WHAT ABOUT THE NO-ACCOUNT, GOOD-FOR-NOTHING PEOPLE?

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Jesus came first to the backwaters; the boondocks; the sticks. He went to where people felt shame and humiliation and hopelessness. He brought light to dark places. He still does.

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Matthew #8 . Matthew 4:12-16

We’re going to cover some historical and cultural details this week. Please have patience with this. First, I believe it will pay off in understanding what the Holy Spirit might want to say to you today, through these verses. Second, this information will useful many times as we continue our study of Matthew’s Gospel.

Apparently some time passed between chapter four, verse eleven, and verse twelve; we don’t know how much. We do know that the gospel of John records events that must have occurred between Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. Particularly, John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to Andrew and Philip, who then introduced him to Peter and Nathaniel and perhaps others. In any case, after a period of time, John the Baptist was put into prison by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great who had killed all the babies in Bethlehem. At that time, Jesus went back to the region of Galilee, and remained there for some time.

The region is named for the Sea of Galilee, which is a very large freshwater lake. At its widest points, the lake is thirteen miles long, north to south (21 km) and eight miles wide, east to west (13 km). The total surface area is about sixty-four square miles (166 square km). If you walked the entire shoreline of the lake, you would go about fifty-one miles.

Just to be confusing, the Sea of Galilee is also called Lake Tiberias and the lake of Gennesaret. In modern Israel it is sometimes known as Kinneret. To make matters even worse, the New Testament also refers to two towns (on the shore of the lake) with the same names as the lake: Tiberias and Gennesaret.

By the time of Jesus, the area around the lake had a checkered past and a questionable reputation. It was the ancestral home of the tribes of Zebulon, Napthali and Mannaseh. After the time of Solomon, when the Israelites split into two kingdoms, this area, being in the north, went with the Northern kingdom, of course (usually known as “Israel” while the Southern kingdom was called “Judah.”). The Northern kingdom was ruled from the city of Samaria, which was some distance from the lake. During its existence, The kings of Israel did not want their people going south to Jerusalem to worship (because it was in the kingdom of Judah), so they set up their own worship system in the north. They quickly became corrupted in their beliefs, and began to abandon worship of the One true God, instead, worshiping like the pagans. Though prophets called them to repent, they did not, and the Northern Kingdom was eventually wiped out by Assyrian invaders in about 723 BC (in other words, more than 700 years before Jesus was born). The people were deported and scattered around the Assyrian Empire.

The Assyrians resettled people from other places into the region of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel. There were still a few Israelites living there, and they began to intermarry with the foreigners. As time went on, they developed a kind of hybrid-Israelite religion, believing in the first five books of the Old Testament, but interpreting them differently, and not accepting the books of the prophets (i.e. the rest of the Old Testament). These hybrid-Israelites with their hybrid-religion became known as Samaritans, because Samaria was still the chief city of the area (all this is a simplification, but it gives you the general idea).

In terms of theology, it might have been a bit like the differences between Mormons and Christians. Mormons and Christians have a lot of outward similarities. At times, Mormons will even call themselves Christians. However, Christians know that there are profound differences between the Christian faith and the Mormon religion. We would say that it is totally inaccurate to consider Mormons the same as Christians. In the same way, Samaritans regarded themselves as a division of Judaism, but the Jews did not feel that way.

North of Samaria was the sea of Galilee. For a long time, no Israelites or Jews lived there, but a few hundred years before Jesus, Jews began to re-colonize the area around the lake. Those people saw themselves as connected with Jerusalem and Judea (previously known as “Judah”) in the south, and not a part of their nearer neighbors, the Samaritans, who were in between them and Judea. Immediately surrounding Galilee were other foreign powers. In fact, Jewish Galilee could really only claim the west side of the lake. The other parts of the lake, and the regions to the north, east and south-east were all inhabited by Gentiles (non-Jews).

Here is a map that roughly shows the territories involved. You can see Galilee near the top.

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When Jesus was a boy in Egypt, the Jews in Galilee, being some distance from Judea, had tried to rebel the son of Herod the Great. It was a bloody, violent rebellion, and was put down ruthlessly, with the assistance of the Romans.

When you put this all together, it is not surprising that, although it was an area full of natural beauty, Galilee was considered to be an undesirable, no-account sort of place. It was surrounded by foreigners who did not worship God. It was far from the center of power and learning (Jerusalem). It had a history of violence and war and turning away from God. People in Jerusalem thought of Galilee the same way that people in New York City might think of the remote valleys of Appalachia. It may be pretty, but who would want to actually live there? The whole region was depressed, with nothing worthwhile going on, it was populated by “rednecks.”

If wanted to start a movement, and really influence people; if you really wanted to be someone, Galilee was not the place to go. It had been a no-account backwards place for seven-hundred years. But Jesus specifically chose Galilee as the starting place for his ministry. This depressed, hillbilly haven was where people first heard the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ first miracle was performed in one of its towns (Cana). The Messiah grew up there. The light of the world (as John calls Jesus) first shined in this place. Matthew records that this fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy, Isaiah 9:1-2.

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, along the sea road, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles! The people who live in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the shadowland of death, light has dawned. (Matt 4:15-16, HCSB)

Let’s just pause here a moment and see if the Lord has anything to say to you through this. It isn’t just about where Jesus chose to live. It is about the fact that he knew that this place and these people were held in contempt; he knew that they felt shame, and that is why he went there. He did this because He cares deeply about people who are overlooked by others, people who are living in shame, people who are considered no-account.

Perhaps you have felt overlooked. Maybe you’ve believed that you are unimportant. Maybe you have shame placed upon from something you’ve done, or by how others have treated you. Jesus isn’t afraid of your shame; he’s not worried about being tainted by your humiliation. He comes to you, deliberately, and says, “Let me remove your shame. Let me shine the light of my grace into your life. Let me show you that you are important to me, and I am the only one that really matters.”

Possibly you feel that you have been “walking in darkness” for a while now. Could it be that the Lord is saying to you: “A light is coming to you. You won’t be in darkness forever!”

As for being unimportant, or doing unimportant things, listen to what the Holy Spirit says through Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:26-30

Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world — what is viewed as nothing — to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence. But it is from Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became God-given wisdom for us — our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, (1Cor 1:26-30, HCSB)

Jesus came to take our shame and humiliation upon himself. He came to take our checkered pasts, our sordid family histories. He came to shine light into places that may have been dark for centuries. If you think you are of no account, or you are not worthy, then know this: he came exactly for you. He comes to us all, continually. Open your heart to the light.

~

Clear Bible is a listener supported ministry. We reach more than 15,000 people each year with clear, understandable bible teaching.

 We ask you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. We value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.

But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.

 You could also send a check to:

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625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

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 Thank for your prayers, and your support!

WAS JESUS JUDGEMENTAL?

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While Jesus is not a judgmental figure, the whole world is judged by its response to him. He does “separate the wheat from the chaff,” simply by being who he is.

When we trust Jesus and continue on in that trust, God the Father includes us in all the grace and blessings of Jesus.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 6

Matthew #6. 3:11-17

Some people have called John the Baptist “The Last Old Testament Prophet.” The Old Testament prophets often pointed out the sins of the Israelites, and of the nations around them, and warned that God would bring judgment upon them if they did not repent. John had a similar message, but there were two key differences. First, while the Old Testament prophets aimed their message at whole nations, John’s message is for individuals. He isn’t calling the nation of Israel to repent – he is calling you to repent. Second, the Old Testament prophets predicted (correctly, it turns out) that judgment would come about through war and destruction. But the judgment that John saw coming was to come about from an individual – the Messiah.

Matthew records a difference between John’s baptism and that of Jesus: John’s was symbolic of repentance; the baptism of Jesus would accomplish something internally – it would bring “the Holy Spirit and fire.” John says some things about Jesus that may seem a little strange to us:

“His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn. But the chaff he will burn up with fire that never goes out.”

First, this is strange to us, because we don’t know what a winnowing shovel is, and maybe not even chaff. Back in those days, when people harvested wheat, they would generally take it to a threshing floor. Usually, this was simply a wheatheadcleared, flat area on a hilltop. They would beat the heads of the grain, either by gathering stalks and bashing the heads on the ground, or maybe by hitting the heads with a stick or wooden hammer. They would throw the empty stalks aside. What was left was a mixture of wheat grains, very short pieces of stalk and pieces of the outer part of the wheat seed structure, called “chaff.” At this point, the famers would take a winnowing shovel. They would scoop up the mixture of wheat grains and chaff, and throw it up into the wind that blew across the hilltop. The chaff is lighter than the wheat grain, so the wind would carry that away, while the grain fell back to the ground on the threshing floor. Obviously, the grain was collected and stored. The chaff was sometimes burned up. This picture is one of getting rid of useless material that you do not want, and refining and saving what you do want.

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Now that we understand what John is saying, it is still strange to us, in that we often do not think of Jesus as bringing judgment. There is no question that judgment is what John means. Those who belong to God are going to found and refined and saved, and those who do not are going to blow off in the wind, and, after, be burned in the fire. John’s main point is: “It’s time to get ready! Repent, be among those who are saved!”

I think in our modern times, we view Jesus as just mellow and loving and sort of “all encompassing.” That is reinforced by many bible verses in which Jesus declares God’s love, and many other bible verses which teach that grace and forgiveness come through Jesus Christ.

But the bible also teaches that Jesus is the dividing point between those who will be saved, and those who won’t. Jesus is the meeting point for both grace and judgment, salvation and condemnation. Even Jesus taught this:

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. (John 14:6, HCSB)

In Jesus, we know the way, the truth and life. But without Jesus, we are lost. This is both grace and judgment. It is important to understand though, that the judgment and condemnation come only when we reject Jesus. John explains in his gospel:

For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God. “This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. (John 3:17-19, HCSB)

Thus, everyone in the whole world is judged by how they respond to Jesus. If they respond in faith, the result is grace and salvation. But those who reject Jesus are separating themselves from God’s grace and life:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:11-13, HCSB)

So, while Jesus is not a judgmental figure, the whole world is judged by its response to him. He does “separate the wheat from the chaff,” simply by being who he is. If you are in Jesus, you are the wheat, you are safe in God’s storehouse. If you are not in Jesus, you are the chaff.

Throughout history, Jesus has been this dividing point. Many people are willing to look at Jesus as a good moral teacher. Many more are happy to acknowledge him as a prophet. But when it comes to putting faith in Him as fully God (God the Son, one God along with the Father and the Spirit) and as a personal savior, many people seem to balk. I have had many cordial conversations about religion with my Muslim friends. One time, a friend and I had a long talk, and he said, “Tom, we have so much in common. But there is just one point that is a problem. You worship Jesus as God. According to Islam this is the one thing that will send you to hell.”

I said to him, “That’s interesting, Abdul, because that is the one problem I see, also. You don’t worship Jesus as God, and according to Christianity, this is the one thing that will send you to hell.”

Neither one of us was upset with the other. Most Muslims I have met in America are very open to talk about religion without getting upset. But we had both arrived at the same conclusion: Jesus was the point of division. How we respond to Jesus meant life or death, heaven or hell. Though we differed on which response went which way, we agreed that our attitude toward Jesus was the defining thing. Jesus’ very life and message sorts out who belongs to God and who does not.

If you haven’t put your trust in Jesus, if you haven’t surrendered your life to him, now would be the time. You are either in Christ, or you are not. If you are in Jesus, you are in God’s favor. If you are not in Jesus, you are not in God’s favor, and you are in judgment.

By in Jesus, I mean you are continually trusting him as you go through life. It is a daily (sometimes hourly) habit of continuing to believe who Jesus is, what he has done for us, how he feels about us, and continuing to rest upon it. This is not a one shot deal. This is not a situation where you just say, “Well I got baptized, so I’m good now.” Or “Well, I got saved five years ago, so I’m good now.” This is a process of continually putting our trust in Jesus, day by day. That is what it means to be “in Jesus,” and we are saved and safe, only in Jesus. I’m not saying that you have to work hard and live the Christian life on your own strength in order to be in Jesus. But I am saying that to be in Jesus, you need to continually rest in Him with trust in what his Word says, and in what he has done for us.

After John has been talking about Jesus, Jesus himself showed up and asked to be baptized. I’ve mentioned previously that John and Jesus probably knew each other before this; in fact John responded in faith to Jesus when they were both still babies in the womb! So when Jesus asks to be baptized, John is shocked.

But John tried to stop Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and yet You come to me? ” Jesus answered him, “Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him to be baptized. (Matt 3:14-15, HCSB)

I think what Jesus was saying there was all about his mission, his very reason for coming into the world. He came to take on humanity, and the sin of humanity. Jesus entered into repentance for that on our behalf. He identified with us through John’s baptism. It was the first public step in fulfilling his mission to bring righteousness to the world. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says:

God made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Cor 5:21, HCSB)

Jesus was baptized as part of that “becoming sin” for us. I don’t mean he became sinful, but I mean he identified with our sinful humanity, and God eventually (at the cross) placed all of the sin of the world upon him, so that we could be called righteous by placing our faith in him.

Matthew writes:

After Jesus was baptized, He went up immediately from the water. The heavens suddenly opened for Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on Him. And there came a voice from heaven: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him! (Matt 3:16-17, HCSB)

“This is my Beloved son, I take delight in him!” These words came from heaven not only at Jesus’ baptism, but also again, on a mountainside, as recorded in Matthew 17:5-6.

While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him. Listen to Him! When the disciples heard it, they fell facedown and were terrified. (Matt 17:5-6, HCSB)

The apostle Peter wrote about this in his second letter. He says that the repetition of this voice from heaven means that the message is “strongly confirmed.”

For we did not follow cleverly contrived myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; instead, we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, a voice came to Him from the Majestic Glory: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him! And we heard this voice when it came from heaven while we were with Him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic word strongly confirmed. You will do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dismal place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2Pet 1:16-19, HCSB)

Peter says we would do well to pay attention to this. So let’s pay attention to it.

First, I think this reminds us that it’s all about Jesus. Sometimes we get confused, and we think faith is all about what Jesus did for us. That’s important, but when we look at things that way, it puts the focus on ourselves. Quite apart from us, Jesus is focal point of history. This word from heaven reminds us that.

Second in Jesus (see above) this is God’s attitude toward us. When we trust Jesus and continue on in that trust, God the Father includes us in all the grace and blessings of Jesus.

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved. We have redemption in Him through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding… We have also received an inheritance in Him (Eph 1:3-8,11 HCSB)

The New Testament is full of verses explaining that in Christ, we have what God gives Christ. In other words, if we are in Christ, God looks at us, and has the same attitude toward us that he has toward Jesus himself. So, in Jesus, God is looking at us, and saying “You are my son, my daughter. I am so pleased with you.” Really. I know we are inclined to think that can’t be right, but listen to the Holy Spirit through Isaiah:

Let the wicked one abandon his way and the sinful one his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, so He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will freely forgive. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.” This is the LORD’s declaration. (Isa 55:7-8, HCSB)

God viewing us “through the lens of Jesus,” so to speak, doesn’t make sense to us. But it makes sense to him. So, if you trust Jesus today, I want you to hear these words spoken to Jesus, applied also to you: You are his beloved son or daughter. He looks at you, in Jesus Christ, and say, “I am so pleased with you.”

~

Clear Bible is a listener supported ministry. We reach more than 15,000 people each year with clear, understandable bible teaching.

 We ask you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. We value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.

But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

 If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.

 You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

 Your check will be tax-deductible. Unfortunately, we cannot do the tax deductible option with the paypal donate button, however the money does go directly to support my family and me.

 Thank for your prayers, and your support!

PAGAN PRIESTS FIND JESUS THROUGH HOROSCOPE

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The story of the Magi is actually kind of strange and disturbing when you think about it. Pagan Shamans were led to Jesus through astrology. What can we learn from this?

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 3

Matthew #3 . Chapter 2:1-12

To be honest with you, if I was God, inspiring people to write the Bible, I would either keep the wise men out of the gospel of Matthew, or I would explain more about them.

Only two out of the four gospels tell us much about the birth of Jesus in the first place – Matthew and Luke. Matthew leaves out the shepherds; Luke leaves out the wise men. In the first six chapters of his gospel, Matthew takes great care to point out how the birth and early life of Jesus fulfilled various prophecies about the Messiah from the Old Testament. In fact, in the first two chapters, Matthew points out four specific instances where prophecies were fulfilled. Surely, if there was a prophecy in the Old Testament about these visitors from the east, Matthew would have mentioned it.

Not only does this incident have nothing to do with prophecy, at first blush it seems to have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity or even Orthodox Judaism. The term translated “Wise men” or “Magi” usually refers to a sort of Babylonian priest or scholar who was especially acquainted with the study and interpretation of the stars, and of dreams and things like that. In different times or places they might have been called Shamans, or Druids, or Seers, or even Magicians. That’s right. The Babylonian or Arabian Magi held roughly the same position in their society as Druids did in Celtic society. Do you understand? – we are talking about pagan priests, coming to see Jesus. Now are you interested?

Not only are these people pagan priests, but somehow, they have learned about Jesus’ birth – through astrology. It was the behavior of the stars which told them that someone very important and significant was born. The stars even told them generally where in the world to look for the child. As far as we know, it was not because they searched the scriptures, or listened to a Jewish preacher on TV or anything else. The wise men don’t really fit into my typical way of looking at world. Pagan priests are drawn to Jesus through astrology?! I think what bothers me most is this question: does this mean that all religions really do lead to the same God?

First, I want to point out that this is another one of those passages that seems to confirm the authenticity of the New Testament. If we are honest, we must admit that it raises troubling questions and ideas. If the New Testament were made up, or if the stories about Jesus were extensively edited and changed, this story would have been one of the first to be cut. In other words, there seems to be no reason to have this here unless it really happened, and God wants us to learn something from it.

I want to briefly set up the historical timeline here. Matthew makes it clear this occurs after Jesus was born (2:1). Herod asks the Magi when the star appeared. When the Magi find Jesus, he is living with his parents in a house (not a stable). Later, Herod thinks that Jesus might be up to two years old (2:16). So, while it is very picturesque to imagine the wise-men standing in the stable with the shepherds and donkeys on Christmas night, that is almost certainly not how it actually happened.

So, what does the Lord want to say to us through this little section of scripture? First, and probably most importantly, the message is this: This little baby, born in Bethlehem, in accordance with the prophecies for the Jewish Messiah, is for all people. His life, death and resurrection and his teaching also, are not intended only for the Jews and the small nation of Israel. From birth, his influence and significance are there for the whole world. The wise men were not Jews by religion nor by birth. But Jesus was for them too. We call Christmas a “Christian” Holiday. But God calls it a gift for the whole world; a gift for all people – including pagan priests.

Second, let’s look at those wise men. By the way, the Bible does not actually tell us how many of them there are, or what their names were. All of that is folk legend. Probably, the idea of three wise men came about because three kinds of gifts were presented: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We only know that there was more than one (the Greek word for Magi is plural), and it is reasonable to suppose that it wasn’t an extremely large group either. In any case, we can be reasonably sure that not every pagan priest in the region came to see Jesus. Presumably, other pagan priests also studied the stars. They saw what the traveling wise men saw. But why did only these particular men come to see Jesus?

I think the answer is this. These men saw Jesus in the stars because in their hearts, they were honestly seeking the truth and they were hungering for God. When they made it to Jerusalem, they told Herod they were there to worship the child revealed in the stars. When they actually found Jesus, that is exactly what they did – they worshiped him. You see, I don’t think this is an affirmation of pagan religion. Instead, it is an affirmation of honest seeking. These pagans didn’t know any of the Bible. They had never heard of the Messiah. But in their hearts, they hungered for God, and they pursued him honestly and diligently. And even though they were looking in the wrong places, they really were looking. Since there were no other means available, God used the stars to direct them to him.

This is in contrast to Herod and the Jewish leaders. Herod wasn’t a Jew, but he was surrounded by them and easily could have learned about God if he chose. The Jewish leaders studied the scriptures. They knew that Messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. In fact, Matthew lists the scripture here, allowing us to see yet another way in Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. But the Jewish leaders at that time weren’t seeking God. Instead, it was pagan priests, completely ignorant of the Bible, who found God when he came into the world. Jeremiah 29:13-14 says this:

If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord.

Jesus says it like this:

Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)

The wise men were seeking. And in accordance with the promises listed above, when they looked wholeheartedly, they found the true God. It wasn’t their pagan religion that led them to “the same God worshiped by all religions.” Instead, it was that their seeking, hungering hearts led them to true faith in Jesus Christ. Other pagans didn’t come to Bethlehem, even though they had the same information. Those men didn’t have the same hearts. Herod didn’t come, and neither did the Jewish leaders – even after they heard what the Magi had to say. They didn’t have seeking hearts as the Magi.

The wise men who saw Jesus didn’t go to Bethlehem and then perform pagan worship rituals. They went to Bethlehem, put their faith in Jesus, and worshiped Him, specifically. To express it another way, the moment they worshiped Jesus, they were no longer pagans, but Christians.

That may answer the question about other religions. I think the idea is sort of this: a true seeker will not remain in a false religion, but that false religion may be the initial point from which a true seeker eventually comes to know Jesus. The wise men didn’t receive eternal life through pagan religion – they received it through faith in Jesus. A Hindu won’t get to heaven by being a good Hindu. But suppose something in Hinduism leads him to find out about Jesus. Suppose he eventually puts his faith in Jesus – then he would have eternal life. It would not be Hinduism that saved him, but Jesus. By and large, Hinduism does not point to Jesus; but God could certainly use some aspect of it to draw a true seeker to the truth and salvation found only in Jesus Christ. That is very much like what he did for the Magi.

What initially drew the Magi to study the stars was only a shadow of the reality found in Jesus, who is called the Bright Morning Star (Numbers 24:17; Revelation 22:16). The Christmas tree is a pagan symbol too. But maybe the pagan imagery of tree worship, like that of astrology, is just a memory of the real thing, which goes farther back still, all the way to the Garden and the tree of life. The real thing is what those pagan priests sought.

So, with these strange pagan shamans in mind, I think there is a question worth considering: What are you seeking these days? Are you interested in finding the truth? Do you really want God himself, or do you just want God to do something for you? Maybe, like Herod or the Jewish leaders, your biggest concern is how Jesus might affect the plans and ambitions you have for your life.

What has led you to this place? Family, friends or your horoscope? The hope of a day’s comfort? Whatever it might be, let go of the shadow, and see the true reality that the Magi saw – the little toddler, invested with all the fullness of God. True hope. True life. True love. With the wise men, fall down, and exchange the empty shadows for the truth. Worship him. Receive him.

Taking the Bible Literally

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We need to understand not only the context of the verses, and the history and the culture; we must also understand that not everything in the bible was meant to be taken directly. We need to pay attention to the genre of each part of the bible.

 

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Understanding the Bible #6

We’ve considered the origins of the bible. We’ve established it’s historicity and reliability. Last time we began to learn a few simple rules for reading the bible and understanding it properly. The first rule was to read the bible in context. It is rarely helpful to read a verse or two, without understanding what came before it. What comes after all increases our understanding. We also need to read the bible in its historical and cultural context. In other words, we ought to understand what it really meant to the people who first heard it or read it, in their culture, before we will be able to properly apply it to our own lives.

Today, I want to look at another important principle of reading the bible: Pay attention to Genre. Another way to look at this rule is this: What kind of writing are you reading? There are many different kinds of literature (writing) in the bible. We need to be aware of them, and consider the writing style before we try to apply the bible directly to our lives. We have already learned that the bible is actually sixty-six different books, written by dozens of different people from dozens of different walks of life. Some parts of the bible are laws. Others are records of family history. There is also great deal of official “court” or government history. There are genealogies – lists and records of family names. Some of the bible is prophecy, and there are at least two different kinds of prophecy. There is a great deal of poetry and song in the bible. The book of Proverbs is mostly made up of, well, proverbs – wise sayings. There are four accounts of the ministry and teachings of Jesus (we call them “gospels.”) Within Jesus’ teachings are a unique kind of literature called parables. There are a number of letters written by Jesus’ apostles to anyone who wants to follow Him.

I have just listed ten major genres, or types of writing, found in the bible. We need to pay attention to these when we read the bible. We will need to read poetry with a very different approach than we use when we read one of Paul’s letters to Jesus-followers. When we read a historical section, we ought to treat it differently than we treat a prophecy.

I will deal with laws in a sermon all by itself. Today, let’s consider briefly how we might approach the other different genres in the bible.

History: This includes both family history and court/government history. Historical narrative is the record or “story” of real people and real events. As we learned previously, there is no reason to doubt the bible when it gives us historical narrative, and plenty of reasons to believe it. So we read it as a record of something that actually happened. We can get spiritual lessons from historical sections of the bible, but we ought to keep in mind that history isn’t primarily a parable, or an allegory – it is a record of what happened. Because of that, history isn’t always ideal. David committed adultery and murder. The record of those sinful actions is not a teaching telling us that it is okay for leaders to do such things. It is simply telling us what David actually did, not what we ought to do, or even what he ought to have done. In the historical situations, we look at how God dealt with people and nations in the events of their lives, and learn how God may deal with us at times. We look at mistakes and failures, and learn lessons concerning what we ought to avoid. We look at victories, and learn how to trust God to work through us. We see God’s faithful love at work in the past, and take encouragement from it.

Genealogies. I admit, this is the hardest genre for me. Lists of families and names just don’t seem to bring me a lot of spiritual benefit. But every so often, God blesses me through one of the genealogical lists in the bible. For instance, when we start to look at the genealogy of Jesus, listed in Matthew 1:1-17, and investigate what the bible says about some of the ancestors of Jesus, it is a blessing. Many of the physical ancestors of Joseph (in other words, Jesus’ earthly family) and even of Mary (she was related to Joseph) were scoundrels. Two of the women were prostitutes! Yet we see that God gave them grace, and used them anyway. He removed their shame and through them, brought the Messiah into the world. I have found similar lessons in other genealogies. The trick is to look up the people listed, and see what you can learn about them.

Prophecy: I’ve mentioned before that reading biblical prophecy is like looking at a range of distant mountains. From a distance, the mountains look like they are all right next to each other, but when you get closer, you find they are a series of ridges and peaks that go on for some time. The mountains aren’t all lined up side by side, as it looks from a long ways away. From the prophet’s perspective (which is how it is written down in the bible) it looks like all of the future will happen at one time. In reality, as you get closer, some things are fulfilled centuries before other things. So Isaiah talks about the destruction of Jerusalem (which happened 200 years after he prophesied), the return of the exiles from Babylon (which happened 70 years after the destruction of Jerusalem) the coming of the Messiah (which happened about 700 years after he prophesied) and the end of the world (which, as far as I know, hasn’t happened yet). These prophesies about various times are jumbled in amongst each other.

Prophecy also has a message to us in the present, regardless of the predictive element of it. Most of the prophets spoke to people about how to relate to God, and how God loves us, and longs to forgive and care for us. These words are still relevant today. So the comfort spoken to the exiles who would return to Jerusalem is also spoken to us, who seek peace and comfort in the Lord today.

Prophecies are not direct teachings however. We need to understand them in their historical context (as we spoke about last time) and be careful with directly and literally importing everything a prophet says to our own time.

Apocalyptic Prophecy: Parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation contain a specialized form of prophecy called “Apocalyptic Prophecy.” This genre features vivid imagery, key numbers and tends to be extremely confusing. Apocalyptic often reads like someone’s strange dream. Almost nothing in apocalyptic prophecy should be taken at face value. The images and numbers are usually symbolic. For instance in Revelation, the number twelve is very significant. There were twelve tribes in ancient Israel. There were twelve apostles. Therefore, the number twelve is a symbol for “the people of God.” It’s like a code. In Revelation chapter 7, it talks about 144,000 people who were sealed. This just means “the entire amount of God’s people from both Israel and the Church.” 12 tribes of Israel (representing God’s people before the time of Jesus) times 12 Apostles (representing the church, God’s people since the time of Jesus). 12 x 12 = 144. Get it? You will need help to understand what the images and numbers in apocalyptic prophecy mean. And to be honest, there are still things in apocalyptic literature that no one really understands for sure. A study bible will help, but more than anything, let the clear portions of the bible lead you in understanding what is not clear.

Gospels. There are four books that give us historical records of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. We read these as we would read history, with two exceptions:

1. When the gospels record the teaching of Jesus, we understand it as teaching. In other words, it isn’t just history. It is also the teaching which Jesus Christ intends us to learn, understand and follow. We must learn it context, like everything else. But it isn’t just a historical curiosity. We are meant to learn it and follow it.

2. Jesus used parables extensively. Almost always, a parable is a story that is not supposed to be taken literally, and it makes just one (at most two) main points. Don’t follow rabbit trails when you deal with a parable. Stick to the main one or two points. So, consider the parable of the good Samaritan. The main point of the story is that the Lord wants us to look after anyone in need – even our natural enemies. He wants us to treat all the people we encounter as “neighbors.” The parable is not there to teach us that priests are all naturally bad people, or that we should regularly travel from Jerusalem to Jericho, or that we should pay for homeless people to stay in hotels. Stick to the main point.

Letters. Much of the New Testament is made up of letters written by the apostles to Christians. These letters generally contain teaching, exhortation and encouragement. We are meant to receive them as teaching and instruction. Generally, once we understand the historical and textual context, we take these things basically literally.

Poetry and Song. Poetic language is often not supposed to be taken literally. For our scripture this week, let’s look at Psalm 19.

1 The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky1 proclaims the work of His hands.

2 Day after day they pour out speech;

night after night they communicate knowledge.2

3 There is no speech; there are no words;

their voice is not heard.

4 Their message3 has gone out to all the earth,

and their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens4 He has pitched a tent for the sun.

5 It is like a groom coming from the5 bridal chamber;

it rejoices like an athlete running a course.

6 It rises from one end of the heavens

and circles6 to their other end;

nothing is hidden from its heat.

First, notice that this is laid out like a poem or song. In fact, in the heading of Psalm 19, there is the note: “For the Choir Director.” Most modern bible translations will lay out poetic language in this way, even though we have no music for it, and it does not rhyme in English. This layout is the translators’ way of showing us it is a song, poem or poetic prophesy. Much of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Job is laid out in this way. This lay-out is our first cue for how we should interpret the passage.

Now, in the case of Psalm 19, the writer (David) even tells us the language is poetic. In verse one, he says the heavens declare God’s glory, and pour forth speech. In verse two, he clarifies that we aren’t supposed to take that literally – it’s a word-picture, a metaphor. The sky doesn’t actually talk.

In verses 3-6 David describes the sun. Now, think for a moment. Does this mean that the Bible teaches us that the sky is an actual covering like a tent? Do these verses teach us that the sun actually rejoices? Does it mean that no place on earth can be cold when the sun is out?

The answer to all of those questions, is, of course, no. The language is poetic. We aren’t supposed to take it literally. The point is that God created the sky and all we observe in it, and by the things he set in motion in the sky, we can learn about God. This isn’t a straightforward teaching. It is a song, with metaphors and similes and creative ways of expressing things. We can learn things from it (that God sends messages to us through his creation) but we get that message differently than we do when Paul says the same thing in Acts 14:15-17 and Romans 1:19-20

What can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. (Rom 1:19-20, HCSB)

This verse from Romans says basically the same thing as Psalm 19, but in a very different style. That is why genre is important for understanding. Many people make grave mistakes about the bible when they don’t consider the genre. We don’t have to. It is mostly common sense, but we simply have to remember to pay attention.