A God who doesn’t want to be found?

There are times where Jesus says something nice and heartwarming like, “For God so loved the world…” etc. etc.*

Then there are times when Jesus says something like this:

This is why I speak to them in parables . . . ‘Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’

This little aside comes near the start of a mini-marathon of parables in Matthew 13. After the first parable (the sower and the seeds), Jesus’ disciples ask about his sudden shift into storyteller mode. “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” they wonder.

Jesus’ answer is unsettling to say the least. Basically, it’s so people won’t understand what he’s talking about. To drive the point home, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6, where the prophet is sent to further harden the already callous hearts of God’s rebellious people:

Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes.

(Jesus’ choice for “verse of the day” is even more alarming when you read what comes next in Isaiah.)

For some, his statement about parables is yet further proof of a limited atonement, the idea that God chose a select group of people and determined that only they would understand the teachings of Jesus.

At the very least, it begs the question: why would Jesus deliberately keep people from understanding his message? Why would God-in-the-flesh not want to be found?

Calvinists find the answer in their theological presuppositions about God and salvation: Jesus conspires to confuse because he only wants to save those who were chosen beforehand.

Fortunately, there’s a better answer to be found by looking at the historical and cultural backdrop of Matthew 13.

For starters, Matthew 13 is part of a much bigger section of scripture. Altogether, Matthew is arranged into five main sections; this one occurs smack in the middle. It starts with chapter 11 and continues through chapter 13.

In this section, Jesus encounters opposition from all sides:

Jesus’ deliberate obfuscation has to be read in light of all this. It’s a reaction to the opposition he encountered, not the cause of it.

It also helps to remember that everything Jesus said was spoken against the backdrop of Roman occupation. There was an intense debate raging among the Jews over what to do about their unfortunate situation. Some said cooperate with Rome; others advocated violent resistance. Most devout Jews expected the Messiah would sort out the Romans and restore power to Israel when he came. (Even after the resurrection, the disciples still seemed to think this would be the case.)

Jesus came as messiah, but he radically redefined the messiah’s role. He walked the line between Rome’s demand for total acquiescence and the call by some for armed resistance. He knew full well where the people’s thirst for violent revolt would get them. (He didn’t have to google A.D. 70 to figure that one out.)

In Jesus and the Land, Wheaton professor Gary Burge writes:

In the volatile climate of first-century politics — among a people living under the harsh realities of Roman military occupation — we should not expect a public teacher like Jesus to speak explicitly. . . . To exhibit resistance to Rome is to run up against a skilled army which is watching for signs of subversion. To show cooperation with Rome is to run up against fellow Jews for whom such sympathies are intolerable. In every explosive political context (both today and in antiquity), people with opinions must remain opaque to the many listeners standing in the shadows who are choosing sides.

In short, Jesus didn’t obscure his message simply because he was playing favorites. He didn’t hide the truth from certain people because God had predestined them to perish in their ignorance. There were other factors at work.

A little context can be a wonderful thing.

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*Fun fact: In reality, Jesus might not have even said “For God so loved the world….” More likely, this was John’s commentary on the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. That’s what happens when Greek manuscripts don’t have any punctuation. Scholars get to play “guess where the quotation marks go.” But still.

Election in the Old Testament, part 2

The predestination debate often gravitates toward the same handful of New Testament texts. The problem, to quote Paul Eddy, is, “There’s an entire 39 books before the New Testament that use the same kind of [predestination] language.”

In other words, if you want to understand what the Bible says about election, don’t skip the Old Testament. (To be fair, many Calvinists don’t. They just read it differently.)

Jesus and Paul were steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. One was a rabbi, the other a Pharisee. The New Testament quotes the Old at least 300 times and alludes to it as many as 4,000 times, according to the late Roger Nicole. In other words, it’s important.

When you read the Old Testament, you’ll find that God called or “predestined” a number of individuals: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, etc. But each was chosen to play a specific role in God’s redemptive plan. Their stories do nothing to bolster the Calvinist view that God predestines every individual to salvation or damnation.

If you want to argue that, there should be some evidence for it in the Old Testament.

And there isn’t.

Again, quoting Bethel University theologian Paul Eddy:

If you ask, ‘Who’s chosen in the Old Testament?’ it’s Israel. It’s not particular individual Israelites. It’s the nation of Israel. It’s a corporate category.

God ordained there would be a group called Israel (Genesis 12). He predestined this group to be his “chosen people,” a covenant nation. But there is nothing to indicate that he determined the individual composition of that group. From the beginning, God intended for everyone in that nation to benefit, even though clearly not everyone did. Notice Moses’ parting words to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 29:

All of you are standing today in the presence of the LORD your God — your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the LORD your God . . .

The fact that there would be a covenant nation was fixed, determined, foreordained. The individual composition of that nation was not. Anyone could opt in; anyone could opt out.

If you were an Israelite, there were several ways you could opt out. For example:

But anyone could opt in, too — even if they weren’t an Israelite. Foreigners were invited to celebrate the Passover, the Jewish precursor to the Eucharist (Exodus 12). They were welcome to make offerings to God (Numbers 15). Any foreigner who chose to live among the Israelites was presumed to be part of the covenant and to be treated accordingly (Numbers 9).

What’s more, God didn’t just give people a choice; he gave them the ability to make that choice (Deuteronomy 30):

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach . . . I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

John Calvin wondering why I had to drag him into this

Calvinism says that individual election is necessary because humans, in their depravity, are utterly incapable of choosing God. Specifically, John Calvin wrote that we are deprived of “soundness of will,” i.e. the ability to choose what is acceptable to God.

But God appears to think otherwise.

In the Old Testament, God initiated redemption, no question. But there was a still choice to be made. And God gave people the ability to make it, even after the fall.

It’s not because people are so awesome. Not because we deserve it. But because that’s the kind of God he is.

I believe that a God who gives us freedom even though he doesn’t have to is greater than a God who predetermines every tiny detail of the universe.

People of the third way

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This is Gamla. Or more precisely, what’s left of it.

Carved into a steep hillside northeast of Galilee, Gamla is where the Jewish Zealot movement was born. Zealots demanded strict adherence to the law and total separation from anyone who didn’t believe exactly as they did.

To be a Zealot was to be perpetually angry. Angry at the apostasy of your own people. Most of all, angry at the occupation of your land. Because if you were Jewish and you lived in the first century, your future was not in your own hands. You were a subject of the Roman Empire. Your destiny was shaped by pagan hands.

Zealots couldn’t abide that. Occupation had to be resisted by any means necessary. There were whispers in Galilee of Zealot assassins who roamed the streets by night, armed with small daggers called sicarii, looking for enemies to cut down.

To a Zealot, God’s kingdom advanced on the tip of a sword.

And if he ever needed reminding of who (and where) his enemies were, a Zealot could simply climb atop his fortress and look across the Sea of Galilee.

There, on the opposite shore. Tiberias.

Tiberias was established during Jesus’ lifetime. An entire city built by Herod Antipas, puppet-king of Galilee, to honor his new boss, the Emperor Tiberius.

The city of Tiberias was home to the Herodians, Jewish families who had allied themselves to Herod Antipas and, by extension, to Rome itself. The Herodians didn’t believe in God’s kingdom; they were too busy building one for themselves in Tiberias.

The Zealots’ response to occupation was to fight. The Herodians’ response was to make the most of it — and, if they could, make a buck from it.

Two extremes, literally on opposite shores of the sea.

Caught in the middle, on the northern edge of Galilee, was Capernaum. Home base, as it were, for Jesus and his followers.

While the Herodians went on loving their friends (as long as they could profit from them) and the Zealots went on hating their enemies, Jesus climbed a hill between Tiberias and Gamla and gave this command:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

While the Herodians cashed in on Roman oppression and Zealots fought back with swords, Jesus taught:

Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

Jesus stood between the extremes of groveling accommodation and reciprocal violence and offered a third way. He rejected the separatist impulse of the Zealots and the opportunistic impulse of the Herodions. Instead, he taught his followers to subvert evil with love. Not the kind of love that involves becoming everyone’s doormat. But the kind that seizes the initiative, exposes oppression for what it truly is, and always — ALWAYS — leaves the door open for the oppressor to repent.

As for that command to go the extra mile, it was not just a matter of personal piety. It was how Jesus expected his followers to respond to a particular military threat. Unpacking the cultural significance of this command, Walter Wink writes:

A [Roman] soldier could impress a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go further carried with it severe penalties under military law. Nevertheless, this levy was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.

Jesus does not counsel revolt. One does not “befriend” the soldier, draw him aside, and drive a knife into his ribs.

But why walk the second mile?

The question here is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their human dignity. The rules are Caesar’s but not how one responds to the rules.

Imagine then the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack. You say, “Oh no, let me carry it another mile.” Normally he has to coerce your kinsmen to carry his pack; now you do it cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Are you insulting his strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther than you should?

From a situation of servile impressment, you have once more seized the initiative. You have taken back the power of choice. The soldier is thrown off-balance by being deprived of the predictability of your response.

Some readers may object to the idea of discomfiting the soldier. But can people engaged in oppressive acts repent unless made uncomfortable with their actions? Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.

Being followers of Jesus means becoming people of the third way. People who transcend categories, stereotypes, and extremes. People who are not co-opted by a single ideology, whose response to evil cannot be predicted based on all the usual categories. People who rise above polarization and find compelling and creative ways to bring heaven to earth, bit by bit.

In fact, it is by doing so that we truly become followers of Jesus.

Take another look at Matthew 5. Notice the connection between loving your enemies and being children of God.

Many in Galilee thought they were automatically God’s people because of what was on their birth certificate: descendant of Abraham. They saw themselves as the elect, the chosen, the predestined.

You can imagine how this kind of thinking cultivated in people an “us vs. them” mentality. Just like the one that incited the Zealots to violence.

When Jesus spoke these words in Matthew 5, there were, doubtless, Zealots or Zealot sympathizers among the broader audience. Imagine what it was like for them to hear this itinerant rabbi — who they hoped was the Messiah who would lead them into battle against Rome — tell them, “If you want to be God’s children, then you must learn to love your enemy.”

I imagine that was the last time many Zealots had anything to do with Jesus.

What if being the people of God isn’t defined by how well we separate ourselves from those who don’t believe as we do, but rather by how well we love those who don’t believe as we do?

Finally… it’s worth remembering that neither the Zealots nor Herodians lived to see the end of the first century. The Herodians, lost in the pursuit of power and comfort, cast their lot with the family of Herod. After the first century, there were no more Herods to benefit from.

As for the Zealots, in A.D. 67, Rome laid siege to Gamla, breaching the city wall and killing thousands. Those who survived the attack committed mass suicide, jumping off cliffs above the village. Later, the Zealots briefly took control of Jerusalem and ruled with a brutality surpassing that of their enemies.

Their legacy is a reminder that violence breeds only more violence. Extremism breeds extremism. Oppression breeds oppression.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to break the cycle of violence. We are called to be people of the third way.

The breach in the wall at Gamla, where Vespasian’s army broke through

Mark Driscoll and the Reformed-Emergent smackdown, pt. 3

And here’s the third installment of my thoughts on Mark Driscoll’s speech on the emerging church (or you can read part 1 and part 2)…

3. The danger of guilt by association and selective quotation

Toward the end of his speech, Mark had some good things to say about the importance of incarnational ministry. He understands that “the world has changed” and that “the assumptions of modernity no longer hold.” He talked about the need to be about both “God’s Word and God’s world.” On the whole, pretty good stuff.

But as good as Mark’s comments on incarnational ministry, some of his criticisms of the emerging church were equally careless.

At times, he blended a more-or-less accurate assessment of emerging Christianity with something less than the whole enchilada. Like when he said emergents believe in having conversations about what God said—true—as well as whether God meant what he said—not necessarily true. (I’ve linked to it a couple times already, but for a good introduction to the emerging church by someone who understands that it’s not a monolith, go here.)

Another example was when Mark addressed Rob Bell’s comments on the virgin birth in his book Velvet Elvis. According to Mark, Velvet Elvis “actually calls into question the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.” He even characterized Rob as saying, “‘Now I believe in the virgin birth, but I’m just saying we don’t need it.’”

What’s interesting is the way Mark combined direct quotation (reading an excerpt from Velvet Elvis) and loose paraphrase—without telling his listeners which was which. By doing this, Mark misrepresented what Rob actually said. In Velvet Elvis, Rob affirms his belief in the virgin birth as part of the historic Christian faith—one he wants “to pass… on to the next generation.” Rob’s point (at least what I took from it) was that for him, even if the virgin birth were somehow disproved, he would still find Jesus more compelling than anything else out there. That’s not the same as saying, “We don’t need the virgin birth,” or calling it into question.

Elsewhere, Mark criticizes Rob’s use rabbinical sources in his interpretation of the New Testament because, in Mark’s words: “If you don’t love Jesus, you’re a bad Bible scholar.” (Never mind that the oral traditions of rabbis like Hillel and Shammai predate Jesus.)

But the rabbinical sources can help us better understand Jesus because much of what he taught was interacting with other rabbinical interpretations of scripture. Jesus himself, though he lived before the term rabbi evolved into a formal title, followed many of the common practices of rabbis—such as choosing a select group of disciples and teaching in the synagogues. Many of the sayings and even exact phrases Jesus used (such as “binding” and “loosing” in Matthew 16:19) come straight out of the rabbinic tradition.

Here again, Mark builds his case on selective quotation—or more precisely in this case, no actual quotation at all. He says that Rob “holds up rabbinical authority as the key to Bible interpretation and hermeneutics.” In the more than three-and-a-half years I spent at Rob’s church, I don’t remember hearing him claim that rabbinical authority is the key to biblical interpretation. The reality is that Rob, like most good pastors and teachers, uses a number of sources to help him better understand the scriptures.

Elsewhere, Mark goes after Brian McLaren, but his criticism rests largely on Brian’s endorsement of a few books—including one by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg (who are not evangelicals) and another by Steve Chalke (who is evangelical). Of Crossan, Mark says he “does not give us anything biblical regarding the person and work—including the resurrection—of Jesus.”

I’ve read two of Crossan’s books and one of Chalke’s. I’m smart enough to know I don’t agree with everything they write—particularly Crossan, who doesn’t believe Jesus rose from the dead. But that doesn’t mean they can’t offer some valuable insights that I can benefit from. I’m also smart enough to know that endorsing a book doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with everything that’s in it, either. Listening to people with different perspectives is part of what sharpens us.

Mark—and others—may have legitimate reasons for disagreeing with someone like Brian McLaren. But any case they wish to make would only be stronger if they built it on what the person actually said and not who they’re associated with or which books they read.

Tomorrow, part 4: the danger of forgetting the best of your own theology.

some things matter more than others

Flipping through my Bible this afternoon (actually, using an online Bible search tool, but somehow that just doesn’t sound the same), I came across this passage, which I’m sure I’ve read a thousand times before:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

— Matthew 23:23 (TNIV)

Some translations have it as the “weightier matters of the law.”

In the Hebrew scriptures, there were 613 commands… a lot to keep track of, if you were Jewish. Rabbis spent countless hours debating which laws were more important than others—which laws were “greater” and which were “lesser.” Which were “heavier” and which were “lighter.” After all, a comprehensive list, sorted by order of importance, might come in handy, should you find yourself in a situation where obeying one law requires you to break another.

What should you do, for example (assuming that you’re an observant Jew living in ancient Israel) if someone’s donkey collapses under a heavy load… on a Sabbath? On the one hand, you would be obeying Exodus 23:5 (not to mention Leviticus 19:18) if you lent a hand. On the other hand, by doing so you would violate Exodus 20:8-11. Dilemma.

How do you decide which law to keep and which to violate? Do you go by whichever passage is longer? Whichever has more verses? (Probably not the best method of deciding if you’re an ancient Jew, since your scroll wouldn’t have had verse numbers…)

Do you choose not to help, because the command about not working on the Sabbath was obviously more important, since it made it into the Ten Commandments, while the precise words “love your neighbor” did not?

You could ask some trusted rabbis, but you might not get the same answer twice. The good news is, pretty much everybody agreed that “love the Lord your God” was the greatest command. The bad news is, that’s where the agreement ended.

Some rabbis thought that “you shall have no other gods” was the next greatest command. Others said is was “keep the Sabbath.” Still others nominated “love your neighbor” for the distinction of “number two command in the Bible.”

Jesus weighs into the debate in Matthew 22:37-39, siding squarely with the “love your neighbor” camp—with a twist, of course. He says that the second greatest command in all of scripture is like the first. In other words, you cannot truly love God unless you love your neighbor. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commands, Jesus taught.

Well, that’s nothing new. In fact, I think I’ve blogged about it before. Possibly more than once. (Can you say “one trick pony”?) But slightly less well known is Jesus’ rant in the very next chapter. Jesus works himself into a frenzy, directed at the religious establishment. Seven times he pronounces a “woe” upon them—which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says is a word “used to express grief, regret, or distress.” Um, that’s putting it mildly, especially when you read the content of Jesus’ seven woes. Not very nice stuff.

But it’s woe #4 that caught my attention today. The Pharisees and teachers of the law measured out even their tiniest spices to make sure they gave the required ten percent—not an ounce less (and presumably, knowing their hearts, not an ounce more). The problem is, at this point they wiped their hands in satisfaction, thinking they’d done their bit to stay in God’s good books.

Jesus accuses them of getting their priorities out of whack—obsessing with the most obscure minutiae of the law while completely forgetting about the “weightier matters.” And what does Jesus say these weightier matters are?

Justice.

Mercy.

Faithfulness.

In other words, making sure the poor are taken care of matters more than making sure your prayer shawl is on straight. Or, perhaps, making sure we sing the “right” kind of songs (whatever your preference) in church.

In other words, freely extending God’s mercy to everyone we meet (which, according to Scripture, is a nonnegotiable if we hope to enjoy some of that same mercy for ourselves) is more important than making a list of who has and hasn’t got their theology straight and discriminating accordingly.

In other words, spending a lifetime caring for the poor and extending God’s mercy is more important than spending a lifetime playing religious games.

All of scripture matters to God—and the Pharisees were not wrong to make sure their tithes were in order, according to Jesus. But what they were doing was a lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Some scholars think that Jesus was expounding on Micah 6:8 in this particular rant (leave it to Jesus to always be interacting with the scriptures, even when he’s ripping into someone):

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

That’s it. And when it comes right down to it, Micah 6:8 and Matthew 23:23 are just different ways of saying this:

Love your neighbor.

End of story.

Grumpy Jesus and a pagan swimming pool

John 5:1-15 tells the story of a paralyzed man healed by Jesus at a pool called Bethesda. It’s one of the most bizarre healing stories in the gospels, for a number of reasons.

First, the setting. The pool of Bethesda was located just north of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. People started coming here about 150 years before Jesus was born, convinced the waters of Bethesda possessed healing properties. The pool still drew a crowd in Jesus’ day:

Here a great number of disabled people used to lie — the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. (John 15:4)

What’s unusual about this miracle is that Bethesda was a place of healing. Most of Jesus’ miracles happen in far more ordinary places: houses, streets, synagogues, hillsides.

So why does Jesus come to a place of healing to do some healing of his own?

Second, the method of healing. Jesus doesn’t touch the man. He doesn’t use any water from the pool. Under most other circumstances, either would have been perfectly normal for Jesus. There are 16 other healing miracles in the gospels (not counting demon possessions); Jesus touches the person being healed in 12 of them. Twice he uses his own spit, and once he uses mud from the ground. So why does Jesus heal the man at Bethesda with nothing more than a word?

Third, the paralyzed man’s attitude. He doesn’t show any sign of faith in Jesus. He doesn’t seem to know who Jesus is.

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” (John 15:6-7)

Later, John confirms for us that the man had “no idea” who Jesus was (John 15:13). It’s almost as if the paralyzed man can’t take his eyes off the pool long enough to have a proper conversation with Jesus.

Jesus often credits a person’s faith as having some part in their healing (Matthew 9:18-22, 27-30). There was even a place where Jesus was unable to do many miracles because of people’s lack of faith (Matthew 13:58).

So why is the paralyzed man’s faith — or lack of it — apparently not an issue at Bethesda?

Fourth, Jesus’ reaction following the miracle. After the man complains that he is unable to get into the pool, Jesus tells him to pick up his mat and walk. He does. A while later, Jesus bumps into him at the temple, and Jesus’ reaction is, well, weird:

“See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14)

Not exactly the usual uplifting words of blessing that follow one of Jesus’ miracles (see Matthew 9:22; Luke 17:19). So which of the disciples spit in Jesus’ breakfast that morning? What made him so cranky?

Just a few chapters later, Jesus rejects the idea that suffering is necessarily a sign of God’s displeasure (John 9:3). So why does he tell this guy, in effect, “Get your act together, or else you’re going to get it”?

Maybe there’s more to the pool of Bethesda than we realize.

Archaeologists from Yale Divinity School have excavated the site. Here’s what they discovered:

Between 150 BCE and 70 CE, a popular healing center was located in this area… The baths, grottos and a water cistern were arranged for medicinal and religious purposes. After bathing, patients could sleep in a grotto. “Priests” were available to interpret dreams as part of the healing ritual.

This description precisely matches the ritual of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.

(Note: the pictures to the right are from a trip I took to Turkey. They’re ruins of a large sanctuary in Pergamum dedicated to Asclepius.)

The pool of Bethesda was a shrine to Asclepius. A couple centuries after Jesus, the Romans replaced the bath and grottos with a full-fledged temple to Asclepius.

Kind of adds a whole new dimension to the story in John 5, doesn’t it?

You can almost understand why some later manuscripts sanitized the story by adding the line, “From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters.” (Which was almost certainly not a part of John’s original manuscript.)

The pool of Bethesda was not some innocent place where the mildly (but forgivably) superstitious sought relief from their ailments. Bethesda was a place of pagan worship — sitting in the shadow of the Jewish temple.

But why would Jesus go to a place like this? Why would he risk his reputation and his religious purity?

It’s almost as if Jesus is seeking a confrontation — as if he goes to the pool of Bethesda to challenge Asclepius’ claim to the title of “great physician.” Jesus does not use water from the pool to induce healing. He does not even touch the paralyzed man, leaving no doubt that his power comes from God Almighty, not Asclepius.

The man Jesus healed may have been a syncretistic Jew — someone who spent their Fridays at Bethesda and their Saturdays at the temple. He doesn’t indicate any faith in Jesus because his faith is in Asclepius. That’s why he’s come to the pool in the first place.

Which also explains Jesus’ seemingly harsh rebuke near the end of the story. The man was sinning; he had broken the first commandment, forsaking God and putting his trust in Asclepius instead. Maybe Jesus is telling the man, in effect, “Stop trying to have it both ways; it’s time to decide who you stand with.”

But I think there’s one more thing to this story. Notice something else about the man Jesus chose to heal.

He’s the one who kept being getting left behind. The one who was always cut off by someone else on their way to the pool. The one who was consistently overlooked and ignored by Asclepius.

Sometimes Jesus healed simply because he saw needy people and had compassion on them (Matthew 14:14). Jesus healed the ones no one else would. His earliest followers accepted those who were rejected by the other gods.

Asclepius won’t heal you? No problem. Jesus will. Apollo won’t give you a word of wisdom because you can’t pay his fee? No worries. Jesus has the very words of life, free of charge. Mithra won’t accept you because you’re a woman, a slave, or some other “undesirable”? No problem. Jesus is building a kingdom where the last come first.

It reminds me of something a professor in college once said.

Jesus is for misfits.

Herod and his mountain

Yesterday archaeologists announced the discovery of what they believe is Herod’s tomb in his fortress-palace outside Jerusalem, known as the Herodion. Herod the Great ruled Judea (on behalf of Rome) at the time of Jesus’ birth.


To build his palace, Herod performed one of the most amazing architectural feats of his day. He sawed the top off of one mountain and leveled another mountain altogether.

It may have been the sight of the Herodion that inspired one of Jesus’ most memorable teachings about faith:

[Jesus] replied… “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” —Matthew 17:20 (TNIV)

But there were a few crucial differences between the mountain-moving powers of Herod and Jesus.

The mountain-moving power of Herod was, by nature, oppressive—his accomplishments made possible only by the use of slave labor. The mountain-moving power of Jesus was liberating; for people like the possessed child in Matthew 17:14-20, it brought healing and deliverance from oppression.

The mountain-moving power of Herod was self-serving; the Herodion was meant to be a massive reminder of Herod’s own greatness. The mountain-moving power of Jesus was of an entirely different order. It was meant to be used for the benefit of those who, like the possessed child, had no power of their own.

Last… the mountain-moving power of Herod died with him. The Herodion was supposed to be a lasting monument to his power, one that would survive long after Herod was dead. But it’s just that—a monument and nothing more. The mountain-moving power of Jesus, on the other hand, could not be killed—not even by the most powerful empire on earth.

thinking jewish

It’s tempting to think of Christianity as a “Western” religion, invented by Jesus when he walked the earth… possessing its own set of totally unique ideas, practices, beliefs…

…when in reality, Jesus didn’t set out to “invent” as much as we think he did. Sometimes we forget that Jesus was not only Jewish, not only the Messiah… he was also a Jewish rabbi.

Almost everything he said—every teaching, every parable—was interacting with the Jewish tradition…

interpreting the Hebrew scriptures…

participating in the great conversation of his day about who the people of God are and how they’re supposed to live.

After all, it was Jesus who said (speaking about the Hebrew scriptures):

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18, TNIV)

A couple years ago, I went to Israel and Turkey with Ray Vander Laan, retracing the footsteps of Jesus and his disciples… exploring the Jewish origins of my Christian faith.

To know who you are, you have to know where you’ve been. To better understand the New Testament (and the especially teachings of Jesus), you have to understand the Old Testament. If you’re a follower of Jesus, then the Jewish story is your story, because your faith is fundamentally Jewish in its origins.

Anyway… the plan is to explore Christianity’s Jewish origins more in future posts…