You may not have noticed it, but Isaiah delivered the news he was given to relay in a way that we can learn from. You can see the lessons that apply to us today by taking a look at our latest article: "How Isaiah Delivered the News." Read it here.
At a time when Jerusalem lay under the shadow of the brutal Assyrian Empire – which had already conquered the northern tribes of Israel – the prophet Isaiah was given the difficult task of taking bad news as well as good news to the people of Judah. The Book of Isaiah not only records those messages, but also shows us an important aspect of how they were delivered.
You may not have noticed it, but Isaiah delivered the news he was given to relay in a way that we can learn from. You can see the lessons that apply to us today by taking a look at our latest article: "How Isaiah Delivered the News." Read it here.
We tend to think of the apostle Paul as a somewhat unique New Testament figure – a spiritual giant in his own right who received a different calling and training from the other apostles. Yet despite the unique nature of Paul’s identity in the New Testament Church, in one sense the apostle’s ministry was not unique. It was at least foreshadowed in the work of a great Old Testament figure.
We see this fact from the beginning of Paul’s ministry. In the autobiographical section of his letter to the Galatian Christians (Galatians 1:11-2:21), the apostle tells us that after his conversion “I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus” (vs. 17).
Paul telescopes events somewhat here, as Acts tells us that immediately after his conversion “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). It was either then, or “After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him” (Acts 9:23) that Paul “went into Arabia.”
Today we might presume that the “Arabia” Paul mentions was the same area that we call Arabia today – the Arabian Peninsula – but in Paul’s day that was not the case. In New Testament times Arabia referred to the area of Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula, and the territory on the northwestern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. It was this area that was made into the Roman Province of “Arabia” beginning in the second century.
That this was the area Paul had in mind when he said he went to Arabia is seen just a little later in the apostle’s letter where he wrote about the symbolism of Hagar: “Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia …” (Galatians 4:25 ESV, NKJV, etc.). In fact, of all the places in “Arabia” to which Paul might have gone after his conversion, it is more than likely that Mount Sinai would be the one to which he would have been drawn. As a devout Jew steeped in the law of Moses and the Covenant made at Sinai, Paul might naturally have desired to go to that very area to pray, meditate and learn how the truth he had now come to see related to what he already deeply believed.
Additionally, of course, Paul was fully aware of the story of Elijah who, after the prophet’s life became endangered, fled to Horeb, the Mountain of God also called Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:10, 1 Kings 8:9, 2 Chronicles 5:10, etc.) where he was instructed by God (1 Kings 19). In fact, Paul mentions exactly this incident in his letter to the Romans:
“…I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (Romans 11:1-5).
In this passage Paul shows a similarity between his own situation (“I am an Israelite myself”) and that of Elijah, the remnant in Elijah’s time and the remnant in his own time. The verses he quotes are from 1 Kings 19 – the story of Elijah running to the mountain of God in Sinai. A number of scholars have pointed out that there are repeated echoes of the story of Elijah going to Sinai in what Paul tells us of his own trip to Arabia. Just as Elijah stressed at Sinai, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty” (1 Kings 19:10), so Paul tells us he “was extremely zealous.” Just as Elijah complained at Sinai that his enemies were trying to kill him, so we saw in Acts that the Jews were apparently trying to kill Paul before his journey to Arabia. Just as God told Elijah to return to Damascus (1 Kings 19:15), so Paul returned directly to Damascus from Arabia (Galatians 1:17).
As N.T. Wright has written, there are even more subtle parallels between the two stories. Just as Elijah went to Sinai after zealously killing the prophets of Baal, so Paul, mistakenly but with equal zeal, went to Arabia after persecuting members of the Christian Church. Just as Elijah is told to return and anoint and thereby announce the new kingship of Hazael of Syria and Jehu of Israel, so Paul returned to announce the new kingship of Jesus as the anointed one – the Messiah (Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 115, p. 689).
The similarities with Elijah do not stop with these parallel events. One of the most significant aspects of Elijah’s ministry is recorded in his trip to the coastal area of Sidonian Zarephath (1 Kings 17:9-10), which Jesus himself used as a symbol of the Gospel going to the Gentiles (Luke 4:25-26). Paul’s undoubted knowledge of the story of Elijah going to the Gentiles gives us even more reason to believe that he may well have seen himself as travelling in the footsteps of the zealous Old Testament prophet.
The autobiographical section of Paul’s letter to the Galatians shows us that God will always use zeal when he can guide it to his purposes.
If you have read the biblical book of Ruth, you probably think you know it well. But whether you have read it once or many times, we think you will find a lot more in this beautiful story with the help of our short new e-book.
Many people think of the book of Ruth as a simple love story, but in reality it is far from simple, and it is not really a “love story” in the modern sense of “romantic love” either! Instead, Ruth is a story of deep courage, strength, loyalty, determination, and kindness with an underlying message that reaches from the ancient world to our lives today.
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All of the four Gospels record an event in which a woman came to Jesus during a meal and anointed his feet and dried them with her hair (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 7, John 12). Many feel that Luke’s account refers to an event in Galilee early in Jesus’ ministry, while the stories told by Matthew, Mark, and John refer to a separate nearly identical event occurring in Bethany near the end of Jesus’ life. Some even divide these latter three stories into separate events because John apparently says the event he described occurred “six days before the Passover” (John 12:1), while Matthew and Mark say the event occurred “two days before Passover” (Matthew 26:2, Mark 14:1).
But this confusion fails to put the various accounts together properly. For one thing, John does not say the woman anointed Jesus six days before Passover. What he says is: “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor” (John 12:1). John says Jesus came to Bethany six days before Passover, and that at some point while he was there a dinner was given in his honor. So there is no contradiction between the accounts of Matthew, Mark and John in this regard.
As for the account in Luke, that story does not say where the event took place – or when, though it is placed with other material from the early part of Jesus’ ministry. Although many presume that Luke’s “orderly” (Luke 1:3) account is chronological, it does, in fact, often stray from a chronological sequence. For example, in Luke 3 we read that King Herod shut John the Baptist up in prison (Luke 3:19-20), but then we read in the following verses that Jesus was baptized by John (Luke 3:21-22). In reality, of course, John baptized Jesus before being placed in prison (Matthew 3:1-17; 4:12; John 1:29-34). An even more striking example of “achronological” recording is seen at the end of Luke’s Gospel where he appears to compress the five weeks between the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into a single day – if we treat what is said chronologically (compare Luke 24 with Matthew 28 and John 21).
As for differences in the anointing stories, they are small and easily explained. For example, Mathew and Mark say the woman anointed Jesus’ head; the other Gospels say his feet were anointed. But the woman may well have anointed Christ’s head and feet – recorded differently according to the stress the individual Gospel writers had in mind (for a kingly anointing, or an anointing for burial).
Luke’s account says the event occurred in the home of a Pharisee named Simon; the others say it was in the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. But Simon the Leper and Simon the Pharisee were probably one and the same. A leper could never have hosted a dinner nor have partaken in one with other people – Simon the Leper must have been healed and could thus have been the same as Simon the Pharisee. Simon may well have been referred to as “the Pharisee” in Luke because Luke stresses Jesus’ reply to Simon’s pharisaical and self-righteous attitude, while the other Gospels remember him as Simon the Leper.
So there is no real reason why all the Gospel accounts could not be referring to the same thing. That being the case, consider the probability that they are, in fact, simply different accounts of the same event. It would be a strange coincidence if two different women (or more!) had gone to the house of a man called Simon, had anointed Jesus with exactly the same amount (300 denarii worth) of exactly the same kind of expensive perfume (nard), and had wiped his feet with their hair. If they were different women, why did the Gospel writers not differentiate them in some way? On the other hand, that Mary sister of Martha was the one woman who anointed Christ may perhaps be seen earlier in John’s account where he tells us: “(This Mary… was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)” (John 11:2). Note that John says “the same one who” rather than “one of the women who.”
It would also be strange if not one of the four Gospel writers recorded both or all stories, if multiple similar events had occurred. This is especially true considering Jesus’ words in Mark 14:9: “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Would Christ have put so much emphasis on this event if it was the second instance of two virtually identical cases? If this had been done by two different women, surely both would be clearly recorded.
Beyond these facts, we should remember that in John (12:4-5) we are told Judas complained that the perfume used to anoint Jesus was worth 300 denarii and the money could have been given to the poor, but is rebuked by Jesus who tells him to leave the woman alone as she has done a good work. In Matthew (26:9) and Mark (14:4) we are told that some of the disciples made exactly the same complaint (“300 denarii”) and were rebuked in the same way by Christ. Are we to believe that given identical circumstances, the disciples made exactly the same mistake after Jesus had already rebuked them for it just a few days before? It is much more reasonable to put the Gospel accounts together and to see that they refer, with differing details, to one dinner, one woman, and one anointing of Jesus.
Regardless of how many women were involved in these Gospel stories, however, they teach lessons that we can apply in our own lives. The attitude of love they exhibit is one we can all strive to imitate. How? Just as love was shown to Christ through the gift given for his physical body, we too can give gifts to the Body of Christ, which is his Church (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12–13; Ephesians 3:6, 5:23; Colossians 1:18, 24; etc.). The lessons of human love and godly forgiveness* that underlie these stories are ones which are indeed, timeless (Mark 14:9).
* Our article “Are Simon the Leper and Simon the Pharisee the Same? – and Why it Matters” shows a practical lesson we can all learn from these accounts, here.
The Gospel of Luke records a group of parables in which Jesus gave three examples of the concept of lost and found: the story of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:1-31).
We know these are not just three similar stories that were grouped together thematically as Luke specifically shows they were given at the same time (vss. 3, 8, 11) in response to the Pharisees’ criticism that Jesus ate with “sinners” (vss. 1-2).
In the first parable, Jesus said: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (vs. 4). In the second, he continued: “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” (vs. 8). And in the third and best known parable we are told that Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had and set off for a distant country (vss. 11-13). This parable also tells us that when the prodigal son finally returned: “…while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (vs. 20), showing the father had been waiting and looking for his son.
In all three of these parables we are told that when that which was lost was found there was great rejoicing (vss. 6, 9, 32), and the moral of each is clearly that God rejoices in “finding” the lost soul. But these are not just a group of similar parables. Not only were they given at the same time in response to the same situation, with a clear connection between the stories, but also if we look closely, there is another important aspect of what is said.
In the first parable we are told specifically that the sheep that was lost was one in a hundred; in the second parable the coin that was lost was one in ten; in the third parable the son who was lost was one of two. Although each parable makes the same point, there is an additional message in the complete sequence – in all three taken together.
Jesus began by showing that even one of many (one in a hundred) has great value. One hundred sheep would have been a very large flock in ancient Palestine, and one missing sheep might hardly be noticed. Spiritually, the message is clear: God values everyone who is lost – even if they are “only one” of the vast number of humans who have lived. The sequence continues, however, in showing the relative worth of the one of ten coins that was lost. The fact that the woman called on her friends to rejoice with her when the coin was found shows that its value must have been significant to her – probably a tenth of all her savings. In the final parable, the sequence concludes by showing the tremendous value to his father of the one of two sons who had been “lost.” The father in the story is shown as perhaps having been searching the distant road continually, hoping for his son’s return.
In this parable we often concentrate on the uncharitable reluctance of the elder of the two sons to rejoice when the younger one returned. Although that is an important part of the story, we should not forget that the discussion between the father and the elder brother also serves another purpose – to show the great value of the lost brother who was found. The elder brother’s argument is essentially that the father was placing as much value on the young brother as on the one who had stayed faithful – and that argument was in fact accurate.
The parable makes it clear that the elder brother would receive his due reward (vs. 31), but the father replies to him that: “… we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (vs. 32).
The three “lost and found” parables Jesus gave were not just repetition for effect. The interlinked stories show successively the value to God of the one who is lost. The sequence demonstrates at its beginning God’s personal attentiveness towards all of humanity and at its end his deeply focused love for each individual. Together, the parables show that no one is too small or insignificant to be viewed as of great value to God, and that every individual who returns to God, whatever their sins of the past, is of immense value – as valuable in God’s sight as any other. The three parables show as clearly as anything in the New Testament not only the joy of the lost being found, but also the loving acceptance with which God views the one who is found.
* For more about the parables of Jesus, download our free e-book The City on a Hill.
Sometimes a little biblical detective work can open new windows into our understanding of the stories of the New Testament.
The Gospel of John tells us that when Jesus was betrayed: “.… They bound him and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year” (John 18:12-13). The apostle John apparently knew some of the high priest’s family and was able to provide this detail not found in the other Gospels.
Annas (also called Ananus and Ananias) himself was an interesting character. Serving as High Priest for ten years, from AD 6–15, this man was the patriarch of a dynasty of priests. Immensely powerful, when he was deposed by the Roman procurator Gratus, Annas maintained a high degree of power through arranging the appointment of his five sons (Eleazar, Jonathan, Theophilus, Matthias, Ananus) and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, to succeed him.
The Jewish High Priest normally served for life (Numbers 35:25, 28), so the rapid-fire changes in succession after Annas suggest that he may have worked to ensure that he kept control of things as the real power behind the temple hierarchy. This maintaining power while technically deposed would explain why Annas was able to continue as head of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 4:6), and perhaps explains why, when Jesus was arrested, he was first taken not to “Caiaphas, the high priest that year,” but to Annas. In fact, so real was Annas’ behind-the-scenes power that Luke records the word of God came to John the Baptist “during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (Luke 3:2).
In his Gospel, the apostle John gives us another bit of information relative to the dealings of the chief priests. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave, John tells us that “… a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him” (John 12:9).
Again, John may have learned this perhaps because of his contacts in the high priestly households; but it is clear that this was a very real plot to get rid of not only Jesus himself, but also Lazarus as evidence of Christ’s miracle. Although Annas is not mentioned by name, it is inconceivable that such a plot would have been made without the knowledge of the chief priest and his sons – though it was more likely instigated by them as the “chief priests.” To understand the significance of this background, we must look at one of Jesus’ parables given at that time.
In his parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Jesus told his listeners: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus …” (Luke 16:19-20). The parable continues to say that when he died, in the afterlife, the rich man implored the patriarch Abraham “… I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment” (vss. 27-28).
Notice that although the NIV says “to my family,” the Greek actually says “to my father's house” (as translated in the ESV and almost all other versions). When Abraham replies that “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them,” the rich man responds “No, father Abraham …but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent” (vss. 9-30). To this Abraham states conclusively: “… If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (vs. 31).
The cast of characters in this parable are unmistakable. Although “Lazarus” is not specified to be the Lazarus of Bethany Christ raised from the dead, the New Testament does not speak of any other Lazarus; had it been a different individual, John would surely have identified him as he does in other instances when multiple people shared the same name.
The “rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen” is surely the high priest Caiaphas whose robes were exactly as described. Conclusively, the rich man has a father and five brothers. In the close families of ancient Palestine, “brothers” could mean blood bothers or brothers-in-law. So the identity of these individuals is clear – they are none other than Caiaphas (the rich man), Annas (the father) and his five sons (the brothers-in-law). If this were not the case, there would have been no reason for Jesus to include five brothers in the parable – the rich man could just have pleaded for his family.
For Jesus’ original hearers it was doubtless clear that his parable made the point that just as the rich man’s father and brothers would not believe even after the return of the Lazarus of the parable from the dead, so the actual high priestly family had not believed when the real Lazarus had indeed been raised. Understood this way, the story of Lazarus and the rich man is paralleled by a number of other parables in which Jesus used actual historical situations of his day (see our free e-book on the parables for other examples).
There is also perhaps a small practical lesson we can take from this understanding of Jesus’ parable: the unfailing discretion of Jesus. Although the characters of his parable may have been recognizable to his audience, Jesus did not go as far as identifying them by name. This fits the pattern we see throughout the New Testament in which Jesus never identifies and condemns individuals by name, only as groups – the Pharisees, scribes, tax collectors, or whatever. Although he could have publicly accused and discredited specific individuals on many occasions, Christ did not do so in his human life. In our own time – a time of heightened political invective – this is an example for every Christian to consider.
Does the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) belong in your Bible? It is a story we may know well, but one which is hotly disputed in terms of its authenticity. This is because the earliest known manuscripts of the New Testament do not include the story, and when it does appear there is confusion as to where it should be placed – some manuscripts place the story in different parts of the Gospel of John and some even place it in Luke!
Yet many early manuscripts do have the story, and several of the early church fathers regarded it as authentic. The passage certainly appears to be authentic in style, and everything about the section is in keeping with the character of the scribes and Pharisees who repeatedly tried to trap Jesus (Matthew 16:1; 19:3; 22:35; Mark 8:11; 10:2; 12:15; Luke 10:25; 11:16). Given this conflicting situation, we must look at the problem more closely.
Almost every one of the disputed verses in John 8 gives some indication that they were not composed by the apostle John. Consider a few examples that use vocabulary that is never used anywhere else in John’s writings:
In verse 1 we are told that Jesus “went to” the Mount of Olives – a phrase that is never found in John’s Gospel apart from in these contested verses – and the place name “Mount of Olives” is likewise never used by John (see, for example, John 18:1 where John simply refers to Jesus going to “a garden.”).
In verse 2 the expression “came early” is never used by John, nor is the phrase “all the people.”
In verse 3 the scribes are mentioned – John nowhere mentions the scribes.
In verse 6 the word “tempting” is used in the sense of trying to trap Jesus in a difficult situation. John never uses this word in this way.
In verse 9, the word “conscience” is never used by John.
In verse 10, the word translated “but” or “except” is never used by John.
Considering the combined evidence of all the verses in this section, it is difficult to believe that these words were written by John. Why would the apostle suddenly use totally different vocabulary than that which he used throughout his Gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation?
An Alternative Possibility
But just because it seems unlikely that John composed the verses we call John 7:53-8:11 does not necessarily mean that they are not authentic. When they do appear in early manuscripts, these verses sometimes appear in the Gospel of Luke, and so we should consider the possibility of their Lukan origin.
When we look at this possibility, we find that every one of the expressions considered above, that never appear anywhere else in John’s writings, can be found – often on numerous occasions – in the writings of the Evangelist Luke. For example, consider the phrase “all the people” that appears in verse 2. Although this expression was not used by John, it is a characteristic phrase used by Luke – it appears some twenty times in his writings. Even the word “people” by itself is used only twice by John, but over fifty times in the writings of Luke. In a similar way, the mention of the “scribes” in the “scribes and Pharisees” in verse 3, although never used by John, is found multiple times in Luke.
These facts should make us seriously consider the possibility that “John 7:53-8:11” originated not in manuscripts of John’s Gospel, but in the Gospel of Luke. But if that were the case, why are they not in the earliest manuscripts and why the confusion as to where they belong?
We must remember that Luke, perhaps more than any other Gospel writer, collected a great number of eyewitness accounts in composing Luke and Acts. John reminds us that Jesus did many other things that could have been included into the Gospel narratives (John 21:25), and this doubtless applies especially to the situation with Luke’s many sources. Ancient books were written on scrolls, of course, and Luke doubtless had to select his material carefully to make it fit on a fairly standard scroll. This would mean that the story of the woman caught in adultery may well have had to be put aside along with other excess material that could not fit in the production of Luke’s Gospel.
This could easily have led to a situation where the story surfaced and “floated” within the early Christian community for some time before being included in the Gospel manuscripts. This would explain why it appears in manuscripts of several different Gospels and in different places.
Interestingly, if the story was recorded by Luke, it fits very well where it appears in some manuscripts – after Luke 21:38. But although it fits well there, it would have broken the development of Luke’s account of the Passion narrative, giving another reason why he may not have included it.
So despite the seemingly conflicting manuscript evidence, a great many biblical scholars feel that this story represents an actual episode in the ministry of Jesus. The late renowned textual critic Bruce Metzger, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton University, concluded that “… the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity” (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. London, England: United Bible Societies , 220).
The story of the woman caught in adultery fits well with Luke’s constant interest in the place of women in the Gospel narrative. The consistent Lukan vocabulary makes it highly likely that it was recorded by that evangelist, and the story’s acceptance by early church fathers – despite its uncertain location – all suggest the likelihood of authenticity, and that the woman caught in adultery does indeed belong in the text of our Bibles.
The Sermon on the Mount is a central part of the teachings of Jesus that we all know and love – it demonstrates the essential nature of the Christian way of life as much as any part of Scripture. Many of us have memorized parts of the sermon as found in Matthew’s Gospel (chapters 5-7), but how much time have we spent thinking about the setting of the sermon as opposed to the sermon itself?
We tend to take for granted that the sermon was given on a mountain because we know that Jesus frequently climbed mountains (Luke 6:12, John 6:15, etc.) – though he usually did this to get away from people, to be alone and to pray. In this case we are told he specifically went up on a mountain with his disciples following him.
The New International Version tells us “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” (Matthew 5:1-2). This gives the impression that Jesus simply went up on the side of a mountain – the lower slopes. But “side” is not in the original Greek (or in most translations), and the Greek anebē eis to oros “he went up into a mountain” conveys the sense that he ascended on to the mountain – certainly well up toward, or to, its summit.
Now this wording is interesting, because when we compare it with the Old Testament account of how Moses went up onto Mt. Sinai to receive the law from God, we find “When Moses went up on the mountain …” (Exodus 19:3, 24:12). In fact, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which many of the writers of the New Testament used, translates this with exactly the same words as those used of Jesus ascending the mountain: anebē eis to oros.
Many Jewish readers of the 1st century would have recognized the beginning of this story of the Sermon on the Mount as being identical to the beginning of the story of Moses receiving God’s law. This would have struck a deep chord for those readers because every devout Jew knew that God had told Moses: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him” (Deuteronomy 18:18). Every devout Jew expected this prophet like Moses, and the similarities between Jesus and Moses were clear for those ancient readers who knew the Hebrew Scriptures.
For example, the infant Moses and Jesus both escaped death when a ruler attempted to kill the male Jewish children in the area, both hid in Egypt as a child, both gave up life in a kingly home to lead a humble life of service, both fasted forty days and nights, both communicated directly with God, both performed miracles, both provided the people with bread to eat, both sent out 12 individuals, both chose 70 individuals, both taught with authority – and both ascended a mountain for the giving of key commands and instruction from God.
With that background in mind, we can see the significance of the fact that throughout the first third of the Sermon on the Mount the law of Moses is mentioned repeatedly, using the formula “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago …. But I tell you ….” For example:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22, and see also Matthew 5:27, 31, 38, 43).
Within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made it clear to his followers that he was not doing away with or replacing the principles of the law given through Moses (Matthew 5:17-19). Instead, in this pivotal sermon – the longest connected teaching of Jesus in the New Testament – he gave new insight into God’s spiritual laws, raising our understanding of their intent to the higher level to which we are called.
Biblical genealogies are things most of us read, accept and move on in our reading. But the genealogy Matthew gives for Jesus at the beginning of his Gospel has a particularly interesting aspect. Matthew divides the “family tree” he constructs for the promised Messiah into three sections of fourteen generations each, saying: “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah” (Matthew 1:17).
But if we look back into the Old Testament lists of the ancient kings of Judah who were among the ancestors of Jesus, we find that Matthew actually omits three individuals between the kings Jehoram and Uzziah (Matthew 1:8): Ahaziah (2 Kings 8:25), Joash (2 Kings 12:1) and Amaziah (2 Kings 14:1). In other words, there were actually seventeen known generations between David and the exile, rather than fourteen as Matthew states.
How can we reconcile this apparent contradiction in the Scriptures? First, we must understand that Matthew follows a common ancient practice in structuring the genealogy he gives into clear units which were more easily remembered and taught. That Matthew omits some individuals in order to accomplish this pattern is not surprising because if we look back to the very first verse of his Gospel, he does that to an even more striking degree in saying “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” – where the practice of “jumping generations” is clearly utilized to make his point: to stress that Jesus was the descendant of David (who is actually named first, before Abraham).
When we remember Matthew’s stress – both here and throughout his Gospel – on Jesus being the son of David, we can consider another fact. The Jewish audience for whom Matthew primarily wrote had no numerals of the kind we use today. Instead, the Jews gave numerical values to certain letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In this way, a given word could have a numerical value as well as a phonetic one. “David” was written with the letters dalet (4), vav (6) and dalet (4), giving a total numerical value of 14. So fourteen was a number associated with the name of David, and it is certainly possible that Matthew structured his genealogy of Jesus in a pattern of fourteen generations in order to stress, in a literary or symbolic manner, the connection between David and Jesus, the “Son of David.”
We must remember that precisely because Mathew wrote to a Jewish audience, he knew that his readers were familiar with the king lists of the Hebrew Scriptures and that they would understand he was “jumping generations” in Matthew 1:8 in exactly the same way he did in Matthew 1:1.
We can see this fact in another way. Ancient genealogies usually omitted women in their reckoning, but Matthew includes four women who were Gentiles or had Gentile connections (Matthew 1:3, 5-6), even though he did not include the four great matriarchs of the biblical tradition – Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. The reason is clearly because another theme of Matthew’s Gospel is the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan for humanity.
Matthew adjusted the details of his genealogy of Jesus in order to make the points that were vital for his story. So, rather than contradicting Old Testament accounts, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is carefully constructed to stress Jesus’ descent from David and from Gentile ancestors – which gave him the genealogy to be not only the King of the Jews, but also the King of all mankind.
The Book of John tells two stories, back to back, of encounters between Jesus and individuals who came to him alone. Rather than being part of the crowds that thronged Jesus daily, these individuals talked with him privately. One sought him out in the dark of night and the other was approached by him under the blazing sun at noon. The two individuals were the priest Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well. The two stories, told in conjunction by John, clearly contrast in a number of ways, but also share something in common.
Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee and ultra-righteous member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, came to Jesus, John tells us, “by night” (John 3:1-21) in order to question him about his teachings. Nicodemus was part of the religious establishment of the time, and he clearly went to Jesus under the cover of darkness so as not to be seen and recognized. John’s record of the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee shows us that Nicodemus was beginning to believe the truth, but he held back because of the opinions of his friends and colleagues.
The Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well outside the city of Sychar in Samaria came to draw water around noon (John 4:4-42), which was the hottest time of day when the fewest people would be at the well. It is unlikely that anyone would purposely plan a trip to the well at that time unless they wanted to avoid people. But, as someone doubtless shunned or shamed by her neighbors because of her sexual relations with a number of men, the Samaritan woman had good reason to go to the well at a time when she would not meet others. She doubtless went then because of her discomfort with her neighbors’ opinion of her.
The two individuals were worlds apart. Nicodemus was a respected member of the privileged religious elite in the Judean capital of Jerusalem; the Samaritan woman was a shamed individual from a despised culture in a rustic backwater of the country. Spiritually, Nicodemus may have needed help to see his sin and the Samaritan woman may have needed help to see her worth, but both individuals shared something in common – they both evidently feared the opinions of others and sought to avoid those who might look down on them.
It is unlikely that John juxtaposed his accounts of these individuals in the way he did without intending his readers to see the connection of fear implied in both stories. Whatever our background, whatever our own perception of our standing before God, we may adjust our behavior in order to cope with our inherent human fear of the opinions of others. But after meeting with the one they came to see was probably the Messiah, both individuals found the courage to act without shame and without cover.
Nicodemus later spoke with courage to remind his colleagues in the Sanhedrin that a person should be heard before being judged (John 7:50–51), and then, after the crucifixion, he helped to prepare the body of the reviled and executed Jesus for burial (John 19:39–42). In the same way, after meeting Jesus, the Samaritan woman – if she had been avoiding her neighbors – now found the courage to tell them all about the one she had met who was the Christ.
We may not be like Nicodemus or like the Samaritan woman. Perhaps our lives are being lived out somewhere between those of the two individuals, the saint and the serial sinner. But like them, if we have met with Jesus in our lives, we will be strengthened to live above the opinions of others.
It is interesting that many of those who claim the Bible is not a historical book and its historical narratives cannot be trusted are quick to accept the historical nature of the statements in the Old Testament regarding the Israelites destroying the inhabitants of the Land of Canaan – which they claim to be an example of genocide.
But is this what the Bible actually shows? Is it also true that, contrary to some skeptics who claim otherwise, the ancient Canaanites were guilty of horrendous crimes including sacrificing their own children? You can find the answers in our new article: "Was Genocide Commanded in the Bible?" uploaded today.
Some of the statements of Jesus concerning the end of the age have been interpreted as meaning that the end times would occur in the generation in which Jesus lived. This view of some New Testament scriptures has been held by even prominent individuals such as the theologian and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer who believed that many of the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels show this belief.
One of the main areas of scripture to which Schweitzer pointed was Matthew 24; but if we look closely at that chapter, we see that after Christ listed many things that would happen at the end of the age, he said:
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:32-36).
First, we should realize that Jesus’ words regarding “this generation” may simply mean that the generation Christ was speaking of – the generation that would witness the signs he said would occur – would not pass away till the signs were all fulfilled and the end occurred. The Greek pronoun translated "this" can often be translated "the same" and we should keep this meaning in mind.
It is clear that some of the sayings of Jesus recorded in Matthew 24 found fulfillment in AD 70 with the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 24:1-2), but other statements contained in his discourse on the Mount of Olives in that same chapter have a clear setting in a distant future, as we see, for example, in the prophecies: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14), and “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again” (Matthew 24:21) – neither of which were fulfilled in AD 70.
Schweitzer also appealed to Matthew 23 as a chapter he thought showed Jesus taught the end would occur at that time, but there, in his criticism of the teachers of the law and Pharisees, Jesus simply said:
“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned … And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation” (Matthew 23:33-36).
In this instance, Jesus stated that the guilt of the religious leaders who had persecuted and killed many of God’s servants would not escape them, and that punishment would come on that generation of leaders who were no different from their ancestors. Because the Romans destroyed the Temple and killed many of the religious leaders in AD 70, that prediction effectively came to pass.
Other key verses that Schweitzer believed showed Jesus promised his return in his own day are: “There be some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28); “... until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1); and “... till they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27). But these parallel accounts all record Jesus’ words being spoken immediately before the Gospels record the Transfiguration – in which some (as Christ said) of the disciples saw Jesus in a vision of divine splendor which was a "preview" of Christ in the Kingdom of God.
Although it is clear historically that many early Christians believed that Jesus would return in their lifetimes, the words of Christ and the apostles always focused not on the timing of the end, but on its imminence. We must all live in readiness for the Kingdom of God - not only because we do not know the time it will be fully instituted at the return of Christ, but also because we do not know when our own lives will end.
One of the parables Jesus told specifically against the Pharisees can be profitably applied in our own lives in a way we might not expect:
“... There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted? ” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him” (Matthew 21:28-32).
In this parable, which is somewhat similar to the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus uses the story of two sons to reprimand those who believed they were good people while not realizing that they were, in fact, self-righteous and not obedient at all. The parable makes a strong contrast between these people and those who were clearly sinners by background, yet who were now accepting the message of the Kingdom of God.
Psychologically the parable is an interesting one in that it is difficult to read it without naturally siding with those whom Jesus exonerated. Noone finds it easy or pleasant to put themselves in the shoes of those Jesus so clearly rebukes. Nevertheless, we can apply this in various areas of life – not least in terms of the “vineyard” (Matthew 20:1) against which he set the parable. Did we feel a call to do some good work which we accepted, yet which we have delayed or put aside? The story could apply to us in this or in many other ways.
And there is another way to approach this parable. Supposing we view ourselves as being both sons rather than just one of them. This approach fits well with the Christian understanding that our carnal human nature remains with us and has to be constantly struggled against, even when we have repented and received the Spirit of God (Romans 7:23-25). We live our lives, in that sense, as both sons on a daily basis – the son (or daughter) who struggles to accept what we come to see is right and finally makes the right decision, as well as the son or daughter who may accept what we must do at first, but does not follow through because we forget our decision or are tempted away from it. This approach fits the details of the story in a number of ways. Note the son who says “yes” at first seems to be respectful (he says “sir”) yet still fails, while the son who is rebellious (the first reaction of our own human nature is all too often wrong) is willing to finally turn and do what is right.
Jesus’ parable was clearly aimed at the apparently righteous Pharisaical individuals with whom he contrasted those who were rebellious yet finally obedient. Yet it can be helpful to put ourselves in both situations in order to remember how our own human nature works. Accepting the truth is not always easy and meditation on how this parable might apply to us in our own lives can help us to reach right decisions – to turn out to be the good son who even the Pharisees recognized was the son with whom God was able to work.
It’s a simple principle, but one that can help us to profit from a number of Christ's parables that contrast right and wrong responses.
“At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said … “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God” ( Acts 10:1-4).
Two aspects of Cornelius’ faithful walk before God are shown in these verses – twice over: his generous gifts to the poor and his prayer. Now we may not be able to prove it, but given the fact of Cornelius’ evident concern for those with needs, the final verse in this section of scripture seems to indicate he was praying for the poor as well as giving to the poor. If that’s the case, doubtless the poor were not all Cornelius prayed about, but the story of this centurion reminds us that prayer and giving are both important in helping others and in learning the spirit of true giving ourselves. Just as we can give without a concerned attitude, we can pray without actual giving, and in either case our concern is limited as well as our effectiveness.
This is a point the apostle James makes so clearly in his Epistle: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?" (James 2:15). It’s a vital combination: we should not speak without doing. James doesn’t suggest that our words of comfort are not important, just that they should not be alone. This applies as much in terms of our words spoken in prayers, of course, as it does in our direct relations with others.
The Book of Acts shows us that Cornelius understood the importance of both speaking and doing. He reminds us of that other centurion who told Jesus “… just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Matthew 8:8-9). Both these professional soldiers understood the relationship between speaking and doing; both understood that speaking of itself is not enough. But while the one story stresses what God does as a result of our requests, the other story stresses what we should do as a result of our requests. Words and deeds are always interrelated, in prayer as in other areas of Christian life, and the more we remember that, the more we can accomplish.
Mary (Hebrew Miryam) was one of the most common women’s names in New Testament times, and so it is not surprising that the crucifixion and resurrection narratives seem to speak of as many as five separate Marys. These women are usually identified in some way in order to distinguish them, but in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 27:61, Matthew 28:1) one is simply called “the other Mary.” Who was this “other Mary” and why was she called by that name – if it was, in fact, a name?
If we put the various accounts together that mention the women at the crucifixion and at the tomb of Jesus, we find:
Mary Magdalene (mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)
Mary, mother of James and Joseph or Joses (mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke)
Mary, the wife of Clopas (mentioned in John)
Mary, mother of Jesus (mentioned in John)
Mary, “the other Mary” (mentioned in Matthew)
(One other woman, Salome, the wife of Zebedee and mother of James and John, is also mentioned in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)
We know who several of these Marys are – Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene present no problem. Mary the wife of Clopas was also known as the wife of Alphaeus (Acts 1:13), the Hebrew form of which was Cleopas.
Notice what Matthew tells us regarding the women present at the crucifixion: “Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph [Joses] and the mother of Zebedee’s sons” (Matthew 27:56). A few verses later Matthew continues: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb” (Matthew 27:61).
Of these women, we know that the mother of Zebedee’s sons was Salome (Mark 15:40 and Matthew 27:56), so “the other Mary” Matthew mentions would seem to be the same as Mary the mother of James and Joses. James was one of the disciples and his father was Alphaeus – “James the son of Alphaeus” (Matthew 10:3 and Luke 6:15).
Putting these facts together we see that it is likely that Mary the mother of James and Joses was the same person as Mary the wife of Alphaeus who was called Clopas or Cleopas. This would mean that “the other Mary” mentioned in Matthew 27:61 was not a separate Mary, but simply the Mary other than Mary Magdalene whom he had mentioned a few verses earlier. This would mean that Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and “the other Mary” were in fact the same person.
According to many biblical scholars, and in early Christian tradition from the time of Papias of Hierapolis (c. AD 70-163), this Mary was the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus and the wife of Alphaeus, as we apparently see in John 19:25: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene." So the “other Mary” may well have been Jesus’ aunt (and her husband, Clopas, his uncle).
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face (John 19:1-3).
In these words, John summarizes the beginnings of the crucifixion of Jesus. Matthew, in his Gospel, adds the detail that the Roman soldiers also put a staff in his right hand (Matthew 27:29), which clearly imitated the emperor’s scepter, just as the purple robe and crown of thorns also imitated the emperor’s other attributes.
The mockery of the soldiers is clear. Charged as “King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37), and hence as someone attempting to take the place of the emperor, the imperial attributes of robe, scepter and crown were intended as a cruel, insulting joke. But the mocking soldiers were doubtless unaware of how richly symbolic their parody actually was. The crown of thorns given to Jesus was doubtless intended as a parody of the Roman Civic Crown given to military heroes. Like the crown of thorns, the Roman Civic Crown (Latin: corona civica) was formed of plant material: of leaves of the oak tree woven into a circle. But the Civic Crown was granted only to Roman citizens who saved the lives of other citizens. So high was the honor of this crown that it became part of the imperial regalia and was worn by all the emperors from the time of Augustus, and the emperors themselves were often hailed as the “Savior” of the people.
Ironic or not, the richness of the symbolism that God allowed in the crown of thorns also finds much earlier foreshadowing in the Bible itself. Not only does the biblical story of humanity’s “fall” tell us that as a result of sin the earth would produce “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:17-19), but also the crown of thorns is more specifically foreshadowed in the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac. Genesis 22:13 tells us that the sacrifice of Isaac was transferred to the sacrifice of the male sheep God provided, that was caught by its horns in a “thicket.” The Hebrew word used for thicket is sebak, derived from a word meaning to entwine in the sense of interwoven branches. This was perhaps the Palestine Buckthorn (Rhamnus lycioides or Rhamnus palaestinus), a bush or small thorn tree which grows on hillsides in much of Israel. Its botanical name Rhamnus refers to its intertwined, prickly branches. The ram “caught by the horns” in such a tree was thus essentially a sacrificial sheep with thorns intertwined around its head, and the ram became a substitutionary sacrifice for Isaac, just as Jesus became a substitutionary sacrifice for everyone.
So the crown of thorns given to the Messiah and intended as a cruel parody to mock him was, in fact, a fitting symbol for the One who took upon himself the thorny result of our human sin, who willingly acted as a substitutionary sacrifice for all, and whose bravery infinitely eclipsed that of heroes who may have saved others (Romans 5:7). It may have been intended as a parody, but no one else ever qualified to receive such an exalted crown as the one made of thorns worn by Jesus.
“… the people … spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived” (Numbers 21:5-9).
This dramatic story from the Old Testament is the background to something Christ said to the Pharisee Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15).
The parallel mentioned by Christ makes it clear that the serpent erected on a stake by Moses was not some kind of healing idol, but a symbol of sin and evil – a foreshadowing of the fact that Christ would personify sin in taking upon himself all mankind’s sin and evil (1 Peter 2:24) on the stake of crucifixion. But there is much more that we can say about the strange incident of the serpent on the stake.
In his classic book, The Pursuit of God, A. W. Tozer commented many years ago that there is an interesting parallelism between the original account and what Jesus said about it. Tozer pointed out that when the Israelites “looked at the bronze snake, they lived” (Numbers 21: 9, emphasis added) and that everyone who “believes” on “the Son of Man who must be lifted up” would have eternal life (John 3:15). As Tozer pointed out, it is clear that “looking” on the serpent was the equivalent of “believing” on Christ – that looking and believing are in a sense equal, that faith is in a very real sense “looking” without the eyes, or beyond what the physical eyes see, to a reality that saves.
Although Tozer did not develop the principle further, this understanding helps us to correlate a great number of scriptures that speak of “looking” with the concept of faith, and in so doing perhaps helps us to better understand faith itself. Think, for example, of these words from the Psalms: “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always” (Psalm 105:4); these from Isaiah: “Look to Me, and be saved, All you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22), or these from Micah: “But as for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me” (Micah 7:7).
The principle is one to utilize in study of the Scriptures. When we read “look to” in the Bible, we should often think “believe in.” It’s a simple fact that gives new meaning to many verses – or perhaps helps us see the original meaning that was there all along.
Many Christians carry around a “portrait” as it were of a number of biblical figures. The portraits aren’t real ones, of course; they are mental ideas or “images” that we build up of individuals after reading and hearing about them. We might have only a blurry or very partial portrait in our minds for some people mentioned in the Bible, but for others the image is often well developed – and wrong!
Take the apostle John, for example. Many people know that John is often called the “apostle of love,” and he is often remembered as “… the disciple whom Jesus loved,” who reclined next to him (“leaning on Jesus’ bosom” KJV) during the Last Supper, and who wrote of strange visions in the Book of Revelation. The mental picture many have of John is a somewhat ethereal one based on these images alone – a kind of gentle soul who perhaps didn’t mix well with the rough-hewn fishermen and some of the other disciples, but who understood Jesus’ call to love better than most, and who was a man of mystical, otherworldly visions.
It helps to realize that although John certainly was a teacher of love and recorded mysterious visions, he was also a very real, warm-blooded man who was known as a man of thunder! Mark’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus selected his disciples, he chose among the twelve “James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means ‘sons of thunder’)” (Mark 3:17). The nickname is based on the Semitic custom of naming a person or thing after its distinguishing characteristic (as sparks are “sons of fire” - Job 5:7) and clearly reflects an aspect of personality and character that is anything but appropriate to someone who was merely a gentle teacher of love.
It was John and his brother James, we must remember, who wanted to bring fire down from heaven on a village that would not welcome their Master (Luke 9:53-55) and had to be rebuked for this excess. It was John who wanted to forcibly stop the work of someone else casting out demons (Luke 9:49) and who had to be gently rebuked again. But it was John, by the end of Jesus’ ministry, whom Jesus selected as someone who would be both strong and loving enough to protect and look after Mary, his mother (John 19:26).
So John was no mild pushover of soft and ineffectual “love.” Perhaps no other New Testament writer so forcibly teaches the need for truth and turning from darkness. We actually see this firm stress on truth, and on the “light” which symbolizes it, just as much as love in all his writings. And the love John taught was not a wispy or feeble emotion either, it was a reflection of the vigorous and commanding love that his Master, the Christ, had demonstrated every day John had known him – the love that mingled with, touched and helped the sick, the outcasts and the socially undesirable despite the outrage of the religious leaders of the day.
To portray John as an ethereal teacher of love is in clear contradiction to the portrait the Bible actually gives of the apostle. John, perhaps more than any other disciple, constantly portrayed in his writings the balance between an accepting love and uncompromising truth. The apostle of love was always, and equally, an apostle of truth. He was always an apostle of love, and equally a son of thunder.
The Gospel of John records the healing by Jesus, at the Pool of Bethesda, of a man paralyzed for many years. The account is a moving one and provides some interesting questions. There were many sick people at the pool that day – why did Jesus single out this particular individual for the healing? And why did Jesus ask the man a question which we would normally never ask a sick or paralyzed person: "Do you want to be well?"
The answers to these questions may throw additional light on the story of the healing - and they are answers that apply to all of us. See our new article, uploaded today: "Do You Want to Be Well?"
Do you particularly enjoy the parables of Jesus – or do you wish you understood them better? Either way our new book is for you!
This new book is a practical but carefully researched commentary on all the parables. It gives many insights into the stories and their meanings through historical facts and other information that can enrich and transform your understanding of them. But this book is not just a commentary – it focuses on the living lessons of the parables themselves.
The City on a Hill is available in different formats (including PDF so you can read it on any electronic device). The book is written from a non-denominational perspective, is completely free and free of advertising. You do not need to give an email address or any other information to download the book (just click on the download link on our "Downloads" page and enjoy). If you enjoy the book and find it profitable, feel free to make a copy of the file and pass it, or the URL, along to your friends and others you know who may find the book helpful.
The City on A Hill: Lessons from the Parables of Jesus is the first of a series of free e-Books we hope to produce this year – enjoy this one and look out for new titles as we go through 2015!
“Then [the king] said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready … invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness ... ’ ” (Matthew 22:8-14).
Discussion of this parable of the wedding banquet often focuses on what it means that the unwelcome guest is cast “into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,” or on the summary statement that “many are invited, but few are chosen.” But a part of the parable that is often overlooked is, in a way, central to what Jesus was teaching in this story: the guest who was expelled was not cast out because he was not recognized or not invited, but because his clothes were somehow not acceptable.
The parable states that the individual cast out of the banquet was not wearing “wedding clothes,” and historically we know that in ancient Judea, as in many other ancient and modern cultures, guests wore their finest clothes to a wedding. This fact showed the guest’s respect for the host and it also honored the host by showing that his or her friends were well dressed and important – and thus legitimate at the banquet of a great person or a king. Throughout Judea and many areas of the ancient Near East it was customary for the host (especially if a king) to present expensive garments as gifts to those attending a wedding or other festival so that they would be suitably attired (see Genesis 45:22; Judges 14:12; 2 Kings 5:22; 2 Kings 10:22). This seems to be the case in Christ's parable as the guests were all gathered, unexpectedly, from the streets without knowledge to prepare themselves.
So, it is clear that the parable's 1st century hearers would understand the fact that the problematic guest would not be accepted at the wedding banquet in his everyday or non-wedding clothes. But what did Christ mean by this aspect of the story? Although, like many parables, the story does not state its point directly, it is clear that the guests’ “clothes” represent their spiritual condition. The problematic guest clearly considered his own clothes amply good enough, for he has nothing to say when challenged, but the king judges by his own standard and renounces the guest for not having suitable wedding clothes. Christ’s words are clearly aimed at those who, like the Pharisees, trusted in their own righteousness. Jesus tells his hearers in this parable that our own “garment” – our own righteousness – is simply not good enough, and we will only attend the banquet of his coming if we are suitably dressed not in our own, but in his righteousness.
Interestingly, Christ’s parable reflects a passage in Isaiah which specifically speaks of festival garments in precisely this way: “... he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness ...” (Isaiah 61:10). Inappropriately dressed guests are doubtless the individuals mentioned in Revelation who are said to be “naked” and counseled to buy garments (Revelation 3:4, 18) in order to join those who are said to wear white robes at the wedding of the Lamb: “For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)” (Revelation 19:7-8). Here the fine clothing of the wedding guests is explicitly linked with righteousness – and this clothing is “given to [God’s people] to wear.”
So Christ’s parable should remind us that while we are called to obedience, our own human righteousness will ultimately never be perfect enough by itself. Despite our best efforts our good deeds will sometimes be done for the wrong reasons, and our behavior will not always be perfect. So we are expected to wear better spiritual “clothes” than we could produce ourselves. That is why we are commanded to “…put on the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Romans 13:14) for it is God Himself who “is our righteousness” (Jeremiah 33:16. and see also Romans 4:24). Or, as the apostle Paul put it, that we should: “… be found in him, not having a righteousness of [our] own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9). Our “best clothes” are the ones God gives us.
If you have ever traveled on London’s “Underground” trains (or those in other cities), you will instantly recognize the inspiration for this whimsical but very interesting graphic by TheologyGrams (you can see their site here). The Infogram shows the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul in a schematized manner – much as railroad routes are shown. The graphic gives a great idea of the relative distances of the journeys, and don’t miss the historical details – such as the proposed extension from Rome to Spain (Romans 15:24, 28), and the “good barber” at Cenchreae (Acts 18:18)! The infogram succeeds admirably in presenting Paul’s travels in a memorable way!
All four Gospels tell a story of a woman who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume, but the accounts differ, and it is usually presumed that they are based on two events – with two different women anointing Jesus on different occasions, one in the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany and the other in the home of a Pharisee named Simon.
But a careful comparison of the stories reveals a clearer picture – and carries an important lesson. The accounts of Matthew, Mark and John are often thought to reflect an occasion regarding Mary, the sister of Martha (John 11:2), and the account in Luke to reflect another incident regarding a different woman who had lived a sinful life. But all the apparent differences between the stories can be easily reconciled. For example, Mathew and Mark say the woman anointed Jesus’ head, the other gospels say his feet were anointed. But the woman may well have anointed Christ’s head and feet – recorded differently according to the stress the individual Gospel writers had in mind (i.e., the head for a kingly anointing, or an anointing for burial).
It would be a strange coincidence if two women had both anointed Jesus with the same kind of expensive perfume and wiped his feet with their hair. If they were different women, why did the Gospel writers not differentiate them in some way? On the other hand, that Mary sister of Martha was the one woman who anointed Christ may perhaps be seen earlier in John’s account where he tells us: “(This Mary… was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)” (John 11:2) – saying “the same one who” rather than “one of the women who.” It would also be strange if not one of the four gospel writers recorded both events, if two similar events had occurred. This is especially true considering Jesus’ words in Mark 14:9: “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Would Christ have put so much emphasis on this event if it was the second instance of two virtually identical cases? If this had been done by two different women, surely both would be clearly recorded.
That the various accounts regarding the woman who anointed Christ’s feet involve the same event has another aspect to it. Luke’s account says the event occurred in the home of a Pharisee named Simon, the others say it was in the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. But Simon the Leper and Simon the Pharisee were probably one and the same. A leper could never have hosted a dinner nor have partaken in one with other people – Simon the Leper must have been healed and could thus have been the same as Simon the Pharisee. Simon may well have been referred to as “the Pharisee” in Luke because Luke stresses Jesus’ reply to Simon’s pharisaical and self-righteous attitude, while the other Gospels remember him as Simon the Leper.
Why does this matter? If Simon the Leper and Simon the Pharisee are one and the same, then Jesus’ words to this man take on far greater meaning. Commentaries on Luke: 7:36-50 usually stress the fact that Jesus pointed out to the Pharisee that he had not welcomed Jesus as the woman did, but we should notice the context, and what Jesus actually stresses before he continued to make a comparison between the woman and Simon:
“Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’ ‘Tell me, teacher,’ he said. ‘Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’ ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said” (Luke 7:40-43).
Why did Jesus talk to the Pharisee about gratitude for forgiveness? Notice Christ said two people had been forgiven, one of much, one of less – and made the point that the one forgiven more, loved more. If Simon the Pharisee had been forgiven sins and healed of leprosy by Jesus, this part of the story makes perfect sense. Simon is the one forgiven a smaller amount, Mary the one forgiven a greater amount, but who then loved more.
But Jesus’ comment to the Pharisee cuts to the heart of any self-righteous understanding of forgiveness. In speaking to the Pharisee as Jesus did, he showed the man the hypocrisy of accepting forgiveness and still looking askance at others as sinners. Jesus’ words showed not only that those forgiven more, love more – and may show much more gratitude – but also that those of us forgiven anything are in no position to judge others self-righteously, no matter how much they may have sinned. To look at God’s forgiveness in any other way, Jesus shows us, is to walk in the shoes of someone blind to their own self-righteousness. It is to walk in the shoes of a Pharisee.
The sixth chapter of John records the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 in which a great crowd that was following Jesus was fed by a mere five loaves and two fishes as a sign:
“Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten” (John 6:5-13 emphasis added).
In reading the story of this miracle we tend to only notice the fact that after the feeding of the 5,000 the disciples took up far more food than they started with. But notice also that Christ’s instructions to gather up the remaining pieces of bread included the careful instruction “let nothing be wasted” or, as we might say today “don’t lose any!” Clearly, there was no shortage of food, so the command not to lose any of the crumbs must have had another reason behind it.
The narrative then proceeds with Jesus moving from the area to avoid the crowds and the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and in reading we tend to not connect the next part of the story. But the narrative is clearly connected. The first thing we see Jesus doing once he arrived at his destination was to begin to teach the people a lesson based on what they had seen.
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst... All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out… And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:35-39 emphasis added).
The disciples had doubtless not forgotten the feeding of the 5,000 – or how much work was involved in picking up twelve baskets of leftover bread pieces and crumbs – so there is no doubt that the connection between the miracle and the lesson was understood by them even if they did not comprehend its full significance at that time. But the miracle was not only a sign of Jesus’ messianic identity (6:14), it was also a living lesson in God's intent in working with His human family. First, Christ stressed that he is the Bread of life and that those in him become, as it were, pieces or crumbs of that same bread. But while Jesus could have just verbally stressed the lesson “… your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14), the point was apparently important enough that he used the opportunity to drive it home by means of a miracle.
We may know intellectually that our Father is not willing that anyone be lost, but in our times of failure or discouragement we should remember the extent to which Christ made that point for us to clearly see. We can be sure that if we had picked up twelve bushel baskets of bread crumbs it is a lesson we doubtless would not have forgetten.
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Unless otherwise stated, blog posts are written by R. Herbert, Ph.D., who writes for a number of Christian venues – including our sister site: TacticalChristianity.org