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Digging Deeper: The Pharisees

Author: Jonathan Pruitt, Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

Jesus likely had more clashes with one group of people than any other in the gospels: the Pharisees. There are many dramatic episodes, and on a particular occasion, Jesus, frustrated with some of the Pharisees, exclaimed to them, “You hypocrites! You snakes! You brood of vipers!” (paraphrase of Mt. 23:29-33). Clearly, Jesus had some objections to the Pharisees, what was the problem specifically?

Who Were the Pharisees?

Before we talk about Jesus’s rebuke of the Pharisees, let’s first look at who the Pharisees really were. If we don’t read the Bible carefully, it’s easy to get the impression that the Pharisees were all bad, all the time. But that is not what the Bible really says. Some Pharisees are portrayed in a neutral way, like Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house and listened to Jesus’s teaching, even if he initially misunderstood Jesus’s approach to the woman who barged into wash Jesus’s feet (cf. Luke 7:36-50). Some are even portrayed positively, like Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who sought Jesus out to ask him questions and, evidently, finally believed in Jesus (cf. John 19:39-42).

The Pharisees were a group that started at least 100 years before Jesus was born. The Pharisees likely began with good intentions. They wanted to help people follow the Law of God. They were committed to the truth and authority of the whole Old Testament, unlike their counterparts, the Sadducees. Jesus even agreed with the Pharisees on some things, like the resurrection and the existence of life beyond the grave. Likely to help make sure they follow God’s law, the Pharisees firmly upheld the oral tradition of the rabbis as well (later known as the Mishna). This oral tradition gave additional rules that were, at least in theory, easier to follow than the Law. One could be sure she wasn’t breaking the Sabbath, for example, if she kept all the Pharisee’s detailed rules about Sabbath keeping. They were apparently popular with the Jewish people as the Pharisees were able to wield great influence in the temple and community, even though the Sadducees held most of the positions of power.

It’s easy for us to think of the Pharisees as a caricature, as a mustache-twirling, cartoon-like villain. We might have a mental picture of them as totally conceited, smug, and willfully blind to the reality of Jesus’s status as the true Messiah. There’s truth to that image, but it’s also an oversimplification. That’s not how the Bible portrays them or what history shows us. The Pharisees are real people, and like real people, they are a mixed bag.

So, most likely the Pharisees started with the good intentions of keeping the law and honoring God. Some of them, like Nicodemus, still had good intentions. But something seems to have gone seriously awry by the time Jesus encounters them in the gospels. What was the problem with the Pharisees according to Jesus?

The Problems with the Pharisees

The first problem is that the Pharisees eventually forgot the point of God’s law. They sincerely wanted to keep God’s law, at least at first, and so they made more rules to make sure God’s law wasn’t broken. Then, they started to think their own rules were God’s rules. They felt safe and righteous because they could keep the rules they made up.

The Pharisees enforced the law based on technicalities. For example, they argued that if one swore on the altar of the temple, then the oath meant nothing. But if she swore on the gift on the altar, then it counted. Jesus said instead, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matt. 5:37). The point was to honor God by telling the truth. Jesus thought the Pharisaic rules were nonsense and missed the point (Matt. 23:18). They focused on the laws they could keep and ignored the ones that really mattered. Jesus said that they were hyper diligent to give a tenth of their vegetables, but neglected the law of justice, mercy, and forgiveness (Matt. 23:23). That gave them the sense that didn’t really need God’s help or forgiveness. They thought they’d already done everything God had asked.

A second problem with the Pharisees has to do with their self-righteousness. It’s easy to see how someone could become self-righteous if he really started to believe that he was doing everything God told him to do. If he believes God wholeheartedly approves of his actions, then why shouldn’t he be the judge over everyone else? The Pharisees had replaced God’s standard with their own. They measured righteousness, of themselves and others, by how well their invented rules were followed. That was something they could do on their own, without God’s help.

Though these rules may have been written with good intentions, they became burdensome. Some of the Pharisees made following the law of God equivalent to complying with a complex, arbitrary system. The result was that, according to Jesus, the Pharisees tied up heavy loads for everyone else, but refused to lift a finger themselves (cf. Matt. 23:4). These Pharisees were righteous in their own eyes because they kept their own rules. But in God’s eyes, they needed grace and forgiveness, just like everyone else. Therefore, when Jesus encountered the Pharisees, he encountered a group that implicitly thought that they didn’t need God. They’d convinced themselves that they had no need to repent and no need for God’s grace.

Jesus’s Solution

What Jesus taught runs in deep opposition to the view of these Pharisees. God does not care about technicalities. Jesus said that the whole law can be summed up in two commands: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:36-40).

If we are being honest, we know by our own experience two things. First, we have not done what God commands. Second, we cannot do what God commands. So, we are in desperate need of not only God’s forgiveness, but his grace to do what is right. This is what the Pharisees missed and what vexed Jesus so deeply in his confrontations with them.

We can learn from the mistakes of these Pharisees. Certainly, we should not be self-righteous. We should recognize our own deep, constant need for God’s forgiveness and his grace. But we can also see that our good intentions will not suffice. It’s like a dad told his five-year-old son, “I want you to build a house for our family.” The father knows his son can’t do it on his own. The father wants the son to ask for his help. But the son sincerely wants to do what his father asks, so he builds a house out of blocks and decides he’s done what his father asked. The son has good intentions, but he’s missed the point. He’s built the wrong thing and in the wrong way. To please God, we must do what he asks the way he asks us to do it. That means we need God’s help.

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Digging Deeper: Moses and the Burning Bush

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

The Ordeal of the Burning Bush

The story of Moses and the burning bush is much more than a simple children’s story. In its Ancient Near Eastern context, Moses’ encounter with Yahweh has as many facets as my wife’s engagement ring. We could consider what we learn about Moses personally in his willingness to play the shepherd. We could consider the theophany, the fire itself, the word-play in “bush,” foreshadowing Sinai, and more.

Another facet, one I’d like to discuss today, is understanding that the burning bush is an ordeal symbol.

A Flame of Fire

Though pyros are most dazzled by the idea of finding something on fire, the wonder capturing Moses’ attention was the fact that the bush was not burning up. Flash fires in dry grass and isolated bush consume quickly, but this thing just kept burning. Exodus 3:2-3 says, “And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”

Now, ordeal speaks to the experience of encountering death and being divinely spared. Fire that doesn’t burn, lions that don’t maul, waters that don’t drown, etc.

Ordeal

In various pagan law systems, you were not innocent until proven guilty, you were guilty until proven innocent. A neighbor could accuse you of doing witchcraft without any evidence, and you could be made to face an ordeal. They might tie you up and throw you into the river—river ordeal—and if you drown… well…. that proves it. Your neighbor is given your entire estate as compensation. If you live, however, your accuser is executed for making a false accusation against you and you get his estate.

Daniel escapes the lion’s den, while those who accused him are then devoured by the same lions. Daniel’s friends are thrown into the furnace and only their ropes burn up… oh, except the men throwing them into the fire. We have Israel passing through the Red Sea, and again later through the Jordon in flood time. When the Egyptian army follows Israel into the Red Sea, Yahweh drowns them. Jonah too is cast into the deep and describes his inevitable death closing in on him, when suddenly Yahweh sends the great fish and saves him.

We even have people actually dying and being brought back. Elijah raises the widow’s son, Elisha sees two people raised, Jesus raises the 12-year-old girl, Lazarus, and the widow’s son at Nain. He also raises himself. Peter raises up Tabitha, Paul raises the man who fell from the window, and was himself possibly raised up after being stoned. God has spoken. God has delivered.

We could cast our nets wider and consider scenes of war, where each warrior casts himself into the maw of death seeking divine salvation in the fight. These are called contest ordeals in which the gods choose one over the other. David vs. Goliath is Yahweh choosing David as His champion for the people. Korah’s rebellion ends with both Moses and Korah’s people stepping into the presence of the Lord. Moses lives and Korah’s ilk perish in the fire as the earth swallows them up. We see something similar when death is not on the line, directly. Those who challenge Aaron’s priesthood put their staves in the presence of the Lord. Yahweh gives life to the staff of His elect.

Surviving an ordeal is a sign of innocence, divine acceptance, and divine election.

Of course, Korah’s rebellion and Aaron’s staff introduce another common, but often unrecognized form of ordeal… entering into the presence of the Holy Creator.

A Consuming Fire

It is a common notion, overtly stated in Exodus 33:20 that the unveiled presence of God is lethal to humans, even a peek at the fading afterburn of God revealed left Moses so altered that he had to veil his face to keep from terrifying the people. Psalm 97 paints quite a picture of unveiled God saying in verse 3, “Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries all around,” and in verse 5, “The mountains melt like wax before the LORD.” Hebrews 12:28-29 declares, “thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

Entrance into the presence of the holy is an ordeal, for death is on the line. It is not unlike the incident in Esther. Anyone entering unbidden into the presence of the Persian king is executed on the spot unless the king extends his scepter. Even so, Esther risks it all to make an appeal for her doomed people. His favor is toward her, however. He extends his scepter. The executioners hold their hands.

God in Glory

This is recurring ritual imagery in Israel’s sanctuaries. God shows Israel how sinful men can dwell in His Holy and consuming presence. For example, God reveals Himself in the glory of His Holiness in the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest can enter once a year to offer atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people. His spared life is the sign of Israel’s forgiveness, acceptance, and election.

Of all the places this forgiveness, acceptance, and election are symbolized, one of the most powerful is in the burning-but-not-consumed bush. It preaches. It is possible by God’s grace to dwell in the presence of a consuming Holy fire and not be burned. Sinful man can find forgiveness and acceptance before the Holy One. God will show Israel the way, and at that moment, in the burning-but-not-consumed bush, He reveals the potential to Moses. In Israel’s sanctuary there will be another burning-but-not-consumed tree… a symbol of Israel, an ever-flaming olive tree, lighting the holy place, ignited by the fire of God and sacred oil… the lampstand.

And how should we respond as we stand with Moses and the Priest before the burning-but-not-consumed tree? Hebrews 12:28-29 gets it right. “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” May our encounter with God in Christ be likewise tinged with wonder, fear, and overwhelmed gratitude for God’s grace and mercy shown to the chief of sinners who dares to come before Him seeking forgiveness, acceptance, and election.

 

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All Spiritual Development

5 Verses About Trusting God

Author: Jon Slenker, M.A., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

The pillars of Christianity all rest on the foundation of trust in a holy, and supreme God. The titles “Christian” and “Believer” are used synonymously throughout most of the world. C.S. Lewis wrote how trusting in God offers a complete worldview shift, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”1 The author of Hebrews records faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1).” One dictionary defines trust as, “to rely on the truthfulness or accuracy of : BELIEVE; to place confidence in : rely on; to hope or expect confidently.”2

We learn early the harsh realities of living in a world that offers no hope in itself. As we grow, we see the brokenness more clearly and experience the pain of betrayal and the prevalence of evil. Trusting in God is not the only alternative. But as Believers, we trust in God, not man, and his sovereignty as he works in our hearts and reveals himself and his plan through the Holy Scriptures (Psalms 118:8).

The Scriptures are filled with stories of two kinds of people, those who trust God and those who trust in themselves. Adam and Eve trusted God to cover their sin (Gen 3). Abraham trusted God to leave home in pursuit of an undetermined promised land (Gen 12). Moses trusted God to lead his people out of bondage (Exodus 3). David trusted God would protect him and bring justice to evil (Psalm 27). The Prophets trusted God to preach his word with all authority and responsibility (Is 6:8). Jesus modeled for his disciples what trusting himself, the Father, and the Holy Spirit looked and felt like. The Apostles and Early Church trusted God would miraculously save, build his Church, return, and restore. 

1. Trust God Loves You

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

Apart from God man can do nothing (John 15:5). We are cut off, separated from God and his perfect, steadfast love. But Jesus modeled what trusting the Father looks like in all perfection and was reliant on him daily because he trusted the Father loved him. Jesus knew his identity in relation to the Father and trusted his Father to be for him, lead him and work through him. Jesus even said that the Son can do nothing apart from the Father and he does only what the Father does (John 5:19). God the Father was God the Son’s refuge and strength while on mission. Jesus proved to his disciples they too can trust the Father. If you are a Believer, you can trust the Father has adopted you and loves and cares for you as his child. This is good news! When you realize who God is, and what he has done, you can trust God loves you. When you can trust God loves you, you can trust him for everything else.

2. Trust God For Salvation

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

Those who trust in God for salvation do so because they trust Jesus was holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens (Hebrews 7:26). As Believers, we can trust God for salvation, not because we are righteous, but because Christ was righteous for us. We have been justified by his, sinless life, atoning death and given new life through his resurrection. It is through God’s work and his Word, the Believer is shaped more into his glorious image (Rom 5:8, 9; 8:9; 10:9). Trust Jesus is the way, the truth and offers new life. 

3. Trust God’s Spirit is Present

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Galatians 5:16-17

As those who trust in God, we are to conduct ourselves by the Spirit that brings life, not our sinful flesh that causes separation from God. Our bodies are the new temple of God’s dwelling place (1 Cor 6:19). God’s Spirit convicts and enables us to live out love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Trust God’s Spirit dwells in you and directs your path. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit (Matt 7:18).” God Spirit gives peace and is present and active, always fighting for our highest possible good.

4. Trust God’s Word Revives

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;” Psalm 19:7

Not only are the sacred writings able to make one wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus; but Paul also writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:15-17).” The Word of God revives the soul as we write it on our hearts and meditate on it day and night. Billy Graham said, “If you are ignorant of God’s Word, you will always be ignorant of God’s will.” If we are ignorant of God’s will, which is to revive, reconcile and restore the lost to himself, then we will not experience the freedom and revival God’s Word reveals is available to us.

5. Trust God Will Restore

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4

God has promised to make all things new for those who trust in him. He promises that “new heaven and new earth will be completely free of sin and selfishness—a place of perfect friendship with God, others, and all creation. No more shattering earthquakes, devastating tsunamis, or violent storms will plague the earth. No more pain, broken hearts, sickness, or death to trouble us.”3 What an amazing promise! It seems too good to be true, but when one sees how God has fulfilled his promises from the beginning and experiences that God is mighty to save, we can trust our Sovereign God will complete his mission to restore.

TRUST GOD LOVES YOU

TRUST GOD FOR SALVATION

TRUST GOD’S SPIRIT IS PRESENT

TRUST GOD’S WORD REVIVES

TRUST GOD WILL RESTORE

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author, and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:24

1Lewis, C.S. Is Theology Poetry
2https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trust
3https://thestoryfilm.com/watch
4Berean Study Bible

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All Christian History

What is Baptism in the Bible?

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

John the Baptist is an important figure in all four gospels. Mark begins with John’s baptisms, Luke with the events of his birth, and John weaves him into the prologue of the incarnation as one sent from God. One thing that the New Testament does NOT begin with, is an explanation of all the things that have radically changed for Israel since turning the last page of the Old Testament. Turn from Malachi 4 to Matthew 1, and it’s a whole new world, filled with Romans, Pharisees, and Zealots. There are Synagogues, Samaritans, and Sadducees. The phrase Sea of Galilee is new, and so are Perea, the Decapolis, and Nazareth. Oral law, the Sanhedrin, and “The Traditions of the Elders” are also new. In the Old Testament, there was no such thing as Baptism.

Old Testament… no baptism.

New Testament… lots of baptisms.

Where did baptism come from? What does baptism mean? How should modern Christians respond to baptism?

Baptism in the Ancient World

To even begin to answer these questions, you have to recognize at least six things about the world of the Old and New Testaments.

First, modern readers rarely understand covenant… even when they think they do. We tend to think of covenant in terms of Abraham, Moses, and David, but actually know little about covenant itself because we develop our thinking about covenant primarily from Scripture. The problem is that Scripture records covenants, but does not explain covenants. Abraham, Moses, and David make covenants with God because covenant was a big deal already in their world and the legal genre called covenant was a powerful vehicle for the kind of faithful bond God seeks with believers. Covenant has a long history and a complexity in practice and principles that Scripture illustrates, but never specifically teaches.

Baptism is one of many ways that Israel develops for making a covenant, i.e. for ratifying a covenant. Covenant ratification is a ritual way of “signing” a “contract” that the Divine will enforce. No contract is worth anything without the right heart to keep it (I am a man of my word!) or the capacity to monitor, the presence to intimidate, and the power to punish.

When you see people eating together, clasping hands, performing circumcisions, exchanging clothes, grasping garment hems, lining a path with chopped-up animals, or making various kinds of public declarations, like, “Brother!” “Father! “I have known you!” “Love!” etc, you are watching ratification acts… covenant-making. There are covenants and covenant language on almost every page of Scripture.

There are lots of things to know about covenant and most of them will apply to baptism.

Second, baptism developed in Israel in the intertestamental period out of Jewish purification rituals like the mikva, as a way of marking the conversion of already circumcised Jewish men into more exclusive Jewish movements, like joining the Essenes. One of these groups performed the rite every morning. Baptism also provided a means of ratifying the conversion of gentile women independent of their husbands when their presence in Israel and Jewish presence among them became more common.

Third, ratification acts almost always involved symbolic death, and/or the symbolic ingestion of death curses.1 The one entering into a covenant stood before his god, and often the god of the one with whom he was making the covenant (One reason to never covenant with pagans) and with either words or actions invited those gods to destroy the one ratifying the covenant IF he or she should prove unfaithful to the covenant’s stipulations and/or their common obligations.

Fourth, water was a powerful death symbol in the ancient world. It is not an accident that the New Testament speaks of baptism in association with Moses passing through the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1ff), Noah passing through the flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), and of both baptism and Jonah’s descent into the abyss with Jesus’ death and resurrection. (Matthew 12:40; Romans 6:4)

Fifth, as a death symbol, baptism also becomes a symbolic “ordeal,” i.e. a successful passage through death by divine protection. Ancient pagan law courts would commonly execute people in such a way that the gods could easily intervene to save them when doubt in the testimony against the accused remained. Yes, unlike in Scripture and Israel, you were guilty until proven innocent. Throwing them into the water all tied up was a favorite—River Ordeal—but we have a record of fire and lions being used too.

Court ordeal found expression outside the law as well. To escape certain death was a sign of divine acceptance, divine election, or divinely declared innocence. Think, of Daniel in the Lion’s den, and Shadrach and his companions in the fiery furnace. Again, we have Israel through the Red Sea, Noah through the flood, and Jonah through the depths of the sea. David before Goliath was a contest ordeal, as was Moses and Korah’s men marching into holy space before Yahweh, AND we have the incident of the blooming staff when Israelite leaders challenged Aaron’s priesthood.

Finally, sixth, while baptism became common among Jewish sects, like the Essenes (Think Dead Sea Scrolls) and even John the Baptist (thought by many to have been raised among the Essenes), Jesus used it to ratify his own followers in the New Covenant community called the Church. The New Testament church continued to practice baptism, investing the rite with even more layers of meaning after Jesus’ successful passage through actual death in His resurrection into incorruptible glory.

What is Baptism?

Now, baptism is the second oldest Christian ceremony. The oldest is communion… but that’s a story for another day. When your pastor discusses the need for believers to be baptized, he is continuing the ancient tradition of public profession of faith in Christ and the use of a highly symbolic ratification act to seal the believer’s covenant with God and Christ.

Once upon a time, we would stand in court, ready to testify. We would put our hand on a Bible. They would say, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” We would say, “I do.” That “swear” and “so help me God,” was the threat part to a heart that believed God was real and, thus, had the capacity to monitor, the presence to intimidate, and the power to punish. The joke on a godless nation is that we have removed the “so help me God,” part. Thus, such promises have no power for getting at truth greater than the fear induced by the court’s own capacity to monitor, presence to intimidate, and power to punish… which is highly limited.

To take baptism is to say, “I swear to follow and obey Christ, the true Christ, and nothing but the true Christ, so help me God.”

1Some ratification acts embodied ideas of “oneness” in addition to, or instead of, death images.

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What is a Parable?

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

When trying to understand one of Jesus’ parables, there are four vital questions to answer about it. Let’s go over them.

Question #1: What is the nature of the details in a parable?

Is it a pure Allegory?

Allegory is an extended metaphor. Metaphor equates two things explicitly (e.g. You are a dog!) or implicitly (e.g. Tell that dog to go!) In this type of allegory, all the major components have one for one representation. In The Parable of the Four Soils, each type of soil represents a different kind of heart response to the Word/seed, preached/sowed by the preacher/sower. One must be careful not to push too hard at the details. One should not seek private meanings in any part, and should not seek out representation in the colorful details unless obviously intended. There is no reason, for instance, to discover what the sower’s bag represents.

Is it an Analogy?

Analogy makes a general situational comparison rather than a point-for-point representation. You must capture the essence of the comparison in the analogous situation without trying to exploit the details. Here, the primary dynamics involved in a situation are more important than finding specific points of representation.  We might consider the Parable of the Lost Sheep or Lost Coin, where a general situation is set forward. Something precious has been lost and then found. What kind of person wouldn’t rejoice under such circumstances? There is no reason to give, the cracks in the woman’s floor, her broom, or even her lamp representative meaning.

In the rabbinic parables of Jesus’ day, only the most essential items represented something, and only in a highly limited way. We saw this in the Prodigal Son story. The Father, the Prodigal, and the Older Brother are all caught in a complex analogical relationship to the situation in which Jesus finds Himself at Levi’s dinner party. Jesus uses the three main figures in the story to reveal the responses of grace, gratitude, and resentment from the witnesses when the MOST valuable thing has been lost and found. Nothing else needs anything more than the most surface consideration. The ring, fatted calf, and robe, for instance, are merely common symbols of restored sonship, or joy.

Is it a Real Parable?

A real parable follows the technical definition of a parable—An extended simile. In these, we should find words like, “like” or “as” used to make comparisons at multiple points. In The Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed and is shown to be like the mustard seed in more than one way. Like the mustard seed, the Kingdom starts small. Like the mustard seed, the Kingdom will grow quite large.

Question #2: How is the parable structured?

Is it a three-pole parable?

Here, two different elements are contrasted in the way they relate to a third element. In the Parable of the Lost sheep, a shepherd leaves 99 sheep in the field to search for a lost one. In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, two groups respond differently to the demands of their position in a wedding and are welcomed or rebuffed by the Bridegroom based on that response. The points of contrast expose the core of the message.

Is it a complex three-pole parable?

In these structures, we still have two different elements are contrasted in the way they relate to a third element, but one sides is complicated. In The Parable of the Talents, “A” gives money to three servants; two succeed one fails. In The Parable of the Four Soils, four receive A… the word… but three fail for different reasons and one succeeds. The point of contrast in each parable is why some succeeded and others failed. We have the same pattern in The Parable of the Vineyard workers where five different groups work different lengths of time for a vineyard owner. All get paid the same. One, however, has a really bad attitude about it. The meaning is found in the conflict.

Is it a two-pole parable?

Two pole parables focus upon two separate items that are tracked together, each one’s actions navigating the other’s. The relationship between the parts will vary, but the dual nature of the action should be obvious. Consider the Sower and the Seed, where a farmer plants a seed that goes on growing by itself as the farmer goes about his business elsewhere. In The Parable of the Unjust Judge, he keeps refusing justice to a woman who eventually wears him down. We have the Unproductive Fig Tree, where the farmer vacillates between two opinions about what to do with an unproductive fig tree.

Is it a one-pole parable?

One pole parables focus on a single subject, contrasting different actions, stages, or outcomes. These often have a second figure, but the parable focuses on a primary actor. In The Parable of the Mustard Seed, the smallness of the seed is contrasted with the hugeness of the plant. Leven goes into a lump affecting the whole thing. The Kingdom is a pearl and a man sells all and buys it. Would you build a tower without counting the cost of it? You might not have what it takes and humiliate yourself.

Let’s take the last two together.

Question #3: What is the parable’s topic? & Question #4: What is the parable’s purpose at the moment? To explain? To filter?

Is it a parable designed to address a personal concern of the moment?

Jesus often uses parables to bring clarity to a discussion. Here the context of the parable is all important. Jesus defends His disciple’s lack of fasting by drawing an analogy with the way people differentiate their treatments of old vs. new things. Jesus tells the stories of the lost sheep, coin, and son, to explain His attendance at Levi’s dinner party. Jesus tells the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee to shine a mirror on the Pharisees’ inner life before God.

Is it a Kingdom parable?

Kingdom parables are used by Jesus as filters for a mixed audience in which He finds selfish seekers, overt enemies, and earnest would-be disciples. These are not designed to prevent knowledge, so much as to draw in the earnest and sift out the lazy and hostile. Here we find The Parable of the Four Soils, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and the Parable of the Net. Jesus gives the secrets of the Kingdom of God but leaves the uncommitted out of the loop. Indeed, many of Jesus’ Kingdom parables tell the listener how important it is that they listen carefully, press in, and give everything for the privilege of the Kingdom.

 

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All Digging Deeper into the Word

Digging Deeper: The Prodigal Son Part 1

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

Allegory or Analogy?

Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4:18-19 says:

THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.

The beauty of this manifesto is powerfully illustrated in The Parable of The Prodigal Son in Luke 15.

There is something in the prodigal son story that resonates with almost everyone who reads it. In one sense, every sinner who has come to Jesus is a prodigal come home, for every heart is born far from God, and it is only through repentance that we return to that place from which our first parents fled—God is our home.

Interpreting the Prodigal

The Parable of the Prodigal Son has been a powerful witness to Jesus’ mission but has also fallen victim to bad interpretation. Being imagined to possess meaningful applications to life and worship that can be found in the smallest of details, The Parable of the Prodigal Son has been picked over like a chicken carcass. Not infrequently this feeding frenzy is done without regard to the rules of parable telling in Jesus’ own day and in complete obliviousness to the context of its telling.

One of the biggest confusions is that some approach the prodigal son as an allegory while it is, in actuality, an analogy. The difference is monumental.

Now I love a good allegory (I cut my teeth on Pilgrim’s Progress) but if one treats an analogy like the Parable of the Prodigal Son as an allegory even its good things can warp into ugly things. This is because, in an allegory, we treat everything as having meaning. The smallest points suggest to our seeking minds the most significant truths… even if we have to add to the picture to do so.

Luke 4 As Allegory

In an allegorized Prodigal son, specific reference is sought in every detail of the parable. The Father represents the heavenly father, the prodigal represents the sinners and tax-gatherers, and the older brother represents the religious leaders. So far so good. How far should we push the details though?

Should we seek specific meaning in the famine? The pods of the pig slop? The pigs? What about those around the prodigal who “gave him nothing?” What specific meaning should we give to the ring? The robe? The shoes? The fatted calf? Who do the servants represent? Honestly, do we really want to go there? Do we believe Jesus intended us to go there?

More pointedly, if the older son represents the religious leaders of the day, do we really want to suggest that the father’s words to his older son in the parable are point-for-point words of Jesus to the religious leaders? Does Jesus preach to Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees, on behalf of the Father, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours”?

If we go with allegory rather than analogy, is the younger son is still out of his inheritance? If all that the father has belongs to the older brother, what remains for the younger brother? “Welcome back, Son, but you are still impoverished.” “Now that the party is over, let’s talk about that new job as a hired hand.”

How much crazier could we get if we began to imagine details drawn from the world of family farms and sought meaning in them? There is no end to the possible mischief we could get up to if we allegorize. I’ve seen it… it gets ugly.

Luke 4 As Analogy

As an analogy, however, one seeks in the prodigal son story a broad situational comparison. The details are present to add commonly recognized realism to the story. In analogy, we learn simple lessons about one thing drawn from general similarities between it and some other common occurrence.

Jesus is dining with those whom the Pharisees have labeled tax collectors and sinners. These are, however, people who have become Jesus’ followers. Do the religious types want to know why he would allow them to become part of His ministry? Jesus answers their question with three connected parables. We might label these three together as—The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son. While there are some vague representations found in the audience (Each person in the audience is supposed to find himself or herself somewhere in the stories) the details must not be pushed too hard. The big picture speaks.

Jesus asks twice, who wouldn’t rejoice if a lost precious thing were found?

The answer is found in the final story, but the details are meant to enhance the main point rather than making independent points of their own. These are analogies NOT all-encompassing allegories.

 

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3 Disciplines That Will Strengthen Your Relationship with God

Author: Jon Slenker, M.A., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

God wants a relationship with you. A meaningful, honest, loving, and liberating relationship. The Scriptures reveal a story told through God’s relationship with mankind. God’s story is one of triumph even though many characters in the Bible lacked discipline in some way. And where discipline was lacking, so was their relationship with God. The disciplines of Bible study, prayer, and the Church revolve around communing with God and his people. A fresh look at these foundational disciplines is a great place to start when strengthening your relationship with God.

Everyone has experienced a relationship that needed to be strengthened or rekindled. Discipline is an incredible gift of grace to humanity that images God’s own character. Bible study, prayer, and engaging with the Church will not only strengthen your relationship with God, but it will also strengthen your relationship with your family and friends, even with yourself. From the beginning, Jesus displayed perfect discipline and remained steadfast to the grave. Paul modeled disciplining his mind and body and instructed Titus to be “hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined (Titus 1:8).” We must remember discipline is not only a mastery of self by our own strength but through the help of God. David wrote, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).” 

The Discipline of Bible Study

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12

The Bible was written over 1,500 years, by 40 authors, including 3 languages, spanning 3 continents and it all tells the same, brilliantly cohesive story. God is revealing himself, his name, his character, his purposes and plans for how we might be reconciled to him and join him on his mission to reconcile a lost and broken people to himself (2 Cor 5:17-20). All of the Old Testament points to Jesus, while all of the New Testament presents Jesus. Through creation, fall, rescue and ultimately restoration, Jesus is the hero of his story!

One who is disciplined in the Word learns how to rightly divide or interpret it. Inductive and discovery Bible study begins with observation, moving to interpretation, and finishing with application. A student of God’s Word is faithful to context and to the author’s original intent.

7 Questions of Discovery Bible Study

Read the passage and recite out loud from memory.

  1. What does this passage teach me about God?
  2. What does this passage teach me about man and woman?
  3. Is there a sin to avoid?
  4. Is there a promise to claim?
  5. Is there an example to follow?
  6. Is there a command to obey?
  7. What is God saying to me and how does he want me to be obedient from this passage?

By asking these questions of a passage, it not only follows a healthy scientific or inductive approach, it increases comprehension and retention. Even more, it is incredibly simple and allows the Holy Spirit to lead the discussion and learning.

According to Wycliff Bible Translators1, out of the 7,378 languages spoken across the globe, 3,011 possess no Scripture. God’s Word is a gift and we should consistently discipline ourselves to it and by it. While presenting the Bible to every tribe, tongue and nation is the goal, the fact remains the majority of people in the world are oral learners, therefore we must remember the power of Bible storying. By studying and memorizing the Scriptures we are allowing God to talk to us, telling us of his character, purposes, desires, his tenderness and strength, miracles and promises. The goal of disciplined Bible study is to grow in obedience, not to simply store up knowledge. The Word has the power to transform. The discipline of digesting the scriptures provides the sojourning Follower a map and compass of all other disciplines.

The Discipline of Prayer

…your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Matthew 6:8

Prayer stills and strengthens our hearts. Prayer positions a person in a posture of humility and hope. It is a weapon against the enemy and an ointment to our souls. There are many types of prayer in the Bible. There is the prayer of worship (Revelation 4:11), thanksgiving (Psalm 100:4), faith (Hebrews 11:6), intercession (1 Timothy 2:1), corporate prayer (Revelation 19:1-8), consecration (Psalm 51:10), a prayer of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26-27) and more.

Jesus modeled the practice of prayer and taught his disciples to pray earnestly and confidently. Jesus taught, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7).”

Prayer is about communing with God and aligning our minds and hearts with his. It is no wonder why every great spiritual awakening throughout history was the result of intentional prayer. Practice praying through the prayers in the Bible after studying and meditating on them to strengthen your relationship with the Lord.

The Discipline of Church

Instead, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to myriads of angels in joyful assembly, to the congregation of the firstborn, enrolled in heaven. You have come to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Hebrews 12:22-24

The discipline of church includes covenanting with others in your community for corporate worship, fellowship, discipleship, accountability, ministry, and mission. It is through the discipline of gathering and co-laboring with other believers, true and deep relationships are built. From laughing, crying, praising, and praying with others as we walk alongside them in life, we experience God in fresh ways and strengthen our relationship with him.

We share our greatest hopes and victories through Christ with our believing brothers and sisters. One of the greatest impacts on my relationship with God has come from staying in countless Believer’s homes as I have had the privilege to travel the globe. The reality is that no matter where in the world you are, every believer and church is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, glorifying one God and Father of all… (Eph 4:4-6). Our relationships with God are strengthened because he has given us a family in his Kingdom. God made us for relationship.

Strengthening Your Relationship with God

The discipline of Bible study allows God to talk to us. The discipline of prayer allows us to talk to God. The discipline of the Church allows the marriage of communing with God and kingdom family in concert.  At times, these disciplines come easy, other times it requires the proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears.” The author of Hebrews reminds the disciplined one of the reward, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11).”

What fresh practices/activities would you like to experience as you discipline yourself to grow your relationship with God?

1https://www.wycliffe.net/resources/statistics/

 

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How to Live For God: The Four Spiritual Secrets

Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

God will demonstrate His faithfulness by showing you how you can be in Him, and He can be in you…” Pastor Dick Woodward

For over 40 years, Pastor Dick Woodward centered his ministry around four profound truths he called the “spiritual secrets”. These are not secrets in the sense that only a select few special individuals get to know about them. Quite the contrary. They are a distillation of Pastor Woodward’s study of scripture. In a way, they are a core message decoded by a serious student of the Bible walking closely with the Holy Spirit. These four truths, or secrets, can change your life and with them, you can learn how to live for God.

 

The First Spiritual Secret:

“I am not, but He is”

When you truly encounter the One, Holy Creator of everything, you realize what Pastor Woodward calls “the absolute difference between me and the God who calls Himself ‘I AM.’” Like Moses standing before the burning bush, we must understand that, in God’s presence, we are nobody. We bring nothing to the table, even if we are wealthy, powerful, or wise according to the world’s standards. God wants to show us what He will do with somebody who recognizes that he is nobody.

Moses certainly understood this when he stood in God’s presence. He had been somebody, the son of Pharaoh, in line to rule a powerful nation. Instead, God took Moses into the desert to become a nobody; a wandering shepherd. There, through 40 years of losing himself, Moses learned humility. Then, when Moses was, as Number 12:3 tells us, the most humble man on the face of the earth, God was able to use him. As a nobody, Moses did great things because God was powerful through him.

“It’s not about us and our identity, our self-esteem, our success or any feelings of adequacy, inadequacy or anything in between.” Pastor Woodward says. “It’s about God and His identity.”

 

The Second Spiritual Secret:

“I can’t, but He can.”

If you have ever had the experience of coming to the end of yourself, you will be familiar with the words “I can’t.” When you’ve exhausted your own resources, your own power, there comes a point when there’s nothing else you can do. Sometimes you might experience this in response to something God is calling you to do, but something for which you feel entirely inadequate. “I can’t” is not something anybody enjoys saying – it hurts our pride too much. But it can also be quite liberating, letting go of expectations and weights that we put on ourselves. 

Moses came to such a moment when God called him to stand before Pharaoh. God called him to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. Moses’ first reaction was to say “I can’t” (Exodus 4:10). Moses wasn’t wrong. He had tried to stand up for his people his way and only ended up killing a man and running for his life. No, Moses couldn’t, but God could. Once Moses realized he was nobody, God used him to do amazing things. 

 

The Third Spiritual Secret:

“I don’t want to, but He wants to.”

God’s love is strange – mind-blowing might be the better word. He loves people who we don’t want to love. He loves you and me, and we all know how unloveable we are. When we stand before God and utter the famous words of Isaiah 6:8, “Here I am, send me!” we are not always prepared for what comes next. Sometimes our neighbor is unlovely. Sometimes the journey is difficult or dangerous. The truth is, when it comes to God’s mission to love people, we don’t want to do it. But he does.

Jonah found himself in exactly such a position when God called him to preach repentance to the Ninevites (Jonah 1:2). These were awful people; the worst of the worst, and God loved them. As the story goes, Jonah refused and ran in the opposite direction, but God followed him and got his attention (to put it mildly). Jonah did not want to do it, but God did.

We find ourselves in a similar situation whenever God asks us to do something, whether it is loving our enemy or repenting of sin – or even something as simple as spending time in the Word. When we follow our own desires, we run from God. Instead, we need to make His desires our own, realizing that our hearts are corrupt. God won’t make us do anything, but he will send a storm to get our attention, and a great fish to bring us to repentance. Far better that we lay down our desire at the start.

 

The Fourth Spiritual Secret:

“I didn’t, but He did.”

At the end of the day, when we have finally understood and applied the first three spiritual secrets, we are tempted to sit back and say, ‘well now I’ve done a great thing.’ But here is a great danger and we risk losing everything. If ‘I am not’, and ‘I can’t’, and ‘I don’t want to’, then how is it that I so often come to the conclusion that ‘I did’? How is it that we take credit for something that is so clearly not our doing?

After Jonah preached to the Ninevites, an amazing thing happened: they actually repented! (Jonah 3:6)  Nobody, especially Jonah, would have expected it. Jonah could never have caused that to happen, and he certainly didn’t want it to happen. (Jonah 4:1) Though he was angry, he rightly credited God with accomplishing such a miracle. How silly would it have been for Jonah to sit back and take credit for Nineveh’s sudden change of heart?

 

How to Live for God

When we finally obey God, after we have become nobody, we become vessels of His love and mercy. It isn’t our love that we show to our neighbor; it’s His. It’s not our Word that changes lives; it’s His. We are like the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. (Matthew 21:7) We merely carry Jesus with us, but He does the work.

These four spiritual secrets are meant to show you how to live for God. I’m not, I can’t, I don’t want to, and I didn’t – this is the necessary starting point for obeying and following Him. When you become nothing, God shows up. When you are nobody, God becomes somebody in your life. Put these four spiritual secrets into practice and you will see God do amazing things through you.

 

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Digging Deeper: The Story of Moses

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

God on god Violence

When going to Bible college, my professors were wont to say that God’s ten plagues against Egypt were attacks against the gods of Egypt. Did not Yahweh say to Moses in Exodus 12:12, “…on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD”? Just as three meant few, forty meant many, and seven was a sacred counting, so also ten plagues, matching the ten fingers on the human hand, did represent a type of fullness… here, a fullness of judgment against Egypt and her gods. When, however, I would ask what Egyptian gods were involved and how the plagues diminished them, I never got more than one or two obvious ones tossed back at me, like “attacking the Nile (Hapi)” and “blocking out the sun (Ra).” They would usually mumble off after those and say to the rest of the class, “Any other questions before we move on?”

So that you don’t have to suffer the same unmet curiosity, let me give you a list.1 When Pharoah boasts, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” Yahweh shows Pharaoh exactly who He is. He is the Lord of Lords.

1. The Nile turned to Blood

Hapi was the god of the yearly flooding of the Nile, which was the very source of Egypt’s life. Pharoah made the Hebrews cast their sons to the Nile, and when it was struck with Moses’ staff, it ran red like the blood of those drowned there and devoured by fish and crocodiles. Hapi was often called, “Lord of fish and birds and marshes,” as well as “Lord of the river bringing vegetation.” Everything in the Nile died.

2. Frogs Swarm the Land

Heket is a fertility goddess with the head of a frog. The frog was a fertility symbol. Yahweh makes them fertile indeed. Rather than rising with the Nile they exit from the Nile, swarm the land, and fill Egypt with putrefaction. Though Heket was also “She who hastens birth” it is the Hebrew women worshiping Yahweh alone, who “are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”

3. Lice From the Dust

Geb was the god of the soil, i.e. the dust of the earth. Yahweh “invades his territory” and brings forth lice rather than rice. He is also regarded as the father of snakes, giving a deeper sense to Moses’ staff becoming a serpent and swallowing up the Magicians’ serpent staffs.

4. Swarms of Flies

Uatchit, also called Wadjet, was the goddess of the marshes where papyrus and swarms abound. She is the goddess of the heat of noon which empowers the swarms and was closely associated with the Sun god Ra. She both wore and was the image of Pharoah’s crown, a protector of the land. Yahweh blots out the sun with swarms and devastates the land over which the Swarm goddess stood sentinel.

5. Death of Livestock

The Cow goddess, Hathor, like many Egyptian deities, has a complicated history. She was pictured as a cow or a woman adorned with cow horns. Like other cow goddesses, Hathor is also associated with the sun and sky, and thus the symbolic mother of the Pharaohs. Cows were revered as nurturers and givers of milk. She is symbolically struck down with Yahweh’s plague against the cattle of the land.

6. Ashes Turn to Boils

Isis, the goddess who resurrected her brother, Osiris, had legendary magical powers and is commonly associated with magic spells of healing for everyone, even common people. Here, even Pharaoh’s magicians could not stand before Pharaoh because the boils were tormenting them.

7. Hail and Fire From the Heavens

Exodus 9:23 says, “Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth.” As with the swarm goddess, when swarms destroy and the frog-headed fertility goddess when frogs overrun and pollute the land, Yahweh “seizes control” over the heavens and rains down lightning and lethal hail. There are a few different sky deities at play here. Primarily, we have Tefnut, goddess of sky moisture, we have Shu, god of winds and air, we have Horus, god of kingship and sky, the spirit of Pharaoh in life, and we have Nut goddess of the sky, a nourisher suckling the world. None can hold back Yahweh’s hand.

8. Locusts Plague From a Strong East Wind

Seth was the ruler of the red land, i.e. the east and west desert regions surrounding the black land of fertile Egypt. As the desert was a protective flank, Seth was thought to play his part in warding off the chaos from Egypt. From “Seth’s desert,” however, Yahweh brings locusts to finish off what remained from the hail.

9. Blocking Out the Sun

Ra, the noon-day sun, ruler of the sky, earth, underworld, and kings. He was divine order and the source of creation. The Egyptians called themselves the cattle of Ra. Yahweh’s penultimate strike was to blacken out all the light of day and night so that painful darkness spread throughout the whole land.

10. Killing the Firstborn

Pharaoh was worshipped as the son of Ra, Horus on earth, and Osiris in death. Not only does Yahweh strike down every firstborn from beast and man, from the lowest servant to the very house of Pharaoh, but here Pharaoh is defeated in his resistance to releasing the labor force of Israel to go their way.

 

Conclusion

God said to Moses in Exodus 7:2-5:

“…tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.”

Yahweh did. Egypt did. Pharaoh did. Israel did.

 

1I’ve seen some variation in the list from different scholars, particularly those who mistake Khepri for a fly-headed god, but this is a good list.

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Digging Deeper: The Story of Joseph

Author: Jonathan Pruitt, Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

Most of us know the story of Joseph well. And there are many lessons to be learned from this historical and dramatic narrative. I want to point out one of the central ideas of this story that, despite its importance, is often overlooked. It has to do with the idea that God was with Joseph. Here’s the question I want to answer: “Why was God with Joseph?”

 

The Story of Joseph

Joseph is favored by his father, Jacob, and given a “coat of many colors.”1 Joseph also tells his brothers of dreams, dreams where his brothers would bow down to him. His jealous brothers throw him into a pit and sell Joseph into slavery. A traveling merchant then purchases Joseph and takes him to Egypt. While in Egypt, Joseph faithfully serves a military officer named Potiphar, until he is falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and thrown in prison.

 

During his 13-year imprisonment, Joseph interprets the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s servants and does so accurately. When Pharaoh has a strange and unsettling dream, one of the servants recommends Joseph as an able interpreter. Because Joseph was able to interpret the dream, he is made second in command over all of Egypt. In Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph foresees a coming famine. Wisely, Joseph advises the Pharaoh to store grain before the famine hits. During the famine, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food. When they arrive, they soon discover that little brother Joseph now runs the entire kingdom and doles out the food when scarcely any could be found. They end up bowing to Joseph, just like Joseph’s dream had predicted so long ago.

 

God Was with Joseph

At one of the key moments in the story, the narrator tells us this: “The Lord was with Joseph…” (Gen. 39:21a). This comment comes right after Joseph found himself unjustly placed in prison.

It is tempting to think that God was with Joseph because of what Joseph did just a few verses before. Joseph demonstrated tremendous courage and integrity by resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph risked his comfortable and prestigious position to do what was right. So, when we are told that “God was with Joseph” immediately after he is locked away, it may lead some to interpret the text as teaching that God was with Joseph because he did what was right. Sometimes, though, well-intentioned people can still misinterpret the narrative.

If we read the narrative again closely, we notice a few important details. For example, the Bible never says that God was with Joseph because of what he did. If we take that view, then we must read that into the text. Instead, Joseph’s dreams show that God was with Joseph at the very beginning. Joseph’s dreams show that God had planned to bless Joseph and bring him to a position of power and influence so that his brothers and even his father would bow down to him. The text confirms that these dreams were from God when we see them dramatically fulfilled at the end of the story (cf. Gen 43:28).

But why is God with Joseph if Joseph does nothing to deserve God’s favor? Joseph himself gives an almost direct answer to this question. After his brothers discover that Joseph is a ruler in Egypt, they desperately sought his forgiveness. Joseph tells them, “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” (Gen. 45:5). Joseph adds, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45:7).

Therefore, according to Joseph, God had at least two purposes for being with him. First, Joseph’s position in Egypt and his ability to interpret dreams meant that there would be food for everyone during the famine; Joseph would “save lives.” Through Joseph, God provides physical sustenance to many nations when they need it most.

Second, through Joseph, God would specifically save the lives of Jacob’s family. This preserves  a “remnant on earth.” Understood within the wider context of the book of Genesis, we see that through Joseph, God keeps his promise to Abraham, to make him into a “great nation” (Gen 12:2). Without Joseph, Abraham’s family would have died in the famine. Ultimately, God would bless all people through Joseph because it is through his family that God would send the Messiah, Jesus, to save the world (Gal. 3:8).

 

God’s Reasons

So, God had his own reasons for favoring Joseph that had nothing to do with Joseph’s actions. God’s purpose in blessing Joseph was to bless others. God chose a particular person and God worked through the circumstances of Joseph’s life to include, ultimately, the entire world in the blessing of Abraham. Once we get a full picture of what God was doing through Joseph, we see that God blessed Joseph to bless all of us. God was with Joseph, in part, so that one day, he could be with all people through his Son.

One of the lessons we learn from Joseph’s story is that God loves humanity and that he will keep his promise to bless the world through Abraham, no matter what. In Jesus, we find the proof that promise has, indeed, been kept.

1It is likely that Joseph’s coat was a meticulously made tunic. The idea that it was a “coat of many colors” comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Hebrew versions suggest it was an embroidered tunic.