In the gospels, every once-in-a-while Jesus will make a comment… or respond in a way that seems out of character. At first glance, instances like these might seem rather confusing. You might ask, “Why did He say that?” or “That seemed a little rude… didn’t it?”
As a reader, you can assume that unusual behavior from an otherwise consistent character usually means that there is something else going on that you might be missing. Whenever you read of Jesus acting out of character you can assume there is an important lesson right around the corner. The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15:21-28 is a good example of this.
This story follows up on the previous section (Matthew 15:1-14) that discusses the topic of “defilement”. That section concludes with Jesus explaining to the disciples that the source of human defilement, from God’s perspective, is not instigated from something outside the body… but originates in a person’s heart.
The woman cries out and begs for the healing of her daughter… but Jesus does not answer her a word. This is one of the behaviors that seems a little strange. Jesus normally responds to people seeking his assistance. In this case, Jesus’ silence gives space for the mouths of the disciples to disclose something about the condition of their hearts.
I like buying old books. There’s a mystique that old books have that’s hard to replicate in any other type of media. I often don’t even read them… I just thumb through them, smell the old musty pages, then put them on the shelf where I can admire their bindings.
I own books from which I’ve never read a single word. I don’t know their contents… and I don’t even care.
I find pleasure in judging a book by its cover.
This is ok when it’s a book… but people are different. People are more complex and complicated than books. There’s much more to people than their exterior bindings… where they live, what they do, and with whom they associate.
Sometimes it’s hard to look past a person’s cover… and reconsider what you think you know.
In John 3 and 4 the author introduces his readers to three characters that have questionable covers, but the content within presents unique stories of faith.
In John 3:1 we are introduced to a man named Nicodemus. At first it might seem like a simple introduction…
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.”
But it’s not quite that simple. John actually begins the introduction three verses earlier, at the end of chapter two.
In John 2:25-27, John describes how it was the Passover season, and Jesus had been in Jerusalem performing miracles. Jesus had caused quite a stir, and when people saw the signs He was performing… the text says many “believed in His name.” It says they were “believing” in Jesus… but that Jesus wasn’t “believing” (the same Greek word) in them. Here’s how it reads,
“Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.”
All that to say, things were complicated in Jerusalem. Many were seeing Jesus for who He was, and believing in Him, but those same people were entrenched within a powerful religious system that didn’t recognize the same truth. This complication caused even believing men… to be unbelievable. Continue reading
In John 2:1-5, Jesus and His disciples make their way to Cana to attend a wedding. While they are there, the hosts run out of wine. In Jesus’ day, having the wine run out was a big deal. Weddings were multi-day events and usually were large social gatherings.
When his mother brings the situation to Jesus’ attention (in v. 4), He gives an interesting response,
“Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come.”
John intersperses into his gospel several allusions to Jesus’ impending “hour”. It is through these allusions that the reader begins to anticipate the arrival of that hour.
Mary may have hoped He would take this opportunity to make Himself known. She may have been imagining a king and His kingdom!
… but Jesus knew everything His “hour” would bring en route to His throne and glory. Continue reading
The first chapter of John’s gospel is a brilliantly planned invitation.
John wanted to invite both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jewish groups) to read his account of Jesus’ life and ministry. To do this, he literarily connected Jesus to concepts from both cultures. In this way, the beginning of John’s gospel is a unique invitation to read beyond the introduction into the heart of the story.
How did John invite a Jewish audience to read his gospel? Here are some examples from the first chapter.
- John 1:1 – “In the beginning…”
- this wording has obvious ties with the Old Testament story of Creation in Genesis 1:1 that opens with the same phrase.
- John 1:14 – “… the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
- The Greek word translated as “dwelt” is literally “tabernacled” (lived temporarily). The tabernacle/temple was the center of Jewish worship.
- John 1:29, 36 – “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
- Lambs were often used as offerings in Jewish worship ceremonies.
- John 1:51 – “Truly, Truly I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
- This recalls a dream that Jacob (a father of the Jewish faith) had in Genesis 28:10-13.
In the movie, The Magnificent Seven, a selection of otherwise unrelated mercenaries prove to be more effective as a group when defending a village against a gang of thieves. These seven people were able to accomplish more working together than they would if they were just individuals. The movie had a promotional tagline, “Justice has a number.” In the movie… that number was seven.
In a similar way John, Jesus’ disciple and author of the gospel, organized information into groups of seven. He knew that information grouped into categories accomplishes more working together than the same information randomly presented on its own. For instance, readers may notice that, in his gospel, John includes seven miracles of Jesus. He organizes these into a related group by referring to each of them as “signs” or “attesting miracles”.
- John 2:1-11 – turning water to wine
- John 4:46-54 – healing of a royal official’s son
- John 5:1-15 – healing at the pool of Bethesda
- John 6:5-14 – feeding of the 5,000
- John 6:16-24 – walking on water
- John 9:1-7 – healing of a blind man
- John 11:1-45 – resuscitation of Lazarus from the dead
In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells a parable about a man who embarks on a journey. But before he leaves, he entrusts his possessions with three slaves that stay behind. Many readers may be unaware… but there a problematic translational switch-a-roo that happens in Matthew 25:15. It concerns the possessions the man entrusts to the slaves… the talents.
“To one he gave five talents, to another , two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey.” – NASB (’95 update)
It turns out, the word “talents” is an unfortunate translation. Well actually, it’s not a translation at all… it’s a transliteration. What’s the difference? Translation conveys the meaning of words from one language to another, where transliteration simply conveys the sound of words between languages.
How does that play out in this passage? There is a Greek word “talanton” that’s an ancient Greek unit of weight and, at the same time, a measure of monetary value. It’s kinda like the British “pound”. On one hand, a unit of weight, but also has a specific monetary value in that society. Continue reading
Have you ever been wading in a river, or a lake, and one moment you are doing just fine, walking along and able to touch bottom. Then, for whatever reason, the next step takes you into a deep underwater hole. One step earlier you felt like you were some sort of “Aqua Superhero”… and the next you feel like you might drown.
Theologically, that’s what some people experience when they step into Matthew 24. You might feel pretty confident of your footing in the chapters leading up to this one… then all of a sudden you are treading in deep theological waters and feel like you are about to go under.
Why do I say that?
There are so many ways people read Matthew 24. This is the type of passage that inspires charts… and diagrams… and long extended analogies to explain. So many charts… and at least potentially (from this chapter)… so little time.
The chapter begins with a comment about nice buildings… and then a promise of destruction of those buildings.
Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And He said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down.”
Then the real question… the one where the theology suddenly get deep. What exactly do the disciples ask Jesus in Matthew 24:3? Continue reading
Throughout his gospel, Matthew organizes large segments of Jesus’ teaching into five major discourses. That just means there are a whole bunch of red letters… all scrunched together… in five different places.
The author does this on purpose… because he wants us to think of Jesus in terms of the Old Testament character, Moses. Moses was that person who lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and on towards the land that had been promised to their family. Moses wrote 5 major discourses (the first five books of the Old Testament). To help connect Jesus as “the new Moses”, Matthew presents Jesus’ teaching in five distinct settings.
Today, it’s the last discourse I’m interested in… and where it might begin. Those familiar with the Bible at all have probably heard of “The Olivet Discourse”. It’s found in Matthew 24:3-26:1 and is named after the location Jesus was when He taught it. He was on the “Mount of Olives” in Jerusalem.
We know the discourse ends in Matthew 26:1 because the Matthew includes a clue for the reader that signifies the end (“When Jesus had finished all these words…”). But there is no equivalent marker used for the beginning of the discourse. Continue reading
Matthew 22 features a set of three questions that the religious leaders bring to Jesus in an attempt to trap him and end his ministry. Jesus answers each question brilliantly… which only serves to further frustrate His questioners.
In Matthew 22:15-22, they ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay the poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” This seems like a political question… but it certainly has religious undertones.
This reminds me of a role I played in a high-school production of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”. Those familiar with that story know that the main character has several daughters. The story largely focuses on the daughters falling in love and getting married. I played Perchik, a religious and political radical that fell in love with one of the daughters. When it came time for my character to propose marriage I said,
“There’s a question I wish to discuss with you. It’s a political question, the question of marriage.” She responded, “Is this a political question?”
It was a fair question. I went on to explain that the relationship between a man and a woman has a socioeconomic base that must be founded on mutual beliefs, a common attitude, and philosophy towards society.”
What a romantic! The world certainly doesn’t need more poets like this character. Continue reading
Jesus’ ministry has been described in terms of a comparison of two temples. One temple, a physical building in Jerusalem, was supposed to be a visible example of God’s purity and forgiveness. But at the time of Jesus’ ministry, that temple was not a clear picture of these attributes. In fact… it was exactly the opposite. People were visiting the temple and often leaving with a distorted picture of God and how He works.
In contrast to the Jerusalem temple, Jesus was a clearer example of God’s purity… and His forgiveness. Jesus’ ministry began a transition away from the temple in Jerusalem… to a new temple. The temple of Jesus and those connected to Him through faith. It is a temple of believers.
It was this new temple that Jesus came to inaugurate… and that old temple, the one in Jerusalem, that he put on notice that its time was done.
This factors greatly into Matthew 21:12-22. In those verses Jesus makes his way to the temple in Jerusalem and drives out those who were buying and selling. The forgiveness of God had become a profit making business, but forgiveness from God is available to everyone. It’s not a money making transaction.
No matter who you are… no matter how much money you have… God’s forgiveness is available to you. That picture wasn’t being truly represented in the temple in Jerusalem. Sometimes I think we forget that simple truth.
The cleaning of the Jerusalem temple is followed by this strange and cryptic “cursing of a fig tree”. There’s a fig tree… it has leaves on it… but no fruit. Jesus says, “no longer shall there ever be any fruit from you” and at once the fig tree withers and dies. Without a broader context… this certainly seems like a strange event to include in the narrative of Jesus’ week leading up to the cross. Continue reading