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

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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 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 24 – No Ordinary Man

Scripture Reading:  Matthew 5-7, 9, 14; Mark 4-6; Luke 10, 15; John 6

Significant Moments in The Story

The healing of the Gerasene demoniac – Mark 5

The death of John the Baptist – Mark 6

The feeding of the 5000 – Mark 6, Matthew 14, Luke 9, John 6

The Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5-7

Jesus sends out 70 missionaries – Luke 10

The parable of the good Samaritan – Luke 10

The parable of the prodigal son – Luke 15

Key Themes

The miracles of Jesus

In this week’s readings, we encounter several different types of miracles that Jesus performs:  healings, exorcisms, and controlling forces of nature.  The miracles of Jesus have often been a source of contention for some because they defy laws of science of reason.  Thomas Jefferson even produced a copy of the Gospels in which he left out all the miracle stories in an effort to boil down the gospel to that which made sense to reason.  Others vehemently defend the veracity of the miracles, citing them as proof that Jesus is truly the Son of God.

In a sense, both sides of the argument are correct.  The miracles are proof that Jesus is the Son of God and they are challenging to our sense of how the world works.  Which is exactly the point that sometimes is missed about the miracles: Jesus’ miracles were intended to reveal the kingdom of God.  They challenge the way the world works because they are intended to reveal that God’s kingdom does not operate by the norms of this world, whether we are talking science, reason, or culture.  The miracles were not just Jesus showing off, which is why Jesus often told the sick that he healed to tell no one about what he had done.  He was not trying to prove he was better than anyone, he was trying to reveal that, in the kingdom of God, the powers of sickness and death have no control.  The exorcisms reveal that God does not allow the forces of evil to remain in His kingdom.  The control of nature reveals that God has the power to bring His kingdom into existence.

The parables of Jesus

We also this week encounter some of the parables of Jesus, including the two most well-known parables – the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  Parables were not told as events that actually took place; instead, they are made-up stories that Jesus used to convey truths.  We often think of parables like sermon illustrations, stories that are intended to make the speaker’s point clearer.  However, in Mark 4:11-12, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10, telling his disciples that he teaches in parables to make it hard for “those outside” to understand.  Of course, the disciples themselves didn’t understand either, which is why they have come to Jesus in the first place!

Perhaps the best way to understand the use of the parables is that they were a teaching method that challenged Jesus’ audience to move from bystander to listener to follower to disciple.  The parables sometimes used difficult and challenging images to make a point.  For example, making a Samaritan a hero in a story told to a Jewish audience would have been shocking to the listeners.  Could the audience hear and accept the story even when their very assumptions about culture and society were being challenged?  Some probably walked away from the story angry that a Samaritan was the hero instead of the priest or Levite.  However, those that were able to really listen to Jesus understood that he was inviting them to a better understanding of how God understands community.

Living the kingdom of God

Ultimately, Jesus was announcing that the kingdom of God was breaking forth into existence in creation.  Rather than waiting for the kingdom to fully arrive, all of God’s people should begin to live life now as they will fully in the kingdom of God.  Thus, when we look at the moral and ethical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, they cannot be understood apart from the belief that God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus Christ and will ultimately be the reality of all creation.

Background Information

Hypocrites – Matthew 6:2-18

The Greek word translated as “hypocrites” was originally the term used to refer to an actor.  Eventually, it referred to a person who sought public praise or was deceitful.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do …” – Matthew 6:7

It is not entirely clear what type of practice Jesus is referring to.  Though Jewish prayers were often filled with titles of honor for God, the rabbis did tend to encourage brevity in prayer.  The concern here is not to spend time in prayer as if one has to somehow get God’s attention.

“This man is blaspheming.” – Matthew 9:3

Blasphemy is the profaning of God.  In this particular instance, the charge of blasphemy is being leveled against Jesus based on the understanding that only God has the authority to forgive sins.  However, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, challenge the idea that this was really blasphemy, saying that Jewish sources indicate no problem with someone speaking on God’s behalf.

The woman suffering from hemorrhages – Matthew 9:20

The likelihood is that the woman suffered from some kind of abnormal menstrual bleeding.  The law indicated that such a woman was considered unclean, as was anything that she touched, until she has purified herself by a specific set of rituals laid out in Leviticus 15.  Thus, the image of her reaching out to touch Jesus is a shocking social and religious image.

“But the Pharisees said, ‘By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.'” – Matthew 9:34

The Pharisees are claiming that Jesus is able to cast out demons because he has demonic authority.

Herod – Matthew 14:1

This is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great (the king at the time of Jesus’ birth).

“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” – Mark 6:3

The gospels don’t contain much personal information about Jesus besides passing references such as this one.

The term translated as “carpenter” is a word used to refer to anyone who works in wood or other materials.

It is interesting that Jesus is referred to as “son of Mary” and not “son of Joseph”, which would be expected.  Perhaps the crowd was trying to be derogatory, insinuating that Joseph was not his father.

The presence of those referred to as Jesus’ brothers and sisters has been a challenge for those who believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary.  Some argue that these are Joseph’s children by another woman.  The Greek words for brother and sister are general terms used to refer to relatives, not specifically siblings.  So it is possible that these men and women are members of the family, cousins perhaps, and not specifically brothers and sisters.  At the same time, there is no understanding present in the gospels that would argue against an understanding of these brothers and sisters being children of Joseph and Mary.

The parable of the Good Samaritan – Luke 10:25-37

Jesus tells this parable as part of a larger conversation with an expert in the Scriptures who comes to “test” Jesus.  The word for “test” is the same word used to describe what Satan does to Jesus in the wilderness. It is also the same word that we also translate as “tempt” in the Lord’s Prayer.  The sense is that the lawyer is asking this question to challenge Jesus.

In response, Jesus challenges the lawyer’s understanding of the Scripture.  In a sense, Jesus turns the table on the lawyer.  The lawyer asks the question to challenge Jesus, yet Jesus is the one who ends up affirming the correctness of the lawyer.

Trying to get back into the position of authority, the lawyer asks the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  The concept of showing kindness and hospitality to the stranger was well-established within the Jewish law and culture. The parable then is not a story about being kind to strangers.  Instead, we must pay attention to the fact that Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero of the story.

In the parable, Jesus describes three people walking by the man who has been robbed.  The first two are a priest and a Levite.  According to Levine and Brettler, the Jewish people were, and are, divided into three social groups:  the priests (descendants of Aaron), the Levites (descendants of other children of Levi) and Israelites (descendants of other children of Jacob).  Thus, when Jesus begins the story with a priest and a Levite coming down the road, the natural expectation of a Jewish audience is that the third person would be an Israelite.  Instead, Jesus makes the third person a Samaritan, the enemy of the Jews.  Though we often focus on the kindness of the Samaritan, the story itself brings an interesting challenge to the lawyer:  can you see your enemy as one who is deserving of welcoming and of hospitality?

Mary and Martha- Luke 10:38-42

Luke’s placing of the story of Mary and Martha after the account of Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer is perhaps more than a statement of order of events.  When Jesus asked the lawyer to tell him what the law said about inheriting eternal life, the lawyer quoted two laws:  love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.  The parable of the Good Samaritan exemplifies the law of loving your neighbor as yourself.  Now, in the story of Mary and Martha, we see Mary praised for putting the hearing and learning the word of God above everything else.

Disciples leave Jesus – John 6:66

After John’s account of the feeding of the 5000, he gives an account of a lengthy exchange between Jesus and the crowds who had followed him.  The crowd asks Jesus for a sign that will allow them to believe in him as the one sent by God.  They cite when God gave manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness as the type of sign that would prove Jesus is who he says he is.  In response, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. … I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”  Many in the crowd react with confusion and anger, claiming that Jesus is just a man like them and cannot be a divine being.  Jesus goes on to say that he is the sign of God’s work, that in order to receive eternal life, they must accept him.

I am the bread of life.  Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and they died.  This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. … Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.  But the one who eats this bread will live forever.

As we read these words, we hear overtones of communion and a foreshadowing of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper.  However, on a literal level, talk of eating flesh and drinking blood carried with it notes of cannibalism.  The Jewish law strictly forbade the ingestion of blood.  These words would cause many of the crowd to cease following after Jesus.

Additional Resources

Week 23 – Jesus’ Ministry Begins

Scripture Readings:  Mark 1-3; John 2-4; Matthew 3-4, 11; Luke 8

Significant Moments in The Story

The ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus – Mark 1, Matthew 3

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness – Mark 1, Matthew 4

The sign at the wedding in Cana – John 2

The healing of the paralytic – Mark 2

The appointing of the apostles – Mark 3

Nicodemus’ night time visit – John 3

The Samaritan woman at the well – John 4

The exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac – Luke 8

Key Themes

The ministry of John the Baptist

John the Baptist’s ministry is best summarized by his message as described in Matthew 3:2 – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” – and by the act of baptism, described in Mark 1 as an act signifying the forgiveness of sins.  Though the Scriptures do indicate that there might have been some early tension between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus (Mark 2:18-20, John 3:25-36), it is clear that John understood his ministry as one of preparing the people to receive “he whom God has sent” (John 3:34).  John’s attitude regarding the relationship of his ministry to the ministry of Jesus is best summed up in John’s words in John 3:30 – “He must increase, but I must decrease”.  John was most concerned that the people welcome Jesus into their lives and live by the word that Jesus was bringing.

In Matthew 11, Jesus will associate John the Baptist with the coming of Elijah foretold by the prophet Malachi (Malachi 4:5).  All of the gospel writers portray John’s ministry as part of the will of God that had been foretold by the prophets.

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River and the declaration by the voice from heaven are vital moments for several reasons.  First, and foremost, the story affirms Jesus as the Son of God, establishing the identity and giving us a context to understand everything that he will say and do following this moment.  Second, the connection between the baptism event and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness should not be ignored.  Immediately after the voice from heaven affirms “this is my beloved Son”, Jesus faces Satan who challenges him three times, “If you are the Son of God …”.  Jesus’ ministry will be filled not only with miracles and conversions but also with controversy and conflict.  Early on, we are being told that the attacks on Jesus by various groups are a paralleled by a cosmic conflict that Jesus is fighting against the powers of Satan.  Perhaps the miracles of exorcism (Luke 8, for example) bring this most clearly into focus.  Jesus is not just a great teacher facing down those who disagree with him, he is the Son of God who is confronting the power of sin and evil itself.

God’s invitation to join in His work

Once again, as Jesus calls others to follow him and as he appoints twelve as his apostles, we see that God continues to invite humanity to join Him in the working out of His will in creation.  At this point, this should not be anything new or surprising to us.  However, it does remind us that our Christian faith is not just a matter of attendance in church.  As Christians, we are those who have heard the call of Christ and accepted the invitation to travel with him throughout this world and teach and heal in his name.

Born again

The phrase “born again” has become almost cliche in American Christianity.  Yet, as we look at the gospel accounts of Christ, we see that Jesus’ description of being “born again” or “born anew” or “born from above” is an apt description of the life that he is inviting people to live.  This “born again” life is indeed a complete transformation of the person – see the stories of the woman at the well in John 4 and the story of the paralyzed man in Mark 2.  We should open our eyes to read these gospel stories with fresh eyes and ears and allow ourselves to ask the question that Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  How can these things be?”

Background Information

Baptism of repentance – Mark 1:4

Though we often think of baptism as an act of New Testament Christianity, the concept of purification through water was not a new development.  In Leviticus, we see several instances where those who were dealing with various ailments that marked them as unclean were instructed to go and bathe as a sign of their purification.  The apocryphal book of Judith describes how the heroine went out each night to bathe and pray and returned “purified”.  Though a theology of baptism may not have been popularly in place, the use of water in acts of purification was a familiar concept.

Satan – Mark 1:13

The figure of Satan is not one we see specifically named in the Old Testament until much later writings.  The name means “adversary” or “accuser”.

Kingdom of God – Mark 1:15

Recent works by the noted New Testament scholar and historian N.T. Wright have brought back into focus the centrality of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, in Jesus’ message.  Wright points out that the primary thrust of Jesus’ message was not a proclamation of eternal life but the announcement of the coming of God’s kingdom, when the powers of sin and death are defeated and God is revealed as the ruler of all creation.  Wright’s point is to remind the church today that Christ is primarily concerned with this world, not the next.  He believes that his message and ministry has implications for the world in the here and now.  The invitation of John the Baptist and Jesus to repent is an invitation to return to the one true king, God.  This call would echo the call of the prophets, who implored Israel to turn from seeking after other earthly powers and false gods and return to the one and only God of Israel.

Synagogue – Mark 1:21

The synagogue was a house of prayer where Jews would come together to hear the Scripture read and interpreted and join in prayer and song.  The synagogue was a development of post-exilic Judaism as Israel sought to understand what it meant to be God’s people apart from the Temple.  This search led to increased emphasis on the people studying the Scripture and praying together.  Though the Temple is still important for the Jews in the time of Jesus, the presence of the synagogues reveals what the future of Judaism will look like after the final destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.

Son of Man – Mark 2:10

Originally, the title of “son of man” was another way of saying “human being”.  However, in Daniel 7, we see the phrase used to describe one who was to come and have everlasting dominion over all peoples.  Thus, the term began to carry Messianic overtones.  Jesus’ use of the term perhaps draws on both meanings, shining light on both his humanity as well as his identification with the expectations of the Messiah as one who has been given authority over all mankind.  In the setting of this story in Mark 2, Jesus is asserting that he has the authority to forgive the sins of the paralyzed man.

Tax collectors and sinners – Mark 2:15

Nobody likes paying taxes, but the animosity with which tax collectors were viewed was about more than just a resentment of taxes.  The tax collectors collected tolls on goods coming across the borders.  As long as they had enough to pay the taxes promised in their contracts with the authorities, they were free to charge whatever rates they wanted and keep the excess for themselves.  Many tax collectors made themselves wealthy charging exorbitant fees, and thus they were despised by the people for their perceived dishonesty.  As far as the label of “sinners”, some wonder if this is a reference to Jews who did not strictly adhere to the dietary laws, especially since this is a story of Jesus and his dining companions.  What is clear is that the people that Jesus is dining with are not people that the scribes and Pharisees would have chosen to associate with.

“Stretch out your hand” – Mark 3:5

It is interesting to note that Jesus does nothing in this story other than speak.  Thus, even as he questions the meaning of the Sabbath laws, is he still abiding by the restriction against work?

“The first of his signs” – John 2:11

The gospel of John consistently refers to Jesus’ miracles as “signs”.  In other words, these events are not to be understood simply at the level of what takes place.  Instead, they should also be read and heard with an understanding that they are revealing something much deeper.  In other words, these signs are pointing us to a better understanding of who Jesus is and what he has come to teach us about the kingdom of God.  In that light, it is interesting to consider that the first sign Jesus performs in John’s gospel is not a healing or an exorcism but the transformation of water into wine to allow a wedding celebration to continue.  What might this sign be revealing about the nature of God and His kingdom?

Jesus in the Temple – John 2:13-16

The presence of merchants selling animals and changing money in the Temple was not simply a matter of commerce and economics.  Merchants sold unblemished animals in the Temple court so that people could make proper and acceptable sacrifices.  The money changers exchanged foreign currencies for currency that was acceptable to pay the Temple tax (Exodus 30:11-16).  Thus, Jesus’ actions, during the high point of Passover, severely disrupt the ability of the people to worship in the Temple.  And that may be exactly what Jesus was trying to do.  By challenging the very authority of the Temple and its administration, Jesus was inviting to see the presence of God in their midst through his words and actions.  Thus, the connection of this story to his resurrection (John 2:19-22).  The story presents a challenge to us, the reader, today:  can we get so locked into customs and rituals that we become more concerned with maintaining an institution than with the presence and Word of God in our midst?

Samaritans – John 4

The Samaritans were descendants of two groups:  remnants of the ten northern tribes of Israel who were not deported by Assyria and foreign colonists brought into the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrian Empire.  In Ezra 4, it is these peoples who opposed the rebuilding of the Temple, thus setting the stage for the tension between Samaritans and Jews.

John the Baptist’s clothing – Matthew 3:4

“Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist …”.  This description of John echoes the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 – “… a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.”

The country of the Gerasenes – Luke 8:26

There is some discrepancy as to the exact area that this story takes place.  However, in general, it is believed that this is a Gentile region.  Thus, this story serves, in part, as a foreshadowing of the sharing of the gospel with the Gentiles.

Week 20 – The Queen of Beauty and Courage

Scripture Reading:  Esther 1-9

Key Moments in The Story:

Esther chosen by King Ahasuerus to be the new queen – Esther 2

Haman hatches a plan to kill all the Jews – Esther 3

Mordecai warns Esther of Haman’s plan – Esther 4

Esther reveals Haman’s plot to the king – Esther 7

Inauguration of the Feast of Purim – Esther 9

Key Themes:

Providence (?)

Esther is unusual in the Bible because the name of God appears nowhere in the entire book.  As a matter of fact, there is little dealing directly with religion and faith in the entire book.  However, the entire story is centered around the theme that circumstances align to insure that the right people are in the right places at the right time to insure the well-being of the Jewish people.  One could argue that, though God is absent on the surface, the story details the working out of God’s covenant of blessing upon Israel in the face of a tremendous threat.

At the same time, though, we can also perhaps hear in the book of Esther a warning against reading the hand of God into every act.  Chapters 8-9 detail an almost farcical situation.  Even though Haman, the originator of the plot against the Jews, has been killed, the king’s order to all the cities in his kingdom to kill all the Jews is still out there.  However, a king’s edict cannot be revoked.  The solution?  The king allows Mordecai to issue an edict in the king’s name permitting the Jews in every city to take up arms and kill any who try to kill them, including their wives and children, and to plunder all of their goods.  Esther 9:16 says that the Jews killed 75,000 people on that day.

We return to the first statement in this section:  nowhere in this book does the name of God appear.  The question we are left to ask is:  is this really the only response that was available?  What does it say that an all-powerful king can’t change his own order?  Again, nowhere in the book is God given any credit for any of what takes place.  Perhaps, the story of Esther is a story of warning:  to believe in a God who can do anything does not mean that God does everything.  Perhaps we should be hesitant about reading God’s will and God’s action into every moment and event.

The Feast of Purim

There are many who believe that the story of Esther was originally told to explain the origins of the Feast of Purim, a Jewish festival which, though still celebrated today, has no root in the Mosaic law as the other feasts and celebrations do.  The festival, even as it is described in Esther 9, has no overt connection to the action or purposes of God.  Instead, it was intended to be a festival celebrating the Jews deliverance from Haman’s plot by the actions of Esther and Mordecai.  The term Purim comes from a Babylonian root word meaning “lot”, as in the lot of chance that Haman cast to determine what day would be the day when all the Jews would be slaughtered.  As in several cases in the book of Esther, there is an irony here – the day of the Jews’ destruction becomes the day of the Jews’ victory and deliverance.

Jews and Gentiles

The story of Esther is a very interesting story to read in light of the history of the Jewish people and the anti-Semitism that they would face throughout their history, even until today.  Though we most often think of the Holocaust in relation to anti-Semitism, history tells us that the Jewish people have been targeted for violence and persecution throughout the centuries. Esther’s story points to an ongoing historical reality, even though many believe that the story of Esther is more legendary than historical fact.  The question that Esther’s story raises is what relationship the Jews should have with Gentiles and, perhaps, a word of warning about future persecution by Gentiles.  Interestingly, the Apocrypha preserves a later Greek translation of the book of Esther which contains 107 additional verses.  In these additional texts, there is a very strong sentiment which some take to be a sense that God has chosen for Israel and against the nations.  The belief is that these later additions may represent a response to a particular time of persecution by neighboring Gentiles.  In any case, the story of Esther invites us to consider the often dark history of Jewish-Gentile relations and ask where we need to address misunderstandings and stereotypes that can lead to violence and hatred.

Irony and contrast

The book of Esther is ripe with all kinds of ironic and contrasting ideas.  For example, the king dismisses Queen Vashti as a warning that “every man should be master in his own house.”  However, the story of Esther is about the king gives in to the wishes of Haman, then Esther and Mordecai.  Vashti was to be an example of a woman’s “rightful place”, yet it is Haman’s wife who tells Haman to hang Mordecai from the gallows and it is Esther who is the lone spokesperson for her people.  Other such notable ironies will be pointed out in other places in this post.

Background Information

Ahasuerus – Esther 1:1

This is another name for King Xerxes I, who ruled a portion of the Persian Empire spanning from India to Ethiopia beginning in 485 B.C. until 464 B.C.

Susa – Esther 1:2

Susa was not the capital of Xerxes empire.  Instead, Susa was the king’s winter home, located about 200 miles northeast of Babylon.

Mordecai the Benjaminite and Haman the Agagite – Esther 2-3

It is not trivial information that we are told the tribal associations of Mordecai and Haman.  The term “Agagite” was probably a reference to King Agag, the Amalekite king that King Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, defeats in 1 Samuel 14:7-9.  The fact that Saul does not kill Agag after Samuel has told Saul that he must utterly destroy all of the Amalekites is one of the reasons why Saul ultimately loses the throne.  So perhaps the text is giving some justification why Mordecai will not honor Haman when he comes by.

Fasting – Esther 4:16

Fasting is the only seemingly religious activity mentioned anywhere in the book of Esther, though it was certainly not exclusive to the Jewish people.  In the story, the call to fasting provides an ironic counterpoint to the elaborate feasts of the Persians, who in some cases got drunk to make decisions because they believed drunkeness allowed them to connect with a higher spiritual state.  The call to fast also stands in contrast to Mordecai’s call to feast in Esther 9 when the pogrom, or program of persecution against the Jews, has been put down.  In the Old Testament, fasting is often associated with prayer, though no such obvious connection is made in this situation.

Some Questions That Might Come Up

Why could Esther be killed for going to see the king without being invited?

The answer is relatively simple:  security.  If someone came to see the king without being invited by the king, it was assumed they represented a risk to the king and intended to do him harm.

Additional Resources

 

 

“One Night with the King” – the movie based on the story of Esther