Friday, May 23, 2008

Signs and Wonders

It is hard to shrug off the impossible. Yet, when it comes to the miracles of Jesus Christ, many people do just that—and gladly. Millions, even a great many who call themselves Christians, are only too eager to avoid or ignore what they mean.

Miracles, signs, and wonders produce two simultaneous but contrary effects: They attract and repel. They attract us because they are rare and amazing, and in the case of Jesus’ miracles, they are also beneficial. People who had not walked for many years caper like goats. The blind can read the sacred scrolls at the local synagogue. The chronically ill regain their health and strength. Lepers, their skin pink and whole, can once again mingle with crowds and rejoin their families. And how many dead men, women, and children does Jesus raise to life? Jesus’ miracles are events that make us want to stand up and cheer.

But, at the same time, these same stupendous miracles repel us. We draw back in uncertainty and fear—perhaps doubtful of their authenticity, certainly terrified of the power of the Miracle Worker. Not only can He raise the dead, but He can also still a raging storm, stroll across a tossing sea, and with a word topple a whole company of soldiers. Demons—even Satan the Devil himself—leave the scene at His command. He feeds four and five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, and without breaking a sweat, produces dozens of gallons of wine for a wedding party. Perhaps most personally terrifying of all, He knows what is in people’s hearts, almost as if He can read their thoughts.

So is Jesus of Nazareth to be praised or feared for His powerful miracles? Both, of course, for Scripture declares, “O LORD, how great are your works!” (Psalm 92:5), yet also, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). In the miraculous demonstrations of the power of God in Jesus Christ, we see “the goodness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22). Far from being some mere sideshow, His miracles were an integral part of His ministry, and their implications still resound to our day.

Some people consider the miracles of the gospel accounts as a kind of advertizing. The idea is that Jesus would blow into town, heal some well-known leper or cripple or maybe cast out a troublesome demon, and the crowds would gather, hoping to witness more wonders performed before their very eyes. Then, having caught them in His net, Jesus would preach the gospel to them, and many would believe in Him. While they made for an effective marketing technique—and the gospel narratives admit that crowds did gather to see Him perform miracles—there is an element of cynicism in this conjecture, as if Jesus healed the sick or cast out demons callously, calculatingly, just to draw an audience to hear His pitch. In it, He becomes merely a religious huckster, the original Elmer Gantry.

However, this is not the case in the least. Matthew, Mark, and Luke often bring out the fact that, upon seeing the sick and troubled folk brought before Him, “He was moved with compassion” (Matthew 9:36; see, for instance, Matthew 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34; Luke 7:13). John is the only one who tells us that, at Lazarus’ resurrection, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) over the people’s grief, as well as over their ignorance and hopelessness. As the prophecy of Isaiah 53 informs us, He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), our Savior who cared for humanity so deeply that He offered Himself to redeem every last person from sin and death. Such a merciful and loving Person does not use parlor tricks, as it were, to gain a following. His concern and desire to help were real.

John’s gospel clues us in to the divine purpose for Jesus’ miracles. After narrating the miracle of the wine at the wedding feast, the apostle adds, “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11). This verse gives us three purposes for the miracles Jesus did: 1) that they are signs; 2) that they “manifested His glory”; and 3) they helped His disciples to believe in Him. They did attract attention to Him, but ultimately, God had deeper, spiritual purposes for them.

John calls this and other miracles a “sign.” A sign is something that identifies or indicates. The Greek word he uses is semeĆ­on, “a sign or distinguishing mark whereby something is known; an event that is an indication or confirmation of intervention by transcendent powers,” according to a leading Greek-English lexicon. Jesus performed this first miracle to identify or indicate something, and the most obvious answer to what that something was centers on who Jesus is. In turning water to wine, Jesus contrasts Himself to Moses, whose first plague turned water to blood (Exodus 7:14-25). In effect, the miracle indicates “a greater than Moses is here,” and that greater One could be none other than the promised Messiah.

This sign “manifested His glory.” In other words, the miracle declared or made known Christ’s special status. Through this wonder, certain people became aware that Jesus was no ordinary man but a higher Being, worthy of all honor and praise. We could go so far as to say that these people, whose eyes had been opened, could conclude that He was indeed God in the flesh, for only the Creator God had enough power over nature to change one substance into another and with such perfect results. The same could be said of His other miracles: No one but God could do what He did.

Finally, the apostle tells us that the miracle at Cana confirmed or strengthened His disciples’ faith. Turning water into wine was a proof that erased any doubt that they may still have had about His own or John the Baptist’s claims about Him. They not only believed who He was, but they could now fully believe what He said. They could trust Him to reveal the deep spiritual truths of God because they experienced His power in action producing excellence and good. If He would go to such lengths to make a wedding feast joyous and save the couple from embarrassment, what would He not do to save us and give us eternal life?

John does not say it, but mingled with this boosting of their faith must have been at least a twinge of the fear of the Lord. When we walk with God, He will certainly help us and bless us through the working of His power. But what form would His power take if we should cross Him and become His enemy? That sword has two edges, as Hebrews 4:12 attests.

Far more than some kind of “magic,” the miracles of Jesus Christ teach us profound lessons about Jesus, His mission, His message, and our responses to Him. We scoff at them or ignore them to our peril.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Prophet

Nearly fifteen hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Moses prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear.” God validates the prophecy a few verses later: “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (verse 18). Clearly, this is a Messianic prophecy, as most Bible translations and commentaries recognize.

Many first-century Jews also considered it Messianic, for they were expecting the Prophet to arise in their day. They asked John the Baptist: “‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No’” (John 1:21). After explaining that he was the herald of the Messiah, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (verse 23), he explains, “It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose” (verse 27). The following day, seeing Jesus approaching, John declares, “This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me’” (verse 30).

We tend not to think of Jesus as a prophet—He was the Christ, the Savior, God in the flesh, far more than a prophet. Indeed, He transcends easy classification; He is all these things and much more. Yet, in His ministry He did fulfill the role of the Great Prophet to Israel, to the church, and to the world. Moses, to whom the Prophet is compared, casts a pale shadow beside Jesus Christ, as Hebrews 3:1-6 attests. Moses was a mere servant, sent to speak on God’s behalf before Pharaoh and Israel, “but Christ as a Son over His own house” (verse 6). If Moses is considered the pinnacle of human prophets, then Jesus is yet a magnitude greater.

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain a well-known scene, the Transfiguration, that illustrates this point. Jesus, accompanied only by Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, hikes up to the summit of a lofty mountain—traditionally, Mount Tabor, but perhaps Mount Hermon—where He is “transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). In addition, the disciples envision Moses and Elijah beside Him, holding a conversation with Him (verse 3). Later, in verse 9, Jesus confirms that what they saw was a vision; it was a sign in the form of a tableau designed to instruct them in a vital fact.

Seeing this spectacular sight, Peter exclaims, in paraphrase, “We’re so glad you chose us to see this! We’ll set up three booths: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” (verse 4). But before he could even finish his sentence, a voice boomed from heaven, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” (verse 5). Peter failed to understand the point of the scene, so God had to step in and make it plain. Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were not equals by any means and should not be treated as such. Jesus Christ is God’s beloved Son; He is the Master, and the other two His servants. What Jesus says sets the standard, so we must give His instruction priority.

The primacy of Jesus applies to prophecy too. Paul in Ephesians 2:20 and Peter in I Peter 2:7 recall the image of the chief cornerstone from the prophecy of Christ in Psalm 118:22. In stone construction, the cornerstone is the most important foundational stone in the building, often the stone laid in the corner upon which most of the building’s weight would rest. It can also be thought of as a keystone, the stone at the apex of an arch that locks the other stones in place. Without the cornerstone or the keystone, the whole structure falls into a pile of rubble. Additionally, Zechariah 4:7 uses the image of a capstone, the final, finishing element that completes the building.

In terms of prophecy, then, what Jesus says is foundational, pivotal, and ultimately refining. Thus, what Jesus prophesies to occur—both in the gospels and in Revelation, in which the glorified Jesus is the Revelator—should be our starting point, our map, and our compass in our search to understand what will come to pass in these last days. The other prophecies lend support and detail, but if a question or seeming contradiction arises between two prophetic statements, if one is from Jesus’ lips, it takes precedence.

His chief prophetic discourse is the Olivet Prophecy, which He gave to His disciples just prior to His crucifixion. Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Luke 21 record His words. His prophecy is in large part His answer to the disciples’ questions, “Tell us, when will these things be [when not one stone of the Temple will be left upon another (verse 2)]? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3). He begins by giving six signs—parallel to the first six seals of Revelation 6—of world events leading up to His second coming. He tells of the horrors of the Great Tribulation before describing His glorious return in power to bring order and peace to the earth.

From this point, His prophecy, while still predictive, turns to exhortation and warning. He urges us to be aware of the signs, while cautioning that we will not know exactly when He will return, so we must be ready at all times. He refines what course our preparations are to take: We must be faithfully at work, growing in godly character. To illustrate His points, He presents three parables in Matthew 25: the Parables of the Ten Virgins, the Talents, and the Sheep and the Goats, all of which describe the good and bad characteristics of those waiting for Christ to return. Of course, He wants us to imitate the Wise Virgins, the Good and Faithful Servants, and the caring Sheep.

However, Jesus’ prophecies are not all confined to the Olivet Prophecy. Obviously, He predicted His death at the hands of His enemies, as well as His resurrection after three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. He foretold of Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denials, the disciples’ scattering, and even Peter’s martyrdom and John’s long life. Yet, there are many more prophecies hidden within parables and sayings throughout the gospels. And, as mentioned earlier, the entire book of Revelation contains scores of detailed prophecies focused on the Day of the Lord and the years leading up to it—not to mention the glorious aftermath, Christ’s millennial reign, the White Throne Judgment, and the New Heavens and the New Earth.

Deuteronomy 18:19 adds a warning from God concerning the Prophet: “And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him.” In other words, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” Sounds like excellent advice.

Friday, May 9, 2008

'I Will Open My Mouth in Parables'

Because we use them so freely and see them about us so frequently, we often fail to appreciate how many of Jesus’ words and stories populate our speech and cultural references. The Sermon on the Mount contains scores of them: “Blessed are the peacemakers”; “inherit the earth”; “salt of the earth”; “city on a hill”; “let your light so shine”; “one jot or one tittle”—and these are only a few of the most recognizable ones in the first eighteen verses! Hundreds of others are liberally sprinkled throughout the gospels.

Besides being religiously significant, Jesus’ parables are also part of our literary and cultural heritage. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) has captured the imaginations of many down through the centuries to the point that “good Samaritan” is a common reference for anyone who voluntarily aids a person in need. In a similar way, “a pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46) has become a shorthand allusion to a thing or aspiration a person is willing to give everything he has to achieve. Similar common expressions have come from the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32), among others.

But are Jesus’ parables just interesting stories with a moral at the end, like Aesop’s Fables? Many people—lifelong Christians all—believe that they are and give them no further thought. This, however, is a mistake because the parables of Jesus Christ are one of His primary teaching vehicles for His disciples, containing deep truths embedded in concisely drawn stories of everyday life.

What is a parable? A common dictionary definition styles them as “a short fictitious story that illustrates a moral or religious truth.” While this meaning is accurate, it falls far short of all that a biblical parable encompasses. Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words contains a comprehensive explanation of the Greek word, parabole:

[Literally] denotes a placing beside. . . . It signifies a placing of one thing beside another with a view to comparison. . . . It is generally used of a somewhat lengthy utterance or narrative drawn from nature or human circumstances, the object of which is to set forth a spiritual lesson. It is the lesson that is of value; the hearer must catch the analogy if he is to be instructed. . . . Such a narrative or saying, dealing with earthly things with a spiritual meaning, is distinct from a fable, which attributes to things what does not belong to them in nature. . . . (p. 840)

A parable, then, is a typical story designed to illicit a comparison between it and real life, from which derives—in the case of Christ’s parables—an eternal lesson or principle. In addition, beyond the overall lesson, a well-constructed parable is comprised of symbols and types that correspond to consistent realities—for example, in Christ’s parables, a field is a symbol for the world (Matthew 13:38). Knowing this interpretation—which is sure, given that it comes from Jesus Himself—we can use it to help us understand other parables that also employ the image of a field, as the Parable of the Hidden Treasure does (verse 44).

Many people make the mistake of thinking that parables are stories that Jesus used to make a spiritual teaching interesting and understandable. As interesting as Jesus may have made them, He did not design His parables to clarify but to obscure meaning! This comes from His own lips, in response to His disciples’ question, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”: “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. . . . Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:11, 13). Parables, then, hide the deep truths of God’s Kingdom from those who have not been given the keys to unlock them.

This means that Jesus’ parables are multifaceted. Most people can see the obvious meaning—the moral of the story—without much difficulty and find it pleasing and satisfying. However, without divine revelation, they miss the deeper meaning that applies only to God’s elect. Thus, as Jesus said, “. . . seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” Moreover, some parables, especially the longer ones like the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), deliver not just one “moral” but two or even several!

Another factor that we must acknowledge is that Jesus’ parables are focused on the Kingdom of God. Perhaps Matthew informs us most noticeably of this, as many of the parables in his gospel begin with the formulaic opening, “The kingdom of heaven is like. . . .” This beginning tells the reader or listener that the story He is about to tell contains instruction that in some way expands our knowledge or understanding of God’s Kingdom.

The teaching is quite diverse. Sometimes the instruction centers on a Christian’s attitude or character. Sometimes it illustrates God’s work in the world or in the church. Sometimes it prophesies of a future event, like Christ’s judgment or His return, providing us details so that we can conform to God’s expectations of us. At other times, it warns us of Satan’s or some other enemy’s designs against us, the church, or God’s plan. Frequently, several of these points appear in the same parable. Clearly, Christ’s parables are much more than nice stories!

A final characteristic of parables, as just mentioned, is that they are frequently prophetic. Though many may scoff at such an assertion, this must be the case because the Kingdom of God itself has both present and future aspects. While Colossians 1:13 declares that the Father “has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love,” it is also true that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (I Corinthians 15:50). The Bible obviously teaches that the fullness of the Kingdom of God awaits the return of Christ in power and glory, and our part in it now is strictly spiritual in nature. For this reason, Christ’s parables teach us how to live as begotten children of God amidst the evil of this world and how to prepare for the world to come.

The parables of Jesus are not as simple as they appear on the surface. They are a gold vein of spiritual truth and teaching at all levels of understanding. With a little thought and the help of God’s Spirit, we can mine from them a lifetime of instruction.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Sermon

A reading of some of the modern literature about Jesus Christ and His ministry gives the impression that He was some sort of itinerant Jewish peasant, wandering aimlessly about the hills of Judea and Galilee, stopping to preach whenever a crowd of any size formed to listen. One imagines a scruffy and unkempt band of men seated on a hillside and the white-robed rabbi Jesus standing above them on a rock, speaking to a smattering of equally ragged people down the slope. From the looks of them, a collection plate passed among them would gather nary a farthing!

A close reading of Scripture, however, paints a different picture. Jesus' "wanderings," for example, are not haphazard but calculated itineraries. He goes where crowds are already formed—at festivals, in markets and synagogues, at the Temple on the Sabbath, etc. Moreover, Judas carries a money box (John 12:6), and it collected enough coin to entice him to steal from it. Luke 8:2-3 says that many women supported Jesus, and at least one of them had links to the moneyed classes. This is not to say that Jesus lived like a modern televangelist, but He was in no way destitute.

In addition, at times in His ministry, Jesus is followed by "great multitudes" of people from every rank of society and every nearby region. He comes in contact with Roman centurions, aristocrats, merchants, lawyers, religious leaders, Greeks, Sidonians, as well as the common fishermen, farmers, craftsmen, lepers, and tax collectors (many of which were fabulously wealthy). Jesus helps and preaches to them all.

In His famous Sermon on the Mount, we see what Jesus preached to them. This extended oration is found only in Matthew 5-7 and in a more truncated form in Luke 6. There are enough differences between the two passages to conclude that they may be accounts of different sermons. For instance, Matthew 5:1 says the Sermon took place when Jesus and His disciples "went up on a mountain." Luke 6:17, however, describes Jesus coming down with His disciples to "a level place" to speak before "a great multitude of people."

Perhaps what we call the "Sermon on the Mount" is the core of what He said many times and in different locales throughout His ministry. In fact, a quick scan of Mark and Luke reveals that sections of what Matthew includes in the Sermon are scattered throughout their narratives. From this evidence, some scholars believe that the Sermon on the Mount never actually happened as reported in Matthew's gospel, but that Matthew simply gathered snippets of Jesus' various teachings into a neat, easily digested package.

However, like the parables of Matthew 13 and the Olivet Prophecy of Matthew 24, the apostle presents the Sermon as private teaching to the disciples. It is logical to believe that Jesus would give extended, detailed instruction to His disciples in a straightforward, unbroken manner as He does in the Sermon on the Mount. Later, He would preach on the same things to sundry audiences in different places, when circumstances might dictate the subjects He addressed. The differences between Matthew's and Luke's versions of the Sermon follow their differing audiences and purposes in writing their gospels.

Matthew's version is better organized, being divided into several major sections. It begins with the famous beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), a list of eight character traits that please God and bring great satisfaction and reward to the disciple who demonstrates them. It has been said that Jesus opens up with an unmatched salvo of godly standards of character—the righteous attitudes of those who will enter the Kingdom of God.

The beatitudes are followed by a short passage on the disciple's responsibility to be a witness for God (Matthew 5:13-16). A disciple must not only believe what God says, but he must also openly practice it in his life. Others, seeing God's way of life in action in a fellow human being, may be attracted to it and give God glory by believing and living it as well.

Verse 17 through the end of the chapter contains an explanation of God's law that most nominal Christians fail to understand. Jesus proclaims immediately that He did not come to destroy God's law but to fulfill it, meaning not to keep it completely in our stead, but to show by His example how it applies to the Christian life. Jesus' life is the perfect model of the law of God in action. The ensuing examples that He provides show how, for a Christian, the application of the law goes beyond the mere letter to the spiritual intents and principles of the law. These illustrations explain how a Christian's righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees', whose keeping of the law never went beyond its face value. Jesus concludes the section with an exhortation to His disciples to become "perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect." A high standard indeed!

Matthew 6 elucidates Jesus' positions on various religious works: charitable deeds (verses 1-4), prayer (verses 5-15), and fasting (verses 16-18). In His treatment of each subtopic, He emphasizes that each act is private and personal, something to be seen only by the doer and God Himself. The Christian religion, then, is not to be a matter of hypocritical public recognition—as Pharisaic practice had devolved to—but of humble private practice. In the lengthy passage on prayer, He instructs the disciple in how to approach God with reverent familiarity, as one would a beloved father.

The next section, Matthew 6:19-34, concentrates on the place of money and possessions in the Christian life. Jesus' disciples are not to worry about their sustenance, for God loves us and will take care of us. Instead, we are to focus on the Kingdom of God and becoming righteous. If our goal is clear before us and we do not waver from it, we will stay safely on the right path.

Chapter 7 is comprised of six pearls of wisdom that a Christian needs to master in his walk with God, all of which center on the subject of judgment. They cover such areas as hypocrisy, persistence in seeking God and His good things, walking the straight and narrow path revealed only through Christ, avoiding false teachers and their lies, discerning true Christians from false ones, and building a stable and enduring life on God's truth. A Christian who makes these points part of his daily life will be able to handle the inevitable vicissitudes and trials of life.

The Sermon on the Mount is a Christian manifesto par excellence. A person who takes it as his or her own and follows its dictates will be a son or daughter in whom God is well pleased.