Sunday, November 27, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Gospel of Luke

Luke is the third gospel, and most scholars seem to agree that it shows the more human side of Jesus Christ--the humble and compassionate side. Not that Luke contradicts the godhood of Jesus; it actually fleshes out a lot more details about the circumstances of Jesus' birth by giving some backstory regarding Mary's family.

The first chapter begins by talking about Mary's much-older cousin Elisabeth and her husband Zacharias, a priest. Elisabeth and Zacharias are wonderful people who obey God, but they haven't been blessed with a child. They're both pretty old, but an angel comes to Zacharias to tell him that Elisabeth is going to have a baby. Zacharias is naturally incredulous, because Elisabeth is far too old to have a kid and she's been barren all her life. But the angel's words come true (angels don't mess around when it comes to delivering information--their messages come from God and they're rare), and Elisabeth has a son who becomes John the Baptist, a preacher who prepares the people to accept Jesus' message.

Elisabeth's cousin Mary is a young engaged girl, and verse 27 of chapter 1 takes care to note that Mary is a virgin. An angel comes to Mary and says that she will also have a child, kind of on the opposite scale of miraculousness from Elisabeth, because Elisabeth is having a kid way past the normal time for conception, while Mary will be conceiving way before the usual time because she's a virgin. But as the angel says in verse 37, "For with God nothing shall be impossible". It's interesting that God so often seems to work through these unnatural or supernatural pregnancies--Jesus' is the son of God so his birth is clearly the most amazing and supernatural of all, but almost all of the patriarchs' families in the Old Testament had some kind of miraculous birth occur. Abraham's wife Sarah was like Elisabeth, a woman who had always been incapable of having children, only to give birth to Isaac in her old age. Isaac's wife Rebecca goes twenty years without having children, then gives birth to the twins Esau and Jacob only after a rough pregnancy. Jacob's beloved wife Rachel is barren for a long time, then dies after giving birth to her second child. This is a common theme in the Bible, God making life happen when people least expect it.

Jesus' birth is clearly something that Luke wants to take time to explore in detail, because the first chapter alone has 80 verses. Of course, the verse and chapter divisions were added hundreds of years later--it's not like Luke was dividing his own writing into numerically-ordered pieces--but the overall impression a reader gets is still one of an author leisurely establishing the facts and circumstances about Jesus' birth. Chapter 2 presents the Christmas story, the version you'll mostly likely hear portions of in every Christmas pageant. Chapter 2 shows how a very pregnant Mary and her new husband Joseph traveled to his home town of Bethlehem because of Caesar Augustus' census that made everyone return to their home city to be taxed. The rest of Luke covers Jesus' miracles, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, though the nativity story is one of the parts of the book that stands out from the accounts in the other gospels.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Gospel of Mark

Mark is a very actiony gospel. It shows a lot of the same stories from Matthew and Luke, but it's shorter and it moves from scene to scene very quickly. There are many miracles and acts of service in this book, and Jesus always seems to be doing something for someone in need.

Unlike Matthew, which begins with Jesus' genealogy and lists his whole family tree through Mary, Mark focuses on his earthly ministry and skips his birth entirely. Chapter 1 introduces John the Baptist, Jesus' earthly cousin through Mary, and mentions how John baptizes him. Jesus then begins his 3-year ministry and tells people "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel" (1:15), focusing on faith and repentance, the act of genuinely changing your lifestyle and turning your back on your old sinful ways.

In the next couple of chapters, Jesus gathers his 12 disciples, casts demons out of possessed people, gives a paralyzed man the ability to walk, heals a man's withered hand, and teaches in local synagogues. I'm especially touched by one story in chapter 5 about Jesus healing a woman who had some kind of continual bleeding problem. She doesn't even ask Jesus to heal her--she just knows that if she touches him, he will make her well. Her particular story of suffering has always broken my heart because we don't hear much about this lady, but we do know that she was plagued by this bleeding condition for twelve years. In Jewish society, anyone who had an ongoing flow of blood was "unclean" and cut off from certain parts of society and fellowship, so it's clear that she must have been undergoing emotional pain as well as physical pain. She had no hope in sight, but her faith in Jesus made her well.

Chapter 15 is the beginning of Jesus' crucifixion. The Pharisees, the religious leaders of Judea, hate Jesus because he calls himself the son of God and because he points out their sins and hypocrisies, so they come up with some false accusations so that the Romans, the ruling force in Judea, will execute Jesus. After a torturous type of punishment (the Romans weren't known for humane forms of execution but for inventive deaths that took hours to accomplish), Jesus dies, but the story doesn't stop there. After three days in the grave, God raises Jesus to life again, as Jesus himself said would happen. Before ascending back into heaven, Jesus sends out his disciples with this message: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." And then a few books later, in Acts, we see that they do just that.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Gospel of Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, and is also the first of four books that talk about the life of Jesus; these books are called the gospels. It was written by Matthew, one of Jesus' twelve disciples.

Matthew is a very Jewish gospel, because it was written by a Jewish man and seems to be written with a specifically Jewish audience in mind.  The first chapter takes care to list Jesus' Jewish heritage and his genealogy through his mother Mary. Basically, the genealogy hits all the high points in Jewish history, starting from Abraham the patriarch, then down the line to king David, then through the time when Israel was carried away to captivity in Babylon. There's actually a numerical pattern in the generations, as verse 17 notes: "So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations." I don't believe in numbers controlling our destinies, and I don't think the Bible ever advocates that idea, either, but God definitely does seem to pay attention to numbers, because 4's, 7's, 12's, and 40's show up everywhere in the Old and New Testaments.

Verse 18 of chapter one deals with how Jesus came to exist on earth: "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost." Meaning that his mother was engaged to a man but she was still a virgin, and she was a virgin even after becoming pregnant, because the spirit of God somehow created life in her. A lot of people are tripped up by the believability of immaculate conception (a.k.a. a virgin getting pregnant), but if God created the universe, then I think he can bend the rules of creation in whatever way he wants. And Jesus had to have a miraculous element to his birth because he wasn't just some special guy who taught good things--he was God in the flesh, come to save his people from their sins.

Chapter 3 is when Jesus really begins his ministry on earth. He is baptized by John, and when he emerges from the water, there's an open verbal recognition from God: "And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased"(3:17). The next passage that really captures my attention is chapter 5's Sermon on the Mount, also known as the Beatitudes:

"-Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

-Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
-Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
-Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
-Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
-Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
-Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
-Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
-Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake."

I note that most of these things that Jesus says we'll be blessed for are not things that we'd necessarily choose to do, just out of our own will. Sure, it sounds good to be a "peacemaker", but in reality it can be fun to stir up trouble, or to gossip and promote conflict. It sounds good to be merciful, but what if God calls us to show mercy to someone we'd really like to pay back for what they've done to us? I like reading and re-reading the Sermon on the Mount, because it reminds me of traits that I need to have as a Christian, which I normally do not practice. Matthew has 28 chapters and continues through all the miracles and teachings of Jesus, concluding with his crucifixion and resurrection, but this part is always what lingers in my mind.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Books of Zechariah and Malachi

In the book of Zechariah, the title character is encouraging the people of Jerusalem to rebuild their temple, after they've returned to their homeland following a 70-year captivity in Babylon. This temple-building theme has been a big deal with a few of the previous minor prophets from this time period, but Zechariah has some variations on the usual theme. Zechariah has a lot of prophetic visions in a row, and these types of visions are usually hard for a reader to piece together just by reading about them. Everything Zechariah sees is metaphorical and deals with God's plans for the nation of Israel, so when he envisions a man on a red horse standing among some myrtle trees, the book explains that this symbolizes God's angels who travel through the world, observing what goes on.

One really special thing about the angels mentioned in this book is that they truly care about what happens to God's people--one of the angels asks God when he will have mercy on Jerusalem, the city that has seen so much turmoil. God says this in reply:  "I am returned to Jerusalem with mercies: my house shall be built in it, saith the Lord of hosts, and a line shall be stretched forth upon Jerusalem. Cry yet, saying, Thus saith the Lord of hosts; My cities through prosperity shall yet be spread abroad; and the Lord shall yet comfort Zion, and shall yet choose Jerusalem" (1:16-17). So things are looking up for the nation.

Zechariah has more visions, many of them related to the future Messiah who will save Israel. More of God's judgments are mentioned in the later chapters, but they are followed by proclamations of the future glory and holiness of Jerusalem

Malachi is the very last book of the Old Testament, and it deals with the problem of corruption in Israel. God's people are offering messed-up, polluted sacrifices to him, and they know they're not supposed to do that. The inferior, damaged sacrifices they give are a reflection of their lack of love and respect for the Lord. They don't care about him enough to be truly thankful or to offer him their best, and they also complain about how burdensome it is to offer sacrifices. The book of Malachi is also interesting because it contains a prophecy that relates to John the Baptist: "Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts." (3:1). John the Baptist is the messenger who comes before Jesus when the New Testament begins 400 years later.