Review: The Jesus of the Gospels

The Jesus of the Gospels: An Introduction, Andreas J. Köstenberger. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2020.

Summary: An introduction to the four gospels, providing accessible scholarship, introductions and commentary focused on Jesus, to whom each gospel witnesses.

How I wish I had this work as a young Christian reading the New Testament for the first time (the Old Testament would come later). I thought back as I read through this work how much I had missed in my early readings. Sure, I noticed the amazing, and sometimes perplexing, things Jesus taught and did. I noticed the similarities between the first three gospels, and some of the differences but had no sense of why they were different. Then there was John, which seemed so different. But I missed so much that Andreas Köstenberger highlights in this work, designed as a companion for new readers and students of the gospels.

In the introduction and first chapter the author sets out his basic premises for the book. He accepts these as accounts either by witnesses or based on eyewitness accounts that are trustworthy, coherent, and centered on the person of Christ. Rather than provided lengthy discussions of critical scholarship, the focus is on the text in its context. Citing the “quests for the historical Jesus” which often are reflections of the interpreters, Köstenberger’s approach is to allow each gospel to speak for itself, offering four complementary accounts of Jesus life, and he advocates the reading of all four gospels, proceeding in the canonical order.

After the introductory material, the author takes a chapter for each gospel. First he answers the questions of who is the person to whom the gospel is attributed, how they tell the story of Jesus, what their distinctive emphases are and the major contours or outline of the gospel. This is followed by passage by passage commentary of the text with helpful background, and occasional sidebars (for example on “The Herods in the New Testament”). At the end of each section, there is a Recap, summarizing the section and how this connects to the theme.

Köstenberger notes key structural features of each gospels, such as the five sections of teaching in Matthew, or the book of signs and book of exaltation structure of John. He calls attention to the “Markan sandwich” and alerts the reader to instances of this. He shows Luke’s concern for women and the outsider. He also offers a list of suggested resources for those interested in further study (although all of these were written by him!) and a thirty day reading plan to work through the gospels.

The book is a large format paperback that easily lies flat on a desk (or one’s lap) while you are reading your Bible. The commentary is easy to read and often offers applications. This is a great resource for anyone beginning to read the gospels, for anyone wanting to discover Jesus again, or perhaps for the first time.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Jesus Creed

The Jesus Creed

The Jesus CreedScot McKnight. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2019.

Summary: Explores how reciting, reflecting upon, and living the Greatest Command can transform the lives of disciples.

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind and with all your strength.”
The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
There is no commandment greater than these.

Scot McKnight proposes that this response by Jesus to a teacher of the law regarding what was the greatest commandment was not merely a response of Jesus, but reflected the creed Jesus recited. Certainly the first part, drawn from the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), was a creed every devout Jew recited and professed. Jesus response did something revolutionary. He added Leviticus 19:18 concerning love of neighbor. Jesus sums up the spiritual life, and all the teaching of the law as love of God and neighbor.

McKnight, who came from a non-credal background, made  this a personal creed, reciting it morning and evening. In this work, McKnight offers a series of reflections on a life lived around the Jesus Creed, a life lived around loving God and others. After encouraging the use of this creed in prayer, McKnight explores the God we are to love and the powerful truth that we address Abba, the Father who first loves us, even when we were prodigals. The table he invites us to is an open table, a place where a new society is created. This sacred love, exemplified by John Woolman, manifests in transformed worship and transformed relationships.

In the second of four parts, McKnight leads us in reflecting on stories of people in the New Testament transformed by their embrace of Jesus and his creed: John the Baptist, Joseph, Mary, Peter, John, and the women around Jesus. I was particularly taken by his treatment of Joseph as a righteous man, who in taking Mary as his wife when she was pregnant with Jesus, lost his righteous reputation with a woman perceived as adulterous, and with an illegitimate child. McKnight observes that in his decision to love God and Mary and the baby, he loses his reputation and gains an identity as the husband of Mary and the Father of Jesus.

The third part explores a vision of the society of the Jesus Creed, It is a society that transforms life in the now. It is a mustard seed society in which small beginnings have far-reaching results. It is a society for justice, one devoted to setting things to rights. It is a society of restoration, that tears down walls of protection to spread the infectious purity of Jesus. It is a society of joy, where yearnings met by glimpses of joy become the full-blown joy of feasting with God and each other. It is a society of perspective, where we discover that “the end is the beginning,” where our communion now with God in scripture and in prayer in Christian community is shaped by what we expect to be our eternal destiny.

Finally, McKnight considers what it means for us to live the Jesus Creed. He summarizes this as:

  • Believing in Jesus
  • Abiding in Jesus
  • Surrendering in Jesus
  • Restoring in Jesus
  • Forgiving in Jesus
  • Reaching Out in Jesus

All of these were challenging chapters, and certainly the challenge to forgive is one many of us wrestle with. Another, that I do not hear much of these days, is that of surrender. McKnight speaks of surrendering both mind and body and gets very specific about each. Here is part of what he says about physical surrender:

   A disciple of Jesus recognizes the significance of what is physical. As Dallas Willard makes clear in several of his books, “the body lies right at the center of the spiritual life.” The challenge for spiritual formation is for our bodies to love God and others so that they “honor God.” While some people need to discipline the body more than others, the extravagances of some forms of monasticism, however well intended, express a fundamental misconception of the proper place of the body in spiritual formation. Having said that, however, the disciplines of the Christian life are “body acts of love” and cannot be set aside if we are being spiritually formed. In fact, the body cries for the opportunity to surrender itself to the Jesus Creed (p. 207).

No gnosticism here. McKnight explores how our bodily love for God and others works out in everything from our use of power to our quest for agelessness to our acceptance of the gift of our sexuality, while guarding from the misuse of this gift.

McKnight’s book is so valuable in calling us back to the heart of following Jesus. When asked about what we believe, at best we often stumble to offer theological, explanations, or at our worst, declare all the things we are against. McKnight invites us to reflect, and by saying this creed morning and evening, to center our lives on what Jesus thought most important. I suspect that we often get distracted from loving God and neighbor because it is simply hard. On the one hand, this is uncompromisingly simple–love God with all you are, and when you find a neighbor–love that person as you would be loved. On the other hand, it is hard, and that, I think is why we turn to other things. It is scary to give ourselves wholeheartedly to God. And we worry what will become of us if we give ourselves wholeheartedly to the neighbor. But does this not take us into the place of surrender, of trusting the love of Abba-Father, as we day by day pray the Jesus Creed?

WWJDO?

 

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Merchants_Chased_from_the_Temple_(Les_vendeurs_chassés_du_Temple)_-_James_Tissot

James Tissot, The Merchants Chased from the Temple. Public Domain via Wikimedia

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. (Matthew 21:12, NIV)

 

This verse was in the Palm Sunday reading at my church this past Sunday. I should mention that my reflections here may bear scant resemblance to my pastor’s sermon, so this only reflects the workings of my mind, not what my pastor had to say (which I also remember!).

I was thinking about some of the recent “What would Jesus…?” slogans. There was “What Would Jesus Do?” complete with bracelets. Later on, some environmentally oriented Christians started a campaign with the slogan “what would Jesus drive?”. This verse inspired me with a new one: “who would Jesus drive out?”

The context is that Jesus is standing in the temple courts. More precisely, he is standing in the court of the Gentiles–the closest that Gentiles  who are “God-fearers” and want to worship Yahweh are permitted to come. The sellers provided a service for Jews who wanted to offer sacrifices, providing a money exchange (probably at a tidy profit) into the approved temple currency. Then they sold birds and other approved sacrificial animals for those who didn’t want to transport them long distances. There was probably a calculation that this was a convenient location. The Gentiles, if there were any who were interested, were considered unclean. They should be glad they are even allowed here, amid the bargaining and calls and cries of the birds and animals–and all the smells of a barnyard. Not exactly welcoming for a Gentile wanting to worship Yahweh. I suspect a more than a few turned away.

Who did Jesus drive out (WWJDO)? It was those whose presence and actions turned spiritually hungry outsiders away from God. It was those who, by their actions, made God their exclusive preserve. We might be troubled by what seems an act of anger, but the focus here is an act that sets things to right, and communicates God’s displeasure with their exclusionary actions.

Strictly speaking, there is no longer a physical temple or a “court of the Gentiles.” The only temple now is the people of God (1 Peter 2:5). So who would Jesus drive out, today?

It would seem to me that it is any whose actions turn people away from Christ and the people of God. It might be intentional or unintentional. I suspect in suggesting this, you may already be composing a mental list of those Jesus would drive away. I have to admit that this is where my mind went when I heard these ways.

Of course, everyone on my list was someone else. I was notably absent from the list. And I started to wonder about that:

  • I wondered about who it is I’ve welcomed and who I’ve ignored.
  • I wondered about whether there are some groups I’ve written off as unworthy or uninterested in God.
  • I wondered if at times I’ve only planned for or reached out to those “like me.”
  • I wondered if I’ve been content with having people at my dinner table and leadership “table” who are like me.
  • I wonder if there are those who have turned away from considering Christ because of what they have seen of my life.

Would I be among those Jesus would drive out? It seems that Lent, and particularly Passion Week is a time for self-examination rather than finger-pointing. It is a time to ask, are there things that I am blind to that are driving people away from God, and could drive me away as well? From what must I repent? Where have I been justifying myself?

What is clear is that Jesus wanted to include far more than those he drove out (who by no means were permanently excluded). The verse Jesus quotes is Isaiah 56:7, which says, “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” Jesus is the one who welcomes those who say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). He is the one who promises rest to the weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Who would Jesus drive out?

Review: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives

Jesus of Nazareth the Infancy Narratives

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy NarrativesPope Benedict XVI (translated by Philip J. Whitmore). New York: Image, 2012.

Summary: A study of the gospel accounts of the annunciations, the infancy, and boyhood of Jesus of Nazareth.

I read this over the Christmas holiday and found this a wonderful study on the narratives surrounding the birth of Christ. The work, by Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) combines careful scholarship with devotional reflectiveness that evidences deep reflections on the details of these gospel texts in Matthew, Luke, and John. What follows are some of the details I had either not noticed or thought about in the ways Benedict describes.

The work is the final volume in the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth series. He begins with the question of the identity of this infant, posed in John 19:9 by Pilate. He notes the differing geneologies of Matthew and Luke and their purposes emphasizing the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic promise, and Luke’s which emphasizes the one who represents all of humanity. One lovely detail was the focus on the four women in Matthew’s geneology, none of whom were Jewish and all considered “sinners” yet through them came this child,

The second part covers the annunciation narratives, comparing and contrasting them. I had not thought before of John’s descent from a priestly line, the forerunner of a new priesthood inaugurated in Jesus. I also appreciated the focus on Mary’s response of seeking understanding, holding the word in her heart, and her “yes” to God. Benedict suggests that in one sense, she conceived this child through her ear, taking in Gabriel’s (and the Lord’s) word. Benedict also affirms the historicity of the virgin birth and links this to the resurrection as the two great miracles of Christianity.

Benedict then turns to the actual birth of Jesus and his presentation in the temple. Again, his attention to small, yet meaningful details struck me: the manger for the one who would be our bread, our food, the birth of the son of David among shepherds, and the angelic announcement. Benedict translates “men of good will” as “those with whom God is pleased,” which he connects to the Father’s statement about his beloved Son, with whom he is “well pleased.”

The last portion focuses on the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt. He discusses their identity and the star. He then makes the observation that the star (or confluence of heavenly bodies) brought the Magi to Jerusalem but they needed the scriptures, God’s revelation, to help them find the child in Bethlehem.

This short work ends with an epilogue discussing Jesus remaining behind in the temple as a twelve year old. Benedict observes the reply to Mary’s “your father and I were looking for you.” Jesus says, “didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house.” Even here is a hint of his divine-human awareness, that it is God and not Joseph who is his father. Benedict goes on to discuss the idea that Jesus must be there–a sense of his mission, and a foreshadowing of the other “musts” that would take him to the cross.

While Benedict shows his awareness of the biblical scholarship and discussions around these texts, he does not allow scholarship to overtake theological reflection on the finer details of the text. One has the sense of being invited to stop and take a closer look with him, a look that leads to wonder and joy, which Benedict would observe is a good translation of the word for “Hail!” As I write, the season of Christmas has not yet passed. And even if you cannot read it this year, then have it on hand for next Christmas.

 

Review: Jesus Behaving Badly

Jesus Behaving Badly

Jesus Behaving BadlyMark L. Strauss. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Explores some of the disturbing acts and statements of Jesus, that actually reveal his counter-cultural message and mission.

A number of years ago I was leading a Bible discussion with a group of students on Mark 7:25-30, where a Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus to drive a demon out of her daughter. He answers her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). A student in the group commented, “I understood everything that was going on until Jesus opened his mouth.”

I suspect he wasn’t the first person to read the gospels and, and instead of finding “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” discovered challenging Jesus, disturbing and troubling. Mark L. Strauss has written this book for those who don’t find everything they encounter in reading the gospels easy to swallow and wonder how a person could possibly give their ultimate allegiance to a Jesus who says and does such disturbing things.

The instance I cite is just one of those Strauss explores in chapters that explore whether or not Jesus spoke in revolutionary or pacifist terms, was loving or angry, a scorched earth prophet cursing fig trees and killing a herd of pigs. Was he a works-oriented legalist demanding the rich sell all to attain heaven, a hell fire preacher (Jesus says more about hell than anyone in the Bible), an anti-family crusader who speaks of hating one’s parents, a racist (as in the passage above), a sexist, and an anti-Semite? In the end was he a deluded prophet of the end time who ended up a decaying corpse?

Strauss goes behind the scenes as it were, and explains the background and intent of some of Jesus most puzzling acts. He doesn’t “explain away” these things, but rather brings out the radical implications of who this Jesus is. While offering various ideas about hell that Christians affirm, he upholds the idea that God won’t just ignore evil and leave it unpunished. He points out that his word to the Syrophoenician woman was the diminutive of dog, softening the insult, yet provoking the woman to answer him in kind, and win, not only the argument (the only one who ever did and a woman at that!) but Jesus’ commendation and the deliverance of her daughter. He offers plausible interpretations of the end times sayings that demonstrate that Jesus did not get it wrong, and good reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

The book is a great one to give to the skeptic or seeking person or even the believer who is troubled by these things. Strauss’s discussions reveal a considerable background in biblical scholarship (he is a professor of New Testament) and yet very readable and easily understood.  Here is a sample, in his discussion of Jesus harsh words and conflicts with the religious leaders:

    “It becomes clear in this context why Jesus responded in such a forceful manner. He believed that his coming was the center point in human history, the climax of God’s plan of salvation. There was no plan B. His mission was to call Israel to repentance and faith in preparation for the kingdom of God. Anyone who opposed this message stood in defiance of God. Jesus said, ‘Whoever is not with me is against me” (Mt 12:30//Lk 11:23). When the leaders of Israel rejected Jesus, he had no choice but to reject their authority and to publicly denounce them. He calls them ‘blind guides’ because, from his perspective, that is what they were. They were leading God’s people astray and missing out on God’s plan of salvation–the climax of human history.”

Strauss puts this out to his readers both forthrightly and yet gives them space to consider for themselves whether he has made his case. He acknowledges that not all will buy it, which I think for many is winsome. He deals with liberal scholars like Albert Schweitzer, and debunking critics like Bart Ehrman, whose work and television appearances may have swayed some.

The book includes a study guide which can be useful for both individuals and groups discussing the book. The season leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday sometimes leads to discussions about the significance of Christ. This is a timely book to make sense of a Jesus, who, as Rebecca Pippert describes him in Out of the Saltshakercould be both “delightful and disturbing.”

Jesus Was a Refugee

The Flight into Egypt by Giotto di Bondone

The Flight into Egypt by Giotto di Bondone

Jesus was a refugee.

He and his parents fled a vicious pogrom against the babies of Bethlehem, of which he was the target. Egypt opened its borders and provided a home for this child until the jealous king who sought his death found the death he sought for others.

We were refugees. Many of our forbears sought refuge in this country from famine, economic destitution, political tyranny and religious persecution. The church denomination of which I am a part came to this country as refugees seeking freedom of religion when they could be forcibly drowned simply for teaching a baptism of immersion.

My city has been a haven for refugees. We host the second largest Somali population in North America with over 45,000 living in different neighborhoods across our city. Many families came here in 1991 when warlords made life in Somalia a life and death struggle. Babies then are Buckeyes now, students at Ohio State and other U.S. universities. Somalis have bought homes, paid taxes, run businesses. It has been hard because of fears of ties with terror organizations. Yet the actual incidents of this have been few, but widely publicized. Do we give the same publicity, I wonder, to native-born citizens also drawn into these organizations?

Now refugees are pouring into Western countries from Syria. The estimates are that three million have fled Syria and 6.5 million are internally displaced, many in refugee camps in the country. So far our country has accepted 1500 refugees or .5 percent of those who have fled the country. We say we’ll take 10,000 more.

I’ve heard all the arguments against taking more–the costs, the risks. No doubt there is some truth in all of it. There are those more learned than I who can parse all this out. I’m stuck back at the first sentence in this post:

Jesus was a refugee.

This is the same Jesus who later said, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:40, NIV).

It makes me wonder, if Jesus had sought refuge in America, would we have closed our borders? And if we did, what would that have meant for the world? And what about the many other refugees who came to our country? Albert Einstein, Elie Wiesel, Bela Bartok, Madeline Albright, Miriam Makeba, Isabel Allende, and Henry Kissinger are but a few.

I do not mean to suggest that we turn a blind eye to risks. But it seems that in the hysterical fears that would close our borders, we may protect ourselves from terror at the risk of excluding those who might be our saviors, or who may immensely enrich our society by their genius and unique contributions.

Jesus was a refugee.

What Would Bring Them Together?

The Crucifixion, As Seen From the Cross, James Tissot

The Crucifixion, As Seen From the Cross, James Tissot

What would bring together a Libyan, at least two criminals, urban natives, provincial dwellers, and diaspora people, women, children, the religious and cultural elite, and forces of an occupying army? On the first Good Friday it was the execution by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. If you don’t believe me, read the narrative of Luke 23:26-56:

  • Soldiers lead him away (v. 26) and mock him (v. 36).
  • Simon of Cyrene (a town on the coast of Libya) is impressed to carry the cross (v. 26).
  • A crowd of people including women follow (v. 27). Likely this included both residents of Jerusalem and diaspora Jews in town for the feast of the Passover. From Jesus’ words in v. 28, living and children yet unborn might have been there as well.
  • Two criminals were executed, one on each side of Jesus (v. 32).
  • Rulers of the people join in mocking Jesus (v. 35).
  • A Roman centurion (the officer leading the group of 100 troops garrisoned there and probably participating in the crucifixion) praises God and says “surely this was a righteous man” (v. 47)
  • Joseph, a Judean member of the religious elite, secures Jesus’ body and lays it in a grave (vv. 50-51).
  • Women from Galilee, a provincial region from which Jesus came, followed Joseph and noted the location of the tomb so they could return with spices and perfumes (which would mask the smell of the decaying body).

Only recently did I reflect on the wide array of humanity that the crucifixion brought together–people who otherwise would not associate. Different social classes, urban and rural dwellers, Jews and Gentiles, people from Palestine, Africa, and Eurasia, men and women, oppressed and oppressors, criminals and those who sentenced them all were at the cross.

This was not a “kumbayah moment” by any means. And yet this gathering in a strange way pre-figured the new humanity, the “beloved community” that would arise from the death of Jesus on a Roman gibbet. It didn’t happen all at once, but within fifteen years or so there was a community like this in Syrian Antioch consisting of both Jews and Gentiles that reflected this kind of diversity–so much so that outsiders coined a neologism to describe them–“Christians”–and it stuck.

Diversity and inclusion is a big thing in the university context in which I work. And yet I’m struck by the stark contrasts that I’ve witnessed this week in the realization of this vision. On one hand, I listened to the newly invested first African-American president of the university where I am engaged in ministry speak of “inclusion with excellence.” It was a moment not unlike the inauguration in 2008 of President Obama. In the same week, I listened to the news reports of a university campus in Kenya with students with aspirations much like those with whom I work that was turned into a killing field.

It is hard to be flung back and forth between such high aspirations and such virulent hatred. Yet Good Friday reminds me that the followers of the crucified One, when most faithful to their calling become a community drawing together all the polar opposites and scattered peoples found at the foot of the cross and more. The apostle Paul wrote about this saying, “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15b-16, NIV).

If you don’t share my Christian convictions and have read this far, I thank you for extending such grace to my words. Truthfully, I’m writing more to speak to myself and perhaps to those who share my convictions. Against all the polarities we are tempted to create, God’s story is one of surprising us again and again by turning the “other” into a brother or sister, the despised “enemy” into my neighbor, and the criminal or oppressor I consider beyond hope to one with whom I’ll share paradise.

And it all began one Friday afternoon at a crucifixion…

A God, A Rulebook, or Trustworthy Testimony

Bible open to John 5. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

Bible open to John 5. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

What am I talking about? The Bible, the Christian scriptures.

Some people treat the Bible as if it was the fourth member of the Godhead. Sometimes, it seems we are more zealous to defend a notion of what the Bible is than we are for God’s glory, God’s reputation in the world.

I think many view the Bible as a book of rules. Do these things and you will go to heaven. Don’t do these things and God will get you. Let the people into our community who keep the rules. Exclude the ones who don’t. Study hard so you know the rules. If you are creative, figure out ways to extend the rules to every situation, even ones never envisioned by the rules. Exclude those who don’t agree with your creative interpretations. Congratulate yourself on your diligence in study and rule-keeping. You are one of God’s star pupils.

Of course, that is only good if you are good at study and rule-keeping and many of us are honest enough to admit that we are not. So, should we just pack it in since we are in a mess with God anyway? I think that is how a number of people feel.

This Sunday, our church looked at John 5:19-46 together. Verses 39 and 40 suggest a very different reason for the scriptures:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life.These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,  yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Jesus is proposing that the Bible is neither God nor a rule book but rather testimony about himself that can be trusted. The central idea of the Bible is to help people find life through trusting and following Jesus. The Pharisees, who were great at battling for the Bible and devising ingenious rule-keeping strategies were missing the point. In fact they were so caught up in these things that they were refusing something better, real life, being connected to the God who made them through his Son who had come to them.

But, you say, there really are a lot of rules in the Bible. It sure looks like a rule book in places. What’s that all about? There are two ways to answer this. One is that the rules really reflect what God is like and what we need to be like to live with Him. They tell us we need God to do something both to wipe the slate clean from all the ways we break the rules, and to deal with our propensity to do the opposite of what God wants for us. That something is Jesus and the life he gives means both forgiveness for what we’ve done and the power to increasingly live differently.

The second answer is that the instructions and commands we find, especially those given by Jesus and in the New Testament are not rules but tell us how we might most faithfully and joyfully enter into the life Jesus has for us. They teach us how to love God and each other and to experience wholeness in our own selves.

There’s a good deal more that can be said about all this so if you have questions, leave them in the comments and let’s talk!

The real deal that I want to come back to is that the most important thing to look for when reading the Bible is how it points us toward Jesus. Earlier in the passage we see this is the Jesus who claims equality with the Father and to have been entrusted with the Father’s authority both to give life and to judge (verses 19-27). If that’s true, then there is no one more important to know!

So, if you are spiritually seeking, then it seems one of the most important questions you can ask as you read the Bible is, how does this testify to Jesus and what is this telling me about him? In some sense, all of the Bible does this, but I would suggest for newbie Bible readers that the gospels do this most clearly.

And for those who are Christ-followers, how are we viewing the Bible? Have we gotten caught up in some form of Bible wars? Are we congratulating ourselves on how well we keep the rules, or how much we know about the Bible? Or are we not paying much attention at all to what it says, depending on sermons to do that for us? What John says is that this book tells us who Jesus is and how we can find abundant life as we get to know and follow him better and better.

Going Deeper Question: How do you think about the Bible, and how are you interacting with it?

“Our Healing is in our Obedience”

Pieter Aertsen 1507/08 – 1575 The Healing of the Cripple of Bethesda

Pieter Aertsen 1507/08 – 1575
The Healing of the Cripple of Bethesda

“Our healing is in our obedience.”

I’ve been musing on this phrase ever since Rich [Hagopian, for those of you who don’t know my pastor] said this during this past Sunday’s message on the healing of the invalid at the pool of Bethesda in John 5:1-15.

The basic story is that Jesus comes upon this man who he has learned has been in this condition for 38 years. It was believed that if you could get into the water when it was stirred, you could be healed.

Jesus asks him, “do you want to be well?” The man never answers this searching question. Yet it had to be asked–you can get accustomed to being sick, having others care for you and so forth, to the point that healthy life is the scary thing.

Instead, the man gives the many reasons why he could not get into the pool before others. This provokes all kinds of questions and one wonders if this is a pretty lame excuse.

Jesus neither questions the answer or re-asks his original question. Jesus doesn’t blame or judge him. Instead, Jesus simply tells him to get up and take his mat with him. The man does what Jesus says, and in so doing, in the moment of obedience, finds himself healed. His healing is in his obedience. In doing what Jesus says, he finds he is able to walk.

It seems to me that this speaks to those critical moments where we face the choice to trust and follow Jesus in some critical area of obedience, or not. On the one hand, we often can come up with many reasons why we haven’t been able to follow up until now. On the other hand, we sometimes want all kinds of assurances and proofs that Jesus will heal us, help us, be with us, before we follow.

And like this incident, there will be times where none of it matters.

The only thing in those moments is, will we trust that Jesus knows what he is doing enough to do what he says? Sometimes, that is all he will give us and we can only find whether he is true by obeying him.

Probably in my own life, the area where I’ve most been challenged by this is in the matter of giving. It seems crazy, mathematically at least, to set aside a portion of my salary each month for kingdom purposes and to somehow believe that what remains (especially after Uncle Sam gets his chunk!) will be enough. There is no way to know that will be the case before you do it! Yet the crazy paradox is that it is the times when I’ve not been faithful in giving where I’ve felt the most financially stressed. Leaning into giving and generosity, as crazy as it seems, has been the thing that has helped heal me from being obsessed about having “enough.” My healing in the areas of worry about money has been in obedience.

And God has taken care of us through 36-plus years of marriage, and sometimes miraculously, such as the time when we were facing $2000 in unreimbursed medical bills, and the same day we added this up we received a gift of $2000 from someone who said God had told them to send us a check.

I continue to face these moments where I simply have to decide, will I trust Jesus enough to do what he says, laying aside my excuses and not asking for any proofs (which really don’t make obedience easier).

What about you? It might be that the place where you find it hard to trust and obey is the very place where Jesus can bring healing as you obey. What does “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” look like for you?

This blog also appears on Smoky Row Brethren Church’s Going Deeper blog.

The Great Disruption

Disruptions.

I don’t like them. I’m a creature of routine, compulsively so my wife might say. In our Christmas Eve service last night, our pastor reflected on the giant disruption that the coming of Jesus represented. Among other things his coming:

Nativity holy family

  • Nearly wrecked the marriage plans of Mary and Joseph.
  • Disrupted the life of the family in Bethlehem who hosted them (see my post reviewing Open Hearts in Bethlehem for more on this).
  • Broke into the quiet night of shepherds.
  • Sent the Magi on a journey following a strange star.
  • Enraged Herod the King, threatened by a possible rival.
  • Led to a sojourn as an undocumented immigrant in Egypt.
  • Led eventually to a new numbering of years around the “thought to be” year of his birth.

His life was pretty disruptive as well as he:

  • Defied temptations to comfort, power, and acclaim.
  • Broke the power of illness and evil in countless lives.
  • Drove the money-changers from the “house of prayer for the nations.”
  • Challenged a religious system that divided one people into “law keepers” and “sinners” offering no hope for the latter.
  • Defied the messianic expectations of crowds and disciples to break a more oppressive power than Rome and win a greater victory.

I cannot celebrate Christmas without celebrating the “great disruption” of my life by this child, servant king. It is easy for me to focus on the parts of that disruption that I like — the forgiveness of sins, the love of God, the hope of eternal life. That’s a lot better than alienation and hopelessness. But this is a disruption that calls me out of self-centeredness to the love of God and others. It disrupts my checkbook, my comfort, my politics, and my associations. It disrupts the “either-or” ways of dividing the world into “us” and “them”, a world of “allies” and “enemies”. Sometimes it means not being understood by any of the people who love these divisions.

Our sentimental ideas of peace on earth have little to do with the shalom of God. To get lions to lie down with lambs represents the disruption of a predatory system. Exalting the humble and humbling the proud represents the disruption of systems of power, privilege, injustice and economic disparity.

This Christmas I’m praying that the coming of King Jesus will disrupt the racial divisions and wounds of our land. Maybe the disruption in my life will begin with some of my friends who I will not join in the litanies of “what is wrong with them.” Frankly, the disruption of Jesus makes me far more aware of the “logs” in my own eye that I need help getting rid of. Maybe the disrupting shalom of Jesus’s coming is meant to bring the quiet that cuts off our blathering, defending and denouncing in mid-sentence. What difference might it make to our national conversation if some of us would just shut up and listen?

It doesn’t seem very “Christmas-y” to wish you disruptions in your life. Yet, to say “come Lord Jesus” seems to be an invitation to life-giving disruption. Neither as individuals nor as a nation can we be all we are meant to be without such disruptions. And so this Christmas day I say “come, Lord Jesus!”