Saturday, March 28, 2015

Luke 3:10-17 Being Fruitful

10 And the crowds were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?” 

It was an honest question, considering where they were coming from. On the other hand, this question precisely revealed the problem - a problem for which Jesus was the only answer.

The Jews were accustomed to being told 'what to do' from an external source - the Law and those who administered the Law. Alternatively, God promised to give them a 'new heart and to put a new spirit within them', to release them from every external locus of control (Gal 5:23b). In fact, God said that he would put His Spirit within them and that His Spirit would cause them to 'walk in His statutes...' (Ez 36:26,27; Jer 31:31-34). The Spirit would guide them from His internal abiding place, the heart. They would not be asking someone else 'what' they should do, because they would all know what to do. How? Because God would change their hearts.

When the heart is ruled by the natural, carnal instincts, it is selfish. That selfishness requires external control by laws which include severe punishment for disobedience. The Law reigns in human nature by force. Yet, when the heart is at peace with God and has been changed to love others, the new nature is selfless and self-sacrificing. Paul wrote that 'he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law...Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law' (Rom 13:8,10; Gal 5:14). When Christ is received as Lord and Master, he doesn't coerce us to be good, rather we choose to do good because we have given our heart to him. 'Walk in the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh' (Gal 5:16).

The Law was given through Moses, yet grace and truth came to be realized through Christ (Jn 1:17). The Law was an external guide that encouraged the Jews to depend upon their religious leaders to know 'what' to do. That left believers spiritually 'weak', yet protected until they could come to faith in Christ (Gal 3:23). Jesus sent the Spirit to dwell within believers, to become integrated in the moment by moment life of each believer, so that God's thoughts became wedded with man's thoughts, as long as man chose to walk in the Spirit (Rom 8:11).

'What should we do?' The ultimate answer was to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. But, until then, since Jesus hadn't yet been introduced to the people, John 'told' the people 'what' to do, 'what' a life of love for God and neighbor would really look like.

11 And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” 

This response was more than likely unanticipated. It was one thing to say, 'be more faithful in attending the annual feast in Jerusalem', or 'be more careful in your sabbath observance', or 'pray that God would send us the Messiah to conquer all our enemies and to set our nation back on top.' Instead, John's response moved their attention from external acts of loyalty to their religion, to what it means to have a heart for God.

If we love God with all our heart, we will also love our neighbor who may be in need. Note, John did not say, 'the man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none - yet is trying his best to help himself, regularly attends the synagogue, faithfully pays his tithes and offerings, and votes along the same party lines as you do.'  In other words, John's Spirit-led response was grace oriented. Grace is exhibited as unmerited favor. There aren't any strings attached or measurements made to see if someone first qualifies. If they are lacking, them a repentant person was to fill that person's need. Also, John was not saying, 'give both your tunics and all your food to the one in need.'

Jesus taught the same lesson, according to Luke. 'Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also' (Lk 12:33,34). The early church took these teachings seriously, not metaphorically. 'And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need' (Acts 2:44,45).

Many are still searching for this kind of Christianity today.

12 And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” 

Having spoken to the crowd as a whole, a specific group of people - the 'tax collectors' - tested the preaching of John by asking, 'what about us? What should we do?' To their delight, the 'prophet' didn't condemn them for being 'tax collectors'. He didn't tell them to leave that job. Nor did he rail against them for exhorting more from people than they should have. And he didn't call them a nasty name, like 'vipers'. Instead, John accepted them as part of the family of God, yet simply commanded them to be honest. For the tax collector who repented and was baptized, collecting taxes with integrity illustrated the 'fruit of true repentance'.

John could have dug deeper into the whole idea of a Jew collecting taxes from Jews, that would then be given to their Roman oppressors. Disdain for the tax collectors was nearly universal (Mk 2:15,16). Jesus acknowledged the fact that tax collectors were often dishonest men (Mt 5:46; 18:17; Lk 19:8), yet they were people like all other people, in that they needed a Savior (Mk 2:17; Lk 15:1; Mt 21:31,32).

Which subgroups within our Christian community would we dismiss as the Pharisees dismissed the publicans? Which groups would we accept, but speak more harshly to? In other words, to we hold a hierarchy of sin, some sins being more acceptable sins than others? Should the sin of theft be considered worse than the sin of adultery or lying?

Which subgroups within our community are 'testing' the Christian church of today to see if their gospel of grace is genuine or not?

14 Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” 

Soldiers went out to the Jordan? Why? Whose soldiers? Were these Rome's Gentile soldiers or Herod's Jewish soldiers? Does it really make any difference? Luke's point is that 'some soldiers', thus not all nor just one, and regardless of why they were there, seemed to be asking a sincere question - 'what about us'?

As noted already, the crowd was made up of some distinct subgroups. Each subgroup felt a degree of alienation from the crowd as a whole. They discerned that their status was different and that they were therefore treated differently within the nation. Had they chosen their particular careers because they were first treated differently, or were they treated differently because of their chosen careers? Had both the tax collectors and the soldiers defrauded their fellow Jews as a reaction to the prejudice they experienced because of their career choices, or had the prejudice developed because they defrauded their countrymen?

Whatever the case, there at the Jordan, listening to John, both the tax collectors and some soldiers became curious if the message of John had universal significance or was he simply forming a new religious club that would also exclude them. As he welcomed the tax collectors, John also welcomed the soldiers. Neither group experienced automatic exclusion simply because of their profession. Yet no one in the crowd, except Jesus, seemed to understand the true meaning of faith in God.

John's response to the crowd as a whole and to the tax collectors and soldiers as subgroups, struck at the source of their chosen security - money, rather than God. Luke later quotes Jesus as teaching, 'No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth' (Lk 16:13). Genuine faith in God yields peace and contentment, not fear and anxiety. Jesus was the 'axe' that struck at the root of all false beliefs - false gods, false messiahs, false hopes, false religious notions, and a false sense of security.

If the people accepted the first and greatest commandment - to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength - they would not be selfishly wedded to their possessions nor be obsessed with a need for greater and greater wealth as if God did not exist. If they truly embraced the second great commandment - to love their neighbor - they would not steal from, tell lies about, or in any other manner defraud their neighbors. They would rather choose to be defrauded, than to defraud others. Paul would later apply this same understanding of faith in his letter to the Corinthians. 'Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren' (1 Cor 6:7,8).

When God is front and center in our beliefs, we will be respectful of others even though we may differ from them; we will be generous to others who are in need; and we will protect others from abuse.

15 Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, 

John's response to the 'what shall we do' requests, simply but nicely illustrated what he believed should be the 'fruit of repentance' - which was to love your neighbors. The crowd did not react to John's answers by saying, 'you've got to be kidding', or 'his ideas about sharing just won't work in the real world', or 'why should I share my hard earned possessions with lazy people.'

The Spirit, through John, must have really touched hearts because instead of moving away from John as a misguided, theological freak, the crowd 'wondered in their hearts' if John might actually be the messiah. In other words, despite the fact that the crowd had been taught to look for a Roman conquering kingly messiah, when John presented a message of 'be nice to one another', they accepted it. Though the crowd was wrong about who John was, he had successfully prepared their hearts for the true Messiah of 'nice'.  

16 John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

The people have asked John what they should do. He directed them to love their neighbor. He then made it clear that his baptism was merely symbolic and that he was not the messiah they were looking for. If they really wanted to know 'what to do' they needed to received the One who was coming. The One to come would give them the Spirit to help them to love their neighbors.

Good folks, even great theologians, interpret verse 17 differently. That's not unusual. Differences of interpretation of Biblical passages has always existed and most likely always will. So, here are at least two ways to look at verses 17.

(1) This text, for many, is proof that John believed in 'hell' and 'judgment'. Since Luke added this to his gospel, Luke probably held to the same belief. Taken literally, the passage appears to say that those who are not baptized in the Spirit will be judged as 'wanting' and thrown into the fire of hell. The 'fire' is unquenchable. Those thrown into the fire are 'burned up', rather than tortured by the flames eternally. There is a dichotomous view of existence. One either accepts Christ and lives eternally or one doesn't and is rejected by Christ eternally. The Holy Spirit is primarily, in this view, the One who divides people into groups of either the saved or the lost.

(2) An alternative view of this text takes into consideration the symbolism. Baptism with water was not a magical thing, but a metaphor for being purified. Not being 'fit to untie the thong of Jesus' sandals did not mean that John literally was unable to do so, but was a metaphor about the superiority of Jesus. Jesus would not literally have a 'winnowing fork' in his hand and be literally clearing his 'threshing floor'. So, if John had been speaking metaphorically up to verse 17, why should we immediately assume that verse 17 should be interpreted literally? John had prepared the way for Jesus by opening their hearts to the real messiah. His whole focus had been the hearts of those who listened to him preach. Thus, the 'threshing floor' would be a metaphor for the heart. That which would be chaff would be selfish motives, wrong theology, and immoral practices. In other words, if the people surrendered their hearts to Jesus, he would change their hearts and enable them to live a transformed life through the indwelling of his Spirit. The Spirit would burn up all within a believer's heart that was not like Christ, not burn up unbelievers.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Luke 3:1-9 Receiving the Word

1 Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 2 in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. 

Luke promised that his gospel was written only after having searched all the available documents pertaining to Jesus (Lk 1:1,2). He also said that this would be a chronological account (Lk 1:3). Unlike the other gospels, Luke was very specific about the time and place for the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus (Lk 3:1). It all began with John, the one who had been called to 'prepare the way of the Lord' (Lk 1:17).

In Luke chapter 3, verse 2, the author wrote that 'the word of God came to John'. This phrase could, of course, be understood in various ways depending on the context. It might refer to an appropriate bible verse that has been brought to his mind by the Spirit as an answer to his prayer. In this case, it seems, the 'word of God' refers to the voice of God rather than the written word. John personally 'heard' God speak to him that the time of his calling had come. The exact method in which God spoke to him was not mentioned by Luke. It could have been through a dream, an angelic visitation, a vision, an audible voice from heaven, or even a divinely given impression. The point is, as with Simeon (Lk 2:26), John did not find the timing of his public ministry from scripture, but from listening to a real, existing God.

John was in the wilderness when he was called forth to begin his ministry. Though he had been raised with the knowledge of his calling, there was much more to learn. He needed to be Godly wise about his calling. Wisdom is more than having a correct goal and/or correct knowledge. John had to spend his time preparing himself to prepare the way of the Lord.  He not only had to learn 'what' to do, but 'how' to do it, and then he had to wait for God to tell him 'when' and 'where' to begin. Many years had gone by, yet they had not been spent in idleness. In the wilderness he learned to listen for and to trust in God. When the time was right, the man was right with God.

3 And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; 4 as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ’Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight. 

Luke wrote that John ministered in 'all the district around the Jordan' - which implies on both the west and eastern banks. Judea was under the direct administration of Rome, while Perea - on the eastern side - was under the rule of Herod Antipas. Elijah had also worked within this same area, which seems more than a coincidence.

John's ministry called Jews to be baptized, a symbol of purification normally applied to Gentile proselytes. In other words, John was calling Jews to recognize that merely being circumcised did not mean that they were ready to meet the Messiah. They needed to acknowledge their sin and choose to live a life committed to God.

The 'way of the Lord' was going to be in the heart of each believer, rather than against the Roman rulers. John, therefore, did not call the Jews to get ready for the coming of the Messiah by arming themselves with swords and spears. Rather, the best preparation for the coming of the Messiah is to have a heart that is fully surrendered to will of God. To 'make ready the way' and to 'make His paths straight' meant exposing every idol that distracted Israel from God. If we cannot discern the real Christ from the pseudo Christ, we will crucify the 'real' while imagining we are performing the will of God.

5 ‘Every ravine will be filled, And every mountain and hill will be brought low; The crooked will become straight, And the rough roads smooth; 6 And all flesh will see the salvation of God.’” 

The work of the Spirit is to help us to 'see' clearly, to see with spiritual eyes. The OT warning, that the people of God had eyes, but they could not see (Ps 115:5), was often echoed by Jesus in numerous ways (Mt 13:15; Mk 8:18; Jn 12:40). The Jews were looking at Him, but did not see their long awaited hope. There were too many 'ravines', 'mountains', 'crooked paths', and 'bumpy roads' that obstructed their spiritual journey. The ability to clearly see the Lord had been obscured by the distractions of life. They saw what they wanted to see, but not what God had been trying to reveal to them. We all need a 'John the Baptizer' today. Our lives are replete with ravines, mountains, and crooked and rough paths. We are often far too confident that we see clearly, when we are not seeing well at all (Is 55:6-9; Jer 17:9).

John obviously did not complete this task once and for all people, for all times and places. These obstructions have always and will always exist. Yet, one by one, John filled in the ravines, took down the mountains, and straightened and smoothed out the road for those who he met at the Jordan. He prepared his particular cohort for the coming of Messiah. The point in all this is that this task can be done. People can be taught to 'see' clearly, if we are faithful in our God-given tasks today, to prepare the way for Jesus as John did.

There needs to be a 'John' in every people group, preparing folks to see Jesus. For all intents and purposes, this has always been the role of the church. Unfortunately, the church has often put its greatest efforts in helping people see the church as their savior, rather than to be the tool in the Spirit's hand that helps people to see Jesus. The church has wanted to be 'Jesus', rather than 'John', yet the church was called to be the 'body', not the 'Head'. When the church attempts to be what it cannot be, it unwittingly becomes a 'headless body', doing more damage than good in the world.

The question then becomes, what does it mean for the church, 'the body of Christ', to 'prepare the way' for Jesus? What must the church be doing to 'fill in the ravines, take down the mountains, and to straighten/smooth out the road' for those who have been blinded by the world? Does it mean placing more effort in the area of social justice? Does it mean becoming more outspoken regarding the moral/ethical issues of our day? Should the church be focused on effecting political changes?

God revealed to John the best place to begin in preparing a people ready to meet their Savior. He was not to direct their focus to the ravines, mountains, and crooked paths in the world, but within their own hearts. The work of God's people must begin within, not without. It is a work of grace upon our own hearts, rather than a work of Law upon other hearts. Our own transformation is tool that the Spirit uses to prepare others to see Jesus, since he must be seen in us.

We can only give from what we have received. If we merely give to the world what the world has given to us - power, prestige, possessions - we have only readied them for the kingdoms of this world. But, if we give to the world what the Spirit has for us - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness - then we have readied a generation to enter the kingdom of heaven.

7 So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 

This is one of the harshest statements in the New Testament. To avoid judging John too quickly, though, we need to know that Jesus also used the same phrase (Mt. 12:34; 23:33). It is rather curious that, in John's case, Luke presented this statement immediately after John had appealed to the hearts of those who came to the Jordan. In other words, he was, seemingly, telling the Jews that they were sinners who needed to repent and be baptized, yet simultaneously chastising the Jews for being sinners and coming out to be baptized. How should we understand this?

First, John was quoted as saying the same thing in Matthew's gospel, yet there John was specifically addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees that had also gone out to the Jordan (Mt 3:7). In other words, according to Matthew, John was not speaking to all who came out to be baptized, a point that maybe Luke should have also made clear. When Jesus was quoted as using the same pejorative phrase in Matthew's gospel, he was specifically said to be addressing the Pharisees (Mt 12:34) and/or the Pharisees and scribes (Mt 23:33).

Second, the phrase, 'brood of vipers', is a metaphor that may mean, 'an illegitimate generation of viciously minded people'. When understood this way, it seems to confirm the notion that both John and Jesus used it to describe religious leaders who were enemies of God, though they presented themselves as representatives of God. They were hypocrites of the worst kind. They had only come to the Jordan to find ways to condemn John and/or to deceive the people about the true motives of their hearts.

Third, although grace is defined as 'unmerited favor' and was certainly also available to those being rebuked as a 'brood of vipers', it could not be a useful gift from God if not received from the heart. Some scholars believe that both Jesus and John severely rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees with the hope that the harshness of their accusation would bring conviction and lead these religious leaders into genuine repentance. There is, according to the scriptures, a place for rebuke, at least when used correctly.

As the scriptures present faith in opposition to doubt, they similarly present righteousness in opposition to sin. These opposing pairs exist in all of us, thus we are all in need of God's grace. Since each heart is a mixed bag of both good and evil, and by nature we are most often blind to that which we don't want to see, a sharp rebuke (in love) may sometimes be a useful tool when used with the hope of redeeming a soul. Sadly, many well meaning folks major in rebuking others rather than in encouraging others. Others, like the Pharisees, rebuke folks simply to destroy rather than to redeem. A biblical rebuke should simultaneously serve two purposes, (1) to redeem the one rebuked, (2) to warn others from falling into the same evil.

John qualified his rebuke by rhetorically asking, 'who warned you to flee the wrath to come?' In other words, he assumed that they had heard the convicting voice of God, yet had ignored it. They risked facing God's judgment if they continued to ignore their conscience. 'Who warned you...?' God had spoken to them, but would they listen? Do we listen to the convictions of the Spirit?

8 Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. 

Repentance doesn't result in perfection, but begins a transformative process that is accounted as perfect by the God of all. The phrase, 'we have Abraham as our father', was the Jewish version of 'cheap grace'. In other words, some Jews assumed that they 'only had to belong' to be God's chosen people, while some Christians today assume that they 'only have to believe' certain statements about Jesus to be saved. Both are erroneous. The issue is that the way we live has been in conformity to religious systems, rather than being the fruit of a healthy relationship with the God. Our choices have not been freely made with God, but either subtly or even overtly coerced by man.  

The covenant of grace wipes away all our excuses and explanations for 'why' we have chosen to live with less than spiritual integrity. It starts by declaring all people as 'forgiven'. No longer is the issue about 'belonging' to a particular religious organization or assenting to a carefully crafted set of beliefs. We are free to be honest spiritual brokers. All things are permissible, wrote Paul. That theological notion reminds us that the true locus of control for our spiritual success in life no longer lies in the realm of a religious or secular institution, nor in the hands of any other person, but in each of us as individuals. We need not conform to anyone else's notions to be accepted by God, nor can we blame anyone else for not maturing spiritually.

Each of us is responsible for our own spirituality. We don't have to earn acceptance from God, because we are already accepted. We don't have to please any religious leader, because we can freely access the throne of mercy and grace ourselves. We don't have to conform to any particular standard that someone else thinks should define us. We are free to grow spiritually or not, to mature in spirituality quickly or slowly, or to use various religious icons or none at all.

In other words, the scriptures present God as speaking to each individual in a manner that each individual can comprehend, and moving that individual forward only as fast as that individual chooses to move. There isn't any judgment based on quantity, quality, or pace of spiritual growth. John basically said, don't feel obligated to conform to anyone else's desire to measure you. God has already measured you as precious. The responsibility for spiritual integrity belongs to you. You can't blame anyone else, nor do they have a right to blame you.

Having exposed the bankruptcy inherent in all earthly powers that seek to coerce us to make choices out of fear, guilt, and shame, we are finally free to see ourselves as we really are (confession), decide if we want/need to turn our life around (repentance), and then determine to walk forward along a path that resonates with our own unfettered choices (fruit) in the power of God's Spirit.

9 Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Even before Jesus began his ministry, John preached that the 'axe (had) already (struck) the root of the trees.' How could that have been true?

In Christian theology, when God became man, the love of God was made evident, effectively displacing all other notions about God.

Mankind has always created gods to fill in the gaps of man's understanding of the world. Mankind has also created gods to excuse the behavior of man. In other words, we are far more likely to say, god told me to do such and such, than to say, the devil made me do it.  We use our gods as the source of our authority to control other people. Our gods are not usually created out of evil intentions, but by sincere people trying to make a difference in the world. The problem lies in the fact that we take our gods too seriously, which has unwittingly led mankind to do more damage than good in the world.

The story of the incarnation is an 'axe' that continues to chop down all of our false notions about god right at their roots. God is love (1 Jn 4:16). Any other idea about God is fraudulent at worse, inaccurate at best (1 Cor 13:1-10; Rom 8:26-39). For God so loved the world that he gave us his Son (Jn 3:16).

Adam and Eve sought the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What they reaped was confusion about God. They eschewed the tree of life for the tree that bore a mixed variety of good and bad fruit. In Christ, that tree - metaphorically speaking - was cut down. There is only the tree of life, the tree that only bears good fruit. That tree is Christ. If our source of knowledge is not Christ, then we are picking fruit from the wrong tree. When we eat from the wrong tree we exile ourselves from truth and the ability to live the abundant life.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Luke 2:41-52 Growing Upwards

41 Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 

From Nazareth to Jerusalem is about 70 miles, depending on the route traveled. Since Mary and Joseph were walking, it probably took them at least 5-6 days to arrive in Jerusalem. Luke wrote that Jesus' parents both 'went to Jerusalem every year', yet Luke did not make clear whether or not they took all their children with them each year, though we may assume that they did.

The Feast of Passover (Pesach) occurs during the Hebrew month of Nissan (Aviv) 15-22, commencing at sunset on the 14th. This year (2015) it will fall on April 3-11. In other words, it will begin at sunset Friday, April 3rd. The Feast celebrates the time when the first born male children of Israel were protected by the blood from an unblemished spring lamb that had been painted on the lintels and door posts of each home. The inhabitants of that home were delivered from the 10th plague and subsequently freed from slavery in Egypt. The paschal lamb/goat was set aside on Nissan 10, and then slaughtered at dusk on the 14th, roasted whole, and eaten before the following evening. Nissan is the first month of the Jewish calendar.

This and other annual celebrations held the Jews together with one national identity. Americans, including recent immigrants, celebrate the 4th of July as a national holiday in which we also unite as one people with the identity of 'freedom lovers'. With whom do you celebrate and identify with?

42 And when He became twelve, they went up there according to the custom of the Feast; 43 and as they were returning, after spending the full number of days, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. But His parents were unaware of it, 44 but supposed Him to be in the caravan, and went a day’s journey; and they began looking for Him among their relatives and acquaintances. 

It may be a novel thought for some folks, but Jesus grew up with 'customs' that are not at all like anything we have in 21st century America. His Jewish customs were different even from any Jewish customs of our day. In fact, when we say we want to get to know Jesus, we are really saying that we want to know 'about' what he taught that might apply to our life, in our time and place. If we really got to know the actual first century, Galilean Jew named Jesus he wouldn't be the Jesus we've created. He wouldn't be the one we think we know and love.

Curiously, Jesus wasn't even whom Mary and Joseph thought he was. They had encouraged him to listen for God's leading. He did. With God he differentiated himself from them, from the rabbis, from the Jewish priests, and from Moses. What he taught was a prescription for us on how we too should, may, differentiate from those around us. Healthy differentiation lies within the range between enmeshment and disconnection.

It is interesting that his parents first 'looked for Jesus among their relatives and acquaintances.' In other words, they assumed he was living his life predictably, like any preteen might. Jesus, though, had already - by age 12 -  grown beyond them in faith and God-given wisdom. His parent were, actually, partly responsible for his spiritual growth. They had empowered his spiritual differentiation by telling him the stories of his birth. They had inspired him to seek out his real Father. Freed to imagine beyond all that his parent were, he became all that the Father had called him to be - our Messiah.   

45 When they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem looking for Him. 46 Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. 

Where else would you find a twelve year old boy who had been designated by God to be the Messiah? He wouldn't be merely chill'n with the neighbors kids on the way back to Galilee. Nor would he have been distracted by kind of entertainment as they passed through the city of Jerusalem and then lost sight of his caravan.

Joseph and Mary had, according to the Law, taken their twelve year old son to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. Yet, for Jesus this was not merely an exercise in obedience to the Law nor simply a fun road trip to Jerusalem. The religious practices had elicited questions which had, in turn, helped shape his worldview. In other words, he was on his way for a purpose that had exceeded the intentions of most folks traveling to the feast.

The example Jesus set, even at age twelve, is instructive to our spiritual growth today. As a life-long learner he was first a good listener. He didn't assume that he knew everything already. Secondly, he also took responsibility for own education by actively participating in the learning process. Learning involves more than just passively listening. It also requires being willing to ask good questions and to risk offering answers to questions being asked and being corrected if his answers weren't correct.

Curiosity is an important element in learning and forms the foundation for good questions. Asking questions forces us to think, imagine, and to hypothesize. We have to process what we've heard and wrestle with how the things we have learned 'fit' into our worldview. When we venture to ask and to answer questions we have to risk being judged as a thinker and to have our critical thinking skills challenged. If we are afraid to ask questions and/or to offer answers to questions, we unwittingly sabotage our ability to learn.

In his case, those who heard Jesus speak were 'amazed' at his grasp of the topics being discussed. Could that be said of us? Are we the kind of learners that gain the respect of others? Or do we merely reflect what other people think, without doing much thinking of our own?

48 When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.” 

In the scriptures it is not unusual to encounter believers in God complaining about the way God has treated them (Num. 11:11; Ps 22:1,2; Jer 20:7-18). To an 'outsider' this seldom makes any sense. How can a person who believes in an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, all wise, and all loving God ever imagine that it is ok to complain to God about anything? Wouldn't a complaint made to God also be a denial of God? How can I say, 'God loves me just as I am,' but then also say, 'God, you don't love me'? Or, how can I say from one side of my mouth that God is all wise and all knowing, while from the other side of my mouth say, 'God, why did you let this happen to me?'

How, then, can believers complain in a way that contradicts their own beliefs? Aren't their complaints a denial of their beliefs? Well, yes and no. Usually, when we complain about God, it is because our expectations of God are too narrow. It is like a child complaining to his mother, 'you don't really love me because you won't give me a third piece of pie.' The parents refusal was actually an act of love, mistaken by the child to be an act of hostility. In other words, the child held an erroneous definition of love, believing that love means always saying 'yes', and never saying 'no'. In other words, complaints against God often expose some of our erroneous beliefs about God, yet don't necessarily suggest that we don't believe in God.

Mary and Joseph both believed that Jesus was the long promised Messiah. Yet, their beliefs about the Messiah were too narrowly defined. Like all of Israel, the parents of Jesus believed that the Messiah would only do things that made them happy, not anxious. Mary also seemed to believe that God had relinquished all responsibility for guiding and protecting His Son and would hold her responsible for anything that went wrong. Her complaint to Jesus exposed her dichotomous thinking - it is either this or that, but nothing else. It was a logical fallacy. There were other explanations for his behavior other than that he didn't care about their feelings.

The Ten Commandments, which form the foundation of the Old Covenant of Law (Dt 4:10-14), if viewed apart from the rest of the Law, set us up for dichotomous thinking. For example, the commandment say, 'Do not commit adultery' (Ex 20:14; Dt 5:18). Left by itself one might condemn every married man and woman to death (Lev 20:10) if they have been found with someone other than their spouse. But the rest of the Law was given to keep Israel from becoming black and white thinkers. In some cases a married woman might have been raped by a man, or taken as a wife by a conquering foe, or had remarried after her husband had died. Also, a man could be sleeping with a number of different women other than his wife, because he had married more than one woman. Circumstances change things. No amount of laws, though, can give us guidance for each and every circumstance of life. Life is complex and messy.

The New Covenant of grace added 'gray' to our thinking. Even if a person had committed adultery - either by weakness or by intention - s/he is not to be stoned to death as the law commanded. If s/he repents, there is forgiveness and reconciliation. The adulterer would then be treated as if the adultery never even occurred (Gal 6:1; Jn 8; Heb 8:12).

When we live 'mindfully' we put a check on our natural inclination to rush to judgment. We not only seek for other possible explanations for what we think we have seen/heard, but even when our conclusion turns out to be accurate, we still choose to proceed with grace. Mary thought narrowly and thus judged too quickly. The rather pithy response from Jesus to the mother he loved is a wake up call to all of us. Talk to the Spirit first. The Spirit guides each individual in each circumstance in life, in a manner that no law can ever provide for us.

49 And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand the statement which He had made to them. 

'Why is it that you...' In other words, Jesus was calling his mother's attention to the motives behind her behaviors. 'Mom, were you motivated by fear? If so, do you not trust in God?'

Then, Jesus followed up with asking, 'did you not know that I had to be...' He wasn't necessarily telling Mary that she should not care where he was, but that she should know him well enough to know where he would be.

As a parent, after reading this, I say, 'but, but...'  Kids are kids. They don't always behave predictably. Also, even if a child was consistent, the world is unpredictable. What if a wild animal had attacked him or an evil person had abducted him? Wouldn't Mary's anxiety have been not only natural, but correct? Also, shouldn't Jesus have informed his parents about his plan rather than to have just disappeared without giving them a heads up?

The point of the story isn't to dismiss appropriate parental concerns when a child has disappeared from sight or even a child's responsibility to a parent. Luke's intention in telling this story may only have been to convey another truth about Jesus - that he was the Son of God. He would only be where the Father led him to be. He would not place the opinions of others, even his parents, above those of God. The metaphorical implication is that we can always know where to find Jesus. He is always at His Father's 'house', seated beside his Father (Jn 16:5-10; Act 7:55,56; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22; Rev 3:21; Mt 22:44). Jesus can 'always' be found at the throne making intercession for us, and will continue to be there until all enemies are put under his feet.

Neither Mary nor Joseph understood what Jesus meant. That didn't change the facts about Jesus. We often do not understand what God is doing, yet God is consistently doing just what is necessary for us. We are called to trust in God even when we don't understand what he is or is not doing.

When it comes to Jesus, the Christian never needs to worry about where he is and what he is doing. He is always ministering on our behalf (Rom 8:26-39). We never need to be anxious about that Bible claim.

51 And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

Though Mary and Joseph did 'not understand' exactly what their preteen son meant, Jesus' statement may have reminded Mary of the prophetic words she had heard from Gabriel, Simeon, Anna, the Shepherds, and the Magi some 12 years earlier. We must often embrace as true, things we don't understand in detail. That is the basis of faith, which is the 'evidence of things not seen' (Heb 11:1). The fact that Mary 'treasured' all these things in her heart, even though she did not understand them, tells us that she was truly a woman of more than average faith.

One other part of this text that also speaks of faith is that Jesus returned to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph and remained in 'subjection to them'. In other words, though Jesus was, at age 12, clear about 'who' he was, he trusted God to inform him 'when' it was time to fulfill his calling. As we studied with Simeon, the scriptures didn't tell Jesus 'when' he was to begin his public ministry. That was to be a Spirit-given message, not an inscribed message found someplace in scripture. Jesus had to wait upon God to speak to him about the time, place, and manner of his entry into public ministry. He knew that God had spoken clearly to Mary and Joseph through the angel Gabriel and through other human beings who were sent to inform them. Jesus had no doubt that God would do the same for him.

Meanwhile, Jesus remained faithful to the calling he currently had - to be an obedient son, under the old covenant law. His remark to his mother revealed that he placed God as first in his life and his parents second. Yet, that being true, loving God with all his heart meant that he must obey the will of God as it had been currently revealed through Moses, which was to 'be in subjection to his parents' until God called him otherwise. Having his spiritual priorities straight, Jesus was able to 'increase in wisdom and stature, and in favor with both God and man.'

Whenever we insist on doing 'right things' apart from God's timing, we end up stunting our spiritual growth and end up confusing our own will with the wisdom of God. Just because we know the 'right idea' doesn't mean that today is the 'right time' or that our current location is the 'right place' to pursue it. The Spirit guides us to grasp right ideas from scripture, then guides us to apply those right ideas at the right time, place, and with the right method. There isn't any true wisdom apart from being Spirit-led. The leaders of Israel made this fatal mistake, one we would do well to avoid.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Luke 2:33-40 Unmasked

33 And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed— 35 and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

It is difficult to believe that Mary and Joseph could be any more 'amazed' than what they had been for the last year, but the Lord never ceases to 'amaze' us. What Simeon had said and would go on to say, certainly buoyed up their faith and trust in God. Of course, God wasn't finished. He was going to send yet another confirmation. Is God ever really finished with his plans for us?

There has always been something about Jesus that unmasks all false things in his presence. He is the Truth, which means it is impossible to be around him without having our lies and self-deceptions exposed. He is the Way, which means he will reveal every wrong way we are traveling. He is the Life, thus he cannot help but uncover any thought or practice that may lead to death. He is the Light which means that wherever he is all darkness is cast away.  Jesus is, as both Mary and Joseph were beginning to realize, absolutely amazing.

I've said all that in order to underscore what Simeon said. Jesus would bring about both the rise and fall of many people in Israel. Why? Because his very presence is a revelation of truth, something most of us prefer to avoid. Being in the presence of Jesus is a double-edged sword experience. For those who fully yield their hearts to Him, He cuts away every non-Godly aspect of our character, increasingly transforming us into His likeness. For those who are merely superficial followers of Christ, the sword is not appreciated because it seeks to cut away that which we still want to cling to.

No matter how 'pretty' we may present ourselves as Christians, if we hold on to the church, our theology, the Bible, or even God as an idol, the presence of Jesus will expose our false heart. Many who say, 'Lord, Lord', will hear the Lord reply with, 'I don't know you'.  No wonder many prefer to be religious without Jesus. Inviting Jesus into our 'Christian' community would be excruciating. Like the money changers at the Temple, Jesus would cast out all who seek to commodify the faith in one way or another.

Spirituality is taking what 'is' and continually making something beautiful out of it. Religion, sadly, is the attempt to preserve what 'was', just as it 'has always been'. When religion actually serves spirituality, it will be about truth that is eternally unfolding rather than in attempting to preserve the status quo as if we already knew all truth.

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four.

We often think of the scriptures as a more male dominated document, yet that isn't completely accurate. Despite cultural norms, various women have played an important role in the life of Israel from the beginning - other than being the mother of important male figures. Several have been leaders, warriors, and spokespersons for God - such as Anna.

Anna was unique in ways other than being a prophetess. She had been a widow most of her life. She was quite old - 84 years of age. And she was, notably, from the tribe of Asher. The women of the tribe of Asher were, according to tradition, the most beautiful of all women. Their beauty, though, was not merely skin deep. They were raised to be modest, refined, careful to live healthfully, and they were deeply spiritual. The priests from the tribe of Levi sought out the women from the tribe of Asher as a wives for these reasons.

Christians are called to be the priests of God today (1 Pet 2:9; Rev 1:6). As such, are we as careful in our choice of a mate as were the ancient priests of Israel? How do we define beauty today? Do we long for a beauty that is more than a 'botoxed' veneer? 

37 She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers.

Some folks embrace religion to mask their lack of spirituality, while other folks use religion to guide them to God who effectively removes every mask so that spirituality can florish. Anna was, perhaps, a representative of the latter. Both practices, fasting and prayer, often work to strip us of our self-deceptions. We may have sight without actually being able to see beyond our idols.

Anna was not permitted access to the inner courts of the temple. That may have been an incredible blessing rather than an obstacle. The further one had access into the temple, the more complete the theological 'mask'. Huh?

Remember that Jesus said the first shall be last and the last shall be first? Well, the court of the Gentiles was the 'last', which became 'first' when the temple was destroyed. The whole temple service 'masked' the truth, that God loves the whole world, not just the Jews. God is not a respecter of persons (Rom 2:11: Acts 10:34).  At each level of permission toward the Most Holy Place (MHP), the 'way of Christ' became more thoroughly 'masked'. God does not love Jews more than Gentiles. God does not love men more than women. God does not favor priests more than non-priests. God does not hold in highest esteem the high priest over all priests. And God does not hide behind a curtain (mask) in a cube called the Most Holy Place (Acts 7:44-51; 17:24-29).

When the Romans invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, they discovered that there was nothing behind the veil. Religion had effectively masked God, having made turned religion into idolatry. Alternatively, when Jesus died upon the cross, the veil (mask) that religion had placed upon God, was ripped in half. From the cross Jesus began to unmask all the dysfunction of religion beginning with the Most Holy Place (2 Cor 3:12-18). Unmasked, what does the Christian faith present to us? Paul captured our unmasked state in Christ quite adequately in his letter to the Galatians - 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Gal. 3:28). When we 'put on Christ' we effectively 'take off all our masks'.

Step by step, in reverse from the MHP, Jesus effectively ripped away each 'veil' as it were, beginning with the one between God and the high priest, then the inner veil between the daily priests and other Jewish non-priestly men, then the one between Jewish men and Jewish women, then the one between Jews and Gentiles. God was not in the MHP. All that had been there was merely a symbol, intended as an icon, to lead all humanity to the omnipresent God.

What 'masks' do you cling to in order to function in your 'world'?

38 At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Luke suggests that good ol' Anna, discerned through the Spirit, God's plan for Jesus. She thanked God for His gift to mankind and then proceeded to speak about the role Jesus would play for those who cared about the redemption of Jerusalem.

As we have noted before, the discernment of one truth doesn't mean that one has discerned the absolute truth about everything. Anna realized that God would work through Jesus as the Messiah, but Anna could only see God's redemption of Jerusalem, not of the whole world.

The story of Anna is a good reminder that we should look for and praise the 'good' that can be found in every person, without waiting until they are completely good or at least as 'good' as we perceive ourselves to be. God is at work in every life, but works with each one individually, at that person's unique pace. Also, God often speaks through those who otherwise appear as unworthy spokespersons for God. Priests often wear different clothes to lead people to believe that only they speak for God. Jesus did not dress in priestly garb, nor did he even attempt to look like a desert prophet (Is 53:2).

This leads us to one other important notion. While there is much value in community, unity in uniformity is not God's way. The strength of any community is not in all believing, thinking, and doing the same things at the same time. Rather, the strength of a community is best found where there is unity in diversity. God speaks in different ways through different people, so that we need one another in our community (Jer 31:31-34; 1Th 4:9; Jn 9:13; 1 Cor 12:7; Heb 1:1)

Usually, where there is unity in uniformity there is fear to be honest, fear to think, fear to lose fellowship, and thus there is an absence of personal communion with God. The leader(s) of the 'uniformly built community' do all the thinking and punish those who stray from orthodoxy. The 'uniform community' is only as strong as the strongest individual, which is usually the leader.  The hope of a community that focuses on unity through uniformity is founded in man, not God. This was the OT Temple approach with one high priest. It was needed when folks didn't personally know God.

When the unity of a community is built upon diversity, each individual becomes a thinker and brings to the community a fresh, hopefully Spirit-derived perspective. Everything is seen from multiple perspectives so that the very best decisions can be made. God is invited to work with each individual as He sees best, thus each person becomes an essential building block of the community. God is not feared, rather God is trusted to lead uniquely in the life of each individual for the strength of the whole. The hope of a community that focuses on unity in diversity is found in God alone, working through all members. This is the Jesus approach where each individual is a temple of the Spirit (1 Cor 3:9-18).

39 When they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth.

As mentioned before, Jesus was born 'under the law'. The new covenant of grace was not inaugurated until the cross. The Person, Jesus, was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets that promised a certain kind of Messiah. He fulfilled the Law in the sense that he was the Person it promised, not in the sense that He always kept every detail of the Old Covenant Law. He, of course, didn't - but mostly to demonstrate that keeping the Law was not God's goal for man (Heb 7:18,19). The Law was given to lead us to the Person so that we could learn how to live by faith under grace.

The parents of Jesus, despite angelic visitations and prophetic words, could not have yet grasped the whole meaning of the gospel. Maybe that was Luke's message within his message when he wrote, 'they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth.' After all they had been through and heard, Mary, Joseph, and even the shepherds returned to what they knew best, that which was familiar to them. They could only ponder within their minds all that had happened. There was nothing else to do but to wait (Lk 2:19,20).

We are often impatient with ourselves and with others when changes don't occur as quickly as we think they should. We tell others what we have discovered to be the truth. They may immediately agree with our findings, yet unlike us, they return to the way they have always done things. How can they just forget 'our' good news? The same thing happens with each of us. We learn something new and exciting, but we easily forget it and shrink back to our old familiar ways. Again, why?

Every 'truth' fits perfectly within the worldview from which it is shared. When that truth is shared with us, we naturally try to fit it into the worldview we currently have. It won't fit our current worldview, unless our worldview is the same as the person who shared the specific truth with us. When some particular truth makes sense to us, but does not fit within our current worldview, we are left with only a few choices. We either jettison the new truth as wrong, put it on the shelf for another day, or rework our whole worldview so that it accommodates the new truth.

Many things can influence our rejection of a new idea. For instance, I can agree that eating processed foods is not good for my health, but if those who cook my meals don't change the way they prepare meals, or if everyone around me continues to eat processed foods, or if my food budget isn't sufficient to replace the cheaper processed foods, or if healthier food does not satisfy my palate, then despite what I believe to be true, I probably won't make any changes that incorporates what I believe to be true. I am left knowing 'about' the truth, but have not been 'set free' by that truth because I have not been able to see how to implement it within my current lifestyle.

The same is true in regards to biblical truth. We all have an idea 'about' who God is, what the church is all about, and what is right and/or wrong. We all have our interpretations of Bible truths. In other words, we all already have a theological worldview that has functional coherence. If someone comes along and shares with us an interpretation that makes perfect sense to us, yet doesn't 'fit' into our theological worldview we are confronted with important choices.

Changing one's theological worldview is not an easy matter. Systems - whether social, institutional, or cognitive - don't change much over time. The forces that drive the move to equilibrium are extremely powerful. We all like stability because we all seek comfort, predictability, and control. When something new threatens to push us off balance we do everything possible to regain our balance. We believe what we believe because it serves our survival needs, not because it is true.

Frankly, that is what got Jesus crucified. He presented new truth to those within his old religion. Even though he was the One that his Jewish religion pointed to, he did not teach what their religion wanted him to teach. The Jewish religious system had drifted from the truth over many centuries and had incorporated interpretations that were contrary to their own scriptures. When Jesus pointed that out, those who wanted the system to remain the same, designated Jesus as persona non grata and worked to jettison him from the system in order to keep the system just as it was - dysfunctional and chock full of erroneous notions. Equilibrium trumped truth.

So, if humans did that to Jesus, do we really think it will be different for us? Jesus promised something that doesn't settle well with us as Christians. He said, "remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also'" (Jn 15:20).

It is what it is, so be gentle with new truths. Give people time to wrestle with new ideas. Don't be quick to judge folks who reject what you believe to be true. The truths Jesus taught took decades, even generations, to permeate the hearts and minds of even those who believed that he was the Messiah. Be patient. Jesus, the Person, is the Truth. The things that he taught are 'truths'. Most important is leading people to the Truth and trusting Him to guide them into any particular 'truths' he sees as necessary. He selects the time and place and the particular truth.

No matter how eloquently and carefully you present your truth, folks will most often 'return to (their) Nazareth.' Hopefully, from the security of what is familiar to them, they will wrestle with the new things they have heard, just as Mary did, and come to know Jesus.

40 The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.

This is a curious statement, right? Jesus wasn't conceived with a mind full of truth, without any cognitive errors. He had to learn the truth. His teacher was his mother who also wasn't perfect in her own understanding of truth. In other words, Jesus had to grow in his thinking like we all do. He 'increased in wisdom'. He wasn't born with perfect wisdom. He had to wrestle with different concepts, retaining some, jettisoning others. He, like all of us, had to formulate his own worldview. He chose to build a worldview as the Spirit guided him, rather than as his mother or the church presented to him.

So, how did he come to believe as he did? First, he had a mother who was faithful to God despite the many notions she had that were erroneous. Second, his mother told him what she had learned from the angel Gabriel and what the prophets had told her. Jesus, therefore, began life with questions about the status quo rather than having passively received the Jewish worldview. Third, she taught him how to listen to God as he read the scriptures. And fourth, 'the grace of God was upon him' - he permitted the Spirit to lead him.

Jesus was raised to have an open mind to the God of Israel rather than merely an open mind only to the current Jewish teachings - which would effectively have been a 'closed' mind. The life of Jesus not only revealed the truth and exposed the errors in Jewish thinking, but also revealed the way to 'think' critically.

Have you developed critical thinking skills? Do you know how to listen to the Spirit? Are you willing to overhaul your whole worldview if the truth makes that necessary, regardless of persecution?  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Luke 2:21-32 The Law and the Spirit

21 And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

This week we will be discussing Simeon. But first, here are some preliminary thoughts about the context:

Imagine naming a child even before s/he is born - especially in a time when so many infants died shortly after birth and conceptions often did not make it to full term. Yes, there is much to be said about the 'meaning' of names, but I wonder if there is more to be said about having confidence in God - the One who knows the future and names a child even before conception. Which human being can, with 100% accuracy, tell a woman not only that she will conceive, bring forth a male child to birth, but also correctly specify the role that child would play in history? Only God, right?

All this raises an important question. Who do you tend to listen to for the 'facts'? Who do you trust as the best prognosticator? When making choices about what is 'true' today and/or how best to plan for the future, do you prefer to trust your intuition, dreams, impressions of the Spirit,, your pastor, your parents, your favorite politician, a psychic, Cable News, Internet memes, the weather channel, science, or flipping a coin? Do you close your eyes, open the bible, and place your finger on a text and accept what it says as God's will for you today?

How do you decide 'what' to believe as 'fact'? And, do you differentiate between fact and truth? How does all this help you grow spiritually? 

22 And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 

It was the 40th day (Lev. 12:4). Mary's days of purification were 'completed'. It was time to present Jesus, her first born son, to the Lord, at the Temple, according to the Law of Moses. Did every Jewish parent, in those days, travel to Jerusalem to present their first born son to the Lord at the Temple? And, should the fact that Jesus' parents obeyed the letter of the Law of Moses suggest to us that this is what Jesus later meant when He said, 'I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill the Law' (Mt.5:17)? Hmm. Probably not.

Regardless of the covenant that would be inaugurated at the cross (Heb 9:18;10:20), Jesus was himself born under the Law, and thus subject to the commandments of the Law (Gal. 4:4; 3:23; 4:5; 5:18; Rom 6:15). 'The Law', as John later wrote, 'was given through Moses, yet grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ' (Jn 1:17). It is not as if God changed his mind and jettisoned the Law, but that the Law had a purpose that had finally been 'fulfilled' in the sense that it pointed forward to Jesus as the Messiah (Gal. 3:19-29). In other words, it is not that Jesus 'fulfilled the Law' by always obeying the Law. That wouldn't, of course, make any sense in the context of the remainder of Matthew 5, right? For instance, just read Matthew 5:38-47, where Jesus doesn't advocate strict adherence to the Law. Nor had He Himself always obeyed the Law of Moses - particularly in touching lepers, His Sabbath teachings, etc. Paul seemed to understand this well when he wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:20-23) where he differentiated between the Law and the 'law of Christ'. The former represented the old covenant, while the latter the new.

Obviously, God had 'something better' (Heb 8:6) than the Law for us in Christ. Rather than being guided by the external Law, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:10-14), and placed within us an internal Guide - the Spirit. When we live by faith in Christ, we walk as the living, abiding Spirit guides us. When we take our eyes off Christ we find ourselves as a ship without a rudder. Christians live in response to the guiding Spirit rather than by a list of rules. There is an incredible and essential difference in these two ways of living which underscores the very meaning of 'good news'.

On the other hand, when under grace rather than under the Law we don't toss out even one word of the Old Testament Law. Why? Because through the Law we come to understand God's plan. We see how God, through the Law, 'led us to Jesus' as the Christ (Gal 3:24). Though we no longer live under the rules of the Old Covenant - the Law of Moses - we value the road map it provided. There is a distinct difference between valuing the Law as a daily guide - which was once essential and is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13) - and valuing it now as a foundational piece in our religious history. It's purpose has changed from being a 'guide' to being our religious 'history'.

Once we grasp that point, we realize that we can no longer utilize the Old Covenant as a buffet table from which we can pick and choose which of Moses' laws we want to live 'under' and which we do not. We are no longer obligated to live under any aspect of the Law if we have accepted Christ by faith. We now live under the Law of Christ - the law of love. Love fulfills the law (Rom. 13:10).

Here's the kicker. What is the foundation of the Old Covenant? Moses himself told us - it is the Ten Commandments carved into stone (Dt. 4:10-14). The old covenant is not the same covenant that God made with Abraham - a covenant based upon faith, installed into flesh (Dt. 5:1-3; Rom 4:13). The covenant of Moses never annulled the original covenant made with Abraham (Gal. 3:17-19), unlike how the new covenant eventually made the covenant of Moses 'obsolete'. Rather the old guided God's people until faith in the One to whom Abraham had placed his faith could come. In other words, the New Covenant of grace builds upon the covenant of faith God made with Abraham. Paul expressed this rather succinctly in his letter to the Ephesians, 'for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God' (Eph. 2:8).

Law exists to command us to love one another and if we don't, there is a punishment. God's plan was for us to love one another not from law, but from the heart. When the heart has been surrendered by faith to God, accepting the grace of God, then it is from the heart rather than because of a law that we love others. We no longer do 'good' to others out of fear of punishment. Nor do we do good to others simply for a reward from God. Rather, we treat others as we ourselves have been treated by God - with grace (1 Jn 4:16,18; Rom 13:9,10).

Faith in Christ is the beginning of love for neighbor. If we have faith in Christ's love for us, that all our sins have been cast away by the grace of God, then we are finally free to love others. Fear of judgment keeps us from genuinely loving others. When the Spirit is given permission to dwell in our hearts by faith we are transformed into lovers. Day by day the Spirit teaches and then guides us the way of Christ, the way of love.

25 And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.

Sometimes we may feel like no one around us 'gets it', yet that is usually a sad fallacy of logic. Just because we might not personally know anyone who sees as we see, doesn't mean others don't similarly see. Paul addressed this issue in his letter to the Romans, quoting from 1 Kgs 19:18 - "what is the divine response to him? 'I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal'" (Rom. 11:4). We are never alone in our faith. God has many people of true faith.

Mary and Joseph may have imagined that they were all alone. The Magi were gone. The shepherds had returned to their sheep. Even the angels had returned to God's throne. Yet, as they obeyed the ritual requirements of the Law, surrounded seemingly only by those who were mere gate-keepers of the Law, God sent Simeon, another believer, to buoy up their faith.

Simeon looked beyond the rituals of written Law and saw the living God. He was devout, yet devout in faith rather than merely devout in letter. He did not live to protect his religion, but lived to proclaim God's promise. He didn't look to religion as his hope, but looked for the One who stood above and beyond religion as his hope - the 'consolation of Israel'. Because Simeon's 'religion' was Person-centered rather than institution-centered, the Spirit could speak to him and through him.

The manner in which Simeon grasped the promise of scripture freed him to grasp a new promise from the Spirit. Sadly, many hold on to the promises of scripture as an idol rather than as an icon. They imagine the source of life and hope in their religious beliefs and practices and in the church itself. Simeon, while participating in the same practices, holding as sacred the same scriptures, and as a member of the same religious group - 'used' it all to see the living God. When our church becomes our God it has become our idol. When our church is viewed as a vehicle to see the living God, then it is used as an icon. The evidence that we hold the former is that we embrace only the dead letter of scripture (2 Cor. 3:6-7). The evidence that we hold the latter is that God embraces us in His Spirit and we hear his new word being spoken to us today.

Thus Luke wrote of Simeon, 'the Holy Spirit was upon him.' The Law of Moses had led Simeon to the God of Moses. When the Law of Moses only leads us to Moses, we cannot hear the Spirit. Mary and Joseph weren't alone in their walk with God. Simeon, as well as others in Israel, also walked with the Lord of all.

26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 

How can anyone accept a revelation from the Spirit if they (1) do not even believe in the existence of the Spirit, or that (2) the Spirit's voice can be discerned by people of faith, and/or that (3) God ever communicates in real time, right this moment, rather than only through the words of scripture?

We can believe in the existence of the Spirit, yet not believe that the Spirit actually speaks to us outside of the scriptures. The devil, according to scripture, believes in the existence of God, but doesn't listen to God speaking to 'him' today. Sadly, many Christians have a 'devil-like' attitude when it comes to hearing the voice of God speaking to them in the 21st century. They choose to only know God's will from the Bible alone. But, according to Luke, how would Simeon have known that he would not die until he had met the Messiah unless the living Spirit spoke to him personally apart from the Bible? There isn't any Bible text that either alludes to or specifically says, 'when Simeon becomes an aged adult he will me the infant Messiah at the temple.' That just isn't 'written' any place in scripture. It was only 'spoken' to one individual - Simeon.

The point in all this is that God has something to say to you and to me right now, but are we listening? Of equal importance, have we learned to discern the voice of God from all the other voices out there - our own voice as well as the 'voice' of our parents, teachers, pastors, politicians, and even the media? As asked earlier, which 'voice' do we most trust for 'facts'? Simeon trusted the extra-biblcal voice of the living God.

On the other hand, an extra-biblical 'voice' can also be dangerous. What if it is not the voice of the Spirit? Christians know the voice of our Good Shepherd (Jn 10:4) because they have repeatedly tested the Spirit against the voice of the Spirit already revealed in scripture (Is. 8:20). Simeon could not find anything in the scriptures to confirm what he believed the Spirit had said, yet he also knew that there was nothing in scripture that contradicted the voice he believed was from the Spirit. This is another good reason to be a student of scripture, so that we can learn to know how God may speak to us today.

Now, all that being said, there are things in scripture that men have used to confirm what they believed was God's present day 'voice' to them, yet they were miserably wrong. Why? They have often misunderstood the progression of revelation. They have attempted to pluck a confirmation from the old covenant without understanding that we now live under the new covenant of grace. They ignored the words of the Messiah who reminded us that all the Law and the Prophets could be summed up in just two commandments (Mt. 7:12; 22:40). In other words, if what you believe the Spirit is saying to you contradicts Christ's command to love your neighbor, then you are probably not newly listening to the voice of the Spirit, but merely rehearsing the old words of Moses.

27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, 28 then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, 

Not only had Simeon heard the word of the Spirit speaking 'present truth' to him, he also was 'led by the Spirit' to the temple and was given the discernment to identify the Christ-child from all other children.

Simeon wasn't necessarily a priest, as some suggest. He may not have been at the temple performing the purification rites when Mary and Joseph happened by that day. Rather, the Spirit had led him to the Temple, and then to this couple.

Though it is in John's gospel where we learn the most about the work of the Spirit in our life of faith, Luke also - through these stories - confirms what John later taught. The Spirit (1) speaks to individuals, (2) gives them 'light' that is timely and appropriate to their particular life in their here and now, (3) guides them to specific places, and (4) helps them to identify what they need to see and/or find.

Isn't that pretty much what Jesus said the Spirit would do (Jn 16:13)?

Now the question is, has that become your experience with the Spirit?

29 “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; 30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation, 31 Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 A Light of revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.”

How did Simeon, according to Luke's gospel, summarize what his Spirit-given experience meant? He interpreted what the Spirit had done for him as confirming (1) that salvation is all about a Person, not merely being a member of a religious group, (2) that God's salvation is for all people - including the Gentiles, and that (3) Israel would be glorified as they presented the truth of Christ to the world.

So, how did Israel respond? Well, not so well. There leaders rejected Jesus as the Messiah of Bible prophecy and went even further to make sure that He was crucified by the Romans. Israel was not glorified, but vilified by their response.

On the other hand, the good news of Christ did actually get proclaimed beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentiles by a few faithful, humble Jews. The salient point is that the faithful should not wait for the institutionalized church to act faithfully. None of us can claim to be faithful vicariously through the faithfulness of others - be it the church as a whole or in part, individual pastors or priests, religious teachers or missionaries, church administrators or popes. Whether or not the official church is faithful to the high calling of Christ, each person of faith is called to hear and to obey the voice of the Spirit.

Simeon modeled the walk of faith, as each of us are called to as well.

Discussion Questions:

1. Should spirituality only be defined as listening to the Spirit? Why or why not?
2. How did Simeon's belief in the way that God communicates prime his interpretation of the events in front of him?
3. In what way is spirituality an at-the-moment 'gestalt'?
4. Do you see a Bible 'koan' in the phrase, 'revealed by the Spirit' (Lk 2:26)?
5. Did you experience any psychological defense mechanisms at work in our passage this week?
6. Did you come across any logical fallacies in Luke's presentation?  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Luke 2:1- 20 Angels, Shepherds, and a Baby

1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.

What do you think? One time God sent an angel to tell Joseph to take his family to a new location - to Egypt (Mt. 2:13), yet this time God permitted circumstances to reroute the 'first family'. In other words, would you agree that God intervenes only when necessary to accomplish his will, otherwise God permits circumstances to play out naturally?

Also, it is curious that sometimes Luke included a story found in Matthew's gospel, yet at other times he died not. Joseph's dream, the visit of the Magi, and their escape to Egypt are a few such stories from Matthew's gospel that are not in Luke's gospel. On the other hand, Luke included some stories from Matthew's gospel - such as the baptism and temptation of Jesus, as well at the healing of Peter's mother-in-law, the leper, and the paralytic. What might have been Luke's rationale for including some parts of Matthew's gospel while choosing not to include others parts?

Luke mentioned a decree by Caesar Augustus, but this is not mentioned in any other gospel, nor has it been noted in any known historical record. On the other hand, it does solve the mystery that occurs between Matthew 1:25 and 2:1. Matthew wrote that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in fulfillment of the scriptures (Mt. 2:5,6), but never explains why/how Mary got to Bethlehem from Nazareth. Maybe Matthew was unconcerned about the details, but only concerned with the fulfillment of known Messianic texts; while Luke was more concerned with explaining the chronology of events, so that even someone who was unfamiliar with the scriptures could follow the logic of the Christ narrative.

When you tell a story, how might you include or exclude various aspects of what happened based on who your audience might be? For example, if you are telling a story about a Methodist to a group of Methodists, there would be things you might exclude from your story telling, knowing that your audience would mostly likely assume what was unspoken. On the other hand, if you were to tell the same story to a group of Baptists, you might have added more details to your story. Of course the opposite might also be true. You might include many particularly Methodist notions to your story knowing that your audience of Methodists would understand and appreciate them, whereas another group wouldn't 'get it'.

Based on all this, do you have any additional thoughts about the identity of Theophilus?

4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. 6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

According to Luke, Joseph was a descendant of the family of David and was required to travel to Bethlehem. The phrase, 'his own city', may mean the place where Joseph was born, but not necessarily where Mary was born. It may, of course, not refer to where Joseph entered the world, but to his ancestral roots.

From another perspective, Bible scholars have long argued that the Lukan account is not historically accurate:
  1. Nothing is known in history of a general census by Augustus;
  2. In a Roman census Joseph would not have had to travel to Bethlehem, and Mary would not have had to travel at all;
  3. No Roman census would have been made in Judea during the reign of Herod;
  4. Josephus records no such census and it would have been a notable innovation;
  5. Quirinius was not governor of Syria until long after the reign of Herod.
In other words, if the scholars are correct, either Luke was mistaken or intentionally creative in order to link Jesus with Bethlehem to demonstrate a fulfillment of prophecy. Yet,that would undermine the intent of Luke as stated in the first 4 verses of his gospel, rendering his whole gospel suspect. Adding to the mystery of this event is its absence from the other three  gospel accounts.

Can we, though, two thousand years later, conclude with certainty that we fully understand what actually happened back then, and thus declare that Luke unwittingly believed a lie or that he intentionally told a lie? Is it possible, since he penned his gospel decades after the fact, that the records he believed to be accurate, were not accurate after all? But, how then would we explain the fact that Mary of Nazareth gave birth to Jesus down in Bethlehem?

On the other hand, if what Luke wrote truly did occur, then our history of those times may be far less than accurate and not a reliable way to sort fact from fiction. Just because we have no historical record of such an event doesn't mean that it didn't happen as Luke said. Also, just because we have a historical record that tells us that Quirinius was not governor of Syria until many years later, doesn't mean that he was not involved in such a census earlier. We often, even today, refer to a person by his highest title even when referring to things he accomplished before gaining that title.   

Luke also stated that Mary was both pregnant and still betrothed to Joseph when they made the trip south. Even though Bethlehem may have been Joseph's hometown, he did not seem to have a home there any longer since they ended up in a stable of sorts. Had all his relatives long since departed from Bethlehem? Did Joseph not have even one friend left in the village who would have taken pity on Mary and taken her in - no matter how crowded their home? On the other hand, was Bethlehem totally overcrowded with people because so many Jews had to return to this same village? These are all questions without adequate answers.

8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Notice the consistency - everyone's first response to the appearance of an angel was 'fear', and the first response of angels to human fear was, 'do not be afraid'. Should 'good' news always begin in contrast to fear? Why do angels continue to 'suddenly' appear before humans if they already know the shock potential of such an appearnace? Why don't they walk alongside humans in human form, allowing us mortals to gradually realize who they are? They could take a hint from what Jesus later did with two disciples along the road to Emmaus after His resurrection (Lk 24:13-35). In fact, the angels could have been clued in to a better approach simply by the way Jesus entered our world - gradually, just as the dawn.

The shepherds were informed about the birth of Jesus on the very day of His birth. They were told that He would be their 'Savior' and identified Him as 'Christ the Lord' - the long expected Messiah. But, he was just a new born human at the time. Not a very convincing beginning, except for the fact that angels had appeared to announce it. So, to be fair, maybe God knew that the 'sudden' appearance of an angel was necessary to get the attention of the shepherds.

There wasn't any star to lead them to the exact location of Jesus. They had to find their own way there. Fortunately, they didn't have to knock on every door in Bethlehem, even though it was, reportedly, a small town. The angels told the shepherds that the Messiah would be found 'lying in a manger'.  In other words, the shepherds only had to look for sheltered, domesticated animals in order to find a manger.

Why did they need this 'sign'? Was the 'sign' simply a way to differentiate Jesus from any other child born that day? How many other babies could have been born on that very same day in that small town, then have been laid in a manger? On the other hand, was the 'sign' less about locating the correct baby, and more about the type of person this baby would become - One that arose from humble beginnings to be the Lord of grace, rather than a conquering military general?

Isaiah had written:

"Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground;
He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him." (Is. 53:1,2)

Why announce the birth of the Messiah to 'shepherds'? Why not to priests, or prophets, or masons, or farmers? Was there a message in shepherds being led to a manger?

"Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes." (Is. 40:11)

Was all this intentional on God's behalf, in order challenge the common belief among the Jews that their Messiah would arrive with guns blazing? Instead, He would be a gentle 'shepherd' who delivered His people from their sins, rather than a mighty warrior delivering his people from their enemies.

Furthermore, for those who eventually came to understand and believe that Jesus was God incarnate rather than the child of Joseph, the fact that God was willing to be birthed among animals and laid in a manger had massive theological implications regarding the very nature of God.

A deep shift in religious thinking had begun to take place among the Jews. Mankind's  picture of God from the past was about to be challenged by the very presence of God as man among them. Later, after the ascension of the Son of God, He would send the Spirit to live 'within' them - another theological shift. All the ingredients for this massive paradigm change occurred within just a few years, yet the theological implications evolved over many decades and even centuries. Again, God ways are not our ways.

13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

Where there is one angel, there are many? And what do many angels When they aren't messing with us, they seem to prefer praising God.

And what is an angel's hope for mankind? Peace among men - particularly among those who have a relationship with God. Is the promise of peace for some future time in heaven? No. Actually, amazingly, it is for the present time here on earth.

What language were the angels worshiping in? Since it was the shepherds themselves that 'made known' (v. 17) what the angels said, we can assume that the angels spoke in the language of the shepherds. This presents a Bible truth that we shouldn't forget. God speaks to each individual in an understandable manner.

Even when God has given something mysterious to one person, He provides an interpreter as well. If we say that we cannot understand God's will for us, then we are saying that God doesn't know how to communicate with us. Probably, more accurately, whenever we say we don't understand God's will we are actually admitting that we don't want to accept what God has made clear. God is not, according to scripture, the author of confusion. He gives wisdom to those who choose to listen (Jas 1:5,6).

When we have no clear direction to move in, God has made it clear that we are to stay put. When multiple 'doors' appear 'open' at the same time, God may not have a particular preference and has left the choice up to us. When heaven seems silent it often means that God has already given explicit instructions on the topic. For instance, if we are wondering whether or not to take revenge against someone that has done damage to us, don't wait for God to communicate His answer to you. It is already abundantly clear in scripture. The written word clearly states what you should and shouldn't do in that particular circumstance. Vengeance belongs to Him. On the other hand, if you are trying to determine which college to attend, God may reveal His particular will for you, or not.

15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.

It didn't take a lot of discussion before the shepherds hurried off to Bethlehem, the city of David. They found the baby just as the angels had told them. The shepherds expected nothing less. If an angel has spoken directly to you, followed by an angelic choir singing praises to God in your presence, would you have any doubts about anything else they reported to you?

By the way, how do you think Luke learned about this 'happening'? The Bible says that the shepherds told this story to anyone who would listen. In other words, this became a well known story among the people of Bethlehem. Surely Mary would have later told Jesus all the events leading up to his birth. She more than likely related all these stories to the disciples of Jesus as well.

Why, though, should this story even matter? Why include it? Mark didn't. John didn't. Matthew didn't. It was an event that occurred some three decades before either John or Jesus began their public ministry. By then all who knew about the shepherds had either forgotten these events or had died. Those to whom this story had been told may have long considered it a fabrication since nothing ever seemed to materialize from their births. Why would God orchestrate such a grandiose beginning for both boys, yet leave decades of silence between their births and the beginning of their public ministries?  

19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.

There are stories that establish facts, stories that make us laugh and/or cry, and there are stories that elicit wonder for years and even millennia to come. This was the kind of story that made people 'think' then and ever since.

A ripple of 'wonder' began that year, first with the incidents related to the birth of John (Lk 1:66), then amplified about six months later with the birth of Jesus. In our 21st century world we speak of things going 'viral'. They start off small and relatively unnoticeable, but as more people hear about it, and are amazed by it, the frequency of its repetition becomes exponential - at least for a season.

On the other hand, there are some events in history - though no longer remembered for their particulars - have permanently shifted the way people think about the world.

It seems that God does not always pounce into the world unexpectedly, though, admittedly, the sudden appearance of an angel certainly qualifies as the 'unexpected'. More often, though, God does something that creates 'a ripple of wonder' that almost imperceptibly permeates the world, preparing mankind for something that might not actually occur until decades or even centuries later.

Even if a story is rejected as apocryphal, it still continues to influence and becomes part of a culture. It does not matter whether the story is believed as truth or falsehood, it still remains present and primes the culture for the later event.

In what ways has God primed our world for a soon coming event? For example, which events from the 20th century continue to influence the way American Christians think in the 21st century? 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Luke 1:67-80 Prophecy of Zacharias

67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people,

We again read about an individual who was 'filled with the Holy Spirit' before the Spirit had been sent to 'fill' believers at Pentecost (Lk 1:15,41; Ez. 11:19; Jn 7:39; Acts 2:4). So, how are we to make sense of this?

First, the Spirit has, of course, always existed and worked within our world (Gen. 1:2). Jesus made that clear when he acknowledged that the Spirit was 'with' his disciples even before Pentecost, yet would come to abide 'in' them at Pentecost, in a manner they had not yet 'fully' experienced (Jn 14:17).

Second, the Spirit had periodically 'filled' certain individuals for a particular task, gifting them with prophetic and miracle working abilities. Herein seems to be the difference between being 'filled with the Spirit' prior to Pentecost vs after Pentecost. Before Pentecost - specific believers were 'filled with the Spirit' who would enable them to perform a specific task (Ex. 31:3; 1 Sam 1:6). After Pentecost - all believers would be 'filled with the Spirit' in order to live out the life of Christ (Rom. 8:9).

Zacharias was 'filled with the Spirit' in order to speak a prophetic word. His prophesy began with honoring God, confirming that God had intervened in our world, and that the result would be the redemption of 'His people'.

As we read through the prophecy of Zacharias we can catch a glimpse into the very nature of prophetic utterance. Here are some questions we need to ask. Did the Spirit use the man as His 'pen' or as His 'penman'? In other words, did the Spirit give Zacharias the exact words to speak or did the Spirit merely prompt Zacharias to express his praise using any words and ideas that Zacharias chose? If the latter, then how do we square it with 2 Peter 1:20? If the former, then are there different types of prophecy? Is there a classic type of prophecy where the words spoken are chosen by God and presented exactly as dictated to a man? Alternatively, would the prophetic word of an individual merely express his/her personal thoughts in response to something that God is perceived to have done?

Was Zacharias, the priest, called to be a prophet in Israel or was he merely tasked with speaking prophetically at that one and only time? If the latter, which type of 'prophetic utterance' were the words of Zacharias? Were they God's words or the words of Zacharias? Was he God's mouthpiece speaking into the world of men or was he a representative from among men speaking words of praise to God? How might the actual words from his presentation help us to discern whether he spoke from God to man or as a man to God? 

69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of David His servant, 70 as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old,

The prophecy of Zacharias - which Luke presented as having been spoken at the birth of John, maybe six months before the birth of Jesus - assumed that God had 'accomplished redemption for His people' and had already 'raised up a horn of salvation for us'. In other words, Zacharias believed by faith exactly what the angel Gabriel had told him nine months earlier, that his son, John, would 'go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of make ready a people prepared for the Lord' (Luke 1:17). If the promise of a son through his aged and barren wife was true, then the promise that John would prepare the way of the Lord must also be true.

Was the thinking of Zacharias 'logical'? If we consider the sequence of events that Zacharias had personally experienced, how could he have arrived at any other conclusion? First, the angel Gabriel had visited him while he was serving as a priest in the temple. Second, he was struck mute for not believing the angel's words. Third, his aged and barren wife 'did' conceive and bear a son. Fourth, as soon as Zacharias confirmed that his son would be named 'John', he muteness disappeared.

Zacharias couldn't deny any of these happenings. They weren't anecdotal stories he had heard about from someone else, but these were his very own experiences. Everything had played out exactly as the angel had said they would.

All that being true, Zacharias had to then wrestle with the 'other' things that the angel had told him: (1) that his son, John, would be blessed with the 'spirit and power of Elijah' in order to 'prepare the way of the Lord, and thus (2) the Lord, the Messiah, was about to arrive. Both of these promises were later confirmed by two other witnesses. First, his wife had been 'filled with the Spirit' when she was six months pregnant. She was 'told' by the Spirit that the fruit of Mary's womb was the very Lord that her son would prepare the way for (Lk 1:42-45). Second, Zacharias was probably around when Mary visited with his wife and was privy, we assume, to Mary's own personal testimony of what the same angel had told her (Lk 1:31-33).

Unless Zacharias was a complete fool, he could not have come to any other conclusion. He had personally heard Gabriel's promise, had personally seen the fulfillment of Gabriel's promise, had heard confirmation through his own wife, and had heard confirmation through Mary. He had no doubt that the promises spoken by 'holy prophets of old' were not only true, but were were being fulfilled right before his own eyes. God was already at work redeeming his people through the 'horn of salvation' from the line of David.

But, from what were God's people going to be 'saved from'?

71 Salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; 72 to show mercy toward our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, 73 the oath which He swore to Abraham our father, 74 to grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, 75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.

When Gabriel first spoke to Mary, he only said that her child would be great and would reign over the house of Jacob forever (Lk 1:32,33). His name, Jesus, means 'Jehovah is Salvation'. In other words, the focus of salvation was on being saved 'into' a relationship with Jesus, rather than being saved 'from' disagreeable things in this world. Though both are true, the latter follows the former, not visa versa.

When Gabriel first spoke to Zacharias, nothing was said about what the Messiah would 'do', but what John would do for the Messiah (Lk 1:16,17).

Later, when Mary spoke her Magnificat, she presented 'her' beliefs in what her child, the Messiah, would 'do'. He would 'scatter the proud, bring down rulers, exalt the humble, feed the hungry, and send away the rich' (Lk 1:51-54). These desires represented common Jewish hopes. They certainly weren't an accurate summation of what Jesus actually did.

Later, when Zacharias spoke his prophecy, he presented 'his' beliefs that the coming of the Lord would first, 'save Israel from all their enemies so that they could serve God without fear (Lk 1:71,74). Again, he also spoke out of a common Jewish hope which was not in harmony with the actual ministry of Jesus who taught the Jews to not hate their enemies, but to love them.

The point is that what the angel said to both Mary and Zacharias could only be heard and interpreted within the religious belief system they understood at the time. The angel did not present them with an entirely new and perfect theology, but with 'good news' that they were left to interpret and wrestle with. In response, both translated their experience in a manner that conflated their current beliefs with the angel's words.

Luke boldly presented their extrapolations without commentary or judgment, as if to remind us that God always expects us to wrestle with our beliefs. Heaven refuses to 'spoon feed us'.  We all interpret life events with the 'belief' tools we have. While extraordinary experiences often alter our beliefs somewhat, they seldom instantly over turn our whole system of belief. Instead, as we see clearly in the NT, even those who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus interpreted it through the only lens they had, making some changes in their theological understandings, while retaining many other conflicting notions. A completely new system of belief evolved over many centuries. In fact, Christianity continues to evolve as a system of belief even in the 21st century after Christ.

Zacharias took his experience and spoke 'prophetically' in the minimal sense. He interpreted all that he had seen and heard with understandable 'confirmation bias', particularly in verses 68-75. Then, in the remainder of his prophesy, he suddenly shifts gears in a manner that reveals a much deeper grasp of God's will than one would have expected, considering what he said in verses 68-75.

76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways; 77 to give to His people the knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness of their sins,

Jesus called the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth 'more than a prophet' by Jesus (Lk 7:26). Why? Because he not only talked prophetically about the imminent coming of the Messiah, he was also tasked with the thankless job of radically undermining current theological beliefs. 

In order to effectively 'prepare the way' for the ministry of Jesus, the Jews had to give up their long cherished soteriological notion - that salvation meant deliverance from Roman rule. The Jews had come to believe that salvation was a political issue rather than a moral issue. The believed that salvation would come through military strength, rather than by love and compassion.

The Jews looked for a sword bearing Messiah, but Jesus came as a grace proclaiming Messiah. The Jews viewed the Romans as their enemy, but Jesus intentionally taught them to love their enemies. The Jews assumed that their Gentile rulers were the problem, but Jesus taught that the real problem was the human 'heart'. The locus of evil is not 'out there', but 'within'.

Jesus would come preaching about the kingdom of God's grace, yet that message would have been instantly rejected if John had not been first sent to install doubts in the current belief system. Salvation would not arise from the kingdom of men, but only as we enter the kingdom of God. Sadly, many Christians today look for political salvation rather than being saved from themselves. They have made sacred a 'Constantinian' hope that does not exist as a genuine option, and it is not the Christian hope.

78 because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, 79 to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zacharias had personally just experienced the mercy of God. He had expressed doubt, was given time to reconsider his thinking about God, then given another chance. He responded with faith. Doubt in God's word no longer had a place within his heart. He knew the 'tender mercy of our God.' He was an example of one for whom the 'Sunshine from on high' had shined His light and chased away the 'darkness' of doubt. Zacharias knew the 'way of peace' that is only realized through complete trust in God.

No wonder Zacharias could grasp the mission set before his newborn son. He understood that the first reform that needed to enter the world would require a shift in the thinking of the Jewish people. The Jews, like Zacharias himself, had assumed that their only problem was the Roman occupation. If God could just get rid of 'them', then the people of God would enter into the promise of peace. But that kind of thinking was delusional.

The father of John still had not given up his hope that the coming Messiah would clobber all the enemies of Israel - as noted in verses 68-75. But he also realized that the work of the Messiah would not be finished by merely eliminating the external enemy. There could be no peace until the human heart fully surrendered to the 'Sunrise from on high'. Genuine peace only exists where the darkness within each human heart has been exposed and jettisoned - confessed and repented of. Thus John would preach repentance.

The Jews actually 'sat' in darkness, yet believed they lived in the light. The symptom of 'darkness' is the presence of fear. It can be the fear of death, the fear that one might lose their possessions, loved ones, position in society, or heath. Where there is perfect trust in God, all fear is cast away - because we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

The question for us is, have we embraced a pseudo-peace - a peace that is built upon something other than trust in God? Or, have we given God our permission to shine the light of truth onto every aspect of our thinking so that all traces of darkness can be revealed and excised?

80 And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

As we will discover with the childhood and young adulthood of Jesus, not much has been given to us regarding the John's upbringing either, except that he 'continued to grow and to become strong in spirit.' He then lived int he deserts until God called him into public service.

How 'real' was John's childhood? Did he ever make mistakes or sin? Did he ever get into fights with other neighborhood kids? Did his father raise him to be a priest? At what age did he lose his parents? Did the neighbors watch him closely, remembering all that had happened at his birth?

God had a purpose for John 'before' John had ever been conceived in the womb of Elizabeth. Surely this makes certain the words of Jeremiah 31:3 - 'I have loved you with an everlasting love,; therefore I have I drawn you with lovingkindness.' Similarly, it gives deeper meaning to the words of Paul to the Ephesians (Eph. 1:4), 'He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him, in love.'