Thursday, December 22, 2011

500 Posts

I recently passed a milestone on this blog: My post about Matthew 28:16–20 was my 500th post. (I probably should have posted this “milestone” post one post ago, except I figured I’d rather put up the Matthew Summary first.)

It’s kind of odd to me that my Bible Blog has now reached 500 posts while my “main blog” has become practically dormant. I guess I just don’t have much to say these days—and what I do have to say I’m saying on Google+ or Twitter or Yammer or LinkedIn—whereas this Bible Blog is much more targeted, and therefore leads itself to sustained use. (Well… except for a long period of almost a year where I posted close to nothing…)

I never mentioned it at the time, but I first started this blog in response to a series on Slate. David Plotz decided to work his way through the Bible and blog about it piece by piece. (I forget if he was doing it chapter by chapter, book by book, or on some other schedule; I lost track of his series after a few posts. There is a link in Slate to the series which doesn’t work, but Plotz’ summary can be found here. I believe he was only going through what Christians call the Old Testament, though, not the New Testament.) Plotz was purposely approaching the Bible as “a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic” (his words), rather than as a believing Christian or a believing Jew. In the end, Plotz decided that everyone should read the Bible—although, from my perspective, for the wrong reasons. You see, the Bible has been at the center of Western thought since it was written, and so much of the way we think and even the phrases we use come straight from the Bible; Plotz argues that reading the Bible will help us to understand where these things come from. He gives a bunch of examples in that summary post, things like “the writing on the wall,” or the first person to put a dummy in a bed to fool people into thinking a person was there, or who Jezebel was and why her name has become a byword for “bad women” in our culture.

But as for belief, Plotz says this:

You notice that I haven’t said anything about belief. I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn’t really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I’m brokenhearted about God.

After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.

So Plotz approached the Bible as a non-believer, and left the Bible still a non-believer.

When I first saw Plotz’ posts about blogging through the Bible, I thought that a believing Christian should do the same. Someone who could go through the Bible not just looking at the literary merits or cultural significance, but at the spiritual significance of the events unfolding throughout the book (from a Christian perspective). I didn’t envision this as a response to Plot’ series; I wasn’t thinking of trying to argue against Plotz or anything. And I’m not trying to argue against him here, either; as a non-believer of course he’d have a different perspective on his biblical readings from a believing Jew, who in turn would have a very different perspective from a believing Christian. I simply envisioned this blog (or maybe wiki—that was my first idea, at the time) as a resource by Christians for Christians.

I personally wasn’t going to do it, however, because I don’t know enough about the Bible. I’m no biblical scholar, and without resources like the ESV Study Bible or the NIV New Student Bible or other online commentaries I know nothing more than what is on the page in front of me. So I surely wasn’t going to write something that would be an authoritative resource for other Christians. Not that I think you have to be a scholar to write about the Bible, of course, but I think there is a big difference between a non-believer blogging through the Bible vs. a person who believes that the Bible is the divine Word of God—a person who bases his/her very belief on this book. I think if you’re going to write a resource for others on a book which you consider to be a central source of truth, you should know what you’re talking about. (After all, if you believe the book is true, and then you misinterpret part of it, wouldn’t you be leading people astray?)

And then I just decided to go ahead and blog through the Bible for myself. After all, I’m a Christian, so I should be reading this book on a regular basis anyway. Why not create a diary of what I’ve read? And we all know that writing down what we study and giving it some structure helps us to understand it better, so blogging my way through the Bible would be especially useful to me. So the word “diary” is an important one; this is simply a chronicle of my journey through the Bible, not an authoritative source for others to come and get wisdom. I may be getting things wrong, occasionally. (Hopefully not often!) That being said, the vast majority of comments that come to this blog are of the “thanks for your resource” variety, so if people are getting use out of it, I’m glad.

Like Plotz, when I first started reading my plan was to go through cover to cover, Genesis to Revelation. I got as far as I Samuel and started to get very bogged down; as a Christian, I need to sprinkle some New Testament readings into my Old Testament readings. So I decided to follow a reading plan that came with my old NIV New Student Bible, which had a three year plan for reading through the Bible alternating between Old and New Testaments. (Obviously it would take me longer than three years to get through it; it took me over a year just to get through Matthew!) So I’m currently playing catch up; I just finished Matthew, and I need to get all the way through John before I go back to alternating between Old and New Testaments. (I still haven’t figured out how I want to tackle Psalms or Proverbs; I used to worry about that, but it’ll be years before I get there anyway so I’ve still got lots of time to think about the format for those posts.)

So I’ll continue blogging my way through until I’m called home or I finish. (And if I finish, I’ll have to decide if I want to start over and do it again…)

Again, though, let me stress that I have nothing against David Plotz, nor against his idea of blogging his way through the Bible. Quite the opposite, I applaud his effort. I’m writing about him because he was the original catalyst for starting this blog, but not because I want to “call him out” or argue these points with him. I would very much expect any non-believer to disagree with me (or Christians in general) on interpretation of many passages in the Bible, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that Plotz sees God as “awful, cruel, and capricious” from his point of view. Obviously I disagree with that, and my reading of the Old Testament through a Christian’s eyes is a large part of why I disagree with him. He says that he sees moments of “sublime beauty and grace,” and “Grace”—the Christian definition of Grace—is exactly why we disagree on interpretation of the Bible, especially the Old Testament.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Matthew Summary

The entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is the story of God and of the Son, Jesus Christ, but obviously the New Testament is more directly about Jesus than the Old Testament. It’s in the New Testament that He is born, and then gives his life for us and raises himself from the dead; the event which completely changes God’s relationship with His people. The religion of the Old Testament, on the surface, seems like every other religion in the world: Do what God says and He will reward you, don’t do what He says and He will punish you. To the casual reader it really seems like a “works” religion like any other; you “earn” your favour with God by keeping His commandments. But then Jesus arrives and shows us explicitly what was only implicit in the Old Testament: We can’t keep God’s demands perfectly (which is how He demands them to be kept), which means that no matter how hard we try we are all in danger of God’s wrath. And then Jesus solves the problem for us by dying on our behalf, taking the punishment and wrath that was due to be lavished out on us, paying our way into God’s presence. This is called God’s Grace: we didn’t deserve it, but He did it for us anyway. Of course Jesus also shows us that this Grace was required even in the Old Testament, and God’s people back then couldn’t buy their way into His favour any more than we can.

The books which are the most directly about Jesus, of course, are the four Gospels, which tell of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Since it’s the first book of the New Testament, Matthew may very well be one of the more commonly read books of the Bible, and it’s definitely not a bad place to start because Matthew includes a lot of details about Jesus’ life, miracles, and teachings. (According to a comparison chart I found online it looks like Matthew is probably the most complete Gospel—followed closely by Luke—although it’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison like that since each of the Gospels picks and chooses which episodes from Jesus’ life to chronicle.)

If I were more of a biblical scholar (or one at all) I’d probably be able to write about how Matthew differs from the authors of the other three Gospels, but I’m afraid my knowledge is not that deep. One post I found summed it up as well as any other; my paraphrasing would be:
  • Matthew: Focuses on Jesus as King, fulfilling the promises in the Old Testament regarding the Messiah
  • Mark: Action-packed version of the Gospel story, telling of Jesus the servant—willing to suffer and die for the sake of others
  • Luke: Focuses on the human side of Jesus, a man who was willing to make time for anyone, regardless of their state or stature in society
  • John: Focuses on Jesus as God, “written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31 (ESV))
That being said, because the four authors of the Gospels had four different perspectives, and even four different specific reasons for writing their books, one finds that different aspects of Jesus’ story are told in the four different books, and sometimes even the same story will have a different slant from book to book. Therefore it’s usually helpful to look at the notes in your Bible to find the same story in the other three Gospels, and read it in the different versions. (I think most Bibles have these types of linkages; at the very least study Bibles do.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Matthew 28:16–20

Matthew 28:16–20 (ESV): The Great Commission

Synopsis

Jesus has now risen from the dead, and appeared to Mary and Mary, who were instructed to tell the disciples that they would see Jesus again in Galilee. Apparently the message was more complex than that, though, because in this passage we are told that Jesus told the disciples to go to a particular mountain, which is where they have now gone.

When they see Jesus they worship him, although “some” doubt (verse 17 (ESV)). Jesus then gives them what we now call “the great commission”:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (verses 18–20 (ESV))

Thoughts

When we read in verse 17 (ESV) that “some doubted,” of course we all think of Thomas. I don’t know if Matthew is specifically thinking of Thomas here or if there were other, less vocal doubters as well.

The “great commission” is a pretty famous passage, so I don’t know that I’ll say anything here that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, but here are the thoughts that jump out at me when reading this:

First of all, Jesus tells the disciples that all authority has been given to him, and then says therefore we should go and make disciples of all nations. Why should we go and make disciples? Because all authority has been given to him! Some thoughts just on this piece:

The whole reason we’re giving the gospel in the first place is that God deserves to be worshiped, because He is Lord and Master over all. If Jesus didn’t have “all authority in heaven and on earth” then He wouldn’t be worth worshipping, and we wouldn’t bother to make disciples. Like everything else we try to make giving the gospel about us instead of about God, but we’re simply tools, He is the reason we’re giving the gospel in the first place.

He is also the one who saves people, not us. Don’t be fooled by the phrasing in verse 19 where he tells us to go and “make disciples,” we give the gospel, we plant the seeds, but it’s Him who saves. Some of the seeds we sow will land on hard ground, some will start to grow but get choked by the worries of life, and others will take root and grow into real, saving faith; when it does, it’s not because we caused it, it’s because He did. We are “making disciples” in the sense that when someone is saved, we are to be training them how to live as Christians, who God is and who we are in relation to Him, etc. Remember that “disciple” loosely means “follower” or “student” so “making disciples” is more than just giving them the Gospel; it’s also training them in the faith once they have believed in God.

The first point gives us a reason to spread the gospel, and the second point should take some of the pressure off of us; since it’s His power that saves, not our gospel presentation or amazing oratory skills, it means that we just need to do our best and leave it up to Him. The greatest evangelists of all time have given the gospel to people who rejected it, and people who’ve had no skills at all have given the gospel—however falteringly, however stutteringly—to people who have received it with great joy and been saved. Not that I’m saying that we can “slack off,” and not put any thought into our gospel presentations, if there are things we can work at of course we should work at them, and try to do better, just like anything else. But we should also do so without undue pressure; just like anything else we do for God, we do the legwork and then allow Him to accomplish His purposes.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Matthew 28:11–15

Matthew 28:11–15 (ESV): The Report of the Guard

Synopsis

In a previous passage the religious leaders had worried that someone might steal Jesus’ body and fraudulently claim that he’d risen from the dead, so they took steps to have the tomb sealed and put a contingent of guards there to guard it and prevent that from happening. However, as we know, Jesus actually did rise from the dead, and his body really is gone from the tomb.

So in this passage some of the guards go and report to the religious leaders what has happened. At this point the religious leaders decide to double down: they bribe the guards, and tell them that if anyone asks, the guards should tell them that his disciples really did come and steal Jesus’ body. They also let the guards know that if the governor hears about it the religious leaders will keep the guards out of trouble.

The guards take the money and do as they’re told, and, “… this story has been spread among the Jews to this day” (verse 15 (ESV)—and these days I’d say it’s not just among the Jews, but probably all people).

Thoughts

When the guards went to the Jewish religious leaders and told them what had happened, I have to assume that they told them the entire story; that there was an angel, and that Jesus had walked out of the tomb in person. Maybe they might have downplayed how scared they were at the sight of the angel, that would be human nature, but they’d have to be able to explain how Jesus’ body got past them. So this just makes me wonder all the more: What were the religious leaders thinking when they made this plan? And I don’t mean “what were they thinking” in the metaphorical “they’re so stupid” way we use that phrase today; I mean literally, what were they thinking? Did they assume the guards were lying? If so, then how did they think the body got past the guards, without, at the very least, a battle happening? (These were Roman soldiers, after all.) And if they thought that the guards were telling the truth, and that Jesus really did rise from the dead, then what did they expect to accomplish by attempting this cover-up? I know this probably isn’t the expected Christian response to passages like this, but I sometimes get caught up in the logistics of the situation more than the morality; it seems self-evident that it was wrong for them to lie about this, but I’m more concerned with what they hoped to accomplish by doing it…

The ESV Study Bible points out that the guards would have been in danger of execution for dereliction of duty, and says that this was the guards’ motivation for going along with the religious leaders. I’m not so convinced, though; if they go along with the religious leaders’ story, wouldn’t that make them more in dereliction of their duty? They couldn’t even stop a couple of measly disciples of Jesus?!? What kind of soldiers were these? But I guess the story about being confronted by a heavenly being wouldn’t go over that much better; people would assume that they were lying. In either event, it’s win-win to go along with the religious leaders’ plan: there is the promise of intervention with the governor—so no execution—and the bribe money on top of that.

As for the fact that the story has spread “to this day” (technically, to the “day” that Matthew wrote this book, but I’m sure it’s still believed), it doesn’t surprise me at all that a story like this would spread because it just seems to make more sense than the truth. Imagine that a controversial figure died, and then a few days later you started hearing two conflicting stories:
  1. He rose from the dead! But he’s not here anymore, he went to heaven, so you can’t see him.
  2. Some of his followers stole the body, and claimed he rose from the dead.
I’d believe the second one, and I’m sure most of my readers would too. Anyone who isn’t saved who reads this passage would probably think that the story that was spread was actually more realistic than what Matthew claims really happened; they might even think that Christians are foolish for believing this, when a more believable story is given us right there in the passage.

Jesus rising from the dead was an unusual event, and we’re sometimes in danger of forgetting how incredible this story is because we’re simply too used to it; at the very least we hear about it every year (at Easter), and many of us probably read it more often than that in our own devotional time. Just like we can get too used to the fact that Jesus came to earth in the first place, because we hear about it over and over at Christmas, but we start to lose sight of the fact that this is God, come to earth as a human. The birth of Jesus and the death (and resurrection) of Jesus are probably the two most amazing events that have ever happened, or will ever happen, in the history of… of history! We should not let these stories wash over us, and lose their impact.

For similar reasons, I don’t necessarily blame people who are not Christians for disbelieving these stories. They are incredible stories—that is, they’re stories that are not credible. They’re outside the realm of what’s actually possible in the physical universe; only God could cause such things (and other miracles in the Bible) to happen, and one has to believe in a God who is bigger than physics to believe such stories are true. If you are confronted with people who don’t believe these stories are true, try not to get worked up about it; I understand your frustration, but I also very much understand where those people are coming from. So instead of—or in addition to—trying to convince people that these stories are real, let us also live lives that are so pleasing to God that people will start to ask us how or why we’re living the way that we do. Let’s set examples for people, and spread the Gospel through not only our words, but also our deeds.

Let us, in other words, be Christians.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Matthew 28:1–10

Matthew 28:1–10 (ESV): The Resurrection

Synopsis

In the last passage Jesus died, but in this passage he rises again from the dead.

It begins with Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (verse 1 (ESV)) going to see the tomb, but when they get there they instead find an angel sitting on the stone, which he has rolled away from the tomb with a great earthquake. (It’s unclear from verses 1–2 (ESV)—at least it’s unclear to me—if the two Marys are there when the earthquake happens, or whether they approach to find the angel already sitting there waiting for them.) The guards are still there, too, but they’re so afraid of the angel that they have become “like dead men” (verse 4 (ESV)).

However, the women don’t need to be afraid, and the angel tells them so. He tells them that Jesus has risen, and invites them into the tomb to see the spot where his body had been lying. They are then to go and tell the disciples that Jesus has risen, and that they will see him again in Galilee.

So they leave the tomb “with fear and great joy” (verse 8 (ESV)), but before they even reach the disciples Jesus meets and greets them. They come up to Jesus and, taking hold of his feet, worship him. He tells them again that they should not be afraid, and re-instructs them to go and tell his brothers to go to Galilee where they will see him.

Thoughts

One thing I notice about this passage is the multiple times the two Marys are told not to be afraid; the first time it’s obvious why they would be afraid—pretty much any time anyone in the Bible sees an angel they’re filled with fear—but especially interesting is the second time, once they’ve left the angel and are now seeing—and touching!—Jesus personally. Yet, he still tells them not to be afraid, which is a pretty clear indicator that they probably are. I don’t know what, exactly, they’re still afraid of, though. Is this residual fear, from seeing the angel? Is it residual fear from not knowing what happened to Jesus, or what would happen to his disciples? Is it simple fear at seeing a man who had recently been dead?

Speaking of which, when Jesus raises from the dead the Gospels make sure to mention him being touched by various people; this is not the ghost of Jesus they’re seeing, it’s actually him. He is no longer dead, he’s alive—and always well be.

It’s interesting that the empty tomb, and proof that Jesus is alive, is first discovered by the two Marys—a couple of women. At the time women would not have been considered to be reliable witnesses, and some people take this as further proof of the truth of the story in the Gospels; that if Matthew were making this up, he wouldn’t have written the story such that Jesus was discovered by a couple of women, he would have had the discovery made by men. I don’t consider that an extremely compelling argument on its own, but it is an interesting point nonetheless and combined with other evidence for the truth of the Word, it is one more piece of evidence.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Matthew 27:57–66

Matthew 27:57–66 (ESV): Jesus’ burial

Synopsis

In the last passage Jesus died on the cross and the temple curtain was torn in two. This passage begins that evening, when one of Jesus’ disciples—Joseph of Arimathea—comes to Pilate to request Jesus’ body. Pilate has it handed over to Joseph, who places it in is own, new tomb, over which he places a large stone. Joseph then goes away.

However, at this point the religious leaders start to second guess themselves; they remember how Jesus had mentioned that he would rise three days after his death, and they are now afraid that someone will come and steal the body and claim that this has happened. So they want Pilate to make the tomb secure, to prevent the body from being stolen, and Pilate gives them some soldiers to guard the tomb and make it secure. They do this, even going so far as to put a seal on the tomb.

Thoughts

I don’t really have much to say about this passage. It has a taste of irony to it since the religious leaders are so afraid of someone stealing Jesus’ body and claiming that he’s risen from the dead, whereas in the next passage Jesus is going to actually rise from the dead—no stealing is necessary.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Matthew 27:45–56

Matthew 27:45–56 (ESV): The Death of Jesus

Synopsis

This account gives a fairly straightforward telling of Jesus’ death on the cross. It starts with a period of darkness that comes over the land, from noon until three in the afternoon. At that point Jesus calls out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which Matthew tells us means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The ESV Study Bible notes point out that the last two words were Aramaic (the language Jesus would have spoken normally), but they don’t know the language of the first two words; evidently some of the people around don’t know the language, either, because they assume that Jesus is calling Elijah.

One of them gets some “sour wine,” fills a sponge with it, and uses a stick to hand it to Jesus to drink. (Don’t worry about the name “sour wine,” it’s not as bad as it sounds. The ESV Study Bible notes indicate that sour wine was simply cheaper than “regular” wine, and quenched thirst better.) The bystanders then stand by to see if Elijah will come to save Jesus—which is what they’re assuming Jesus would have called Elijah for—but Jesus cries out one last time and then dies, and the whole earth seems to feel that death:

And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (verses 51–54 (ESV))
We are told that there are also some women at the scene, looking on from a distance, who had been following Jesus.

Thoughts

The ESV Study Bible notes point out that the darkness which fell over the land during Jesus’ crucifixion could not have been a solar eclipse, since Passover took place during a full moon and a solar eclipse only takes place during a new moon, so this must have been a supernatural event.

One of the mysteries of the Bible which we can’t fully or properly understand is how Jesus could be fully God but also fully man. We’ve already seen instances where God knew information that Jesus didn’t have (such as in Chapter 24 when Jesus says that the Father knows when the end will be but that He, the Son, does not), which always blows me away—the idea of Jesus not knowing something is a mind-bender—and now we see something happen to Jesus that has never happened to anyone else: God forsakes Him. A lot of people forsake God, and a lot of people say that they don’t sense or feel Him being close, but whether they sense it or not God is always there, always with us, always present. Nobody has ever lived this life, or even part of it, outside the presence of God, whether they recognize it or not. But for these three hours, Jesus did. While the Father poured His wrath out on the Son, He turned His back on Jesus, and was absent from Jesus in a way that He has never been absent from anyone else. (In this life; I don’t pretend to know what it’s like when someone who is not saved dies.)

The simple absence of God would have been enough to make Jesus suffer, but unfortunately that wasn’t the extent of his suffering on the cross; the main torture for Jesus was the suffering of being punished for untold sins for untold Christians, the Father’s wrath being poured out on Him instead of the people who deserved them.

When Jesus dies a number of dramatic things happen—earthquakes and the dead rising—but one is very interesting: the curtain in the temple tears in two. Some background:

Within the temple there is a section called the Holy Place, which has some rules on who is allowed to enter and under what conditions, and within that is a section called the Most Holy Place, which is even more restrictive: nobody is ever allowed to enter the Most Holy Place except for the high priest, and even he is only allowed to enter on one particular day of the year—the Day of Atonement—to offer a specific sacrifice. It is, quite literally, the most holy place: It represents the actual dwelling place of God. If the temple is God’s house, then the Most Holy Place is where He is actually sitting; it’s where you would go to see Him face to face. We know that God isn’t physically restricted to that physical place, He is everywhere, but in a symbolic sense that place is where God is.

At least… that’s how it was in the Old Covenant world, but the curtain which tears in two in this passage is the curtain which separates the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. This is symbolic, and very important, for the Christian: it signifies that we no longer have separation from God. Jesus’ death on the cross hasn’t just saved us from punishment, it’s done even more than that: it’s made it possible for us to enter into God’s presence in a way that Old Testament Israelites never could have. (The ESV Study Bible suggests that we look at Hebrews 9:11–10:22 (ESV) for an in-depth explanation of what is happening here.)

After this passage Jesus is going to be dead for three days, and is then going to rise. I do not even pretend to know what’s going on during that three days while Jesus is dead, what is happening or what its significance is. (It’s details like this that made me hesitate before starting a Bible blog in the first place; I’m sure someone who’s been to preacher school would know things like this…)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Matthew 27:32–44

Matthew 27:32–44 (ESV): The Crucifixion

Synopsis

In the last passage Jesus was tried, and, although not actually found guilty, sentenced for execution anyway, on the basis of the crowd’s reaction. (Comparisons to American Idol anyone?)

The soldiers now take Jesus for his crucifixion, and, coming across a man named Simon, have him carry Jesus’ cross (probably because Jesus is no longer in any kind of shape to do it himself, having been scourged and then beaten some more). Later on they offer him some wine mixed with gall to drink (probably another form of mockery, since the ESV Study Bible notes indicate that “gall” is “a bitter herb that could even be poisonous”), but after a taste Jesus refuses to drink it.

They then crucify Jesus, along with two robbers, writing out his charge (“This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (verse 37 (ESV)) over his head, and then cast lots (probably similar to tossing dice) for his clothes, and then sit down to keep watch over him.

Then the mocking gets back underway; people walking by start to deride Jesus, saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (verse 40 (ESV)), meaning that obviously word of Jesus’ trial has gotten out. The religious leaders also mock Jesus in a similar way, although the wording is particular interesting:

So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (verses 41–43 (ESV))
Even the robbers crucified with Jesus get in on the act, and mock him with the others.

Thoughts

In a way, along with the actual crucifixion of Jesus, a main theme of this passage is the continuation of the mocking that he had been enduring in the last passages; everyone is mocking Jesus at this point. “He calls himself the Messiah, and there he is hanging on a cross! Some Messiah!” And in a sense, I understand where they’re coming from; they’re judging Jesus based on their own misunderstandings of who the Messiah would be, and what he would do. They expected the Messiah to be a political leader who would free them from the Romans; by that yardstick, obviously Jesus seemed like a huge disappointment. I’d like to think that his disciples were starting to get the idea that Jesus’ ministry was different from the political one people had been expecting, but even they are confused by this turn of events; seeing Jesus on the cross wasn’t what they expected either.

If you follow along with your bible’s footnotes, you’ll see lots of references to the Old Testament in this passage, since a number of the things that happen here are fulfillments of prophecies that were made earlier. i.e.:There are also a couple more instances in this passage of Matthew giving only the facts which he considers relevant, while other Gospel writers give more detail. For example, in John 19:19–22 (ESV) we are told that it was actually Pilate who wrote the inscription to go above Jesus’ head (and that the religious leaders weren’t happy about it), and in Luke 23:39–43 (ESV) we are told that only one of the robbers crucified with Jesus was mocking him; although John lumps them together, in Luke we are told that one of the robbers actually stands up for Jesus—and is saved from his sins! (Obviously deathbed confessions leading to salvation are possible, although I don’t recommend anyone counts on it; by that point, for most people, it’s much too late. If you’re going to repent, do it now.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Matthew 27:11–31

Matthew 27:11–31 (ESV): Jesus’ trial before the Romans

Synopsis

This post is once again combining a few ESV section headings together, since they seem to go together.

Jesus has had his trial before the Jewish religious leaders and been found guilty of blasphemy. He is now brought before the Romans, with the religious leaders hoping that the Romans will back them up and have Jesus executed.

However, Jesus doesn’t act as the Roman governor, Pilate, expects him to act; as the religious leaders make accusations against him he doesn’t answer any of them, not even to protest his innocence. The only question he answers is when Pilate asks him if he is the King of the Jews, to which he replies, “You have said so” (verse 11 (ESV)), a phrase which we’ve seen before in 26:25 (ESV) and which essentially deflects the question back onto the asker.

The passage doesn’t tell us, however, whether Pilate judges Jesus to be innocent or guilty, or even if he makes a judgement at all. Frankly, it seems that he wants to bypass this tough decision altogether, and let the crowd decide. There is a custom that has formed where every year Pilate will release one prisoner, and the crowd gets to choose which prisoner is released. Pilate knows that the religious leaders have only brought Jesus out of envy, and his wife has told him that she has had a dream about him and wants Pilate to have nothing to do with him, so he presents the crowd with a choice of releasing either Jesus or a man named Barabbas, who is a “notorious prisoner” (verse 16 (ESV)), presumably assuming that the crowd would choose to have Jesus released.

However, the religious leaders are a step ahead of Pilate, and they persuade the crowd to ask for Barabbas instead of Jesus. Pilate tries again (and again):

The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” (verses 21–23 (ESV))
Pilate now realizes that he’s not getting anywhere—and, in fact, a riot might be starting—so get gets some water and washes his hands in front of the crowd, signifying that he wants no part of this; this is obviously where the phrase “washing my hands of this” comes from. He tells them, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (verse 24 (ESV)), and then the crowd gives a chilling response: “His blood be on us and on our children!” (verse 25 (ESV)). So Pilate gives up, has Jesus “scourged” (see below), and then delivers him for crucifixion.

However, before they get to the actual crucifixion, the soldiers want to have some cruel fun at Jesus’ expense. They take him back inside, strip him down, and then place a scarlet robe on him, along with a crown made out of thorns and a reed for him to hold (as if it were a king’s sceptre). They then mock him by sarcastically paying tribute to him as the “King of the Jews.” Then then spit on him, and take the reed back out of his hand to beat him with it. Finally, they put his own clothes back on him, and lead him away for crucifixion.

Thoughts

The question Pilate asks Jesus is, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (verse 11 (ESV)). I think this is because the religious leaders have changed the charges, slightly, before bringing Jesus before the Romans. Internally, in their own deliberations, the question was one of blasphemy, but for Jesus to question the Jewish religious leaders’ authority, or even to claim he was the Son of God, probably wouldn’t have bothered the Romans much. It’s a religious issue, who cares? But if Jesus were threatening political upheaval—claiming to be a king—then that would be treason against the Romans, and that would be worthy of execution. So I believe this is how the Jews are framing things in bringing Jesus to the Romans; “this guy is threatening your authority, so you’d better take care of him.”

In that light, it’s even more interesting that this is the only question Jesus deigns to answer.

It looks like Pilate is trying to get out of judging Jesus by passing off the responsibility to the crowd; he’s hoping that they’ll ask for Jesus’ release, and then he won’t have to make this judgement at all. Obviously that’s not what happens, and he ends up having a man that he seems to believe to be innocent crucified. His “washing his hands” of the affair simply doesn’t wash (if you’ll pardon the pun); just because he says he’s got no part of it, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t—he clearly does. It’s his decision to judge Jesus guilty, regardless of what the crowd says. He should have judged Jesus innocent before even bringing him to the crowd.

Oh, and as for the word “scourged,” this is an especially nasty form of having someone whipped. From the ESV Study Bible notes:

Roman flogging was a horrifically cruel punishment. Those condemned to it were tied to a post and beaten with a leather whip that was interwoven with pieces of bone and metal, which tore through skin and tissue, often exposing bones and intestines. In many cases, the flogging itself was fatal. The Romans scourged Jesus nearly to death so that he would not remain alive on the cross after sundown.
Finally, the soldiers are adding insult to injury; after having scourged Jesus—meaning that he’s probably already somewhat close to being dead—they mock him and then beat him some more. The irony here is dark and obvious; Jesus really is the king of the Jews. He is, in fact, ruler of the universe; eventually, all of the soldiers who were there mocking Jesus eventually died, and ended up standing before him, learning much too late who it was that they had mocked.

And it continues to this day; Jesus is mocked all the time, by people who will one day learn who is is they are mocking—but, again, too late. I’m not sure what the proper Christian response should be; outrage? Well, yes, we probably should be outraged that our Lord and Saviour is being made light of, although I don’t know that responding with outrage will be all that helpful. Sadness? In a sense, yes, we should be of course be sad about people not understanding who God is, and their relation to Him, but I also don’t know that sadness is enough; there should be some righteous indignation to go along with it, shouldn’t there? I don’t have answers to these questions, they’re just questions in my mind, which is why when I hear Jesus being mocked, my response is usually just to get uncomfortable, and not know what to do.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Matthew 27:1–10

Matthew 27:1–10 (ESV): Jesus Delivered to Pilate, and Judas Hangs Himself

Synopsis

Jesus has now been “captured” by the religious leaders, and been found guilty of blasphemy. However, as previously mentioned, under Roman law the Jews don’t have the right to execute anyone; that has to be handled by the Roman officials. So they hand Jesus over to Pilate, the governor. In a future passage we will get to Jesus’s trial, but before that happens we find out Judas’ fate.

In fact, Judas has a change of heart. When he sees that the religious leaders have condemned Jesus as a blasphemer, he changes his mind about his betrayal and tries to give them back the thirty pieces of silver that they’d paid him for his betrayal. He tells them that he has sinned by betraying innocent blood, but they’re not exactly feelin’ his pain on this one: “They said, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself’” (verse 4 (ESV)). So Judas goes and throws the silver into the temple, and then hangs himself.

However, the religious leaders decide that they can’t put this silver into the treasury since it is “blood money,” and apparently there is a law against using blood money in this manner. So instead they use the money to buy a field to be used as a burial place for strangers, and because of the origins of the money the field takes on the name “Field of Blood.” This fulfils a shockingly accurate prediction made in Jeremiah:

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.” (verses 9–10 (ESV))

Thoughts

In an earlier passage I’d wondered about Judas’ motives in trying to keep his betrayal secret from Jesus, and one of my hypotheses was that perhaps he hadn’t expected Jesus to be found guilty—or, if he was found guilty, that it wouldn’t be of anything that deserved death. This passage might lend some credence to that hypothesis; when Judas sees that Jesus has been condemned, he has second thoughts; is it possible that it was simply, purely about the money? That he figured he could make a quick and easy thirty pieces of silver, causing only some minor aggravation to Jesus in having to be tried on some trumped up crime, and then have things go back to the way they were (except with Judas’ pocket being more full)? Or is it just that the reality of Jesus being sentenced to death hit Judas harder than he’d thought it would?

In any event, he is obviously remorseful over what he’s done—but I’ve never read a single commentary that claimed he was so remorseful that he sought God’s forgiveness, and I’ve never read anyone who thought that Judas is saved, and in heaven. The unanimous consensus seems to be that Judas died condemned for his sins, even if he did feel some remorse. Which is an interesting spiritual lesson for us: a person can be so remorseful for their actions that they can’t go on living—and yet still not go to God for forgiveness and salvation. Being remorseful for one’s sins is “difficult;” it’s not something we’re naturally prone to do. We’re proud, and arrogant; to admit we’ve done wrong—that we’re short of the standards God has set for us—is anathema to us. But apparently it’s even harder to ask God for help, even after one has made that step. (I say “apparently” as I don’t typically pull these two concepts apart, in my thinking, so I don’t really do any thinking on which one might be more difficult.)

Incidentally, Acts 1:12–26 (ESV) gives some additional (and gory) details on Judas’ death. Matthew gives only the necessary details that Judas was remorseful and committed suicide.

I’ve probably commented many times in this blog about the religious leaders being overzealous in some things, and underzealous in others. To me, the greatest irony in this passage is when they decide they can’t put Judas’ thirty pieces of silver into the treasury, since it’s “blood money”—and that would be against the rules! They’ve just had a sham trial and falsely accused a man of blasphemy, sentencing him to death, but putting tainted money into the treasury offends their delicate sensibilities.

And as usual, I have to ask the same question of modern-day Christians: Are there big sins we commit, and small sins we abhor? I’m reminded of an anecdote my wife once told me, the details of which I don’t remember (and a quick Google search didn’t help): A pastor was giving a sermon and talking about the poor and the needy, and he said, “it’s a f**king tragedy. And the real tragedy is that many of you listening now are more shocked and appalled that I just used the f-word than you are about the state of the poor in this country.” Again, my memory is bad so that isn’t the actual quote, it’s just an approximation. We all know people who would be absolutely scandalized for a pastor to use the f-word in a sermon—I even starred it out here, so as to try to avoid readers missing the larger point from the shock of seeing that word—and yet don’t give a second thought to the poor and the needy. They can read passage after passage after passage in the Old Testament prophets of God condemning His people for not caring for the poor, and yet not care themselves; but to hear the f-word, well that’s just terrible!

I don’t know if that’s a good example, but I’m trying to get us to think about our own hearts, and the sins we consider terrible vs. the sins that we simply don’t care about. If we compare our priorities to God’s priorities, will they be the same or will they be different?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Matthew 26:69–75

Matthew 26:69–75 (ESV): Peter Denies Jesus

Synopsis

This passage fulfils a prophecy Jesus made back in verses 30–35; Jesus had told the disciples they were about to abandon him, and Peter said that this might be true of the rest of the disciples, but he would never abandon Jesus, to which Jesus made it even more specific: not only would Peter deny Jesus, he would do it three times this very night.

Sometimes I don’t even bother to do a “synopsis,” and now I’m redoing synopses even for previous passages. I’m nothing if not inconsistent…

Recall that in the last passage when Jesus was arrested Peter had followed him at a distance, and was sitting in the courtyard with the guards, to see what would happen. In this passage a servant girl comes up to him, and, recognizing him, says that he was with Jesus, but Peter says “I do not know what you mean” (verse 70 (ESV)). He then moves to a different spot (possibly to get away from her), but another servant girl sees and recognizes him, and tells the people around them that Peter was with Jesus. Peter again denies it, saying with an oath that “I do not know the man” (verse 72 (ESV)).

But then some bystanders come and confront Peter, because his accent gives him away; certainly he must be “one of them” (verse 73 (ESV)). (The reason Peter’s accent gave him away is that he sounded Galilean, and, as the ESV Study Bible notes point out, “Jesus’ disciples (except Judas) were from Galilee, and Judeans in Jerusalem looked down on Galileans for their regional pronunciations.”) Peter denies it even more vehemently this time, invoking a curse on himself and swearing that “I do not know the man” (verse 74 (ESV)). At this point the rooster crows, which reminds Peter about Jesus’ prediction.

Peter now goes out and weeps bitterly.

Thoughts

I don’t know what I can add to this other than what everyone says about this passage. Peter, who had so strongly argued to Jesus that he would never betray his Lord, does exactly what Jesus said he would do: deny him, over and over again. Obviously Jesus’ prediction was not at all on Peter’s mind as he kept denying him—more and more strongly each time—until the rooster crowed, which reminded him of Jesus’ words.

Peter should probably get some credit for following Jesus as far as he did—none of the other disciples did—but I don’t know that he should get much credit, as he still did it secretly, from a distance, and he denied Jesus repeatedly.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Matthew 26:57–68

Matthew 26:57–68 (ESV): Jesus Before Caiaphas and the Council

Synopsis

In this chapter the crowd that has seized Jesus brings him to the Jewish leaders, including Caiaphas, the high priest. (Peter is also following—at a distance—and goes as far as the outside courtyard where he sits with the guards “to see the end” (verse 58 (ESV)).)

The religious leaders begin a trial of Jesus, “seeking false testimony” about him so that they can put him to death (verse 59 (ESV)). Strangely, they can’t find any, even though “many false witnesses” are coming forward (verse 60 (ESV)), until finally two people come forward and claim that Jesus said he could destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.

This, to me, sounds… patently absurd. If I claim that I can destroy any building and then rebuild it again in three days, it’s just nonsense. (It also brings up the question about why Jesus would desire to destroy any building just to rebuild it again.) However, Caiaphas doesn’t really seem to have anything else to work with, at this point, so he confronts Jesus with this accusation:

And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” (verse 62 (ESV))
Jesus, however, doesn’t respond. So Caiaphas goes at it the direct way, demanding, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (verse 63 (ESV)), to which Jesus gives probably the clearest statement he gives as to his divinity:

Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (verse 64 (ESV))
The “you have said so” part, according to the ESV Study Bible notes, is a “Greek expression that deflects responsibility back upon the one asking a question.” This is enough for Caiaphas, who tears his robes because he says this is blasphemy. He asks the other leaders for their judgement, and they answer that Jesus deserves death.

They then start spitting in Jesus’ face, and striking and slapping him, and mockingly telling him to prophesy and tell them who’s hitting him. (Essentially they’re saying, “if you’re such a prophet, tell us where that slap came from.”)

Thoughts

The Jews had some ability to self-regulate under the legal system in Rome but there were some things they couldn’t do, and one of them was to sentence a person to death as a punishment for their crimes. For that they’d have to hand the person over to the Roman authorities. However, Jewish law demands the death penalty for blasphemy, which is what the Jewish leaders are accusing Jesus of—or trying to accuse him of, anyway.

It’s interesting, though, that as soon as they get Jesus in front of them, they immediately start looking for “false testimony”—it seems they already know, before even starting, that they’re not going to find real evidence against Jesus. And yet they’re determined to have him sentenced to death for blasphemy, regardless of any real proof they have. I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes have some sympathy for the Jewish leaders, who in part probably really believe that Jesus is blaspheming and/or worthy of death and leading his followers astray, but this is an obvious case where I can’t have sympathy for them. If they were really trying to uphold Jewish law, and not just railroad Jesus into the death penalty, then they’d be having a real trial, and looking for real evidence. If they do care about the Jewish law, and about the wellbeing of their people, it’s of much less concern to them than getting rid of a rival. (And to be clear, as Chapter 23 makes obvious, even aside from getting rid of Jesus the religious leaders’ concern for their people was never foremost in their minds, even if it was sometimes a secondary concern.)

I’m not sure what else to say about this “trial” of Jesus. It’s only the first—as mentioned, the Jews will now have to bring Jesus to the Romans if they want to have him put to death—and it’s obviously a sham trial, to get Jesus out of the way regardless of any evidence. Which means that this trial—and (to a lesser extent) the one to come—is not fair, which is an important thing to note: God is a God of justice, and a God who punishes the unjust and rewards the just, but there is one huge, glaring, obvious exception, which is when He punished Jesus instead of His children, and let Jesus take what we deserved. The trials of Jesus weren’t just, Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t just, and Jesus being punished for my sins wasn’t just. It was gracious.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Matthew 26:47–56

Matthew 26:47–56 (ESV): Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus

Synopsis

In the last passage Jesus had prayed to the Father because of his anguish at what was about to come; it ended with him telling the disciples that his betrayer was at hand, and this passage begins at that point. As Jesus is still speaking to the disciples Judas approaches, along with a “a great crowd with swords and clubs” (verse 47 (ESV)).

Judas has prearranged a signal with the crowd; he will kiss Jesus, to signal to the crowd who it is they’re looking for, so that they can seize him. Although it’s not clear in the text, it seems that Judas leaves the crowd behind so that they’re either hidden or at least not obviously with him, and goes up and kisses Jesus, but of course Jesus knows what’s happening.

Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” (verse 50a (ESV))
At this point the crowd surges forward and seizes Jesus, and in an attempt to save him one of the disciples draws his sword and rushes to his defense, cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest. (In John 18:3–11 (ESV) we are told that the disciple who drew his sword was Peter, and in Luke 22:47–53 (ESV) we are told that Jesus immediately heals the servant’s ear.) But Jesus tells Peter to put his sword away; after all, Jesus reasons, if he really wanted to be protected from this crowd, do the disciples not realize that the Father could send twelve legions of angels to do it? (A “legion” was 6,000 soldiers, so twelve legions would be 72,000 angels.) But this “must be so,” to fulfil the Scriptures (verses 52–54 (ESV)).

He then turns to the crowd, and what he says to them next seems to me to be somewhat of a taunt; he has been in the temple every day, in public, teaching the people, and yet nobody seized him; now the crowd is coming to get him with swords and clubs, as if he’s some kind of robber?

And at this point, the disciples flee Jesus, fulfilling part of what he told them would happen. (The specific denials of Peter are still to come.)

Thoughts

I think I mentioned this in a previous post, too, but I don’t get the logistics of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. The whole betrayal seems to amount to him simply pointing Jesus out to the crowd; after all this time, they don’t actually know who Jesus is, or what he looks like? There’s nobody in the crowd who’s actually seen Jesus before? Obviously this is before the day of television, so regardless of Jesus’ fame there would be lots of people who would never have actually seen him, but in sending this large crowd they really couldn’t find anyone other than Judas who had actually seen Jesus before?

The other thing I don’t get, logistic-wise, is why Judas is keeping up his pretense with Jesus. Why this thing about going up and kissing him, as a sign to the crowd; why not just show up with the crowd, point to Jesus, and say, “That’s the guy. He’s the one you’re looking for.” Does Judas really not want Jesus to know who it was who betrayed him? Does he perhaps not realize that the Jewish leaders are looking to have Jesus executed, and is he hoping to still be one of Jesus’ disciples once Jesus gets out of their clutches? I don’t know.

What we do see in this passage, though, is Peter’s idea of never abandoning Jesus. “They’re coming for Jesus?” he thinks. “Then I’ll protect him!” He might even have been willing to give his life for Jesus; I really do think that Peter meant it, in verses 30–35, when he told Jesus that he would never fall away, and that he would die with Jesus. But his problem is that it’s on his terms; it’s according to his understanding of how things are going to work. I think the disciples have probably been waiting for Jesus to take on political leadership, and especially to smite the Romans, for a long time now; Peter could very well think that this is the beginning of Jesus’ earthly kingship, and believe that he’s beginning Jesus’ battle for the rule of Israel. But Jesus’ plan is a lot different, and even though he’s tried to explain that to the disciples, on numerous occasions, it hasn’t sunk in. When things aren’t working out the way Peter had expected them to, he abandons Jesus just like all of the other disciples. (Well… not just like them; as we’ll see in a later passage, he does at least follow Jesus and his captors from a distance…)

As mentioned above, it seems like Jesus is taunting the crowd that has come to capture him. It’s almost like he’s mocking them, saying, “Are you sure you have enough swords to capture one single man—a man who’s a teacher, not some kind of ruffian?” Obviously this great crowd is overkill to capture one man and perhaps fend off his eleven disciples, but even aside from that there is something that nobody expected—not the crowd, not the Jewish leaders, and especially not the disciples: Jesus has no intention of resisting them. This is all going according to the Father’s plan. He’s not going to resist the crowd; he’s not even going to argue against the accusations that the Jewish leaders are going to bring against him. He’s going to let them do what they came to do.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Matthew 26:36–46

Matthew 26:36–46 (ESV): Jesus Prays in Gethsemane

Synopsis

This passage continues the story of Jesus’ last night. He brings the disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and asks them to wait while he goes to pray. He then takes Peter and “the two sons of Zebedee” (verse 37 (ESV), referring to James and John), and brings them with him when he goes to pray.

He tells the three disciples that he’s pulled aside that his soul is “very sorrowful, even to death” (verse 38 (ESV)), and then falls to his face to pray to the Father, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (verse 39 (ESV)).

After his prayer he goes back to the disciples, and finds them asleep, and calls Peter on it.

And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (verses 40b–41 (ESV))
Jesus then goes to pray again, comes back and finds the disciples sleeping again, goes to pray a third time, and comes back to find them still sleeping. (It’s not clear from the text if he woke them up the second time he found them sleeping, or just left them.)

Finally, knowing that things are about to start happening, he wakes the disciples.

Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” (verses 45–46 (ESV))

Thoughts

I’m not actually sure how upset Jesus is with the disciples for falling asleep. He doesn’t seem overly angry with them, the way it’s worded here, he seems to be chiding them more than rebuking them when he wakes them up. However upset he is or isn’t, however, this shows us once again that the disciples don’t really understand what is going to happen, or how soon it’s going to happen. I think if they realized Jesus was about to be crucified, they would probably not be able to sleep, and would instead be praying along with Him.

There are a few things I find interesting about the twelve disciples, one of which being the intricate plan God and for including Judas in the group, and another being the special relationship Jesus seemed to have with Peter, James, and John. I think this is an example of the human side of Jesus’ nature; even though he loved all eleven of the disciples (who didn’t betray him), he seemed to have a special relationship with these three, and most of us can surely relate to that. In any group of friends there will be some who will be closer than others. It may have nothing to do with this, though; it may simply be that Jesus knows that these three will form more of a core leadership role in the new Church which is about to form, and is taking special steps to prepare them for it.

But, although I find that interesting, it’s not the core plot of this particular passage. Jesus is about to give his life for… well, for us. For me. He’s about to do the very thing he came to the world to do; his death on the cross in a few hours, and his resurrection a few days later, are the culmination of all that he has been preparing for. We might expect Jesus to be excited that his literal reason for being [human] is about to happen. We might expect him to be overjoyed. We might expect him to be nervous. Instead, he is “sorrowful” and “troubled,” and when he prays to the Father, his prayers amount to: if there’s any other way to accomplish this, then let’s not do it this way. This should give us some small picture of what it was that Jesus had to go through, on the cross; it wasn’t the fact that he was going to die, or the fact that he was going to be tortured beforehand; everyone dies, and millions have been tortured. (I haven’t seen The Passion of the Christ, but I worry if its focus on blood and gore and pain might be misleading to people; Jesus isn’t the only one who has been tortured in that way, and there are people who have been tortured even worse.) But once Jesus got on that cross, he took on the punishment that should have been meted out on every person who will be in the kingdom of heaven.

Think about that: without Jesus, my sin is bad enough that it could never be paid for. If I were to die without Jesus, punishment for all of eternity wouldn’t be enough to wipe that sin away, in order for me to enter God’s presence. But Jesus took that punishment in the few hours that He was on the cross—and not just mine, but every other Christian’s too. All of God’s wrath against all of those people, condensed down into those few hours. That’s what Jesus was anticipating, while praying in the garden; that’s the cup that he didn’t want to drink, but would drink since it was the Father’s will for Him to do so.

However, as much as Jesus isn’t relishing what He is about to do, His prayers reflect His primary goal: doing the will of the Father. The two prayers that we see are:

My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.
and

My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.
Now, I think it’s pretty clear that these aren’t word-for-word the entire prayers that Jesus uttered, they’re just summaries. (After all, after his first prayer, when he finds the disciples asleep, he says to Peter, “could you not watch with me one hour”—it wouldn’t take an hour to utter that first prayer!) We’re just given the gist of it. But it’s clear that Jesus is making two points with these prayers:
  1. He would really rather not have to go through with this, if there’s any other way
  2. Doing the will of the Father is more important to Jesus than what He wants for Himself.
Not only is this a lesson for us in where our priorities should lay—it is, after all, the most important commandment—but it also indicates how serious the problem of sin is: There was absolutely no other way for God to handle the sin problem; our sins demanded punishment, and so someone had to be punished. It is the height of arrogance to think that we can earn our own way to God when we read passages like this; if we could earn our own way, through our own actions, Jesus wouldn’t have had to be punished on our behalf. It was obviously not something he wanted to do.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Matthew 26:30–35

Matthew 26:30–35 (ESV): Jesus Foretells Peter’s Denial

Synopsis

Following the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the last passage, Jesus and the disciples sing a hymn, which would have been part of the Passover ceremony. The ESV Study Bible suggests that it was probably either something called “the Hallel” (Psalms 113–118), or something called “the last great Hallel psalm” (Psalm 136). They then leave and go to the Mount of Olives (a name which always makes me slightly hungry).

Jesus then tells the disciples, point blank, that they are about to desert him, and that they will do it this very night. He says that this is prophesied in the Scriptures:

“For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” (verse 31b (ESV), Jesus speaking)
However, he also tells them that when he is “raised up” (verse 32 (ESV)), he will go before them into Galilee.

Peter, however, doesn’t believe that he’ll betray Jesus. He tells Jesus that even if all of the other disciples fall away, he won’t. Jesus tells Peter that yes, he will do so this very night, that before the rooster crows (i.e., before sunrise) he will deny Jesus three times. But no, Peter tells Jesus that even if they have to die together, Peter will not deny him. The other disciples say the same.

Thoughts

This passage is poignant for us mostly because we already know what is going to happen: before we get to the end of Chapter 26 Jesus will be arrested, the disciples will scatter, and Peter will follow at a distance, only to deny Jesus, just as Jesus said he would. We can’t help but read the heavy irony in Peter’s words, when he tells Jesus that “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (verse 35 (ESV)). It’s a very sad passage, and all the more so because I can’t look down my nose at Peter or the other disciples; would I have fared better, had I been there? I think not. I don’t even handle normal, day-to-day tests of my faith consistently well, so how can I assume that had I been a disciple, with my world crashing around me and the seeming end of Jesus’ ministry (according to my understanding), I would have stuck by Jesus?

I think there is a lesson in here for us, though, as well. It’s more than just keeping our pride in check, by comparing how we might have done to how the disciples did. But pride is the key to this lesson: Why did Peter fall away, and deny Jesus? For that matter, why did he argue with Jesus in the first place, telling him that he’d never do what Jesus was saying he’d do? Because Peter was self confident, instead of being confident in Jesus. In Peter’s mind, he was such a great disciple that his loyalty to Jesus could never be shaken—so much so that when Jesus tried to tell Peter what was going to happen, Peter disbelieved him. Peter knew better than Jesus how he would handle things… except he didn’t know better than Jesus, and we know how this story turned out.

If we’re reading our Bibles and are warned about particular activities or dangers we should avoid, we need to heed what the Scriptures are telling us. We should never think to ourselves, “Well, that might be a problem for other Christians,” (by which we typically mean Christians who are “weaker” than ourselves), “but that would never be a problem for me!” Instead we should take these warnings seriously, and be careful. To cite some examples that might be of immediate relevance to 21st Century Christians (and which I probably mention on a regular basis, for that reason):
  • When the Bible tells us that money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:3–10 (ESV), especially verse 10 (ESV)), or when we are told that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, do we take it seriously? Do we truly and seriously give ourselves to self examination, and see if or how the love of money has taken root, and might be impacting our relationship with God? Do we make serious efforts to curb our lust for money?
  • When we are told to avoid sexual immorality—when we are told that even crude joking should be avoided (Ephesians 5:1–21 (ESV), especially verses 3–5 (ESV)), do we examine whether there are any sexual issues in our lives? Are we giving in to the lust that is promoted all around us? (Try to watch TV for more than twenty minutes without seeing at least one commercial that uses sex to sell you things—not to mention what might be happening in between the commercials!) Are we having sex, or inappropriate sexual activities, outside of marriage? Maybe not all-out adultery, but for those of us who are single, are we going further than we should with our partners? Are we giving mental headspace to the idea of doing so?
It’s very true that different sins tempt different Christians, and what I have a problem with you might not have a problem with, but I may be fine with the sins that tempt you. But to take that too far, and assume that there are areas of our lives where we don’t need to guard against temptation, is simply inviting disaster. It’s only through God’s Grace that I can avoid any sins; believing I can do anything on my own, or that I don’t need to worry about certain things, is to deny that I’m relying on Him for any good that I do, or evil that I avoid.