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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: 2014-04-22

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

 

 

Lent: people at the cross

6. The Fears and joys of Easter

On Easter morning, the mocking temple elite and the laughing Roman soldiers were shocked into panic. The bereaved followers of Jesus were initially confounded and eventually overjoyed. The empty tomb had a profound impact on friend and foe. Why?

The enemies were in a tight corner. They could not concede that Jesus rose from the dead, because they did not believe it, and if it really happened, they would be guilty of crucifying the Messiah. On the other hand, if they said that the body was stolen from a sealed and guarded tomb, the soldiers would be in deep trouble.

The soldiers knew the body was not stolen — they stood on guard all night. They saw the blinding light and the angel opening the tomb, but who would believe them? That is why they ran to the temple and not to the fortress. As they could not think of a better solution, they agreed to tell the lie suggested by the temple leaders: the body was stolen while they slept. The soldiers and their superior officers accepted the bribe offered by the temple leaders. The self-righteous mob of Calvary were so embarrassed by the empty tomb that they scrabbled to do some damage control by spinning the facts.

Although Jesus told his followers several times that he would be killed and raised from the dead, they did not take it literally. Maybe it was just another parable with a spiritual meaning. When the women and disciples found the tomb empty, they were astonished and puzzled. The gospels tell us that none of them considered the possibility that Jesus was raised from the dead — not until he appeared to them.

When Mary Magdalene saw the tomb opened and empty, she immediately thought that the body was stolen. Distressed, she ran to Peter and John to break the news. They ran to the tomb to see for themselves, but could not find a feasible answer to the questions spinning in their minds: Who took the body and why? Why did they unwrap the body and left the burial cloth behind? Why did the soldiers fail to stop the grave robbery? Where is the body now, what may happen to it, and what should they do?

Two disciples walked that afternoon for two hours with Jesus on the way to Emmaus without recognizing him. They did not believe the women who said that Jesus had been raised from the dead. When he broke the bread, their eyes were opened, and they ran back to Jerusalem with the good news. There they were greeted by excited disciples who also saw their living Lord and Saviour. Verily, he is risen!

 

5. Joseph asks for Jesus' body

Ironically, Jesus was buried by two dissenting members of the Council that demanded his execution. Both men were secret admirers of the deceased. John 3, 7 and 19 tell about Nicodemus; Matthew 27, Mark 15 and Luke 23 give data about Joseph who came from Arimathea.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee steeped in the laws of Moses, visited the Galilean rabbi under cover of darkness, when Jesus’ teachings and miracles began drawing large crowds. The scholar wanted first-hand knowledge of the person everyone talked about. Jesus imparted crucial insights: the love of the Father, the sacrifice of the Son, and the regeneration by the Spirit. Jesus showed that the Son of God became the Son of Man to realize reconciliation with God.

When the Council openly turned against Jesus, Nicodemus pleaded for due process: it was wrong to condemn a person before they heard and questioned him.

Joseph of Arimathea was a rich, good and just man who waited for the kingdom of God. As member of the Council he disapproved of the hasty verdict of the Council to demand the death sentence for Jesus of Nazareth. At last, this secret disciple came out of the closet and asked Pilate’s permission to bury the body. He supplied the embalmment and the grave. He was assisted by his fellow-member of the Council, Nicodemus, who also brought material for embalming the body.

 Against this background, we can imagine the inner conflict these two prominent men must have experienced. On the one hand they were intensely interested in the words and deeds of this remarkable young rabbi who wowed the crowds. On the other hand they had to watch their step to prevent putting their reputation at risk.

The fact that they both turned up for the burial of Jesus indicates that they knew of each other’s secret support for the Nazarene. They probably discussed more than once their views and theories secretly. They might have tried to influence their fellow Council members to keep an open mind about the new prophet. Whatever they might have tried to stem the tide, it was too little too late. The enemies of Jesus bulldozed a quick decision through the Council at an unusual night meeting.

While Jesus hung on the cross on Passover, Joseph and Nicodemus struggled with guilt and self-blame for not having done enough. As part of their penitence they decided to volunteer as undertakers and give Jesus a proper burial. Let the Council think what they want: they wanted to make a statement.

Near Golgotha was a new tomb in a garden. The awful and the awesome are often intertwined, but death should not blind us for the goodness of life.

 

4. The women at Calvary

In the history of a nation, women play a crucial role. Apart from renowned heroines, ordinary wives and mothers care for their families in the harshest times. Even at this moment, women in many countries have to help their families scrape through tough challenges forced on them by wars, disasters, droughts, and floods.

The women who served Jesus had the same kind of persevering tenacity. When Jesus released Mary Magdalene from seven demons, she showed her gratitude by serving Jesus and the Twelve from her own means. Shortly afterwards, others joined her ministry.

The Bible does not give details about the help they rendered, but apparently they traveled with Jesus and the Twelve and prepared food for them. They could not serve them if they were not with them. Using “their own means” most likely is a reference to food. Their support freed Jesus and the disciples to attend to the sick and the destitute.

Looking at the names of the women who were at Calvary, it is obvious that the three named above were later joined by others. Maybe they took turns in order not to neglect their own homes.

Although it was recorded that “many” women who followed Jesus from Galilee supported him during his ordeal, only four were identified. The lists of Matthew, Mark and John may look confusing, but with careful scrutiny we can identify them as: Mary (Jesus’ mother), Salome (Mary’s sister, who was also the mother of the disciples James and John), Mary (the wife of Clopas and the mother of James and Joses), and Mary Magdalene.

The Bible tells of three other women named Mary: the sister of Martha, the mother of Mark, and a woman in Rome to whom Paul sent greetings. These three are not included in the lists of names at Calvary and at the tomb.

John tells us that before noon, three women stood with Mary near the cross of Jesus. The other gospels say that they later watched from afar. Their feelings and the soldiers’ attitude could have caused the withdrawal. They stayed till the burial.

The presence of the serving women at Calvary, and the absence of 10 disciples, makes the devotion of these women all the more remarkable. It is not surprising that after his resurrection Jesus appeared to them first. Neither the cruellest execution nor the best guarded tomb could stop them.

We can hardly imagine what emotional pain they suffered by watching their dear Friend and Teacher on the cross, and by mourning his death that night and the next day. Against this backdrop, their joy must have been overflowing when they saw their resurrected Master on that Sunday morning, realizing: Jesus lives!

 

3. Standing near the cross

None can imagine what Mary felt in her innermost being while helplessly watching how her benevolent Son suffered innocently on the cross.

Shortly after the birth of Jesus, old Simeon warned Mary in the temple that a sword would pierce her soul. That prophecy was now becoming a cruel reality.

Maybe, for a few moments, her mind wandered back to all the expectations when her Son’s birth was announced by angels and celebrated by shepherds and wise men. All those dreams now lie scattered like broken pottery.

She realized how Elizabeth must have felt when her son, John the Baptist, was murdered by Herod two years ago. Both of them had such high hopes. Elizabeth and her unborn baby rejoiced that the mother of their Lord paid them a visit; Mary sang her magnificat about God’s goodness.

Today, there can be no song, not even a lament. Standing at the cross of her Son, she can only sob in silence. Wailing would only increase his emotional pain.

Except for John, the disciples are in hiding, fearing the enemy my round up the followers of Jesus to stamp out this group for good. The crowds that adored him are also absent. The hundreds he healed are not here today.

John holds Mary and allows her to weep with her head on his chest. His heart bleeds for her. They know that crucifixion is a slow death. Some victims suffer for more than one day. They hope and pray that Jesus’ suffering will be shortened, but they must be prepared for several long hours to come.

A whimper of Jesus makes them look up to him. He moves his lips as if he wants to say something.

Then he mutters, “Woman, there is your son.” Looking at John he adds, “There is your mother.”

In his moments of acute pain and agony, he is still providing for others. He has already forgiven his executioners, and opened heaven for the penitent robber. Now, he provides for his mother.

Sometimes we would like to do something for someone in need, but our own calamities make us postpone. If we wait till our circumstances are perfect, or until our help will be perfect, we will never do what we can do right now. Jesus provided for his mother despite his horrible circumstances.

In the time of Lent, we often think what we can give up as a token of thanksgiving for what Jesus gave up for us. Maybe we should also think of what we can give away to those who need it, as Jesus gave himself away for sinners who needed salvation.

He gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:6).

 

2. With two robbers, Jesus in the centre

Apart from his scoffing enemies, Jesus’ immediate company on Calvary were two robbers. In Greek, the same word is used for “robber” as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A robber was not a petit thief; they lurked along dark streets and deserted roads to overcome their victims with force, weapons, and violence, killing them if they showed too much resistance.

Isaiah’s prophecy was coming true that the Messiah would be numbered with the transgressors and would make intercession for them. All four gospels affirm that the crosses of the two robbers were placed alongside that of Jesus, one on his left and one on his right.

Jesus’ outstretched arms reached out to them and to the whole world: “Come to me, all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The reaction of the two robbers represented the response of the world: one accepted him, the other not.

At first, both robbers beseeched Jesus to save himself and them if he were the Christ.

However, it soon became clear that there was a profound difference between the two. The one kept on blaming others for his misfortune. Most likely, he blamed society for his poverty that spurred him into theft. The Romans would be blamed for arresting him and condemning him to death. To be punished so harshly indicates that he might have killed someone during a robbery.

Realizing death was imminent, he now blames Jesus for not rescuing him with a miraculous escape plan.

When their wish was not granted, the other one came to his senses. His life flashed by in his memory: his unhappy childhood, his delinquent youth, his involvement with gang activity, and his career as a cruel robber. He recalls how his victims pleaded for mercy when he lifted his club to knock them unconscious. The tables had turned. Now, he pleads for mercy in vain.

Realizing the darkness of death will soon engulf him, he turns his head in desperation to Jesus. “Jesus, to think of me when you come to your kingdom,” he mutters. He realized the truth about himself and Jesus, he repented and asked for mercy.

Jesus assured him that he will be with him in paradise that very day. The simple words bring a change in his innermost being. The pain of the wounds and the jeering of the mob fade as he tastes a totally new awareness in his soul.

“Today, in paradise? My miserable life will soon be over, replaced by something wonderful. I don’t fear death anymore. Thank you, Jesus, for peace of mind.”

He hears angels sing. There is joy in heaven when a sinner repents.

 

1. Come down, and we will believe

Public execution is so gruesome that western countries abandoned it more than a century ago, and later many regions even got rid of the death penalty.

The Romans crucified non-Romans for certain crimes—not to entertain the crowds, but to warn them about the fate of those who dare to violate Roman rule, scaring them into submission and compliance.

The Sanhedrin found Jesus guilty on the charge of blasphemy because he claimed to be the Son of God. They did not have the authority to execute a person; therefore, they manipulated the governor into a corner by stressing that Jesus presented himself as a king without Rome’s permission. So the Roman governor condemned Jesus to crucifixion for rebellion.

Thus the Jewish and Roman leadership got what they wanted for different reasons. Both factions concurred: Away with him to Calvary, the Place of the Skull!

The Roman soldiers, backed by the temple elite and their supporters, made up the majority of the people surrounding the Cross that changed the world.

All four gospels describe the gory scene. Only the apostle John was an eye-witness; the other gospel writers got their information from those who saw what happened. Each of the four records give some unique information, but they agree about the main sequence of events.

The crucifixion is described in only four words: there they crucified him. It was not necessary to fill in the detail—in the first century, everyone knew what death on a cross included.

The charge against him was written in three languages and posted above his head. As they nailed him to the Cross, Jesus prayed for his executioners, followed by the division of his clothes.

Then the insults of the Jewish leaders and the soldiers started. Even the thief on the cross next to Jesus joined in. The mocking took the form of a challenge: If you are who you claimed to be, come down from the cross, and we will believe in you. The scoffers did not expect that to happen; the taunting was meant to add insult to injury.

When Jesus stayed on the Cross, they concluded: He saved others but he can’t save himself. They did not realize that he did not come down from the Cross, because he was the atoning sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

Although Jesus’ supporters (Mary, John, one thief, and the women who served him) were a small minority, they stood their ground despite the taunting enemies.

The light broke through to one Roman: the centurion. Maybe he knew the centurion of Capernaum whose servant Jesus healed. When he saw what happened on Calvary, he said, “He was the Son of God.”

 

Plants in the Bible

Figs

Fig trees are common in Africa and the Middle East where they have been cultivated for millennia. Wild fig trees are found in tropical forests, where their fruit is cherished by a variety of birds and mammals.

Figs are actually the fig tree's flowers that gradually ripen to sweet delicacies. Wild figs are about cherry-sized; cultivated figs are heart-shaped and can be as large as peaches in spring.

Many fig species produce three crops: in spring, mid-summer, and late-summer. People enjoy figs in various forms: fresh ripe figs; green figs preserved in syrup; ripe figs canned as jam; and ripe figs dried individually or as a pulp spread in a thin layer on a tray.

The Old Testament refers to fig trees when either pointing to a time of plenty or to a time of want. Israel was promised fruitful vines and fig trees if they stayed loyal to their God, but unfaithfulness would end in failed crops for their vines and fig trees.

Sitting in the cool shade of one's own vine or fig tree during the hot hours of the day was seen as an epitome of peace and prosperity. When they started to serve idols, this luxury was taken from them.

Four fig tree stories dominate the New Testament record about this plant species.

 Jesus told a parable about a fig tree that got special attention but remained unfruitful. It stood in a vineyard and shared in the fertilizing, watering and weeding the vines received. The privileged but fruitless tree portrayed Israel's poor response to God's care. The owner wanted to cut the tree down, but the gardener suggested giving it another chance. If the tree did not respond to his efforts, he would chop it down the next year.

When Jesus searched in vain for figs on a roadside fig tree covered in leaves, he said that no one would ever eat from that tree. The tree withered right away. Although Mark says it was not the time for (ripe) figs, there should have been unripe figs on the tree, because early figs bud when the first leaves do. This tree portrays those who put up a show to impress others without bearing spiritual fruit.

When Jesus informed the disciples about the end-time, he said that as the budding fig tree shows summer is near, so the signs he gave them will show when the end-time is imminent.

The Book of Revelation also links the fig tree to the end-time. When the sixth seal was opened, John saw the sun turned black and the moon red while "stars" fell as late figs fall from a tree in strong wind.

Vines

The vine's stem is crooked and its branches sloppy, but with man's help it can climb up and make an attractive and shady pergola.

Vines flourish in rocky, well-drained, and calcium-rich soil where many other plants will struggle. On a hot summer day, a vineyard provides welcome shade and juicy grapes for the refreshment of the weary labourer.

From Noah's time grapes have been used to produce wine that makes the heart of man glad (Ps. 104). However, like most good things, wine can cause harm when abused (Prov. 23).

In the Bible, the vine is seen as a metaphor of God's kingdom. The prosperity and serenity of the Promised Land is portrayed as a place where everyone sits under his own vine and fig tree (Mic. 4, Zech. 3). These plants have large leaves that provide ample shade in Israel's hot climate. It symbolizes God's providence and protection against harmful influences.

In King Solomon's love song, he often refers to his "vineyard" as symbol of his beloved, while "wine" resembles their love and kisses. Her breasts remind him of grape clusters. In a happy family, the mother is painted as a fruitful vine and the children as young olive trees around the table (Ps. 128).

Israel's success in the time of King David and Solomon is described as a vine sending its branches out far and wide, climbing over the wall around the vineyard (Ps. 81). Their inability to stay the course is like a well-kept vine that rewards its diligent owner with sour grapes (Is. 5).

Jesus compared himself to a vine and his disciples as the branches that draw sap from the vine (John 15). When his followers stay in contact with him, they will bear much fruit to the glory of God.

Jesus also referred to the workers in the vineyard. The son who at first refuses to work in the vineyard, but then decides to comply, has done the father's will; the one who promises to work in the vineyard, but never does, has not done the father's will. With this parable Jesus stressed the uselessness of lip service.

God calls people to work in his vineyard at different times of their life; in the end they receive the same reward (Matt. 20).

For Jesus, Israel was like vinedressers who refuse to give the owner his share of the harvest; they even kill the messengers sent by the owner (Matt. 21).

 When Jesus instituted the Last Supper, he said that the cup pointed to his blood; he added that he would not drink of the fruit of the wine until the day he would drink it new in his Father's kingdom (Matt. 26).

Trees

Forests are called the lungs of the earth, but in fact lungs and plants are opposites. Lungs release carbon dioxide and take up oxygen; plants take up carbon dioxide and release oxygen.

Would you like to be a tree? Some live for more than thousand years and grow to over hundred feet tall. Their roots reach down to underground water, making them resilient.

The downside is they stand at the same spot all their lives, exposed to the elements: summer, winter, gales, hail, lightning and fire. That won’t be too bad in fertile soil and in a temperate climate, but to be rooted on a rocky ridge in freezing temperature will make life one long hardship.

The Bible compares people to trees. Those nourished by God’s word are like trees along a stream: they get enough moisture, nutrients and sunshine to be fruitful (Ps. 1). Those who find their strength in the house of the Lord will stay strong and fruitful even in old age, like palms and cedars (Ps. 92). In the New Jerusalem there will be a stream with fruitful, healing trees on its banks (Ezek. 47, Rev. 22), symbolizing the benevolent influence of believers in this life and the next.

Birds see trees as a safe haven for nesting and raising their young (Ps. 104). The kingdom of heaven is compared to a tiny mustard seed that grows to become a tree in which the birds nest. Likewise, believers should be a haven for the vulnerable.

Trees differ from one another. Good trees bear good fruit, and bad ones bad fruit. Their fruit not only differ in quality but also in type: grapes do not grow on thorn-bushes or figs on thistles. As trees are known by their fruit, so people are known by their deeds (Matt. 7).

Israel is compared to an olive tree (Rom. 11). Those who rejected Jesus as Messiah are like olive branches cut off from the cultivated olive tree. As a result, the gospel has been sent to the Gentiles, who have been grafted, like wild olive branches, onto the cultivated tree. Gentiles should not boast because they are carried by the roots of the cultivated tree. God may graft some severed branches back onto the original tree.

John the Baptist warned Israel against false security, thinking they are safe as children of Abraham. Not their physical blood-line but their spiritual response will show where they stand. The axe lay ready at the roots of the trees; those who do not bear the fruit of true repentance will be cut down (Matt. 3). Paul described the fruits of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5).

Grain

The Bible refers to grain, wheat and bread hundreds of times. Two thousand years before Christ, Abraham and Melchizedek, priest-king of Jerusalem, broke bread together (Gen. 14).

With the exodus, the Passover and Week of Unleavened Bread were instituted (Ex. 12). Later, the Feast of First Fruits was added three days after Passover (Lev. 23). Then the first sheaf of barley was brought as an offering. Fifty days later, Pentecost marked the end of the grain harvests.

Paul calls Jesus' resurrection the first fruits of those who died (1 Cor. 15). Fifty days after the crucifixion, the Holy Spirit came to live in believers. Three thousand accepted Christ as their Saviour—a great harvest indeed (Acts 2).

In the holy part of the temple was a table with show-bread, reminding the nation that God sustained them daily. God fed them with manna in the desert for forty years, teaching them that man does not live from bread alone but from all God's words (Deut. 8:3). When they entered the Promised Land and ate its bread, the manna stopped falling (Josh. 5:12).

Jesus compared himself to manna, saying that he is the bread of life. Those who ate manna died, but those who believe in him will have eternal life (John 6). On two occasions he fed thousands with a few loaves, showing that he is the source of true sustenance.

In his model prayer, Jesus taught his followers to trust God for their daily bread. He used bread and wine at the Last Supper to remind his disciples that he gave his body and blood for their salvation. By partaking of this sacrament, Christians even today indicate that they stand with Christ and accept his atoning sacrifice as all-sufficient for salvation.

In several of Jesus' parables, he explained spiritual truth by pointing to grain fields. As some seed fall on the road, rocky places, among thorns, or on good soil, so the word of God may also land in four kinds of people.

Although farmers may not fully understand the growth process, they sow the seed, watch it grow, and bring in the harvest. Likewise, we do not fully understand spiritual growth, but we must sow the seed of the gospel faithfully.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast mixed into the dough, changing its structure from the inside. Followers of Christ should also be a good influence in society, changing it from the inside like yeast and salt.

Satan tries to harm God's kingdom by sowing weeds among the wheat. The two will be separated in the last judgment. John the Baptist predicted that Christ will separate the wheat from the chaff, taking the wheat to his barn but burning the chaff.

 

Hot Topics

Religion and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The preamble of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms declares: "Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:" The words "whereas…founded upon" establish the preamble as the premise or foundation on which the Charter stands.

Some want the God-clause removed because it contradicts freedom of religion. Others admit that a power higher than the state is needed to protect us from abuse by the state. Others think that the God-clause recognizes the historical path by which our values have come.

Freedom of religion does not cancel or contradict the preamble, because freedom is not absolute. Rights and freedoms (e.g. speech) are limited by law and common sense. Minority rights do not cancel majority rights, because the Charter affirms that Canadian government follows democratic principles, of which majority rule is primary.

Governing bodies, the judiciary, business, education and the media should take into account that the majority of Canadians adhere to Christian faith. The Charter recognizes God — why then is God ignored in public life? It conflicts with the premise of the Charter, and may therefore be unconstitutional.

Some regard separate meetings for students with different religions as discriminatory. However, they do accept that separate facilities for different sexes, teams, classes, committees and caucuses are necessary. Why is the latter acceptable and the first not?

Many feel that majority rights are often sacrificed in favour of minority rights. By bending over backwards too far, we may become undemocratic: moving from majority to minority rule.

Christian prayer and song have been banned from public places to prevent offence to non-Christians. Did Canadians stop eating ham and bacon in public because it may offend some minorities? Should we stop serving up hotdogs and hamburgers at public barbeques when the meat is not acceptable to all? It is difficult to please all minorities: support for one group may offend others. Which group has priority? The Charter does not prioritize minorities; it only affirms the principles of democracy.

We should not miss the forest for the trees: Canada and its values form the big picture and must have first priority. All in Canada may exercise their rights and freedoms within the framework set by the majority through rule of law. Within the law, minorities can prescribe to their own but not to all.

The media and politicians depend on the support of the majority. Can they know what the majority wants? Unproven ideas about the majority may be biased. A reliable survey or census can determine majority preferences. Though the number of people without religion has increased, the 2001 census (Statistics Canada) showed that 77 per cent of people in Canada  were Christian. In elections, that is a considerable majority.

 

 

Reliability of the Bible text

Television documentaries have been casting doubts on the reliability of the text of the Bible. Selected commentary of Bible scholars are used to compile evidence that may make ordinary people question their basic beliefs — although the "evidence" is based on unproven theories.

One misleading theory is that some informative material has been edited out of the Bible in order to serve a specific view of God, Christ, Israel, and the church. The fact is that believers of the first centuries were not as naive and ignorant as some of today's scholars may think. Early believers could discern between facts and fiction. Just as today, there were factual records and fictional stories about historical figures. The early church included factual records in the Bible and eliminated the fictional stuff. Most of the so-called rejected gospels are nothing more than a handful of fragments, while the accepted gospels have been meticulously and completely copied and saved.

Another misleading theory is that the biblical text has been copied by hand repeatedly and that many errors have been carried over from one copy to the next, rendering current texts unreliable.

This theory was exposed as a gross exaggeration with the discovery of New Testament codices in the 19th century, and Old Testament books among the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Although the codices and scrolls were centuries older than the copies we had, only minute differences between the younger and older copies were found. Congratulations to those scribes who made exact copies by hand from 1500 BC to 1500 AD! When Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1453, mass reproduction of Bibles became possible.

Driven back from the Hebrew and Greek texts, the enemies try to attack the translations of the Bible. Fifty days after the crucifixion of Christ, at Pentecost, the Spirit came upon 120 believers who told the good news of salvation in different languages so that all pilgrims in Jerusalem could understand it. Although Christians spread the gospel in local languages, the translation of the Bible did not receive much attention until the 16th century. The medieval church believed that the priests should read the Bible in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and explain it to lay members.

When Martin Luther realized that faith in Christ is a very personal matter, he translated the Bible into German so that everyone in his country could read it. William Tyndale followed his example and translated the Bible into English, a favour he was executed for.

Some translations use the literal method (NKJV), while others use the free method (NIV). The first keeps us close to the original; the second gives the intended meaning in contemporary language. Using both enhances insight.

 

Discovering the historical Jesus

By challenging generally accepted views, people may become either famous or infamous. Some television channels claim to reveal secrets about historical figures, secrets few know about, except the maker of the program. The more revered the person, the keener the producer seems for bringing that person down to earth — for the entertainment of viewers.

It does not surprise that they have also attacked the person worshiped by two billion people as Saviour. However, this audacity is not new: In 1985, a group, called the Jesus Seminar, appointed themselves as judges to tell the world which parts of the gospels are feasible and which are not. They wanted to reconstruct the "historical" Jesus. When they were done, only a small part remained; the rest they pruned off as dead branches.

Currently, post-modern thinkers place question marks over fundamental Christian doctrine such as the virgin birth of Christ and his bodily resurrection. As time goes by they will chop off more and more.

These attacks are illogical and inconsistent. They first discredit the truthfulness of the gospels, and then use the same gospels to prove their point of view. When you cut off the branch on which you sit, you have no branch to sit on: you fall to the ground.

Several books were written to either support or oppose the Jesus Seminar. In his book, "The Jesus I never knew," Philip Yancey reasons that the "sweet Jesus" taught in Sunday school is not the whole truth about Christ. The Jesus of the gospels was sometimes very strict, telling his disciples they can't follow him without carrying their crosses. He scolded the Pharisees for being hypocrites, blind fools, serpents and whitewashed tombs.

Actually, not one of the gospels gives a full report on Jesus: a harmony of the four gospels brings us the nearest to that ideal. Therefore, I put the gospels side by side when I wrote "Jesus, the full report," later republished as "The Yoke of Yeshua."

A harmony of the gospels shows how events followed one another. It gives a clearer picture than Jesus-films which sometimes put early events near the end of the story and so confuse viewers about the flow of the narrative. The various sources I used show a high degree of consensus regarding the order of events in the gospels.

The real Jesus is described by the four gospels in the Bible, not by the fragments of ancient fiction, or by the imagination of critical modern scholars. The gospels affirm and compliment one another. God gave us four consistent viewpoints of his Son, and together they contain the full report on Jesus Christ: the facts and truth necessary for salvation.

 

The 4 Witnesses

4. Anger replaced by love and service

Mark, Matthew and Luke portrayed Christ as king, prophet and priest respectively. John painted him as the Son of God.

John tells us that the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John at the Sea of Galilee, as described in the synoptic gospels, was not their first encounter with Jesus. Andrew and John had been disciples of the Baptiser before they followed the man called the Lamb of God (John 1:35-42). Peter, Philip and Nathanael soon joined them. They attended a wedding feast in Cana, witnessing the first miracle: water turned to wine.

While the other gospels focused on Christ's ministry in Galilee, Perea and the last week in Jerusalem, John tells about several visits to Judea and the Holy City. As John was probably the youngest disciple, free of family responsibilities, he could have gone with Jesus to Jerusalem several times.

Most scholars assume that John wrote his gospel about 20 years later than the rest, so he did not have to repeat what was already known, except when he wanted to make a point. About 85% of John's gospel is not found in the other gospels.

John became known as the apostle of love: he emphasized agape-love in his gospel and epistles. However, that's not where he started. Jesus called John and James "Boanerges" (sons of thunder), because of their hot tempers. They wanted to pray down fire from heaven on a town that refused accommodation to Jesus.

Jesus opened John's eyes, causing a complete turn-around of his life. The truth Jesus stressed to Nicodemus entered John's heart too: one must be born again by the Spirit before one can understand God's kingdom.

John was keenly interested in the relationship between Jesus and the Father; therefore he remembered teachings of Jesus in this regard. He starts his gospel with the reality of Christ's pre-existence: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Like the Father, Jesus had power to raise people from spiritual death now, as well as their bodies on the last day (John 5). Therefore, Jesus stated that he and the father are one: whoever has seen him has seen the Father (John 10, 14). With "I am" statements Jesus described himself as bread, water, light, a door, a shepherd, a vine and as "the way, the truth and the life."

He revealed his true identity very personally to Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, Martha and Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter and Thomas. John wants all believers to say from the heart like Thomas: "My Lord and my God."

 For more on the gospel writers and their gospels (with questions for small groups) visit messiahstudy.net.

 

 

3. A physician researches the life of Christ 

 

It is quite a story — how Luke, the Greek doctor, met Paul, the Jewish missionary, and became involved in writing the story of Christ and the early church. Paul had to change his traveling plans repeatedly before he reached Troas where the Trojan War played out 12 centuries before. Paul needed medical attention, and the doctor needed the gospel. They met each other's needs and became friends. Months later, Luke joined Paul on his way to Jerusalem. Paul was imprisoned for two years. Luke contacted people who witnessed the deeds and words of Jesus. He added about 41% new data not recorded by Mark and Matthew.

Apart from the Christmas story, only Luke tells us about the following: the widow of Nain; the sinful woman who anointed Jesus; the women who served Jesus; the Martha and Mary episode; the division brought by Jesus; the crippled woman; Jesus warned against Herod; the ten lepers; Zacchaeus the tax-collector; Jesus praying for Peter; Jesus before Herod; the women on the way to Calvary; and the appearance of Jesus to Peter and the two of Emmaus.

Luke also saved many parables for us: the good Samaritan; the helpful friend; the rich fool; the barren fig tree; the front seats; calculating the cost of discipleship; the lost sheep, coin, and son; the unjust steward; the rich man and Lazarus; the unworthy servant; the judge and the widow; and the Pharisee and tax-collector.

Jesus' example as well as Luke's career as a physician opened his eyes for the plight of women in that time. Women were part of the Christmas story; Jesus healed many of them, and included them in his parables; and a few women served Jesus from their own means wherever he went.

Luke was also struck by the merciful attitude of Jesus. Some parables, like those about the Prodigal and the Samaritan, demonstrate compassion. The repentant tax-collector's prayer was heard, but not that of the haughty Pharisee. In the Last Judgement, those who showed mercy will be rewarded: whatever we did to the least will be counted as done to Jesus.

By referring more than the other gospels to the prayer life of Jesus, Luke portrayed him as priest. Jesus' calling of the disciples and his meeting with Moses and Elijah on the mount were preceded by prayer. He taught his followers the Lord's Prayer. He prayed for Peter to keep faith. In his struggle in Gethsemane he prayed; on the cross he prayed for his executioners; and committed his spirit to the Father with a prayer.

If Luke did not research the life of Christ and put it in writing, Christianity would have missed a lot. Modest inputs may bear much fruit.

 

2. A sinner is called to repentance 

 

People hate taxes. They know taxes are necessary for the common good, but people give grudgingly when local, provincial or national governments take their money. In the time of Jesus, the negative feelings were even extended to those who gathered the taxes. Because tax-collectors squeezed more than they should from the public they were rejected. So, they associated with other sinners. Why would Jesus call one of these to be his disciple?

What Matthew heard about the preacher and healer of Capernaum awakened a yearning in his real self for a radical change of lifestyle. When Jesus stopped at his booth, looked him in the eye, and invited him to follow, Matthew did not have to think it over. He was ready.

Although Matthew did not become one of the inner circle as Peter, John and James had, he was not a passive follower. He invited his new and old friends to a meal, hoping that some of his old friends would join his new friends.

The religious leaders, concerned about Jesus' popularity and his deviation from Pharisaic teaching, especially healing on the Sabbath, watched his moves closely. They complained about his outreach to sinners. Jesus' answer was sweet music to Matthew: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

Matthew soon realized the importance of Jesus' messages, and as a literate person he decided to keep notes. Years later, when he read a copy of Mark's gospel, Matthew got a bright idea: his notes of what Jesus said would be a valuable addition to Mark's story that focused on the deeds of Jesus.

By adding many sayings of Jesus to the gospel record, Matthew portrayed him as prophet. The Sermon on the Mount, several parables, guidelines for his disciples on their mission, his repudiation of the Pharisees, and his prophecies on the end time are the main lessons of Jesus that Matthew handed down to us. Matthew added 45% new data.

As a saved sinner, Matthew portrayed Jesus as the Saviour. He started his book with the angel's message that the Child had to be called Jesus (Yeshua), meaning "the salvation of the LORD."

Matthew emphasized the mercy of Christ by quoting Isaiah's messianic prophecy: a bruised reed he will not break and a smoking flax he will not quench. Aware that he was saved by Christ's mercy, Matthew identifies himself as "the tax-collector" where he names the twelve disciples.

Matthew brought his wicked past to Jesus and was relieved of this heavy burden.

 

1. A rejected stone becomes a capstone

Mark grew up in Jerusalem, a city steeped in history spanning millennia. He played where Abraham, David, Solomon, and the kings of Judea walked. Mark lived in the time of Jesus Christ. The upper room where the Last Supper took place was probably in the home of his mother Mary (Acts 12:12).

Sensing his mother's concern about Jesus' safety, Mark secretly followed Master and disciples at night to Gethsemane on the Olive Mountain. He saw his arrest, and spied to see where they were taking him. Spotted and grabbed by a guard, Mark left his linen cloth in the man's hands and fled. This episode is recorded only in Mark's gospel (Mark 14:51-52) .

About fifteen years later, the lad had become a man. He accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Antioch from where they set off on the first missionary journey. After they had traveled through Cyprus, Mark decided in Perga to return to Jerusalem. He might have been concerned about his mother. Paul felt Mark let them down, so he refused to take him along on his second journey (Acts 13:13, 15:36-40). Many years later, when Paul was a captive in Rome, he showed in his letters that he and Mark had been reconciled, and that Mark made a terrific comeback (Col. 4:10, 2 Tim. 4:11).

Mark made his greatest contribution to Christianity when he produced the first written account of Jesus' life as told to him by the apostle Peter. Like Jesus, Mark was a rejected stone that became a capstone.

Paul asked Timothy to bring Mark to Rome, and Peter confirmed that Mark was with him in that city (1 Pet. 5:13). In AD 65, Mark was about fifty years old and Peter in his late sixties. Realizing the eyewitnesses of Christ's work will soon be gone, they decided to put Peter's memoirs in writing. Future generations would then have a reliable source of information.

Mark's gospel is thus actually Peter's. They focused on those events Peter knew first hand. Chapters 1 to 9 cover Christ's 2.5 year ministry in Galilee; Chapter 10 gives a glimpse of his work in Perea (last six months); and Chapters 11-16 describes Jesus' last week in Jerusalem.

Although the four gospels recorded as many miracles as parables, Peter and Mark recount three times more miracles than parables. They wrote for Roman Christians for whom deeds were more important than words. They portrayed Christ as the humble but triumphant king.

They stressed the fast pace of events by using the word "immediately" 36 times. They often referred to the emotional reaction of the disciples. Attention to detail, and explaining Jewish customs and words, confirm it is an eyewitness report.

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