Week 31 – The End of Time

Scripture Reading:  Revelation 1-5, 19-22

Significant Moments in The Story

The letters to the seven churches – Revelation 2-3

The new Jerusalem – Revelation 21-22

Key Themes

The supremacy of Christ

Revelation is full of stark, strange, and even confusing imagery.  However, one constant theme rings clear and true throughout the entire book:  the supremacy of Jesus Christ.  Throughout John’s vision, Christ is seen to be triumphant and worthy of honor and glory both in heaven and on earth.  In many ways, the confusing imagery only enhances our understanding of this supremacy.  John’s descriptions of what he sees are attempts to give definition to the “(w)holy other”, one who cannot be easily defined or described.  As opposed to what others might claim or what evidence might be seen, John wants believers to understand that Christ is supreme and that any who would try to claim or take his authority will fail.

Hope in the face of hard times

John, imprisoned for his faith, is writing to believers who themselves are being persecuted for their faith.  Most would date John’s vision to sometime near the end of the first century, in a time when the Roman emperor Domitian was known to have persecuted those who refused to worship him as a deity.  Though it is unclear whether this persecution was empire-wide or not, it at least probably triggered other more localized persecutions of those who were seen as opposed to the Roman authority, including Christians.  It is likely, then, that the original audience of this book were believers who, faced with persecution, wondered if Christ truly was Lord and King.  John’s revelation assured them that the day was coming, and coming soon, when the powers that persecuted them would be revealed as nothing, when those who remained faithful to Christ would share in his glory and victory and would finally know peace.

Background Information

John

The John of Revelation has traditionally been connected to the author of the gospel of John.  Some have even argued that this same John authored the three letters that share his name, though most would probably argue against such a claim.  There is very little we can say for certain about John other than what we are told in Revelation:  he is on the island of Patmos as a prisoner for his faith.  That John is imprisoned and that he is writing to churches that may be facing institutionalized or localized persecution is important to remember when considering the sometimes confusing imagery of Revelation.  John’s message was that those who were persecuting the church (namely, the Romans) would eventually be overcome and Christ would be the ruler of all.  To say so directly – to even name the Romans directly – could have brought accusations of treason against John and those he was writing to.  Therefore, John probably intentionally clouded his message so that those he was writing to could understand his meaning without bringing any more unwanted attention.

Patmos

A small rocky island in the Aegean Sea.  Such islands were used by the Romans to banish political prisoners.

The seven churches

John addresses his revelation to “… the seven churches that are in Asia”:  Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.  In 17 AD, a massive earthquake struck this region that caused major damage to several of these cities.  Most of the rebuilding was done with substantial help from the Romans, which may have been a factor in some of the persecution that believers in the region were facing.  Below is some information about each city and/or church.

Ephesus was perhaps the greatest city in the region.  It was a large seaport city that was a center for religion and commerce.  We have already encountered Ephesus in our study of Paul, as it was a center of operations for Paul for quite some time (Acts 20:31).  We also know that it was a long-time center for the worship of the Greek god Artemis.  Within the city was a sacred precinct was dedicated to Rome and the Emperor.

Smyrna was the largest and busiest commercial center that was perhaps the most common victim of earthquakes in the region.  The city was very loyal to Rome, and that loyalty brought with it great benefits provided by the Roman Empire.  The city also had a large Jewish population that was hostile to early Christianity.

Pergamum was the center of the cult of the worship of the Roman emperor, containing three different temples devoted to him.

Thyatira was a city made up of numerous trade guilds – coppersmiths, tanners, woolworkers, etc.  In order to earn a living, a workman would have had to join a guild.  Each guild had a patron god associated with it, and each guild would sponsor feasts and other social occasions that could at times become orgies.  Thyatira was also a center for the worship of the Greek god Apollo.

Sardis was a city known for its luxury and licentiousness.  It also contained a rather lavish temple to the god Artemis.

Philadelphia’s prosperity was tied to agriculture and textile and leather production.  There was long-held tension in Philadelphia between the local church and synagogue.

Laodicea was a town of such wealth that, after an earthquake in 60 AD, they refused help from Rome and rebuilt the city themselves.  Their wealth came from fertile land that good grazing ground for sheep, especially sheep with a raven-black wool that would be woven in the city into special garments and carpets.  Their prosperity also led them to become a center for banking and finance.  The cities water supply came from a series of nearby hot springs, which may have contributed to the imagery of spitting out lukewarm water.

Alpha and Omega – Revelation 1:8

Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, Omega the last.

Nicolaitans – Revelation 2:6

It is hard to say for certain exactly what the heresy of the Nicolaitans is, since the only mention of them is here in Revelation, and John has harsh words for them without saying much in detail about what they actually teach or do.  It could be that the term was being used by John as a general term to refer to different specific teachings that he found to be antithetical to the gospel.

One issue seems to involve a teaching held by some that it was OK to eat food that had been offered to pagan idols.  John’s concern may have been that such a teaching would cause some to return to the worship of these idols.  Another concern seems to have been a claim to some kind of deep knowledge that was not accessible to other believers, a form of Gnosticism that would later come to universal condemnation by the Christian church.  There also may have been a teaching that immoral behavior was acceptable because of Christ’s grace.

The teaching of Balaam – Revelation 2:14

Balaam was a “prophet for hire” who Numbers 31 blames as responsible for leading the Israelites in the wilderness to turn to the worship of false gods. John is connecting this understanding with a concern that there are those in Pergamum who are teaching that it is OK to eat food sacrificed to idols, thus presenting a “stumbling block” to true worship of God.

Jezebel – Revelation 2:20

John references the Old Testament queen Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, to refer to a female false prophet in the church at Thyatira.  In 1 Kings, we are told that Jezebel and Ahab led Israel to worship false gods and to turn from the one true God.  John is presenting this false prophet as one who presents a similar threat.

Scrolls and seals – Revelation 5

The scrolls contain God’s purposes for the future.  The fact that they are sealed means that they have not been altered and that they are unknown to others.

Gog and Magog – Revelation 20:8

Gog and Magog are first referenced in Ezekiel 38.  There, they represent a northern kingdom that has threatened Israel and that God will overturn to restore Israel.  It is possible that Gog and Magog were representative at that time of Babylon.

No temple – Revelation 21:22

The vision that the new Jerusalem has no Temple should take us back to Jesus’ words to the woman at the well in John 4.  When she exclaimed to Jesus that the Jews expected everyone to worship at the Temple, Jesus announced that the day would come when worship would not be about location but about the heart – “worship in spirit and in truth”.  Here, in John’s vision, God’s presence is not tied to one location, but flows freely throughout the new heaven and new earth.

The tree of life – Revelation 22:2

Genesis 2 & 3 described the river that flowed through Eden and nurtured all life there, including the tree of life.  At the end of Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are banished from Eden to prevent them from eating of the tree of life.  In John’s vision, the river of life flows right down the middle of the streets of the new Jerusalem, and the tree of life and its fruit are readily available “for the healing of the nations”.

A word of warning – Revelation 22:18-19

Some have misconstrued the warning in these verses regarding the “word of the prophecy of this book” to refer to the entire Bible.  It is important to remember that Revelation was not written to be the last book of the Bible; instead, it originally was written as a standalone work.  Therefore, the words of warning here were meant to apply only to the words of the book of Revelation.

Additional Resources

Week 30 – Paul’s Final Days

Scripture Reading:  Acts 21-23, 27-28; Ephesians 1-6; 2 Timothy 1-4

Significant Events in The Story

Paul arrested in Jerusalem – Acts 21

Paul appeals to the emperor and is sent to Rome – Acts 25

Paul is shipwrecked on the way to Rome – Acts 27

Paul arrives in Rome – Acts 28

Key Themes

Persecution and suffering

Throughout this week’s readings, we see Paul suffering because of his faithfulness to his calling.  The obvious example is, of course, his arrest in Jerusalem based on the accusation that he was teaching against the Jewish people, their law, and the Temple.  In addition, he was accused of defiling the Temple by bringing Greeks beyond the court of the Gentiles.

When we turn to Ephesians and 2 Timothy, there are references to those who abandoned Paul or betrayed his trust.  It seems that the suffering that Paul faced was not just institutional persecution but personal suffering of lost friendships and relationships that were not dependable.

Throughout all of these events, though, we see that Paul remains faithful to his mission and purpose of preacher and pastor.  He continues to share the news of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, he continues to write to churches and individuals to encourage them.  Even in the face of a shipwreck, Paul continues to focus on caring for others, in this case, his shipmates.

Paul’s story is an encouraging word for all disciples of Christ, but especially for those who are considering a call to ministry or who have answered a call to ministry.  Jesus said that those who would follow him would need to “take up a cross”.  There is suffering and hardship when one devotes their life to Christ and His kingdom.  Every year brings new stories and statistics of the number of ministers who leave or are forced out of ministry citing conflict, burnout, and/or betrayal of trust.  Paul’s life and letters serve not only as a reality check to these hardships, but also as an encouragement to remain faithful and to understand one’s identity not as based on the acceptance of others but in Christ’s continued redeeming work in creation.

Community life

The letters to the Ephesians and Timothy focus primarily on issues of how to live as the community of the church.  Some of the issues touched on these letters have been, in my opinion, seriously misunderstood (the relationship of husbands and wives in Ephesians 5, for example).  In the information below, I will try to address some of these issues.  However, what should be noted and appreciated is that both letters put forward a view that faith is not a private, personal matter but a matter that should affect how we act and live in relationship with others.

Background Information

James and the elders – Acts 21:18

James, the brother of Jesus, was the leader of the Jerusalem church, along with those who were noted as “elders”, a common term within Jewish communities.

Four men under a vow – Acts 21:23

This was possibly a reference to a nazirite vow, a sign of one’s complete devotion and dedication to God.  This vow usually involved shaving one’s head to indicate that they were under a vow.  The hope is that if Paul joins these four men in their vow, it will communicate to the Jews in Jerusalem that he is not teaching against the Jewish law or Jewish people.

A letter about the Gentiles who have become believers – Acts 21:25

This is a reference to the Jerusalem Council’s decision described in Acts 15.  A letter was sent to other churches describing their decision.

The Way – Acts 22:4

The Way was a term used to refer to the Christian community.

Paul’s claim of Roman citizenship – Acts 22:25

Interestingly, nowhere in his letters does Paul identify himself as a Roman citizen.  Yet, he argues here that he (birth) is more a Roman citizen than the Roman tribune (bought citizenship) who has ordered him scourged.  We are given no details to the circumstances of Paul’s family and how he could claim Roman citizenship.  By Roman law, a Roman citizen who had not been convicted of a crime, could not be tortured.

The son of Paul’s sister – Acts 23:16

This is the only biblical reference to any other members of Paul’s family.

When it was decided that we were to sail for Italy – Acts 27:1

Paul was kept imprisoned in Caesarea for over two years under the governorships of Felix and Festus.  When Festus arrived as the new governor, the chief priests in Jerusalem requested that Paul be transferred back to Jerusalem to stand trial in their court.  Paul, instead, requested a trial in a Roman court under Roman law, his right as a Roman citizen.  This is why Paul is being transferred to Rome.

Ephesians

The church in Ephesus was a congregation that Paul spent a great deal of time with (Acts 19), which makes the very formal character of this letter very unusual.  It is lacking of many of the personal notes that we see in other of Paul’s letters.  Some cite the fact that early manuscripts of this letter lack the address “in Ephesus” in Ephesians 1:1 as evidence that this may have been written more as a sermon to be circulated among a series of churches as opposed to a letter to a specific church.  The letter also seems to draw very closely on the letter to the Colossians (compare Ephesians 4:17-6:9 to Colossians 3:1-25).  For this reason (as well as issues of style and theological emphasis), there are many interpreters who question whether Ephesians was actually written by Paul, perhaps instead written by one of his closest disciples after Paul’s death.

2 Timothy

The letter of 2 Timothy is traditionally understood as a personal letter to Paul’s disciple and associate in ministry and possibly the last of Paul’s letters.  Acts 16:1 tells us that Timothy was the son of a Greek father and Jewish mother.  His mother, at least, became a Christian.  Acts also tells us that Timothy regularly accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys.  2 Timothy belongs to the group of writings known as the “Pastoral Letters” ( 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus).  The authorship of these letters are highly debated, in part because some believe they indicate a level of structure in the church that was not known during Paul’s time.  This point is debated though, and the highly personal tone of 2 Timothy has caused many to argue that it, perhaps to the exclusion of the other 2 Pastoral letters, is indeed authored by Paul.

Some Questions That Might Come Up

Is Paul arguing for women as “second-class” citizens who are to do whatever their husbands say?

Ephesians 5:22-33 has long been a passage that generates a lot of discussion, anger, and misunderstanding.  What is presented here is not intended as a all-encompassing discussion of the text.  However, I do want to present some thoughts regarding what is being said, and not said, in these verses.  In the comments that follow, I will denote Paul as the author since the letter is attributed to Paul, though one should keep in mind earlier comments that Pauline authorship of this letter is highly questionable.

First off, though much attention is paid to Ephesians 5:22-33, this passage is part of a larger unit that begins at Ephesians 5:21 and runs through Ephesians 6:9.  This passage reflects a common theme of philosophers and teachers of the time in addressing the issue of rules of proper conduct within the household.  Typically, such instructions would address husband and wife, parent and child, and master and slave, as we see here in Ephesians.  Any teaching dealing especially with issues of morality and ethics would seek to define the proper ordering of a household.  It should also be noted that the author is assuming social standards and norms without offering any judgment on those norms.  For example, the letter assumes the existence of slaves because of the existence of a slavery system of that day.  The letter does not condemn slavery; however, it would also be unfair to say that the mention of slavery here is an endorsement of it.  The letter is simply addressing household relationships as they existed at the time.  The author was not necessarily setting out to write down a “eternal word”; instead, Paul was dealing with the norms of his day.

This entire teaching of the ordering of a proper household must be set within the context of Ephesians 5:21 – “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  The verses that follow deal with expressions of applications of this teaching within the household.  Thus, it would be incorrect to read these words as only teaching the submission of the wife to the husband when, in fact, all Christians – male and female, young and old, free and slave – are being told to be subject to one another.  This is, in part, why the instructions to the husband are much lengthier than the instructions to the wife.  Cultural norms were in place that established the family as a patriarchal body under the authority and rule of the father.  However, the husband and father of a house would need much more intentional teaching on what it would mean to “be subject to” his spouse.

Several incidents in Acts (Acts 10:1, 16:34) indicate that it was not unusual for a whole family to convert to Christianity if the father converted.  We may see in this passage, especially 5:23, such an understanding, indicating that the wife had come to Christianity because of the conversion of the husband, and not necessarily through personal experience (as in the case of Timothy’s mother, who seems to have come to Christianity apart from her husband).  Therefore, Paul may be charging the husband with the responsibility of not only teaching Christianity to his wife but modeling Christ in word and deed so that his wife (and other family) may come to a true assent to faith and not just the acceptance of the father’s decision.

Is Paul reinforcing the accepted social mores of the time?  Yes and no.  In many ways, especially in relation to slavery but perhaps also in terms of marriage, we would love to hear Paul sound the strong message of freedom that we hear in Galatians.  It is true that, in part, what is described in Ephesians would not look very different than the typical “ideal” home of the day.  In part, perhaps this is to prevent anyone from making the case that Christianity sought to undermine society by destroying the family system.  In some cases, the Christian proclamation of freedom had brought such accusations as well as other challenges.  For example, the often quoted teaching from 1 Corinthians 14:34 – “women should be silent in the churches” – may have less to do with the subjugation of women and more with keeping order in worship.  Based on the following verses, it seems that the church was having problems with women asking their husbands questions about what was taking place in worship.  The fact that they are sitting with their husbands is noteworthy, as women and men were kept separate in the Temple as well as other places of worship.  The instruction to keep silent appears to be a teaching to hold their questions until they are home so as not to distract from worship.  Though the Ephesians passage may reinforce some social norms of the time, it does reframe these norms in the context of the Christian message.  In doing so, these norms are challenged and changed.  For example, the understanding of the father as the head of the household is put forward not as an issue of authority but as an opportunity and a responsibility of the father to model the love of Christ to his wife and children so that they are able to grow in their faith.  Husbands are told again and again to love their wives, and love is a resounding theme throughout the letter as an act expected of all Christians.

We also have to keep this passage in context with Paul’s other teachings on marriage, most especially 1 Corinthians 7:1-7.  There Paul argues that it is actually better not to be married.  However, because of a concern for individual “lack of self-control” and a concern for instances of sexual immorality, Paul argues that “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”  He goes on to argue that neither the husband or the wife have the authority over their own bodies, but their spouse does.  He also recognizes marriage not only as physical devotion but spiritual devotion.  The picture Paul paints of marriage here is not a relationship where the wife is nothing but silent and obedient to the husband’s every whim.  Instead, it is a picture of true partnership and mutual submission.  In Galatians, Paul would claim that Christ has undermined any understanding of superiority of class or gender – “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27-29).  Christian life is not about any one person claiming authority over another; it is about all disciples living under the authority of Christ and supporting one another in living out His promise.

Week 29 – Paul’s Mission

Scripture Reading:  Acts 13-14, 16-20; 1 Thessalonians 1-5; 1 Corinthians 1, 3, 5-6, 10, 12-13, 15-16; Galatians 1, 3, 5-6; Romans 1, 3-6, 8, 12, 15

Significant Events in The Story

The disciples are first called “Christians” in Antioch – Acts 11

Paul’s first missionary journey with Barnabas – Acts 13-14

The Jerusalem Council to decide whether Gentile converts had to obey the Jewish law – Acts 15

Paul’s second missionary journey with Silas and Timothy – Acts 15-18

Paul’s third missionary journey – Acts 19-20

Key Themes

The continued development of the church

This portion of the story of Acts focuses a great deal on the apostle Paul, obviously one of the most important missionaries and preachers in the early church and the author of most of the New Testament.  However, this portion of the story also gives us insight to how Christianity grew and how the church adapted as the message of the gospel began to reach beyond its Jewish roots into the larger Gentile world.  Along the way, the church experienced persecution from without and disagreement within, especially around the role of the Jewish Law in Christianity.  However, Luke wants us to see how the Holy Spirit continued to empower the early church to fulfill Christ’s commission in the face of all of these issues.

Discipleship

Paul traveled hundreds of miles, preaching and teaching and establishing churches all over Arabia and southern Europe.  However, Paul was concerned with more than just numbers of conversions.  He truly wanted to see these new believers grow in their faith and become witnesses unto the world themselves.  His letters, which make up the bulk of the New Testament literature, are written primarily out of a concern to encourage and empower the churches and leaders to let the Holy Spirit use them to share the gospel.

Background Information

They proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews – Acts 13:5

Paul’s standard approach when he went into a city was to go the local synagogue, a Jewish house of prayer.  There he would preach and teach to those who already had faith in God.  Typically, once a core group of believers was formed, then the ministry would expand to Gentiles.

Saul, also known as Paul – Acts 13:9

Saul was his Jewish name, and Paul was his Roman name.  From this point forward, the name Paul is used almost exclusively.

The decision that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem – Acts 16:4

Acts 15 tells the story of the Jerusalem Council, a significant moment in the history of the early church.  A debate had arisen whether Gentile converts to the Way (the early name for Christianity) were subject to the commandments of the Torah, including circumcision and the dietary laws.  Remember that, in its origins, Christianity was a movement within Judaism.  All of the first disciples as well as the first converts were Jews.  Almost of all these first believers saw no reason why their faith in Jesus should prevent or restrict their obedience to the Torah or their continued worship in the Temple.  Now that Gentiles were coming to believe that Jesus was the risen Messiah, there were some who believed that observance of the Torah (the Jewish law) was a part of the Christian life and that Gentile converts should be required to observe the Torah.  The apostles and leaders of the early church gathered in Jerusalem to debate this topic and come to a resolution.  The decision that was reached was that identity in the Christian community was not based on observance of the Torah but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, Gentiles would not be required to observe the Torah.  Galatians 2:1-14 provides Paul’s perspective on the Jerusalem Council.

We – Acts 16:10

Starting here, there are several passages in the rest of the book of Acts that are written in the first person plural.  There is a variety of opinions as to whether this use of the first person plural indicates that Luke actually was part of these journeys or whether he was quoting from another source, perhaps a journal or diary from someone who was on the journey with Paul.  Luke Timothy Johnson, in his commentary on Acts, points out that using the first person in accounts of journeys and sea voyages was common in ancient historical works, even if the narrator of the story was not part of the events.  There is no way to determine the reason for the use of the first person in several passages in the end of Acts or why it shifts back and forth between first person and third person.

Because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome – Acts 18:2

The Roman historian Suetonius tells us that, around 49 B.C., Claudius declared that all Jews should leave Rome because “… of their constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”  Chrestus could be a corruption of the word Christ, perhaps indicating that the Christian proclamation was causing disturbances among the Jewish community in Rome.

Baptism of John – Acts 18:25

It is unclear what exactly is meant by the “baptism of John”.  It seems to indicate that Apollos has not received the complete gospel presentation of Jesus, including primarily his death and resurrection.

1 Thessalonians

1 Thessalonians is believed to be the earliest of Paul’s letters and, therefore, the earliest of the New Testament writings.  Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia and was an important center of trade.  The story of the foundation of the church in Thessalonica is told in Acts 17:1-9.  The church was made up of Jewish and Gentile believers.

The primary purpose of the letter seems to be to give confidence and assurance to a congregation filled with new believers that has faced, and perhaps is facing, persecution from their community and trials within.  The first three chapters consist primarily of Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving for the church’s faith and reflections on his ministry there with the Thessalonians.  In chapters 4 & 5, Paul’s offers general words of encouragement about the Christian life as well as some specific teachings about an issue that seems to be of great concern to the congregation.

It seems that the death of some of the members of the Thessalonian church has raised questions about the return of Christ.  The Thessalonian church believed, as Paul seems to have believed as well, that the second coming of the risen Christ would take place immediately and that all who believed would see it happen.  Because some of the members of the church had died and Christ still had not returned, it seems that at least some members of the congregation feared that either they had missed out on Christ’s return or that those who had died would be left out of the kingdom of God.  In chapter 4 & 5, Paul seeks to encourage this church with the understanding that all who have believed in Christ, be they living or dead, will see the glory of the risen Lord at His return, whenever that may take place.

1 Corinthians

Corinth was one of the most important cities in Greece.  Acts 18:1-11 tells the story of Paul’s visit to Corinth and his work to help establish the church there.  The church seems to be made up of Jews and Gentiles of various social strata.

Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church could be described as “hot-and-cold”, in part due to issues that we see addressed in 1 Corinthians.  Though Paul helped establish the church, Apollos is sent to help the church soon after their establishment.  The Corinthian congregation seemed to struggle with unity, as many of the issues in 1 Corinthians reveal divisions over the best teacher and the best spiritual gifts.  In 1 Corinthians, we see a strong message from Paul encouraging the church to live in unity with God and with one another.  Paul tries to establish his authority over the church as its founder and “father” in the hope of doing away with all factions, including those who supported him and who likely originally wrote him to ask for help with some of the problems and questions within the church.  However, his claim to authority seems to have stirred up some harsh feelings within some in the Corinthian church, leading to a painful and conciliatory message in 2 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians is also one of the earliest full expressions of Paul’s teaching about Christ, his death, and resurrection.

Galatians

This letter is likely not written just to one congregation but a series of churches in the region of Galatia.  It seems that these churches were made up almost exclusively of Gentile believers who had no familiarity with the Jewish law.

Though Acts never directly describes Paul’s establishment of churches in this region, in this letter he claims to have founded these churches.  However, his authority seems to have come into question.  It is unclear whether teachers have come in from outside of the church or whether certain believers within the congregation have started offering new teachings that differed from Paul’s, calling into question Paul’s reliability as an apostle.

In response, Paul writes this letter which is perhaps one of his most passionate, almost belligerent, works.  Paul directly attacks a teaching that Gentile converts must become obedient to the Torah (including circumcision) as a sign of their Christian faithfulness.  In response to this teaching, Paul offers his clearest teaching of justification by faith alone (Galatians 3:1-5:6).  However, he also cautions that freedom from the law does not entail freedom to do whatever we desire (Galatians 5:7-6:10).

Romans

Unlike the other churches we have talked about here, the church that Paul is writing to in Rome is a church that he did not start.  As a matter of fact, Paul has never visited this church before.  In the previous letters, Paul has been able to draw on a previous relationship with the congregations he is writing to provide a certain amount of authority to his preaching.  In this case, so such previous relationship exists.  Instead, the letter to the Romans serves almost like a resume.  Paul is recommending himself to the church at Rome.  The reason for this is that he is hoping to come to Rome as the beginning of a missionary journey to Spain.  His hope is that the church in Rome will not only welcome him but help finance his westward missionary effort.  Thus, he hopes in this letter to introduce himself to Rome and allow them to see that his teaching and ministry is worthy of their support.

Because of the context, Romans is a very different letter to read from the other letters.  It is much more theological treatise, perhaps even homiletic, in nature than the more pastoral messages of most of the other letters.  Paul’s arguments are much denser as he seeks to explain his understandings of salvation, justification, the role of the Law, and the person of Jesus Christ.  We cannot say that the work is all-encompassing – for example, Paul does not pay anywhere near the attention to eschatology (end times, return of Christ) that he does in a letter like 1 Thessalonians.  However, Romans certainly helps us read deeper into the mind and ministry of Paul and his understanding of the gospel message.

Additional Resources

Week 28 – New Beginnings

Scripture Readings:  Acts 1-10, 12

Significant Events in The Story

The ascension of Jesus Christ – Acts 1

The Holy Spirit descends on the disciples at Pentecost – Acts 2

Stephen’s sermon & martyrdom – Acts 7

Saul meets Christ on the road to Damascus – Acts 9

Peter’s vision & the gospel shared with Gentiles – Acts 10

Key Themes

The Church

So what do the disciples do after Christ is no longer walking around the streets of Jerusalem every day?

The book of Acts is the story of the beginnings of the Church.  It is the story of how Jesus’ disciples carried out the commission that Christ had given to them.  We see the church not only developing practices of worship but also organizing themselves to be able to best carry out the ministry which Christ had given to them.  From the very beginning, the believers felt it extremely important to devote time to gathering together for worship, fellowship, and missions.

The missionary effort

Acts 1:8 is the perfect synopsis of the missionary effort of the church as described in Acts.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;…” – Acts 2:1-13

“… and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, …” – Acts 2:14-7:60

“… in all Judea and Samaria, …” – Acts 8:1-25

“… and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 8:26-40, Acts 10

It needs to be understood that, prior to Acts 10, the missionary effort of the early church, made up entirely of Jews,  was focused on sharing the good news with other Jews.

The Holy Spirit

“In fact, the book [of Acts] might appropriately be entitled ‘The Acts of the Holy Spirit,’ for the dominating theme is the power of the Spirit manifested in and through the members of the early church” (Sherman Johnson, “The Acts of the Apostles”, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, Oxford University Press, 1994).

Redeeming suffering

In these passages in Acts we see stories of struggle and persecution as well as the victorious moments.  The apostles struggle to keep up with the responsibilities of caring for the believers as well as preaching and teaching in the community.  Believers are arrested, flogged, and (in the case of Stephen) stoned to death.  Yet, as we will see throughout the Acts narrative, moments of struggle and suffering can bring new opportunities.  Because of the complaints of Greek-speaking Jewish believers that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of food, the church expands its leadership beyond the apostles, which produces new teachers and preachers to share the gospel (Acts 6).  The persecution that begins with Stephen causes believers to be scattered beyond Jerusalem throughout the entire region, which provides opportunities for the good news of Jesus Christ to first be shared beyond the city walls of Jerusalem (Acts 8).  The apostles “rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:41).  The Acts narrative frames the sufferings and struggles of the early church in a way that we are invited to not look on these moments with regret but with hope and possibility.

Background Information

Acts

Acts is the second part of the narrative that began in the gospel of Luke.  Like Luke, Acts is addressed to a Theophilus, who we know few details about and may be a pseudonym for any and all believers in Christ.  Whereas the action in Luke’s gospel is continually moving towards Jerusalem, the action in Acts is organized so that all the action moves away from Jerusalem.

A sabbath day’s journey – Acts 1:12

There were legal restrictions for Jews about how far they could travel on the Sabbath.  Though there are some discrepancies in the sources, it seems that a sabbath’s day journey would be the equivalent of .3-.6 of a mile.

The choice of a 12th apostle, Matthias – Acts 1:15-26

Luke’s account in Acts of the death of Judas differs from Matthew’s account (Matthew 27:3-10).  Instead of hanging himself in regret, Judas takes the money he was paid for betraying Jesus and uses it to buy a field, where an accident befalls him that causes his death, perhaps as an act of divine judgment similar to Herod’s death in Acts 12:23.

We are told that the apostles “cast lots” to choose between Justus and Matthias as the 12th apostle.  This was the ancient equivalent of casting dice or flipping a coin.  It was not viewed, though, as an instrument of chance.  Instead, it was viewed as a vehicle for allowing God to make His will clear.

Peter based the need to choose a new apostle on an interpretation of Psalm 109:8.  There are some who believe that the early church understood the significance of having 12 apostles as linked to the historical identity of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Interestingly enough, Matthias is never mentioned again after his choice as the 12th apostle.  The historical records disagree as to Matthias’ ministry after his choice as an apostle and whether he was martyred or died of old age.

Pentecost – Acts 2

Pentecost was 50 days after Passover and was part of the Festival of Weeks (Leviticus 23:15-21), a harvest festival that some associated with the time when Moses received the Torah.

The appearance of the Holy Spirit is accompanied by “divided tongues, as of fire”.  A lot of us may have seen depictions of this scene showing the disciples with little candle-like flames over their heads.  It should be noted that the text in Acts does not say that literal fire fell but the reference seems to be more of  a metaphorical image.  Fire was a common symbol for representing the presence of God.

The Holy Spirit gave to the gathered disciples the ability to speak in the languages of the people who were gathered in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was a city that drew many Jewish pilgrims from other lands and regions.   Thus, God is equipping the disciples to speak to all of these peoples.

Peter’s sermon at Pentecost reveals a significant fact that we cannot overlook – the early church relied on the Old Testament as their Scripture.  They did not see Jesus’ ministry and teachings as overshadowing or replacing these texts.  Instead, they understood Christ as the fulfillment and continuation of God’s will as revealed through the Old Testament.

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple – Acts 2:46

It is significant that we see the early church continuing to gather at the temple.  They did not see Christ’s commission as a break from Judaism, whether we are talking about the Jewish faith or even the Jewish community.

Solomon’s Portico – Acts 3:11

Located on the eastern side of the Temple mount in Jerusalem.

The Hellenists and the Hebrews – Acts 6:1

The early church seems to have faced some internal strife between those Jews who spoke Greek (the Hellenists) and those who spoke Aramaic (the Hebrews).  The original disciples probably fell mostly in the grouping known as the Hebrews.  Some looked down upon Greek-speaking Jews as having compromised their faith to the predominant culture.  It is of interest that the seven chosen to “wait on tables” (to provide service to the community) all have Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, names.

The Ethiopian eunuch – Acts 8:26-40

We are not given great detail about the Ethiopian eunuch’s spiritual background and faith development.  We are told that he had come to Jerusalem to worship, indicating some type of affiliation with Judaism.  Whether he was a convert to Judaism or whether he was a Jew living in the Diaspora (the scattering of the Jewish people throughout the known world) is unclear.

That we are told he has come to Jerusalem to worship is notable because eunuchs were excluded from participation in Temple rituals and entrance into the community of Israel (Leviticus 21:20, Deuteronomy 23:1).  We are told that he is reading from the book of Isaiah, a book that contains references to Ethiopia and other nations acknowledging the God of Israel (Isaiah 45:14-15).  In addition, Isaiah 56:4-7 says,

For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.  And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

The story of the Ethiopian eunuch seems to capture an image of the church as fulfilling the work and will of God of bringing closer those who might be far off.

King Herod – Acts 12:1

This Herod is Agrippa I.  He is the grandson of Herod the Great who rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem and the nephew of Herod Antipas, who was involved in the deaths of John the Baptist and Jesus.  Jewish historians remember Agrippa as a religiously observant Jewish leader.

John … Mark – Acts 12:12

Some believe that this John, whose Roman name was Mark, is the author of the gospel of Mark, identifying him with the Mark who will have a close relationship with both Peter and Paul.

Some Questions that Might Come Up

Why do Ananias and Sapphira die?

Acts 5:1-11 tells the unusual story of Ananias and Sapphira, who were members of the early church community.  There is no mention of them prior to this moment, so when exactly they joined the community is unclear.  The story takes place as part of the description of how all the believers would sell property and share the proceeds so that no one in the community had need.  In the case of Ananias and Sapphira, however, we are told that they withhold a portion of the proceeds for themselves and (as we can infer from the story) claim that what they have brought is the total proceeds from the sale.  As a result of their actions, they fall down dead.

Several interesting questions are raised by this story:  why do Ananias and Sapphira not come to bring the proceeds together?  Is their sin that they have held back some for themselves or that they misrepresented the amount that they had received from the sale?  Why is death the punishment for this sin?

We are given no indication as to why Ananias and Sapphira are not together to present their gift to the apostles.  However, the fact that they do not come together sets up a teaching moment in the story when Sapphira shows up a few hours later, not knowing what happened when Ananias brought the gift.  The apostles ask her if she and Ananias had sold their property for the deceitful amount.  This question provides an opportunity for repentance for Sapphira.  She can admit that the amount was a lie.  Instead, she chooses loyalty to her husband over honesty and unity within the community.  This sounds like an impossible choice, but we are reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew and Luke:

Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will members of one’s own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. – Matthew 10:34-39

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. – Luke 14:26-27

Jesus called his disciples to radical discipleship that put loyalty and faithfulness to Christ and his will above any other loyalty.  Both Ananias and Sapphira are unwilling to commit to this type of discipleship.

Based on the words of the apostles to Ananias (Acts 5:3-4), it seems that Ananias and Sapphira sin by trying to pass off the amount they bring as the total amount they received from the sale of their property.  They are not judged for withholding some for themselves but for lying and not fully trusting in the love and grace of the apostles and the community.

The death of Ananias and Sapphira was understood as the result of their trying to fake the unity of the Holy Spirit as displayed by the sharing of possessions.  Their decision has cut them off from the community, and their deaths quite literally cut them off from the people.  It is reasonable to wonder why this disobedience was so great that it was punishable by death.  In the case of Sapphira, she was at least given a chance to repent, which does not appear to be the case with Ananias.  While it might be tempting to try to soften the hard edges of this story, we must take into account that losing those hard edges might cost us in the message of the story.  Acts makes it clear that the unity of the church was of utmost importance to the church fulfilling its commission.  We live in a world where church affiliation is often viewed more like a gym membership – it doesn’t really make a difference to anyone else but me whether I am there or not, and I can quit whenever I want.  What we see in Acts is that belonging to the community of believers meant committing to a radical trust in the abiding presence of God and in the other members of the community.  It meant everyone sharing in the meeting of needs within the community.  It meant working for reconciliation and resolution in times of dispute or uncertainty.  And, in the case of Paul, it meant being willing to practice radical grace towards one who had sought to kill you.  Do we take the opportunities and responsibilities of membership in the body of Christ as seriously as the early church?

Additional Resources

Week 27 – The Resurrection

Scripture Reading:  Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20-21

Significant Moments in The Story:

The women find the tomb empty – Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10

Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene – Matthew 28:9-10; John 20:11-18

Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus – Luke 24:13-35

Jesus appears to all of the disciples except Thomas – Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23

Jesus appears again to the disciples and to Thomas – John 20:26-29

Jesus’ commission – Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:44-49; John 21:15-19

Key Themes

“He is not here, he is risen”

Christianity is recognized by our crosses.  We place them on top of  and in our sanctuaries, we wear them around our necks, we magnetize them to our cars.  Yet, the cross is not the defining moment of our faith.  It is true, as we discussed last week, that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ carries great meaning and significance in our understanding of our relationship with God.  However, there are many men and women throughout history who suffered unjustly, who died as martyrs, who hung on crosses.  The resurrection is the distinct and defining proclamation of the Christian faith.  It is through the lens of resurrection that we are able to understand the person of Jesus Christ and the significance of his life and his death.  The resurrection is the reason why we have hope, and it is the event that transformed a group of frightened disciples into the missional movement they became as the early church.

Commission

Even in the midst of the gospel accounts of this miraculous and amazing event of resurrection, a very familiar theme rings out:  God is inviting creation to join Him in the work that He is doing to restore mankind to a right relationship with Him.  The gospel accounts (except perhaps Mark, which we will discuss later) all include the risen Lord inviting his disciples to take up the ministry he had begun and now fulfilled – proclaim salvation, offer forgiveness, tangibly love a hurting world.  Compare the commissions of Matthew 28 and Luke 24 with God’s calling of Abraham in Genesis 12.  Do you see any correlation between these messages?

Background Information

The testimony of the women

Though all the gospels agree that it was women who first discovered the empty tomb, the identity and number of these women differs in each account.  All 4 universally account for the presence of Mary Magdalene, but John has her coming alone, Matthew says she was accompanied by “the other Mary” (identified in Mark and Luke as the mother of James) and Mark and Luke mention other women present.

The reason why the women have come is to anoint the body for burial, part of the traditional burial ritual.  It was customary that such a task would not be done on the Sabbath, which would have begun at sundown on Friday and concluded at sundown on Saturday.  Thus, the women have come early in the morning on Sunday to complete what was customary.

Luke tells us that the disciples did not originally believe the news the women brought.  Though it is sometimes assumed that this was because the testimony of women was not generally accepted, this does not seem to be the case in this particular moment.  Instead, the reason for the disciples’ disbelief has more to do with their not understanding what Jesus had meant when he said he would rise again and their inability to comprehend such a miracle.

Leonard Sweet shared the following comment on Facebook this week which should give us pause as we consider the role of the women in the announcement of Christ’s resurrection: “How can a church silence the voices of women when you can’t tell the story of Holy Week without hearing the voices of women?”

The messenger(s)

Much like the number and identity of the women, the gospels have a slightly different accounting for the messenger who declared the news that Jesus had risen from the dead.  Mark’s gospel says a “young man dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side (inside the tomb)” told the women what had happened.  Though the white robe can be a symbol of purity, Mark does not directly ascribe any kind of other-wordly characteristic to the messenger.

Luke also avoids using the word “angel” in his account.  Instead, Luke says the women heard the news from “two men in dazzling clothes” who appeared beside them in the tomb.

Matthew says that an angel descended from heaven and sat on the stone that had been in front of the tomb and announced to the women that the tomb was empty. John also describes two angels, sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying.  However, they do not appear until after Peter and the “other disciple” have come and found the tomb empty.

One or two? Men or angels?  Before, during, or after the women and others entered the tomb?  There really is no way to harmonize these details from the gospel accounts.  However, based on the fact that all four gospels came to be of significance in the early church, it seems that the discrepancy in these details across the accounts was of no concern.  Instead, the focus for the early church was on the point that all four gospels agree upon – the announcement that Christ had risen from the dead and that his disciples should get ready to see him.

The “other disciple” in John

In the Passion and resurrection narratives of John, we are introduced to the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:21-30, John 20:1-10, John 21:20-25).  This disciple is given no name anywhere in the text.  Based on John 21:24-25, this “beloved disciple” has traditionally been associated with John and the author of the gospel.  However, a closer reading of John 21:24-25 shows us that, though the gospel is said to be based on the testimony of this disciple, the gospel was not written by him.  John 21:20-23 seems to suggest that a false rumor had circulated at some point that Christ would return before the death of this disciple.

Some Questions that Might Come Up

Where does Mark’s gospel end?

One of the great Biblical mysteries is how the gospel of Mark ends.  Some of the most ancient manuscripts of Mark conclude the gospel with Mark 16:8, with no record of any resurrection appearances by Jesus.  Other manuscripts, including some ancient ones, include Mark 16:9-20 as the conclusion of the gospel, though most scholars feel that there is evidence in the text and style of these verses that indicates it was not written by the same author as the rest of the gospel and was probably a later addition, though not much later.

If the shorter ending is accepted as the original ending, it certainly should not suggest that Mark did not believe in any post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.  In Mark 14:28, Jesus tells the disciples, “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”  The young man echoes these words when he tells the women, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7).

Verses 9-20, particularly 17-18, have been pivotal verses in some charismatic and pentecostal Christian movements which have focused on snake-handling and drinking poison as part of the worship of the church.  It should be noted that there are no exact New Testament parallels to believers picking up snakes or drinking poison without harm.  The closest one might come is Acts 28:3-6, when Paul is accidentally bitten by a snake and suffers no harm.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the shorter ending of Mark is that the women are seen fleeing from the tomb in terror.  “… and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”(Mark 16:8b).  This seems a somewhat discouraging note upon which to end the gospel.  However, it could also be an intentional bit of suspense, for if this gospel has been written and the events learned about by the gospel writer, then obviously the women told someone what they found!  In some ways, the shorter ending would fit well with the “Messianic secret” theme of Mark’s gospel.  Throughout the gospel, Jesus is heard telling his disciples and those who he exorcised and healed not to tell anyone who he was.  Yet, with all these instructions, the word could not be stopped.  Perhaps the shorter ending was the original ending to convey a similar truth.

Additional Resources

Week 26 – The Hour of Darkness

Scripture Reading:  Matthew 26-27; Mark 14-15; Luke 22-23; John 13-14, 16-19

Significant Moments in The Story:

Jesus washes the disciples’ feet:  John 13:1-20

The Last Supper:  Matthew 26:20-30, Mark 14:17-27, Luke 22:14-38

Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane:  Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46

Jesus’ trial:  Matthew 26:57-75, Mark 14:53-72, Luke 22:54-71, John 18:12-27

Jesus before Pilate: Matthew 27:1-31, Mark 15:1-20, Luke 23:1-25, John 18:28-19:16

The crucifixion of Jesus:  Matthew 27:32-56, Mark 15:21-41, Luke 23:26-49, John 19:17-37

Key Themes

Atonement

Christ died for us.  Christ died for our sins.  We have heard it, said it, and sung it so many times that the question that might be asked is:  do we understand what we are saying?  What does the crucifixion of Christ have to do with us?

Understanding the relationship of the crucifixion of Jesus to our understanding of atonement – the reconciliation of a sinful creation to God – has driven theology, worship, evangelism, and missions for centuries.  Yet, 2000 years later, it must be said that, though most Christians have an understanding of the role of the cross in humanity’s atonement, there is still no clear definition of the understanding of why Christ’s death on the cross is effective for the atonement of mankind.  I would like to summarize below a few popular understandings of the crucifixion and atonement, with helpful guidance from A New Handbook of Christian Theology and Past Event and Present Salvation.

1)  Ransom – Humanity has been enslaved by evil.  In our sin, humanity has given ourselves willingly over to Satan and the ultimate end of that choice is death.  However, Christ paid the price of sin – death – even though he was without sin.  Thus, any who would identify with Christ as his disciples claim the price he paid as the ransom that sets them free from sin’s power.

2)  Satisfaction – Humanity’s sin has offended our just, holy, and righteous God.  We have broken our covenant with God and disobeyed His law and word.  The law called for curses upon those who broke the covenant with God.  Christ’s death on the cross was intended to bear the curses of all of mankind’s sin to fulfill the covenant and allow humanity to be restored to a right relationship with God.

3)  Substitution – Our sin has offended God, and in His wrath we are subject to His just punishment.  However, Christ offers himself up on the cross to bear God’s wrath that we deserve but he does not because he was without sin.

4)  Influence – The cross is the ultimate expression of the extent to which God is willing to go to forgive humanity.  The cross is also an expression of the suffering our sin causes God.  The cross exposes the ultimate hopelessness of sin and evil and the power of this world and invites mankind to turn toward a loving God who is ready to forgive and welcome His creation into His kingdom.

Certainly, these 4 are not inclusive of every explanation and perspective on atonement.  However, my guess is that, as you read these, you probably recognize one (or more) that you claim as your understanding and that you have heard preached, taught, and sung in the church at one time or another.  Which is the “correct” explanation?  Who you ask will determine which choice is selected.

A personal observation:  based on the gospel accounts, it is clear that any understanding of atonement and the crucifixion cannot be separated from the resurrection.  To say it another way, we cannot seek to explain or understand the crucifixion of Christ from a perspective that does not incorporate the resurrection of Christ.  None of the four gospels end at the cross; all end with the same announcement – the tomb is empty, the Lord is risen.  The gospel writers do not seem concerned to try to explain the significance of the crucifixion alone.  In all four, the culmination of the story of Jesus the Christ is his resurrection.

Background Information

When they had sung the hymn

Psalms 115-118 are psalms that were traditionally sung during Passover

The Sanhedrin (the whole council) – Matthew 26:57-59

Such a trial would have been illegal because hearings were forbidden during festivals such as Passover.

Pilate

Pilate was the Roman procurator, or governor, of Judea for 10 years.  As procurator, he had unrestricted judicial authority, could collect taxes, and had command over anywhere from 500-3,000 soldiers.  Philo described Pilate as an anti-Semite who “… was cruel and his hard heart knew no compassion.  His day in Judea was a reign of bribery and violence, robbery, oppression, misery, executions without a fair trial and infinite cruelty.”

There are two episodes from history that are worth noting as we consider Pilate’s role in the crucifixion of Christ.  At one point, Pilate had his troops carry standards bearing the image of the Roman emperor into Jerusalem.  No other procurator had ever done this before, as these standards were a symbol of Rome’s emperor worship and they had not wanted to offend the beliefs of the Jews.  As a result, many Jews traveled to Pilate’s home and for five days and nights lay prone and motionless around his house.  On the sixth day, Pilate placed soldiers among the crowd that drew swords at a specific signal.  All the Jewish people bared their necks as a sign that they would rather die than defy their laws.  Realizing the possibility of national revolution and possible reprimand from the emperor, Pilate removed the standards.

On another occasion, Pilate embezzled money from the funds designated for the Jerusalem Temple in order to build an aquedeuct.  When he next came to Jerusalem, an angry mob descended on him.  Pilate, however, ordered some of his troops to dress as civilians and mingle in the crowd.  At a specific signal, the disguised troops pulled clubs out from their garments and beat the protestors, killing many of them.

These two stories reveal some things about Pilate that we should consider as we read the gospel story.  Pilate was cunning and ruthless.  He had no respect for the Jewish people or their faith and laws.  He was concerned with avoiding trouble that might diminish his authority or bring unwanted attention from the emperor.  Interestingly enough, Pilate’s own methods – putting people among the crowds to incite trouble – is the very method the gospel writers describe as used by the priests and scribes to incite the crowd to call for Barabbas instead of Jesus.

Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?

This is the first verse of Psalm 22.  It is interesting to read this Psalm in light of the events of Christ’s crucifixion.  It was a typical practice to recite the first words or sentence of a book or psalm to refer to the entire passage.

The young man – Mark 14:51-52

The identity of the young man is unknown.  Some wonder if it is the evangelist Mark himself.  Others have noticed a correlation to the young man dressed in a white robe in Mark’s account of the resurrection in Mark 16, leading to some speculation that this young man was an angel attending to Christ (Luke 22:43).

Some Questions that Might Come Up

Why does Judas kill himself?  Was what he did unforgivable?

Matthew is the only gospel that records Judas hanging himself.  Mark and John never mentions Juda again after Jesus’ arrest.  Luke, in the opening chapter of Acts (Acts 1:18-19), tells us that Judas used the money he was given for betraying Jesus to buy a field, in which he suffered a horrific accident.

A lot of questions arise around Judas’ role in the crucifixion of Christ.  Did he have choice in betraying Jesus (Matthew 26:20-25)?  Was he possessed by a demon (John 13:27)?  Judas’ motivations are certainly muddy based on the gospel accounts.  Perhaps that is because the gospel writers struggled to find explanation for such betrayal that made no sense, as we often do.

The question that many ask is whether Judas could have been forgiven for his betrayal.  The short answer has to be yes, I believe.  If Jesus could pronounce forgiveness for the thief hanging next him, if Jesus could pray, “Father, forgive them” for those who had nailed to him a cross and those who stood at the foot of the cross mocking him, if Jesus could welcome back Peter who had denied even knowing him after avidly swearing allegiance to Jesus, is there any reason why we would think Jesus could not have forgiven him?  Perhaps Judas’ story is the story of what the gospel looks like with only a cross and without resurrection.  There is no hope, there is no grace, there is no new life.  Perhaps Judas hangs himself because he thinks he is unable to make it right with the one who he had betrayed.  Judas saw only a cross with no hope of resurrection, even though Christ had said he would rise three days later.

Additional Resources

Week 25 – Jesus, the Son of God

Scripture Reading:  Matthew 17, 21; Mark 8-12; Luke 9; John 7-8, 11-12

Significant Moments in The Story

The feeding of the 4000 – Mark 8

The woman caught in adultery – John 8

The Transfiguration – Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9

The healing of the epileptic boy – Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9

The raising of Lazarus – John 11

Mary anoints Jesus – John 12

Palm Sunday – Matthew 21, Mark 11, John 12

Key Themes

The divinity of Christ

Though each of the four gospels has their own unique way of telling Jesus’ story, all four are deeply concerned with conveying that Jesus was not just a dynamic teacher or inspirational leader.  He is the Son of God, fully divine in every way.  Centuries of theological reflection has been spent trying to explain the divinity and humanity of Christ as well as explore Christ’s divinity in relationship to the Father and Holy Spirit.  Our understanding of the Trinity has been driven primarily by the claim that Jesus is the fully divine Son of God.  Perhaps our own reflections should not start with the writings of theologians (but it can certainly include them).  Instead, though, the question that we should perhaps begin with is this:  why did the writers of the gospels believe it was so important that we understand Jesus as divine, as God incarnate?  What impact would that message have for the early disciples, and what meaning does it have for us today?

Suffering on the horizon

In several places in our readings this week, Jesus explains the suffering that he is about to face to his disciples.  Their responses range from silent befuddlement to outward rebuke and denial.  This raises several interesting questions:  What was so difficult for the disciples to understand?  Why was Peter (Mark 8:31-33) so outwardly hostile to Jesus’ foretelling of his crucifixion?  In light of the urgency with which the divinity of Christ is declared, how do we understand the declaration of his suffering?  Would we have been any more accepting of this teaching than the disciples if we had seen and heard everything they had?

Background Information

The Transfiguration – Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36

This moment is where Peter, James, and John are permitted to see the full divine glory of Jesus.  The significance of the presence of Moses and Elijah is twofold.  One, their presence indicates that those who came before the birth of Jesus were not somehow prevented from sharing in the kingdom of God.  Second, Moses and Elijah represent the law (Moses-the giver of the law) and the prophets (Elijah-considered by most the first and greatest of all the prophets).  We are called back to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount – “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).  This moment also serves as a reaffirmation of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as a voice that needs to be listened to.

The coming of Elijah – Matthew 17:10-13, Mark 9:11-13

In Malachi 4, the prophet Malachi says that the prophet Elijah will return before the day of the LORD, the day when God’s will is made manifest on earth.  This return of Elijah will be accompanied by repentance in the people.  Thus, the expectation of a Messiah became intertwined with the expectation that the prophet Elijah would come back.  Matthew tells us that Jesus associated Elijah with John the Baptist.

The epileptic boy – Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9:14-29, Luke 9:37-43

In ancient times, conditions such as epilepsy were often understood to be caused by demonic possession.  Thus, this miracle of Jesus is often portrayed as an exorcism rather than just a healing.

The inability of Jesus’ disciples to heal this boy is an interesting moment in the story.  Matthew’s account (Matthew 17:19-21) says that it is the disciples’ lack of faith (is it lack of faith in God or lack of faith in their ability to use the power Christ has given them?) that prevents them from casting out this demon.  Mark (Mark 9:28-29), on the other hand, indicates that the issue is more about method – Jesus says they could not cast out the demon because “this kind can come out only through prayer (and fasting)”.  Luke does not deal that much with the reason why the disciples are unable to cast out the demon.

The Temple tax – Matthew 17:24

The Temple tax was a tax paid every year by every Jewish male to insure the upkeep of the Temple.

Pharisees and Sadducees 

For more information about these groups, check out the Background Information section of week 21.

The yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod – Mark 8:15

Jesus’ warning to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod is indeed a somewhat difficult teaching to understand.  What is Jesus trying to say by using the word “yeast”?  Yeast is the active ingredient that causes dough to rise.  At the same time, some believed that yeast worked by creating decay in the dough.  The consumption of yeast or leaven was forbidden during Passover, and yeast was not allowed to be a part of any grain offering to God.

In the light of this story, the term “yeast” seems to be a reference to motivation or conviction.  Herod seems to have been motivated by worldliness and power, while the Pharisees are condemned by Jesus for hypocrisy and a desire to prove themselves more righteous than others.

Paying taxes to Caesar – Mark 12:13-17

Jesus is asked about paying taxes to the Roman emperor.  Likely, what is being referred to is the “poll tax”, a tax that every adult listed on the census had to pay to Rome.  The tax could only be paid with a silver denarius from the imperial mint.  On one side of the coin would have been stamped the emperor’s head, while the other side was stamped with a female figure wearing a crown and holding a scepter in one hand and an olive branch in the other.  Such coins would not have been common currency for Jesus or other Jews, as they used coinage that bore no images.

Perhaps the trap that is trying to be laid here is a trap to see if Jesus will choose between breaking religious law or political law.  If Jesus answers that yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, then it could be argued that Jesus is recognizing the claim of the emperor’s power ( and possibly the claim of the emperor’s divinity ) and is encouraging the use of currency that would have been seen as idolistic.  This could have discredited Jesus with those who were looking for him to denounce Rome as well as those who saw him as completely obedient to the Torah.  At the same time, if Jesus said it was not lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, then Jesus’ opponents could denounce him before Rome as a revolutionary.

Jesus’ changes the conversation by making the issue about the coin used to pay the tax.  The coin is stamped with the emperor’s image, meaning the emperor ultimately claims ownership of the coin.  If so, then give it to him.  However, this should not stop the individual from giving to God what belongs to God.  Which, of course, raises an obvious question back to the Herodians – what belongs to God?

The Festival of Booths, or Festival of Tabernacles – John 7:2

The Festival of Booths was a weeklong festival that celebrated the harvest and was a time to remember Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness after the Exodus, when the people lived not in homes but simple tents or lean-tos.  The Torah required all males to participate in this festival.

The woman caught in adultery – John 8:1-11

In your Bible, you may notice brackets around this passage.  That is because the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel do not contain this story.  Only later did the story become a part of John’s gospel.  There is some evidence to indicate that the story may have originally been a part of the gospel of Luke, but over time and usage it was dropped out of Luke and included here in John.

Greeks – John 12:20

Probably this term is used here to refer to Gentiles.