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Matthew 4:12-25 – Jesus Begins His Ministry Ushering in The Kingdom

The narrative continues with Jesus learning that John as been imprisoned. Wow! Realize that because we’re so familiar with the story, Herod, the dancing girl, beheading, we don’t go “Wow!” when we most certainly should. As we read through the gospels there are apologetic points aplenty to be made. If you were making up a story of the founding of a new religion, and the coming of a predicted great Messiah, why would one of the key characters even before the story really gets started be hauled off to prison? We know this often happens to prophets in Israel, but wasn’t this supposed to be different? Apparently not. To me, John going to prison reads real; it wouldn’t have been made up if it hadn’t actually happened.

Jesus now leaves the town he grew up in, Nazareth, to his new home on the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum. Matthew says almost in passing, “he went and lived” there. It’s strange for me to imagine Jesus living in a town like every other resident, having a little house with a yard where he eats and sleeps and just lives. He greets his neighbors, helps the little old lady cross the street. Just a normal, sort of, guy. But he doesn’t stay home much. Matthew says this move is a fulfillment of Scripture. He does this throughout his gospel because he’s writing to Jews, and nothing says genuine like fulfilling what the sacred writings said centuries before. Some of these fulfillments Jesus could have arranged knowing what he was supposed to do, but others were out of his hands as we’ll see.

Now Jesus starts carrying on the message John no longer can:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And he starts building his team. He starts with with two pairs of brothers who will prove to be instrumental in his ministry, and the Church he intends to build after he’s accomplished his mission. The first are fishermen Peter and Andrew. He tells them what their new occupation is going to be:

19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Human beings are the ones they will now “catch.” And their response on the face of it is strange: Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” He does the same with James and John, sons of Zebedee. They too were fishermen, and they were in a boat with their father. When Jesus calls them, their response is even a bit more strange: Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” That’s it? See ya pops! It’s been nice. This is a good point to explain the purpose of the gospels, why they were written, and the nature of ancient biography and history.

C.S. Lewis made the phrase, “chronological snobbery” famous. Since the Enlightenment, scholars and intellectuals began to see anything in the past, especially the distant past, as outmoded, inferior, regressive, etc., and the people who inhabited that world benighted. These people lived in a world of superstition without the light of science and reason. The attitude over the years that eventually trickled down to the culture was, “We know better,” wink, wink. So, for example, since we “know” that miracles can’t happen, this whole Jesus story is made up superstition. Another example having to do with our text is the belief that ancient authors, especially those of the gospels, didn’t care about accuracy and true history. They were creating a narrative to make a point, and accuracy wasn’t important. In fact, that is a perfect example of chronological snobbery, judging something as inferior simply because it’s old.

But as knowledge of the ancient world has grown, our understanding of ancient biography and history has grown as well. An author, like Matthew, had a limited space in which to convey his message. If he didn’t think a specific detail was important to that message, he wouldn’t have included it. So it appears that the brothers took up and followed Jesus out of blue, but this was not the first encounter these men had with Jesus as we know from the other gospels (John 1:35-42 and Luke 5:3). In our day with endless distractions, it’s hard to imagine the kind of ruckus Jesus would have made where he lived, and in the cities and towns he visited. Plus after 400 years of silence, the people’s hope that this was in fact the Messiah must have been off the charts. So these first disciples of Jesus knew full well who he was.

We learn at the end of this chapter that Jesus was becoming hugely popular and why:

23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria . . . 25 And great crowds followed him . . . 

Nothing in Israel had ever been seen like this before. He was healing every disease and affliction. Imagine a day before medicine and doctors and hospitals what this might have been like. And we know from this passage that “the gospel of the kingdom” has something to do with pushing back against the affects of the fall. This healing, then, is a sort of type and shadow of what’s to come ultimately from Jesus ministry.

 

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Zechariah 9 – God our Savior Makes His People Attractive and Beautiful

Right after declaring the relationship with his people and city transformed, this chapter starts with the Lord declaring judgment on Israel’s enemies. Nothing will be able to threaten the life he is creating for his people. We know this is true spiritually, as Jesus says in John 10:

I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.

But I wonder how Jews look at this verse:

But I will encamp at my temple
    to guard it against marauding forces.
Never again will an oppressor overrun my people,
    for now I am keeping watch.

Clearly this could not mean the physical temple the people were then building because in AD 70 the Romans utterly destroyed that and the city itself. We have two choices. Either the Lord’s promise completely failed, because an oppressor completely overran his people, or this doesn’t refer to the physical temple, and his people are now not exclusively the Jews. We can be confident this promise is spiritual because of what Jesus says in John 2:19: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” We can have further confidence that no “marauding forces” or “an oppressor” will ever overrun God’s Church because of the very next verse which points directly, unequivocally to Jesus:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
    Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. And think how ridiculous it is that a king comes to declare salvation riding on a young ass! The very word king evokes pomp and circumstance, but Israel’s would be a very different king.

The problem, of course, was that no one but Jesus saw his kingship coming through a Roman cross. Everything about these verses in Zechariah, and Jesus’ life and ministry, was spiritual and eternal. It becomes even more clear with these words that follow:

He will proclaim peace to the nations.
    His rule will extend from sea to sea
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.
11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
    I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.

What kind of peace could this king proclaim? The only peace that ultimately matters:

Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ . . .

The fundamental issue of human existence isn’t a lack of peace among people or nations, but man’s alienation from God, thus the war between God and man. A reconciliation is necessary if there is to be any real and lasting peace. That is what Jesus accomplished on the cross: “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” And it doesn’t get any more clear than “the blood of my covenant.” Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins, as the writer to the Hebrews says.

No doubt the people of Zechariah’s day could find comfort in the words of this chapter, and in one sense they were for them as well, but they point well beyond the land and nation of Israel. The dual nature of the Lord’s covenant promises are reflected in the last two verses of the chapter after telling the people he will basically fight for them:

16 The Lord their God will save his people on that day
    as a shepherd saves his flock.
They will sparkle in his land
    like jewels in a crown.
17 How attractive and beautiful they will be!
    Grain will make the young men thrive,
    and new wine the young women.

I recently heard someone say the Lord doesn’t search out beautiful people and then save them, but searches out people made ugly by sin, and then makes them beautiful. What else is the story of Israel but God persisting with a rebellious and stiff necked people, a people made ugly by sin, to make them sparkle like jewels in a crown because of his salvation. “On that day,” on a Roman cross when Jesus took the punishment for our sin, he was fulfilling God’s covenant promise to make “his people” attractive and beautiful in his sight, like jewels in a crown. That is who we are before him in Christ. As the hymn says, O What a Savior!

 

Jeremiah 27 & 28 – Trusting God’s Judgment When It Doesn’t Seem to Make Sense

In these chapters the Lord through Jeremiah encourages the people of Judah to accept their punishment and submit themselves to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It ends up turning into a battle of prophets, as Jeremiah speaks the message from the Lord, and another false prophet says the opposite. The Lord is giving the people a way out if they will just listen to the Lord’s prophet and submit to the Babylonian king. For them, exile is salvation from death and horrible suffering. On the other hand, if they listen to the “positive” prophecy, basically listen to what they want to hear, they will perish.

As throughout the whole OT, the Lord gives his bona fides, why he has the authority to make such judgments:

Give them a message for their masters and say, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Tell this to your masters:With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please.

Hard to argue with that! And he again calls Nebuchadnezzar his servant. The Lord is in charge of this show. And chapter 27 ends with the Lord declaring that even though the furnishings of the house of the Lord have been taken to Babylon, he himself will bring them back and “restore them to this place.” He is always pointing beyond judgment; the payment for sin is not the end of the story, but really only the beginning as we now now.

The false prophet pays for his false prophecies with his life. Jeremiah tells him,  “The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies.” Why would someone who knows he’s selling lies, persist in selling with the threat of death hanging over his head. Who knows. Human beings can be irrationally and persistently rebellious. And God is as good as his word. In the seventh month of that year he died. 

Maybe he persisted because Jeremiah’s prophecies of submitting to the king of Babylon didn’t seem to make sense. Maybe he preached lies because all the people cheered him on. They may have thought, there is no way God is sending his people into exile. He gave us this land. The Babylonians are heathens. But for whatever reason, they couldn’t discern the word of the Lord over the lies. Those who could, who decided to trust the Lord when it didn’t make sense, escaped with their lives. Those who didn’t perished. This is every human being’s choice: will we trust the Lord.

Jeremiah 26 – It Ain’t Easy Being God’s Prophet

Poor Jeremiah. All he does is tell the people what the Lord commands him to say, and everyone wants to kill him! And to add divine insult to injury, he makes Jeremiah proclaim these words basically in front of the whole world:

“This is what the Lord says: Stand in the courtyard of the Lord’s house and speak to all the people of the towns of Judah who come to worship in the house of the Lord. Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word.

But the reason isn’t to get Jeremiah in trouble. He’s making him do this so perhaps the people will turn away from their sin and God will relent from bringing judgment. We know how this turns out, that’s it’s a futile exercise, but there’s a reason he keeps giving his people a chance. He wants us to know that he longs to be merciful to his people. He’s also telling us his justice must be met as well. When we understand the covenantal nature of his relationship to his people, it all makes sense—blessings and curses. Only Jesus could ultimately fulfill both.

Why did the people insist Jeremiah must die? Because he was telling them things they didn’t want to hear. The critics of Christianity are rarely honest that this is the reason they don’t embrace it. Christianity is not a religion for those with itching ears. It’s not the least bit flattering to our sense of our own self-importance. We are condemned criminals by nature. Great! Sign me up! But to me, our revulsion to this basic message is an indication of it’s truth. By it we verify God’s judgment against us, and we are helpless to do anything about it by ourselves.

Then Jeremiah tells the people that “in truth the Lord has sent me to you to speak all these words in your hearing.” And they relented. Once they were convinced the message really was spoken to them “in the name of the Lord” their God, how could they kill him. Other prophets of the Lord were not so fortunate, and many died horrible deaths. One thinks of John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, not to mention Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior. Biblical religion is nothing if not brutally honest about what it might cost to follow God. Jesus tells us we must take up our cross daily, denying ourselves, and follow up. No sugar coating there. This will not be easy. And while few over the millennium have paid the price with their lives, there is a price to be paid. Praise the Lord Jesus he paid the ultimate price so we don’t have to pay that one.

 

2 Kings 6&7

I wonder if there are any redemptive/historical lessons from an ax head floating? And believe it or not, I found a commentary that makes that connection! Others I read try to take some moral or practical lesson from it, which is really annoying. This guy’s argument makes sense because the Jordan River is not just any river; it has a critical role in the history of redemption. Not only does it separate the promised land from the not-promised land, but the people of God go through the waters as they enter the promised land, a type of baptism. And Elijah and Elisha both go through it on dry land, back and forth, to end the former’s ministry, and the latter to start his. And I like the idea of the ax head related to judgment because of the verse in Deuteronomy.

The next miracles are works that include all Israel. The Arameans are planning on taking out Israel, but God through Elisha won’t let that happen. When they surround the city, Elisha’s servant freaks out, but Elisha shows him the true nature of this battle:

16 He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”17 Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

There is an entire unseen world that most people just assume doesn’t exist. God has legions at his disposal to carry out his will for his people Israel, and of course his church. This is not revealed to us very often, but we know it exists. So Elisha prays for the Aramean army to be blinded, which I think in context doesn’t mean they can’t see anything, but that they are blinded to the presence of the army or people of Israel. He leads them to Semaria and then their eyes are opened. The king of Israel asks Elisha if he should slaughter them, but Elisha on the contrary prepare a great feast for them and then lets them go. Smart move. Because of this the army of Aram quit harassing Israel. God saved them yet again.

Aram doesn’t hold off forever, so maybe it wasn’t a good idea to let the army of Israel’s enemy go. The rest of chapter 6 and 7 tell the sordid story of a terrible famine in Samaria caused by the Aramean army laying siege to the city; the people are so hungry some actually commit cannibalism. The king of Israel, who interestingly is not named throughout these chapters, is pissed. When he hears about this cannibalism, that things have gotten so desperate for the people, he says:

30 When the king heard the words of the woman, he tore his clothes—now he was passing by on the wall—and the people looked, and behold, he had sackcloth beneath on his body— 31 and he said, “May God do so to me and more also, if the head of Elisha the son of Shaphat remains on his shoulders today.”

He sees it as Elisha’s fault that this is happening, which it is. Elisha’s hanging out with his guys, the elders, and they hear the King is coming after him, and the text isn’t clear who says it, but someone says this trouble is “from the Lord.” And of course, the Lord will fix it. The Lord sends some kind of vision on the Arameans of advancing armies, and they flee their camp leaving everything behind. The siege over, the people of Israel loot the camp and get what they need to start living again.

The story is told as a tale of unbelief. Elisha says, basically, that there will be so much stuff, that tomorrow everything will be selling for basically pennies, supply and demand. Previously it had said that a donkey’s head was incredibly expensive because of the siege, so now everything sells cheaply, thus the siege will be over. An officer of the king says that is impossible, and Elisha tells him:

“You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.”

The man was trampled to death by people clamoring for all the goodies. Moral of the story? Do not question the word of God through the man of God. The Lord will always take care of his people. They can not only trust in his power, but in his good intentions toward them. How much more should we who live on the other side of the resurrection, who are in Christ, with the Bible, the record of God’s work and power in history so easily available to us, completely and unequivocally trust in our Almighty and Sovereign God.

I Samuel 17

Illustration of David Killing Goliath by Anton Robert LeinweberRight up there with the creation of the world, Jonah, the Exodus and Noah, of the Bible’s most famous stories is the story of David and Goliath. Even those who’ve never even seen a Bible know the story of the little guy overcoming big odds. It is truly one of the great stories in all of human literature. Why is it in the Bible? Certainly not to tell us how we can overcome the odds or the giants in our own lives. Why is it part of the the story of the history of redemption?

One theme is that the people of God in their own power are helpless before their enemies, and the ultimate enemy is sin and death. The first thing you notice before David gets to the battlefield is that the Israeli army is cowering before the taunt of the Philistine giant, and that God is obviously the farthest thing from their minds. How can this be? For all of Israel’s history, from the Exodus through all their wilderness journeys, through the time of the judges to now, when God was with them, or more accurately, they with God, they routed their enemies; when he wasn’t, they were routed. When David enters the camp, that changes.

26 David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

Notice that David isn’t going to do this for nothing. He probably overheard men in the camp telling each other that the king would handsomely reward whoever it is that can kill the giant. Not only will he receive great wealth, but he’ll get the king’s daughter in marriage and his father’s family will be exempt from taxes for life. That sounds good to him. But unlike all the other men, obviously, he knows whose fight this is. He says it again to Saul when Saul says he’s but a boy:

36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

Out there in the wilderness tending his sheep, David was building a relationship with the Lord, and he knew his history. The Lord always gives the victory when his people seek him. So as he goes out to confront the giant he makes it clear to his enemy the nature of the battle:

45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

Nobody else in the entire army thought it might be a good idea to enlist the Lord’s help against the giant? All they saw was the obstacle, the enemy’s size, for them obviously of greater strength than the living God, the God who had saved them over and over and over again throughout their history. David knew that history, and was bold; they didn’t and were cowards.

As soon as he’s picked the stones out of the river, David runs toward the giant and famously slings one into his forehead and he’s out. He takes Goliath’s own sword and kills him and as good as his word cuts off his head. There are a lot of funny details in this story. The last is that when Saul asks whose son this David belongs too, likely thinking about the tax implications, David is introduced to him still holding Goliath’s head in his hand.

The moral of the story? In David’s words, it is not by any human agency that the Lord saves. From our perspective in redemptive history that is known as the gospel. Why would we ever want to try to save ourselves, to trust in our own power or righteousness to defeat sin and death. The Lord Jesus is our righteous, holiness and redemption, period. End of story.

I Samuel 8-10

The time of the judges is at an end. Samuel’s sons are not following in his ways and the people are fed up, so the elders of Israel approach Samuel to ask for a king so they can be like all the other nations. Samuel tries to tell them this is not a good idea, but they don’t listen. The Lord tells Samuel that it isn’t he that they’ve rejected, but God himself. Samuel tells them that a King can control them and lead them into war, but they don’t care to see any negative consequences of making a man their king as opposed to God himself. Their rationale is pathetic; they want to be like the other nations around them. Psalm 146:3 says something we all have to learn, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.” God alone saves.

But even though God is displeased with their request, he grants it in the person of Saul. And leave it to the Lord to have Israel’s first king come not from the biggest clan but the smallest. It’s a great story. Saul’s father sends him and one of this servants to look for some lost donkeys. They look and look, but can’t find them so they seek out the prophet Samuel. He tells him that he’s going to get a lot more than donkeys, and Saul’s reply:

21 Saul answered, “But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why do you say such a thing to me?”

Because God uses the least and the smallest to accomplish his will; it is his power and strength that must be magnified; a lesson we are taught through all of redemptive history, not our strength or capabilities. We are in every sense dependent on him.

Chapter 10 is interesting. Saul becomes King, but not before “the Spirit of the Lord” comes on him with power. Even though God is displeased he gives his Spirit to the new king, which you can probably chalk up to be careful what you wish for. When the people gather to anoint him king, Saul can’t be found. He had hidden himself “among the baggage.” This is kind of funny. Even though it says previously that he had been changed into a different person and his heart changed by God, he still doubts his abilities. But when he comes out and the people see what a fine physical specimen he is, a head taller than anyone else, and Samuel announces him to the people, he obviously slides into the role as king. Before the people are dismissed they shout, “Long live the king!”