Jesus in Context – One of the Most Helpful Biblical Background Books Around

JesusInContext-BockI recently came across the most helpful resources on the historical backgrounds to the Gospels that I have ever seen. It is called Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study by Darrell Bock. This book works through the synoptics and John and pulls just about any relevant extra-biblical text in full quotation to help you see what other ancient writers said about a topic, a city, a custom, etc. Reading the geneaology of Jesus? Look and see how other ancient Jewish writers did genealogies. Studying Jesus’ turning water to wine at Cana? You go to that miracle in this book and it first gives you a bit of historical background on eschatology and wine followed by relevant quotations from 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, Tobit, and the Talmud on wine and quotations from Josephus on Cana. Combine the content with Logos Bible software and you have an unbelievably powerful resource for your studies. This book concludes with multiple indices that include index by topic, by scripture, by extra-biblical reference and a huge list for further reading broken down by topic, If you are a student of the Gospels and want extra-biblical references all in one place this is the book for you. If you would use Logos and would like to have it at your disposal in a fully searchable, indexed format with clickable links with full references for you to use in your study or writing, you can get it here.

Jesus Prayed

“One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles…” – Luke 6:12-13

I am humbled by this verse. Jesus had a big decision to make and he prayed before making it. Two chapters earlier, Jesus went out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil and to prepare for that encounter, he fasted 40 days. Jesus knew that in all things he had to totally rely on God in order to have success. So before he selected the 12, Jesus prayed. On one hand, Jesus is the Son of God who would presumably already know who the 12 would be prior to praying about it. On the other hand, Jesus is the Son of Man, who identifies with us through coming in flesh and blood, fully dependent on God in all things. Luke doesn’t tell us why he prayed but it humbles me that Jesus often prayed before big decisions and big events (Luke 3:21, 5:16, 9:18, 9:28-29, 22:40-46). Too often I am inclined to “go it alone” and make a decision without spending enough time in prayer. Jesus reminds us that many things require prayer if they are going to take place…if we have faith in Christ, we will take his teaching and example seriously enough to spend more time in prayer…even if we think we already know the answer.

Assurance in the Face of Danger

William Wallace challenging his troops to beat the odds

Martin Luther King Jr on the night before he was assassinated

Great leaders know how to inspire people to do the seemingly impossible. What gives people this kind of boldness? For Wallace it was the hope of freedom. For King it was also the hope of freedom but also the assurance that God had something better in store for him, come what may.

Then we come to Jesus in Matthew 10. When he sends out the 12 he is up front about the difficulties ahead (both immediately and some decades later),

“16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” – Matt 10:16-20

Jesus said there would be difficult days ahead. He was right and continues to be right. The question for us is, do we trust that he is going to provide for us what he said he would provide? The only way for us to be a willing witness for Christ (“witness” comes from the Greek word “martyr” comes from) is if we are willing to die to ourselves because we have full assurance of new life through Christ. Once you have died to yourself, you don’t really mind facing death a second time because you know that Christ has rendered death itself impotent. So follow Jesus having full assurance in the face of danger. Do the bold thing. Say what needs to be said. Trust that God sees a brighter future than the world can envision.

The Holy Spirit’s Role in the Coming of Jesus

We often associate the Holy Spirit with the beginning of the church in Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts. What is interesting is that the Holy Spirit also played a key role in kicking off Luke’s first volume, the Gospel of Luke:

  • Luke 1:15 – John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit before he is born
  • Luke 1:35 – The Holy Spirit will take part in the conception of Jesus
  • Luke 1:41 – When Mary and Elizabeth meet, both pregnant, John jumps in Elizabeth’s womb and it is Elizabeth who is filled with the Holy Spirit! It prompts her to speak a blessing on Mary.
  • Luke 1:67 – The Holy Spirit fills Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, and he prophesies. I am really unsure why this prophesy always gets the heading “Zechariah’s Song” when it is a prophesy.
  • Luke 2:25 – Simeon had been promised that he would see the Messiah before he died. He also had the Holy Spirit on him.
  • Luke 3:16 John the Baptist tells the crowds that the one who comes after him will baptize people in the Holy Spirit
  • Luke 3:22 – the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism (interesting that Luke says this happened “as he was praying” at his baptism)
  • Luke 4:1 – Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit as he went out into the wilderness to be tested.

The Holy Spirit played a huge role in the coming of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry. What is more, the Holy Spirit was present in the ministry of Jesus as well:

  • Luke 10:21 – The Holy Spirit wasn’t just present at Jesus baptism and temptation. The Holy Spirit was upon him in this verse as well
  • Luke 11:13 – Jesus says God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask
  • Luke 12:10 – a warning against blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. This warning means the Holy Spirit was a driving force in Jesus’ ministry and miracles. That is clear because Jesus is warning them against calling his miracles from the devil and saying that to deny his miracles is to blaspheme the Spirit, which means the Spirit was at work in the ministry of Christ.

It is easy to think the Holy Spirit was absent from all of this because we spend more time on Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Spirit from verses like John 16:7,

“But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

Some then assume the Spirit wasn’t much a part of anything until after Jesus ascended to heaven. As you can see from all the verses above, the Holy Spirit played a central role in the coming of the Messiah from before he was conceived, through Mary’s pregnancy, to his birth and through his ministry and then, finally, to the church. The Spirit’s involvement in the start of the church wasn’t anything new. It was very much in line with everything the Spirit had been involved in up to that point.

What Does It Mean To Lay Down Your Life for Your Brother? 1 John 3:16-18

16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” – 1 John 3:16-18

When we hear Jesus laid down his life for us, usually the first thing that comes to mind is his crucifixion. Jesus died for us on the cross…that is what laying down his life looks like. I think John is letting us in on a little more to the story than just the crucifixion. Notice what he says next, “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

John tells us that, like Jesus, we ought to lay down our lives for others. No surprise there, but notice the example he gives of what this looks like. He doesn’t tell of a Christian dying for another Christian. John’s illustration of how to lay down your life for others is to help someone in need. The truth of the matter is, few of us will ever die for another person, while all of us have the opportunity to put others first on a daily basis.

That brings us back to Jesus. When did Jesus lay down his life? It started well before the cross. It started when he invited a tax collector to follow him, even though he knew people wouldn’t like it. It started when he got an adulterous woman out of being stoned, even though he knew it would cost him. It started when he raised Lazarus from the dead and the plots to kill him started to swirl. It started back when he told them he would tear down the temple and raise it up again in three days but they didn’t understand him and were angry with him for saying such things.

The point is, Jesus laid down his life all along the way. The ultimate demonstration was in the cross but the reality is, it started way before that. The cross was the natural progression of a life that was already given up for others. So when we are called to lay down our lives for others, don’t get all focused on dying for someone else and never put this into practice for lack of opportunity. Realize that laying down yourself for others is about how you value people and how you see yourself.

Taking Risks for the Kingdom

The New Testament is a continuous story of risk takers. John the Baptist is killed because he called out Herod on his sin. Jesus is crucified because the religious authorities thought he was a blasphemer. Paul was killed in Rome because of his preaching the Gospel. Stephen was stoned because of his testimony. Peter and John were arrested because they healed a man. Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned for casting out an evil spirit. Timothy had to stand up against false teachers. James had to make a bold decision regarding how to treat the Gentiles who were coming to Christ. Barnabas and Ananias took a chance on Paul.

These men took risks for the kingdom. They didn’t settle for comfort. They didn’t settle for staying home. The very word apostle literally means someone who is sent. These guys were out on mission, taking risks and expanding the kingdom. The question for us is this, how much risk are we taking? Look at your church budget and ask if any of it reflects any level of risk for the kingdom. How many of our programs and ministries are aimed at keeping the mature Christians comfortable and how many are designed to take the message to those who need it most?

Before we launch out, it is important to make sure we are doing these things for the right reasons. We don’t do it to be trendy. We don’t do it because it is a fad. We do it because God has called us to it and we want to be faithful to our calling. Most risks aren’t taken sitting in front of a computer but being in the presence of real people, those who need God and those who have the potential to lead but need someone to equip them.

Two Realizations That Help Christian Unity

In Luke 14 Jesus tells the parable of an influential man who throws a dinner party. He sends out the invite to all the choice people, the in-crowd. As the RSVP’s come back he gets nothing but excuses…One guy says he just bought a field and wants to go look at it. Pretty lame…don’t you think he has already seen the field and don’t you think it will look pretty much the same next week? Another guy says he just got married and can’t make it…wise fella right there…still another guy says he just bought some oxen and wants to try them out. You know people couldn’t care less about you if they don’t come because they are test driving their oxen. Oldest excuse in the books. None of the people you might have thought would have been first in line come to the banquet.

So what does the man do? He sends out a second invitation, “‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’” Bring them in. Bring in anyone who will come! The servant goes out and brings in all who are willing. There is still room at the banquet. So the man sends out a third invitation, “‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.”

Why does God fill his banquet with such a motley crew, such a rag-tag bunch of unworthy people? Not only does he invite them…he orders his servant to compel these people to come to the banquet. This is a big deal. These people have nothing to offer the man. They won’t increase his status or make him look good. When you look at the room and see who is there you can’t help but realize the man who is running the banquet is full of grace and compassion. The shocking thing is this, these people are you and me. We are the ones who don’t deserve to be at the banquet. We are the spiritually crippled and lame and poor and blind. We have been given a seat at God’s banquet table. We have gone from the margins to the inner circle.

So what are the two realizations that help develop Christian unity?

Realization #1 – None of us deserve to be Christians. That should humble us and bring us to our knees. So much disunity springs out of a since of spiritual entitlement and arrogance. The truth is, none of us deserve any of it. Yet God, in his infinite mercy is the one who brings us together.

Realization #2 – When you really understand you have been saved by God’s grace, it should make us graceful toward others. Grace is a key ingredient to unity. Arrogance and pride magnify mistakes and differences. Grace helps us iron over differences and mistakes in healthy ways. So much disunity comes from having an ungraceful attitude. Being ungraceful and ungrateful leads to unforgiveness that often leads to unending, bitter disputes that tear brothers and sisters in Christ apart.

Try this: The next time you are feeling disunity with another Christian picture you and that other person as blind, crippled beggars eating next to each other at God’s banquet and see what is left that is still worthy enough to tear your relationship apart. Not too many things will pass that test.