Studies in Luke and John

Site: Grace Communion Seminary
Course: Free Educational Resources for the Public from Grace Communion Seminary
Book: Studies in Luke and John
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Tuesday, August 16, 2022, 7:01 AM

Description

Most studies about Luke are by Michael Morrison, PhD.
Most studies about John are by Joseph Tkach, DMin.

1. Luke: What You Have Heard Is True!

About 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it seems that a wealthy man named Theophilus became interested in Christ and Christianity. We presume that Theophilus believed in Jesus, but some of the stories he heard about him seemed too strange to be true. So he asked an investigator to get the facts about what Jesus had really done and taught. This special investigator learned as much as he could about Jesus’ life, work and teachings. He then wrote a documentary about Jesus Christ. We still have it today. It is the Gospel of Luke.

Luke’s writing technique

Luke tells us how he went about his task: “I made a careful study of everything and then decided to write and tell you exactly what took place. Honorable Theophilus, I have done this to let you know if what you have heard is true” (Luke 1:3-4, Contemporary English Version throughout).

In addition to being inspired by God to write this Gospel, it’s clear that Luke did his research, probably traveling to Judea and interviewing Christians who had known Jesus. Luke learned that Jesus took special interest in the less-respected members of society.

Luke’s writing style suggests that he had an upper-middle-class education. Paul calls him a physician. Theophilus, judging by the title “Honorable,” may have been a wealthy government official. The name Theophilus means “lover of God,” so anyone who loved God would feel welcome to read Luke’s report. Luke wanted Theophilus to know about Jesus’ interest in disadvantaged people. Like Luke, Theophilus would be surprised and intrigued at how Jesus regarded poor people, for example.

  • The poor Many Jewish religious leaders assumed that poor people were religiously inferior — that God wasn’t blessing them because they weren’t living right.

But Luke showed that Jesus went out of his way to remind everyone that he had a message for the poor: “The Lord’s Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).

On another occasion, “Jesus looked at his disciples and said: God will bless you people who are poor” (Luke 6:20). What would a wealthy man think of that?

  • The rich Jesus included both the poor and the wealthy in his work. But his message to the rich had a different focus: “You rich people are in for trouble,” he said (verse 24). But Luke reported that Jesus Christ didn’t criticize the rich because they had money. It was their attitude that was most important. Jesus warned the rich to trust in God, not in wealth (Luke 12:15-21).

“You cannot be the slave of two masters…. You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). “It’s terribly hard for rich people to get into God’s kingdom” (Luke 18:24).

A wealthy man could be disturbed by such words. But he would see near the end of the report that God can save even a rich man. The cost? A complete change in his attitude toward money.

Luke had heard about, perhaps even interviewed, a wealthy tax collector named Zacchaeus, who told Jesus he would give half his money to the poor. Jesus was pleased. “Today you and your family have been saved, because you are a true son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

  • Women Jewish teachers of that time usually considered women to be inferior. But Luke learned that Jesus treated women as individuals worthy of individual attention. Jesus recognized their faith and their feelings.

To illustrate this, Luke included several stories about women in his report. He began with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary the mother of Jesus. Anyone who thought women were inferior would have been surprised. In Luke’s report, the first person on whom the Holy Spirit came was Elizabeth (Luke 1:41). The first to be called “blessed” was Mary (verses 28, 42).

And in a more personal touch, Luke described Mary’s worry when she thought her young son was lost in Jerusalem (Luke 2:48). She “kept on thinking about all that had happened” (verse 51).

In his research, Luke found that women helped pay the cost of Jesus’ ministry: “Joanna, Susanna, and many others had also used what they owned to help Jesus and his disciples” (Luke 8:3). Joanna, he noted, was the wife of a government official. Luke knew that Theophilus (who may have been a government official himself) would be interested.

Another story Luke reported was about Jesus teaching in the home of Martha. Martha was busy with housework, but her sister Mary was listening to Jesus. Martha complained to Jesus: “Doesn’t it bother you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” (Luke 10:40). But Jesus reminded her that Mary had chosen to do the more important thing (verses 41-42). The teachings of Jesus were important for women as well as for men.  (For more about Luke’s interest in women, see companion article below.)

  • The disabled Many people of Theophilus’ day assumed that handicaps were evidence of sin (John 9:2). But Jesus had special compassion for the disabled and took care of their needs: “Blind people are now able to see, and the lame can walk. People who have leprosy are being healed, and the deaf can now hear,” reported Luke (Luke 7:22).
  • Non-Jews Jews in Jesus’ day often looked down on non-Jews. After all, weren’t the Jews God’s chosen people? And weren’t the other nations good-for-nothing idol worshipers? But Luke showed that Jesus had an interest in non-Jewish peoples, and that this was an unpleasant surprise to many Jews of Jesus’ day.

Jesus began his ministry by reminding everyone that, God’s prophets had served people of other nations (Luke 4:25-27). This made the Jews so angry that they tried to kill Jesus (verses 28-30).

Jesus’ attitude toward other ethnic groups was also shown in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). Jews despised Samaritans, but Jesus dared to use one as a good example. Jesus broke through social barriers and practiced religious equality.

  • Sinners Many Jewish leaders looked down on those who did not observe their strict rules. They assumed that the common people, the crowds, were so far from God that it was pointless to try to teach them (John 7:49).

But Jesus preached to the crowds, and they loved him for it (Luke 5:15). He gave them the good news that God would not neglect them, that they were valuable to him. He said: “I didn’t come to invite good people to turn to God. I came to invite sinners” (verse 32).

Luke learned that Jesus spent time with all classes of people. He attended banquets with tax-collectors (who were assumed to be cheats and traitors). But the religious leaders criticized Jesus for the company he kept. “Jesus eats and drinks too much!” they said. “He is even a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34).

Luke described an incident that occurred when Jesus was dining at the home of one of his critics: “When a sinful woman in that town found out that Jesus was there, she bought an expensive bottle of perfume. Then she came and stood behind Jesus. She cried and started washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. The woman kissed his feet and poured the perfume on them” (verses 37-38).

This must have astonished everyone who saw it. A Jewish teacher allowing himself to be touched by a woman? And not just any woman, but a woman everyone knew to be “sinful”! And not just touched, but anointed with expensive perfume and caressed with a woman’s hair, which was normally kept hidden. Scandalous!

But Jesus understood the deep emotion that had prompted her act of adoration. “All her sins are forgiven, and that is why she has shown great love. But anyone who has been forgiven only a little will show only a little love,” he told his self-righteous host (verse 47). Jesus then told the woman, “Your sins are forgiven…. You are now saved” (verses 48, 50).

Hope for the humble

Luke showed Theophilus how Jesus reached out to those less respected in first-century Jewish society. Jesus loved everyone, regardless of their station in life. Even his enemies knew it: “You treat everyone with the same respect, no matter who they are” (Luke 20:21).

Anyone can be blessed by God no matter how lowly he or she may seem to be. As Jesus said, “The people who are really blessed are the ones who hear and obey God’s message!” (Luke 11:28). To emphasize this, Luke used the terms repentance, forgiveness and salvation more often than other Gospel writers did. His report encouraged sinners to turn to God, knowing they would be accepted by him.

Luke recorded the story Jesus told to “some people who thought they were better than others and who looked down on everyone else.” Two men were praying, Jesus said. The Pharisee prayed, “I am really glad that I am not like that tax collector over there.” The tax collector, on the other hand, “was so sorry for what he had done that he pounded his chest and prayed, “God, have pity on me! I am such a sinner.'”

Jesus then said, “It was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who was pleasing to God. If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored” (Luke 18:9-14).

Time after time, Luke showed that God wants all people, no matter what their social or religious status, to come to him in repentance and humility. And he will joyfully accept every sinner who turns to him (Luke 15:710).

What a message! God loves rich and poor, saint and sinner, women as well as men. It had seemed too good to be true. But it was true, and is true. Luke had checked it carefully, and sent the good news to Theophilus — and to us today.

The Prominence of Women in the Gospel of Luke


Women were prominent in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ life.

Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist:

  • Elizabeth was the mother of John the Baptist, whose work paved the way for Jesus (Luke 1:5-7).
  • After Elizabeth conceived (verse 25), her unborn baby jumped when Mary visited (verses 41-44).
  • Elizabeth said that her son’s name was John (verses 57-60).

Mary, mother of Jesus:

  • An angel told Mary she would be the mother of Jesus Christ (verses 26-38).
  • Mary offered a poem of praise, the Magnificat (verses 46-55).
  • Mary gave birth (2:5-7) and thought about the wonderful things said about Jesus (verse 19).
  • Mary was blessed by Elizabeth and Simeon (1:42; 2:34-35).
  • Mary did not understand, but treasured Jesus’ sayings (2:50-51).
  • Mary kept in contact with Jesus during his ministry (8:19).

Women healed by Jesus:

  • Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (4:38-39).
  • He healed a 12-year-old girl (8:41-42, 49-56).
  • He healed a woman with a 12-year infirmity (verses 43-48).
  • He healed a woman who had been crippled 18 years (13:10-17).

Women as good examples:

  • A sinful woman anointed Jesus and was forgiven (7:37-50).
  • Mary listened while Martha worked (10:38-42).
  • A woman in a parable found a lost coin (15:8-10).
  • In another parable, a widow kept going to a judge to obtain justice (18:1-5).
  • A poor widow gave two small coins to the temple (21:1-4).

Other roles of women:

  • Anna, a prophetess, blessed the child Jesus (2:36-38).
  • Women, part of Jesus’ traveling party, helped pay his way (8:1-3).
  • An anonymous woman blessed Mary (11:27-28).

Witnesses to the resurrection:

  • Women were among those who observed the crucifixion (23:27, 49).
  • Women prepared spices to anoint Jesus’ body (verses 55-56).
  • Women were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty (24:1-3).
  • Angels told the women that Jesus had risen (verses 4-8).
  • Women were the first to tell the other disciples (verses 9-11).
  • Although first-century culture usually minimized the importance of women, Luke portrayed women as good examples in the early church.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

2. Luke: Open Letter to a Wealthy Man

“Sell everything you have and give to the poor,” said Jesus to a rich man (Luke 18:22). Jesus’ demand is shocking. Is there something wrong with owning things and having money? Did Jesus make similar demands of all his disciples?

We learn answers in Luke’s Gospel. Both Luke and some of his readers had reason to be especially interested in Jesus’ teachings about money. Luke had come from the wealthier part of society — his literary skills reflect an education available primarily to families who could afford private schooling.

Theophilus, the recipient of Luke’s Gospel, was probably among the wealthiest members of society. Luke addresses him as “most excellent,” a title of honor given to officials of high rank. Luke names him as the patron of his book, implying that Theophilus was wealthy enough to own a library and underwrite publication of a book. Theophilus, who had enough faith in Jesus to finance Luke’s book, had ample reason to be interested in Jesus’ teachings about money. Perhaps for such reasons we see more about finances in Luke than we see in the other Gospels.

Woe to the rich

The Gospel begins with a warning for the rich: God puts down the mighty and sends away the rich; he exalts the low and fills the hungry (1:52-53). Readers soon learn that Jesus’ gospel is targeted to the poor (4:18; 7:22). The rich are told to give to the poor (3:11). Peter, James, John and Levi “left everything” to be disciples of Jesus (5:11, 28).

The sermon on the plain is particularly shocking with its radical demands: The poor are to be blessed, but there is woe for the rich (6:20, 24). People should give and lend sacrificially —”to everyone who asks” (6:29-35). Though the reader might make some allowance for exaggeration or further clarification, the demands are nevertheless startling and thought-provoking. Luke did not report this so poor Christians would make demands of rich ones. Rather, he wrote this to all who had money, exhorting them to be generous.

But Jesus was not consistently critical of the rich. He ate with Levi and other tax collectors in a great feast (5:29). Levi was able to give a banquet after he had supposedly “left everything.” This discrepancy between what is said and done suggests that at least some of the statements about wealth are hyperbolic or exaggerated —a possibility we must consider for other statements. When the account says they “left everything,” it does not mean they abandoned everything they owned and accepted destitution. Rather, it seems to mean they quit what they were doing — they changed their profitable career to that of being a disciple.

Jesus was criticized for attending Levi’s banquet —not because of the life-style of wealth, but for associating with “sinful” tax collectors (5:30; 7:34). Later, he stayed at the house of Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector (19:2-5). Jesus healed the slave of a centurion who was wealthy enough to build a synagogue (7:2, 5, 10). Jesus included both the poor and the rich in his ministry.

Parable about a creditor

While Jesus was eating with Pharisees, a woman anointed his feet with perfumed oil (7:36-37). Though such perfume was expensive, Jesus was not criticized for the waste of wealth, at least not in the way that Luke reports the story, but for allowing a sinful woman to touch him (7:39). Jesus used the opportunity to tell a parable paralleling a financial matter and a spiritual principle. The creditor, in a role corresponding to God and Jesus, forgave debts, corresponding to forgiving sins (7:41-42). Later, Jesus even implied that God forgives our sins if we forgive those who owe us money (11:4). Creditors should forgive; debtors are encouraged to pay up quickly (12:58).

The parable of the creditor shows that the appropriate response to forgiveness is love (7:47) or, by example of the woman, the use of financial assets to serve Jesus. Also, the parable incidentally notes that one can gain friends by forgiving debts, a lesson also illustrated by the parable of the shrewd steward (16:1-9).

Jesus’ own examples

How did Jesus himself live? His parents seem to have been lower middle class, judging by their offering of two doves (2:24) and by the occupation of carpentry. Jesus once said he had nowhere to put his head (9:58), but that seems to have been a hyperbole appropriate to an itinerant stage in his ministry right after he had been refused housing (9:52-53). Elsewhere, Jesus stayed in houses, such as that of a rich man (19:2-5) or of a woman (10:38), and ate at banquets.

Jesus himself is not shown giving money, and he turned away a man who, in effect, asked for money (12:13-15). Jesus didn’t even try to determine whether the man had a legal right to the money; he simply used the occasion to warn about greed (12:15-21). Jesus gave food to the 5,000, but this was clearly not his usual practice.

When Jesus sent out the 12 disciples, he told them to take no money with them (9:3; 10:4). This instruction would not have been needed if that had been the practice of the group all along. Further evidence that the group normally carried money is the fact that the disciples wondered whether they should buy food for the 5,000 (9:13). One source of their money was the women who traveled with them (8:3). When Jesus told the 12 to travel without money, it was for a short journey, and for a lesson in faith, not a normal practice. Sympathetic listeners would provide food and shelter (9:4; 10:7). For the disciples’ later ministry, they were told to carry some money (22:36). A life of faith does not require a life of destitution.

Wealth — an enemy of faith

But it is clear that riches can be an enemy of faith. Jesus warned that riches could “choke” a disciple and cause him to be spiritually unfruitful (8:14). Those who exalt themselves (a tendency of the rich) are warned that they will be humbled (11:43; 14:8-11; 18:14). Jesus warned against banqueting that diverted attention from spiritual necessities, in parable (12:45), in Old Testament examples (17:27-28) and in direct admonition (21:34). When Christ returns in glory, we are not to worry about our goods (17:31). A parable described rich men as too preoccupied to attend the kingdom’s inaugural banquet (14:18-19). Jesus chided Martha for allowing physical things, apparently even humble ones, to divert her attention away from discipleship (10:41).

Jesus taught that the wealthy should not trust in their wealth (12:15-21), and the poor should not have anxiety about their needs (7:22-25; 12:29). Faith is needed by both rich and poor. Life does not consist of possessions; that is not what life is about (12:15). Instead, we are to look to God each day for the physical needs of the day (11:3). If our allegiance is toward God rather than physical things (16:13), he will supply our needs (12:29-31). Day-to-day dependence on God requires faith. This is one lesson the disciples learned in their journeys without money (22:35).

At another dinner, Jesus scathingly criticized the Jewish religious leaders, including their use of money. They tithed faithfully but neglected justice (11:42a). They should have done both (11:42b) by giving alms to the poor (11:41). When they give dinners, they should invite the poor and the disadvantaged (14:12-13), reflecting the kingdom of God’s invitation to the poor and disadvantaged (14:21).

“Sell your possessions,” Jesus told his disciples after telling them to have faith rather than anxiety, “and give to the poor” (12:33). But we see no record of the disciples actually giving everything away. Indeed, we see later that they are told to carry a moneybag (22:36); the women spend money on spices and perfumed oils rather than giving it away (23:56), and they seem to have a house to stay in (24:33).

We must understand Jesus’ command in 12:33 as an exaggeration for teaching purposes — not intended to be taken to literal extreme (much as we do not expect disciples to be perpetually girded and their lamps perpetually burning — 12:35). Jesus’ point is not a requirement for poverty — it is a startling demand for faith and allegiance to God.

Treasures in heaven

Since wealth is a powerful tool of self-exaltation, it tempts anyone who has it. But as we use wealth for others instead of just for ourselves, we gain “treasure in heaven” (12:33; 18:22-23). This spiritual treasure comes from the heart (6:45). By using possessions for others, we counteract mammon’s temptation and reinforce our desire to seek God’s kingdom (12:34, 31). If we give generously, we will be rewarded generously (6:38) at the resurrection of the just (14:12-14).

Jesus told the rich to give to the poor. But what about gifts to God or his ministry? Such gifts are also commendable: Jesus told a healed leper to make an offering (5:14). We are to be “rich toward God” (12:16-21). Jesus commended the widow who put two pennies into the temple treasury (21:2). We should give to God “what is God’s” (20:22-25). Jesus upheld the practice of tithing (11:42), but noted that it could not justify anyone (18:12). When we do only that which is commanded, we are “unworthy servants” (17:10).

A question of allegiance

Luke 16 contains several teachings about wealth, including the parable of the shrewd steward, which concludes with some sayings that imply that we should be faithful in our use of money (16:10-12). “No servant can serve two masters…. You cannot serve both God and Money” (16:13). Jesus’ statement, succinctly describing the tendency of money to vie for our allegiance, challenges us to purify our priorities.

The Pharisees, “who loved money,” criticized Jesus again, and Jesus said, “What is highly valued among men [in this context, money] is detestable in God’s sight” (16:14-15). Anything that diverts our allegiance from God is an abomination.

Next comes the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The beggar was carried “to Abraham’s side”; the rich man went to torment in Hades (16:22-25). Why was he tormented? The parable associates his torment with his enjoyment of wealth in this life (16:25). This is of course not intended to be a precise prediction of the afterlife or of eternal rewards, but it is part of the picture about wealth being painted by Luke as he relates the story.

“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” said Jesus in one of his most famous sayings. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom” (18:24-25). He said this right after a rich man had refused Jesus’ command to “sell everything you have” (18:22-23). “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (14:26-33). We must renounce any undue influence it might have on us; it must not diminish our allegiance to Christ.

We have already seen that extreme destitution was not the life-style of Jesus or his disciples. Jesus was making a point about allegiance, not poverty. Ifthere is a conflict between following Jesus and making or saving money, we must forsake money, or even our family or our own lives (9:23-24; 14:26), and we will be rewarded in the age to come (18:29-30).

Wise use of wealth

God, as Creator, has a prior claim to everything we might have. We have enormous debts to him, debts he has graciously forgiven. His grace toward us has been extravagant; his claims on us are likewise extravagant: everything we own. We have no reason to cling to any of it. Yet God, the giver, gives us varying amounts of wealth. What are we to do with it?

Jesus’ parables often focus on a right use of possessions. Jesus criticized both stockpiling (12:16-21) and waste (15:13; 16:1). The Samaritan is praised for giving money as well as help (10:35). The faithful steward is to give food to his fellowservants (12:42). “From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (12:48). The fig tree was expected to bear fruit (13:9); the vineyard was rented out with the expectation of productivity and payment (20:9-16). Christian leaders are expected to serve others, and they will be rewarded in God’s kingdom (22:25-30).

In the parable of pounds, servants were given money with which to do business. If they increased their master’s money, they were rewarded (19:13-26). “To everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.” [The modern equivalent of this proverb is, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Jesus was using the proverb in a novel context, that of future reward for earthly faithfulness.]

In contrast to some modern social critics of wealth, Luke only tangentially addresses the method by which people have become wealthy. John the Baptist (rather than Jesus) suggests that wealth may be ill-gotten (3:13-14); a tax collector admits the possibility but implies that he is innocent (19:8). Jesus accuses the scribes of devouring widows’ houses, presumably profiting from the widows’ losses (20:47). Jesus drove traders out of the temple (19:45), but there is no stated connection between their trading and wealth. The Pharisees are criticized for not giving alms and neglecting justice (11:41-42), but there is no suggestion that they became wealthy by being immoral. Perhaps the implication for the reader is that the past does not matter as much as the use of wealth in the present.

Good role models

Near the end of Luke’s Gospel come two distinctly positive role models for wealthy men. First, Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector, volunteered to give half his fortune to the poor and to repay with penalty if he had taken anything dishonestly. Jesus did not demand the other half of the man’s goods. Instead, he said, “salvation has come to this house” (19:2-10).

Last, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who was looking for the kingdom, buried Jesus in a new tomb (23:50-53). Luke does not say he was rich, but it seems to be implied. Theophilus, or any other wealthy reader, might be able to identify with Zacchaeus and Joseph.

Christianity is not a religion exclusive to the lower class; it is a reasonable and respectable way of life that men of intelligence and wealth may accept. Jesus welcomed the poor; he also welcomed the rich, and of each he demanded allegiance and faith and obligation to serve one another.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

3. Luke’s "Orderly" Account – An Examination of Biblical Precision

Luke tells us that his book is an “orderly” account of the story of Jesus Christ (Luke 1:3, NIV). What is the nature of Luke’s order? The Greek word is kathexes, which is also used in Luke 8:1 (where it is translated “afterwards”), Acts 3:24 (“on”), Acts 11:4 (“precisely”) and Acts 18:23 (“from place to place”). The word refers to sequence — chronological, geographical or logical. Let’s look first at the context of Acts 11:4.

Acts 10 and 11

After the visions of Peter and the conversion of the gentile Cornelius, some believers in Jerusalem criticized Peter. So Peter “explained everything to them precisely [kathexes] as it had happened” (Acts 11:4). His explanation, however, is not strictly chronological.

Peter begins the story with his vision (11:5), although Luke has already told the reader that two other events happened earlier: Cornelius had a vision and sent two servants to Joppa (10:1-8). But in Peter’s orderly account, he does not mention the servants until the point in the story that he learned about them (11:11). Although the servants told Peter about Cornelius’ vision of an angel (10:22), Peter does not mention that. According to Peter’s account, he does not learn about the angel until Cornelius himself tells him (11:13).

What Peter says is not false — it is orderly and true — but it is not strictly chronological. Acts 10 gives one perspective, Acts 11 another.

Gentiles in the church

One incident that may be reported out of chronological sequence is the conversion of gentiles. Many people think that Cornelius (Acts 10) was the first gentile Christian. But Acts 2:11 tells us that gentile proselytes to Judaism were part of the Pentecost audience, and presumably some of them became Christians. Because proselytes were circumcised, no one questioned whether they could be in the church.

Acts 8 tells us about the conversion of Samaritans, who were regarded as gentile by some Jews but not by all Jews. Acts 8 also describes the conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch, but it does not tell us whether he was Jewish. The account stresses his status as a eunuch. Both Samaritans and eunuchs were on or outside Jewish margins of acceptability.

Acts 10 describes the conversion of Cornelius, who we are clearly told was a gentile who worshiped God (10:1-2). Cornelius and his group received the Holy Spirit, spoke in tongues and were baptized (10:44-48). This incident helped Peter and the Jerusalem church realize that God was saving gentiles (10:45; 11:18). Gentiles did not have to convert to Judaism first — they did not have to be circumcised.

Acts 11 then moves to the city of Antioch, and it also moves back in time by mentioning the persecution following Stephen’s martyrdom (11:19; 8:1, 4). Thus Luke avoids specifying the exact sequence.

As Christians moved away from persecution, they told others the gospel message (11:19). Most of them spoke only to Jews, but some spoke to gentile Greeks, too (11:20). Some of these may have been converted before Cornelius. But there is no report of controversy. As later sections of Acts show, the Antioch church was more open-minded about gentiles. God did not need to give visions and miracles to convince the Antioch Christians that gentiles could be saved.

Luke has organized the story by showing expansion from a Jewish center, to Jews on the fringes, to gentiles near Judaism, and finally he reports the gospel going to gentiles with no previous connection to Judaism.

The commission of Paul

Luke gives three perspectives on the conversion or commission of Paul. Paul was named Saul at the time, but I will use the better-known name Paul. Some people do not like to call his experience a conversion, since he did not decide to leave one religion and join another. Rather, even decades later he considered himself a Pharisee (23:6). However, the Holy Spirit changes a person so much that it is appropriate to call Paul’s change a conversion. He certainly had a change of mind and a change of direction in his life.

But it may be best to call Paul’s experience a call rather than a conversion because his experience is not typical of a conversion. It does not set a pattern that other believers must experience. The significance of Paul’s Damascus Road experience is far beyond conversion. It was a call to ministry, a commission to be an apostle to gentiles.

The first story is told by Luke in Acts 9:1-30; the second by Paul, speaking to a crowd in Jerusalem (22:3-21); the third by Paul, speaking to King Agrippa (26:9-20). It is instructive to compare these stories, because this will reveal some of Luke’s method of “ordering” his narrative. In the linked file, I have formatted the three stories into a “harmony,” which graphically shows the areas of overlap and the areas of omission.

Comparing the three accounts is similar to comparing the three synoptic Gospels, except that in this case we are clearly discussing only one event, described by the same writer, who in each case knew the same facts. Nevertheless, there are several significant differences in the way the story can be told — different ways of reporting who said what when.

The story begins with Paul persecuting Christian Jews in Jerusalem (9:1; 22:4; 26:10-11). He requested authority to persecute Christians in Damascus (9:2; 22:5; 26:12). About noon (22:6; 26:13), as Paul neared the city (9:3; 22:6), a bright light from heaven flashed around him (9:3; 22:6) and his companions (26:13).

Paul tells us that he and his companions all fell to the ground (22:7; 26:14). But Luke, even though he knew Paul’s story, tells us that Paul’s companions stood (9:7). The easy way out of this apparent contradiction is to suppose that they all fell down but immediately scrambled to their feet in the blinding light. Or perhaps we might suppose that “stood speechless” is an idiom that has nothing to do with posture, but simply means “didn’t move or talk.”

No matter what the speculative solution, it illustrates the flexibility that an ancient history writer had in retelling the story. Luke did not feel a need to explain the difference between falling down and standing speechless, because that detail was not essential to the significance of the story. It shows us that we also need to focus on significance, not on irrelevant details. It would be a mistake to focus on a word that was not important.

Paul’s companions “heard the sound” (9:7) but “did not understand the voice” (22:9). The NIV obscures what in Greek is an apparent contradiction. Acts 9:7 says they heard the phone; 22:9 says they did not hear the phone. Phone can mean either voice or sound, and akouo can mean either hear or understand, so the NIV used different translations to avoid a contradiction. But in Greek, the apparent contradiction remains. Luke was inspired to use contradictory phrases within his own book. He did not explain it; it was not relevant to his purpose.

Paul’s companions saw the light (22:9) but did not see anyone (9:7). But the way Acts 9 presents the story, it looks like Paul didn’t see anyone, either. We are simply told that when he opened his eyes, he saw nothing. It is only later in the story that we are told, by Ananias, that Paul had seen Jesus (9:17; cf. 9:27; 22:14). We might conclude from Acts 9 that Jesus appeared like a bright light. If we ask whether Paul’s companions saw the same light, we would be dealing in the irrelevant. It does not matter what they saw or heard. The minor differences remind us to be cautious about reading too much into specific details that are not relevant to the main point. Omissions are likely.

A greater difference is found in the presentation of Paul’s commission. Was he told to go to Damascus to get his commission (9:6; 22:10), or was he told right away what it was (26:16-18)? In 9:15-16, the commission is give from the Lord to Ananias. In 22:14-15, it is from Ananias to Paul. It is easy to see that both may be true. But in 26:16-18, it is from the Lord to Paul — Ananias isn’t even mentioned! It seems that Paul has abbreviated the story for the benefit of King Agrippa. The importance is in the commission, not in the sequence of messengers or the location.

In all these commissions, Paul is sent to gentiles and Jews. In 9:15, Paul is simply to carry Jesus’ name (Acts 9 emphasizes the name of Jesus). In 22:15, he is to be a witness of his experience. In 26:16-18, he is not only a witness but also a preacher of forgiveness and sanctification by faith. Acts 9 reports him as preaching primarily that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (9:20, 22); Acts 26:20 says he preached repentance. Apparently Luke considered these to be synonymous messages; we would err if we made too much of the differences in terminology — not only here but also elsewhere — not only in Luke but also in other biblical writers. We must allow for literary variation and differing emphases.

Acts 9:10-16 tells us about the vision of Ananias — a vision other accounts omit. Acts 9:12 tells us of a vision Paul had, a vision not otherwise described. Acts 22:17-21 tells us of yet another vision. Nowhere in Acts are we told about three years in Arabia and Damascus or the 14 years that went by before Paul went to Jerusalem again for the apostolic conference (cf. Galatians 1:15-2:1).

Most of these differences are simply omissions, not contradictions. But they show that we cannot assume that any version of any story includes all the details we think are relevant. Nor can we assume it is in strictly chronological order or that every passage of time is chronicled. The variations show the flexibility with which an inspired historian could tell the story.

Discrepancies in prophecies

We saw above that Luke didn’t mind putting an apparent contradiction in his history. We see another example in Acts 20:2221:4. The first verse says that the Holy Spirit compelled Paul to go to Jerusalem; the second verse says the Spirit inspired some Christians to urge Paul not to go. Is the same Spirit giving contradictory direction?

In 21:11, we see another discrepancy — Agabus was inspired to predict that the Jews would bind Paul. It would be easy for modern interpreters to see this prophecy as clearly predicting who would do the binding. But as the account develops, we find that the Roman soldiers were actually the ones who bound Paul (21:33). Instead of the Jews handing over Paul to the gentiles (21:11), Paul was actually rescued by the gentiles (21:32). The prophecy was fulfilled in principle, in the end result, but not in the literal details of sequence. It would be a mistake to insist that all prophecies must be literally fulfilled.

Paul creates a prophetic discrepancy, too. In 27:10, he predicted that the voyage would bring great loss of life; in 27:22 he modifies this by saying that no lives will be lost. Why does Luke record a prophecy that he knows will be rescinded? His reasons may not be clear to us, but it is clear that we cannot hold Luke to a standard of accuracy that was never part of his intention.

These minor discrepancies do not negate the inspiration of the Bible. God, who cannot lie, caused these differences to be recorded in the canon. They warn us to be careful when examining biblical details. They were not intended to have the precision we sometimes want to ascribe to them. It is a mistake to press the details beyond the intention of the author.

Gospel of Luke

Let us now look briefly at the Gospel written by Luke. He begins Jesus’ ministry in Luke 4:14. After two summary verses about Galilee, Luke tells us about an incident in the Nazareth synagogue (verses 16-30). But we should not conclude from this that Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth came early in his ministry. (Matthew 4:12-13 begins Jesus’ ministry by noting that Jesus went away from Nazareth.) Luke 4:23 mentions that he had already done notable works in Capernaum.

Luke had a literary reason to begin the story with Nazareth — the incident is a miniature of Jesus’ entire ministry, from his mission statement, the initially favorable reaction, his expulsion and an attempt to kill him. The Nazareth story sets the scene for the other events in Jesus’ ministry.

Various other events in Luke’s story are in a different order than we find in the other Gospels. The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law comes early in Luke (4:38-39) but midway in Matthew (8:14). Jesus calls four disciples after that in Luke (5:1-11) but beforehand in Matthew (4:18-22) and Mark (1:16-20, 29-31). Which sequence is correct?

We cannot assume that any narrative sequence necessarily indicates a chronological sequence — even if temporal connectives such as “then” or “immediately” are sometimes used. Although the reported events happened, they did not necessarily happen in the sequence they are reported in.

One of the narrative techniques Luke uses is to organize many of the stories in the context of a trip from Galilee to Jerusalem. In Luke 9:51, “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Luke 13:2218:31 and 19:28 say that Jesus was still on his way to Jerusalem and imply that everything between 13:22 and 19:28 happened on this one trip. But that is reading too much into Luke’s geographic notes. Several of the intervening events are set in Galilee or Jerusalem by Matthew or Mark.

Luke presents it all as a journey because Jesus’ ministry was, figuratively speaking, a one-way trip to death in Jerusalem. Luke doesn’t tell us when Jesus went back to Galilee and began his journey toward Jerusalem again. What Jesus said and did is important — but when and where is not as important.

Jesus healed a blind man near Jericho, for example. Was it while he was going in (Luke 18:35) or while going out (Mark 10:46)? It is possible that Jesus healed one blind man while entering and another while exiting, but it seems unlikely that both men would use the exact same words, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Perhaps Jesus went out the city gate, heard the man calling, and then went back in to heal the man — thus Jesus was exiting and entering at the same time. Or perhaps he was leaving old Jericho and entering the newer city. Hypothetical reconstructions can weasel out of a contradiction, but they sometimes seem overly ingenious — and they certainly are not the focus of the inspired writers.

Matthew says that there were two blind men at Jericho, both healed while Jesus was going out (Matthew 20:29-30). So was there one man, two, or three? Why don’t Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus healed more than one? Such details are extraneous — the main point is that Jesus healed blindness, and that even a blind man could be inspired to recognize him as the Son of David, the Messiah.

This is not to say that the Gospels are totally inaccurate about time and space. Most of the sequence and settings are probably accurate. But a few exceptions occur, which means we must be cautious about constructing a modern history of Jesus that is concerned about the details that the writers were not inspired to be concerned about. The big picture is more important than the details.

Consider Peter’s confession of Christ, for example. What did Peter say? “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:20). We could say that Peter said both of these phrases, but it seems an unlikely and unnecessary redundancy. Another legitimate possibility is that Matthew or Luke was inspired to translate Peter’s Aramaic words with a dynamic equivalence appropriate for the original readers. The significance is conveyed — not necessarily the precise words. We see a similar equivalence in John’s account, where Peter’s recognition of Jesus is phrased, “You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69).

The ascension

Luke’s ascension stories provide a brief example about jumping to chronological conclusions. Luke 24:1-12 is dated on the Sunday after the crucifixion; 24:13-32 is dated “that same day.” Verses 33-44 are a few hours later — probably Sunday evening. Verses 45-49, introduced by “then,” probably refer to Sunday evening, too.

Verses 50-53 describes the ascension, without any indication of any passage of time, or any trips to Galilee. If this were the only account we had, we might assume that Jesus ascended that same Sunday night. In this case, however, we have other accounts, including one written by Luke himself, that inform us otherwise.

In other cases, we do not have parallel accounts that expand our information. It is dangerous to assume that a parallel account, if found, would not inform us about a change in location or a long delay. We cannot assume that “then” means “the very next event” or assume that one event followed right after another. Even though the writer may say nothing about it, weeks may have passed. The Gospel writers wanted to tell us what happened, but in most cases the when was not important enough to be worth specific mention.

Chronological precision apparently wasn’t necessary or expected in Luke’s “orderly” account — and we cannot assume it in any of the Gospels. We could use a harmony of the Gospels to construct a chronology, but that in itself could not prove that our result was accurate. The inspired writers had some flexibility in details as they told the stories for different audiences and purposes. So we must be cautious about using such details for purposes they were not intended for.

These observations encourage us to focus more on the big point than on the details — more on the theological purpose of each passage and less on the chronology and geography. Those timeless truths had historical roots (and it is important that they do), but it is rarely important to specify precisely when and where the events happened.

Instead of focusing on details that have little relevance to Christian life today, we need to focus on spiritual principles and timeless truths. Thus our time would be well spent — certainly a positive result.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

4. Luke 1:1-38 – Announcing the King

Luke begins his book about Jesus with a preface that describes his research methods. His introduction (all one sentence in Greek) is similar to the beginning of Greek historical works:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

Luke does not say that there is anything wrong with previous accounts, which were written by reliable eyewitnesses, but he wants to add his research to strengthen the faith of his readers. “I have checked it out,” he says, “and it is true. I’ll give you the details.”

Ancient writers sometimes dedicated their books to a patron who paid the cost of making copies of the book. Theophilus may be such a sponsor, a person interested in Christianity. Since his name means “lover of God,” any reader who loved God would be invited to read. Luke presents his book as a historically accurate account of “the things that have been fulfilled among us.”

An announcement to Zechariah

Just what are those things? Luke hasn’t yet told us. He begins by putting us into the flow of history—a story of God’s people: “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron” (v. 5). Luke is writing at least 60 years after these events, but his details suggest that he has done enough research to find the facts. The priests were divided into 24 divisions; each served two one-week periods each year.

“Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years” (vv. 6-7). Being childless was a disgrace in that society, and some people might assume from it that Zechariah and Elizabeth were not pleasing God. But Luke assures us that they were righteous in every way.

Now that he has introduced the characters, he tells the story:

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. (vv. 8-12)

A priest could offer incense in the temple only once in his lifetime, and some never had that honor at all. Zechariah may have been nervous at his responsibility, and the sudden appearance of the angel frightened him. The angel told him:

Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (vv. 13-17)

Zechariah had apparently given up hope for a son, but he probably still prayed for God to rescue his people. So the angel tells him the first step in the salvation of Israel: Zechariah will have a son—not just any son, but one who is “great in the sight of the Lord.” As part of his special role set apart for God, he would avoid wine (a rule that Nazirites also followed, but John was probably not a Nazirite). He would be a great prophet, turning the people back to God, fulfilling the prophecies of Malachi 4:5-6 and Isaiah 40:3. After a gap of several centuries, God would again inspire one of his servants to speak to the nation.

How can I be sure?

But Zechariah was reluctant to believe it. He asked: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (v. 18). The angel then gave him reasons to believe—first, that the message was from God, and second, that a miracle would happen to Zechariah himself:

“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time” (vv. 19-20). Zechariah was righteous, but he asked for evidence, so God gave him some he could not deny. God keeps his promises, whether they are to a nation or to an individual.

“Meanwhile,” Luke tells us, “the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak” (vv. 21-22). The priest who offered incense was also supposed to give a blessing, but Zechariah could not.

However, Zechariah kept his commitment, staying in Jerusalem as long as his priestly division was supposed to serve, and then he went home. Elizabeth became pregnant, but kept her pregnancy secret for five months (vv. 23-24). And she rejoiced: “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” She went from disgrace to favor.

An announcement to Mary

The next event Luke tells us about happened “in the sixth month”—in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. He introduces the characters: “God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary” (vv. 26-27). She was probably a teenager, with a legally binding commitment to marry Joseph. Joseph may have been much older; we do not know.

Gabriel went to Mary (we do not know how he appeared) and said: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (v. 28). This was an odd greeting, Mary thought, and she “was greatly troubled at his words” (v. 29). She was just an ordinary girl; why should she be given this honor? So Gabriel said:

Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. (vv. 30-33)

The angel announced that Mary would have a child, the Son of God, the son of David, a ruler forever. In other words, the Messiah. What a breathtaking announcement! (This is commemorated in March in traditional Christian calendars as the Feast of the Annunciation.) She was to name him Jesus, which means “The Lord is salvation.”

This is not a vague prophecy that in some distant future Mary would become pregnant and have a son. That wouldn’t be much of a prediction, since almost all women had that experience. Mary understood that she would become pregnant right away. “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” (v. 34).

Mary’s question sounds similar to Zechariah’s, but Gabriel did not rebuke her for skepticism. Perhaps an old priest was supposed to have more faith than a teenage girl, or perhaps Mary simply had more faith. To answer her question, Gabriel basically repeated his prophecy, and gave Mary a sign by revealing Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Gabriel answered:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God. (vv. 35-37)

God’s Spirit will cause you to be pregnant, he said, which is why your son will be the Son of God. And if you want further evidence of a miraculous pregnancy, go ask your relative Elizabeth. (We do not know how they were related.) If God can cause an elderly woman to become pregnant, he can also cause a young woman, even a virgin, to become pregnant. He will keep his promise.

Mary’s response is a model for all of us: “I am the Lord’s servant,” she said. “May it be to me as you have said” (v. 38). Her attitude is a great example for all of us. She was willing, even though women who became pregnant before marriage were not treated well in that society. She would go from favor to disgrace—and she did not yet know the heartache involved in being the mother of the Messiah.


Things to think about

  • Have I carefully investigated the facts about Jesus? (v. 1)
  • What prayer would I most like God to answer for me? (v. 13)
  • Is my heart turned toward my children? (v. 17)
  • Do I consider myself “highly favored” by God? (v. 28)
  • Am I as willing as Mary to let God work in my life? (v. 38)

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD


5. Luke 1:39-80 – Two Songs of Praise

After the angel Gabriel told Mary that her relative Elizabeth was pregnant in old age, “Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1:39-40). Gabriel had told Mary that Elizabeth was pregnant (v. 36), so Mary quickly made the three-day journey to Judea. Elizabeth’s pregnancy was evidence that what the angel said about Mary was also true. One miraculous pregnancy was a sign of the other, just as the first son would prepare the way for the work of the second.

Elizabeth counted it an honor to be visited, for she recognized that Mary’s child would be her Lord. It was a joyful occasion, for the Savior was coming to the people who had waited for so long. Both Elizabeth and Mary are good role models for Christians today. Anyone who believes that the Lord keeps his promises will be blessed.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (v. 41). Elizabeth was inspired to understand a supernatural significance to this reaction, and even before Mary gave her the news, she knew Mary would have a child: 

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (vv. 42-45).

God inspired Elizabeth to praise and encourage Mary’s faith, that her child would, as the angel promised, be the Son of God, ruling over the children of Israel forever (vv. 32-33).

Mary’s song of praise

Mary’s response is a hymn of praise, arranged with the parallel thoughts that characterize Hebrew poetry, such as Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2. Mary’s song is traditionally called the Magnificat (the first word of the Latin translation):

“My soul glorifies the Lord 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (vv. 46-47).

In this verse, the second line repeats the thought of the first—”my soul” and “my spirit” are similar, and “glorifies” and “rejoices in” are similar ideas. But the second line adds a new thought at the end: Not only is God the Lord, he is also the Savior. Mary then gives a reason for rejoicing: God has rewarded her humility:

“for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name” (vv. 48-49).

Mary, seeing the evidence in Elizabeth, knows that God has already done what he promised to Mary, that she would be the mother of the Messiah. Mary says that God has helped her, and everyone will know of her blessing. She then reverses the flow by saying again that God has helped her, and praising God, returns to the thought that she started her poetry with. (This mirror-like arrangement is called a chiasm.)

Mary then expands her praise to include everyone who trusts in God, contrasting God’s blessings for the humble with his opposition to the proud:

“His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts” (vv. 50-51).

To those who worship God, he gives mercy, but those who do not care about God are brushed aside with mighty deeds. A similar contrast is seen in verses 52-53, with another balanced structure—the rich, the poor; the poor, the rich:

“He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”

God works in a great reversal, bringing the mighty down and exalting the poor and the weak. God did not send his Son into the palaces of royalty, but he honored the working poor of Galilee. Salvation comes not from human power, but must depend on the intervention of God. Mary represents all who trust in God to do what he has promised.

Mary concludes by mentioning God’s promise to the ancestors of the nation:

“He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers” (vv. 54-55).

The birth of John

The next significant event in Luke’s story is the birth of John. “When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy” (vv. 57-58).

They did not name the baby until the eighth day, when he was circumcised, and there was a community celebration. Although boys were often named after their grandfathers, the neighbors and relatives thought it would be appropriate to name the boy after his elderly father: “On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John’” (vv. 59-60).

“John” comes from the Hebrew Yohanan, which means “God is gracious.” The neighbors objected to this name, since it wasn’t in the family traditions. Zechariah was apparently deaf as well as mute, so “they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child” (v. 62).

Luke will soon tell us what Zechariah said, but first he tells us what effect the miracle had on the people: “The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him” (vv. 65-66).

Zechariah “asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God” (vv. 63-64). Earlier, Zechariah had been made mute after he asked, “How can I be sure of this?” (v. 18). He now had the evidence he wanted, and as the angel promised (v. 20), his speech was restored when God fulfilled his promise.

Rumors were stirring, Luke tells us. Many people knew that God was doing something among his people. Could it be that God would give them the Messiah they hoped for?

Zechariah’s praise

“Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied” (v. 67). After nine months of enforced silence, in which he no doubt frequently thought about God’s faithfulness, he praises God. His song is called the Benedictus, which is the first word of the Latin version.

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come and has redeemed his people.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David” (vv. 68-69).

Surprisingly, Zechariah (a Levite) is not speaking of his own son—just as Elizabeth did, he focused on Mary’s unborn child, predicting the son of David. But John, the Levite baby, is nevertheless part of God’s preparation for rescuing the Jewish nation. In Hebrew, “horn” was a symbol of strength (perhaps from the strength of horned animals such as oxen), so Zechariah predicts a mighty salvation. He focuses on the Jewish people; he may not have realized (unlike Luke, who knew more of the story) that the Messiah would rescue the Gentiles as well.

Just as Mary did, Zechariah mentions that salvation was predicted, that it was part of the blessings promised to Abraham (Gen. 22:18), and that God was keeping those promises:

“(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us —
to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (vv. 70-75).

Zechariah briefly turns his attention to his own son, with an echo of Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1:

“And you, my child, will be called
a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord
to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation” (Luke 1:76-77).

He then describes the salvation of the Lord—not a military conquest, but a spiritual rescue, bringing light and instruction in the way of peace. In this section, Zechariah uses concepts found in Isaiah 9:260:1-3; and Malachi 4:2:

through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace” (vv. 77-79).

Salvation will come not through force, but through spiritual growth. Through the Lord, the people will be enlightened about salvation, forgiveness, mercy and peace. John’s role will be to prepare the way.

Luke now summarizes the next 30 years for John: “The child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel” (v. 80). There is a hint of greater things yet to come. The promises made to the people have not been forgotten.


Things to think about

  • Do I believe that the Lord will do as he said? (v. 45) Why is it sometimes difficult to trust him?
  • What mighty things has the Lord done for me? (v. 49)
  • When God intervenes in my life, do I respond with songs of praise?
  • How important is the mercy of God to me? (vv. 50, 54, 58, 72, 78) When I praise him, is mercy a frequent theme?
  • Do I serve God “without fear,” or am I sometimes embarrassed? (v. 74)
  • Who is “the rising sun … from heaven”? (v. 78). Has he guided me in the path of peace? (v. 79)

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD


6. Luke 2:1-21 – A Savior Is Born

Luke begins his book with dramatic announcements: angelic messages, songs of praise, and miracles. This is only the beginning, for Luke has equally dramatic events to report for the birth of Jesus. First, he sets the scene by telling us why Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem.

A Roman census

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register” (Luke 2:1-3). Roman taxation was based on population counts.

Unfortunately, we do not have any Roman records of this census, so we do not know the date. For one thing, the census may not have been done in all regions in the same year. Luke’s words could mean “that Caesar decreed that the enrollment, which had previously been going on in some parts of the empire, should now be extended to all parts” (Ben Witherington, “Birth of Jesus,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p. 67). In Egypt, a census was conducted every 14 years.

Luke, writing in the style of a Greek historian, indicates dates by political rulers and events. Quirinius ordered a census in A.D. 6-7 (mentioned in Acts 5:37), but we do not have any evidence that Quirinius was governor when Herod was alive. He was a consul at that time, and may have had a temporary authority over Syria.

If “everyone” went to their own town for this census, it was presumably required (registration by family origin was a Jewish, not a Roman custom), and most likely at a time of the year when people could travel to their respective cities.

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David” (Luke 2:4). Many other people would have also been of the line of David, but if they lived in Jerusalem, only five miles away, they could register for the census without having to spend the night in Bethlehem.

“He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child” (v. 5). Joseph and Mary were not yet officially married, but for the census they were counted together. Perhaps Joseph did not want to leave Mary alone in Nazareth, where she might face ridicule and shame. And perhaps they knew, as others did, that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:5Micah 5:2). The political decree therefore served the purpose of God, who was working behind the scenes as well as in more spectacular ways.

The birth of Jesus

We do not know how long Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem. They probably traveled well before the baby was due. Luke just tells us, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them” (vv. 6-7). Bethlehem was small and off the main road; it may not have had a real inn.

Poor people often did not have a barn for their animals, so they had a manger inside the home. Mary used the manger because the guest room was either not large enough or occupied by others. Luke describes this in a matter-of-fact way, as if nothing was too far out of the ordinary.

In the vast majority of ancient Near-Eastern peasant homes for which we have archaeological and literary evidence, the manger was within the home, not in some separate barn. The animals as well as the family slept within one large enclosed space that was divided so that usually the animals would be on a lower level, and the family would sleep on a raised dais…. We should probably envision Mary and Joseph staying in the home of relatives or friends, a home which was crowded due to the census…. Mary gave birth to her child perhaps in the family room and placed the baby in the stone manger. (Witherington, 69-70)

The point is that Jesus (although a king) was born in humble circumstances. Even in his family’s home town, he was in temporary accommodation, with an improvised bed. One lesson we see here is: “Importance is not a matter of one’s environment or the supposed status that things bring. Rather, importance is a function of one’s role in God’s work” (Darrell Bock, Luke, NIV Application Commentary, p. 86).

Shepherds and angels

Luke now brings the supernatural into the story: “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” (2:8-9).

Although the Bible usually portrays shepherds in a positive way, society often looked down on them, as they do the homeless today. Shepherds could not keep ceremonial laws, they moved often, and people didn’t trust them—they weren’t even allowed to testify in court. Due to their occupation, they had not gone to their own town to register for the tax census. (Flocks of sheep were kept year-round near Bethlehem to provide sacrifices at the temple.)

Like most other people, the shepherds were afraid when they saw the angel and the glory of the Lord. But the angel told them: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (vv. 10-12).

The angel announced the good news: the Messiah has been born, he is a Savior for all the people, and this is a reason to have great joy. But most people were totally unaware of the good news. The angel was not sent to everyone—just to a few shepherds who represented all humanity.

It would not be strange to find a newborn baby wrapped in cloths, but it was apparently unusual to find one in a manger. This is the third “sign” (evidence that God was involved) that Luke reports. Bethlehem was small enough that there wouldn’t be very many newborn babies in it, and it was apparently small enough that the shepherds could find the baby without supernatural help.

“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’” (vv. 13-14). This short song is called Gloria in Excelsis Deo, which is the way it begins in Latin. An army of angels announced peace.

Through the Savior, peace will come not to everyone, but to those God is pleased with (see Matt. 10:34Luke 12:32). “It is those whom God chooses, rather than those who choose God” (Leon Morris, Luke, rev. ed., p. 95). “Jesus comes for all, but not all respond to and benefit from his coming” (Bock, p. 85). Though we were formerly God’s enemies, we were reconciled to God, given peace with him, through our Savior. The birth of the Savior is certainly a good reason for praising God!

“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” ( Luke 2:15-16 ). This apparently all happened on the evening after Jesus’ birth.

The news spreads

“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (vv. 17-18). So the shepherds became evangelists for a time, telling people about the angels, the singing and the baby. As in previous cases, everything the angel said was true.

People were amazed at the story, but did they believe it? We do not know. Amazement is often short-lived (see Luke 4:2228). Mary, however, “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (2:19). Mary, the model of a good disciple, not only remembered these events, she also thought more about their significance. What manner of Messiah would her child be? The story is just beginning.

So the shepherds returned to their flocks and fields, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (v. 20). God had kept his word. The shepherds went back to their work, filled with hope and confidence that deliverance would come.

Meanwhile, Joseph and Mary had to complete the assignment that Gabriel had given them: “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived” (v. 21).


Things to think about

  • How would I feel about a couple who were not officially married, yet were living together and the woman was pregnant? (v. 5)
  • How would I feel about putting my firstborn child in a feed trough because that was the only place there was room? (v. 7) How often does God’s plan for me involve inconveniences, and how do I react to them?
  • How would I react to a heavenly choir singing praises to God because a baby had been born? (vv. 13-14) Does the birth of Jesus bring me joy?
  • How well do I tell others about what God has done? (v. 17) Am I amazed? (v. 18) Or could I be totally unaware of what he is doing?
  • Do questions cause me to doubt, or do I patiently ponder them? (v. 19)

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2002, 2012


7. Luke 2:22-52 – What Child Is This?

Luke reports two events between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his ministry. These are not reported out of idle curiosity, however—both events point forward to his importance in God’s plan of salvation. Remarkable prophecies were spoken when Jesus was presented to the Lord, and Jesus himself alluded to a special role when he was coming of age.

Presented to God

The Law of Moses required every firstborn son to be redeemed and dedicated to God, since God had spared all the firstborn sons of Israel in the 10th plague on Egypt (Ex. 13:11-16). The Law further specified that, for a son, the mother should wait 40 days and then bring a burnt offering and a sin offering to the sanctuary. She was to bring a lamb and a bird, or if she could not afford a lamb, two birds (Lev. 12:1-8).

Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary were obedient to the Law of Moses: 

“When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took [Jesus] to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’ ” (vv. 22-24).

Apparently the family could not afford a lamb. It is also interesting that Luke speaks of “their” purification, although the Law spoke only of the purification of the mother. It is ironic that the Law required redemption for the Redeemer, and a sin-offering to purify a divinely caused conception.

It was at this trip to the temple that some significant prophecies were given:

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts” (vv. 25-27).

This godly man earnestly wanted God to rescue Israel, and the Holy Spirit spoke to him (as he had spoken to the Old Testament prophets) and caused him to come to the temple at the right time.

When Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the temple courts for the dedication and purification ritual, Simeon intervened: “Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’” (vv. 28-32).

The Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that this child was the answer to his hopes and faith; although the salvation itself had not been completed, it was sure. God had kept his promise to Simeon. His lifelong desire was coming to pass, and he felt his life was complete. He had seen the answer, and he knew that this child would be the salvation not only of Israel but all the Gentiles, too. He was God’s Anointed One, who would be the “light to the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:6).

Joseph and Mary “marveled at what was said about him” (v. 33). Could it be that Joseph and Mary didn’t quite believe that this miraculous child would be the Savior of all peoples? Or more likely, Luke tells us this for our benefit, so that we think more deeply about the significance of what was said. We should also marvel at these auspicious words.

After Simeon had blessed Jesus, he also blessed Joseph and Mary. But the salvation of Israel would not be a bed of roses—Simeon also spoke of troubles to come: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (vv. 34-35).

The Savior of Israel would cause some to rise in God’s favor, but would also cause some to fall, because some people would speak against him. They would not like the salvation that he brought, and their thoughts would be exposed as ungodly. They would reject his brand of salvation, thinking that they did not need it. And Mary herself would suffer as a result. We are not yet told how—Luke keeps us in suspense.

The prophetess

Luke also tells us about Anna, who was known to be a prophetess. He does not quote her words, but nevertheless includes her involvement:

“There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (vv. 36-38).

Anna, an elderly model of piety, was apparently inspired to understand that this baby boy was the Savior who would redeem the people of God, and she spread the good news about him. More and more people were learning that the time of salvation has come.

Luke then wraps up this part of the story with some general comments: “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him” (vv. 39-40). Luke says nothing about the family’s trip to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-23). He simply brings Jesus to Nazareth, his childhood home. There he grew in wisdom, and God was with him.

Jesus in the temple

Jesus’ parents, as Law-abiding Jews, went to Jerusalem every year for the Passover (v. 41). When Jesus was 12 (13 was considered the age of spiritual maturity), they went as usual to the Passover festival.

“After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it” (v. 43). (They must have had other children to take care of.) They simply assumed he was in the traveling party, which might have included a large number of friends, neighbors and other children.

“Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day.” But probably when he did not join the family at night, “they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him” (vv. 44-45).

But when his parents finally found him, “they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you’ ” (v. 48). Mary felt that Jesus had done something wrong. They had trusted him to join the group traveling back to Galilee, but he hadn’t.

After a day traveling north, and one traveling south and a day of searching, “they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (vv. 46-47). Later, people would not merely be amazed at Jesus—they would be angry. But at this point, Jesus was simply amazing. Even his questions showed an unusual depth of understanding for someone his age.

Perhaps it was an innocent mix-up. Jesus may have tried to find his parents, too, but eventually had to go back to a location where they could find him, and while waiting, he used his time well. We do not know, but Jesus thought they should have known to look for him in the temple. Where he slept, we do not know.

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (v. 49). It was necessary, Jesus said, that he would be doing the work of God. Jesus was referring to his heavenly Father and his divine mission, “but they did not understand what he was saying to them” (v. 50). They knew their child was the Messiah, that he had a special mission, but they did not know the details of how he would do his work. There was a bit of mystery to this child—but Jesus knew what he had to do.

His time had not yet come, so “he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (vv. 51-52).


Things to think about

  • Joseph and Mary set a good example of obedience (vv. 22-24). Although the law they obeyed is obsolete, their attitude is still exemplary. Am I as dedicated to God as they were?
  • How well do I respect the spiritual service of elderly saints?
  • Have I experienced pain as well as salvation from Jesus Christ? (v. 35)
  • Do I have a sense of mission like Jesus did? (v. 49) What am I dedicated to?
  • Do I grow in favor with God and with other people? (v. 52) Is it sometimes necessary to have less favor with people?

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

8. Luke 10 - A New Look at the Good Samaritan

The Good Samaritan is one of Jesus’ most popular parables. Preachers often use it to encourage people to be unselfish, to think ahead and help others. But there is more to the story than that. Jesus was doing far more than putting hypocritical religious leaders in their place. Let’s take a closer look.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? (Luke 10:30-37)

The answer to Jesus’ question was obvious. But Jesus was teaching much more than a lesson in social responsibility. Let’s consider the context. Jesus was answering a lawyer who had asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (verse 25). This man was a religious lawyer, priding himself in his understanding of all 613 points of the Torah. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had inherited a system that had turned obedience to God into an obstacle course, so strewn with picky dos and don’ts that it left the average person on a permanent guilt trip.

This approach contradicted what Jesus taught, and confrontation became inevitable. The lawyers, along with the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and others in religious leadership, were constantly trying to discredit Jesus. There was a motive behind the lawyer’s apparently innocent question. So Jesus let the expert speak first: “What is written in the law?… How do you read it?” (verse 26).

The lawyer knew the answer: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (verse 27).

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live” (verse 28).

It was a good answer, as far as it went. But you know what lawyers are like. They are trained to look for some extenuating circumstance that might in some way limit the extent of the law. The lawyer knew that the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” was impossible to fulfill. So he thought he had found a loophole. “Who is my neighbor?” he asked Jesus. That is when Jesus gave his famous parable.

Cast and location

Jesus set his story on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a distance of about 17 miles. Jerusalem was where the Temple was, the center of the Levitical priesthood. The priests were the highest class of the Levites. They were supported by thousands of other Levites who served at lower levels, doing such tasks as keeping the altar fire going, lighting the incense, singing in the Temple chorus and playing musical instruments. When they were not on duty, many of these priests and temple workers lived in Jericho. They often traveled this road between Jerusalem and Jericho.


Travel in those days could be hazardous. One stretch of the Jericho road was known as the “Way of Blood,” because so many people were robbed and killed there. This was where Jesus set the scene for his parable. People knew exactly where he was talking about.

In Jesus’ story, the first person to see the victim is a priest, but rather than get involved, he passes by on the other side of the road. He is followed by a Levite, a temple-worker. The Levite does the same—he passes by. Then along comes a Samaritan.

A what? Jesus would have caused a stir with that. The Samaritans were a mix of Jew and Gentile, and the Jews did not like them. They had names for Samaritans like “half breeds” and “heathen dogs,” and considered them to be spiritually defiled. The Jews of that time did not often hear the words “good” and “Samaritan” used in the same sentence.

But in Jesus’ story, it is this outcast who stops to help. Not only does this Samaritan help, but he goes far beyond what most people do. He cleans the victim’s wounds with oil and wine, then bandages them. People didn’t carry first-aid kits back then. He likely would have had to tear up some of his own clothing to make a bandage. Next, he puts the injured man on his donkey and takes him to an inn. He takes two silver coins, a considerable amount in those days, and promises to reimburse the innkeeper for any further expense. This is an exceptional level of assistance, especially for a total stranger and someone who is supposed to be a social enemy. But the Samaritan did not let that stand in the way.

With this deceptively simple little story, Jesus impales the lawyer on his own hook. He asks him, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (verse 36). Jesus has turned the question around. He is not asking, “Which people should I help?” He is saying: To answer the question, you need to put yourself into the shoes (or lack thereof) of the man who was beaten and left to die. The better question is: “When I need help, who do I want to help me?” Don’t you hope that the Samaritan will be a neighbor to you?

Who was a good neighbor? The answer is obvious, but the expert in the law didn’t want to say the word Samaritan, so he said, “The one who had mercy on him.” Then Jesus delivers the knockout blow: “Go and do likewise” (verse 37).

Remember, this “teacher of the law” was from a class of people who prided themselves on how carefully they obeyed God. For example, they would not pronounce God’s name, considering it too holy to utter. They would even take a ritual bath to ensure purity before writing God’s name. Along with the Pharisees, they were fastidious about observing the law in every detail. The lawyer had asked what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ answer was, in effect, “You have to do the impossible.” Your love for others needs to extend far beyond what humans are capable of doing.

A story of salvation

How could anyone be expected to live up to the standard of the Samaritan in this story? If that is what God expects, even the meticulous lawyer was doomed. Jesus was showing that humans cannot meet the perfect requirements of the law. Even those who dedicate themselves to it fall short. Jesus is the only one to fulfill the law in its deepest intent. Jesus is the Good Samaritan.

Jesus knew that there is nothing we can “do” to earn an eternity with a holy God. So he crafted his answer-story at two levels of meaning. On the surface, it made the point that people ought to love and do good to their enemies. But on a deeper level, it addressed the question of eternal life. To answer the question, we need to put ourselves in the place of the man who was beaten and left to die. He represents us—all humanity. The robbers correspond to sin and the forces of evil, the devil and his dominion. We do not have enough strength to combat these forces, and if we are left to ourselves, we will die.

The priest and the Levite represent the laws and sacrifices of the old covenant. They can’t help us. The Good Samaritan is the only one who can help. The wine and the oil correspond, roughly, to the blood Jesus shed for us and the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. That is what heals us. The inn could then represent the church, where God puts his people to be spiritually nurtured until he returns for them. Jesus pays for this ongoing need in our life, too.

Jesus used the lawyer’s question to show how inadequate for salvation even the best human effort is, and how wonderful and sure is his work of redemption for humanity. Jesus, and only Jesus, can rescue us from the “Way of Blood”—and he did it by way of his own blood.

Author: Joseph Tkach, D.Min.

9. Luke 15 - Parable of the Lost Son

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is perhaps better named the parable of the lost son, since it is designed to go with the parables of the lost sheep (verses 3-7) and lost coin (verses 8-10). Or it could be called the parable of two lost sons. Some have even called it the parable of the prodigal father, because of the father’s extravagance. Even today, after centuries of teaching about God’s grace, the father’s willingness to forgive his runaway son is shockingly generous.

This is Jesus’ longest parable: 22 verses. Let’s go through the parable, noting its story, its organization and its lessons.

Historical background and observations

1. Return of the lost son — verses 11-24

    A. The younger son leaves — verses 11-16

“There was a man” — This is a standard introduction to a parable. “Who had two sons” — The first parable in this chapter had one of 100 getting lost, the second parable one in 10, this parable has one out of two becoming lost. The sequence emphasizes the magnitude of the lost son. To lose half your sons would be a tragedy, and regaining half would likewise be a greater cause for rejoicing.

“The younger son” — There’s no mention of a wife, so he would probably have been 18-20. His youth isn’t emphasized, but younger sons may be more likely to be foolish and older sons more likely to look down on a brother. Figuratively, the older son represented the Pharisees and the younger son represented the people Jesus was reaching (verse 1). In the early church, the older son may have been seen as corresponding to the Jews and the younger son to Gentiles.

“Give me my share of the estate” — Inheritances were normally given only when the father died. The son’s demand for an early distribution was unusual and frowned upon – it’s as if the son had said, “I wish you were dead.” He valued the money more than he did the relationship. Traditionally, firstborn sons were given twice as much as other sons, but we don’t know if this was always done in Jesus’ day. If so, the younger son would have received one third of the estate. The amount isn’t stressed. Nor are we told how the property was turned into cash. Such details are ignored because they aren’t part of the point.

“Divided his property” — Early distribution of the estate normally meant that the father continued to receive the benefits of the estate as long as he lived. (The father could therefore kill the fattened calf without asking the older son, who owned it.) The younger son didn’t just receive surplus property; it was part of the father’s source of income. (The word for property is bios, meaning “the resources which one has as a means of living.”[1]) If a son sold land, the new owner could not use it until the father died. Again, such details are ignored because they are not part of the point. “Between them” — The older son also received his share.

“Not long after that” — His departure was probably not surprising. His desire for the inheritance indicated he wanted to strike out on his own rather than continue being part of the family. He was insulting the family as well as injuring it. “A distant country” — A Gentile country. Many Jews lived in Gentile areas. “Squandered his wealth in wild living” — Not only did he waste the money, he sinned in the process. However, his sins aren’t specified. Luke doesn’t emphasize the sinning as much as he does losing the money. This is consistent with Luke’s interest in possessions and poverty. Perhaps the prodigal son was trying to make friends by spending money on them.

“Spent everything…began to be in need” — His poverty is emphasized, not any deficiency in character. Luke is emphasizing his lostness, not his guilt. “To feed pigs” — He had an unclean occupation, abandoning religious scruples, but still the emphasis seems to be on his poverty (hunger, verse 16) rather than sin.

“He longed to fill his stomach with the pods” — He wished he could eat the carob-tree pods, but humans can’t digest them. As a servant, he would have received some pay. Jesus is painting a hypothetical, not an actual story, to emphasize the son’s desperate plight. “No one gave him anything” — He received no alms (one of Luke’s interests). His former friends did not help him.

  B. The son decides to return — verses 17-20

“When he came to his senses” — This pivotal verse changes the direction of the story. “When” (rather than “it so happened that”) implies that his sanity was inevitable. The word “repentance” is not used. “My father’s hired servants” — He contrasts himself, a hired servant of a Gentile, to his father’s servants, who had plenty to eat. “Food to spare…starving to death” — Though the setting of the story is sin and repentance (verses 1-2), the story itself emphasizes financial need rather than moral corruption. “Starving” is another exaggeration. If he had been near starvation, he would not have had the strength to travel back home.

“Set out and go” — Literally, “rising up, I will go.” This was a translation of an Aramaic idiom for go immediately. But “arise” may also hint at a rising in state of life.

He then prepared a speech he would use to get a job with his father. “Sinned against heaven” — “Heaven” is a euphemism for God — used perhaps because the father represents God in the story. Specific sins aren’t mentioned except in the accusations of the older brother (verse 30). “And against you” — He acknowledged his affront to the family.

“No longer worthy to be called your son” — This could be in a legal and a moral sense: He had no rights for further inheritance, and his behavior had not been up to family standards. He assumed that his relationship to his father was based on the work that he did – he had to be worthy. “Make me like one of your hired servants” — He was willing to earn his keep by serving the family (which would have meant serving his older brother, too).[2]

  C. The father receives him — verses 20-24

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him” — Some commentators say this implies that the father was continually watching for the return of his son. However, the text says nothing about watching, nor does it add a word like “when” to imply inevitability. It says: “The son being yet far off, his father saw him.” The father was very willing to have a reconciliation — acting while the son was far away shows that, without any need to add the idea of watching.

“Compassion…ran” — These words empha­size the father’s enthusiasm. In ancient societies, it was considered undignified for an older man to pull up his robes to run. His actions, representative of God’s feelings for repentant sinners, show enthusiastic acceptance, love and joy. “Kiss” — Perhaps a sign of forgiveness (cf. 2 Samuel 14:33). The son didn’t finish his speech, perhaps because he was cut short by his father.

“Best robe…ring” — Both robe and ring may allude to Joseph’s promotion to authority (Genesis 41:42). Robes were given to honored guests; the ring was a signet ring, indicating authority. “Sandals” — Servants did not wear sandals; only family members did.

“Fattened calf” — Meat was eaten primarily on festivals, and calves would be fattened for such feasts, so this may hint that a celebration of restoration is more important than a religious festival. The celebration corresponds to the “rejoice” of the parables of the lost sheep and coin.

“This son of mine was dead” — In what way was he dead? Here are two possibilities: 1) The father heard about the famine, hadn’t heard from his son in a long time, and thought he had died. 2) Perhaps he counted him metaphorically dead because he had become as a Gentile. Some Jews conducted funerals for children who married Gentiles. But the father doesn’t seem to be the type to disown his son.

 2. Conflict with the older son

  A. The older son comes home — verses 25-27

So far, this parable has been parallel to the first two parables in Luke 15; the lost has been found and there is rejoicing. The parable could have stopped at this point, and still be a good parable. However, Jesus uses the older son to introduce an additional lesson in the parable. Perhaps this is where our attention should be directed, because it is what is new and different.

In some ways this is two parables in one, both parts ending with the statement about dead and alive, lost and found. Both sons are lost — one who left home (like the sheep that was lost in verse 4) and one who was lost even while at home (like the coin in verse 8). Both the “sinners” and the Pharisees were separated from God — the first ones are visibly lost, the others still live at home — but both are welcomed when they turn to God.

The older son’s arrival on the scene is odd; normally a servant would have been sent to get him at the start. But in the parable it is as if the older son found out about the party by accident. Some commentators say this implies the son was out of touch with his father, estranged in attitude or too addicted to work. This seems to read too much into the story; he may have simply been working at the far end of the estate.

The older son is contrasted to the younger: The younger starts the story by leaving home; the older starts by returning. The younger then decides to go home; the older refuses to enter. The younger wants to be his father’s servant; the older son resents being a servant. The younger son admits guilt; the older one insists on his innocence.

The servant describes the younger son as “safe and sound,” or in health; this is less dramatic than the father’s comment about dead and alive. The servant is matter-of-fact; the father is overjoyed.

  B. Complaint of the older son — verses 28-30

The older son “became angry” — in contrast to his father’s compassion — and he did not want to go in despite knowing his father’s will. In contrast to the older son’s unwillingness to come in, the father went out, just as he had done for the younger son. “Pleaded with him” — The father eagerly desired for the older son to share his joy. Normally a son would do what his father said to do; here the older son is disobedient. The older son had inherited his father’s estate, but not his attitude of mercy.

“Look!” — The older son starts abruptly, hinting of disrespect, frustration and impatience. “I’ve been slaving for you” — The verb is douleun, related to doulos, servant. His relationship to his father was based on work, not love. “Never disobeyed” — until now.

“You never gave me even a young goat” — Yet a goat is of lesser value than a calf. But the father would have given a goat if the son had asked (verse 31). The son felt unappreciated and unrewarded; his complaint suggests that he had a long-smoldering resentment. He complained about the extra given to the younger — similar to the workers in the vineyard who complained about a days’ wage being given to those who worked only one hour (Matthew 20:12).

“This son of yours” — The older brother doesn’t say “my brother”; it is as if he no longer claims him. “Squandered” — Literally, “devoured,” an ironic word for a man who was starving. “Your property” — This continues the emphasis on physical possessions. The younger son had wasted part of the family estate, failing in his duty to provide for his father. “With prostitutes” — Did the older son really know how his brother had spent the money? Perhaps the financial waste had begun before the son left home, or perhaps some reports had come back from the far country. Both are possible, but the story says nothing about it. This suggests that the older son (perhaps like the Pharisees) was making an unsubstantiated accusation.

    C. Response of the father — verses 31-32

“My son” — The usual word for “son” in this parable is huios; here it is teknon, “child,” a term of affection. “Everything I have is yours” — The older son will get the entire inheritance. Some commentators speculate about the legal status of the property rights and whether the younger son could have inherited something, but the parable says nothing about it. Inheritance details are not the point; acceptance or reconciliation is. Older sons inherited twice as much as other sons because they had a responsibility to the family. The older son would have had a duty to take care of a brother who fell on hard times. But the older son was not willing to accept this responsibility; he (like the younger son!) simply wanted the property.

“We had to celebrate” — The word edei is used, meaning “it was necessary.” Rejoicing about the return of a lost person isn’t an option — it is a necessity. “This brother of yours” — Not “my son,” but “your brother.” The father reminded the older son of his family responsibility. The implication is that it is necessary for him to rejoice — and by extension, for the Pharisees to rejoice at what Jesus was doing.

What this parable teaches us about God

The context helps us understand the lessons of the parable. Verses 1-2 tell us that sinners and tax collectors were being taught by Jesus. Pharisees criticized Jesus — not for teaching such people, but for eating with them, which was a sign of social acceptance. The Pharisees tried hard to be righteous, and they were disturbed that Jesus accepted people who hadn’t been trying hard. Perhaps they were worried that Jesus was making it too easy on people, and his acceptance might encourage others to be lazy.

Jesus then gave the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, both concluding that God rejoices about each sinner who repents. “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (verse 7). There’s no such thing as a person who has no need for repentance, but the Pharisees weren’t yet aware of that. There would be rejoicing for them, too, if they would accept it.

The parable of the lost son continues the theme of rejoicing and adds to it. The first half of the parable illustrates rejoicing over a sinner who returned; the second half more directly addresses the situation Jesus faced: criticism about his willingness to be with sinners. By telling the parable the way he did, Jesus chides those who do not rejoice about the sinners’ interest in being taught (figuratively, they were returning to God).

In the first two parables, the lost were found by searching. But the younger son was found by waiting. The spiritually lost were already coming to Jesus. They had been spiritually dead and were now showing interest — they wanted to be taught by Jesus. Jesus received them and ate with them. His reception would have encouraged them to obey as much as they knew and to continue to listen to him for more instruction in God’s way.

But the parable is not just about Jesus in the first century; it is also a timeless message about God the Father. He rejoices over (cf. the celebration) and honors (cf. the robe, ring and sandals) every sinner who repents. He doesn’t wait for a full and formal apology; he perceives the attitude and comes toward us.[3] This theme of joyful acceptance, similar to that of the first two parables of this chapter, dominates the first part of this parable. This lesson is illustrated by the father: He is always ready to welcome a returning child.

The parable shows that sinners can confess and return to God. Since God is gracious, sinners can return to him with confidence that he will warmly welcome them. But in the parable, poverty is more prominent than sin. Unlike the first two parables, the word repent is not used; only superficial reasons are given for the son’s return. As Jesus spoke to the Pharisees, encouraging sinners to return was not the main issue; the main issue was what to do about sinners who were already willing to return.

The parable shows that God’s people should rejoice at a) the willingness of sinners to turn to God and b) the willingness of God to receive them. This is the lesson of the second half of the parable, illustrated by the father’s correction of his older son. This theme addresses the setting of the three parables, the Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus’ reception of sinners. The parables of the lost sheep and lost coin and the first half of the parable of the lost son are preparatory to this point.

These themes are timeless. God rejoices over each person who repents, and so should we. We need not kill a calf for repentant persons (Jesus didn’t; the parable illustrates the attitude of rejoicing, not the specific actions we should take). We need to accept repentant[4] sinners to social fellowship (cf. eating with them, verse 2) and religious instruction (cf. allowing them to listen, verse 1). This parable does not say we should seek outcasts (that is shown better by the parables of lost sheep and lost coin), but that we should be happy when they come to us to be taught.

Jesus’ story shows that it is ungodly to refuse to rejoice about repentance. The Pharisees, by insisting on a too-strict standard of righteousness, were being unrighteous. They, too, needed to repent.

Epilogue

The parable ends without revealing what the older son did. Would the hard-hearted son change his mind and rejoice about his brother’s return? For the situation in Jesus’ day, either response was still possible — it was up to the Pharisees. Would they rejoice with Jesus? The book of Acts shows that some did and some did not.

Similarly, the parable does not reveal what the younger son did. Did he abuse his second chance? That also reflects the situation Jesus was in. Would the tax collectors and sinners continue in their repentance? It was not yet known. Nevertheless, it is appropriate — no, necessary — to rejoice at their first change of heart, rather than waiting for some probationary period.


[1] J. Louw and E. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, volume 1, page 560, 57.18.

[2] “Hired men” is misthioi, contract laborers, probably farmhands, not the douloi, household bondservants, mentioned in verse 22.

[3] Theologically, people do not start coming toward God unless they are led by the Holy Spirit. The Father has been seeking (illustrated by the first two parables in this chapter) before the people “come to themselves” and desire to return.

[4] This does not mean that people must conform to all our expectations before we will have anything to do with them (that was the attitude of the Pharisees). In the context, their repentance is shown not by perfect behavior, but simply by their willingness to be with and to be taught by Jesus. They were turned in the right direction, even though they were not very far along on the journey.

Michael Morrison-GCS offers online master's degrees.


10. John 1 - The Word Made Flesh

John does not start “the story of Jesus” in the usual way. He says nothing about the way Jesus was born. Rather, he takes us back in time to “the beginning.” In the beginning, he says, was “the Word.” Modern readers may not know at first what this “Word” is, but it becomes clear in verse 14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The Word became a human being, a Jewish man named Jesus.

When John talks about “the Word,” he is talking about a Person who existed in the beginning with God, and he was God (v. 1). He was not a created being; rather, it is through him that all created things were made (v. 3). The question that I’d like to comment on now is, Why does John tell us this? Why do we need to know that Jesus was originally a Person who was not only with God, but he was also God?

A great idea

By using the word Word, John was using a term that had rich meaning to Greek and Jewish philosophers. They also believed that God had created everything through his word, or his wisdom. Since God was a rational being, he always had a word with him. The “word” was his power to think — his rationality, his creativity.

John takes this idea and gives it a radical twist: The Word became flesh. Something in the realm of the perfect and the eternal became part of the imperfect and decaying world. That was a preposterous idea, people might have said. That did not fit their idea of what God was.

John may have agreed with them: This was quite unexpected. God did not act the way we thought he would. Indeed, as we read John’s Gospel we will find that Jesus frequently did the unexpected. He was not acting the way that people expected a man of God to act — and that is part of the reason that he came, and part of the reason that John tells the story. We had wrong ideas about God, and Jesus came to set us straight.

Jesus did not just bring a message about God — he himself was the message. He showed us in the flesh what God is like. Shortly before Jesus was killed, Philip asked him, “Lord, show us the Father” (14:8). And Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you for such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (v. 9).

If you want to know what God is like, then study Jesus. Jesus shows us the love that God has for us; he freely gave his life to save others. When the Word humbled himself to become a flesh-and-blood human, it was a change — something God had never done before — but it was not a change in God’s nature. Rather, it was a demonstration of his unchanging nature — his unchanging faithfulness to us. It showed us the love that God has for us all the time.

The Greek philosophers imagined that God was so perfect that he would have nothing to do with messed-up human beings. Many Jews felt the same way — they emphasized God’s holiness so much that they thought the people of God should have nothing to do with people who weren’t careful about keeping the laws of holiness. They were right in saying that God was holy, but they had forgotten that his holiness includes love and mercy and his power includes tenderness.

Life and truth

As a disciple, John did not start off knowing that his teacher was eternally pre-existent. This awareness came to him slowly, and may be reflected in the words of the disciples. Peter said, “You are the Holy One of God” (6:69); Martha said, “You are the Christ, the Son of God” (11:27); and after the resurrection, Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” (20:28).

John develops this theme throughout the Gospel, but he wants us as readers to know even from the beginning who Jesus is, so that we can watch the story unfold with a little more understanding. Jesus is “God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side” — and he “has made the Father known” (1:18).

This flesh-and-blood God had life, “and that life was the light of men” (v. 4). He was bringing eternal life, and his “light” reveals to us the way to eternal life. We can read the story knowing that this person is actually God in the flesh, showing us what God is like.

John the Baptist told people about Jesus, but most people could not accept what he said: “Look — the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (v. 29). But “the darkness” could not understand the light of the world. “The world did not recognize him … did not receive him” (vs. 10-11). But for those who did believe, John says, they became children of God, born not in the ordinary way, “but born of God” (v. 13).

“We have seen his glory,” John says, and it does not consist of blazing fire and thundering voice. Rather, the glory of God that we see in Jesus is “grace and truth.” In his words and in his works, Jesus shows us that truth is gracious. Some people want “truth” to be a weapon that beats other people down, but Jesus shows us that it lifts people up.

“The law was given through Moses,” but the law could not give us eternal life. Here’s what we really needed: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (v. 17). Yes, God gave the law, but the law could not reveal the true nature of God. God cannot be defined by a list of rules. He is revealed as a person who walked this earth as one of us, showed mercy to sinners, and died for others.

God did not have to do this, but the fact that he did shows how much he cares about us: “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). This had been revealed to Moses, but it seems that the Israelites had forgotten it, so Jesus came to reveal it in the flesh.

Even today, after nearly 2,000 years of Christian teaching, many people — even many Christians — think that God is a stern Judge, but Jesus stepped in and thwarted God’s plan to punish us. The truth is that the love and mercy we see in Jesus is exactly how God has always been. That’s something worth thinking about.

Author: Joseph Tkach, D.Min.

11. John 2 - Turning Water Into Wine

The Gospel of John tells an interesting story near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: He went to a wedding and turned water into wine. Several aspects of this story make it unusual:

  • It seems like a minor miracle, more like a magician’s trick than the work of a Messiah. It prevented a little embarrassment, but didn’t really address human suffering the way that Jesus’ healings did.
  • It was a private miracle — done without the knowledge of the main beneficiary — and yet it was a sign that revealed Jesus’ glory (John 2:11).
  • The literary function is puzzling. John knew of many more miracles than he had room to write about, and yet he chose this one to begin his book. How does it help achieve John’s purpose — to help us believe that Jesus is the Christ? (John 20:30-31). How does it show that he is the Messiah, rather than a magician (as the Jewish Talmud later claimed him to be)?

A wedding in Cana

We can start by examining the story in closer detail. It begins with a wedding in Cana, a small village in Galilee. The location does not seem to be important — what is important is that it was a wedding. Jesus did his first messianic sign at a wedding festival.

Weddings were the biggest and most important celebrations among the Jewish people — the weeklong party signaled the social status of the new family in the community. Weddings were such joyous occasions that when people wanted to describe the blessings of the messianic age, they often used a wedding banquet as a metaphor. Jesus used the image of a wedding banquet to describe the kingdom of God in some of his parables.

Jesus often used miracles in the physical world to demonstrate spiritual truths. He healed people to show that he had the authority to forgive sin. He cursed a fig tree as a sign of coming judgment on the temple. He healed on the Sabbath to show his authority over the Sabbath. He raised people from the dead to show that he is the resurrection and the life. He fed thousands to show that he is the bread of life. And here, he provided abundant blessings for a wedding to show that he is the one who will provide the messianic banquet of the kingdom of God.

When the wine was gone, Mary told Jesus about it, and he said, “Why do you involve me?” (v. 4). In other words, what does that have to do with me? “My time has not yet come.” And yet, even though it was not yet time, Jesus did something. John signals here that what Jesus is doing is somehow ahead of its time. The messianic banquet is not yet here, and yet Jesus did something. The messianic age was beginning, long before it would arrive in its fullness.

Mary expected him to do something, for she told the servants to do whatever Jesus said. Whether she expected a miracle, or a quick trip to the nearest wine market, we do not know.

Ceremonial water turned into wine

Now, it so happened that six stone water containers stood nearby, and they were not regular water jars, John tells us — they were the kind the Jews used for ceremonial washing. (For ceremonial cleansing, the Jews preferred water from stone containers rather than clay pots.) They held more than 20 gallons of water each — far too heavy for picking up and pouring. That’s a lot of water, just for ceremonial washing. This must have been at the largest estate in Cana.

This seems to be a significant part of the story — that Jesus was going to transform some water used in Jewish ceremonies. This symbolized a transformation in Judaism, even the fulfillment of ceremonial washings. Imagine what would happen if guests wanted to wash their hands again — they would go to the water pots and find every one of them filled with wine! There would be no water for their ritual. The spiritual cleansing of Jesus’ blood superseded ritual washings. Jesus has fulfilled the rituals and replaced them with something much better—himself.

The servants filled the containers to the brim, John tells us (v. 7). How appropriate, for Jesus filled the rituals completely, rendering them obsolete. In the messianic age, no space is left for ritual washings.

The servants drew some wine out and took it to the master of ceremonies, who then told the bridegroom, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now” (v. 10).

Why do you suppose that John records these words? Was it advice for future banquets? Was it merely to show that Jesus makes good wine? No, I think it is reported because it has symbolic significance.

The Jews were like people who had been drinking wine (performing ritual washings) so long that they could not recognize when something better came along. When Mary said, “They have no more wine” (v. 3), it symbolized the fact that the Jews had no spiritual meaning left in their ceremonies. Jesus was bringing something new and something better.

Cleansing the temple

In keeping with this theme, John next tells us that Jesus drove merchants out of the temple courts. Commentators write pages about whether this temple-cleansing was the same as the one the other Gospels report at the end of Jesus’ ministry, or whether it was an additional one at the beginning. In either case, John reports it here because of the significance that it symbolizes.

John again puts the story in the context of Judaism: “It was almost time for the Jewish Passover” (v. 13). And Jesus found people selling animals and changing money — animals for sin offerings fellowship offerings, and other sacrifices, and money that could be used to pay the temple taxes. So Jesus made a simple whip and drove them all out.

It is surprising that one man could drive all the merchants out. (Where are the temple police when you need them?) I suspect that the merchants knew that they should not be there, and I suspect that a lot of the common people didn’t want them there either — Jesus was simply expressing what the people already felt, and the merchants knew they were outnumbered. Josephus describes other occasions when the Jewish leaders tried to change the way things were done in the temple, and the people raised such an outcry that they had to stop.

Jesus did not object to people selling animals for sacrifice, or changing money for temple offerings. He said nothing about how much they were charging. His complaint was simply their location: They were turning the house of God into a house of merchandise (v. 16). They had turned the religion into a moneymaking scheme.

So the Jewish leaders didn’t arrest Jesus — they knew the people supported what he had done — but they did ask him what gave him the right to do this (v. 18). And Jesus said nothing about the inadequacies of the temple, but shifted the subject to something new: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (v. 19).

Jesus was talking about his own body, but the Jewish leaders did not know that. They no doubt considered it a ridiculous answer, but still they did not arrest him.

Jesus’ resurrection shows that he had the authority to cleanse the temple, and his words foreshadowed its destruction. When the leaders killed Jesus, they were also destroying the temple, for the death of Jesus brought all the sacrifices to obsolescence. And in three days Jesus was raised, and he built a new temple — his church.

And many people believed in Jesus, John tells us, because they saw his miraculous signs. (John 4:54 reports the “second” miraculous sign; this makes me think that the temple cleansing has been reported out of sequence because it is an advance indication of what the ministry of Jesus is about.)

Jesus was going to bring about the end of the temple sacrificial system and the end of the rituals of cleansing — and the Jewish leaders were unwittingly going to help him by attempting to destroy the body of Jesus. But in three days everything would be changed from water to wine — from lifeless ritual to the best spiritual drink of all.

Bringing it closer to home

What do these two episodes have to teach us today? First, Christians might well wonder if certain of our traditions have outlived their usefulness and blinded us to new developments in what Christ wants us to do. It might be the holidays that we keep, or the way in which we keep them. It might be the way that churches are organized and governed. It might be unnecessary restrictions on who can do what. It might be attitudes toward evangelism.

But we can do well to ask if our traditions have become as meaningless as water, and whether Christ wants to transform them into something more stimulating.

We can also ask about our attitudes about money. Has money become more important to us than our relationship with God? We can certainly ask this from a denominational perspective, or from a local church perspective as budget committees are meeting. And we can ask it from a personal perspective, whether we might be letting commerce take over time that should be used for the community and people of God. Do we allow shopping and banking to occupy space in our lives that ought to be devoted to worship? Both of these are worth thinking about.

You might also be interested in: What does the Bible say about wine?

Author: Joseph Tkach, D.Min., 2004


12. John 3 - An Odyssey of Faith

The Christian life is more than a simple path. It involves crises, transitions and surprises as well as victories and growth. Sometimes this never-ending odyssey with our Savior into eternal joy is a pleasant cruise, and sometimes it is a wild ride.

A new start for every person

Jesus taught that every person must have a fresh beginning. In John 3:3, Jesus told Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Nicodemus would hardly have been surprised at the idea that there would be a resurrection at the end of the age — many Jews already held that idea.

Jesus was talking about something more surprising — a new birth or a new start that enables a person to “enter the kingdom of God” (verse 5) in this age. He told the Pharisees, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). Even in this age, people are entering the kingdom of God, and they do it by accepting the good news that God offers his blessings on the basis of grace rather than law. But it takes a new start in life to experience the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus knew Jesus’ statement could not be taken literally. “How can a man be born when he is old?… Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (verse 4).

So Jesus said it again, adding some words of explanation: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (verse 6).

For physical life, a person needs a physical birth. For spiritual life, a person needs a spiritual birth. Nicodemus, and Judaism in general, focused on the physical. They were concerned about purity laws, time and place, rules and rituals. Although they knew that God was Spirit, they expected his kingdom to be a physical kingdom like the kingdoms of this world, with geographic territory, agriculture and the enforcement of laws.

So Jesus chided Nicodemus for not understanding (verses 7, 10). The Pharisees (just like the Samaritans — see John 4:21-24) were too concerned with physical aspects of worship. Jesus is saying that there is more to the kingdom of God than having better crops, tame animals and people keeping rules and rituals. God is concerned with the spirit of a person, a transformation of the spirit, and that requires a new start in life.

Spirit, like wind, cannot be seen, but its results can be seen (verse 8). The Spirit changes people, and the change, although sometimes frustratingly slow, is evidence that the Spirit is working. We all need that kind of new start in life. As John 3 explains, it requires that we believe in Jesus, and trust that he gives us eternal life. When we put our faith in him, we are “born of the Spirit” — a new life has begun.

Believe in the Son

Jesus’ death atoned for everyone on earth (1 John 2:2), but only those who believe can experience the kind of life that characterizes the age to come. That is why Jesus came: God loved the world so much that he gave up his only Son, “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (verse 16).

God does not want to condemn us (verse 17). If we believe in Christ, we are saved; if we do not, we remain in condemnation, because our sins condemn us, and we have not accepted the only rescue that God offers (verse 18). The atoning sacrifice has already been given, but the benefits are not forced on people who don’t want them.

The new life in Christ is a wonderful, yet sometimes frightening journey — an odyssey of faith filled with many ups and downs — always strengthened by the confidence that Jesus is with us, and that he will help us weather all the storms.

Author: Joseph Tkach, D.Min.

13. John 4 - True Worship

Jews and Samaritans simply didn’t get along. The trouble went way back, five centuries or so, to the days of the Jewish leader Zerubbabel. Some Samaritans offered to help the Jews rebuild their temple, and Zerubbabel rebuffed them. The Samaritans responded by complaining to the king of Persia, and the work stopped (Ezra 4).

Later, when the Jews were rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, the governor of Samaria threatened to take military action against the Jews. The Samaritans eventually built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim, and in 128 B.C., the Jews destroyed it. Although their religions were both based on the laws of Moses, they were bitter enemies.

Jesus enters Samaria

But Jesus was not shackled by the squabbles of the past. Although most Jews avoided Samaria, Jesus walked right into it, taking his disciples with him. He was tired, so he sat down at a well near the city of Sychar, and sent his disciples into town to buy some groceries (John 4:38). Along came a Samaritan woman, and Jesus talked to her. She was surprised that he would talk to a Samaritan; his disciples were surprised that he would talk to a woman (verses 9, 27).

Jesus shows us a simple way of dealing with people who have different religious beliefs, people who are from a different ethnic group, people who are traditional enemies: just treat them like normal human beings. Don’t ignore them, don’t avoid them, don’t insult them. But Jesus had something much more profound than that to say.

He began in the simplest possible way: He asked the woman for a drink. He was thirsty, but he had nothing to draw water with — but she did. He had a need, she had a means of fulfilling it, so he asked her for help. She was surprised that a Jew would actually drink from a Samaritan water pot — most Jews considered such a vessel ritually unclean. And then Jesus said: I have something a lot better than water, if you want it. I am willing to ask you for a drink of water — are you willing to ask me for something that’s better? (verses 7-10).

Jesus was using a play on words — the phrase “living water” usually meant moving water, flowing water. The woman knew quite well that the only water in Sychar was in that well, and there was no flowing water nearby. So she asked Jesus what he was talking about. He said he was talking about something that would lead to eternal life (verses 11-14). He was talking about religious ideas — but would the woman be willing to listen to spiritual truth from a religious enemy? Would she drink Jewish waters?

The woman asked for the living water, and Jesus invited her to get her husband. He already knew that she didn’t have one, but he asked anyway — possibly to show that he had spiritual insight. He was the vessel from which she could receive the living water. The woman got the message: “I can see that you are a prophet” (verse 19). If Jesus knew the facts about her unusual marital status, then he probably knew spiritual truths, as well.

True worship

After learning that Jesus was a prophet, the woman brought up the old controversy between Samaritans and Jews about the proper place to worship: We worship here, but you Jews say that people have to go to Jerusalem (verse 20). Jesus responded: The day will soon come when that won’t be relevant. It won’t matter whether people look to Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem — or any other location. The hour is already here when people will worship God in spirit and truth (verses 21-24).

Has Jesus suddenly jumped to a different subject? Maybe not — the Gospel of John gives us some clues about what he meant: “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:16). True worship means listening to the words of Jesus, and coming to God through him. Worship does not depend on place or time or ethnic group — it depends on our attitude to God as shown in our attitude to his Son, Jesus Christ. True worship comes along with the living water.

Jesus was revealing a profound spiritual truth to this stranger — a truth just as profound as what he had discussed with one of Israel’s religious leaders (John 3). But the woman was not quite sure what to make of it, and she said, When the Messiah comes, he’ll tell us what’s right (verse 25).

Jesus responded, I am he — probably his most direct claim to be the Messiah — and yes, what I am telling you is right. The woman left her water jar behind and went back to town to tell everyone about Jesus, and she convinced them to check it out for themselves, and many of them believed. They believed not just because of the woman’s testimony, but because they listened to Jesus himself (verses 39-41).

Worship today

Sometimes people today get too opinionated about worship — true worship has to involve a certain day of the week, a certain type of song, a certain posture or some other detail. But I think that Jesus’ answer to the Samaritan woman covers it well: The time will come when you will worship God neither this way nor that, because God is not to be found in earthly places, rotations of the earth, cultural music or human gestures.

God is spirit, and our relationship with him is a spiritual one. We live in time and space, and we use time and space in our worship, but those details are not the meaning of worship. Rather, our worship centers in Jesus, and in our relationship with him. He is the source of living waters that we need for eternal life. We need to admit our thirst, and ask him for a drink. Or to use metaphors from the book of Revelation, we need to admit that we are poor, blind and naked, and ask Jesus for spiritual wealth, sight and clothing. We worship in spirit and truth when we look to him for what we need.

In marriage, different people express love in different ways, and some forms of expression are appropriate in public, and some are not. This is true of worship, too. We express our adoration in different ways, and some ways are more appropriate in private than in public. Certain activities, though they may seem worshipful to one person, may appear disrespectful or distracting to another person. When we worship together, we do not want our activities to put other people off. At the same time, believers who are more formal need to be tolerant of a little diversity. True worship is not defined by external matters, but by our attitude toward Jesus Christ.

When it comes to worship, though there will always be room for improvement and maturity, may we continue to learn from Jesus not only about what worship really is, but also the way we interact with people who think about it differently than we do.

Joseph Tkach, D.Min.

14. John 6 - Let Nothing Be Wasted

Jesus saw a large crowd coming toward him, and he asked Philip, “Where will we buy enough bread for all these people?” Jesus already knew what he was going to do, but he asked the question because he wanted Philip to think about it and learn something from it (John 6:5-6, my paraphrase, throughout). John included this story so that we could think about it and learn something from it, too.

Spiritual significance

Let’s fast-forward into the story so we can see what Jesus already knew would happen. He miraculously fed the large crowd, and they later asked Jesus to prove that he was the Messiah (v. 30). Jesus told them, “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven—bread that gives life to the world.”

“Well then,” they said, “give us some of this bread” (v. 34). Their response was like the Samaritan woman at the well: When Jesus said that he had water that would give eternal life, she said, “Give me some” (John 4:15), and eventually Jesus said that he was talking about himself.

And in John 6, Jesus also reveals that he is talking about himself: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v. 35). Jesus is the bread who came down from heaven to give life to the world. Just as bread is nourishment for our physical lives, Jesus is the source of spiritual life and energy.

The miracle of feeding the large crowd pointed toward a spiritual truth, and that is why Jesus did it, and that is why he wanted Philip to think about it, and that is why John tells us the story. Jesus did many miracles that John did not include in his book, but John includes certain ones to help us have faith in Jesus (20:30-31) — not just believe that Jesus did certain things in the past, but that we would trust him with our eternal future. The miracles are signs pointing us toward Jesus’ spiritual significance.

Let’s look at the story again.

It was almost Passover, John tells us (v. 3). Bread was an important feature of the Passover season, but Jesus is revealing that salvation does not come from physical bread, but from Jesus himself. Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we going to buy bread for these people?” And Philip answered, “It would take (roughly) five thousand dollars to buy enough bread for this crowd!”

Andrew did not speculate about the price, but he must have been good with kids. He had already befriended a boy and learned that he was carrying a little extra food. “This boy has five small loaves and two dried fish, but that’s not near enough, is it?” Perhaps he was hoping that the crowd included a few more boys who had the foresight to bring lunch.

“That’s good enough,” Jesus said. “Have everybody sit down.” So everybody did. Jesus thanked God for the food, and gave everyone as much food as they wanted (v. 11). It was quite a crowd — larger than many towns are today — and the people began to talk among themselves, “Surely this is the Prophet” (v. 14).

They thought that Jesus was the leader Moses had predicted (Deut. 18:15-19)—and yet, ironically, they were not willing to listen to him. They wanted to make him a king by force — forcing him into their idea of what a Messiah should be — rather than letting Jesus do what God sent him to do.

When everyone had enough to eat, Jesus told the disciples: “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted” (John 6:12). Doesn’t this strike you as a little odd? Why would Jesus want to gather all the leftovers? Why not let the people keep the extra? Or let it be a bonanza for the birds and chipmunks?

The disciples picked up 12 baskets full of leftovers, John tells us — but then he says nothing about what they did with all those half-eaten loaves. I think there’s something going on behind the scenes. What is there in the spiritual realm that Jesus does not want to go to waste? I think that John gives us a clue later in the chapter.

Walking on water

The disciples took a boat back home — but they left Jesus stranded there, without any other boat to pick him up (vs. 17, 22). John does not indicate that anything was out of the ordinary with this, so I conclude that the disciples often left Jesus alone, presumably because Jesus wanted to be left alone sometimes. He needed some time on his own for prayer, no doubt. (As an aside, I might point out that this is also true for pastors today — they need some time to themselves, even though there will always be people who want more of their time.)

As far as I know, Jesus was not in a hurry. He could have walked back to town on the roads that went around the lake. Or he could have waited for a boat, like the other people did (v. 23). But he walked on the water, apparently to make a spiritual point.

In Matthew, the spiritual point is faith, but John says nothing about Peter walking on water or sinking and being saved by Jesus. What John tells us is that when the disciples took Jesus into the boat, “immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading” (v. 21). This is the feature of the story that John wants us to take note of.

If Jesus could do teleporting, why did he need to walk on water? Why not just zap to wherever you want to go? What’s the point? You might have a better idea, but here’s mine: The story tells us that Jesus is not limited by physical circumstances, and as soon as we accept Jesus, we are spiritually at our destination. It may not look like it, but Jesus is not limited by physical appearances. Spiritually, the reality is set; it has been done.

The bread of life

The people searched Jesus out again, looking for another free lunch, and Jesus encouraged them to look for spiritual food instead: “Do not look for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life” (vs. 24-27). “The Son of Man will give you this food,” Jesus said, but instead of asking for this gift, they asked what they should do (v. 28). They were asking for works instead of grace.

“What does God want us to do?” they asked, wanting to meet the requirements of the messianic age. Jesus told them: “God wants you to believe in the person he sent” (v. 29). The messianic age has already begun, so don’t try to work your way into the kingdom — just trust Jesus, and you’ll be in. Just take that one step, and you’ll be there!

Could it really be that easy?, the people wondered. They asked for evidence — as if feeding 5,000 people had not been enough! “What miraculous sign will you do that we might believe you?” As an example of a miracle they might be willing to believe, and in keeping with the Passover season, they mentioned a miracle of bread associated with the Exodus — Moses gave them manna (bread from heaven) to eat. Some Jews thought that God would provide manna in the messianic age, too.

But Jesus said that the real bread from heaven doesn’t just feed the Israelites — it gives life to the world! (v. 33). “Give it to us,” they said, probably wanting to examine it to see if it met their qualifications. Jesus replied that he was the bread from heaven, the source of eternal life for the world.

The people had seen Jesus perform signs, and they still did not believe in him (vs. 33-36), because he did not meet their qualifications for a messiah. Why did some believe, and others did not? Jesus explained it as the work of the Father: “Everyone the Father gives me will come to me.” He repeats this idea in verses 44 and 65: “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him … unless the Father has enabled him.”

Once the Father does that, what does Jesus do? He tells us his role when he says, “I will never drive them away” (v. 37). Perhaps they can leave on their own, but Jesus will never push them away. Jesus wants to do the will of the Father, and the Father’s will is that Jesus will lose none of the people the Father has given him (v. 39). He does not let anyone go to waste.

Since Jesus does not lose anyone, he promises to raise them up at the last day (v. 39). This is repeated in verses 40, 44 and 54. Jesus stresses that the person who believes in him has eternal life (vs. 40, 47).

Eating his flesh?

Jesus also says that people who eat his flesh and drink his blood have eternal life (vs. 51, 53-56). Just as he was not referring to the stuff made from wheat when he called himself the true bread, he was not referring to muscle tissue when he spoke of eating his flesh.

Some of the Jews wondered, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52), but in the Gospel of John, it is often a mistake to take Jesus’ words in a literal sense. For example, Nicodemus asked, How can people enter their mothers’ wombs and be born again? (3:4). Similarly, the Samaritan woman said, Give me some of this living water so I won’t have to come back to this well (4:15).

They pushed the literal meaning, but the story shows that Jesus meant something spiritual. Here in chapter 6, Jesus said, “The flesh counts for nothing; the words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (v. 63). Jesus is not making a point about his muscle tissue — he is talking about his teachings.

And his disciples seem to get the point. When Jesus asks them if they want to go away, Peter answers: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68). Peter was not worried about having access to the flesh of Jesus — he focused on the words of Jesus. The consistent message of the New Testament is that salvation is experienced through faith, not special food and drink.

From heaven

Jesus repeats one more point several times in this chapter: that he is from heaven (vs. 33, 38, 41, 42, 46, 50, 51, 58, 62). The reason that people should believe in Jesus is because he has come down from heaven. He is absolutely trustworthy, because he does not just have a message from heaven, but he himself is from heaven.

The Jewish leaders did not like this teaching (v. 41), and some of Jesus’ disciples could not accept it, either (v. 66) — even after Jesus made it clear that he was not talking about his literal flesh, but rather his words themselves were the source of eternal life. They were troubled that Jesus claimed to be from heaven — and therefore more than human.

But Peter knew that he had nowhere else to go, for only Jesus had the words of eternal life (v. 68). Why did he know that only Jesus had these words? Because only Jesus is “the Holy One of God” (v. 69). That is the reason his words are trustworthy; that is the reason his words are spirit and life. We believe in Jesus not just because of what he says, but because of who he is. We do not accept him because of his words — we accept his words because of who he is.

Since Jesus is the Holy One of God, we can trust him to do what he says he will do: He will not lose anyone, but will raise us all at the last day (v. 39). Even the crumbs will be gathered, so that nothing goes to waste. That’s the Father’s will, and that’s something worth thinking about.

Author: Joseph Tkach, D.Min.

15. John 9 - A Blinding Light

“I am the light of the world,” said Jesus. “I have come into this world so that the blind will see” (John 9:5, 39). And to demonstrate it, he healed a man who had been born blind. He came to help people see, to help them understand something about God’s love for them.

But Jesus also said that he came to bring blindness: “I have come into this world so that…those who see will become blind” (John 9:39). This is a hard saying — it is easy to understand a physician who came to heal the sick, but it is hard to understand a physician who came to make healthy people sick.

Whose fault is it?

Let’s review the story in John 9. As Jesus and the disciples walked through Jerusalem, they saw a blind man. Somehow they knew that the man had been blind from birth, and the disciples used the opportunity to ask Jesus a theological question that had puzzled them: Whose fault is this, they asked, did the man sin before he was born, or is he being punished because his parents sinned? Problems like this, they assumed, are the result of sin, but who sinned?

Neither answer seemed right, and Jesus agreed. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus said, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (v. 3). Did God cause the man to be blind just so that Jesus could do a miracle? I don’t think that is what Jesus is driving at.

Jesus seems to be talking about the result rather than the purpose or cause. The man was born blind, and it doesn’t do him or anyone else any good for us to speculate about whose sin caused it. The man does not need a discussion about the causes of evil — he needs his sight, and Jesus said that the result of his condition is that “the work of God” would be seen in him. And by that, I think that Jesus was talking about more than a miracle.

“As long as it is day,” Jesus said, “we must do the work of him who sent me.” A modern proverb that is roughly equivalent is, “Make hay while the sun shines” — or work while you can, because, as Jesus warns, a time will come when you can’t: “Night is coming, when no one can work.” When will that be, we might wonder. When will it not be possible to do the work of God?

Jesus continued, “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (v. 5). As long as he is here, it is daytime — but a time would come when he would go away and the work would stop. Fortunately for us, that “night” did not last long, for Jesus was raised from the dead and now works in and through his people. (We also need to work while we can, because a time will come for each of us when we can do no more.)

Blind obedience

To illustrate what he meant by being a light to the world, Jesus spit on the ground, made a little mud, put it on the eyes of the blind man and told him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam. It’s hard to know from this account how much the man knew about Jesus. He knew his name, but may not have known much more than that. But he went to the Pool of Siloam anyway, and he was healed. It would have been interesting to see his reaction, but all we are told is that he went home (v. 7).

Now, why did Jesus heal the man in such an unusual way? If he just wanted to display a miracle, he would have healed him instantly. He could have said to his disciples, I can give spiritual sight just like this: snap! But the disciples did not see a miracle — all they saw was that Jesus put mud on somebody’s face and then told him to go wash it off.

John never does tell us how they reacted when they eventually found out. So the story that John is telling here is not so much about the miracle — it is about how the man learns who Jesus is, and how he reacts when he does. This is the far more important work of God that is being demonstrated in this man’s life.

The news got around, and the man told people that “the man they call Jesus” had healed him (v. 11). Then the Pharisees, the self-appointed judges of all spiritual truth, started to investigate this supernatural event. Some of them had already concluded that Jesus couldn’t be from God because he worked on the Sabbath. (Even God himself had to keep their rules, apparently.)

Others were more open-minded, saying that sinners (at least the sinners they knew) couldn’t do miracles like that (v. 16). So they asked the formerly blind man what he thought. “He is a prophet,” the man replied. He is like Elijah, sent by God with a message.

The Jews, or at least some of them, didn’t seem to like that answer, so they searched for a way to discredit the miracle. They asked his parents about it, and the parents verified the facts: He was born blind, but now he can see, but we don’t know who did it. They didn’t offer an opinion on whether Jesus was from God, because they were afraid of being expelled from the synagogue (v. 22).

I feel sorry for the parents. They had probably lived for years with the accusation that their son was blind because they had sinned. They needed the synagogue because faithful attendance was the only way they could show they were good people after all. Even though their son could now see, they were not willing to risk expulsion — and John probably includes this because it was precisely the situation that some of his readers faced. After Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70, the Jewish leaders regrouped and began demanding more conformity; they did not allow people to attend synagogue if they had any forbidden beliefs about a messiah.

John has set before us several types of people: 1) Some who have already made up their minds that Jesus is ungodly. 2) Some who are puzzled by Jesus but still try to discredit him. 3) Some who refuse to say, and probably don’t even want to find out because they are afraid of the consequences. 4) The man who viewed Jesus as good, and was willing to learn more.

Growing in faith

The Jewish leaders went back to the healed man and asked him again, and he told them again. “We know this man is a sinner,” they said (v. 24). I’m not sure about that, the man replied, but I know for sure that I’ve been healed. He must have been a little exasperated with their attitude, for he asked, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” (v. 27).

The leaders were offended by this idea, so they responded with insults, drawing a line in the sand: “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses!” — and you can’t be a disciple of both. John knew his readers needed to hear that, too. Don’t worry about getting kicked out of the synagogue, he seems to say. You should have left it long ago, anyway.

The man became bolder, saying, You don’t even know whether this man is from God, but he opened my eyes, and God doesn’t listen to sinners! “He listens to the godly man who does his will” (v. 31). In other words, Jesus is a godly man who is doing the will of God. “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” That’s the central question that runs throughout the Gospel of John: Is Jesus from God? The man declared that Jesus is from God.

The Jewish leaders became angry at this layman who tried to teach them theology, and they expelled him from the synagogue. They didn’t want him telling his story to more people.

Jesus heard about it and went looking for the man. “When he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ ” (v. 35). Here Jesus seems to be using the “Son of Man” as a messianic title, perhaps derived from Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man” who was given supreme authority (Dan. 7:13-14). “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.” If you say I am supposed to believe in somebody, then I will.

Jesus revealed himself to be the Son of Man, and the man worshipped him (v. 38). Just as he could see physically, he could also see spiritually, and in this way he displayed the work of God in his life.

Judgment

Jesus now gives another theological lesson: “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Jesus is the category by which all humanity will be judged. If people accept him, then God accepts them. But if they reject him, they are rejected. In other words, when a person refuses light, they have only darkness. Jesus is claiming to be the way, the truth and the life. Here he says he is the light, the one who enables people to see.

Some people refuse to see. Some are afraid, because Jesus nullifies their badges of righteousness. And when they turn away from Jesus, from the only true Light, they go further into darkness. In this story, the leaders of the synagogue would rather be blind than to admit that they had been wrong.

Some Pharisees asked, “Are we blind too?” And Jesus explained his parable: “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (v. 41). When he said, “Those who see will become blind,” he was not talking about people who really had spiritual insight. Rather, he was talking about people who only thought their insight was spiritual light, when it really was only darkness. They claimed to know spiritual truth, but when the Truth was right in front of them, they would not see it. Jesus did not make them blind, but he showed that they were blind.

People are judged by the way they respond to Jesus. If they admit their ignorance and are willing to be taught, they are not counted guilty. But if they claim to see, yet reject the only true Light, then they are guilty.

When you look at Jesus, what do you see?

Author: Joseph Tkach, D.Min.

16. John 10 - Which Voice Do You Hear?

Jesus told a parable and, as usual, the people did not understand him. So he explained it: “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7). In this parable, the sheep are God’s people, and they are entering a safe place, a sheep pen, representing salvation. We enter salvation through Jesus.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus continued, and “the sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice” (vs. 11, 4-5). God’s people hear the voice of Jesus and recognize it, but they stay clear of other voices.

The voices we hear

If Jesus has the voice of salvation, what are the other voices (the “strangers”) that might call for our attention? In the first century, it might have been the Pharisees, who were trying to lead God’s people. And it would have included the Dead Sea Scroll commune, who had their own path to pleasing God. The Herodians offered another approach to life: do whatever it takes to stay on good terms with the Roman government.

In our own day, various groups offer different paths to salvation: Muslims, Hindus, New Agers and others offer people different paths — even different ideas of salvation. For some, salvation is physical pleasure; for others it is the absence of feeling. Some focus on the afterlife, others on life right now. “Come to my sheep pen,” they might be calling. “You’ll be safe here.”

But these voices do not sound like Jesus. They do not have the message of grace from the God who loves us. Instead, they usually offer a message of “Do this and try harder.” Jesus says that we need a radical change, and just working harder will not be effective. Humans cannot save themselves — we can be saved only because God himself came into our world, suffered the pain of our corruption himself, and not only paid the ultimate penalty, but also lived the perfect life in our place.

Some versions of Christianity fall away from grace, and begin to preach works — good works, usually, but works nevertheless. There are conservative do-gooders and liberal do-gooders. Some people have the right words for Jesus (Lord and Savior, Son of God) but subtly drown out his voice by preaching about works as the key to salvation.

Such a message turns into a message about family values (which are very good) with a little Jesus thrown in for spice. Or it turns into political action, with a little Jesus thrown in for credibility. Some have even turned Jesus into merely a good teacher, a good example who encourages us to try harder and do more.

“Come into this sheep pen,” they might say. “This will give your life more meaning” — and it does, since it gives a semblance of purpose in life, which is more satisfying than selfishness. But it still falls short of the gospel of Jesus Christ, because in the message of “do good and try harder,” people always fall short. Jesus says, “Come into my sheep pen, where the burden is light and there is no condemnation” (Matt. 11:30Rom. 8:1). Do we hear his voice, or are we attracted to the gospel of good works?

God made us to do good works (Eph. 2:10), but he also made us to find our meaning and purpose in Jesus Christ. We were made through him, by him and for him (Col. 1:16), and we will never be fully satisfied until we find our meaning and purpose in him.

Thieves and robbers

If people try to get to the sheep pen in any way other than Christ, they are thieves and robbers, Jesus says (John 10:1). They are trying to get something in an unlawful way — they are trying to give life meaning without the Creator of life.

They may mean well. Maybe they don’t understand who Jesus is and what he is offering. Maybe Jesus’ grace insults their ability to work hard and direct their lives on their own. Maybe they think grace sounds too easy, too cheap. Whatever the reason, if they try to achieve life’s purpose in any other way, through any other gate, they will fail.

The people who offer other paths to salvation generally mean well. They honestly believe that they have a better way — and their way probably is better than what they had before. But it falls far short of what Jesus offers: full and unconditional pardon. They offer different sheep pens, and invite people to come in.

Many of us have tried those sheep pens. Some have tried Islam, some have tried Hinduism, some have tried liberalism and some of us have tried legalism. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says, but by that he does not mean that our response is automatic. Rather, he is encouraging us to hear him, to listen for him, to respond to him instead of the counterfeits. We need to train our ear so that we hear him better, so that we recognize a false gospel for what it is: a thief and a robber that will short-change our happiness.

The other gospels do not intend to maim and kill, but that’s what they end up doing. They offer something attractive, something good, but it’s just not good enough. It’s not Jesus, it’s not grace, it’s not finding our meaning in Christ.

Many voices can lead us away from Christ. If we have drifted away from Christ, what voices are we listening to? Are we so consumed by business, sports, television, partying, politics, sex, alcohol or other diversions that we have little or no time left for Jesus? Such things, when they crowd Jesus out, become thieves and robbers. They take our time, maybe even the rest of our life, but they will not give us life.

The shepherd who gives his life

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away” (vs. 11-12). All the other shepherds will let you down. Only Jesus died and rose for you. Only he deserves your full allegiance. Do you hear his voice?

Author: Joseph Tkach, D.Min.

17. John 11 - Lazarus, Come Out!

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. It was a tremendous miracle, showing that Jesus has the power to raise us from the dead, too. But there is more to the story than that, and John includes some details that may have deeper meaning for us today. I pray that I do not do injustice to the story as I share some of my thoughts with you.

Notice the way that John tells the story: Lazarus was not just a random resident of Judea — he was the brother of Martha and Mary, the Mary who loved Jesus so much that she poured perfume on his feet. “The sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick’ ” (John 11:1-3). To me, that sounds like a request for help, but Jesus did not come.

Delay with purpose

Does it ever seem to you like the Lord is slow to respond? It surely did for Mary and Martha, but the delay does not mean that Jesus doesn’t like us. Rather, it means that he has a different plan in mind, because he can see something that we cannot.

As it turns out, Lazarus was probably already dead by the time the messengers reached Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus said that the sickness would not end in death. Was he mistaken? No, because Jesus could see beyond death, and he knew that in this case, death was not the end of the story. He knew that the purpose was to bring more glory to God and his Son (v. 4). Nevertheless, he let his disciples think that Lazarus would not die. There’s a lesson there for us, too, for we do not always understand what Jesus really meant.

Two days later, Jesus surprised his disciples by suggesting that they return to Judea. They did not understand why Jesus would want to go back into the danger zone, so Jesus responded with a cryptic comment about walking in the light, and the coming of darkness (vs. 9-10), and then telling them that he had to go wake Lazarus up.

The disciples were apparently used to the mysterious nature of some of Jesus’ comments, and they had a round-about way of getting more information: They pointed out that the literal meaning didn’t make sense. If he’s asleep, then he’ll wake up by himself, so why do we need to risk our lives to go?

Jesus explained, “Lazarus is dead” (v. 14). But he also said, I’m glad I wasn’t there. Why? “So that you may believe” (v. 15). Jesus would do a miracle that would be more astonishing than if he had merely prevented a sick man from dying. But the miracle was not just in raising Lazarus back to life — it was also the knowledge that Jesus had of what was going on perhaps 20 miles away, and the knowledge of what would happen to him in the near future.

He had light that they could not see — and this light told him of his own death in Judea, and of his own resurrection. He was in complete control of the events. He could have avoided arrest if he wanted to; he could have stopped the proceedings with a simple word, but he did not. He chose to do what he did because that’s what he had come for.

The man who gave life to the dead would also give his own life for the people, for he had power over death, even his own death. He became mortal so that he could die, and what looked on the surface to be a tragedy was actually for our salvation. I don’t want to imply that every tragedy that happens to us is actually planned by God, or is good, but I do believe that God is able to bring good out of evil, and he sees realities that we cannot.

He sees beyond death, and his mastery of events is no less today than it was back then — but it is often just as invisible to us as it was to his disciples in John 11. We simply cannot see the bigger picture, and sometimes we stumble in the darkness. We have to trust God to work it out in the way that he knows is best. Sometimes we are eventually allowed to see how it works out for good, but often we just have to take his word for it.

Martha’s faith

Jesus and his disciples went to Bethany and learned that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. The eulogies had been given and the funeral was long over, and the doctor finally shows up! Martha said, perhaps with a little exasperation and hurt, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 22). We called for you several days ago, and if you had come then, then Lazarus would still be alive.

But Martha has a glimmer of hope — a little bit of light: “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (v. 23). Maybe she felt that it would be a little too bold for ask for a resurrection, but she hints at something.

“Lazarus will live again,” Jesus said, and Martha responded, “Yes, I know that (but I was hoping for something a little sooner).” Jesus said: “That’s good, but did you know that I am the resurrection and the life? If you believe in me, you will never die. Can you believe that?”

And Martha, in one of the most outstanding statements of faith in the entire Bible, said: “Yes, I believe that. You are the Son of God” (v. 27). Life and resurrection can be found only in Christ — but can we, today, believe what Jesus said? Do we really believe that “whoever lives and believes in me will never die?” I wish we all could better understand that, but I do know for sure that in the resurrection, we will be given a life that will never end.

In this age, we all die, just like Lazarus did, and Jesus will have to “wake us up.” We die, but that is not the end of the story for us, just as it was not the end of the story for Lazarus.

Martha went to get Mary, and Mary came to Jesus weeping. Jesus wept, too. Why did he weep when he already knew that Lazarus would live again? Why did John report this, when John also knew that joy was just around the corner? I don’t know — I don’t always understand why I weep, even at happy occasions.

But I think it does tell us that it’s OK to weep at a funeral, even if we know that the person will be resurrected into immortal life. Jesus promised that we will never die, and yet death still happens. It is still an enemy, still something in this world that is not the way it’s supposed to be in eternity. Even if eternal joy is just around the corner, sometimes we have times of great sadness, even though Jesus loves us. When we weep, Jesus weeps with us. He can see our sadness in this age just as well as he can see the joys of the future.

He stinks

“Roll away the stone,” Jesus said, and Martha objected, “There’s going to be a bad smell, because he’s been dead for four days.” Is there anything in your life that stinks, anything that you don’t want Jesus to expose by “rolling back the stone”? There is probably something like that in everyone’s life, something we’d rather keep buried, but sometimes Jesus has other plans, for he knows things that we do not, and we just have to trust him.

So they rolled back the stone, and Jesus prayed, and then he called out, “Lazarus, come out!” “The dead man came out,” John reports — but he was no longer dead. He was wrapped up like a dead man, but he was walking. “Take off the grave clothes,” Jesus said, “and let him go” (vs. 43-44).

Jesus calls out to spiritually dead people, today, too, and some of them hear his voice and walk out of their graves — they come out of the stench, they come out of the self-centered way of thinking that leads to death. And what do they need? They need someone to help them unwrap the grave clothes, to get rid of the old ways of thinking that so easily cling to us.

That’s one of the functions of the church. We help roll back the stone, even though there may be a stench, and we help the people who are responding to Jesus’ call. Do you hear Jesus calling you to himself? It’s time to walk out of your “grave.” Do you know someone Jesus is calling? It’s time to help roll back their stone.

Author: Joseph Tkach, D.Min., 2005

18. John 12:12-19 – Right Words, Wrong Reason

Each year, one week before Easter, Christian churches observe Palm Sunday, commemorating the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while the people waved palm branches and shouted praise. The people were right to praise Jesus, but they were doing it for the wrong reason.

Praise to the king!

John tells us that Jesus was in Bethany six days before the Passover (John 12:1). The next day, Jesus started walking to Jerusalem, and many people found out about it. “The great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,

“Hosanna!” [a Hebrew word meaning “save!”]

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12:13, quoting Psalm 118:25-26).

This is the way people in the first century greeted a visiting king—they would go out to meet him, praise him, and escort him into the city. These people were welcoming Jesus as a king. They were eager for Judea to have its own king, independent of Rome.

But the Romans did not want anyone to be king over Israel without their permission, and this parade for Jesus implied disloyalty to Rome. When the people waved palms, they were waving a Jewish national symbol. When Judea eventually did rebel against Rome, they put images of date palms on the coins. Palm trees represented a free and independent Judea.

Jesus knew that he was coming into the city toward his death, and that the crowds would soon call for his crucifixion. Right now, the crowds cheered because they thought that Jesus would be a military hero, but he was not; they were badly mistaken about who Jesus was—and yet correct in their praise.

Seated on a donkey

Jesus did something else that may have added to the crowd’s excitement: He “found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt’” (John 12:14-15, quoting Zechariah 9:9).

Some of the people probably knew from Zechariah that the promised Jewish king would ride a donkey. But none of them, not even the disciples, really understood what Jesus was doing. “At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him” (John 12:16).

The disciples were probably thinking just like the crowd. Although Jesus had told his disciples that he was going to be killed, they did not understand it. Perhaps they thought it was a riddle, and they hadn’t yet figured out the hidden meaning. But they understood it later—they understood that Jesus really was a king, and that he fulfilled the messianic prophecies, but that his kingdom was very different from anything they expected; it was “not of this world” (John 18:36).

But at this moment, the crowds and the disciples were excited because they thought Jesus might be the king who would deliver them from Rome (John 12:17-18).

Jesus could have gathered quite a large following if he had wanted to—and this terrified the Jewish leaders. They knew what Rome did to populist uprisings, and they definitely didn’t want that. “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’” (verse 19).

They also spoke the right words, but for the wrong reason.


The Greeks Had a Word for It

We get the English word “eulogy” from the Greek word eulogeō; it comes from root words meaning “to speak well of.” In eulogies, we speak well of people; we praise them.

The New Testament uses eulogeō 41 times; the Greek Old Testament uses it more than 500 times, usually with the meaning to praise or to bless. James 3:9 says that we eulogize God—we praise or speak well of him.

When Jesus eulogized his disciples (Luke 24:51), he was giving a blessing. To bless a person means “to ask God to bestow divine favor on … . In a number of languages the closest equivalent of to ‘bless’ is ‘to pray to God on behalf of’ or ‘to ask God to do something good for.’”1

In Ephesians 1:3, Paul says that God has already blessed us, already done good to us. When the people called Jesus “blessed” (John 12:13), they were saying that God had already been good to him.

When Jesus blessed bread (for example, Luke 24:30), he was asking God to further his good purpose through that bread.

1 Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, I: 442.

Dr. Michael Morrison teaches classes in the New Testament at Grace Communion Seminary. More information about the seminary can be found at: www.gcs.edu.

Author: Michael Morrison

19. John 13 - An Example of Service

On the evening he was betrayed, Jesus “poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:5).

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them…. ‘Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet’” (verses 12, 14).

In the days of dusty roads and open-toed sandals, feet often became dirty, and it was the job of the lowest servants to wash the guests’ feet. But Jesus set an example of service by doing this job himself, despite the protests from Peter.

What did Jesus teach?

Jesus said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (verse 15). We must ask, then, just what did Jesus do?

  1. He got up from the meal,
  2. took off his outer clothing,
  3. wrapped a towel around his waist,
  4. poured water into a basin,
  5. washed the disciples’ feet, and
  6. dried them with his towel.

Christians generally skip most of what Jesus did. We do not wash feet during a meal, take off our suit jackets or wrap towels around our waists. We do not pour water into a basin, or dry feet with our own towel. Most Christians do not literally wash one another’s feet. Some churches have an annual footwashing service, but if they do, people usually wash two feet that are already clean. Jesus washed 24 feet that really needed to be washed. Jesus performed a service that really needed to be done.

Did our Lord instruct his disciples to “wash one another’s feet” (verse 14)? Yes. Then why don’t we have any evidence that the apostles actually did it? They didn’t do it the evening Jesus commanded it, and we see nothing about it in Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, the epistles or in early church history.

The closest thing we find to it in the New Testament is 1 Timothy 5:10, which is about the qualifications of widows who may be put on a list of widows working for and supported by the church (we don’t do that anymore, do we?). One of the qualifications is that she must be “well known for her good deeds, such as…washing the feet of the saints.” Here, footwashing is a notable act of service, not something that all Christian women are expected to do on an annual basis.

Apparently the apostles understood Jesus to be talking about real service, not a ritual. When Jesus said, wash one another’s feet, he meant, serve one another. He used a specific example as a figure of speech representing all types of service. (The Gospel of John has many such figures of speech that should not be taken literally.) Jesus is saying that we should humble ourselves and be willing to do even menial tasks for one another.

Symbol of service

It is not wrong for Christians to wash one another’s feet. But we do not turn the figure of speech into a literal requirement.

The Bible was written in a specific culture, and its instructions are sometimes phrased with specific customs. Paul tells us to greet one another with a holy kiss, and footwashing is even more tied to culture than kissing is. It is based on foot travel, dusty roads and open-toed sandals. In Jesus’ day, footwashing was a normal part of a formal banquet. Now it is not. It is no longer part of customary formality, and it is no longer viewed as an honor or service.

We obey the intent of Paul’s command not by kissing, but by greeting one another with affection. We obey the intent of Jesus’ command not by washing our guests’ feet, but by helping them in other ways. There is no need to insist on taking one command literally and adapting the other to modern customs. Both may be adapted so that we obey the intent.

When we serve one another throughout the year, helping one another with real needs, we are obeying the spirit of the law of Christ. We are “washing feet” when we give people rides to church, when we help them move furniture, when we bring a meal for the sick, when we clean house for the bereaved. We wash feet when we encourage the depressed, are patient with the angry, spend time with the lonely.

There are a thousand ways to “wash the feet of the saints.” Sometimes it might even involve washing their feet — even cutting their toenails and helping them with cleanliness. Real service for genuine needs is far more important than a sanitized ritual. As Paul wrote: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).

Author: Joseph Tkach, D.Min.

20. John 14 - In His Name

“Whatever you ask in my name,” Jesus said, “I will do it” (John 14:13). Some people seem to think that Jesus is giving us a blank check — we can ask for anything at all, and he will sign his name to it and pass it along to the Father, and it will be done — guaranteed.

We all know that this doesn’t work — and it’s a good thing it doesn’t! Some people pray for rain at the same time as their neighbors pray for sunshine. The seller prays for a high price, the buyer prays for a low one. If God had to answer every request he was given in the name of Jesus, the world would be chaotic, driven by the whims of well-meaning but foolish people. Even if humans could all agree, we don’t have the wisdom to be telling God how to run the universe.

So what did Jesus mean?

Whatever we ask

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name…. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (John 16:23-24). Does this mean that we fill out the request form, and Jesus signs it and sends it to his dad? “Hey, Dad, I’ve got a buddy here who wants a million dollars. How about doing it as a favor for me?”

No, that is not the way it works. Jesus is not a middleman who stamps his signature on our request, pretending that our request is really his. He says: “I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you” (verses 26-27). We have permission to go to the Father directly, because God loves us just as much as he loves his own Son. We do not need a middleman. So do we ask in the name of Jesus?

Let’s imagine that we are in an ancient palace. The king is sitting on his throne, his prince at his right hand, dozens of guards at attention.

And now imagine that we go into the palace, and the guards make way for us, knowing that we have permission to approach the king. We walk in, bow before the king and the prince, and tell the king: “In the name of the prince, I ask you for a better job and a nicer home.”

Maybe my palace protocol is a little rusty, but it seems odd for me to speak “in the name of the prince” when the prince is sitting right there. Maybe this is not what it means to ask “in the name of Jesus.”

Let’s use another analogy. Suppose that a police officer says, “Stop in the name of the law” — it means that the officer has the force of law behind the command. But suppose that same officer asks for a bribe: “Give me $20,000 cash in the name of the law.” Using the words “in the name of the law” does not automatically give the officer legal support, does it? When the officer says “in the name of the law,” he is supposed to be acting within the rules of the law.

In the same way, when we use Jesus’ name, we are not obligating him to support our own whims and desires. Rather, we are saying that we are already in accord with what he wants. We are saying something he has authorized us to say.

Rather than forcing him to conform to our wishes, “in his name” means the opposite: We are conforming to his wishes, we are acting within his will. When we speak on his behalf, we need to make sure that we are saying something that he would agree with.

When we say “in Jesus’ name,” we are conforming to the words of the Lord’s prayer: Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Let it be done in my life. If my request is not according to your will, then feel free to change it to what it needs to be. “In Jesus’ name” is our affirmation that, as best we know, our request is within his will.

Let your requests be known

However, if we have to pray according to God’s will, what’s the point of praying? Isn’t he going to do his will whether we ask for it or not?

But God is the one who is telling us to pray. In his wisdom, God has decided to do certain things in answer to prayer. Sometimes this is so that we will learn, in the process of prayer, what his will is, and whether our request is for selfish purposes. We don’t always understand what God’s will is, and praying can sometimes help us come to a better understanding.

But I suspect that on many things, God’s will is not set in stone. God may not have decided, for example, which person we should marry — but he has already decided how we should treat the person we marry. He requires that we choose the person, and choose each day how we will interact with that person. Prayer can help us here, too.

Prayer changes us — but it also affects what God does. Since he has decided to do certain things in answer to prayer, he decides what to do based in part on what we do, on what we need in the situations we have chosen, and on what we ask him to do. He has the power to carry it out, the compassion to help us in our needs, and the wisdom to know what is really best for us.

“In everything,” Paul says, “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). Whatever is on your heart, whatever it is that you want, ask God for it.

Jesus has given us the authority to ask — but it is a request, not a command. We can trust God to answer in the best possible way, at the best possible time. But whatever we do (prayer included), we are to do it for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). When we do that, we can be confident that we are praying in Jesus’ name.

Author: Joseph Tkach, D.Min.

21. John 19 - Crowned With Thorns

When Jesus was on trial for his life, the soldiers twisted thorns into a makeshift crown and jammed it on his head (John 19:2). They hung a purple robe on him and ridiculed him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews,” while they punched and kicked him.

The soldiers did it to amuse themselves, but the Gospels include this as a significant part of Jesus’ trial. I suspect that they include it because it has an ironic truth — Jesus is the king, and yet his rule would be preceded by rejection, ridicule and suffering. He has a crown of thorns because he is the ruler of a world filled with pain, and as the king of this corrupt world, he established his right to rule by experiencing pain himself. He was crowned (given authority) with thorns (only through great pain).

Meaning for us, too

The crown of thorns has meaning for our lives, too — it is not just part of a movie scene in which we are overwhelmed with the suffering that Jesus went through to be our Savior. Jesus said that if we want to follow him, we must take up our cross each day — and he could just as easily have said that we must experience a crown of thorns. We are joined to Jesus in the crucible of suffering.

The crown of thorns has meaning for Jesus, and it has meaning for every individual who follows Jesus. As Genesis describes it, Adam and Eve rejected God and chose to experience for themselves evil as well as good.

There is nothing wrong with knowing the difference between good and evil — but there is much wrong with experiencing evil, because that is a path of thorns, a path of suffering. When Jesus came proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom God, it is no surprise that humanity, still alienated from God, rejected him and expressed it with thorns and death.

Jesus embraced that rejection — accepted the crown of thorns — as part of his bitter cup of enduring what humans endure, so that he could open the door for us to escape with him from this world of tears. In this world, governments jam thorns on the citizens. And in this world, Jesus suffered whatever they wanted to do with him so that he could redeem us all from this world of ungodliness and thorns.

The world to come will be ruled by the human who has overcome the way of thorns — and those who give their allegiance to him will take their place in the government of his new creation.

We all experience our crowns of thorns. We all have our crosses to bear. We all live in this fallen world and take part in its pain and sorrow. But the crown of thorns and the cross of death have met their match in Jesus, who bids: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Author: Joseph Tkach, D.Min.