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.

Church Growth is Like Planting Flowers

HibiscusWe spent a lot of time in the flowerbed in front of our house over the weekend. We transplanted a few hedges into a new location and added a few hibiscus. My routine usually goes like this: I hit the plastic temporary pot a few times, slide the bush out, and the claw at the roots to break them up a bit and put it in the ground and water it.

After about the fourth hibiscus, something hit me. I was reminded of the church. Some churches are like the hibiscus in the temporary plastic pot, content with staying small, content with its roots being bound up in that little cheap pot. Not having a vision for anything greater. Plants aren’t meant to stay in those little pots…they are meant to be transplanted into bigger pots or even into your yard where the roots can spread and grow.

Transplanting a plant can be traumatic but it is necessary because in the little pot, a plant will only grow so large, but in the ground plants can grow much larger. Healthy growth requires tearing. It requires breaking. It requires disturbing the soil a bit. Instead of capturing a view of the church that is broad and big and expansive, I am afraid much kingdom growth is missed out of an avoidance of the pain that comes from being removed from the pot and placed in the ground, the very place God has called us to be. So let us trust in God. Let us take chances. Let us not be afraid of failure but be filled with the assurance that comes out of a life that is partnering with God to bring growth to the kingdom.

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.
32 
Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree,
so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” – Matt 13:31-32

Focus on Discipleship Has Created a Resurgence in Baptism

waterheartIt used to be pretty unusual to hear people teach the importance of baptism. In Churches of Christ it wasn’t unusual. We talked about it all the time but outside our fellowship it was pretty infrequent. If you did hear it, it was one of those things done to infants or done to join a specific congregation. All of a sudden I am hearing more and more people teach the importance of baptism. Where is this renewed interest coming from? It is coming from all the interest in discipleship. Once you emphasize following Jesus and obeying His teaching, even if doing so goes against tradition…baptism jumps right out for two reasons: 1) Jesus commanded us to do it, so if you are going to follow Jesus and take his words seriously you will take baptism seriously and 2) in the BIG discipleship verse of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20 he even tells us how to go about making new disciples and it involves baptizing people.

I am so happy to see people re-emphasizing and teaching the importance of baptism. I believe it is important because Jesus could have brought up all sorts of things just before he ascended to heaven but this is one of the most important things he said – go and make disciples and do it like this…teaching them, baptizing them, etc.

The Greatest Command: It’s Okay to Love Yourself

2 Timothy 3:1-5 warns,

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.”

How often do we talk about the love we should have for ourselves? Maybe one reason we don’t do that very often is because 2 Tim 3:2 tells us that a horrible day is coming when people will be lovers of themselves. So we see love of self as an evil to be avoided. You might even feel guilty to think about loving yourself. But here is what Jesus said in Matthew 22,

““‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

In these two verses we have love of God, love of others and an implied love of self. You will notice that Jesus didn’t need to command us to love ourselves but he did imply that we can and should have a healthy love for our own self. Commands are usually given for things we don’t do naturally…I mean, where is the command in the Bible to eat three meals a day, right? We don’t need anyone commanding us to do things that come naturally.We would all say that God loves us. Millions of people can quote John 3:16 which says exactly that. Many millions grew up singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know…for the Bible tells me so.” We know Jesus loves kids but once we become adults and become aware of our own sinfulness it becomes a lot harder to have a healthy love for yourself. It is hard to see ourselves as forgiven and let go of our guilt.

It is hard to see ourselves as valuable but here is the deal…we don’t have value apart from Christ. The only reason we have any value to begin with is solely because we are made in the image of God and in that passage in Genesis 1:26ff, Scripture says “Let us make man in our image…” – plural. Are we made in the image of Christ as well?, only to have sin mar that image only to later have Jesus come to reconcile and restore that within us back to our initial state? Here is my point…you do have value but not because of yourself. The value you have is because of God. God loves you, Jesus loves you, other Christians are commanded to love you…Jesus implies we ought to love ourselves as well…just don’t make the focus or the center of that love the love of self apart from Christ.

So, do you love yourself? If you struggle with that, what makes it so hard?

Principles Wrapped In Practices – Fasting

Jesus could just tell us to rely on God. Instead He taught His disciples how to fast. Jesus was the master teacher, wrapping up principles into practices. Repeating those practices solidify the principles Jesus wants us to make a part of our lives. What is more, Jesus doesn’t just tell them that they should fast and hope that they get the principles. Jesus tells them how the fasting is tied to the underlying principle,

““When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:16-18

Why not just lecture them to be more concerned about what God thinks than about what men think? Why not preach a sermon on the value of trusting in God for what we need? Jesus could have pulled aside the twelve and explained to them how fasting will bring God & God’s will into clearer focus. He didn’t do that because there was a better way to teach it than just using words. He wrapped those principles up into practices…Instead of just telling, Jesus prescribed a practice that solidified the underlying principle he wanted them to get. It is up to us to make these things more than teachings,

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” – Matthew 7:24-25

Principles Wrapped in Practices – The Lord’s Prayer

The Lord’s prayer offers us several great teachings about the Christian faith. We learn everything from God being our Father to kingdom values and the importance of God’s will being done. We learn about God providing for our necessities and the importance of forgiveness. Those are all amazing teachings. What is so great about the Lord’s Prayer is that it takes those core truths and wraps them in practice, the practice of prayer. This is not just something to think about…it is something to participate in, to create and experience. When we repeatedly participate in the practice of praying like this, those teachings and truths become more deeply engrained into our being. Jesus was after more than just mental ascent and ideological agreement with his teaching…Jesus was after our hearts, transforming the very essence of who we are…to become more like Him.

This, then, is how you should pray:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
-Matthew 6:9-13

The Greatest Commandment: God, Others, and Self

Sometimes I hear the greatest command summed up as “love God and love others”. That misses the only person in the whole world who isn’t included in those two categories, self. But Jesus did include loving yourself in the greatest commandment,

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” – Matthew 22:37-38

Paul echoes this in Ephesians 5:28-29, “28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church”

God doesn’t want us to get so caught up in loving ourselves that we get self-centered and fail at the first two greatest commandments in Jesus lists. I do wonder though, if we avoid talking about the love of self for fear people won’t handle it very well. What can happen is people end up feeling pretty beat up, guilty and lacking a biblical concept of God’s love for them and a healthy love for themselves. Maybe that is just so obvious that I am the only guy in the room that hasn’t picked up on that.

Matthew’s Explanation of the “Messianic Secret”

One of the big topics in the Gospel of Mark is what is known as the “Messianic Secret”. Over and over again in Mark, Jesus tells people not to tell others about who he is. This happens up until Mark 8 when Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is and Peter says he is the Christ or Messiah. It seems kind of strange for Jesus to tell others not to tell people about what they have seen until half way through the book. Some believe the reason for this is because Jesus didn’t want people to misunderstand his mission and follow him for all the wrong reasons (to receive food like when he fed the 5000 in Mark 6) (Jesus 101, p 22).

I was reading in Matthew today and it looks like Matthew actually gives an explanation as to why Jesus told people not to tell. It has to do with fulfillment of prophesy from Isaiah 42:1-4. Here is what Matthew tells us in Matthew 12:13-21,

13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

God’s Chosen Servant

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, 16 warning them not to tell who he was. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he leads justice to victory.
21     In his name the nations will put their hope.”

Am I reading that right? Why haven’t I read anyone just offering Matthew’s explanation and why have so many tried so many other explanations if it is right there? Maybe this has been mentioned in commentaries dozens of times and I am just ignorant. This link seems to say the prophesy isn’t about the secret but instead points back to Jesus (in that instance) being unwilling to engage the Pharisees. I did a little more poking around and the Holman Bible Dictionary offers this as a possibility. Thoughts?

Seeking Simplicty

When we lived in Memphis we used to knock doors on Saturday mornings for the bus ministry at an apartment complex in Millington called Flag Manor. One door we knocked on a regular basis was the apartment of an older couple who had an adult son who was mentally challenged. His name was Ricky. Ricky came on the bus for a while. He didn’t understand too much of what was going on but he sure enjoyed being with everyone. One day Ricky told us he wanted to be baptized. We weren’t really sure how much Ricky understood so another minister and I sat down with Ricky and talked with him about his faith, Jesus Christ and what baptism meant. The best we could do to find out what Ricky believed was to ask him some yes/no questions. What he made clear was that “yes” he understood Jesus was the Son of God, “yes” Jesus died for his sins and third – “yes” he wanted to be baptized. How do you argue with that? So we baptized him.

I am positive Ricky will never have a doctrinal debate with someone and I am sure Ricky won’t understand why we do all the things we do. I am also positive that Ricky has a love for God and trusts God to see him through. What amazes me is that Jesus doesn’t call us to be like the teachers of the Law, who knew every intricacy of scripture but whose knowledge didn’t always translate into a closer walk with God. In Matthew 18, Jesus called his disciples to be like the little children, really…like Ricky.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

The first thing that jumps out at me is that Jesus uses the word “change”…that implies most of us aren’t there yet. Something needs adjusted in order to obey Christ on this one. I think what Jesus was getting at when he said that wasn’t about knowledge. I think it was about the heart. Jesus wasn’t condemning Bible study or growing in your faith. Jesus was warning against having a heart of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness instead having the heart of a child, one of total dependency upon God even for our daily bread. So we have our discussions, we fine tune our doctrine, and we work out all sorts of details on things from scripture and write lengthy commentaries detailing all sorts of interesting minutia…but at the end of the day God uses the simple to shame the wise. So don’t get caught up in the complex…seek the simple.

Let me conclude this post with some words of wisdom from Paul in 1 Corinthians 1,

27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

Frankincense and Myrrh

Tomorrow we are teaching some kids about the Magi story. In order to do that we realized we needed to do our homework, gather props, etc. I assumed I knew what frankincense and myrrh were but I was a little off. Frankincense is a resin scrapped from trees in North Africa and made into a perfume. Myrrh is also a resin that is retrieved from trees in East Africa and is also used for incense and perfumes. For some reason I thought one of the gifts was a spice of some sort but I stand corrected. Jesus got gold and two different types of perfume. There are various theories as to why these three gifts and what they represented. Some point to gold and Jesus being king, frankincense was associated with worship, and myrrh was used by the Egyptians to embalm so it could point to his death. I am really not sure if that is on target. I will have to look at Davies and Allison’s ICC commentary when I get a chance and update this post.