Saturday, December 29, 2007

Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 30, 2007)

[Go here to see the first pass at the lessons and to find an explanation of what these passes are about. The illustration on the right is by Cerezo Barredo and is appropriate both for this text and for the John 1:1-14 test used on Christmas Eve. The words on the book, in Spanish, mean, "The Word became flesh."]

[General Comments, continued]
7. Hebrews 2:10-18: The New Testament book of Hebrews was traditionally attributed to Paul. Almost nobody believes that today. The book is a sermon or a set of sermons addressed to Jewish Christians who, in the face of persecution for their Christian faith and their spiritual immaturity, are considering a return to Judaism.

The preacher, most notably in chapter 11, draws on the examples of faithfulness found in the people chronicled in the Old Testament. He says that those Old Testament people of God faced persecution but kept believing in the promises of God ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. We must be no less faithful, the preacher says, now that Christ has come, died, and risen for us.

8. The text refers to Jesus as "the pioneer of their [our] salvation." Jesus has gone ahead of all who believe in Him, blazing the trail, so that, like Him, we will experience resurrection beyond death.

9. Verse 10 says that this pioneer was "made perfect through sufferings."

This is a bit confusing. Wasn't Jesus already perfect?

Yes. But the word rendered as perfect here is teleios, which means not so much perfect as complete. The idea here is that the pioneer, Jesus, completed His mission by dying and rising for us.

A form of teleios is what Jesus used just before He died on the cross. It's rendered, "It is finished," but more accurately should be translated in a grammatically awkward way, "It is completion."

The pioneer of our salvation fulfilled His mission by undergoing the suffering that completes His link to our humanity.

10. Through this suffering Jesus establishes His fellowship with us and "is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters." Furthermore, "because He Himself was tested by what He suffered, He is able to help those who are being tested."

11. Matthew 2:13-23: The incidents recounted here follow the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus. According to Matthew, their visit occurred some time after Jesus' birth. In fact, Joseph, Mary, and the Baby seem to have taken up residence in Bethlehem, since we're told that the wise men found Jesus not in a stable, but in a "house" (Matthew 2:11).

12. In any case, the birth of Jesus and the visit of the wise men, often bathed in sentimentality by us all, is quickly followed by the intervention of a violent world. Joseph, who like his Old Testament namesake, is a man of dreams, is warned by an angel--the word literally means, messenger--to take the child, Jesus, to Egypt. (v. 13)

Egypt was often a place of refuge for God's people. In the Old Testament, Joseph, the son of Jacob, is taken to Egypt as a slave. But with the passage of time, his skills as an administrator and an interpreter of dreams become known and he's made, essentially, prime minister of the country. Eventually, he takes in his entire family, embryonic Israel. (Of course, later, God's people will become slaves and God will raise a leader to take them out of Egypt to the promised land. More on Moses in a moment.)

13. The Herod who sought to destroy the child was Herod the Great. He reigned as a kind of puppet king--with some power--under the dominion of the Roman governor. The Roman empire found it useful to employ local "rulers" as a way of "softening" their iron rule. Herod's claim to the throne was, by most accounts, illegitimate. But he had managed to ingratiate himself to Rome and maintain his crown.

The Romans looked the other way as Herod engaged in one violent act after another. Although Matthew's account of the killing of boys two years of age or younger in Bethlehem is found nowhere else, it's consistent with other written accounts of Herod's rule that we do have. Herod was so sick, in fact, that before he died, he arranged for a member from every family in Jericho, the city where he lived, to be killed so that when he did die, the whole city would be in mourning.

14. The "killing of the innocents," when Herod's orders were put into effect, probably resulted in the deaths of about 20 children. That's because, at the time, it's estimated Bethlehem was a town of about 1000 people.

15. The baby Jesus is spared. But this isn't preferential treatment. This Child has a mission. He must die for the sins of the world. The final Bethlehem innocent to die will be Jesus Himself, on a cross.

16. In yet another dream, Joseph is told to go back to "the land of Israel." Herod the Great has died. His kingdom is divided among Herod's three sons. Herod Archelaus is the most violent of the three sons. He rules in the south, including Bethlehem, where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had formerly lived. In yet another dream, Joseph is told to take his family to Nazareth in the Galilee region.

Galilee was regarded negatively in Judea. Intermingled with God's people were Samaritans and Gentiles. Although Nazareth was close to a trade route that brought three continents together, it was regarded as a backwater, spiritually and otherwise, by the Jewish people. This is why, in the Gospel of John, Nathanael asks his friend Philip, when told of the new preacher from Nazareth, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"

17. The words of the angel to Joseph in v.20, are reminiscent of the words of the Lord to Moses, then in exile in Midian, found in Exodus 4:19.

You may remember that Moses, as an infant, had been spared a death sentence from a malevolent ruler, the Pharaoh in Egypt.

Concerned by the rising strength and the numbers of his nation's Hebrew slaves, Pharaoh had ordered that the Hebrew midwives kill all the newborn boys. The midwives lied to protect the children and Moses was one of the babies born after the Pharaoh's order was issued.

His mother placed him in a basket in the reeds of the Nile for protection and he was found by the Pharoah's daughter, who raised Moses as her own, with his mother recruited to serve as Moses' nurse.

Later, Moses, killed a taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave and he became a wanted man. He went to Midian, where he became a shepherd and married.

But God wasn't through with Moses and called him to go back to Egypt. It was safe, at least for the time being, because "those who were seeking your life are dead."

There is a sense in which Jesus, then, is a new Moses. But, He is greater than Moses. Unlike Moses, whose temper caused him to act rashly against the Egyptian taskmaster, to resist the will of God, and to rebel against God in the wilderness, Jesus remains forever faithful to God the Father, perfect in righteousness, and intent on the completion of His mission.


Steven Carr said...

'In yet another dream, Joseph is told to go back to "the land of Israel." Herod the Great has died. '

Amazing. These people thought that what happened in dreams was real.

Read NT Wright on how 1st century Jews scoffed at the idea that visions and dreams were real


If Christians read stories of Joseph Smith receiving divine revelation in a dream, they would laugh themselves silly.

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you for your comments.

I would point out that a key distinction between how Joseph in the New Testament, on the one hand, and Mr. Smith of Mormom fame, on the other, responded to their dreams, is that Joseph didn't use his dreams as a pretext for exercising power over others. Like all Biblical prophets and the Old Testament Joseph, also a dreamer, he said or did what he thought was right without imposing his views on others. He allowed time to prove or disprove his views. Biblical dreamers and prophets were always willing to be shown that they were wrong.

All dreams, on first blush, are apt to seem silly. And I doubt that God communicates with the human race often by that means. But that God does communicate in this way to some people, I don't doubt. For a wonderful study of this subject, I advise reading a book by a man who was both a Jungian and a priest, Morton Kelsey.

Thanks again for dropping by and God bless you.

Mark Daniels

Steven Carr said...

Well, some people think dreams are communications from God and some people are sane.

Mark Daniels said...

A clever aphorism, Steven.