Jesus v. Moses: a translation conundrum

Jesus v. Moses: a translation conundrum

At the end of Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch, he makes a curious statement (Acts 13:38-39). It’s hard to figure out what he means. There’s no way a translation can be neutral, here. You have to interpret stuff to make it coherent. What does Paul say? I’ll quote the Common English Bible for a good, representative translation–pay attention to the areas I underline, because that’s where the question marks are:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, know this: Through Jesus we proclaim forgiveness of sins to you. From all those sins from which you couldn’t be put in right relationship with God through Moses’ Law, through Jesus everyone who believes is put in right relationship with God

Acts 13:38-39, Common English Bible

The two questions are this:

  1. What do the two words mean that the CEB translated as “be put in right relationship with God?” Your English version probably has “justified” or “made righteous.” What do they mean, in this context?
  2. Next, what exactly is Paul referring to when he refers to “Moses’ law”?

These questions don’t have obvious answers. I’ll briefly explain why and provide my own conclusions, in reverse order.

What is Moses’ law in Acts 13:38-39?

How is Paul seeing “Moses’ law,” here? There seem to be at least three options:

  1. If Paul is taken literally, then there was no salvation before Christ. If true, then Abraham wasn’t justified—but that is false (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3)—Old Covenant saints were justified by faith. This option is incorrect.
  2. If Paul is obliquely referring to the perversion of the law under which so many Jews groaned (cf. his own experience—Rom 7—that the law was the vehicle for righteousness), then it could make sense because Jesus fulfilled the law’s demands and taught a correct view of it (R.J. Knowling, Acts, in Expositor’s Greek Testament, p. 297; F.F. Bruce, Acts, in NICNT, pp. 278-279; Simon Kistemaker, Acts, p. 488; John Calvin, Acts, p. 572).
  3. Or, if Paul is referring Jesus making the final atonement and granting perfect peace in heart and mind (Schnabel, Acts, in ZECNT, p. 584), this could also make sense.

The second sense seems to be best because, as Bruce notes, that’s the way Paul frames the matter in his epistles! This is perhaps the most difficult bit of Paul’s argument to follow in Romans and Galatians. Paul generally didn’t argue against the Old Covenant law as it really was. Instead, he argued against the perverted form of it that was common in his day. Unless you get that, I don’t believe you’ll get his discussions of the law v. gospel in his epistles. This has been the source of endless confusion among both pastors and church members. The law was never a vehicle for becoming righteous. It was a prescribed code to regulate an existing saving relationship, and to bring awareness of your own sinfulness–so you’ll embrace the Messiah when he comes to fulfill the law’s demands in your place. Your children don’t do their chores in order to become part of your family. They do their chores because they already are part of your family, and are simply meeting obligations of that relationship.

So, I believe we should assume both that (1) Luke captured the sense of Paul’s words correctly (contra. C. K. Barrett, Acts, in ICC, 1:650), and (2) that Paul was consistent in the way he framed the law and the Gospel when he spoke to Jewish audiences. When he said Jesus could free them from the sins which the Mosaic Law couldn’t, he was in essence saying “you were taught you’d be made righteous by following the law, but you can’t do it right, and your sins always remind you of that! But, guess what? Anyone who believes in Jesus is set free from that never-ending treadmill of failure, that unending quest to earn salvation!”

What do those two words mean?

Look at your bible. What can Jesus do, that Moses’ law (properly understood) could not do? English translations vary. Here are some different usages (I paraphrase the sense but keep their word choices):

  1. ESV, NASB, RSV: Moses’ law couldn’t free you, but Jesus will free you.
  2. ISV: Moses’ law couldn’t justify you, but Jesus will justify and free you.
  3. NLT: Jesus will make you right, but Moses’ law couldn’t.
  4. NET, KJV, Jay Adams, CSB: Jesus can justify you, but Moses’ law could not.
  5. NEB, REB: Jesus can acquit you, but Moses’ law couldn’t.
  6. NIV: Jesus will set you free, which is a justification Moses’ law couldn’t achieve.
  7. Phillips: Jesus can absolve you, whereas Moses’ law couldn’t set you free.
  8. CEB: Jesus will put you into right relationship with God, whereas Moses’ law couldn’t put you into right relationship with God.
  9. N.T. Wright: Jesus can set you right, but Moses’ law couldn’t set you right (the same sense as CEB, above, but with different words).

As far as what on earth δικαιωθῆναι and δικαιοῦται mean (our two words), the most logical sense is “freedom” from the perversion of the law that Judaism too often championed. That is, freedom from the error that Moses’ law was a vehicle for salvation. That idea is wrong; it was never a means of “being made right” before God. Rather, it was the prescribed shape for one’s already existing relationship with God by faith in the promised Messiah! This is the same “freedom” Paul championed in Romans and Galatians.

I believe that, in his conclusion at Acts 13:38-39, Paul is calling them to believe in Jesus as Messiah and obliquely pushing against their false idea of salvation at the same time. He doesn’t stop to explain why their perverted view of Moses’ law was wrong. He assumes they hold this wrong view (he’s speaking during a synagogue service!), and that assumption is behind his statement that Jesus can free them from the weight of perfection they assume they must meet, according to their wrong view of Moses’ law.

As far as translation goes, here are my thoughts:

  1. You must strike a balance between translation and exposition. That is, if your translation veers off too far into explaining what it means, then you’ve lost your balance. That means a translation has to be willing to leave some ambiguity on difficult subjects, or it won’t be a translation. That’s why commentaries and sermons exist–to explain and apply.
  2. The renderings “justify” and “made righteous” are of little value. They communicate nothing to unbelievers. I think we ought to freshen the concepts up by setting these words aside, and choosing words that actually communicate.
  3. There are two good options for translating these words. First, it could carry the sense of being declared to be conformed to God’s will in purpose, thought, and action (Abbott-Smith, Manual Lexicon, p. 116), or to be acquitted or cleared in a legal sense (Mounce, Expository Dictionary, p. 1125; cf. BDAG, p. 249, ¶2). Another possibility is that of freedom or release from a claim that no longer has any hold over you (BDAG, p. 249, ¶3; cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:650; Phillips trans.).
  4. If you choose the sense of acquittal, you mean that Moses’ law could never do that for you, but Jesus can. But, the Bible doesn’t teach that Moses’ law was ever meant to do that, so you’ll have to assume that Paul is implicitly referring to the wrong version of Moses’ law that was common at the time. This is possible.
  5. If you go for the “freedom from *****” scenario, you’re basically saying the same thing, but you’re framing it more as a welcome escape from an impossible burden–“I can’t follow the law perfectly, so I’m always gonna be a failure, so how do I escape this unending cycle!?” So, Paul says, “freedom is here, and it’s in Christ!”

With either option, you have to assume a great deal about what Paul means when he speaks about Moses’ law. You can only get that from his epistles, primarily Galatians and Romans. This isn’t the place to “prove” a position on that score, so I’ll simply conclude with that. My answers to the two initial questions are:

  1. Both words give the sense of “freedom or release from a claim or obligation that no longer has any hold.”
  2. When Paul refers to Moses’ law, he means the wrongheaded interpretation of Moses’ law that was common at the time–that the law was a vehicle for achieving a right relationship with God.

After all that, here is my translation of Acts 13:38-39:

γνωστὸν οὖν ἔστω ὑμῖν ἄνδρες ἀδελφοί ὅτι διὰ τούτου ὑμῖν ἄφεσις ἁμαρτιῶν καταγγέλλεται καὶ ἀπὸ πάντων ὧν οὐκ ἠδυνήθητε ἐν νόμῳ Μωϋσέως δικαιωθῆναι ἐν τούτῳ πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων δικαιοῦται

So, understand this,[1] brothers and sisters: forgiveness of sins is announced to you right now,[2] through[3] Jesus,[4] and[5] from all those sins from which you weren’t able to be set free[6] by Moses’ law—by Jesus[7] everyone who believes is set free!


[1] This is very odd grammar. In γνωστὸν οὖν ἔστω ὑμῖν, there seems to be an implied imperative subject (which could be rendered as “let this”), of which γνωστὸν is the predicate nominative. The result is something like “Therefore, let this be known to you …” I made it more colloquial.

[2] I take καταγγέλλεται to be a descriptive present, picturing an event unfolding at the time of speaking. The wording “right now” tries to capture that flavor. It’s very tempting to ditch the passive voice and render it as a present (e.g. CEB), but I resisted the urge.  

[3] The preposition expresses personal agency.  

[4] Jesus is the pronoun’s antecedent.  

[5] This is καὶ, in an additive sense (cf. Tyndale; N.T. Wright, Kingdom New Testament). It could be ascensive (Barrett, Acts, 1:650), but I decided it was best as additive.  

[6] δικαιωθῆναι is a simple infinitive, complementing οὐκ ἠδυνήθητε. The word here, commonly translated “righteous,” carries the sense of being declared to be conformed to God’s will in purpose, thought, and action (Abbott-Smith, Manual Lexicon, p. 116), or to be acquitted or cleared in a legal sense (Mounce, Expository Dictionary, p. 1125; cf. BDAG, p. 249, ¶2). Another possibility is that of freedom or release from a claim that no longer has any hold over you (BDAG, p. 249, ¶3; cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:650; Phillips trans.).

[7] I take ἐν τούτῳ to be depicting personal agency (“by/through Jesus”), but it could be the object of the verb (“everyone who believes in Jesus,” cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:651).

A kingdom without borders

A kingdom without borders

This Sunday, I preached on Epiphany, which is when the Church around the world celebrates the revelation of the Gospel to the Gentiles, often in the person of the magi who came from the East to worship the Christ child in Bethlehem. This precious event shows us that God’s kingdom is one without borders, where anyone who thirsts for righteousness can enter in.

Here, I’ll provide the sermon, along with the introduction and concluding exhortation.

Same song, different day

Picture three scenes. They have very different contexts, but they each have something in common. Try to figure out what that is:

Scene 1: A.D. 57:[1] Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, charged with bringing Gentiles into the inner courtyard (Acts 21:27-36)—this “crime” doesn’t exist in the Old Covenant!

Scene 2: A resolution from the Clarendon Baptist Church, in Alcolu, SC, in October 1957, in the wake of cultural backlash against the Brown v. Board of Education decision:[2]

We believe that integration is contrary to God’s purposes for the races, because: (1) God made men different races and ordained the basic differences between races; (2) Race has a purpose in the Divine plan, each race having a unique purpose and distinctive mission in God’s plan; (3) God meant for people of different races to maintain their race purity and racial indentity [sic] and seek the highest development of their racial group. God has determined “the bounds of their habitation

Scene 3: Post 9/11 America. Conservative evangelical Christians ramped up their anti-Muslim rhetoric.[3] You hear repeated statements about how Islam is bloodthirsty, a religion of hate. Jerry Vines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared Muhammad was a “demon-possessed pedophile.” A church member gave me a book that argued that the antichrist will be a Muslim. There arose a cottage industry of evangelical charlatans who claimed they were former terrorists who knew “the truth” about Islam. I heard a missionary’s wife refer angrily to Muslims as “bastards of Islam.

What do these three scenes have in common?

The urge to exclude people “not like us” (whatever that “us” might be, it doesn’t matter what) from God’s kingdom—implicitly or explicitly:

  • Scene 1. There is no biblical warrant for a physical barrier between Court of Gentiles and the temple proper.
  • Scene 2. No biblical warrant for segregation in God’s family based on race.[4]
  • Scene 3. The implicit (and often explicit) message was, “Muslims are dangerous, Muslims will kill you, and President Obama is likely a Muslim who wants to impose sharia law.”

What does God say about this urge, this tendency of ours, that’s common to every culture? Who can join God’s kingdom?

Our passage today, from Matthew 2:1-12, tells us all about that. We’ll tackle it in two movements–(1) the foreigners arrive in Jerusalem, and (2) the foreigners arrive in Bethlehem.

Greek translation nerdiness

I translated two portions of the passage. I put that info here, just because I can’t think of another place they ought to go. If you know Koine Greek, and you’re interested in my translation and my syntax notes, then read on. Otherwise, skip this section.

Matthew 2:1-2 translation

Now, after[5] this Jesus[6] was born in Judean[7] Bethlehem in the days of Herod the King—listen to this, now![8]astrological scholars [9] from the East arrived in Jerusalem. They were asking everyone, [10] “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?[11] We[12] saw his star from[13] the East and we’ve come to worship him!”[14]

Matthew 2:9-11 translation

Now, after they heard from the king, they went out—and look![15]the star they’d seen in the East led them onward, until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When[16] they saw the star, they rejoiced with an unspeakable joy.[17] They went[18] into the house and saw the child with Mary,  his mother, and they fell on their knees[19] and worshiped[20] the boy. Then, they opened up their strongboxes and presented the child with gifts[21]—gold, worship incense,[22] and fragrant ointment.

Exhortation

Why did God bring these Eastern scholars to Bethlehem, that night?[23] Because the angels made the same announcement to them, that they made to the shepherds up to two years before, at the same time—it just took them nearly two years to get there!

Contrast that with what passed for the “Jewish nation,” at the seat of power in Jerusalem:

  • a dying, homicidal king—with delusions of grandeur!—who hatches a plan to kill the Messiah
  • scribes who are the worst example of civil servants = they can tell the scholars how to find the Messiah, but can’t be bothered to worship Him themselves![24]

Why did nobody else follow that star that dark night outside Jerusalem, to see what it meant? It’s possible these scholars from the East will rise up in judgment with the Queen of Sheba and the people of Nineveh (Mt 12:41-42)—because they believed when they had so little revelation. But the folks who ought to have known best … didn’t believe a word of it, or were too occupied with their lives to care

What is God teaching us?

  • That His kingdom has never had nationalist borders—it’s always been open to anyone who worships and obeys Christ. 
  • That sometimes the people who “know God” don’t Him at all.

What does God want us to do with what He’s saying—how can this make us more like Christ?

  • The church must accept anyone … if they come to worship and obey Christ. The shape of truth application depends on context. In Jesus’ cultural context, it meant non-Jews could actually be part of God’s family.
  • In a 2022 American context, it could mean many things. Think of a type of person (a cultural “other,” a true believer) with whom you’d be “uncomfortable” worshiping God on a Sunday morning, and then resolve to shove your discomfort aside.
  • Gentiles in Israel, black Christians in white churches, Muslims in American churches—who will be the next?

Epiphany teaches us that the only borders around God’s kingdom should be:

  • do I believe Christ is Lord and King?
  • have I bowed before Him in worship?   

And now, here is the sermon:


[1] My date here is from F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 475.

[2] Quoted in J. Russell Hawkins, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Support White Supremacy (New York: Oxford, 2021), p. 45.

[3] See Laurie Goldstein, “Seeing Islam as ‘Evil’ Faith, Evangelicals Seek Converts,” in New York Times. 27 May 2003. https://nyti.ms/3HO1M0A. “Evangelicals have always believed that all other religions are wrong, but what is notable now is the vituperation.” See also FBFI Resolution 02.02 “Concerning Islam.”

[4] On the sociological role of this issue as early as the antebellum era, Mark Noll has written: “It was no coincidence that the biblical defense of slavery remained strongest in the United States, a place where democratic, anti-traditional, and individualistic religion was also strongest. By the nineteenth century, it was an axiom of American public thought that free people should read, think, and reason for themselves. When such a populace, committed to republican and democratic principles, was also a Bible-reading populace, that proslavery biblical case never lacked for persuasive resources,” (The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p. 34).

[5] The participle γεννηθέντος is temporal.

[6] The article with Jesus in Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ anaphoric. John Broadus notes, “Literally, the Jesus, the one just mentioned; ‘this Jesus’ would be too strong a rendering, but it may help to show the close connection,” (Gospel of Matthew, in American Commentary, ed. Alvah Hovey (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p. 15).

[7] A subjective genitive. There is more than one Bethlehem in the ancient world; e.g. Bethlehem of Zebulun (Josh 19:15). This “Judean Bethlehem” simply clarifies where Jesus was born.

[8] The particle ἰδοὺ is meant to draw attention to what follows. It’s a deliberate interjection to arrest the reader’s attention (BDAG, p. 468). Most EVV don’t translate it, which I think is a mistake. It might not make for smooth literature per se, but it’s what Matthew wrote, and we need to do something to catch the reader’s ear, in the same way.

[9] The terms “wise men” and “magi” communicate nothing. The term has its origins in the court magicians of the East (e.g. in the Babylon of Daniel’s era) who were experts in astrology, interpretations of dreams and visions, and other occult arts (BDAG, p. 608, 1). Later, into the NT era, the term broadened and referred to refer to a wide variety of men interested in dreams, magic, books, astrology, etc. (Carson, Matthew, p. 85).

It’s this last sense that fits best, here. “Matthew is probably using the word in a more general sense for the learned court advisers of Mesopotamia or Persian whose work involved studying ancient and sacred texts, as well as watching for movements of planets and stars that might be interpreted as divine messages,” (Mark Krause, “Wise Men, Magi,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016). The term could also refer to actual sorcerers or occultists, like the pre-conversion Simon (Acts 8) or the unfortunate Elymas (Acts 13). That is not likely, here.

So, I went with astrological scholars, because of the influence of the star. I could shorten it to “astrologers,” but that makes them sound a bit like New Age kooks.

[10] The participle λέγοντες is present-tense, and the context suggests they were asking repeatedly. Herod only “heard this,” they didn’t ask him directly. Herod sought them out. He could only have heard about their quest if they’d been asking many people, repeatedly. So, I translated this with an iterative flavor. It is attendant circumstance, contra. Quralles (EGGNT, Mt 2:1), whose preference for a purpose participle here would lead to an over-translated mess.

[11] A more literal rendering would be: “where is the one who was born king of the Jews?” (ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων). The participle is the subject (Christ), and “king” is a predicate nominative, denoting an attribute the infant had from birth.  

[12] I dropped the explanatory γὰρ completely. 

[13] The preposition is spatial. 

[14] On “worship,” see the discussion at v. 9. Why hadn’t Jerusalem and Bethlehem embraced the boy as the Messiah, in light of the shepherd’s testimonies (cf. Lk 2:17-18)? It’d been two years, after all! Probably for the same reason some Christians today are extremely skeptical at reports that God still performs miracles. For example, few people have heard about Ed Wilkenson and his son, Brad, whom God miraculously healed of an atrial septal defect, with two holes in his heart. The boy and his father prayed for deliverance, and even had special intercession from their church, but all seemed hopeless as the boy went in for surgery. They determined the holes had disappeared, which had not been the case on x-rays done just the day before. The doctors were flabbergasted, and had no explanation. Brad is still fine, is now an adult, and played baseball later that same week. There was no surgery. See the account, with footnotes from personal interviews and review of medical documentation, in Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 1:430-432.

What were these ramblings from these loser shepherds, anyway? Meh. Where’s the video evidence!? Away with them!

[15] Again, we have the particle of interjection, and it must be translated. “[L]ooking up to heaven as

they set out on their journey, they once more behold their heavenly guide,” (A.B. Bruce, The Synoptic Gospels, in Expositors Greek Testament (6th ed.), ed. W. Robertson Nicole (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910), p. 73.

[16] ἰδόντες is an adverbial, temporal participle, contra. Charles Quarles, who believes it is causal (Matthew, in EGGNT, Mt 2:10).  

[17] A literal translation would read something like “they were filled with very great joy” (ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα). The verb is passive, which is curious. It’s well-nigh impossible to replicate a passive sense of ἐχάρησαν, so in English we do an end-run around by changing the verb to something like “were filled,” or we drop the passive sense and do “they rejoiced.”

[18] ἐλθόντες is an attendant circumstance, following along after the exquisite joy they felt when they at last reached their destination, contra, Quarles (EGGNT, Mt 2:10), who thinks it’s temporal.  

[19] Πεσόντες is also attendant circumstance. 

[20] The word means “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure,” (BDAG, p. 882; see also Abbott-Smith, p. 386). It could refer to reverence and submission to a human authority figure with no implication of deity (cf. Mt 20:20). However, the context here is worship to the child as the Messianic King—this is their self-proclaimed mission (Mt 2:2), and Herod and his court know it (Mt 2:3-8). One could quibble whether worship to Christ as divine is in view, or merely as “the king.” Most EVV use “worship,” except for the NEB, REB (“paid homage”) and the CEB (“honored him”). Broadus preferred “do homage,” because the scholars appeared to only honor him as king, not as deity (Matthew, p. 18).

[21] The three gifts which follow are accusatives of apposition, explaining what these gifts are—hence the em-dash.

[22] Λίβανον is a balsamic gum from the Boswellia sacra tree, native to southern Arabia and northern Somaliland. When the material hardened, it produced exquisite resin which was typically used for burning incense in religious ceremonies—including temple liturgy (e.g. Ex 30:34; see James Knox, “Frankincense, in Lexham Bible Dictionary). It is better to render it as “pure incense” or something similar; cf. Jay Adams, John Phillips = “incense,” and Julian Anderson = “fine, sweet-smelling incense.”

[23] I believe we have a solid circumstantial to argue that (1) angels announced the Savior’s birth to these Eastern scholars at the same time as they did to the shepherds in the field (cf. Lk 2:8-20), (2) that they followed the star to find the boy, (3) the star acted as a divine GPS and was not a natural phenomenon, and (4) they just now arrived after perhaps two years journey, to worship the boy. This accounts for (1) how they found out about Christ’s birth, and (2) why their knowledge (i.e. a newborn king of the Jews, born somewhere near Jerusalem) comports so well with the announcement the angels made to the shepherds.

Speculation regarding the star is generally absurd, and Broadus sums it up rather well (for the argument seems to have advanced nowhere since his day!): “Taking Matthew’s language according to its obvious import, we have to set aside the above explanations, and to regard the appearance as miraculous; conjecture as to its nature will then be to no profit. The supernatural is easily admitted here, since there were so many miracles connected with the Saviour’s birth, and the visit of the Magi was an event of great moral significance, fit to be the occasion of a miracle,” (Matthew, p. 17).

[24] Broadus: “The scribes should be a warning to all religious teachers, in the pulpit, the Sunday-school, the family; they told others where to find the Saviour, but did not go to him themselves,” (Matthew, p. 21).

The Invasion

The Invasion

This is my 2020 Christmas Eve sermon. The video follows this text, below.

We don’t like intrusions into our world from outside. It makes us nervous. It makes us insecure. It makes us scared!

It’s why UFOs fascinate so many of us. Is it true? Could it be real? Is there actually life “out there?”

It’s why movies about Martians and aliens are so sinister. They always have better technology. They always want to hurt us, and they always scare us.

Those Martian movies are always variations on the same theme:

  1. The arrival—dark, mysterious, sinister, and especially scary music! What does it mean!?
  2. The confrontation—they present their demands, often at the point of a ray-gun, and their demands are usually evil. What do they want, and do they plan to hurt us!?
  3. The struggle—we reject their demands, and war begins. Will the invaders win?

In short, those Martian and alien narratives are pretty simple. We’re the good ones, and the extra-terrestrials are the evil ones. So … shall evil triumph over good? Of course not!

The Christmas story is also about an invasion from another world—but the script we’re used to has been flipped all upside down.

Jesus is that visitor from outside this system who’s come to our alien world. It didn’t used to be an alien world, but it’s become one because we’ve neglected it. We’ve ruined it. We and our world are like a garden that was once beautiful 500 years ago, but is now an overgrown mess of thorns, nettles, garbage and rats.

The bible tells us about Jesus’ arrival:

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Luke 2:8-14

This arrival isn’t dark, mysterious or sinister. There are no spaceships landing in dark cornfields or hovering over city skylines. No explosions. No otherworldly creatures. No exotic technology. And, no frightening music. There’s only an angelic choir, singing to shepherds in their fields at night about a special visitor from the world beyond. And there’s no mystery about what it means—God has come to bring perfect peace to those with whom He’s pleased!

Not just in its arrival, but also in its confrontation, God’s invasion is different from our expectations. Instead of entering this world and making demands at the point of a ray-gun, God has sent His Son to hold out His hand and say, “I’ve come to rescue you from yourself! Won’t you come with me?”

The script we’re so used to has been flipped because our roles are actually different than we think:

Though you wash yourself with lye, and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, declares the Lord GOD

Jeremiah 2:22

What God’s telling us is that we’re the ones who’ve gone rogue. We’re the ones who have the problem. We’re the ones who have invaded and taken over His world. We are the bad guys, and nothing we can do will ever wash that stain away from our hearts, souls and minds.

Think of an intervention. An intervention is when you, family and friends gather to tell someone you love the truth. To shake him out of his stupor and make him really see how he’s destroying himself and hurting those he loves.

This confrontation at Christmas is God’s intervention in all of our lives—in the world’s consciousness. To shake us awake. To make us see how we’re destroying ourselves. Jesus is the One who’s come to sit down on our couches, in our living rooms, to have this difficult conversation with every single one of us. And Christmas is when His journey to our couches and living rooms began.

  1. You’re not ok. You’re unclean and your guilt is like permanent marker on your souls—not a scarlet “A” but a black “C” for “criminal.”
  2. God’s intervention is when His Son came here to live and die for people who hate Him, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
  3. His Resurrection breaks the chain that binds you to Satan, and shines a light to us in darkness to lead us onto the path of perfect peace. It’s when He asks us, “you can be free, so won’t you come with me?”
  4. Pledge allegiance to Him by repenting and believing His message, and He’ll be a perfect and merciful Savior.

What will we do once we hear the message?  

In those Martian movies, the struggle is never quite one-sided. You have better technology wielded by soulless, faceless enemies from another world versus the heart and grit of real, ordinary people … and we somehow always win—against all odds! The enemy gets into his spaceship and flies away, never to be seen again.

But, in God’s eyes, we’re the bad guys and the struggle is one-sided. This isn’t a struggle or a war, because the outcome isn’t in doubt. It’s God lovingly reaching into His ruined world, telling everyone this Good News which is for all the people (ἔσται παντὶ τῷ λαῷ), beckoning them to come to Him and then plucking the millions of people who do come (whom He’s chosen) out of this world and into something better.

How does He do it?

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

Ezekiel 36:25

God’s spin cycle is the best spin cycle! We can’t scrub ourselves clean, but God can make us clean. He gives us His Son’s perfect righteousness. He renovates us; spiritually gutting us like a shabby house and then fixing us all up again.

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

Ezekiel 36:26

A new heart, a new spirit—something better than that cheap, defective stock model we came with from the factory. God doesn’t renovate us so He can turn around and flip us to the highest bidder. He does it so He can keep us for Himself.

And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Ezekiel 36:27

He’ll change us so we’ll love Him and want to do what He says. He makes us new—born again, from above (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν; Jn 3:3).

When the men came from the East following the star, they dealt with Herod the Great that night when they passed through Jerusalem, so many years ago. Over 50 years later, the Apostle Paul told Herod’s great-grandson Agrippa II that God intended this Good News about His Son to open people’s eyes, so that they might turn from darkness to light—from the power of Satan to God, that they might receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who have purified[1] by faith and allegiance in Him (Acts 26:18).

That’s still God’s plan—and in His Son’s invasion, He really does “come in peace!” Repent and turn to God—His intervention is for your own good. Believe His message—we’re the bad guys, and He’s the one who’s come to rescue us despite ourselves. And then rejoice—“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”


Here is the Christmas Eve sermon:


[1] The participle τοῖς ἡγιασμένοις is the perfect tense-form, and ought to be translated that way (NASB, Jay Adams). Most EVV render it as a present of perfect state, as though there had been no antecedent action. Contextually, this is dubious. God moves new believers into his family so that (τοῦ λαβεῖν) they would receive a share or portion (κλῆρον) among those (ἐν) who have been purified (τοῖς ἡγιασμένοις).

One is not like the other …

The Septuagint (“LXX”) is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, dating to sometime in the mid to early 2nd century B.C. It came about because many Jews living abroad, particularly in Egypt, had lost much of their ability to read and speak Hebrew. They need a translation of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures) in their own language. The Mediterranean culture was heavily influenced by Hellenism at this time; a legacy of Alexander the Great’s conquests. So, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek.

This Greek version of the Tanakh was the version Jesus and the apostles used. The majority (but not all) of their Old Testament citations are from the Septuagint. This means the Septuagint is important.

I’m preaching from Zechariah 12:1 – 13:1 next week, as our congregation celebrates the Lord’s Supper. This passage contains the famous prophesy about the Israelites looking to Jesus, whom they pierced (Zech 12:10). This “piercing” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, and echoes an earlier prophet, Isaiah (“but He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities …” Isa 53:5).

But, there’s an interesting problem. The LXX is different from the Hebrew!

One of these is not like the other

Here is the difference between the two:

To be sure, there are a lot of similarities. Both have a transition statement (“and”) to let the reader know a new, related subject is coming. Both have Yahweh declaring that He’ll “pour out” onto David’s house and those who are living in Jerusalem a spirit characterized by grace and mercy. These are things that describe this spirit; it’s merciful and full of grace.

But, here is the difference. The Hebrew clearly has a reference to someone whom the Israelites pierced. They’ll look at Yahweh, who they pierced, and they’ll be ashamed. This isn’t in dispute. Look at some other English translations:

  • KJV: “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced …”
  • RSV: “when they look on Him whom they have pierced …”
  • NASB: “they will look on me whom they have pierced …”
  • NET: “they will look to me, the one they have pierced …”
  • NIV: “they will look on me, the one they have pierced …”
  • NKJV: “they will look on me whom they have pierced …”
  • NLT: “they will look on me whom they have pierced …”

What does the LXX say? It says this:

Then they’ll stare fixedly at me, dumbfounded, because they treated me with hate.

The “look upon” part is still there; I just translated it in a more colloquial fashion (“stare fixedly at me, dumbfounded”). It’s the second part that’s different. The LXX says the Israelites will be astonished because they treated Yahweh with so much hate. How did they do this? Well, presumably, they treated Him with hate (or, despitefully) by rejecting Him for so long … until they didn’t.

The rest of the verse clarifies:

And they’ll grieve for Him, crying as for a loved one. And they’ll be in terrible, painful anguish, like for a firstborn son.

Because they treated Yahweh with so much hate, they’ll grieve for Him. You could translate the pronoun as it, but only if you believe the antecedent is an impersonal object, like the hateful treatment. But, if that were the case, the rest of the verse wouldn’t make too much sense. How can you mourn and grieve for an impersonal object like you would for a loved one, or even a firstborn son? The New English Translation of the Septuagint agrees, and so did Brenton’s translation. The Lexham English Septuagint, however, goes with “it,” but this deliberately a very literal translation.

The best way to understand this is as a third-person, personal pronoun (Him). But, who? Yahweh is talking in the first-person about Himself, but then shifts to third-person and says the Israelites will mourn for Him. This person is Jesus, who the Jews will turn to in the last days when the Spirit is poured out upon them, to convert them to the New Covenant.

Why the change?

The Greek text was clearly changed. The translators messed with it. The Hebrew reads “pierced,” and the Jews who did the translation altered it on purpose. They changed it to read “because they treated me with hate.” Why did they do it?

Maybe because they didn’t like what it said. How can someone “pierce” God? How does that even work? So, they changed it.

But do we know they being malicious? Not really! Perhaps it was more convenient to take this “piercing” in a more figurative sense. You know that feeling you get when someone you care about betrays you in an awful fashion? Isn’t it like having a stake driven right through your heart? Perhaps God felt that way when the Israelites hated Him, so this “piercing” was more metaphorical and poetic. In a colloquial way, the Israelites “cut God really deep” with their actions. Maybe that’s how they justified the change.

“Here, now,” they might have thought, “this is getting to the idea of being treated with malice and hate, so let’s just spell it out plainly, and drop the ‘piercing’ imagery!”

In a parallel way, the NET did a similar thing when it rendered Deuteronomy 10:16. See a comparison:

  • NET: Therefore, cleanse your heart and stop being so stubborn!
  • ESV: Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.

The more literal rendering is to “circumcise” your heart. The NET decided that was too literal, and tried to get to the heart of the phrase by dropping the figurative imagery. That’s not necessarily a problem … unless you’re wrong about what that figurative imagery means!

In this case, assuming I’m right about why the LXX translators changed it, they were certainly wrong about what the imagery meant. It wasn’t imagery at all; Jesus literally was pierced (i.e. died). 

Am I right about the reason for the change? I’ve no idea. Nobody knows why it was changed, so I might as well speculate right along with the commentators. Their guess is as good as mine. When a good textual critical commentary on the LXX of Zechariah comes out, then maybe we’ll have a more informed opinion! After all, there is no monolithic “one Septuagint.” There are many versions of the Septuagint floating around!

Bottom line

The LXX is neat. The LXX is helpful. The LXX is necessary. If you’re a pastor, and you took two years of Greek, you can muddle your way through the LXX. If you took more than the two years of Greek, you can stumble your way through it, like I do.

The LXX of Zechariah 12:10 is different, but it still conveys the same essential meaning. There are two people in the verse; Yahweh and the Person the Israelites will mourn for when they come to faith. This verse is a small snapshot of our triune God.

Sermon – The Coming King (Zechariah 9)

Zech 9The sermon audio is below. Actually, this is a Sunday School lesson. But, the title has been published, so I can’t change it now!

The Book of Zechariah is a neglected book. At 14 chapters, it’s the longest of the so-called Minor Prophets. It’s an obscure book, tucked away in an even more obscure part of the Christian Bible – that wasteland after the Book of Daniel, before the New Testament.

And yet …

This book has perhaps more direct prophesies per column inch about the coming Messiah than any other book in the Bible. It promises a glorious future for the distressed Israelites, a new and better leader who’ll rule over the world in peace and righteousness, promises a new and better covenant, a new and better High Priest, and vows that Israel will be ashamed for betraying and rejecting her Savior. It’s a thrilling book, and a close reading (with a good commentary even closer at hand) will encourage even the most cynical Christian.

This is also the book which prophesies how the Messiah will reveal Himself to the world as King. That prophesy is found in Zechariah 9:9-11 (and following), and it’s what I taught about this morning. It’s a prophesy which bookmarks the start of God’s fulfillment of everything He’s promised to His people, ever since the Garden of Eden.

Micah 5:3 – Mary or Israel?

Micah_prophetIs the prophet Micah referring to Mary (Jesus’ mother in the incarnation), or to Israel? Here is the text (Micah 5:1-4):

1 Now you are walled about with a wall;
siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike upon the cheek
the ruler of Israel.

2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
      when she who is in travail has brought forth;
then the rest of his brethren shall return
to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.

A very brief survey of the text

Micah has circled back from encouragement to dire warnings. The time will come when Jerusalem will be surrounded, besieged, and its king abused. The bit about the “king” is likely a prophetic prediction of Zedekiah’s fate (2 Kings 25:1-7), although Christ could be in view, too. The perpetrators are the Babylonians.

But, in contrast to this gloomy future, the time will come when God will raise up a true king for Himself. This king will come from the little town of Bethlehem, a small city in Judah. The Jews understood this was a Messianic prophesy (see Matthew 2:1-6). This ruler will “come forth from me,” meaning He will be uniquely sent from God. This man’s origin is from the distant past, from ancient days. Whoever He is, He isn’t an ordinary ruler.

Therefore, God will give the Israelites up until this time comes. He’ll abandon them to their enemies, to suffer the covenant curses He warned them about in the wilderness (see Deuteronomy 28-29).

Who is it?

So . . . who is the woman who is in travail, who will bring forth this ruler? Is it a prophesy of Mary, the favored Jewish girl whom God chose to bear His incarnate Son? Or, is Micah referring to Israel as a woman who “brings forth” Jesus?

Jesus and the Sad, Angry Little Men (Mark 3:1-6)

man with handI originally wrote this article for SharperIron.org. Reprinted with permission.

This is a sad little story, because we see sad little men rejecting their great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. They have made void the word of God through their tradition (cf. Mk 7:13). In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ early confrontations with the Pharisees come quickly, one after the other. This particular account is where the water boils over.

Mounting Opposition

First, they questioned why Jesus shares a meal with such “worldly” and “disreputable” people (2:15-17). They don’t ask Jesus; they ask His disciples (Mk 2:16). We’re not sure why the Pharisees don’t approach Jesus directly. But we can guess, knowing ourselves, that they’re a bit tentative and unsure of themselves. Perhaps, they thought, it’ll be better to take the indirect route and cast doubt on His credentials to His followers.

Jesus, ever the polite diplomat, answers immediately with a burst of sarcasm. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” (Mk 2:17). This is a warning shot across the bow, and it’s the first direct contact Jesus has with the Pharisees in Mark’s gospel. This is clearly an adversarial relationship from the very beginning. Jesus didn’t mince words when it came to self-righteous and blasphemous legalism. Matthew preserved another bit of the story, in which Christ verbally backhanded the Pharisees (“Go and learn what this means . . .” Mt 9:13) with a quote from Hosea 6:6.

The next episode follows right on the heels of this discussion (2:18-22). The Pharisees[1] demand to know why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. Jesus responded and prophesied His own death (2:19-20). He then explained the Old Covenant (the old garment) cannot be patched up like an old sweater, or jerry-rigged to accommodate the New Covenant; “new wine is for fresh wineskins,” (2:22). We’re not sure how much of this the Pharisees understood, and Mark didn’t tell us. But, I doubt it was a pleasant conversation.

The final episode is the alleged Sabbath violation (2:23-28). Jesus cited a Scriptural precedent for violating the strict letter of the law under emergency circumstances (2:25-26). He then claimed a divine and Messianic title (“son of man”) and declared He was “lord even of the sabbath,” (2:28).

Mark gives us these incidents one after the other, and the reader is left almost reeling as this freight train of hostility and opposition springs forth from seemingly nowhere. This early enmity comes to a crescendo with the Pharisees storming out of the synagogue and colluding with their enemies to kill Jesus (3:6).

The Confrontation in the Synagogue

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him (Mk 3:1-2).

Again, Mark doesn’t tell us who “they” are, but the context assures us it is the Pharisees.[2] Why is the man there? Is this a coincidence? We know the Pharisees are watching all the time,[3] waiting, their little black notebooks at the ready, cellphone cameras on standby – anxious to gather evidence against Jesus. It is tempting to see the man as a prop, a poor sucker planted there as bait. We don’t know whether that is the case. But, we do know Jesus is being set up. If the Pharisees didn’t plant the poor man there, we can be sure they were at least “pleased” he was there.

Ironically, the Pharisees deny Jesus the right to do good on the Sabbath, while they actively plot to do evil![4]

This little episode is about more than proof for Jesus’ divinity. It is about this single miracle as one of a series of signs and wonders which announced the kingdom of God to those who had ears to hear. The prophets wrote that, when God returned for His people, the blind would receive sight, the deaf would hear, the lame will leap for joy and “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing,” (Isa 35:5-6, 10). Christ appealed to these texts as proof that He was, indeed, the Messiah who had come to bring His people into the figurative promised land of eternal rest (Lk 4:16-21; 7:18-23; cf. Heb 4:1-11).

Rather than ponder the implications of Jesus’ teaching coupled with these signs and wonders, the Pharisees lie in wait in the synagogue like impotent little spiders, weaving a pathetic web of trickery. The man with the withered hand may have been a plant, or just somebody who happened to be there, but one thing is certain – the Pharisees didn’t care about him at all. He was a prop. He was nothing. They didn’t care if Jesus did heal him; they just wanted the evidence for a trial. Like serial killers who take genuine civic pride in obeying the speed limit, these legalists have it all backward.

And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent (Mk 3:3-4).

Jesus knew everything (cf. Jn 2:24-25; Lk 5:6-7; Lk 6:8, etc.). He knew what the Pharisees were up to. He did not run away to fight another day. He felt discretion was no valor at all. He asked an open and rhetorical question designed to unmask their legalistic and blasphemous tradition about the Sabbath. This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus initiates a healing without being approached. Clearly, He decided to make a decisive stand here.[5]

Nobody answered. Nobody said a word. Why not? Jesus had what we now call “command presence.” People listened to Him. He taught with authority (Mk 1:27). I suspect the Pharisees couldn’t have spoken even if they’d wanted to. Mark recorded another, similar incident later in his Gospel (Mk 12:34). They are speechless before this teacher who had such passion, such presence and such intrinsic authority.

What does Jesus mean by asking, “to save life or to kill?” Some commentators believe Jesus was referring to the Pharisees’ own intentions towards Him (cf. 3:6).[6] If that is so, no wonder they dared not answer. “While Jesus is preparing to do good, they are plotting his death! Which is the real Sabbath violation?”[7]

And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mk 3:5).

This is an instantaneous healing, and a true miracle. Jesus does not appeal to God for healing; He simply performs the action Himself. This is very, very different than what the OT prophets did (cf. 1 Kgs 13:6). Jesus is a prophet, but He is as qualitatively different from His Old Covenant counterparts as a glowworm is from a floodlight. He is divine. They were not.

What about the Pharisees’ hearts upset Jesus so much? Their inability to answer His question? Their callousness by using this poor man as a prop for their own wicked ends? Their inability and unwillingness to face the implications of His own teaching and the signs and wonders He performed? Perhaps it was all of this.

The word is usually rendered as “hardness” or “stubbornness” here. Hardness implies they are spiritually insensitive (e.g. Tyndale, “blindness”). Stubbornness gives the sense of stiff-necked inflexibility; they are wilfully rebellious. The NEB translates it as “obstinate stupidity,” which is a delightfully appropriate phrase!

Yes, this miracle is more proof for Jesus’ divinity. But, that is not why Mark wrote it. His didactic purpose is to highlight the scribes’ and Pharisees’ growing opposition in the face of Jesus’ explicit preaching, teaching and divine signs. These miracles are proof that “the kingdom of God is come unto you,” (Mt 12:28). People are healed. Demons are cast out. Jesus, by the Spirit of God, has bound Satan and is plundering his house (Mk 3:27). What must this mean!?

The Pharisees don’t care what it means. They have their evidence. The healed man is irrelevant. He’s served his purpose. Away with him! They ignore him, like some men would ignore a filthy dog (cf. Jn 9:34). Jesus is all that matters; not the implications of His teaching, but the evidence for His alleged “blasphemy.”

Throughout His ministry, Jesus shows a deliberate contempt for the oral tradition which “fenced” the Old Covenant law. The Pharisees feel this is a fundamental betrayal of orthodoxy, and act in fury out of righteous indignation. They are sincere, but they are sincerely wrong. Jesus, however, is not moved by pettiness or or self-righteousness. He is filled with righteous anger.

The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him (Mk 3:6).

The “Herodians” were widely castigated as liberal compromisers.[8] They were not devout. It says something that the Pharisees sought to form an alliance with these men – all in order to kill the Lord of glory. This is their furious response to a whole host of escalating confrontations.[9] Their blood is up. Jesus is a blasphemer who despises the traditions of the fathers. He has now violated the Sabbath twice, and they have the evidence to prove it! Jesus must be destroyed – the law demands it (Ex 31:14-17)! Surely, they reason, God agrees with their zeal . . .

They Did Not Recognize Him . . .

So, off they go, in a huff. Jesus has righteous anger, these Pharisees have self-righteous resentment.[10] The Kingdom of God has broken into human history. The proof is here – behold the signs and wonders! The Messiah is here – behold His teaching! The legalistic externalism of the Pharisees is condemned. True worship flows from the heart and is proven by devoted action (cf. 1 Sam 15:22-23).

This little miracle proves Jesus’ deity, but it is a sad account. Confronted with their Savior, the Pharisees plot His death. The Apostle Paul was right:

For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning him (Acts 13:27).

Notes

[1] The Greek doesn’t specify who came to Jesus; it is simply a third-person plural verb (ἔρχονται). The closest antecedent are the scribes of the Pharisees (2:17). It is reasonable to conclude the Pharisees asked Jesus this question.

[2] See Walter W. Wessel (Mark, in EBC, vol. 8 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 639) and Mark Strauss (Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 147).

[3] The verb here is imperfect (παρετήρουν αὐτὸν), which gives the general sense of an unfolding, continual action in the past. I think the NASB did well to render it as a descriptive imperfect (“they were watching Him . . .”).

[4] Mark Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 98.

[5] Strauss (Mark, 147).

[6] Edwards (Mark, 100) and William Hendriksen, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975), 116.

[7] Strauss (Mark, 148).

[8] For more on the Herodians, see H. W. Hoehner, “Herodian Dynasty,” 5, in Dictionary of the New Testament: Backgrounds, ed. Craig Evans and Stanley Porter (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 493-494.

[9] See William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 121-122.

[10] Hendriksen (Mark, 117).

Jesus and the Paralytic

jesus-and-paralyticWhy did the paralyzed man want to come to Jesus? This account is in each of the synoptic Gospels (Mt 9:1-8; Mk 2:1-12, Lk 5:17-26). It is a famous story. Many people assume the man came simply to be healed. This is what I believed, too. I remember preaching it this way in teen Sunday School, years ago. But, I was never very comfortable with this interpretation. Like Cinderella’s glass slipper on the ugly step-sister, it really didn’t fit.

I am working through the Gospel of Luke for our family devotions, and I came across this passage again last night. As I read it, the thought occurred to me. The man didn’t come to be healed per se – he came because he wanted to hear the Good News from the Messiah.

Matthew does not cover the passage in great detail, but Mark and Luke do. Here is the first portion of the passage:

Mark 2:1-5

Luke 5:17-20

And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them.

And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay.

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”

On one of those days, as he was teaching, there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.

And behold, men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they sought to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus.

And when he saw their faith he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”

Notice what Jesus is doing in Capernaum. He “is teaching.” He is “preaching the word to them.” The article is important. Jesus didn’t preach “a word,” He preached “the word” (τὸν λόγον).

Jesus is preaching the word or message of the Good News of the coming Messianic Kingdom, and commanding people to repent and believe (cf. Mk 1:14-15 ). He is preaching about liberation from spiritual bondage, and recovery of sight to the spiritually blind through repentance and faith in Himself (cf. Lk 4:16-21; Isa 61:1-2). The immediate context in both Mark and Luke’s account is the coming Messianic Kingdom. In Luke, Jesus explicitly identified Himself as the agent who will accomplish this, in God’s stead.

If this is what Jesus is doing (and it is), and if this is the focus of both Gospel accounts (and it is), then perhaps we ought to re-consider why the paralytic asked his friends to bring him to see Christ.

Here are some observations:

  • There is no room to hear Jesus teach – not even at the door. Luke tells us why; “there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem.” The focus is on the teaching, not the miracles.
  • People often assume the paralytic wanted to be near Jesus so he could be healed. Why not assume the man simply wanted to hear Jesus preach “the word?”
  • Jesus sees the corporate faith of all five men (τὴν πίστιν αὐτῶν), and tells the paralyzed fellow, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” Mark records something a bit more personal (“Son”), which is likely an addition from Peter, who was there.
  • If the man simply came to be healed, then (1) what, exactly, was the content of the man’s faith, and (2) what about this faith warranted forgiveness of his sins?

Only Luke observes that “the power of the Lord was with him to heal.” This doesn’t mean the man wasn’t interested in healing, of course. But, it should give us a hint that he doesn’t see Jesus as simply a miracle-man. It is safe to assume the man had two motivations:

  1. He wanted to hear the Good News of the coming Messianic Kingdom, and
  2. He believed Jesus was the Messiah, and was thus capable of healing him, if He chose to do so

Therefore:

  1. Jesus saw the man’s faith, and pronounced his sins forgiven on that basis
  2. This suggests the man believed Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus recognized his desperate struggle to come hear the message of the Messianic Kingdom

The entire focus of the rest of this story is on the charge of blasphemy against Christ, something which will become the key charge against Him throughout His ministry and at His trial. The focus was never on the healing. The healing was incidental, done to prove a point.

I think the man came for the message, not the healing.

Seeing God in Creation

hubble1
Carina Nebula (Courtesy of NASA)

We live in a created world. You can look at this world and see that it was planned, designed, created and is being sustained by an intelligent being. That Being has revealed Himself to us in the pages of the Old and New Testaments. He spoke to us by the prophets of old, like Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, David and Noah. In these last days, He has spoken to us through His Son, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1).

That phrase, “Jesus Christ,” is both a name and a title. “Jesus” is the Greek rendering for the the Hebrew name translated as “Joshua,” which means “God is salvation.” That is His name – Jesus, Joshua, God is salvation. What a fitting name for the Son of God! The word “Christ” is a title, not a last name. It means “Messiah” or “Anointed One.” It means Jesus is the promised descendant from Eve who will crush Satan once and for all (Gen 3:15). He is the Suffering Servant whom Isaiah prophesied about (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). He is the true and great High Priest, clothed in fine garments (Zechariah 3). He is the Israelite prophet like Moses, whom all people are obligated to listen to (Deuteronomy 18:15ff). He is the One who King David prophesied about, whom the Lord will never allow to remain in the grave and see corruption (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27-31, 13:35-38). He is the one who is righteous and just, who came on the scene in a meek and lowly manner bearing the glorious message of salvation, reconciliation, forgiveness and adoption for all those who repent and believe His Good News (Zechariah 9:9).

This is who Jesus Christ is; the Anointed and Chosen One sent by God, who is God, who is salvation, who bears the message of salvation, who offers the refreshing and life-giving waters of eternal life (John 4:14) to sinners who are dead in their own trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). He is the One who is co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father, who voluntarily and willingly left the Father’s throne room in heaven and came here to live a perfect and sinless life, and to die a sacrificial and substitutionary death for men, women, boys and girls from every tribe, language, people and nation on earth (cf. Revelation 5:9).

If you’re a Christian, it is He “who has qualified you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” (Colossians 1:12b-14). If you’re not a Christian, then you have no cloak or pathetic pretense (cf. John 15:22ff) for your continued rebellion and insurgency against Him. The Apostle Peter said,

He commanded us to preach to the people and to warn them that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. About him all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10:42-43).

Peter also warned,

But the things God foretold long ago through all the prophets – that his Christ would suffer – he has fulfilled in this way. Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you – that is, Jesus. This one heaven must receive until the time all things are restored, which God declared from times long ago through his holy prophets.

Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must obey him in everything he tells you. Every person who does not obey that prophet will be destroyed and thus removed from the people.’

And all the prophets, from Samuel and those who followed him, have spoken about and announced these days. You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed.’ God raised up his servant and sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each one of you from your iniquities (Acts 3:18-26).

You’re reading these words from a device which was deliberately engineered and designed by professionals to work just like it’s working right now. It is the same with this world we’re living in. The obvious intelligent design of the world around us tells us that God exists.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky displays his handiwork. Day after day it speaks out; night after night it reveals his greatness. There is no actual speech or word, nor is its voice literally heard. Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth; its words carry to the distant horizon. In the sky he has pitched a tent for the sun. Like a bridegroom it emerges from its chamber; like a strong man it enjoys running its course. It emerges from the distant horizon, and goes from one end of the sky to the other; nothing can escape its heat (Psalm 19:1-6)

Yet, all too often, we ignore the plain evidence of God in creation. We pass by the world around us without a second glance.

Bright, however, as is the manifestation which God gives both of himself and his immortal kingdom in the mirror of his works, so great is our stupidity, so dull are we in regard to these bright manifestations, that we derive no benefit from them. For in regard to the fabric and admirable arrangement of the universe, how few of us are there who, in lifting our eyes to the heavens, or looking abroad on the various regions of the earth, ever think of the Creator? Do we not rather overlook Him, and sluggishly content ourselves with a view of his works? And then in regard to supernatural events, though these are occurring every day, how few are there who ascribe them to the ruling providence of God—how many who imagine that they are casual results produced by the blind evolutions of the wheel of chance? Even when, under the guidance and direction of these events, we are in a manner forced to the contemplation of God, (a circumstance which all must occasionally experience,) and are thus led to form some impressions of Deity, we immediately fly off to carnal dreams and depraved fictions, and so by our vanity corrupt heavenly truth (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge [reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008], 1.5.12).

This knowledge is meant to drive us to know more about God, and it is His dear Son, Jesus Christ, who reveals the Father to us, tells us who we are, where we stand with God, and what we must do to be reconciled, redeemed, forgiven, adopted into God’s family. It drives us to the Messiah, to the Christ, who in turn drives us to the Gospel.

Is Jesus Christ God? (Pt. 1)

To answer this question, we’ll have to start by discussing what the Trinity is. Here is a brief definition:

Within the one Being that is God, there exists three eternally co-equal and co-eternal persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Picture2
The Trinity!

We do not worship three Gods; we worship one God. Each Person of the Godhead is fully God, not ⅓ God. It is so important that we understand who the God we worship is. The Trinity is one of the more misunderstood doctrines of the Christian faith; all Christians would affirm it but not too many people would really understand what it means.

Notice how carefully worded the definition above is; every single word matters. There is a reason why I stress that (1) there is one Being, (2) existing in three Persons and that these Persons are each (3) co-equal and (4) co-eternal. This will become clear in the next blog article, where I briefly explain some of the heresies through the ages, particularly the various forms of monarchism and Arianism in the 2nd-3rd centuries. These are not just dusty, old “issues” fought over by a bunch of dead men – they go to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.

Here is a short, orthodox definition of the Trinity:

One Being or Essence (Deut 6:4; Jas 2:19)

He is not three Gods – He is One God.  We must be very careful to emphasize that we do not worship three separate Gods. The distinction between the one “being” or “essence” and the three “Persons” of this one Being are only our pitiful attempts to express the inexpressible. The term “essence” is not an explicitly Biblical term, but a secular phrase which attempts to capture the concept. It is not a sacred term, but as John Frame noted, it is doubtful a better term will be found.[1]
This is not merely a partnership, whereby each member of the Godhead can sign official paperwork in the name of the firm; there is one Being consisting of three distinct Persons – each one is fully divine.

The fundamental sticking point with men who hold heretical views is this; they rightly conclude the Old Testament teaches monotheism (Deut 6:4), but then therefore assume that the New Testament cannot teach that Christ is also God. Christological heresies begin with this basic presupposition. The distinction between (1) the one Being comprised of (2) three co-equal and co-eternal, separate Persons will be made clear in our look at the Gospel of John, below. The Trinity isn’t a doctrine that can be merely explained; it must be illustrated directly from Scripture to capture the full effect.

Three Persons

Each person has a very specific role in the unity of the Godhead, and is conscious of His specific role. For example, the Father sent Christ (Jn 5:22-24). Christ, as an independent Person of the Godhead, seeks only to do the will of His Father (Jn 6:35-40). The Holy Spirit comes from the Father and the Son (Jn 14:15-17; 15:26-27). Each Person of the Godhead is addressed as separate, specific Persons with distinct roles, which will be seen shortly.

Just as with the term “Being,” the word “Persons” is an attempt to express Scriptural truth. It defeats the notion of modalism, where Father, Son and Spirit are merely different manifestations or modes of the one God. The word “Person” immediately brings to mind a separate, individual identity. I am different than you; we are different people. Likewise, Father, Son and Spirit are completely different Persons who comprise the one Being that is God. They must not be conflated or mistaken for one another; they are different People.

There is no inferiority of status; the Father is not #1, the Son #2 and the Spirit #3. Each Person is co-equal and co-eternal; they are each equal in dignity and have each existed eternally – there was never a time when the three Persons of the Godhead did not exist. 

Why Should You Care?

So, why should we care about this doctrine? Can’t we get along just fine without really grasping what the Trinity is all about? Consider this very brief statement by a Unitarian theologian; Unitarians deny the deity of Christ in a manner similiar to Arians. Theirs is a heretical, dangerous position:

Here are several reasons why an understanding of our God is so vital for our faith:

Because He is the God We Serve! 

The God the Father always works through God the Son, and the Son does His work in human hearts only through the God the Holy Spirit.[2] Revelation cannot happen without the triune Godhead. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:21). We can see that men are saved only by Christ and recorded divine revelation from God through the working of the Holy Spirit.

It is How We’re Saved!

God the Father planned redemption in eternity past (Eph 1:3-5), God the Son is the means of that salvation (Eph 1:9-10) and the God the Holy Spirit effectually calls sinners to repentance. The Christian Savior simply must be Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It Makes Us Christians!

The triune Godhead is the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity.[3] No false religion can compare to it; it is novel and absolutely unique. It is what makes a Christian a Christian! “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?” (Isa 40:18).

It’s How We Worship!

Christian worship is inherently Trinitarian, whether one even realizes or acknowledges it. Paul opens his epistle to the Ephesians by acknowledging the triune Godhead; “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ,” (Eph 1:3). Even in prayer, man “comes to God the Father, pleading the name of Christ, and is taught how to pray aright by the Holy Spirit.”[4]

Growth in Christ

God chose all who believe in Him from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4) to be saved by the work of Christ (Eph 1:7-10) and be sanctified by the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord,” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Unity

There is an unfathomable unity of purpose among the persons of the Godhead. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are never in conflict and each works with the other towards one unified, common purpose.

Walking Through the Gospel of John

For sake of time, we’ll take a brief walk (or perhaps sprint!) through key passages in the Gospel of John. I could spend much more time here, and John’s Gospel deserves more time. Do that extra study on your own and think deeply about the testimony of Scripture on this matter. Hopefully, the brief discussion here will make matters plain to you!

Prologue of John (1:1-18):

  • Christ and God are co-equal and co-eternal (v.1)
  • Christ and God are co-eternal (v.2)
  • Christ was the active Person of the Godhead in Creation (v.3)
  • Christ is our means of salvation, and this makes sense because He is God! Consider both the unity of purpose and the separate, distinct roles of each Person of the Godhead in effectually bringing about salvation of sinful men:
    • God the Father planned salvation in eternity past and predestinated those who believe for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will (Eph 1:4-5)
    • God the Son died in our place for our sins, as a substitutionary sacrifice. The Father laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isa 53:6).
    • God the Spirit effectually applies the benefits of Christ’s death to us when we believe (Eze 36:25-27).
  • Christ, who is co-equal and co-eternal, was “made flesh and dwelt among us.” He wasn’t a created creature or a different “mode” of God.
  • Christ makes the Father known to us; he is the perfect revelation of the Father, the radiance of His glory and teh exact imprint of His nature (Heb 1:3). This is why Christ can tell the Jews, “If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him,” (Jn 14:7).  

Christ’s Claims to Be God (Jn 5:1-18):

  • The Pharisees demanded to know why Christ was doing works on the Sabbath; as if a man carrying his bed was really a violation of the Sabbath according to the Old Testament!
  • “And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day. But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work,” (John 5:16-17).
    • Christ’s message is very simple. God works on the Sabbath. Christ says God is His Father, therefore He too can work on the Sabbath!
  • The Jews, by their reaction to this saying, understood Christ was claiming to be co-equal with the Father:
    • Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God (John 5:18).

 Christ is Separate from God:

  • John 5:19 Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.
  • John 5:30 I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.

 Christ is God’s Revelation to Men (Jn 6:22-29):

  • The Jews seek Christ after He feeds the 5,000 (v.22-25).
  • They sought Him for the wrong reasons (v.26)
  • They must not work for perishable bread, but for the Bread of Life – Christ (v.27)
    • Only He can give this bread to them
    • God has set His seal on the Son
  • The only “work” they must do to receive the Bread of Life is believe on Christ (v.28-29). He is the very revelation of God to men.

All Three Persons of Godhead Active in Salvation (Jn 6:35-51):

  • “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day,” (John 6:44). Consider this very important verse (I beg everybody to read the entire context, and consider the implications for election, effectual calling and preservation) and follow the train of thought here:
    • A man must receive Christ for salvation
    • No man can come to Christ on his own
    • The Father sent Christ
    • A man is drawn to Christ by the Holy Spirit (Eze 36:26-27; Jn 3:5; Tit 3:5)
    • The Holy Spirit does the will of the Father when He draws a sinner to Himself!

The Jews Accuse Christ of Blasphemy – Proving He Presented Himself as God:

  • Christ is separate from the Father, yet co-eternal with the Father
    • Jn 8:31-59
      • John 8:57-59 Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.
      • Why did the Jews seek to kill Jesus? It was clearly because they understood Him to be claiming to be God. Whatever odd interpretation men might come up with today; Christ’s original audience understood Him perfectly well.
    • Jn 10:22-42
      • John 10:25-31 Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one. Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him.
      • Once again, consider why the Jews sought to slay Jesus – He claimed to be God!
  • Christ executed because of alleged blasphemy
    • Jn 19:1-16
      • Jn 19:4-7 Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man! When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him. The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.
      • The very reason why Christ was executed was because He claimed to be God; this was the basis of the Jews’ complaint to Pilate.

 Christ Accepts Worship – Which a Creature Cannot Do!

  • John 20:26-28 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

We’ll examine some 2nd and 3rd century heresies in the next post.


[1] John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 697.

[2] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1979), 350.

[3] Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 15-16.

[4] Strong, Systematic, 349.