was the same for the opportunity to purchase from a larger area and to sell to a larger area. They would import grains that they needed and sell wines that they produced. Over the years they learned where to get what was needed. They did not have their Home Depots, Lowe’s and Wal-Marts, but they knew exactly where to get their tin and marble, silk worms and cloth, fruits and vegetables. With this knowledge and power, they became more knowledgeable and more powerful—and richer. The cast of their shadow expanded everywhere that Alexander had controlled and a great deal more.

The Romans were in it for the long term and their expansion needed to be managed. Although the Greek language continued around the Great Sea, these people spoke Latin and it was an essential ingredient in the management of the government, commerce, and military control.  Many construction projects, including a huge network of roads leading to Rome, were built with Latn as the working language.  Thus, three languages existed throughout the land: Native tongues, Greek, and Latin.

As part of the management, and building on the Greek’s concept of citizenship, with privileges, rights, and obligations, the Romans built a system of law. The Roman citizens were accountable to and protected by the law. This is where it becomes interesting. Not everyone in the Roman Empire was a Roman citizen. The people of the City of Rome were,  but the rest of empire was a different story.

It is not my intent to romanticize the Roman expansion with all of its warfare.  It was often a bloody war with deaths throughout the lands. But it was not always that way.  So valuable was the “Roman Citizen” title that much of the land was conquered, not by force but with a bribe. Sometimes soldiers would simply surround the town and make a deal with the movers and shakers (the influential) of the city. “Don’t fight with us, just join us. If you do, we will make you Roman citizens.” There was generally about a 10% limit on the number of people allowed to do this in any city.

Especially for the merchants, the Roman citizenship classification was a “Golden Ticket” in the world of commerce. It meant that one could travel throughout the empire and still be protected by Roman law. Thus the merchant was free to sell his wares anywhere. He could even sell someone else’s wares as a sales representative. This was a time when merchants from different lands could be found throughout the empire and their buying and selling made commerce work.

It was also the time when signage came into being. Before people traveled a great deal, the shops of the village did not need a sign that said “Butcher”, “Baker” or “Candle-Stick-Maker”. One simply knew where to buy their shoes, get a hair-cut, or purchase cloth. With all of the strangers in town, signage was needed.

In Alexandria, a city named for Alexander, it was decided to build the biggest and the best library in the world. They wanted a copy of every book written. This was especially interesting and important to the Jewish communities. The synagogues around the Mediterranean did not speak Hebrew. That was lost to them. They spoke Greek. They requested of the library in Alexandria that the Old Testament scrolls  be translated into Greek. The library then contacted the Jews in Jerusalem and made their request known. The Jewish authorities appointed six Hebrew scholars from each of the 12 tribes. They did all of the translation work and this highly significant Old Testament translation is known as the Septuagint and you may see it written simply as LXX for the 70 translators who did the work. This Old Testament was then shared with the synagogues around the great sea.

Are you getting a glimpse of how the world had changed? Looking at the same map, with its libraries, theaters, and synagogues spread around the sea, note again the land of the Hebrews. It is still in the same location, but now it is more than a dead end of the Mediteranean cul-de-sac. Rather, it is in the middle of the significant commercial trade routes between north and south. Given the nature of the mountain, one has to travel through a narrow pass known as Megiddo. The New Testament speaks of Armageddon and notes that whoever controls this pass controls the world. As sand travels through an hour glass at its narrowest point, so too the land travelers must go through here.

We have arrived at that point in time when the entire area is tied together with language, with roads, with commerce, with communication centers with the theaters, libraries, and synagogues. It order for it to function so that trade is not interrupted, where money and supplies continue to flow freely, where prosperity can continue to be a hope and dream, there has to be peace in the land. There is always war and rumors of war, but turf battles interrupt business. All of these diverse cultures, though united in language, and dependent on commerce and law, were free and encouraged to maintain their own culture as long as they kept the peace.

Encouraging peace, and successfully keeping the peace, was a Roman accomplishment that became known as the PAX ROMANA.

It is Time for the Extraordinary

Let us now turn our attention to the New Testament. It is not my intent to offer NT lessons, but merely to connect a few of the dots. Let us begin with the birth of Christ.

  • When the entire area of in this part of the world was with one tongue [Greek]
  • When the ground work had been laid where people knew they were individuals, with rights and obligations,
  • When the major questions of the world were being asked,
  • When theaters and libraries flourished,.
  • When synagogues were numerous and the old testament scrolls were being translated into Greek,
  • When merchants and scholars possessed Roman Citizenship that allowed them to travel anywhere in the empire and still be protected by law,
  • When peace was plentiful, and the rule of the land,
  • When this little land of Israel became the gateway connecting North and South,

Then and only then did God send an angel to a young girl named Mary and say to her:

The time has come. The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God. Luke 1:35.

Pentecost Ignites the Good News

God the Giver

Let us now take a quick look at Pentecost. Christians look at Pentecost as the time when God gave his Holy Spirit and a time when those gathered were speaking in tongues. To the Jewish community, which represented the people who were attending this regular service of worship, Pentecost was a time to celebrate God’s “giving”. People receive, but it is the Lord who “gives”. How does the Lord give? The Lord gives in three specific ways

  1. The Lord gives through His harvest. Human kind may plant and water and work, but it is the Lord who gives of the harvest. It is all the Lord’s creation. I have come to the persuasion that if one properly understands the term “creation” one understands the rest. If one fails to properly understand “creation” then one does not understand the rest of the scriptures.
  2. The Lord gives through His law. It is the gift of the law that leads to prosperity. It is the law that forms the type of person we are. It is the law that points to the direction we need to go.
  3. The Lord gives “as in the book of Ruth”.

Without going into it, the book of Ruth is a great story. It never tells the reader what to do, what to say, nor what to believe. It shows you what the Lord does and how He does it. The workings of the Lord are such an “easy yoke”, such a mature and smooth wine, so kind and gracious, that His workings become revealed after events and generally not before or during. Whenever you smack your forehead and say in amazement, “look how that all came together!” you will understand.

The Old Testament used the term “HESED” throughout the Scriptures to indicate the “Loving Kindness of the Lord”

These are the three characteristics of the Lord that are being worshipped when the worshippers are gathered together in Acts 2. They are worshipping the Lord—the GIVER.

Tongues of Fire

Now, consider the people who are at this service.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment because each one heard them speaking in his own language. [Remember, they all knew Greek so there was no need for them to hear in their native tongue]. Utterly amazed they asked, “Are not all these men, who are speaking, Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; resident of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Tonus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the part of Libra near Cyrene, visitors from Rome [both Jews and Jewish converts], Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues! Acts 2:5

Jewish merchants from around the Sea are in the major trading center of Jerusalem when they hear the story of the resurrected Christ from Peter and when the Holy Spirit is another gift, given by the Giver, who they have come to celebrate and worship.

These merchants were all passing through on business but eventually they journey home. When they get to wherever their homes are, their wife and children meet him at the door and say, “Daddy, what did you bring me? How was your trip? What did you learn?” When the time is right, perhaps after dinner, he shares with them his story and his experiences at the Jewish Pentecost Service. The wife will eventually ask, “What will our Rabbi say to all of this?”

I image the Rabbi asking him to remain quiet awhile until the Rabbi himself can examine the scriptures. Rabbis seek counsel from other Rabbis and a Rabbi in Cappadocia can readily contact [via Roman snail mail] any Rabbi throughout the empire. So he does. And when he does, he soon learns that the story he heard from the merchant in his synagogue is the same story other Rabbi’s are hearing from the merchants in their own. Pretty soon, the Jewish community is spreading the gospel of Christ throughout the Roman Empire.

And the questions! Oh, the questions!!! All of the rabbi’s have them and they need to ask for help. The news quickly spreads that the rabbinic scholar in Jerusalem, originally from Tarsus, has gone from trying to kill the Christ followers to becoming one. He even changed his name from the Hebrew Saul to the Greek Paul. So, they write to him. When he writes back, his letters become circulated from synagogue to synagogue. He even travels to a number of these places, since as a Roman Citizen, he is free to travel the Roman Empire and to be protected by Roman law.

Conclusion

It is my hope that this little story has helped you connect some of the dots. During these 400 years of silence, it may not seem that anything significant happened, but as you can now tell, one of the ways the Lord works is “as in the book of Ruth” where the truth sneaks up on you.

Regarding your celebration of Christmas, my prayer continues to be that you will be able to bow afresh to the Christ child and all of the events that had to happen before he came. If He had arrived a few hundred years earlier, no one would have known about it. It would have been an isolated event amongst a far away people. If it had happened a few hundred years later, everyone was embroiled in war.

In happened, as foretold, in the fullness of time.

In your personal life, you too will discover periods of silence. You too have had and will have your years of silence. When you do, smile. He who gives the harvest, and gives the law, and “as in the book of Ruth” gives silently, graciously, easily, and smoothly. It is done with such purity that the movement of the spirit is generally seen in hind-sight. Remember, Robinson Caruso only had to see one footprint in the sand before he knew, he was not alone.

Written by my friend Dr. Frank Leeds III