Friday, March 28, 2008

Jesus' Ministry Begins

After Luke relates the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus confounding the teachers in the Temple, eighteen years pass with nothing more said about Him other than, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). Though many have speculated about His activities during that period, it is impossible to know anything for certain about them. It is most probable that He remained in Nazareth, assisting Joseph in the building trade. Though Nazareth was a small, rural town, it sat not far from a well-populated, cosmopolitan, trading center, and He would have had many opportunities to speak with and interact with people from all over the Roman Empire.

As firstborn son, He may have had to take on the mantle of business owner and head of household when Joseph died, as it is assumed, since there is no mention of His stepfather once His ministry begins. Being given these serious responsibilities at a young age would have provided Him valuable experience in leadership, decision-making, and dealing with various people and situations. By the time His ministry commences at the age of thirty (Luke 3:23), He is no novice, but a fully mature, sober-minded, qualified leader.

Half a year earlier, another thirty-year-old man had suddenly appeared out of the wilderness of Judea in the area of the Jordan River, preaching a fiery message of repentance and baptizing “for the remission of sins” (Luke 3:3). This young man is John, son of Zacharias the priest, and Jesus’ cousin through their mothers. He is, he says, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord'" (John 1:23), fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. He is the forerunner, the herald, announcing the coming of the Messiah.

Hardened by years in the desert, wearing a rough-spun garment of camel’s hair bound by a leather belt and eating locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6), John fears nothing, especially the hypocritical religious leaders of the time. As the last of the Old Testament prophets, he thoroughly castigates the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a “brood of vipers” and instructing them to begin bearing fruits to demonstrate their repentance (Matthew 3:7-8). He sternly warns them to show their quality right away, for a Mighty One is coming, a great Judge who will separate the wheat from the chaff (verses 11-12).

It is probably in the fall of that year that Jesus journeys from Nazareth to the Jordan to be baptized by John. At first, John argues that He, being sinless, did not need to be baptized—in fact, “I need to be baptized by You” (Matthew 3:14). Jesus, however, tells John to baptize Him “to fulfill all righteousness” (verse 15). Righteousness is doing what is good and proper. Though He did not need to be baptized, it is fitting that Jesus set the example of the proper method of baptism—by immersion—and of the ritual that demonstrates a person’s rejection of his old life and his dedication to his new life and relationship with God. All new converts should go through the same ceremony to begin their Christian lives (see Acts 2:38-39).

As Jesus emerges out of the water, God the Father performs a miraculous, visible sign to show His approval: “[B]ehold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). Upon witnessing this, John says, “He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:33-34).

The very next day, John sees Jesus again, and he tells two of his disciples, one of whom was Andrew (and the other was probably John son of Zebedee), “Behold the Lamb of God!” (John 1:35-36). It is an obvious reference to His sacrificial redemption of men from their sins (see verse 29). The two disciples leave John and follow Him, and soon Andrew introduces Him to Simon Peter (verse 42). One day later, Jesus calls Phillip and Nathanael to follow Him too (verse 43). Already He has a small group of disciples around Him. The next day, the third after His baptism, He attends a wedding in Cana, accompanied by His handful of disciples (John 2:1-12). John writes that the miracle He did there, turning water into wine, was the “beginning of signs Jesus did,” providing evidence of His glorious identity and work (verse 11).

However, “the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) soon thereafter, and He spends forty days there, severely tempted and tested by Satan the Devil. Matthew 4 and Luke 4 recount Satan’s attempts to make Jesus sin, to wear Him down to the point He would put His own life and desires ahead of God’s purpose. Yet, Jesus, having fasted for forty days and nights, is spiritually strong and resists even Satan’s offer to give Him full rulership of all the kingdoms of the earth without having to preach, suffer, and die, if He will simply worship him (Matthew 4:8-9; Luke 4:5-7). Christ will not be bought. He rounds on Satan and commands him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve’” (Matthew 4:10; Luke 4:8). It is no contest. Jesus Christ will not be turned from the work God had given Him to do.

From there, Jesus returns to Galilee with great spiritual power (Luke 4:14), teaching in the synagogues of the various towns and villages of the area. He waits, however, until John the Baptist had been imprisoned by Herod Antipas, the ruler of the regions of Perea and Galilee, to begin preaching more publicly. It appears that He inaugurated His public ministry at Nazareth on a Sabbath day, reading aloud the portion of Isaiah 61:1-2, a well-known Messianic prophecy of His work to Israel. Upon finishing the passage, “He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:20-21).

Jesus Christ had taken the first steps down the road to Calvary—and glory.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Prophecy's Place

Forerunner, "Prophecy Watch," January-February 2008

As the preacher mounts the stage to present his sermon, the faces of church members in the audience reflect their speculations about the topic he will give. Most of the children, to be sure, just hope that, whatever he preaches on, it will be short. Some of the adults agree. Others are wary, wondering if he will "give it" to some group of sinners—or, God forbid, to them. Perhaps, some seem to be thinking, he will at least talk about something interesting. . . .

To read more, please click here.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The 'Lost' Years

Among history’s most fascinating mysteries is the Bible’s silence about Jesus Christ’s early life. In the gospel of Mark, for instance, Jesus springs into the story as a thirty-year-old man being baptized and beginning His life’s work of preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God. The apostle John’s account is not so abrupt, although he, too, glosses over the first three decades of Christ’s life in a matter of a few dozen—albeit doctrinally rich—verses. As his book opens, the beloved disciple immediately hits the reader with the astounding fact of Jesus’ identity as the Word of God, the pre-incarnate Creator God, who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Then, like Mark, John skips to the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism.

Matthew and Luke, however, tantalize us with a scene or two of His early years, but hardly enough to satisfy enquiring minds. Both of these gospel writers record accounts of events surrounding His birth, from the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would have a Son conceived of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26-38) to the family’s return from Egypt after fleeing Herod’s murderous anger (Matthew 2:13-21).

At this point, both Matthew and Luke mention that Nazareth became His home:

But when [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:22-23)

Luke simply says that “they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth” (Luke 2:39). Evidently, Joseph, knowing what the angel had told him and Mary about their divine Son, had considered raising Jesus in Bethlehem, the home city of David, but God warned him that his residence in Nazareth was a far safer alternative. Besides, that Jesus would hail from this tiny Galilean town fulfilled an unwritten prophecy passed down from ancient times that the Messiah would be called a “Nazarene,” that is, an inhabitant of Nazareth (as opposed to a “Nazirite,” a person who has taken a vow of separation to God; see Numbers 6:1-21).

Luke mentions in Luke 2:40, “And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.” His intention here is to show that Jesus, unlike the gods and demigods of paganism, experienced the normal process of growth—both physically and mentally—that every human does. In other words, He did not suddenly appear out of heaven as a mature individual. Also, Luke’s pointing out that He was “filled with wisdom” suggests that young Jesus spoke and behaved properly in everything—which is utterly miraculous in a little child. He did, though, have the favor of God from the first instant of human life, so His maturity was certainly noteworthy, especially as it centered on His spiritual development.

Only one other scene of His early years is recorded: the occasion when, at twelve years old, He remained behind at the Temple in Jerusalem to listen to and question the teachers there (Luke 2:41-50). The large company of His relatives travel for a whole day before Joseph and Mary realize Jesus is not among them. They hurry back to Jerusalem, and once they find Him, scold Him for scaring them. “And He said to them, ‘Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’” (verse 49).

Luke probably includes this vignette for several reasons: 1) to relate Jesus’ upbringing as normal, loving, public, and religious; 2) to illustrate Him as a prodigy, able even as a Boy to amaze the learned with His intellect; and 3) to show that He was aware early on of both His mission and His true ancestry. We should remember that Luke is writing to explain Jesus, the Perfect Man, to a Gentile audience, so he often blends the mundane with the astonishing to create a true impression in the reader of Jesus being just like us but so much more.

Following this, Luke provides another insight or two: “Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:51-52). Perhaps worried that the reader might take Jesus’ comment to His parents as the response of a smart-aleck, Luke assures us that He was obedient to His parents. He was not the typical child prodigy, spoiled and rebellious, throwing tantrums to get His own way. Quite the opposite, Jesus was submissive and pleasant, a joy for His parents to raise. Observing His perfection, His mother cherished these episodes and patiently waited to see where they would lead her Son.

In the next verse, Luke notes again that Jesus continued to mature. It is as if he is telling us, “Despite confounding the rabbis at age twelve, Jesus only became smarter, wiser, bigger, and stronger, and on top of all that, everyone—and I mean everyone—loved Him!” The beloved physician leaves us with the sense that Jesus’ early years were pleasant, exciting, and full of experiences designed to bring Him to maturity in every facet of life.

Finally, the gospel writers drop incidental details about His family and life before His ministry. For instance, Matthew 13:55-56 contains the puzzled questions of Nazarenes dumbfounded by Christ’s preaching: “Is this not the carpenter’s Son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things?”

Joseph’s normal occupation, then, was as a carpenter, a builder, probably one who worked in both stone and wood. Jesus, as most firstborn sons, would likely follow in His father’s trade. As such, He was undoubtedly a well-formed, strong, and fit Man, used to the heavy toil of construction. The villagers’ wonder regarding Jesus teaching and works also hint that He had not flaunted His wisdom, lineage, or power during His youth, or the small-town gossips would have spread it about.

These verses also reveal that He and His family were well known in the town, to the point that everyone knew their names. In addition, His family was a large one: He had four half-brothers that we know of and at least two half-sisters. The natural reading of the Greek is that these were real brothers and sisters, children of Joseph and Mary, not cousins or older children of Joseph by an unknown first wife. Besides, that Jesus is called “her [Mary’s] firstborn Son (Matthew 1:25; Luke 2:7) suggests that she had additional children.

Very little outside of late tradition and supposition can be ascertained about Jesus’ early years. Yet, what little is known points to a thorough preparation for His wonderful ministry and supreme act of redemption.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Born to Rule

Every year as winter begins, millions of sincere Christians eagerly celebrate the birth of Jesus with good will and Christmas cheer, scrumptious dinners and endless parties, eggnog and Yule logs, loads of gifts and lot of carols. On Christmas Eve, as on Easter Sunday, the churches are full, and all seems right with the world. For many, the Christmas season is their favorite time of the year.
However, with all the commercialism infusing this particular holiday, the birth of Jesus has slipped far enough from its place of primacy that many concerned Christians make a point of urging their friends and neighbors to return the worship of Jesus to Christmas. “He’s the Reason for the season!” they argue. “Put Christ back in Christmas!”
A fine sentiment, undoubtedly expressed in all fervency, but it is entirely misguided.
Such a statement is probably shocking to many, but it is true nonetheless because Jesus Christ was never in Christmas. The holiday is an entirely manmade celebration, instituted by Catholic Church fathers—Pope Julius officially sanctioned December 25 as the birthday of Christ in AD 350—to encourage the conversion of pagans to Christianity. It is no coincidence that Christmas coincides with the Roman Saturnalia, the Empire’s winter solstice celebration, because Christmas was instituted to replace the Saturnalia’s pagan rites with more wholesome, Christian ones. This covering-over or blending of non-Christian practices with Christian ones (called “syncretism”) accounts for the many pagan elements that have become indelibly fused with Christmas observance.
The Bible itself is silent on the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth. One would think that if God the Father wanted His Beloved Son’s birth to be honored, He would have taken special care to ensure that the Good Book contained a directive to do so. But what do we find? Instead, Jesus Himself instructs us to remember—not His birth—but His death (Luke 22:14-20; I Corinthians 11:23-26)! The coming of the Savior into the world is certainly important, but at that point, Jesus was a helpless baby who had as yet done nothing. It was what He did with His life over the next thirty-three years that makes all the difference!
The Bible contains the true account of Jesus’ begettal and birth in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke. These authors’ aims were 1) to give an accurate account of the circumstances, and 2) to reveal certain elements of spiritual significance to their readers. Matthew, a Jew writing mainly to other Jews, weaves his story around specific Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in these events. He is trying to show that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah and heir of David, and thus the true King of Israel. For this reason, his account is interspersed with quotations from the prophets.
Luke, however, was a Gentile writing primarily to other Gentiles, so he is not as interested in fulfillments of prophecy or Jesus’ Jewish roots. He wants his readers to know that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men and women of every age and condition. In other words, he is intent on revealing Jesus as the universal Christ and Second Adam, through whom came life (see I Corinthians 15:20-22). These two perspectives and objectives go a long way in explaining the differences in their narratives. They are not contradictory but complementary.
This distinction is perhaps best seen in their different genealogies of Jesus. Matthew begins his book with Jesus’ family tree (Matthew 1:1-17) because a person’s heritage was of primary importance to Jews. It is clear that Mattew's list of Jesus’ forefathers is, in fact, His stepfather Joseph’s line of descent, meaning that Matthew is most interested in establishing Jesus’ legal status as “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (verse 1). In other words, He has a valid, legal claim to the throne of Israel; He meets the qualifications.
Luke has a very different list (Luke 3:23-38). It is evidently Mary’s genealogy, and thus Jesus’ natural genealogy. In addition, Luke takes the record all the way back to Adam and then to God Himself (verse 38), showing that, not only is Jesus the Son of Man, but He is also the Son of God. Jesus, then, has both a natural and a supernatural right to be mankind’s Savior and Sovereign.
The story of Jesus’ birth we all know well. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, announcing that God had chosen her to bear His Son (Luke 1:26-38). At some point soon thereafter, she conceives through a miracle from God. When she is found to be pregnant, her betrothed husband Joseph decides to divorce her quietly, but an angel informs him in a dream that what had happened was from God (Matthew 1:18-20). The Child is to be named Jesus, and He would “save His people from their sins” (verse 21).
About the time that the Baby is due, Joseph and Mary travel down to Bethlehem to comply with a Roman census, and there Jesus was born, most likely in the early autumn (Luke 2:1-7; Matthew 2:1). To shepherds in the fields, an angel in great glory announces “good tidings of great joy which will be to all people,” and the shepherds, after seeing Him for themselves (Luke 2:8-16), spread the good news far and wide (verses 17-18). In accordance with the law, Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day (verse 21) and after forty days presented at the Temple along with an offering (verses 22-24). At that time, Simeon and Anna witness to His being the promised Redeemer (verses 25-38).
Sometime after Jesus’ birth, an unknown number of wise men from the East come and worship Him, presenting Him with rich gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:1-12). These are typically gifts given to royalty, which He was, and signify—among other interpretations—His righteous life, complete sacrifice, and efficacious death. After the wise men leave, His parents are divinely warned to flee to Egypt, which they do (verses 13-15). While they are gone, Herod massacres the children of Bethlehem under two years of age in an attempt to stamp out his rival to the throne (verses 16-18). Returning to Judea after Herod’s death soon thereafter, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus live in Nazareth until He begins His ministry about thirty years later (verses 19-23; Luke 2:39-40; 3:23).
The constant theme that emerges from both accounts of Jesus’ birth is that He was born into this world to save humanity from sin and rule as King of kings. His birth was the inauguration of a life dedicated to the service of God and all mankind.