Last Supper – Messianic Song Service

Jesus’ last evening with his disciples before his death was charged with powerful meaning and emotion. As they sat together for a Passover meal (a day earlier than the rest of the Jewish people) Jesus was preparing them for his own sacrifice. Centuries of history, tradition and prophecy were to become wrapped up together in this monumental evening.

The traditional Passover of Jesus’ time consisted of symbols of supper featuring an unblemished lamb eaten with certain foods, including unleavened bread (made without yeast) and four cups of wine taken at certain intervals during and after the meal. Jesus turns the bread and the wine  into the now well-known Christian symbols of Jesus’s “body” and “blood.”

Gospel writers Matthew and Mark both record that Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before leaving for Gethsemane. Many researchers have searched diligently to find out what hymn Jesus sang with his disciples on the night before his death. What they found is that there was a well-established liturgy of singing a group of Psalms that are referred to as the “Hallel Psalms,” consisting of Psalms 113-118. (This group of psalms was also sung at the other Jewish festivals mentioned in the Bible.) In English they would be called “Praise Psalms.”

It seems that these were interspersed throughout the meal, and it seems most likely that the one sung at the end was Psalm 118. Other researchers believe that all of them were sung together as one long praise hymn, so it is difficult for me to be sure how that went.

Psalm 113 praises God for caring for the weak and poor – those unable to help themselves. Even though God is higher than the heavens and master of all creation, He still cares for the lowest of people.

Psalm 114 praises God not only for His mighty power, but especially that He used that might to deliver an enslaved people from the mightiest empire of the time. God saved Israel through miracles such as the crossing of the Red Sea and allowed them to enter the Promised Land through the Jordan River, proving His dominion over the elements. Not only does He provide salvation through water, He even provides water to drink from an unlikely source: rock.

Psalm 115 praises God that He is not like the idols of all the nations. (The statement that “their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands” is all too true even today, in a world dominated by money and conspicuous consumption.) When God moves, the idolaters will become as silent in awe or intense fear as their graven images are.

Only the God of Israel is real. Only the God of Israel brings blessing and cursing. Only the God of Israel brings life to the dying.

Psalm 116 is the praise of a man delivered from death, who promises to “lift up the cup of salvation” in calling upon the name of the Lord. Verse 16 has the interesting note that he is “thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid.” This goes back to a promise made to Eve, that “her seed” would overcome the devil’s “seed.” In short, a Messianic psalm.

And yet precious in his sight is the death of his saints. Why is this statement in here if death is not part of the Messianic role?

Psalm 117 asks all nations to praise the Lord, not just Israel. This is because The Lord’s mercy encompasses all humanity. Salvation for both Jew and Gentile!

Psalm 118 praises God for deliverance from all enemies, personal and international. The same people who are asked to trust in Him in Psalm 115 (Israel, the house of Aaron and those that fear the Lord) are asked to say “his mercy endures forever.”

How messianic is this psalm?

The one who destroys all the enemies does so “in the name of the Lord.” He is also the one that the enemy has harassed to the point of death, but the Lord is both his strength and his song, and has become his salvation. He enters “the gates of righteousness” where the righteous enter. (Remember that Jesus claims to be “the way, the truth and the light. He is the keeper of the “gate of righteousness.”)

Jesus is the “stone that the builders refused” and becomes “the head of the corner.” This is one of the most frequently quoted Old Testament verses in the New Testament. The day Jesus dies is “the day that the Lord has made.” and Jesus knew this. (Of course, three days later his disciples finally figure it out.)

Verses 25 and 26 reflect the activities of the day Christians now call Palm Sunday. The chanting of “Hosanna” (“save”) to the son of David. The chanting of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Verse 27 shows God as the true bringer of light, whom John the Apostle identifies as the Word who becomes Jesus. The statement “bind the sacrifice with cords” evokes the image of Abraham preparing his son Isaac as a sacrifice, binding him with cords. God willing to do with His own Son what he asked Abraham to do, but did not allow him to complete.

Praise the Lord, whose Son Jesus the Messiah died and lives again to offer mercy to the whole world!

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The Jesus of (Non-Christian) History

J. Warner Wallace came to Jesus Christ after he tried to use the methods he uses to solve cold cases to determine the authenticity of the Gospel stories. When he noticed how closely the gospel writers’ accounts matched the profiles of actual eyewitness accounts he began to believe that the stories were true.

Fortunately for us, he did not stop there. He is now an active apologist for the Christian faith and is using the internet and other digital media to promote Jesus Christ.

This week at our service I shared his findings about how Jesus Christ is portrayed by ancient sources that were hostile to Jesus. These portrayals actually convey important information that confirms the biblical account of who Jesus is and what his disciples saw and believed about him from earliest times.

Among other things, they show that Jesus was considered a man with powerful “magical” abilities who did amazing works. He was thought to be a very wise individual who provoked a backlash from the Judean leadership that led to his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Most were puzzled by the claims of Jesus’ followers that he was resurrected from the dead and, most astoundingly, that they actually worshipped him as God.

You don’t have to believe any claims that Jesus did not exist. There is plenty of evidence that Jesus lived and died in Judea. The writings of both pagan and Jewish writers who were hostile to Jesus and what he stands for argue for his historicity. Not a single one of the early opponents argued that there was no such person.

Why would people write against somebody who never existed?

You can find out more at J. Warner Wallace’s website and YouTube channel.

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What Was John Trying to Convey in His Gospel?

This week I passed on some highlights from the article Hermeneutics in Action: Interpreting John’s Gospel, by N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird.

The first is that John’s gospel is different from the three other gospels in that he gives more theological reflection about Jesus’ life and mission along with humanizing Jesus even more than the others.

This is probably because he is writing later in life after the death of most, if not all of the other disciples. He knows what the others have written and fills in the gaps in his story. Not only that, but he has experienced the work of the Holy Spirit in his life and that of his colleagues and can write with that background.

We find much more explicit teaching about Jesus’ divinity in John’s gospel than in the others. John concentrates more on Jesus’ discourses than on his parables. Why might that be?

John’s purpose may provide the answer to that. In John 20: 30-31 he states his overall purpose clearly. He writes about Jesus in order that the reader will believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God and by believing eternal life in Jesus’ name.

No modern biographer or journalist would ever admit openly to that kind of purpose. The theological statements, anecdotes and eyewitness accounts are intended to persuade. But how is he to accomplish this?

He does so be relying on the one thing his readers have had exposure to: the Hebrew Scriptures. By John’s day many synagogues had both Hebrew and Greek editions of what we Christians commonly call the Old Testament. John tells the story in a way that reminds his reader of how Jesus recapitulates important Old Testament themes.

The first theme: A New Genesis

Jesus is Creator (John 1:1-14) and is therefore uniquely qualified to come to earth to repair his broken creation – sinful mankind. Even his resurrection hearkens back to Genesis in that it is proclaimed on “the first day of the week.” This intentionally suggests a new creation. When he says in John 20:21-23, “receive the Holy Spirit” he has just breathed on them, reminding the reader of God breathing the breath of life into Adam. Jesus has just breathed the breath of new life into them.

The second theme: A New Exodus

Even the word used to describe Jesus living among us, which literally means “tabernacled,” suggests an Exodus theme. Jesus is constantly telling people to follow him, as if he were the pillar of cloud and fire of the exodus from Egypt.

Jesus has come among them to reveal God’s glory, and so we see Jesus talking often about being glorified in his farewell discourses during the last supper (John 13-17).

The third theme: Pentecost

John’s memory is enhanced by the Holy Spirit, so he spends much more time with Jesus’ instruction about the “Comforter” than in the other gospels. As written above, Jesus breathes new life into them as he says, “receive the Holy Spirit.”

There are, of course, several other themes including God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus, about the self-giving love that raises the crucifixion to radiate the glory of God, and many others. I like how the authors of the article put what John has accomplished.

“John has written a theologically creative and spiritually rich fusion of personal memory and Pentecostal faith, suffused with scriptural motifs that together make the point: this is the fulfilment of Israel’s hope, which means that this is therefore the way creation itself is renewed, and, crowning it all, this is what it looked like when Israel’s God, the creator, came in person to do what only he could do.”

It is small wonder that many evangelistic programs begin new readers of the Bible with the book of John. Even so, the book becomes that much richer when we are immersed in the entirety of the biblical story and can see the threads coming together in this literary masterpiece.

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Will the Real Mount Sinai Please Stand Up

You have all heard the joke.

One man comes across another man at night under a street lamp. The man is obviously searching for something, so the newcomer asks if he can help.

“Yes, please! I have lost my wallet.”

“Where do you think you lost it?”

“Over there in the bushes.”

“Then why are you looking here?”

“Because the light is better here.”

In some ways the search for archaeological evidence of the Exodus and the Red Sea crossing seems to have met the same sort of logic since before the Dark Ages.

Ever since Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena designated many of the holy sites in Israel and “located” Mount Sinai at the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula. Christians and even Muslims have believed this to be the actual location of the mountain of the Ten Commandments.

The first clue I personally encountered that there might be a problem came from an article by noted New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright. He notes that in Galatians 4:25 the Apostle Paul locates Mount Sinai in “Arabia.” Unfortunately, even with that clue Dr. Wright still believes that the traditional location of Mt. Sinai is correct. (You can find out more Paul and Mount Sinai in this post.)

A better question to ask is whether the Sinai Peninsula was ever a part of Arabia in Paul’s day. An even better question to ask is whether the Bible provides other clues as to the whereabouts of the fabled mountain.

The answer to the first question is that there is no documented evidence of that part of Egypt ever belonging to Arabia.

The second question has interesting answers from the story of Moses himself. Exodus 2:15 tells us that Moses fled to the land of Midian to escape from Pharaoh’s wrath. We then pick up the story in Exodus 4:1-4 where Moses is herding sheep for his father-in-law, the Priest of Midian. It is not hard to imagine that this is within the region of Midian, since Moses has settled there and his father-in-law is the head priest of that region. We therefore learn that Mount Horeb (also known as Sinai) is within Midian. God also tells Moses that he will bring the people of Israel to that very mountain to worship him.

A lot of Bibles have a map of the time of the Exodus, and each one I have seen places Midian along the east coast of what is now the Gulf of Aqaba, south of Israel in what is now Saudi Arabia. If you don’t have such a map, you can find one here.

Since Moses does indeed lead them to the same mountain without crossing through Canaan or Edom, we have to wonder how they got there.

Or do we?

A Red Sea crossing through what is now the Gulf of Aqaba now becomes the most logical solution to the problem of getting there without crossing through either territory.

Now I wish I could honestly say that I figured all of this out on my own. Even with Dr. Wright’s clue in Galatians I still was not alert enough to catch on until I saw a video entitled Finding the Mountain of Moses.

Watch the movie about how they found evidence.

After stumbling across that video I began to try to find the evidence and became convinced that scholars have been looking in the wrong place for evidence of the most important event in pre-Jesus history. Besides the video you can find other information at this site.

If you are looking in the wrong place, even if you think the light is better, you won’t find what you are looking for.

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Forgiveness: More Complicated Than We Think

As a Christian I have tended to have a very simplistic understanding of what it means to forgive. The idea has been to “forgive and forget,” meaning that we absolve the other person’s sin against us no matter how heinous and no matter how unrepentant the other person is.

Then I encountered a brief YouTube presentation by psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Marmer about the subject of forgiveness. Watching the video will give some context to what I note below it.

Some biblical examples of forgiveness or the apparent lack thereof help illustrate the points Dr. Marmer makes about three levels of forgiveness: exoneration, forbearance and release.

In the first example, we find Joseph the son of Jacob in Egypt after first being sold into slavery by his brothers. He has had time to meditate on his fate and has even saved the rest of his family (yes, even the ones who enslaved him) from starvation during an extended drought. By Gen. 50:15-21 his father had died and his brothers were afraid Joseph would take revenge on them. Notice that in their indirect way, however, they actually acknowledge that their actions had been evil and had hurt him badly in their apology. Joseph is able to exonerate them and thereby repair the relationship with them.

Joseph accepts the apology as sincere because there is an acknowledgement, however awkwardly put, of the harmful intent followed by repentance. That closely resembles the “exoneration” level and rules that Dr. Marner proposes.

At an earlier point in Joseph’s career in Egypt he uses a different approach. In Gen. 41:46-52 we find him naming his sons. He has become a powerful figure in the nation and is married to an Egyptian noblewoman of priestly lineage. He names his firstborn son Manasseh because “God has helped me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.”

Here we seem to find an example of the third level of forgiveness: release. Joseph is no longer bothered by the memory of what his brothers have done to him. Of course there has been no contact with them for years and they are clearly no longer a threat to him, so it becomes possible to let the anger and vengefulness go. This “letting go” has probably helped him decide to rescue his brothers and their families from the famine later in his career and paved the way for final reconciliation.

In Luke 17:1-4 Jesus clarifies the conditions for forgiveness found in the parallel passage of Matthew 18:21-22. The condition: repentance.

And it gets even worse for those who believe in unconditional forgiveness. In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus give instruction for dealing with sin within the church. Notice the progression. First, seek private repentance. Next, bring witnesses to seek acknowledgment. Third, bring the matter to the attention of the church. Finally, if that fails, push the offender out of the fellowship and keep him at arms length.

There seems to be a progression of attempts to seek acknowledgement and repentance. When that fails the final step is literally release.

Finally, in his first Christian sermon (Acts 2:36-41), Peter explains how the people who called for Jesus’ death could be saved: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

God is not as interested in unconditional forgiveness of sin as some of us may believe. At a minimum, the kind of exoneration everyone hopes for requires sincere repentance – change – and actions that John the Baptist calls “fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:7-8).

Even in the biblical world-view of both Old and New Covenants, forgiveness is more complex and demanding than perhaps many of us realize. Dr. Marmer, who is Jewish, bases his understanding of these levels of forgiveness on the Old Testament. He notes that throughout the Scriptures God’s forgiveness is mostly of the “forbearance” kind because He wants to maintain the relationship with Israel.

Note that when it is no longer possible in the face of unrepentance, even God practices release. Israel is sent into slavery to Babylon so that God does not have to face their sin directly in the Holy Land. Before that, remember Eli the Priest and King Saul, plus many examples of evil kings of Israel and Judah whom God put to death or whose kingship God revoked when their evil became unbearable.

Naturally that doesn’t mean that any of those levels of forgiveness is easy. Simple, yes. Easy, not so much.

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