Hebrews 3

Overview

  • The author says:
  • So, my family members – brothers and sisters – we who are heaven-bound, keep 100% focused on Jesus who is God’s #1 ambassador and the best spiritual leader ever, for all time.
  • Jesus is committed to doing God’s will among his family – his tribe, just like Moses was committed to doing God’s will with all the tribes of Israel back in the day.
  •  In fact Jesus is greater than Moses, because as the founder of God’s house (i.e. his people) he is greater than any one of its members (i.e. Moses).
  • God is the one who builds everything, right? So he’s in charge.
  • You should remember that one time when Moses’ leadership was questioned by his own family (Aaron and Miriam – Moses’ brother and sister) and God responded by saying, “My (God’s) family is Israel and I put Moses in charge because he is a faithful servant. “
  • Well, Jesus is even more faithful and he’s in charge over Moses because he’s the Son of God, not just a servant. Jesus is directly related to God, not just working for him.
  • So we should take courage and display confidence and faith because we are part of God’s family through Jesus. We can have hope because we’re in the right place under the right leader.
  • Remember what the Holy Spirit says: “If you can hear God’s voice today, don’t ignore it, like your ancestors did during their rebellious years in the dessert after the exodus.
  • “That generation literally took up residence in a place called “Testing” and “Trying” because even after 40 years of helping them, saving them, caring for them, all they did was complain and doubt.
  • “That’s why God was so angry with them he said, ‘They don’t get it. They love their complaining more than me. I swear I won’t let them get to the end of the journey and enter the Promise Land. No restful reward for you!'”
  • So, my family, my brothers and sisters, don’t be like your forefathers (and mothers). Make sure your heart is always pointed towards God–the one who gives life–not away from him.
  • Encourage each other everyday, because everyday is the “today” the Holy Spirit spoke of.
  • Don’t be deceived into thinking God isn’t caring for you.
  • We’re a part of Jesus’ family, and all the awesome things that entails, so long as we can keep believing along this rough journey.
  • Remember what I just quoted: “If you can hear God’s voice today, don’t ignore it, like your ancestors did during their rebellious years in the dessert after the exodus.”
  • Who rebelled? All the people who were miraculously rescued from Egypt via Moses.
  • And who was God angry with? Those same people who doubted God every step of their journey in the wilderness and ended up dying there.
  • And who didn’t get to go into the Promise Land? Yep. Them. They didn’t make it for one reason: unbelief.

Historical Context

Moses

To the Jews, there was no man greater than Moses. He set his people free from slavery, he delivered the Law, he built the tabernacle, and he lead God’s people to the promise land. To say  the man Jesus was greater than Moses was a substantial claim.

Rabbis said that “the soul of Moses was equivalent to the souls of all Israel.” The Cabbalistic process called Gematria (the numerical value of the letters) has the value of the words “Moses our Rabbi” is the same value of the letters of “Lord God of Israel.” They said that “the face of Moses. was like the Sun;” that he alone “saw through a clear glass” not as other prophets “through a dim glass,” and that there were fifty gates of understanding in the world, and “all but one were opened to Moses.”5

Israelites in the Wilderness

Throughout the wilderness journey of 40 years the Israelites both praised and despised God.

Starting after the Israelites had passed through the Red Sea on dry ground, they sang songs of deliverance, praising God for their miraculous deliverance and anticipating their possession of the Promised Land by the defeat of their enemies (Exodus 15:1-18). But soon after this, the people come to Marah, where the water is too bitter to drink. The people grumble at Moses, demanding to know what they are going to drink. God instructs Moses to throw a tree into the waters to sweeten them, and thus the Israelites are able to drink the water (15:22-26).3

When the Israelites arrive at the wilderness of Sin (virtually a month after the exodus), the people begin to grumble because they are concerned about what they are going to eat. Already they have forgotten the horrors of Egypt, and they now speak of it longingly, especially in terms of the food it seemed to offer them. They accuse Moses and Aaron of bringing them into the wilderness to kill them. God provides them with manna and quail.3

Soon after they camp at Rephidim, where there is no water. The people once again quarrel with Moses and accuse him of bringing them to this place to kill them. In obedience to God’s instruction, Moses strikes the rock with his staff, and water pours forth. And thus God again provides for His grumbling people. Appropriately, the place was renamed “Massah”(“test”) and “Meribah” (“quarrel”).3

Soon they come to Kadesh, the gateway to the Promised Land. Twelve spies are sent to assess the suitability of the land and the military strength of the Canaanites. When the spies returned, they all agreed as to the fruitfulness and desirability of the land. They also agreed on the magnitude of the task of taking possession of the land. There were giants in the land, and the place was well fortified. The spies differed in their faith in God’s promises and in His ability to remove the Canaanites. Caleb and Joshua were confident that God would give them the victory; the other ten did not deem it possible. The people initially wept, but this quickly turned to grumbling and rebellion. They were ready to be rid of Moses and to appoint another leader who would take them back to Egypt.3

Soon there is the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, which ended in the rebels being swallowed up by the ground, followed by fire from the Lord which consumed those offering the incense (Numbers 16:1-35). As a result the people grumbled again against Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the deaths of those who were disobedient and died at the hand of God.3

Later, as on other occasions, the people run out of water, and the whole congregation begins to complain against Moses and Aaron. Somehow, Moses and Aaron were blamed for making the Israelites leave Egypt (as though it were against the will of the people). The people said that they wished they had died in the wilderness earlier, along with their (rebellious) brethren (20:2-5). So the Lord commanded Moses to speak to (not to strike) the rock in the sight of the people so that it would bring forth water for them to drink. Moses struck the rock, in disobedience to God’s instructions. Nevertheless, the rock brought forth water, and the people drank.3

As a result of this pattern of complaints, doubts and disobedience over the course of forty years in the wilderness, God declared he would not let anyone from that generation enter the Holy Land.

Numbers 12:7

When Moses’ sister, Miriam, and brother, Aaron, expressed their jealously of Moses’ leadership and direct interactions with God, the Lord appeared in a “column of cloud” and told them that while he speaks to prophets in visions and dreams, to Moses he speaks face to face because he is “faithful in all my house.” They were thus chastised for having doubted Moses’ leadership.

House of God

The people of God being the house of God is an oft repeated biblical metaphor (“household,” Gal. 6:10; I Tim. 3:15; “spiritual house,” I Pet. 2:5; “household of God,” 4:17). “House” is used six times in this chapter, sometimes with the connotation of a building and sometimes of a family.4

Apostle

An apostle (Greek: apóstolos) means literally, “one who is sent away” as in a messenger or ambassador. The purpose of such “sending away” is to convey messages, and thus “messenger” is a common alternative translation. The same Greek word translated in Latin is missio, from which we get the word “missionary.”2

Moses was a kind of apostle as well. Moses was clearly “sent” by God to Egypt, where he would speak to men for God. Jesus was also an apostle in the sense that he was sent to earth by the Father to lead men from captivity to freedom. As Moses was the one through whom the Law was given, Jesus was the one through whom God finally and fully spoke.3

Psalms 95

Note the attribution of this Psalm of the Holy Spirit.1

The message of the entire Psalm is that people should worship God, but that mere worship, unaccompanied by obedience, will not avail.1

The failure referred to by the psalmist was the failure of an entire generation, punctuated by sins that persisted for forty years. This was not the failure of a few, nor was it a momentary lapse of piety. It was the persistent, life-long, rebellion of an entire nation.3

Meribah and Massah

In Hebrews 3:9 the Hebrew proper names of two locations in the Exodus are translated as common nouns, The proper names, Meribah and Massah, are rendered “tested and tried.”1

In Exodus 17, we are told that the Israelites camped at Rephidim where there was no water to drink. The people complained to Moses, and Moses turned in desperation to God for help. God had Moses strike a rock and water came forth. The Israelites complaining lead Moses to rename the location Meribah and Massah.

Observations

  • The whole typical structure of Israel corresponds to many facts and events in Christianity. 1) The death of Christ is called “an exodus” (Luke 9:31); 2) Christ is the true Passover sacrifice for his people (1 Corinthians 5:7); 3) he is the lamb without blemish and without spot (1 Peter 1:19); 4) Christians during their probation are said to be, like Israel of old, “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38); 5) baptism is the antitype of Israel’s passage through the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1); 6) Christ, the living Rock, is their guide through the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:4); 7) the heavenly rest that lies before them is the counterpart to the earthly Canaan which was the goal of the Israelites.1
  • Why did the Israelite generation fail in the wilderness? 1) They feared death by starvation. 2) They saw themselves as weak, such as when observing the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, they said, “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:33). 3) They didn’t maintain belief that God was on their side, which ultimately lead to a state of rebellion against God.1
  • The grand and terrible lesson of Israel’s history is that it is possible to begin well and end poorly. In fact, this tragic human tendency dominates much human spiritual experience.7
  • Unbelief is not a lack of faith or trust. It is the refusal to believe God. It leads inevitably to a turning away from God in a deliberate act of rejection.7
  • “Confidence” contains the same thought as “glory.” Ancient Greek writers used this term for firmness under torture; and generally for courageous firmness of character.”1
  • “Confidence” is a translation of the Greek word hypostasis. Elsewhere it is rendered “substance,” to which it etymologically corresponds, and implies a solid reality. The substance of a material object is the material from which the object is made.
  • “Apostle and High Priest” are two titles that signal Jesus’ superiority over Moses as official messenger and Aaron as the Levitical high pries.4
  • Hebrews is the only book of the Bible to call Jesus high priest. It takes an extensive rabbinical argumentation to convince first century Jews that Jesus, from the tribe of Judah, really was a priest. The Dead Sea Scrolls community expected two Messiahs, one royal (tribe of Judah) and one priestly (tribe of Levi, cf. Psalm 110; Zechariah 3-4).4
  • The phrase “the living God” is a play on God’s covenant name YHWH, which is from the Hebrew verb “to be” (Exod.3:14).4
  • The author reminds his audience that the spiritual health and well being of every member of the church is the responsibility of every member of the church, and not just one of its staff who is paid to do so.3
  • “Encourage one another” is a present active imperative. Believers are to emulate the Spirit and the Son in encouraging faith and faithfulness. This is the same root as the Greek word paraclete, which means “one called alongside to help” and is used of the Spirit (cf. John 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7) and of Jesus (cf. I John 2:1).4

Discussion

  • The author of Hebrews encourages the hearing of God’s voice. How do we hear it? Have you heard it?
  • Can you lose your salvation? Are you only as saved as your last sinless moment?
  • How do we rationalize our decisions?

References

  1. Coffman’s commentary
  2. Apostle – Wikipedia
  3. Deffinbaugh’s commentary
  4. Utley’s commentary
  5. Cambridge commentary
  6. Barnes’ commentary
  7. Constable’s commentary

Philippians 2

Scripture: Philippians 2:1-30

Overview:

  • In the previous chapter, Paul tells his peeps in Philly-pie to not get spooked and scatter in the face of opposition, but rather stay united.
  • He goes on to say that unity means being one in mind and spirit, not just looking out for “number one.” The Philippians need to be humble, putting each other’s needs over their own, just like Jesus did.
  • Paul tells them to think like Jesus thought. Afterall, Jesus was God, and had every right to all the privileges that came with being God, but he put all those privileges aside to become a man, no, a slave, a slave who died a humiliating death, no less. This self sacrificing, humble attitude, shows us who God really is and that he puts others (us!) first, which is why in the end everyone will come to praise the name of Jesus – the name by which God’s true character is known.
  • So, knowing this, Paul tells them to get the most out of what it means to be saved by being united as a community of people who put other people first. Work hard at being together in awe of the sacrificial attitude God has shown you through Jesus.
  • He reminds them not to grumble and complain about their circumstances like the Jews did in the desert with Moses. Instead, where the Israelites failed to be the children of God by being a generation of complaining jerks, the Philippians can truly embody what it means to be children of God and stand out from the world around them. In fact, their attitude of humble unity should contrast them from their surroundings as much as the shining stars contrast against the night sky.
  • Paul then says, “Even if I die here, it is but a small addition to the larger sacrifice you are making in your community.” Then reminds them that the circumstances they face are good to be in together, and that they should celebrate with him because they are on the winning side (even if it looks like they’re losing).
  • A bit of bad news that Paul has for them is that Timothy, one of Paul’s favs, and a guy who really exemplifies the others-first attitude Jesus has, is someone Paul can’t spare to send back to Philippi yet.
  • Instead, Paul tells them, he’s sending back their pal Epaphroditus (E-Paf for short). E-Paf is an awesome guy, and he exemplifies the martyr-like attitude everyone in Philippi should have, because he almost died just trying to help Paul.
  • “So give E-Paf a high five when he comes back,” Paul concludes. “He risked his life just to be the representative of all that your community has done to help me. That’s cool.”

Historical Context:

Kenosis

Kenosis is a Greek term that comes from the phrase “emptied himself” (2:7 – “made himself nothing” NIV). Kenosis is the word used to discuss what took place in Christ’s incarnation. There have been many different theories used over the centuries to describe this phenomena: 4

  • Apollinarianism: This view stated that the one person of Christ had a human body but a divine mind and spirit. It implied that being human is essentially sinful. This heresy was rejected at the council of Alexandria (362 AD) and the Council of Constantinople (381 AD). 4
  • Nestorianism: This view stated that there are two separate persons in Christ—a human person and a divine person. 4
  • Eutychianism/Monophysitism: This view stated that Christ had only one nature. His human nature was ‘absorbed into’ a divine nature and thus morphed into a third nature. This third ‘mix’ of natures is neither human nor divine.4
  • The Orthodox View: This view states that Christ was fully God and fully Man, one person with two unmixed natures. This perspective was approved by the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD).5

A key question in this debate is “of what did Christ empty himself?”

  • Emptied = Poured Out: Paul first emphasizes two realities: one that “being in the form of God” means being equal with God; two, that in Christ’s “being in the form of God/being equal with God” he displayed a mindset precisely the opposite of “selfish ambition” and empty glory. Paul then says Christ did not consider “equality with God” to consist of being “grasping” or “selfish”; rather he rejected this popular view of kingly power by pouring himself out for the sake of others. So, Christ did not empty himself of anything; he simply poured himself out; he “poured himself out by taking on the `form’ of a slave.” The narrative presents “the mind of Christ” in two major parts: his “humiliation” (vv. 6-8) and “exaltation” (vv. 9-11).  Paul shows that in all the self-emptying Jesus did, he never ceases to be God in his “humiliation”–indeed this is the full revelation of God’s essential character.1
  • Emptied = Humbled: Christ first “emptied himself” by stooping from God to humanity, then later “humbled himself” by stooping from humanity to death.7
  • Emptied = Setting Aside: This analogy may help – the “form” (or identity) of a king partially consists of the external marks which indicate a king–his sceptre, diadem, robes, attendants, throne, etc. Thus, Christ, before the foundation of the world, was in the “form” of God. Yet, when he came to earth he set aside these markers of kingship. This did not mean he was not king, rather it meant that he did not appear to be king because the hallmarks of kingship were not readily visible. Yet, one sees that through his death Jesus truly has the right to be king. Just like when the sun is obscured by a cloud, or in an eclipse, there is no real change of its glory, nor are his beams extinguished, nor is the sun himself in any measure changed, Jesus’ glory was only for a time obscured.8

Isaiah 45

When Paul says “every knee will bow” and “every tongue confess” he is referencing Isaiah 45:23. The context of the quotation from Isaiah is taken up with the uniqueness of Yahweh in contrast to lifeless idols (45:14 “he has no peer; there is no other god”). In the Isaiah passage, Yahweh, and Yahweh alone, is unique and the only god who creates, redeems, and sustains.10

What is notable here is that Isaiah 45:23 refers to the world acknowledging Yahweh as the one true god, but Paul substitutes in the name of Jesus. Paul is asserting that at Christ’s exaltation God has transferred this right to obeisance to the Son; he is the Lord to whom every knee shall eventually bow.1

Deuteronomy

Paul tells the Philippians to do everything without “grumbling and complaining” thus evoking images of the “grumbling” and “complaining” done by the Israelites in the desert (Exod 15:24, etc.). He then goes on to quote Deuteronomy 32:5 in which Moses talks about the Israelites being “a perverse generation, children who are unfaithful.”  However, here Paul designates the unsaved world in Philippi as “crooked and perverse” whereas Moses referred to the Israelites as “crooked and perverse,” and he contrasts the Philippians being “blameless and pure” children of God with the Israelites whom Moses called unfaithful children.

In Deuteronomy, Moses states that Israel “no longer” has the right to be called children of God. They are “blameworthy,” (Greek: moma) a term from the sacrificial system ( “full of blemishes”). Paul picks up this adjective, negates it (Greek: a-moma, “without fault”) and adds “in the midst of” before continuing the rest of the quotation. He thus converts the whole phrase into its opposite with regard to the Philippians. Over against Israel, they are God’s children, and by refraining from internal bickering they will be without fault.1

“Become blameless” is also the exact language used by God to begin the renewal of the covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:1). The word refers to conduct with which one (probably God in this case) can “find no fault.”1

Overall, Paul expects the Philippians to succeed where Israel failed. The underlying theology in all of this is that God’s own character can now be reflected in his children when they bear the likeness of Jesus.1

Daniel 12

The image of the Philippian congregation as stars shining in a black sky is reminiscent of Daniel 12:3 which reads, “But the wise will shine like the brightness of the heavenly expanse. And those who bring many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.” Some have suggested that this figure of speech refers to evangelistic activity, in that the stars are shining Gospel light upon a dark world. However, Paul speaks of the unblemished congregation (like stars) being in the midst of the crooked generation (like the night sky). The stars do not illumine the night sky. They do just the opposite, showing how dark it is. Just as stars stand in contrast to the dark sky, so the unblemished congregation is to be in stark contrast to the perverted generation. This is not particularly about evangelism, it is about being utterly different from the sinful society around them.3

Drink Offering

Drink offerings were common in both Jewish and Gentile religions. It is unclear here which type Paul is alluding to, since he was Jewish and his audience was most likely Greek.

The Jews poured their gifts of liquid around the table, or beside the alter, on which they put their gift to God (Numbers 28:1-7).2

The Greeks poured their drink offerings over the sacrifice itself.

The meaning is the same both ways. In either case, Paul is comparing all of his own sacrifices to the drink offering (which was the tiniest part of the offering) to their labors (the main sacrifice).Paul is connect his circumstances with theirs, humbly.

Observations:

  • This chapter begins with a “therefore” ( “for this reason”), which connects Paul’s discussion about the Philippians’ struggle and suffering in 1:27-30 to his appeal for unity.1
  • A key word in Paul’s plea for unity is the Greek verb phroneo which indicates that one should set of one’s mind, or how one is overall disposed toward something. He uses it in 2:2, “be likeminded”, in 2:5, “have this same mindset, as Christ did” and in 4:2, where he urges Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mindset.1
  • Grammatically, Paul set up “selfish ambition or vain conceit” against “one in spirit and one in mind.” It is also important to note that “selfish ambition” is precisely what Paul in 1:17 attributes to those who are trying to afflict him in his imprisonment, while “vain conceit” is conceptually related to their “envy and rivalry” (1:15).1
  • The Greco-Roman world of the First Century generally considered humility to be a shortcoming, not a virtue. In the Old Testament the term indicates lowliness in the sense of “creatureliness.”1
  • Paul thought of salvation not in terms of the individual, but in terms of the community. One was saved “into” a group of people by joining them in “rightness” with God. The concept of the individual being “saved” from themsleves was secondary, if considered at all. Thus, when Paul says the Philippians should “work out your own salvation” he meant “in your relationships with one another live out the salvation Christ has brought you.” This is therefore not a text dealing with individual salvation but an ethical text dealing with the outworking of salvation in the believing community.1
  • The Greek word translated “work out” that Paul uses when he tells the Philippians to “work out” their own salvation, comes in the works of Strabo, a First Century Greek, who uses the same word to describe the Romans “working out” the great silver mines of Spain. In other words, they were getting all the silver that they could from the mines. Thus, Paul implies that Christians must work hard to get all the wonderful riches that their salvation in Christ has for them.2
  • Paul uses the term “fear and trembling” to describe how the Philippians should “work out” their salvation. This does not mean the terror of a slave in front of a cruel master. It means the honor that we should give to our holy and powerful God.2
  • Why is Timothy mentioned before Epaphroditus? Chronologically, it is the reverse of what one would expect since Epaphroditus is going back to the Philippians before Paul sends Timothy. Structurally, however, it reinforces Paul’s point: he first urges the Philippians to look out for the interests of others (2:3-4) and then turns right around and gives them the example of Timothy, who looks “out for the interests of others.” Paul then talks about the sacrifice they are making for their faith (2:17), and uses Epaphroditus as an example of one of their own community who has already risked his life for the gospel.10 Thus, Paul uses Timothy as a model of one serving the gospel by selflessly caring for the needs of others, and Epaphroditus as a model for the suffering that accompanies serving the gospel.1
  • Epaphroditus was a brave man, for anyone who proposed to offer himself as an attendant of a man waiting trial on a capital charge was laying himself open to the risk of facing the same charge.9
  • It is possible that the Philippians wanted a visit from Paul (after his release) or Timothy (now). So they sent Epaphroditus to relieve Timothy so he could be freed up to come and see them. But Paul was not willing to send Timothy at the moment. The apostle, however, does not want the Philippians to think that Timothy is not interested in them. Therefore, he commends Timothy highly and explains that the latter has a genuine concern for their welfare. Timothy meant a lot to Paul and it seems that the apostle needed him present. Thus, he thought it better to send Epaphroditus back. Besides, Epaphroditus was longing to see the church because he knew that they had found out that he had been ill (2:26). The church, however, was not to think of Epaphroditus as second best. On the contrary, Paul considered him his “brother,” “fellow-worker,” “fellow-soldier,” and “their apostle and servant” (2:25). Indeed, they were to honor men like him because of his work in the gospel on their behalf which almost cost him his life.10
  • Paul said Epaphroditus “risked” his life. The Greek verb used here, paraballesthai, means to literally “to throw down a stake,” “to make a venture.” The noun form implies “gambling,” “rash,” “reckless.” It is a term that was used to describe persons who risk their lives to nurse those sick with a plague.10

Discussion:

  • How do the concepts of humility and community go together? In our individualistic culture, why do we see humility as an personal, inner virtue, separate from a social context? How do we make humility a virtue that only finds meaning in a communal context, as Paul implies Jesus did through his death on a cross, and as the Philippians need to do in their present circumstance?
  • Why do you think Paul might be worried that the Philippians wouldn’t welcome Epaphroditus back? What do you think their expectations where in sending him to Paul? What do you think their response was when they saw Epaphroditus return from Rome with a letter, not Paul or Timothy?
  • How does Paul’s explanation of Jesus’ “emptying himself” make you think differently about how God sees victory? How was Paul relating this view of God’s triumph to his own situation? To the situation of the Philippians? How can we apply this to our present circumstances?
  • How united–in one mind, one spirit–is the church today? What about in our local church? Our home community? Why? Why not?

References:

  1. IVP Commentary
  2. Easy English Commentary
  3. Hagelberg’s Commentary
  4. Wallace’s Commentary
  5. Buntin’s Commentary
  6. Musick’s Commentary
  7. McClain’s Commentary
  8. Barnes’ Commentary
  9. Coffman’s Commentary
  10. Herrick’s Commentary

Mark 9

Scripture: Mark 9:2-50

Overview:

  • Six days later, Jesus, James, John and Pete head up to a high mountain. On the mountain top, Jesus transforms into a shiny, white, glimmering dude.
  • Moses and Elijah then appear and chat with Jesus.
  • The disciples are (understandably) terrified and Peter blurts out, “Let’s set up little houses of worship for everyone!”
  • A cloud shows up and covers them, then a voice from the cloud says, “This is my son, listen to him!”
  • Suddenly it’s just James, John, Pete and Jesus again.
  • On their way down the mountain, Jesus tells the disciples to keep the whole incident under wraps until after his resurrection.
  • The disciples are confused by Jesus’ mention of his death/resurrection and ask him if it’s true that Elijah is supposed to come before the messiah.
  • Jesus replies that Elijah did come before the messiah, and that the way Elijah (i.e. John the Baptist) was treated (i.e. killed) would be how the Son of Man would be treated.
  • When they get back to the disciples, there’s a crowd and a commotion regarding a demon-possessed boy that the disciples can’t seem to heal.
  • Jesus is fed up with everyone and has the boy brought to him.
  • The boy goes into convulsions at the sight of Jesus. Jesus asks the dad about the symptoms.
  • The boy’s father tells Jesus that he’s been like this since he was little, and that the demon in the boy often tries to kill him.
  • The boy’s father begs Jesus to help… if he can.
  • Jesus says, “If I can?” [the disciples think, “Oh no you didn’t”]
  • The boy’s father says, “I do believe! Help my unbelief!”
  • Jesus casts the demon out and the boy looks like he’s dead. Jesus helps him up and everything’s cool.
  • The disciples ask Jesus why they couldn’t cast the demon out and he tells them that it can only be done with prayer and fasting.
  • Jesus continues on his journey and teaches the disciples more about his upcoming death and resurrection.
  • When they get back to Capernaum Jesus knows that the disciples have been talking about who among them would be the greatest, so he reminds them that the first shall be last. He then takes a child and says that the one who welcomes the lowest person in society (“Like this little kid”) is the one who welcomes him.
  • John pipes up and says, “There was this guy casting out demons in your name, but he wasn’t one of us, so we told him to stop.”
  • Jesus replies, “Leave him alone. If he does something in my name, he’s on my side. Whoever helps out a believer is cool with me. Whoever hinders a believer is in deep, deep doo doo–you might as well be drowned in the sea.”
  • Jesus then tells them that, “If anything is going to cause you to work against me, you’re better off ditching it than ending up in hell (the very, very unpleasant place God will put all his enemies in the end). Everyone is going to be tested, everyone is going to be purified. Don’t lose your purity, because then you’re good for nothing. Let your purity bring peace, not conflict/dissension/division between you.”

Historical Context:

Transfiguration

The Greek word means “to change in form” (morphe), and occurs only four times in the New Testament (9:2; Matt. 17:2; Romans 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18). In each instance it denotes a radical transformation.[1]

Mark doesn’t usually give specific time references, but here he denotes that the transfiguration happens six days after Peter’s confession. This may be an allusion to Exodus 24:15-17 where Moses waited six days before being summoned by God for revelation on Mount Sinai. Six days is also the time period between Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles – which commemorates the Jews’ wandering in the wilderness for 40 years).[1]

Bright white garments are often signs of heavenly beings (ex. Dan. 10:5; Rev. 3:4; etc.). Matthew (17:2) and Luke (9:29) mention that Jesus’ face shone as well, which heightens the comparison with Moses whose face shone very brightly because it reflected the glory of God (Ex. 34:35).[1]

Peter, himself, wrote about this experience (2 Peter 1:16-18) reflecting how he was an eyewitness to Jesus’ majesty and how he heard God confirm him as his son.[3]

Moses and Elijah

Moses and Elijah are most often understood to represent the Law and the Prophets. How the disciples recognized the two individuals as Moses and Elijah is not explained.

It is also likely that the joint appearance of Moses and Elijah recalls the final verses of the Old Testament (Malachi 4:4-6), where Israel is commanded to remember the instruction of Moses, and where Elijah is introduced as the prophet who would turn the heart of the people to repentance on the Day of the Lord.[1]

Tents/Tabernacles

The primary reference here seems to be the booths or tabernacles set up by the people during the Feast of the Tabernacles.[1] These are small, walled structures set up and slept in to remind of the Jews of the fragile dwellings of their ancestors while wandering in the dessert for forty years with Moses.

The implication of Peter’s intent to build the tabernacles was possibly in a way to both glorify his visitors and enable them to stay a while.[2] Peter may have also been reflecting the long-held Jewish hope that God would once again “tabernacle” (dwell) with his people as in the time of the Exodus.[1]

Rising from the dead

Resurrection was a prominent belief held among Jews in the first century (especially the Pharisees). They believed that one day, God would give “life to the dead.” This belief finds its origins in the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel.[7] The Jews understood that both the righteous and wicked would rise from the dead on the day of judgment, the righteous to life eternal, the sinners to punishment and execution.[7]

The disciples would’ve surely known what rising from the dead meant.  They were probably more likely puzzled by Jesus’ insistence that he, an individual person, would die and rise from the dead before “the end of the age.” Resurrection of the righteous was generally understood to be a collective and eschatological (end of days) event.[1]

The Jews of Jesus’ day expected only one coming of the Messiah into history and this coming was related to the military victory and supremacy of national Israel on a global scale.[2]

Who is the greatest

Ancient rabbinic writings frequently commented on the seating in Paradise and argued that the just would sit nearer to the throne of God than even the angels (since people such as the just, righteous teachers or martyrs were considered to be “the greatest”). Earthly seating orders at worship and meals, or authority within or dealings with inferiors and superiors were seen as preparation for the future order (cf. Psalm 68:24-25).[1]

“Servant” is translated from the Greek word diakonos, or  “one who executes the commands of someone” and looks after his needs. It refers to personal devotion in service as opposed to service as a slave.[1]

Up to this point in history, the mark of success was always measured by service received; not by service given.[1]

Children

Children were essentially “non-persons” in ancient culture. This was likely due to the high infant mortality rate, the great demand for human labor, and the fact that children (along with women) were totally dependent on others for food, shelter and protection. Children hand no right for self-determination. A man could not expect to gain anything either socially or materially from kindness to a child.[1]

“Being like a child” means to forgo status and to accept the lowest place. The use of a child as a teaching aid is explicitly about social status, not any child-like character traits.[1]

Only in Mark’s gospel does Jesus embrace the child (“take into his arms”). Jesus is literally showing his disciples how welcoming they should be of the insignificant and the ignored.[1]

Since they are back in Capernaum, possibly in Peter’s house, this may have been Peter’s child.[2]

The Aramaic word ‘talya’ can mean both ‘child’ and ‘servant’, there was no distinction in their social status.[2]

Invoking Names in Exorcisms

First century exorcists invoked various formulas and ‘words of power’ (such as the names of God, the angels, King Solomon, etc.) in their exorcisms and their incantations. Their widespread influence can be seen through the appearance of various Hebrew names of God (ex. “Iao”, “Adonai”, “Eloai” or “Sabaoth”) in magical amulets and papyri.[1]

The name of a spiritual being presumed to be greater than the possessing spirit was invoked by exorcists as a way to overpower the demon and free the person’s soul.

Hell/Gehenna

“Hell” is literally translated as Gehenna and refers to the Valley of Hinnon near Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day it was the place where the city’s garbage was burned. It had come to be used in this way because the valley had an embarrassing and revolting history for the Jewish people– it was there that in the past they had worshipped the fertility fire god, Molech, through the practice of child sacrifice.[2]

The valley is mentioned five times in the book of Jeremiah (7:31,32 19:2,6 32:35) as the place in which the people would “burn their sons and daughters in the fire.”[6]

King Ahaz of Judah sacrificed his sons there according to 2 Chron. 28:3.  The same is recorded of Ahaz’ grandson Manasseh in 33:6.[6]

The book of Isaiah does not mention Gehenna by name, but the “burning place” (30:33) in which the Assyrian army is to be destroyed.

Jesus quotes three times the final verse of Isaiah which concerns the fate of those who have rebelled against God, Isaiah 66:24.[6]  Here, in the final section of Isaiah, the prophet is describing the great prosperity of the kingdom of the Messiah, and that the people of God shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of men who have transgressed against God. The messiahs’ enemies shall be overcome. The people of God shall triumph. The prophet says that there will be heaps of dead, slain in battle, whose number shall be so great, that the worm feeding on the dead shall not die, shall live long–as long as there are carcasses to be devoured; and that the fire which was used to burn the bodies of the dead shall continue long to burn, and shall not be extinguished till they are consumed.[4]

King Josiah destroyed the shrine of Molech to prevent anyone from sacrificing children there in 2 Kings 23:10. Jeremiah would still later include a prophecy that Jerusalem itself would be made like Gehenna and Topheth (19:2-6, 19:11-14).[4]

Salt

In Jesus’ day, salt was an important means of healing, purification, and preservation. It also was used to seal covenants (Num. 18:19).[2]  The Jews put salt on a gift/sacrifice to God (Leviticus 2:13) as a sign of the agreement between God and his people.[3] 

The implication may be that the disciples, via trials, beatings, persecutions, etc., were to be prepared as a sacrifice and offering to God.[4]

The text may also be implying that just as salt preserves meat, so too will the wicked be preserved by fire in their sufferings. .[4]

The terms salt and fire seem to both represent purification in this context.[2]

Observations:

  • Luke says the Transfiguration happened “eight days” after Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. This may be a contradiction, however, Luke admits that he is estimating (“Now it happened that about eight days after these sayings…”).[1]
  • Scholars are not in agreement on the location of the “high mountain” Jesus’ transfiguration took place on: some say that Mount Hermon is it due to its proximity to Caesarea Philippi and height (9,200 ft.), though many early Christian Fathers, place it on Mount Tabor (1,500 ft.), eleven miles west of the Sea of Galilee.[1]
  • Clouds were a sign that God was present. In Exodus, the cloud (God) led the people, and when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Law a cloud covered the mountain for six days.[3]
  • When the voice in the cloud says, “listen to him” this is reflective of Deut. 18:15 in which God says he will raise up a prophet like Moses who should be obeyed.[2]
  • Jesus’ answer to the disciples’s question about Elijah is two fold: 1) He affirms that he, as Son of Man, is part of the same sequence of events as the return of Elijah; and 2) that Elijah’s experience has been one of rejection, which foreshadows what will happen to the Son of Man. Jesus links John the Baptist’s suffering and death with his own.[1]
  • The symptoms of the demon-possessed boy seem to describe an epileptic fit, however, Matthew, Mark and Luke all clearly state that the healing was done through an exorcism. Matthew includes the termselēniazetai (literally “moon-struck” or “lunatic”).[1]
  • Mark’s account of the epileptic/demon-possessed child focuses on the restoration of speech. Neither Matthew or Luke mention a speech defect.[1]
  • When Jesus takes the seemingly dead boy by his hand and raises him up, it echoes the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (1:31) and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (5:41-42). The language of lifting up (egeirein) evokes the idea of a ‘resurrection’ – a motif confirmed by the addition of the verb anistēmi (“arose”) immediately afterward.[1]
  • When the boy’s father “cried out,” this can be interpreted more literally as he “said with tears.”[1]
  • When John, the apostle, says he wanted to stop the actions of a man “not following us,” it is implied that the person casting out demons didn’t have membership in the “authorized” circle of Jesus’ followers.[1]
  • Jews, as a rule, feared the sea (note how Revelation 21:1 describes heaven as a place where there would be no more sea). They regarded drowning as a horrible form of death – a symbol of utter destruction. When the rabbis taught that pagan and gentile objects were to be destroyed utterly, they say that it must be cast “into the salt sea.”[1]
  • The “little ones” Jesus warns the disciples not to make stumble seems to be young believers. The disciples were not to cause new believers to lose their faith by being exclusive or hierarchical.[3] Jesus issues a dire warning against his followers making it their business to monitor and pass judgment upon the works of others.[5]

Discussion:

  • What areas of our life do we need to ask Jesus to help us believe more?
  • What is the role of faith in soliciting Jesus’ help? How strong does it need to be? What happens if it’s not enough? How do we know it’s not enough?
  • Who is the lowest person in our society? How can Christians serve them?
  • Who do you consider to be outside of those who follow Jesus but invoke his name in their actions? Are they with God or against him? How do you know?
  • How do we exclude “little ones” from our belief? How are we hierarchical/exclusive in our thinking about who’s in and who’s out of the faith?

References:

  1. Catholic Answers
  2. Utley’s Commentary
  3. Free Bible Commentary
  4. Barnes’ Commentary
  5. Coffman’s Commentary
  6. Gehenna – Wikipedia
  7. Resurrection – Wikipedia

 

Acts 15

Scripture: Acts 15:1-41

Highlights:

  • Trouble comes to Antioch in the form of some Jews who think Christians need to be circumcised to be saved
  • Paul and Barnabas get into a fight with them (shocking)
  • P & B get sent up to Jerusalem to settle the issue
  • The Pharisees in favor of circumcision make their case in front of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem
  • “After much discussion” Peter gets up and says “God told me to bring the good news to the Gentiles, so I did, and guess what? God gave them the Holy Spirit. Yep. He purified their hearts by faith, just like he did with us. God doesn’t discriminate, so why do you gotta be like that? We can barely keep the Law, and we’re Jews! All people are saved by faith in Jesus. Done and done. Any questions? Didn’t think so. Cephas out (drops mic).” (paraphrase)
  • Paul and Barn get the chance to relay all the awesome things God did on their missionary journey (i.e. the previous two chapters)
  • James now gets up and says, “What Peter did (bringing the good news to the Gentiles) is what the prophet Amos meant when he said God would rebuild David’s kingdom to include the Gentiles. So, if God wants them in, let’s make it easy for them to get in. The only rules that we follow that they also need to follow is that Gentiles can’t eat meat associated with idol worship, oh, and they can’t go about fornicating”
  • Then the group writes a letter reiterating James’ advice and sends Silas and Judas back with Paul and Barnabas to deliver the decision
  • The letter is well received and all is a-okay (for now)
  • Then Paul and Barney decide to go back and visit the churches they started. Barnabas wants to take Mark, but Paul doesn’t like the fact that Mark bailed on their last trip, so Paul and Barnabas have a falling out
  • Barnabas takes Mark and they go to Cyprus, Paul takes Silas and they go to Syria and Cilicia

Historical Context:

Importance of Circumcision:

Jews consider the physical act of circumcision to be proof of one’s allegiance to God. It is the sign of the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17) and was considered so important that the need for circumcision would trump the need to keep the Sabbath sacred (i.e. if the eighth day fell on the Sabbath, they were to circumcise the child rather than wait one more day). To not be circumcised was considered to be an act of apostasy.

First century Jewish philosopher Philo said that the practice of circumcision was instituted for the following reasons, it: helped protect against disease; was a sign of cleanliness; was a symbolic connection between the heart and the reproductive process; helped males be more prolific  (reproductively); symbolically cut off “superfluous and excessive pleasure”; and was “a symbol of a man’s knowing himself”. (Wikipedia)

A more modern interpretation is that circumcision was intended as a literal inscription on the Jewish body of the name of God in the form of the letter “yud” (from “yesod”). Another perspective is that the act of bleeding represents a feminization of Jewish men, significant in the sense that the covenant represents a marriage between Jews and (a symbolically male) God. (Wikipedia)

Circumcision vs. Faith Debate:

Luke says Paul and Barnabas got into a “sharp debate” with those who believed Gentiles had to be circumcised, and later at the Council in Jerusalem there was “much discussion” on this topic. Assuming Paul’s letter to the Galatians is representative of his point of view in this debate, below is an outline of what the main points of the opposing parties might’ve been:

Jewish Christians Advocating That Gentile Believers Must Be Circumcised  Paul’s Argument for Salvation of All People Through Faith
Gentile believers must be circumcised to partake in the blessings promised to Abraham. God’s covenant with Abraham was ratified by circumcision (Gen 17). To be one of “his people” a man must be circumcised. If anyone refuses circumcision, that person is to “be cut off from his people” A person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. If righteousness could be gained through the law then why did the Messiah need to come? Why did Jesus need to die?
Jewish Christians, who say they are saved but eat and drink with uncircumcised Gentile believers, are committing a sin. Paul is promoting sinful behavior by saying it is okay for circumcised believers to intermingle with those who are uncircumcised When one becomes a Christian, he dies to his old self, including the need to follow the Law. The Law can no longer be used as the basis for judging behavior. The gospel has destroyed all essential distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, so to maintain those distinctions (i.e. uphold the Law) is to defy the gospel.
God’s promises are eternal and unchangeable. He promised Abraham that his descendants would be heirs of his blessing, and his descendants are members of the Jewish nation (i.e. circumcised). God didn’t change the rules. Before there was the Law there was the covenant, and before the covenant there was a promise. Scripture says God made the promise to Abraham based on his faith, which came before the covenant (circumcision) and four hundred years prior to Moses’ Law.  Belief is what makes people “children of Abraham” (children of the promise) not circumcision and not the Law.
The only way to get God’s blessing is to follow the Law (Deut. 28). Following the Mosaic Law leads to a curse because failing to keep all the laws results in curses (Deut. 27) and no one is capable of keeping all of the laws. Faith in Jesus is the only path to blessing because he took all the curses we deserved on himself and made us right with God.
 Abraham’s “seed” (plural) are heirs of his blessing. Therefore one must join the Jewish nation. Jesus was the sole heir of Abraham’s blessing (his “seed”, singular) and it is only when we are “in” Jesus (through faith) that we can become Abraham’s heirs.
The Law was given so that we could achieve righteousness. If we follow all the laws, God will bless us. The Law is of primary importance to living life right. The Law was given a long time after the promise (thus, it’s secondary to God’s redemptive plan), and was given to show that no one could measure up to God’s standards. We can only be saved by God’s grace. The Law was given to teach us that no one can save themselves.
The Law was given by angels to Moses, our greatest leader, (Deut. 33:2) so it must be really, really important  Angels and Moses were mediators (secondary messengers) of God’s will. Through Jesus we have direct access to God.
God’s words are eternal. The Law will never go away. The Law was an important step to God’s plan, but not the final step. Jesus was God’s plan all along, and now that he is here the usefulness of the Law is complete.
 If the Law isn’t there to restrain human behavior, how will people behave?  The Law is needed to insure morality. The Holy Spirit living inside people will keep them in check
In the end God will rule all people via Israel. Believing in Jesus just perfects the Jewish religion. God has united all people through Jesus. Those who believe in Jesus are the true “Israel”. Jesus is not beneath Judaism, he is above all things. In Jesus there is neither Jew or Gentile. Christians are not to become Jews, Jews are to become Christians.
 You have to be born of Abraham (or at least become circumcised) to be an heir  You have to be born of the Spirit to be an heir. Look how God sent the Holy Spirit to Gentiles without them needing to practice Jewish laws, all they had to do was believe. Isn’t that proof that God doesn’t require Gentiles to follow the Law?

Amos

James quotes Amos 9:11-12 in his decision to describe how God had intended from the beginning to let Gentiles into his blessing. James also implies that the “Israel” God is letting the Gentiles into is the church, not traditional Judaism.

The prophet Amos (a contemporary of the prophets Hosea and Isaiah, c. 750 BC) described the calamities that should come upon the nation of the Jews. He foretold that they would be scattered and driven away, that the city of Jerusalem, and the temple, and the walls of the city, would be destroyed. But he also predicted that after that “on that day” (that is, the day when the Lord should revisit them, and recover them) God would restore the Jewish people to their former privileges (God would “rebuild David’s fallen tent); he would rebuild their temple, their city, and their walls. And not only would God’s blessing descend on the Jews, but it would also extended to others. The “remnant of Edom,” (i.e. “the heathen upon whom” his “name would be called”) would also join in on the mercy of God, and be subject to the Jewish people; and a time of general prosperity and of permanent blessings should follow. (Barnes)

The Ruling of the Council:

Luke states that the council decided that they “should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” by requiring them to follow all of the Mosaic Law. Instead, the Gentiles were simply to “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood”  because “it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we [Jews] are saved, just as they [Gentiles] are,” and that “God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles.”

The question is, why these four requirements?

One theory is that these restrictions ares based on the Noahide Law, or the seven laws of Noah, which come from Genesis 9:4-6: “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”  It is proposed that this covenant with Noah was used as a template because it was given prior to the Abrahamic covenant and therefore applied to Gentiles and Jews alike.

Another theory is that these commands are based on Leviticus 17 and 18 which outline the need for both Jews and the Gentiles living among them to abstain from eating meat with blood still in it and sexual immorality (particularly incest).

Regardless of their origin, the four prohibitions do not imply that other sins of dishonesty and immorality were permitted, these were probably referring to sins “which were so common among the Gentiles that they were not even recognized as wrong until Christian teaching denounced them.” (Coffman)

“The principal barrier to social and religious unity among the Jewish and Gentile Christians was the low standard of behavior so common among the latter. Idol feasts were shameful debaucheries, marked by the most vulgar and immoral behavior.” (Coffman)

It was commonplace for pagan rituals to “introduce indecent pictures and emblems into their worship, and for females to devote themselves to the service of a particular temples, and to devote the avails of indiscriminate prostitution to the service of the god, or the goddess.” (Barnes)

Additionally, the use of blood was common among the Gentiles. They drank it at their sacrifices, and used it to make covenants/contracts.

The meat that was used in pagan sacrifices was often put on sale in the markets, or served up at feasts. , It became a very important question whether it was right for Christians to partake of it. The Jews would contend that it was, in fact, partaking of idolatry. The Gentile converts would allege that they did not eat it as a sacrifice to idols, or lend their countenance in any way to the idolatrous worship where it had been offered. As idolatry was forbidden to the Jews in every form, and as partaking even of the sacrifices to idols, in their feasts, might seem to countenance idolatry, the Jews would be utterly opposed to it; and for the sake of peace, James advised that they be recommended to abstain from this.  (Barnes)

Clement, writing in the late first century shows that pagan worship was still an issue in the church when he says “The things which pollute both the soul and the body are these: to partake of the table of demons, that is, to taste things sacrificed, or blood, or a carcass which is strangled.”

Luke’s Account vs Paul’s Account:

It is interesting to have two perspectives on the same event. In Galatians 2:1-10 Paul (most likely) describes his version of the Council of Jerusalem. Note how they are similar/dissimilar.

Luke’s Account – Acts 15:1-35 Paul’s Account – Galatians 2:1-10
Paul and Barnabas and “some other believers” go to Jerusalem Paul, Barnabas and Titus go to Jerusalem
Paul and Barnabas were appointed to go to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles and elders Paul went in response to a revelation
Paul and co. were “welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders” and “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” were there to argue their case Paul and co. met privately with “those esteemed as leaders”
“Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.'” “This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.” They were “certain men who came from James” who managed to lead both Peter and Barnabas astray
Peter tells about his experience with Cornelius, then James decides that “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” “As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message”
Peter declares that God had “made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe” “…they recognized that I [Paul] had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised.For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles”
The council writes a letter that states that they thought Barnabas and Paul were “men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and they sent Judas and Silas with the letter “to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing” “James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me”
The council letter outlined that Gentile converts should “abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along”

 

Observations:

  • At this point in history Christianity was in serious jeopardy of becoming just another Jewish sect (i.e. like the Pharisees, Essenes and Sadducees).  Many early Gentile Christians would’ve felt pretty alienated from their peers. They were not Jews because they didn’t practice Jewish customs, and they had stopped pagan worship (a large part of first century life). Thus, they were between worlds. It is no wonder that there was a strong appeal for them to join the Jewish community. Paul, most notably, fought hard for people to maintain their identity in Christ not Judaism.
  • Note how the council comes in the center of Luke’s history. “His book begins with the Jewish church, dominated by Peter in chapters 1 to 5. The book ends with Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, in chapters 16 to 28. Chapters 6 to 15 form a transition, alternating between Jewish and Gentile growth.” (GCI)
  • According to Galatians, it is likely that Peter was in Antioch when those promoting circumcision came to town and started an argument with Paul. It is also probable that they successfully (initially) persuaded both Peter and Barnabas to their side. It is interesting that Luke only portrays Paul and Barnabas coming into “sharp dispute and debate” with them.
  • It is likely that the Christians in Jerusalem got along with their  fellow Jews in their synagogs and in the temple because they keep the law – they were faithful to the covenant of Moses, even if they believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They probably wanted to avoid another persecution like the one that had been triggered in Acts 7 and 8.
  • Note how when Peter and the other apostles preached there was amazement, but everywhere Paul went there was a riot.
  • “The Jewish Christians were afraid that many Gentiles have grown up in a culture of loose morals. Their easy entrance into the church might weaken the moral standards. Thus, the circumcisers want Gentiles to become like Jews in lifestyle — as evidence of their conversion, if nothing else.” (GCI)
  • “In effect [those who advocated for circumcision] believed that not only were the Jews the peculiar possession of God but also that God was the peculiar possession of the Jews.” (William Barclay)
  • From the Jewish Christian’s point of view the entire Torah was still in force. There had been no clear teaching from Jesus to the contrary. In fact, he even seemed to teach the continuance of circumcision and various other rituals (Matthew 5:1823:1-223Luke 2:21-245:14). He certainly lived as a Jew. Why should they think otherwise?  It is interesting to note that neither the Pharisees arguing for circumcision nor those arguing against it use Jesus’ words or earthly actions as proof.
  • As in the synagogue, it was customary to determine questions by the advice of a bench of elders, there is no improbability in the supposition that the apostles would imitate that custom, and appoint a similar arrangement in the Christian church.  (Barnes)
  • Peter said that insisting Gentiles to follow Jewish laws was “testing God”  because it was challenging God himself on his actions. “It is questioning the rightness of God in his cleansing the Gentiles through the Spirit. The call for circumcision has the effect of putting God on trial. The Judaizers are saying that God is not doing enough, nor doing it right, in allowing Gentiles as Gentiles to be full participants in his body, the church.” (GCI)
  • James’ interpretation of Amos shows that “Scripture does not dictate how God should act. Rather, God’s action dictates how we should understand the text of Scripture.” (Johnson)
  • James’ decision regarding the practice of circumcision and the Jewish law by Gentile converts “is based on three vital factors. It depends, first, on the revelation of God. The decision is then confirmed in the experienceof the apostles. Finally, the decision is supported by a new understanding of Scripture.” (GCI)
  • Noting that the “Law of Moses” is widely preached, the apostles may have wanted to give a decree that clearly distinguishes their teaching from the Jewish teaching. There is an implied contrast between the two “laws”.
  • The churches written to in the letter are in Galatia. Paul would write his own letter to them a few years later and recount his own version the council meeting, as well as his own arguments to not add Jewish customs to Christian beliefs.
  • It is possible that Judas called Barsabas was the same man who was nominated to the vacant place in the apostleship, Acts 1:23. (Barnes)
  • Paul doesn’t want to take Mark because he knows that Mark left when it was a only a little hard and that their journey would be very hard.
  • There is evidence that Paul later reconciled withJohn Mark (Colossians 4:10;Philemon 1:242 Timothy 4:11.  2 Timothy 4:11) He even declares later in his life that Mark is “profitable to me for the ministry.”

Discussion:

  • Circumcision to the Jews was not just physical proof of commitment to God, but also an indicator to them that this person would adhere to the moral and ethical laws of Judaism. What “proof” of belief do we require of each other? What actions do fellow believers take that we are afraid might “weaken the morality” of the church?
  • The circumcision debate pitted the scripture written about God’s promises against God’s actions. How do we accurately interpret the Word and the actions of God?
  • In which ways do we want to make converts carbon copies of ourselves? What have we made law that is not law?
  • Given the ruling of the council that Gentiles should “abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals” how do we make sense of Paul writing to the Corinthians four or five years later and telling them they can “eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’”? (I Cor 10:25,26) Why the misalignment? Why the liberalization of this ruling?
  • Why do you think that Paul never mentions the ruling of the Council of Jerusalem (i.e. the four requirements), not even in his account of the meeting in his letter to the Galatians?
  • How much have we integrated American culture (or Western culture in general) with Christianity? What are some of the ways we expect people of other cultures to act  like American Christians? In what ways do we expect Southern “Bible Belt” Christians to act like “West Coast” Christians? In what ways do we expect 21st Century Christians to act like 1950’s Christians?

References:

Acts 7

Scripture: Acts 7:1-8:1

Highlights:

  • Stephen is accused of blaspheming God and Moses by supposedly preaching that Jesus of Nazareth said he’d destroy the temple and change the customs of Moses (i.e. The Law) .
  • When asked by the high priest how he pleads, Stephen reinterprets the history of Israel through the lens of Jesus in the following way:
Stephen’s Speech (briefly) Implications of the Speech
We have a common father in Abraham Stevie was stating that he was a Jew, and that he respected God, Moses and the Temple. He was starting with a common heritage on common ground with the Sanhedrin.
The presence, or glory, of God–the same “shekinah” that eventually settled on the tabernacle, then temple, to indicate that God dwelled among his people–appeared to Abe in Mesopotamia and gave him instructions to pick up and move Abraham didn’t need the temple to experience God, just faith. God can meet people anywhere, temple or no temple. Holy land or no holy land.
After Abe, there was Isaac then Jacob then the twelve patriarchs. The patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, so they sold him to Egypt Israel’s descendants rejected their leader.
God was with Joseph in Egypt and rescued him there. Then God exalted Joe to a high position with the Pharaoh. God’s saving activity can take place anywhere.
There’s a famine and Joe is able to help his family out. It’s not until the second visit that the patriarchs recognize their brother. They all move down to Egypt to be together. Israel’s forefathers failed to recognize their future savior.
Moses comes along (many years later when the Jews were no longer appreciated by the king) and tries to help some of his people by killing an Egyptian. The people Moses helped ended up not trusting him. Moses got spooked and ran away to Midian. Israel’s descendants initially failed to recognize Moses as their leader.
Many years later God appeared to Moses in the burning bush (in the desert near Mt. Sinai), and told him that he was now standing on holy ground. Moses did not need the temple or rituals to encounter to God. And what makes a place sacred is God’s presence. Without God there, there’s just dirt.
Moses saves his people from Egypt. Though the Israelites initially rejected Moses, he still became their leader and savior. God’s chosen one wins, even if you don’t like it.
Moses told the people that, “God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people,” and he received “living words” (i.e. the Law) from God. The law is delivered by revelation and it is alive and relevant. However Moses pointed to someone beyond himself who should be listened to. God’s revelation won’t be limited to the law. There is an additional messenger of God that the people must not reject.
The Israelites lost faith in Moses, and in his absence made an idol they could easily see and worship. They made sacrifices to the idol and reveled in “what their hands had made.” The temple was believed to be the visible proof that God was present. It was the central place for worship and sacrifices in Israel. It was “what their hands had made.” In other words, Stephen was implying that the Jews’ veneration of the temple was the same to God as worship of the golden calf.
Stephen quotes the book of Amos to remind them that God punishes those who reject him by turning away from them and handing them over to the consequences of their actions (which ultimately leads to exile) The Jewish leader’s faith is centered around an idol (the temple), and though they think they are acting like God’s people, they’re not. As a result, ruin and exile is coming. Exile is seen as the ultimate form of punishment for breaking the covenant with God–removal from the holy land.
We used to have a tabernacle (built according to God’s specifications) that moved around with us. God was wherever his people where. The tabernacle was God’s provision of a structure for true worship. Mobile. Temporary. Ready to move.
David wanted to build God a permanent house. God ended up letting Solomon build it, but reminded everyone that the earth is his, so no one should think they can contain God with something they build. The temple has become an attempt to contain and control God. Those in charge of the temple have become idolators.
You people are just like your forefathers–you fail to hold true to the law, you resist the Holy Spirit, and you have failed to recognize your savior. In fact, you killed him. Steve is saying he actually doesn’t have the same heritage as his audience. His linage is one of faith, theirs of rejection and idolatry.Stephen is letting them know that God is judging them. The people who call themselves Abraham’s descendants have consistently failed to respond to God throughout their history. Failure to recognize Jesus now is failure to heed the words of Moses (the word of law). Abraham’s true people are those who accept the “Righteous One” and follow the Holy Spirit.Stephen is turning the tables on the Sanhedrin and calling them the real blasphemers. He is claiming to be more faithful to the story of God and the prophets than they were.
  • Everyone’s riled up and Stephen references the messianic-laden passages of Psalm 110 and Daniel 7 to describe how he now sees Jesus as the triumphant “son of God.”
  • The Sanhedrin goes ape, takes Stephen outside and stones him  to death.
  • As he dies Stephen follows in his Savior’s footsteps by commending his spirit to Jesus’ care (just as Jesus asked of the Father), and requests that God forgive his attackers.
  • Paul (then known as Saul) looks on with approval.

Historical Context:

The Temple

“…before the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the three great pillars of popular Jewish piety were (1) the land, (2) the law, and (3) the temple.” [Longenecker]

The temple served as the religious, political and economic epicenter of first century Judaism.  Religiously, it was first and foremost a symbol of God’s presence. It was the official place of sacrifice and of prayer for all Jews. It stood a symbol to the world that YHWH was with Israel. Politically it gave the nation an unifying identity. Economically, lots of money passed through it in the form of tithes and offerings. (Based on Jesus’ efforts to drive out the money changers, it seems as though the economics of the temple had overshadowed it’s other functions.)

“The Temple which should have become their greatest blessing was in fact their greatest curse; they had come to worship it instead of worshipping God. They had finished up with a Jewish God who lived in Jerusalem rather than a God of all men whose dwelling was the whole universe.” [Barclay]

The tabernacle was the initial “dwelling place” for God. Moses built it according to God’s specifications. Generations later David requested to build a more permanent home for God (“Why should God live in a tent when the king lives in a palace?” David reasoned). The text implies that the temple was more of a concession on God’s part to human desire, than his real purpose. God did not particularly want a house built in his honor. Instead, God told David that God would build David a “house” — an everlasting dynasty. The real temple (“dwelling place of God”) is the house of David, built through his Savior, whose offspring are those who believe in him.

Stephen seems to be pointing out that one of the problems with a permanent, stationary temple is that it implies people have to “come to God,” versus what history tells us about what God really tends to do–go find his people.  This mindset of “God is in the temple, so everyone must come to us to see God” is why Israel (who was supposed to be a light to the nations)  thought in terms of the world coming to them for salvation. Christians believed that God would “come to you,” even those outside of Israel, the Gentiles–hence the upcoming missionary activity in Acts.

The Glory of God

The Jews associate the glory of God — the Shekinah — with the moveable tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 40), and later the temple (Ezekiel 43). So right at the beginning of his speech Stephen establishes that God needs neither tent nor temple to be present with people. “God’s self-revelation is not limited to the land of the Jews, certainly not to Jerusalem and the temple.” (GCI)

Stephen also uses the word glory to counteract the charge of blasphemy against God. It shows that Stephen regarded him as worthy of honor and praise.

Stiff Necked People

To be “stiff necked” means to be stubborn. One theory suggests that the term has its origins in the agricultural history of ancient Israel. When farmers would plow their fields by using oxen, if the ox didn’t want to follow the guidance of the farmer it would stiffen the muscles in its neck. This would make it impossible to guide the ox where it needed to go.

God used the term “stiff necked” to characterize Israel’s attitude toward him several times in the Old Testament [Exodus 33Leviticus 26;Deuteronomy 9Jeremiah 4].  The Sanhedrin would’ve heard this as a great insult.

Calling their ears and hearts uncircumcised seems to contrast their outward/physical obedience to the law (i.e. traditional circumcision) with their spiritual obedience/willingness to follow God.

Son of Man Sitting At the Right Hand

Not long before Stephen stood in front of the Sanhedrin, Jesus stood in front of this same group. When the high priest asked Jesus if he were the Messiah. Jesus answered: “I am…and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14). They reacted reacted by saying that Jesus had blasphemed and should be put to death. However, they decided not to stone Jesus right then. Stephen was not so fortunate.

This image of Jesus at God’s right hand is based on Psalm 110, in which the Messiah is portrayed as triumphant over Israel’s enemies.

Calling Jesus the “son of man*” has its roots in Daniel 7. Here, too, the Messiah is portrayed as the conqueror and victor.

“For Stephen to suggest that the crucified Jesus stood in a position of authority at the right hand of God must have ranked as blasphemy in the thinking of those who knew that a crucified man died under the divine curse.” (Bruce)

Interesting side note: This is also the only time that the phrase “the son of Man” appears in the New Testament outside the Gospels, and the only time it is spoken by a disciple. 

Stoning

The second-century Jewish writing Mishnah, describes the practice of stoning: “When the trial is finished, the man convicted is brought out to be stoned . . . When ten cubits from the place of stoning they say to him, ‘Confess, for it is the custom of all about to be put to death to make confession, and every one who confesses has a share in the age to come’ . . . Four cubits from the place of stoning the criminal is stripped . . . The drop from the place of stoning was twice the height of a man. One of the witnesses pushes the criminal from behind, so that he falls face downward. He is then turned over on his back. If he dies from this fall, that is sufficient. If not, the second witness takes the stone and drops it on his heart. If this causes death, that is sufficient; if not, he is stoned by all the congregation of Israel.” (Bruce)

Saul’s Approval

“Luke’s phrase ‘at his feet’ may signify that Paul is a leader of the opposition to Stephen. Perhaps he is instrumental in rushing Stephen and dragging him outside of the city to a place of stoning. Luke uses the expression ‘at the feet’ three times in the story of church members selling their property and bringing the money to the apostles (4:35, 37 and 5:2). There it is clear that the expression is meant to convey the apostles’ leadership.” (GCI)

If this action was a recognition of his authority, Paul may have been one of the instigators, if not the ringleader, behind Stephen’s trial and execution. His success in getting Stephen killed may have earned him the leadership role in the subsequent persecution of Christians.

Observations:

  • This is the longest speech by an invidual in Acts.
  • Why recap the history of Israel?  Stephen wanted to let them know that he believed in the same things as his accusers did, but that because of Jesus he now saw them through a new perspective. He also was showing that Jesus was the culmination of their hopes, not an offshoot, distraction or contradiction. Jesus represented the same God, the same truth, the same Law, they believed in.
  • “Peter had earlier reinterpreted some scriptures in light of his new understanding of Christ, now Stephen read the history of the Old Testament with new eyes in the light of the life and death of Jesus” (Furneaux).
  • Stephen retells Israel’s story “in terms not of commandments and shrines, but in terms of promise and fulfillment, of prophetic sendings, and the challenge to obedience.” [Johnson]
  • Stephen’s speech sets the stage for broader missionary activity because of the implications that God meets people where they’re at, and that his people are defined by faith and obedience. (GCI)
  • Interesting that Stephen points out that God did not save the patriarchs from famine in their new homeland. Rather, they had go to Egypt (to where God was with Joseph) in order to get food.
  • When Stephen said that God doesn’t live in houses “made by human hands” he was implying that the temple had become an idol.  The Jews used the phrase “made with human hands” to refer to idol worship (Sibylline Oracles 14; Is 31; Wisdom of Solomon 14 – IVP). Stephen was saying that Israel now worshipped the temple of God instead of the God of the temple.
  • “Stephen develops a strong contrast between the idolatry condemned by Amos—the shrine [skene] of Molech and the idols (typous)—and the tabernacle [skene] of the Testimony constructed according to the pattern (typon) God gave Moses” (IVP)
  • Interesting that Jesus is never mentioned by name in Stephen’s speech.
  • Stephen makes the point that Abrham, Joseph, and Moses had to make a break from their current societies/situations to follow God.
  • Stephen’s speech helps set the stage that there is “a new understanding of ‘the holy place’ in terms of a community (rather than a physical shrine)” (Williams).
  •  Stephen commits his spirit to Jesus directly. Note how words that formerly applied to the Father are now addressed to the Son. Jesus was in the role of God, in the sense of being the one who saves.
  • Luke notes that Stephen did not “die.” Instead, he merely fell asleep. A nod to the belief in the resurrection of the dead.

Discussion:

  • Stephen’s speech implies that God can work outside of established religious customs/buildings/traditions. How has that been shown to be true throughout the rest of the church’s history? How is that being seen today?
  • Stephen accused the Jewish leaders of trying to cage God in the temple and in the “holy land” of Judea. How have modern Christians confined God to the church building? To America?
  • The tabernacle seemed to be God’s preferred “dwelling” because of it’s mobility/flexibility/impermanence. How does God maintain his mobility today? Where does he dwell? How did Jesus embody this ideal? How did Jesus identify himself/contrast himself with the temple?
  • The temple became an idol because it became an “image of God” that could be worshipped. What “image of God” is an idol today?
  • What foundational ideas in Christian theology does Stephen’s speech represent?  How are these principles still relevant today?
  • How does the modern church perpetuate the idea that people have to “come to God” vs. the idea that Stephen encourages, which is “God goes to the people”?

References:

Post Discussion Perspectives:

  • Why was Stephen so accusative of his accusers? Did his speech get him killed or was he going to die regardless?
  • How long did Stephen have to prepare his speech? How much of this insight about Israel’s history was part of his normal debate with the Synagog of the Freedman, how much was his personal education, and how much was the Holy Spirit?
  • The church still mostly sees God as living in a building/cathedral/worship center. We naturally try to contain God. (Though, gothic cathedrals are all kinds of awesome… from an architectural and aesthetic point of view)
  • Church buildings can easily become like the temple–ornate boxes to hold our traditions and concept of God at a distance. How can we  “tabernacle” God vs. “temple” him? Missions? Home Communities? What can we do to keep ourselves flexible, fluid and open to moving to the next location?
  • God is restless, on the move. He prefers to be on the front lines where the action is.