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Truth For Now

This Week's Study

 

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THE BAKER OF CAPERNAUM,
a new novel, plays out in the time of Jesus. How does the baker
of the village perceive the young rabbi? Read more...

~~~~~~~~~~

Last updated: 2014-12-25

New studies are put on top. Scroll down for previous ones.

 

Shepherds

3. The shepherds of Bethlehem

In the severe drought and depression of 1933, my father lost his farm and trekked with his Merino flock along the dirt roads of the Karoo in search of grazing. In Africa, Canada and Russia, wild herds migrate annually.

With their sensitive noses, sheep pick up the faint odour of far-off grazing. When the wind changes over-night, the whole flock gets up instinctively and starts moving toward the good stuff. My dad slept lightly to hear when the sheep started bleating, so he could keep them from forbidden fields.

The shepherds of Bethlehem might have had the same problem. In those days, farms were not fenced off from one another. In the common grazing fields, each shepherd daily chose the area where he could graze his flock. Sheep-pens (John 10:1-9) were made of stacked stones. Maybe there were not enough pens to choral all sheep at night. So, like my dad, they had to slumber lightly in open fields, keeping the flock from wandering.

We can imagine the scene: a dark night with bright stars; the fire burning low; no noise except for the occasional distant howl of a jackal. Then, suddenly, a blinding light! They do not have electricity, so such a bright light at night is totally foreign to them. They lift their heads, shielding their eyes from the light with one hand. Then they see it: the brilliant figure in mid-air. The angel recognizes their utter amazement, bordering on raw fear, and calms them down. They need not be afraid, because he brings them fantastic news: the Messiah has been born in Bethlehem. They will find him in manger.

While they are trying to digest the message, a host of angels appear in the night sky, singing as no choir ever has or will: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth for those favoured by God.”

The heavenly messengers fade away as quickly as they have appeared. After a while of flabbergasted silence, they start to wonder if it is real – “did the others see what I saw?” Questions about what each one saw and heard get mingled with enthusiastic retelling of the most wonderful moment in their lives.

Maybe the eldest suggests that some of them stay to watch the sheep, while a few go to Bethlehem to see the wonder-baby whose birth was announced by angels. The lucky ones find the baby in a manger in a stable. They share their story of the angels with the surprised parents. When they leave, their talkative mood continues, repeating their story to every interested person. They are the first human beings who joyfully proclaim the good news about Christ.

 

2. Caring for the flock of God

When a malicious person gets into a position of trust, we say: wolf has become shepherd. However, all dogs descend from wolves, and some dogs have become the flock’s best friend. Collies have proved themselves excellent herding dogs, while Anatolians are efficient guard dogs, going with the sheep or goats to the grazing pastures daily. The puppies grow up in the sheep’s pen, so they and the flock are used to each other. The presence of these dogs among the sheep or goats acts as deterrent for cheetahs and other predators.

 The Bible speaks about good and bad shepherds too. David, the shepherd, was called by God to shepherd his people Israel (2 Sam. 5:2, Ps. 78:70-72). Sadly, Ezekiel 34 exposes the bad shepherds (leaders) who misused the flock (Israel) for their own selfish purposes. Instead of following the example of good shepherds, caring for the sheep with utmost self-sacrifice, the bad shepherds exploited the sheep to feed their own pleasures. They will be judged by God.

In contrast with the self-serving leaders of Ezekiel’s time, the apostle Paul spurred the elders of Ephesus to be good shepherds of God’s flock: “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

Their high calling is accentuated by the fact that (a) the Holy Spirit called them to this task, and (b) the flock was bought by the blood of God in the flesh. In their epistles, the apostles gave special attention to the qualities and behaviour of elders (1 Tim. 3, Tit. 1, 1 Pet. 5).

The need for conscientious elders was underscored by Jesus, when he saw the crowds who looked like sheep without a shepherd. He answered the need by sending his disciples in six pairs among them to preach the gospel and to heal the sick.

Later, the disciples would also become a small flock without their Shepherd. At the Last Supper, Jesus quoted the words of Zechariah that the shepherd will be struck and the sheep will be scattered, meaning: Jesus would be arrested and the disciples would flee and abandon him. However, 50 days later, the fearful disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Not even persecution silenced them. With the help of the printing press and electronic media this goal is now within reach.

With the birth of Christ, the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem followed the example of good shepherds by accepting God’s message, obeying his command, visiting the Baby, and spreading the good news.

 

1. The Lord is my shepherd

I grew up on a sheep farm. Although the sheep roamed freely in fenced camps, they had to be herded occasionally for inspection, treatment, shearing, and loading onto trucks for the marketplace. Most baby animals are adorable; new-born lambs are near the top of the list. Sometimes, ewes did not bond with their lambs, so the lambs were bottle-fed and became pets.

As the word “sheepish” indicates, sheep are not intelligent. While grazing, they often wander off – easy prey for predators. Our propensity to wander off and get into trouble may be the reason why God portrays himself in the Bible as a shepherd and us as sheep. It is not a compliment for us, but it highlights one of God’s endearing qualities: his caring for his flock.

The renowned images of God as shepherd are found in Psalm 23 and John 10. David was a shepherd-boy, so he spoke from personal experience when he said, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters.” A sheep’s first priority is grazing; only when filled, it will lie down to ruminate. David found calm and peace in the thought that God cared for him as he cared for the sheep.

About 2 centuries after David, Isaiah connected to the same imagery when he prophesied about the Messiah: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young” (Is. 40:11). These words were fulfilled when Jesus interacted with children and blessed them, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16).

Ten centuries after David, Jesus presented himself as the Good Shepherd. The thief, wolf and hireling are interested in the flock for selfish reasons, but the Good Shepherd calls his sheep out, they know his voice and follow him to lush pastures. He risks his own life to protect his sheep. He lays his life down voluntarily.

By connecting “the LORD is my shepherd” with “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus affirmed that he was God incarnated: “I and my Father are one.” He exposed the motives of his enemies, and highlighted his own motive of self-sacrifice.

In the light of these touching images of God as shepherd, it is understandable that the shepherds of Bethlehem, low in social standing, were of high rank in God’s eyes. Angels announced the birth of the Saviour to the shepherds of Bethlehem, not to the Pharisees of Jerusalem.

 

Treasures in clay jars

3. Ancient letters depict early church

The Acts and Epistles of the Apostles are jewels in clay jars. They show how the promise of Jesus was fulfilled: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem , and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Chapters 1-7 of Acts show the spreading of Christianity in Jerusalem, 8-12 the progress in Judea and Samaria, and 13-28 the increase in other parts of the empire.

Christians remained in Jerusalem, so God scattered them by persecution. The clay jars had to carry the treasure of the gospel to other regions. God transformed Saul, the persecutor, into Paul, the missionary. On his second journey, he fled Thessalonica by night. He eventually landed in Corinth where he stayed 18 months. From there he wrote his two letters to the Thessalonians to finish what he left uncompleted when he fled in a hurry. The greeting used in these letters was repeated in all his later epistles: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

On his third journey, Paul worked for about three years in Ephesus. The church in Corinth sought his advice on problems, and he responded by writing to them four letters of which two survived. In these letters, Paul gave practical advice, showing the kind of problems churches in that time coped with. Paul revealed much of his personal feelings for the Corinthians, but these letters also contain great truths, like his summary of the gospel and its effect (2 Cor. 5:17-21).

Paul visited Corinth again, and over-wintered there. Many scholars assume that he wrote his letters to the Galatians and to the Romans in that time. In these letters he explained his main theme: salvation through grace and faith. It was a response to the teachings of those who wanted to force Christians to observe Jewish law. The issue had been settled by the Jerusalem decree (Acts 15), but some Jewish Christians persisted with their legalistic views.

During Paul’s two years of house-arrest in Rome, he wrote a letter to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and to Philemon. He spelled out the essence of the gospel and its application on their lifestyle. When Paul was freed, he wrote his pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, giving advice for ministering to the church.

The general epistles of Peter, James, John and Jude contain valuable instruction about the faith and its practical application. The Hebrew letter explains the gospel from Old Testament prophecies. The book of Revelation is also a letter, but in apocalyptic form. The treasure of salvation has been carried forth by the Bible and by believers.

 

2. Gospels preserve greatest story

It is widely accepted that six of the Pauline epistles (1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans and Galatians) were written before the Gospels. The facts about Jesus were well-known in the early church, so Paul did not give much biographical data about Christ. God called four other writers to preserve the Jesus-story for believers.

A church father of the 2nd century affirmed that Mark wrote his gospel as Peter told it to him, so it is a dictated eyewitness report. It is the shortest of the gospels, focusing on the main deeds and words of Christ as recalled by his leader disciple.

The main motive for undertaking the recording of Christ’s life might have been the aging of eyewitnesses who could attest to what he said and did. Soon the apostles would be gone and the church would only have hearsay info to depend upon. A written eyewitness report was urgently needed; so, Peter and Mark made time to fulfill in that need.

As tax-collector, Matthew kept notes for business purposes. When he became a disciple, he also made notes of Jesus’ lessons. When he read the gospel of Mark, he realized that his notes would be a valuable addition to what Peter and Mark accomplished. His longest verbal reports are: the Sermon on the Mount, some of the parables, sending out the disciples, the scolding of the Pharisees, and the lessons on the end-time.

Paul met Luke on his 2nd journey, leaving him behind in Philippi to support the new church. On Paul’s 3rd journey, Luke accompanied Paul to Jerusalem, where Paul was arrested. During Paul’s two-year custody in Caesarea, Luke used the time to make contact with people who saw and heard Jesus. He collected important data about the birth of Christ, and about the six months before his crucifixion. Luke saved many parables for us. He referred more to women and to Jesus’ prayers than Mark or Matthew.

While the synoptic gospels probably originated about 60-67 AD, the gospel of John was most likely written about 15 years later. Because the other gospels were already known, John did not have to repeat all the detail. He focused on Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem during various visits. He described four great signs Jesus performed in the mother city. He also recorded discourses Jesus had with the temple elite. One third of John’s gospel describes the last hours of Jesus with his disciples, his trial, death, resurrection and appearances to his followers.

The early church recognized the consensus and authenticity of the four gospels. They are jars in which the treasure of God’s good news about Christ has been stored for 20 centuries.

 

1. Knowledge stored in people, books

The humble clay jar has stored many treasures. Baked clay is as hard and durable as stone, and can survive sun, rain, heat, cold, microbes and insects. The Dead Sea scrolls were preserved in clay jars for 2000 years. Earthen pots can be shattered to pieces, but when handled carefully, these fragile jars protect their treasure for ages.

Paul compares believers with clay jars carrying treasure of great value (2 Cor. 4:7). Although the individual jar fulfills a great purpose, the jar can easily be replaced. It is the treasure inside that is important.

The main, continuous message of the Bible is God’s plan of salvation to save sinners. When the human race was almost wiped out in the Flood, Noah and the ark was that “jar” that preserved the messianic line. The patriarchs carried in their hearts and minds the treasure of God’s promise about the Redeemer.

God provided jars for his treasure in every generation. In the first five books of the Bible, Moses stored important data about God’s plan of salvation from the beginning until his own time.

The authors of the books in the Bible, and those who copied these aging scrolls onto new ones, were important jars for God’s message of salvation. However, they would not have written if there was nothing to write about. The characters and events in the Bible served as vessels for the message.

David was a newsmaker in his time. His life contained many lessons to write about. His own poetry became part of the treasure that was saved and passed on for 3000 years.

The word of God was stored in the most holy part of the temple. When the book of the Law got lost, due to idolatry, it was found – degraded but preserved – in a store room of the temple (2 Kings 22).

Those who collected King Solomon’s proverbs, preserved the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. The prophets wrote down their visions and messages, protecting them for posterity. The four Major Prophets were recorded in separate scrolls, and the twelve Minor Prophets were bundled into one scroll.

Despite the fluctuating curve of Israel’s spiritual life, the message was preserved by scrolls in clay jars, and in the devoted hearts of the faithful over many generations.

Since the invention of printing in the 15th century, the Bible has been preserved and multiplied on paper. In recent years electronic media have become jars by storing Scripture magnetically. However, without believers it won’t be stored at all.

Unfortunately, the shelve-life of books, tapes and DVD’s is limited. Hard disk drives can be wiped by accident, malice, and nuclear explosions. The scrolls in clay pots were safer.

 

Meeting Jesus

4. Crumbs from the Master's table

Jesus sometimes taught by paradox, using words that sounded self-contradictory, such as: “Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

He also used extreme contrasts to make a point: “Remove the plank from your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

This apparent contradiction of terms is evident in his interaction with the woman in Phoenicia. It was Jesus’ first trip to a region outside Israel. How did it happen?

After he had ministered for two years in Galilee, he fed the five thousand. They wanted to make him king right away, but he moved higher up on the hill to pray.

A few days later, he spoke to the crowd in the synagogue of Capernaum, explaining that he had to die to fulfill his task. What they needed was not more bread or manna but the bread of life, his body and blood. Those who would eat his flesh and drink his blood would have eternal life.

The crowd took his words literally, and was offended; the eating of blood was prohibited by the Law of Moses. Many turned away from him, realizing he was not the leader that would help them to throw off the Roman yoke.

Rejected by Israel, Jesus went to the Gentiles. However, he knew that his disciples were not yet ready for this shift of focus. So, in his contact with the Phoenician woman, he used phrases that were still part of the disciples’ philosophy: “Israel should be our first priority; we should not give the children’s bread to the dogs.”

This woman’s problem was not policy or philosophy. Her little daughter was suffering in the clutches of a cruel demon. She had heard enough about this healer from Galilee to throw herself at his feet and plead as only a desperate, loving mother can.

God gave her the words that would soften the hardest heart: “Yes, Lord, but the puppies under the table wait for the crumbs falling from the master’s table.” She saw herself as a little dog waiting for the crumbs. She was not demanding; she was begging.

Jesus’ heart did not need softening, but those of the disciples. When that happened, Jesus granted her request and her daughter was healed.

However, the disciples still had to chew their cud, so to speak. The good news had just flowed to someone outside Israel’s borders – the gospel had become available to the Gentiles as well.

Long before Philip and Peter baptized the first Gentiles, Jesus introduced the disciples to this notion with an object lesson they would never forget.

 

3. Salvation has come to this house

The greatness of a person is not determined by body size. The small David slay the gigantic Goliath; the short guy from Corsica became the feared Napoleon; and the stumpy Winston Churchill was Britain’s prime minister during World War II.

Although the story of Zacchaeus starts with his short stature, that was not his real problem. He accepted his shortness with humour. When he could not get a glimpse of Jesus because of the crowd, he did not hesitate to make a fool of himself by climbing in a sycamore tree to get a better view. He knew the crowd would also get a good view of him, and being a tax-collector, he was not their favourite.

Why would a rich man risk his dignity in such an impulsive way? Maybe he was inspired by the healing of the blind beggar, who was still jumping with joy alongside Jesus. The rich man wanted what the poor man enjoyed—a new life.

It must have been quite an awkward moment when Jesus stopped beneath the branch where Zacchaeus sat. When the renowned healer-preacher looked up with a smile, all eyes turned to the rich man in the tree. The hated tax-collector grinned self-consciously and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “Well, Lord, here I am.”

Jesus called him on his name and invited him into a friendly relationship: “Zacchaeus, come down, I want to stay at your home today.” Jesus still does that: He stops at the place where you watch as a curious outsider, calls you by the name, and invites you to become an involved insider.

Jesus saved Zacchaeus from gross embarrassment by asking him to come down and serve some refreshments at his opulent home. This turned the whole situation around. The tax-collector became joyful and the crowd turned grumpy. How could Jesus dare to eat with such a sinner?

When Zacchaeus heard the criticism, he vowed to turn his life around and refund those he cheated. Jesus knew his change of behaviour was the result of his change of heart. He affirmed that salvation had come to that house, when the owner invited Jesus into his home and heart. The reviled tax-collector was restored as son of Abraham.

The story started with Zacchaeus’ physical shortness; it ends with his spiritual greatness, thanks to God’s Mediator. God wants to use his children as ambassadors to reconcile sinners with God (2 Cor. 5:18).

Jesus summarized his ministry in a few words, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” A week after this incident, Jesus paid in full for the sins of mankind on the Cross of Calvary.

 

2. I believe you are the Christ

First impressions of another person are often one-sided and unfair. At the moment of introduction, we have only external clues to assess. We may be misled: people usually put up a façade when introduced; we don’t know the real self and history of the person; and sub-conscious prejudices, spawned by our past experiences, may make us either too positive or too negative about a stranger.

I’m sure many of us can recall instances where we changed our mind about someone when we had the opportunity to discover the real person. Then we had to conclude: “He/she did not appear friendly, but actually he/she has a heart of gold.”

Many remember only Luke’s picture of Martha: the woman who was so focused on housekeeping and cooking that she missed out on fellowship with Jesus. Not quite. John shows another side of Martha: her understanding of the person and power of Jesus.

Look at John’s story: Martha’s brother Lazarus is critically ill. He’s weakening fast. Desperate, Martha sends a messenger to Jesus in the Jordan Valley. He promises to come but tarries two days before heading for Bethany. When someone tells Martha that Jesus has been spotted near Bethany, she leaves her household chores immediately and runs to her friend.

Out of breath she hugs him and blurts: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” She blames Jesus for coming too late, but affirms her trust in his power – even now nothing is impossible for him.

When Jesus promises that Lazarus will live, she takes it as a referral to the resurrection of the last day. Then Jesus conveys to Martha truth that will comfort many through the ages: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live… Do you believe this?” Martha responds with amazing insight and faith: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Martha has been illuminated.

When Martha’s sister joins them, Jesus weeps with them and with all who mourn. He has the tomb opened, and calls Lazarus back to live, to his old body. Martha’s faith has been vindicated: God gives Jesus what he asks (Ps. 2:7-8).

Martha and her family are overjoyed. When Jesus arrives for the Passover, Martha organizes a welcome meal for him, and her sister Mary anoints him with expensive aromatic oil. Lazarus is at the meal too, telling the guests about his death and resurrection experiences.

Later, Jesus rose from death with a new body. He is the first-fruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20).

 

1. I was blind but now I see

Many disabled people have astonished the world with their incredible adaptation to a handicap. Some without arms developed dexterous feet and toes. Some amputees broke records as blade-runners. The deaf can learn to speak and lip-read; the blind can transverse city streets with guide-dogs, and read with the help of Braille or computers.

In the time of Christ, these options were not available. The man born blind needed a friend every day to take him to a temple gate. His only hope was charity. He had no hope of improving his situation.

He had some factors in his favour, though. With no visual image of his world, this man finds his way by hearing and touching. Taste and smell enables him to enjoy the morsels obtained by begging. Lack of vision sharpens his other senses. He identifies people by the sound of their voices, footsteps, and actions.

One day, sitting at a temple gate and begging for alms, he hears a clear voice addressing the crowd in the temple court. Then people start shouting angrily. The hasty foot-steps of a small group tell him they flee from the angry mob.

Though rejected by the crowd, the person with the clear voice notices the beggar and says, “I am the light of the world.” The blind man is puzzled when clay is applied to his eyelids. “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” the voice says.

Two people grab him by his arms and lead him to this place. As he washes, a strange sensation overcomes him: he sees light for the first time in his life. More washing, more light – until the full vision of the surroundings overwhelms him.

Jumping for joy, he shouts, “I can see! I can see! Praise God! I can see!”

Overjoyed, he hurries to the area where he lives to share the good news. He is rebuffed by sceptical friends and hostile Pharisees who refuse to believe the most fantastic moment in his life. Despite the putdown, he joyfully testifies, “One thing I know: I was blind but now I see!”

When he reasons with the Pharisees that a person who can open the eyes of the blind must be sent by God, they ban him from the synagogue.

Seeing but lonely, he wanders back to the temple. He has not seen his healer but he knows his voice. He wants to thank him for the wonderful gift he received.

A friendly person suddenly asks, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” Aha! Unmistakably, his voice! The former blind man sinks to his knees and worships, relishing the privilege to see his Redeemer. “Yes, Lord, I believe,” he confesses from the heart.