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Christian History Featured

The Biographies of Jesus 

Author: Rachel Kidd

As an American Studies major, I read quite a few biographies of great people in college. I was inspired by the people who pioneered before, who left profound legacies of courage, creativity, passion, and leadership. Yet, each biography is different and is written from a perspective as distinct as the person who wrote it, even when the subject stays the same.  

When researching one person, any good professor will tell you to read multiple biographies by different authors, maybe even written at different points in history for a more complete perspective. We all have biases and our own voice that comes across in writing, and the authors of the Gospel were no different. To better understand someone and their life’s work, it is best to have a complete picture from multiple perspectives. And this is what the Gospels provide, from the perspective of four of Jesus’ disciples, each with their own viewpoints and memories of the savior.  

But unlike a biography we might read about say Abraham Lincoln, the Gospels are not so concerned with the early life of Jesus. They are centered around the final three years of His life and the good news that Jesus came and died for our sins. And this is the magnificent obsession, the root of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus.  

What are the Gospels? 

During the era of the great early Christian philosopher Justin Martyr, circa 155 AD,  the four books were referred to as the Gospels, plural rather than singular. They were as they are today, the first four books of the New Testament, consisting of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They have been trimmed and compiled according to their differing needs and theological emphases, but dedicated to the words and ministry of Jesus.  

The Gospels are a distinct genre that separates them from other books of the bible. They are biographical accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, written by those who not only were eye-witnesses, but those who were closest to Him during his time on earth.  

We find all of the teachings and words of Jesus in the four Gospels, each book with its differences and perspective depending on its author. There are 89 chapters in the four books of the Gospels, with 85 of these chapters dedicated to the last three years of the life of Jesus. Only a few center on His birth or the first 30 years of His life. Why is that so? Because the emphasis is on the good news, the fact that Jesus came to provide forgiveness for our sin and to reconcile us to God with his death and resurrection.  

Good News 

The word gospel is derived from the early Anglo-Saxon word godspell or “good story.” Translated from the original Greek, godspell was first the word euangelion, meaning “good tidings” or “good news.2”  

Used throughout the bible from Old to New Testament, gospel or euangelion can vary in meaning depending on context. Within the Roman culture surrounding the glorification of emperors, euangelion took on a reverent, worshipful tone. Used often in the context of announcing the arrival of the emperor or succession of the throne, the word became associated with religion. In the New Testament world, the term often appeared in announcements of a victorious battle, or concerning a Roman emperor.  

The inscription below is an example of such a use, describing Roman emperor Caesar Augustus as a savior, heralding his birth as the beginning of “good news [euangelia] to the world!” around 9 BC. Even his name references his divinity within Roman culture, meaning “revered one” and he was often called the “son of God.”  

It eventually became a term for the good news about Jesus Christ, used throughout the Gospels. Mark alludes to the Roman cultural context in chapter 1 verse 1, opening the book with “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” 

Verses on the Gospel or Good News 

In the Old Testament, “good news” sometimes referred to God’s deliverance of his people from the hands of their enemies, whether human or spiritual.  

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news . . . who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Isaiah 52:7 NIV 

You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” Isaiah 40:9 NIV 

Paul often used “good news” or euangelion in his letters to the church to describe the verbal proclamation of faith.  

Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. 1 Thessalonians 1:5  

The word is important, and demonstrates to us today how early Christians viewed the Gospel. By explicitly linking the birth and life of Jesus Christ to the reverence their peers had for Roman emperors like Caesar Augustus, the authors of the Gospels enumerate the significance of the text. They are telling us that the good news of Jesus is greater than any other story ever told, one that deserves the greatest reverence and bears shouting from the rooftops. They spend the Gospel focused, obsessed even on this good news, declaring that Jesus is the savior of the world.  

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” 

Mark 16:15 

 

Categories
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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Categories
All Christian History Studying the Bible

Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead? 5 Facts about the Resurrection

Author: Kevin Richard Ph.D., Managing Writer for Foundations by ICM

 

Resurrection as History

The Bible is a historical text but at the same time, the Bible is theological history. It reveals the Triune God of Christianity and the plan of redemption for all creation, but it does so in space and time, in the annals of history. Central to Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and while this pillar of the faith is spiritually and theologically significant, it was also a historical event. This is important because, in history, the events surrounding the life of Jesus are, as New Testament scholar Mike Licona has suggested, an “object of study.”1 That is the purpose of this blog, to look at the resurrection of Jesus from a historical point of view and answer three questions:

  1. How do we study the resurrection from a historical perspective? Minimal Facts Approach
  2. What is the historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead? The 5 Minimal Facts
  3. What does it all mean? The Religious Significance

 

Minimal Facts Approach

Philosopher and Christian Apologist Gary Habermas has developed what he calls the “Minimal Facts” approach to the resurrection of Jesus. The Minimal Facts (MF) approach, as Habermas states, “considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones.”2 Habermas notes there are around 12 facts that could be considered but he normally narrows down the scope to 5. He chooses these 5 because nearly all scholars agree on them and from them, you can make the case for the resurrection of Jesus.3 The five minimal facts are:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.
  3. The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed.
  4. The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.
  5. The tomb was empty.

Let’s briefly unpack each of these minimal facts and then discuss why they collectively give us good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

 

The 5 Minimal Facts

In this section, we will look at the five minimal facts in question and offer a little explanation for each of them.

 

1. Jesus Died By Crucifixion

This one may seem obvious but to get a resurrection you first need someone to die. That Jesus died by crucifixion is one of the strongest attested minimal facts. You would be hard-pressed to find someone in academic circles that affirms Jesus did not die by crucifixion. The Romans were notoriously brutal in this capital form of punishment and they were extremely efficient in the process. Furthermore, the Bible says that in order to make sure Jesus had died, a spear was thrust into his side (John 19:34). It does not seem likely that Jesus could have endured such a brutal and vicious beating and execution “attempt” and survived.  

 

2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.

Notice the wording here. This minimal fact does not necessarily affirm that a risen Jesus actually physically appeared to the disciples; rather, it affirms that the disciples believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them. This belief was a life-changing event and caused a radical transformation in their lives. There are a number of suggestions as to what the disciples actually saw. Some say that the disciples were hallucinating or that they saw what Dr. Habermas has coined “Jedi Jesus.”4 But both of these claims deny what the New Testament affirms, that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. The disciples proclaimed a risen Lord who ate with them (Lk. 24:42-42) and were able to be touched – consider the story of Thomas being able to touch Jesus’ pierced scars (John 20:24-29). 

 

3. The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed

This minimal fact is interesting because you have a person who was very zealous for Judaism suddenly have a change of behavior after an encounter he claims was with the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor. 15:8). No one can doubt that following his experience on the road to Damascus, Paul became an ardent ambassador for this new movement called Christianity. Something happened on that road. Paul believed the resurrected Jesus appeared to him and called him to take the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles. Paul would be beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned, and eventually put to death for his proclamation of Jesus. This encounter with Jesus changed his life and because of it, the Gospel came to the Gentiles.

 

4. The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed

The James in question here was one of Jesus’ four brothers (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55). From those passages in the Gospels, we know that Jesus’ brothers were skeptical of their half-brother, Jesus. They even mocked Jesus during his ministry. We also know that this same James became one of the religious leaders of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21; Gal. 1:18-19).5 So what caused this change of heart? We learn from Paul that after Jesus’ death, he appeared to his brother James. From this encounter, although the event is not explicitly described in the Scriptures, we can infer that James believed that he had encountered his risen half-brother, the person he now believed to be the risen Lord! Having encountered the resurrected Jesus, James went from a skeptic to one of the main leaders of the church in the same city where Jesus was crucified!

 

5. The tomb was empty

The Gospels attest that the tomb of Jesus was empty and the stone rolled away. This claim of an empty tomb would have been easy to disprove if the body had still been there. People would have known where Jesus was buried as his body had been given to Joseph of Arimathea and he and Nicodemus helped to secure Jesus’ body in Joseph’s personal tomb (John 19:39-40). There is also evidence to suggest that the tomb was empty in the religious leaders’ response to the testimony of the soldiers on guard. Instead of telling them to produce the body to counter the claims of the disciples, they instead told them to spread a story that the disciples stole the body of Jesus (Matt 28:11-15). This implies that the religious leaders knew the tomb was empty and had to come up with a story to cover the truth.

 

A Unifying Explanation

It was stated previously that the Minimal Facts were chosen because the majority of scholars agree with these facts. It should be noted that this is not the same as saying “the majority of scholars believed Jesus actually rose from the dead.” There is still skepticism by some even though the historical facts are agreed upon. The facts still need an explanation though, something that joins them all together. Something happened following the death of Jesus. Skeptics have tried to come up with alternative theories to explain away these facts but none of them do a sufficient job of accounting for these minimal facts. The best explanation of what happened is that Jesus resurrected bodily from the grave, spoke and ate with the disciples, appeared to James and Paul, and commissioned the Church to go and make disciples (Matt 28:19-20).

 

The Religious Significance

Lastly, we must consider the question “what does it all mean?” Historical facts are not “brute facts” meaning they do not carry with them their own interpretation. There is an extra step we have to take to go from “Jesus resurrection from the dead” to “Christianity is true and the resurrection is one of the central tenets of the faith.” The resurrection event requires interpretation, it is both a historical and a religious event. This is why it was said that the resurrection of Jesus is theological history. 

The theological significance of the resurrection is vast but here we will close with this specific point. The resurrection shows that Christianity is true because it affirms everything that Jesus said and did prior to his death. Jesus claimed to be God, he claimed to be on a mission from the Father, he performed miracles, he forgave sins, he ushered in the Kingdom of God, and he even predicted that he would be killed and would rise again. Why do we believe all of this? Because 3 days after Jesus was crucified, the Father raised him from the dead. We have good historical, evidential reasons to believe it’s true!

 

1Mike Licona,The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, (Downers Grove,Ill.: IVP Academic, 2010), 30.
2Gary Habermas and Michael Licona,The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, (Kindle Edition:Kregel Publications, 2004), Loc. 330 of 4050.
3Ibid., Loc. 380 of 4050.
4This is a reference to Star Wars and scenes where Jedi appear to Luke Skywalker after theyhave died. The first example would be in The Return of the Jedi when Obi-Wan Kenodi appears and talkswith Luke Skywalker while he is training on Dagobah. The second is at the celebration on Endor also inReturn of the Jedi where Anakin Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi and Master Yoda all appear to LukeSkywalker. In both these scenes the deadJedi appear in this “phantasmal” form. They are there andpresent to Luke but not embodied.
5James was one of the chief spokespersons at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).

Categories
All Christian History Spiritual Development

What is the History of Easter?

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

 

What is the history of Easter? We can all agree about where it started – with the resurrection of Jesus Christ some 2000 years ago. But where does Easter fit in, and what’s with all the bunnies and eggs? Many recent studies have concluded that Easter is based on ancient pagan celebrations, that the date and perhaps especially the name of Easter are pagan through and through. In this estimation, Christians merely adopted the pagan holiday and attached the story of Jesus to it. In this blog, I want to introduce you to a counterpoint to this pop history. 

How it All Began?

To summarize the popular premise, at least the most common among many, “Easter” got its name from a pagan goddess named Eostre. This Eostre is a semi-mythical figure dating back thousands of years before Christ. She was a ruler to whom were ascribed the traits of a god – specifically a god of fertility and life. It is said that a yearly festival was established in her honor and that eggs and rabbits were part of that celebration. 

Fast forward a few thousand years and pagan people across the world still celebrated this holiday. Christians, with the best intentions in mind, co-opted this holiday but replaced Eostre with Christ because…you know…resurrection and life. Seemed like a good fit. So Easter became a Christian holiday in much the same way as Christmas (we have a blog about that, too!). At least, that’s what we’re told. 

What’s In a Name?

But let’s talk about that name for a moment. This seems to be the central point of contention for those who argue for the pagan roots of Easter. Did early Christians use the name Easter? Certainly not. Originally, Easter was called Pascha. This name refers to the Jewish Passover, not an ancient fertility goddess.2 In fact, for the early Church, Pascha was simply Passover after the resurrection of Jesus. Pascha comes from the Hebrew word Pesach, meaning ‘to pass over,’ and refers back to the Exodus story.

Ok, but everyone calls it Easter these days, right? Not nearly. Most Eastern Christians call it Pascha, and the word for Easter in many non-English languages translates to Pascha (e.g, Spanish Pascua, Italian Pasqua, Portuguese Páscoa, and Romanian Pasti). Calling it “Easter” is a Western, Anglo addition likely deriving from one of many German words. 

Think about it. If the original name is not Easter but rather this name was added later by Western, Anglo society, then the very idea that Easter is a pagan holiday because it has a pagan name is an entirely anglo-centric argument. Think about it, the argument is essentially saying ‘It’s pagan because English-speaking peoples call it by a pagan name’…that does not seem like a good argument. It ignores the long history of what the church has called the celebration of the resurrection and it ignores the reality that its origins are Middle-Eastern. 

So, even if the word Easter is pagan (and this is a big if, but one that we don’t have space to talk about here), that doesn’t make Easter, or rather Pascha, a co-opted pagan celebration. 

How Was the Date of Easter Determined?

But what about the date of Easter? Isn’t it based on the pagan Eostre celebration? Going hand-in-hand with the discussion of the name of this holiday, the timing of our celebration centers on Pascha, or the paschal moon, not on an ancient holiday. In the early church, the timing of Easter was a point of considerable debate. The prevailing sentiment of the Church, however, was that the Christian Pascha celebration was to be celebrated separately from, and in most cases after, Passover.

Why does this matter? Because it is abundantly clear that the date for Easter is based on the Jewish festival, not the pagan holiday. While originally the idea was that Easter should be celebrated after Pascha because Jesus ate the Passover meal before going to the cross, a change in calendars meant a change in dates. When the West switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, the original connections faded, but the idea remained. The date of Easter is far from having a pagan origin.

Where Do the Easter Bunny and Easter Eggs Come From?

The argument that Easter is a co-opted pagan holiday is perhaps strongest in regard to some of its peripheral elements – bunnies, eggs, lambs, etc. Some are easier to explain than others. The lamb, for instance, has clear connections to the Christian story.

But what about the brightly-colored eggs? How are they religious? Well, ancient Easter practices included the season of Lent where certain foods were forbidden, including eggs. As a result, when Easter came and the restrictions were lifted, it became customary to give an egg as a gift. As the custom grew in popularity, the eggs began to be painted or decorated. In Russia, the tradition was so widespread that the nobility would gift egg-shaped, jeweled ornaments – think of the Faberge Eggs. So, far from being pagan symbols of fertility, eggs merely celebrated the fact that people could start eating whatever they wanted again.

Ok, then what about the Easter Bunny? Surely that must be pagan, or at the very least entirely commercial? To that objection I could merely concede as there is much less evidence for the religious roots of the bunny… and yet, even he likely came in through the Church. 

You see, as the Lent tradition mentioned above was practiced by Catholic and Orthodox Christians, early protestants rejected the practice of giving up certain foods before Easter. Instead, some protestant groups began what could be seen as a very early Christian meme meant to poke fun at their Catholic neighbors. So, as the joke goes, why don’t Catholics eat eggs until Easter? Because the Easter Bunny hides them. In some accounts, the bunny itself even lays the eggs, but I won’t even try to speak to the religious significance of that.

What is the History of Easter?

Putting this all together, Easter, or rather Pascha, is thoroughly Christian and dates to the beginning of the second century A.D. at the very latest. The date of Easter has Jewish and Christian roots, and even the elements that seem least religious have cultural and historical significance for Christians. Only the name, Easter, appears to have pagan roots, but even that is likely a historical coincidence as the word Easter more likely derives from one of many Christian terms (such as the German word for Resurrection). 

The oft-cited pagan history of Easter is anglo-centric and anachronistic. It lacks a basis in real history, instead of creating a pop history. Don’t fall into the trap this Easter season when you see popular theories showing up on your social media feed. Celebrate the resurrection of Jesus with confidence knowing that the church, from its inception, has considered this the most sacred of days of the Faith.

 

1Also known as Queen Semiramis, wife of Nimrod, who later became known as mother goddess Ishtar or Eostre.
2The main historical evidence that ties the word Eostre with Easter comes from an 8th-century monk named Bedewho briefly mentions the connection in one of his writings

Categories
All Christian History Studying the Bible

Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

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

 

Sometime around 33 A.D., in the springtime, Jesus was crucified on a cross. He endured the most brutal and torturous form of capital punishment is perhaps all of human history. Today, many people throughout the world recognize the Cross as the symbol of the Christian faith. This is appropriate since the Bible clearly teaches that the death of Jesus is absolutely central to the gospel, the good news that Jesus tasked His followers to believe and proclaim. The Apostle Paul says, “that Christ died for our sins” is of “first importance.” But what is the meaning of the Cross? Why did Jesus have to die?

Christians have reflected on this question for nearly two thousand years. In that time, the church has uncovered several different reasons for the Atonement or death of Christ. These different reasons are ultimately harmonious and complementary; they are like the facets of a diamond. Each facet reveals something important and beautiful about the meaning and purpose of the Cross. 

 

Facet 1: Jesus’s Death as Ransom 

Key verse: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45 

The Bible tells us that Jesus’s death was a ransom. The Old Testament provides some context for the biblical notion of “ransom.” Perhaps the most vivid example comes in the book of Ruth. In this story, we meet Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth’s husband had died, as well as her sons, and she was left alone and suffering. Fortunately, the law outlined the role of a “kinsman-redeemer,” who would be legally obligated to redeem by ransom a family member who had been sold into slavery (Lev. 25:47-55).  Boaz ransomed or redeemed Ruth, buying back her former husband’s property and marrying Ruth, saving her from a life of poverty and hunger. Throughout the Old Testament, “to ransom” often has the sense of “buying back.” 

In the New Testament, Jesus says that He has come to give his life as “ransom for many.” Paul says that Jesus “gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). But who did God pay ransom to? Some have suggested that God paid Satan the ransom, but that is not supported by the Bible. Instead, we should think of God as satisfying the demands of His own righteousness in order to be our redeemer; He “bought us back” so that we might be free. 

 

Facet 2: Jesus’s Death as Victory over Evil

Key verse: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:14). 

The Bible also tells us that by his death, Jesus gained victory over the powers of evil. The very first prophecy in the Bible foreshadows this victory. After God created Adam and Eve, they were tempted by the serpent, who is Satan (cf. Rev. 12:9). Though Adam and Eve sinned, in Genesis 3:15, God said that a descendant of Eve would someday “crush the head” of the serpent. God promised that He would decisively defeat the devil through a human person. Christ, who is both fully God and fully man brought this about. By his death, Jesus freed humanity from the power of Satan. But Christ also demonstrated his power over death itself. Though Christ died on the Cross, the Father raised Him again, proving that death itself is “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54). By the Cross, Christ defeats both sin and death; He crushes the head of the serpent. As the Bible says, “thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). 

 

Facet 3: Jesus’s Death as Moral Example 

Key verse: “To this, you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21)

The Cross also shows us what God is like and how we should live. The Bible says that Jesus died for us because He loves us (cf. Rom. 5:8). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd who left his entire flock to seek and save a single lost sheep. The shepherd searches for the missing sheep until he finds it and he “joyfully puts it on his shoulders” (Luke 15:5). Like the shepherd, Jesus says that He has come to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). The Cross shows us the love of God. 

The Cross also shows us what sort of life we should live. By dying on the Cross, Jesus shows that He is obedient to God’s will. And Jesus shows us how we ought to love others. Love is not merely a feeling and godly love may require personal sacrifice. Like Jesus, we may need to give of ourselves, whether that be our money, time, or even our lives. But, we also know that God sees what we do, that He is a just God, and He will reward us for following his commandments (1 Pt. 1:4).  

 

Facet 4: Jesus’s Death as Substitutionary Atonement 

Key verse: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness…” (Romans 3:25a). 

Jesus also died as a substitute for sinners. In the Old Testament, Israel sacrificed animals to cover their sins. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would slaughter a goat as a sin offering. This was for the “wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites–all their sins” (Lev. 16:21). This did not take away the guilt of sin (cf. Heb. 10:4), but it does show us that the “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). 

Sin is a great offense to the holiness and justice of God (cf. Hab. 1:13). God could not simply forgive sin because He is a God of justice. He would be like a judge who let a convicted murderer go free. A judge that ignores the law would be no judge at all. But because God loves us, He paid the penalty of sin Himself by sending His Son to die in the place of sinners. In this way, God shows Himself to be “just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). God is God of holiness and of love; both features of God’s character are seen in the Cross of Jesus Christ. 

 

Conclusion

Jesus died on the cross for many reasons. Each of these reasons reveals something about who God is and why Jesus’ death was necessary. Jesus died to ransom and redeem us from death. He died to demonstrate His power and ultimate victory over sin and death. The Cross shows us that God loves us and wants us to live a life of obedience to God and love for others. Finally, Jesus’s death makes atonement for our sin so that we can be right with God. Without the Cross, we would be doomed to suffering and death. But because of it, we can live forever with God. 

Categories
All Christian History Studying the Bible

The Taxman Cometh: Why Did Jews in the Bible Hate Tax Collectors?

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

 

If you had to nominate a group for “Most Hated People in Scripture,” tax collectors would probably be the first to mind. In fact, tax collectors are singled out for scorn directly or indirectly over 30 times in the gospels. 

In democratic societies, the tax collector plays an important, but annoying role in sustaining a system that ultimately benefits the citizenry. In the gospels, however, the tax collector is a whole different animal and Jewish hatred for them is palpable. Thus, people do not respond well when Jesus embraces them in repentance as followers and even makes one as His close disciple.

 

The Question

So a natural question would be: “Why do the Jews of the gospel era feel such a profound hatred for tax collectors?” 

The answer to this question is a bit of a history lesson. So, bear with me while I tell you a story. The tax collectors don’t come in until the end, but when they do, perhaps you will hate them just as much.

 

The Story Answer

The Jewish self-consciousness of Jesus’ day is intimately bound up with the lost glory days of the Davidic kings and the centuries of struggle under foreign rule following their exile. 

David himself establishes as free of a society as one might hope for in the ancient world. It is like a proto-constitutional republic. The people covenant with the house of David to be their kings. The sons of David are sworn to rule by Torah, and by principles of shepherd leadership, as spiritual equals with the people. Given the corruptive nature of power, this doesn’t always work out so well, but between exodus and exile, they are at least ruled by brothers and not foreigners. Throughout these years they are fed spiritually through the prophets on the promises of a reestablished Davidic rule, where Messiah will restore all things to proper order. 

After being in exile, the Jewish people are allowed to return to their homeland, but they remain under foreign control. They are kicked about like a soccer ball for a few centuries between competing empire builders. Life is not too terrible when these foreign rulers leave the Jewish people to their own devices in exchange for tribute raised through taxes. 

During the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, however, things take an ugly turn. Antiochus hates the Jews and is determined to crush them through various means. He seduces Jewish youths to the dark side of Hellenistic life. He also bans Torah, interferes in Jewish religious practices, and defiles their sacred sites. 

The Jews push back hard against Antiochus and win their freedom, living under their own brother rulers for the first time since the exile. This is no Davidic Messianic reign, but it does seem to the Jews to be an important step in that direction. When Messiah comes, surely their Jewish rulers will hand over power to Him.  

Not surprisingly, Jewish power struggles get messy and some 60 years before Jesus’ birth, hard-won Jewish freedom is lost to Rome. The Jews find themselves yet again under foreign rule. Rome begins by working with existing Jewish leadership, but the level of Roman control and interference grows steadily as the decades pass. 

Herod the Great, a pseudo-Jewish Roman representative, proves despotic in psychotic ways. Upon his celebrated death, Rome divides power between Herod’s surviving heirs, and, eventually, appoints purely Roman prefects over various parts of old Davidic territory. Dreams of Messiah never seem less likely, and are, for that very reason, most pronounced. If ever the Jewish people needed Yahweh to fulfill His Messianic promises, it is then. 

 

The Taxman Cometh

So what do we have? We have a people nurtured on unprecedented levels of freedom, nursed on great Messianic hopes for a divine peaceable kingdom, raised in the great light of Torah, who descend into the madness of pagan domination for centuries. They have been abused, bullied, tormented, tortured, and murdered. They are daily prevented from being the people they believe God has called them to be, and the oppression of it weighs heavily upon them. 

It gets worse. Taxes under the Roman Empire are complicated and layered. Companies buy the right of taxation for regions, guaranteeing Rome a certain income into their coffers, and receiving in exchange a free hand to pick the pockets of the people. It is a thoroughly corrupt system greased and protected with bribery. The lowest men are appointed at the bottom rung to do the dirtiest job; the actual confiscation of funds. These are men who take special pleasure in exercising power over others and pressing every advantage they have over them to the full. 

There are crown taxes, income taxes, property taxes, produce taxes, bridge taxes, road taxes, harbor taxes, import taxes, export taxes, town taxes, special taxes on certain goods, some as high as 12 ½ %. Any attempt to move goods to market involves constant harassment. On command, farmers have to unload their goods, allow them to be searched, assessed, and taxed at the discretion of the tax collector. 

Common people are always vulnerable to false accusations and the penalties for nonpayment by cash-poor farmers can be extreme. Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:21-34 tells it true, saying, “…since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made,” and we find, “seizing him, he began to choke him, … and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.” 

It gets worse still. Many Jewish people throw in their lot with the oppressors. The common Jewish person might not be able to say much about their leaders whose power and wealth was largely dependent on continued Roman support of their leadership, but another class of betrayer is ready at hand for their ire—the Jewish tax collector. They are the greedy, smug, sneering, mocking face of Roman oppression worn by fellow Jews, who, but for their abandonment of faith in the promises of God, would have been brothers in arms. They are ranked with murderers and the grossest of sinners. 

 

Good News, Bad News

It is just too much to bear. In the complex experience of this betrayal, frustration boils over. It is important, as we read the gospels, to feel the depth of it. We must know their crimes, and look on knowingly with the crowds and Pharisees as Jesus says to one of the chiefs of these wicked men, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today,” and then, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.”  (Luke 19:5-9)  We must feel what it was for the people to look on as these turncoats come to Jesus, like prodigal sons fattened upon the stolen wealth of their brothers, and to find Jesus accepting their repentance and rejoicing, He claims, with the angels. 

It should affect us deeply. Jesus’ forgiveness does not diminish their crimes, rather, it exalts the grace and mercy of God. Indeed, no class of sinner is beyond the reach of the Holy Spirit’s conviction or the Father’s forgiveness.

And that is good news for you and me, the Chief of Sinners. 

 

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All Christian History

Happy New Creation!

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

 

Happy New Years!!!

How nice. Whoop-de-doo. The calendar went back to January 1st. Alert the media. Break out the fireworks. Dance in the streets. Bring coats and mittens, it’s cold outside. 

Why do we make such a big to-do over New Year’s Day? Isn’t it just a random date marking one more trip around the sun on a cosmic speck with no innate purpose other than breaking up the monotony of our days? 

Quick Answer: No. New Year’s Day is much more than that and always has been. 

Let’s look today at one of several important things that the idea of a New Year’s Day has provided over the ages: A point of assessment, repentance, and renewal… what many ancients regarded as a New Creation.   

 

The Cosmic Reset Button

The Ancient peoples of the Biblical world viewed New Year’s Day as a cosmic reset button on creation and life. Each cycle of seasons, however, defined from place to place, is a cycle of life, and there is wisdom not only in hoping for a renewal of that cycle but also for self-assessment in one’s place in the pattern. 

For me, born and raised in New England, school started with Fall’s ‘death,’ was exciting through to Christmas Holidays, including New Year’s Day, and then droned on through winter’s ‘languish.’ In March the world sprouted hope with spring’s ‘newness,’ and June delivered us to freedom in summer’s ‘bounty,’ until we had our fill of it, and looked forward again to school friends and change in Fall’s ‘death’ again. 

Our relationship to the world and many of our cultural values were shaped by this cycle as it was lived out in that region. New Year’s Day, for us, was established at the first of a fresh month after the winter solstice; the turning of the days from increasing darkness to growing light. It came in the quiet between harvest and planting when our minds were free to consider our ways from the last cycle and to plan our processes for the next. It is a time of evaluation of ourselves, to ask honestly in the doldrums of winter, “How am I doing?” and “What do I need to change about myself and my life?”

 

Creation and New Creation

Far from being stories about where all the stuff came from, Ancient stories of creation were designed, in one way or another, to educate the community about the WHO (worship), the WHAT (right pattern), and the WHY (reason for being) of life in the existing created order. The idea is plain, if you know how things work and discipline yourself to maintain fundamental principles of life, you radically improve your chances of surviving and thriving. 

Thus, ancient people sought to understand the way of things, the way God (or the gods) made the world function so that they could function well within it. They tried to discern and replicate life-sustaining patterns in society so that they could survive and thrive in perpetuity.  They sought patterns that would make society healthy, and allow their people to go on living and reproducing for generation after generation after generation. 

So creation stories were a kind of wisdom literature, and New Year’s Day was a Re-creation day when the sacred pattern of creation was rehearsed, when the sins of the past were recognized and cleansed, and when the patterns of life-sustaining creation were ritually energized for another year. 

 

The Christian Answer to New Creation

The ancients understood something about the cycle of life that is often lost on modern folks. It is something that is important for us to recover and to intentionally hang on to through holiday remembrance—the very idea of recreation, of overcoming the sins of the past, of clearing the slate and starting out again to make ourselves and our world conform to God’s best intentions for us. 

For the pagan, unfortunately, “sin” and “cleansing” had little to do with morality and ethics. They were fixated most on exploiting the rules of ritual to manipulate the power of the gods to fulfill their own human purposes. And they worshipped gods that are not gods. 

In Scripture, we find similar processes of creation and recreation and New Year’s, with more successful patterns, that demanded something deeply personal from the worshipper. This is the natural result of the fact that Biblical creation and recreation pictures are founded on the inspired prophetic revelations of those who came under the authority of the One True Creator of all and not the self-aggrandizing hubris of human leaders and their perverse imaginings about creation.

For the biblical worshipper, time was not merely about keeping the human life cycle going. The One True Creator of all had a plan for His creation and revealed man’s place in this plan in His inspired Word. He made man in His image, to be His representatives in the world. He gave them His Torah to teach them what kind of people they needed to be in order to do the work that He called them to accomplish. Each person is called to wake up to Him and to be transformed into His likeness as they walk through life with Him in a personal relationship of faith and trust. 

There is wisdom, therefore, in establishing a liturgical life cycle that includes time for New Year’s reflection: “This is the path of life revealed by God in His Word. This is how God made things to work. This is God’s purpose for me in His World. How am I doing with God? How am I doing with others? Am I the person He has called me to be? Am I doing what God has called me to do?” 

Pause and reflection are vital components of a healthy life, especially a healthy spiritual life. Rather than continuing unabated on an impulsive life of action and reaction, take a hiatus from life and evaluate. Set your determination that this time things will be better. This time, you will be better.

Happy New Creation!

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All Christian History

Is the Date of Christmas Pagan?

Author: Kevin Richard Ph.D., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

Every year around Christmas time, a post will inevitably appear on social media claiming the celebration of Christmas on December 25th is pagan in nature. The post will likely be suggesting either one of two things: 

  • There was a pagan festival around the Winter Solstice and Christians established December 25th as a date of Jesus’ birth to co-opt the festival away from the pagans. This claim is meant merely as a courteous fyi; a history lesson for the church. Or…
  • That Christmas has pagan roots and has been infiltrated by all manner of pagan rituals and decorations. This latter intention subtly suggests that the church do away with Christmas and purge itself of pagan influence altogether. 

Both claims are interesting but, as is often the case with internet pop history, things typically are not exactly as they seem. In fact, we will see that neither of the proposed options above are historically accurate. In this blog, we will look to answer these questions related to the timing of the Christmas holiday:

  • When was Jesus born?
  • Is Christmas a co-opted pagan holiday?

 

When was Jesus Born? 

Central to this larger question of Christmas and paganism is the date of Jesus’ birth. Was he born on December 25th? The answer is both “yes” and “probably not”… Let me explain. In the early church, calendar keeping was a complicated task. In the first century, there were two major calendar models – the Julian and Jewish calendars. The Julian calendar was based on the solar cycles and was the official calendar of the Roman Empire. The Jewish calendar is a lunar model that follows the phases of the moon. Because the Sun and Moon cycles do not align perfectly, the days and months of particular events were hard to keep track of between the two models.

For early Christians, the problem of date keeping emerged when the church was collectively trying to determine the exact date on the calendar to celebrate Easter (or Pascha). They wanted to celebrate Easter on the exact date of Jesus’ resurrection. But what day was that specifically? Even though the church was separating from the lunar calendar, in order to figure that date out, they had to figure out which day Passover fell in the Jewish calendar the year Jesus died. Oh and to add another wrinkle, what year was Jesus crucified – was it AD30 or AD33? 

Uncertain of whether it was AD 30 or AD 33 – there are arguments made for either – two dates emerged as possible candidates for the Easter celebration – the Western church adopted March 25th and the Eastern church April 6th.

 

Is December 25th the Date of Jesus’ Birth?

At this point, you may be asking what does this have to do with Christmas? The answer: ”it doesn’t…at least not yet.” You see, for early Christians, the date of Jesus’ birth was not as important to the liturgical calendar as was the Easter celebration. Nonetheless, there were those who did suggest a date for the birth of Jesus. 

There was a tradition, not supported by the Bible that great Prophets died on the same day they were conceived. This was known as the idea of the “integral age.” According to William Tighe, it seems this idea was widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ and was adopted by early Christians.1 Applying the notion of integral age to Jesus, if he died on March 25th or April 6th then he must have been conceived on either date. Human pregnancies are generally 9 months…what is 9 months from either date? December 25th and January 6th.

It should be noted before moving on that the date of December 25th is likely not the real date of Jesus’ birth. The reason is simple: in AD 30 or AD 33, the accepted dates of Jesus’ death, the Friday before Passover did not fall on March 25th. Also, there is no evidence to suggest the notion of “integral age” is accurate. It appears to be merely symbolic. Nonetheless, this is an accurate historical account of how the date for Jesus’ birth was determined, but notice that only answers part of the question for us. Yes, the church had a date established but was it also a date they celebrated in the liturgical calendar? To answer, let’s look at the next question. 

 

Is Christmas a Co-opted Pagan Holiday?

The claim that Christmas is either a pagan holiday or was selected as a date to co-opt a pagan holiday, centers around the festival of Sol Invictus – the celebration of the unconquered Sun. It is true that there was ritual worship of the Sun in Roman times. But it should be noted that the connection of any festival to the winter Solstice – the time of year where the sunlight begins to lengthen in the day – did not occur until the Roman Emperor Aurelian instituted it around AD 274. Cult worship of the Sun reached its zenith under Aurelian and it was he who established the date for the festival as December 25th. It should also be noted that Aurelian was no fan of Christianity and it seems very likely that he chose that date because it was significant to Christians – not the other way around.

We know the date for Jesus’ birth was determined very early on in the church’s history but it was not necessarily celebrated until later. Tighe notes that the first reference connecting Jesus’ birth to a feast comes from around AD 380 from a sermon of St. John Chrysostom.2 If we were relying on this evidence alone, then it would be difficult to say Christmas was not established as a response to the pagan festival. However, regardless of when it began to be more formally celebrated in the church, it is safe to assume the date of December 25th as the birth of Jesus was set long before that same date was chosen as the festival of Sol Invictus. When it began to be a more formal celebration in the church is not known. But December 25th was a date determined by the Church very early on because they were more concerned with when Jesus died, not because they were trying to co-opt pagan worship of the Sun. 

 

Conclusion

So was Jesus born on December 25th? “Yes” in the sense that it is evident the early church came to accept Jesus was born on December 25th very early on. But “probably not” in the sense that we can also be fairly certain it wasn’t the actual day he was born. Also, it is quite evident that the church did not establish this liturgical date in order to co-opt a pagan festival of the Sun. The dating of December 25th existed long before Sol Invictus became an official Roman festival. Thus, it is safe to say the celebration of Christmas, at least the timing of it in the calendar year, is free from pagan influences. This still leaves the question of “how” we celebrate Christmas on the table of the pagan/Christian debate. But this question will have to wait for another time.

1William J. Tighe, “Calculating Christmas: The Story Behind December 25th.” https://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v

2Ibid.

Categories
All Christian History

Matthew’s Christmas Bells

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

 

Matthew’s Use of the Old Testament

One of my favorite things to study in the Bible is the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. I say USE because the New Testament writers do many things with the Old Testament, only one of which is to interpret it for us. They apply it, draw comparisons with it, use it to illustrate or prove, or simply shade our perceptions with the foreshadows cast by Israel’s sacred history.

As we enter the Christmas season, I’d like to give Matthew his due as a creative and brilliant handler of Old Testament materials by taking a walk through the biblical wonderland of his Christmas narrative in chapter 1:18-25. There, Old Testament references and allusions fall around us like snow, light up our perceptions of Jesus with the vibrant colors of the heroes of faith, and ring the bells of prophetic hope. 

 

The Birth of Jesus

We open the scene with Joseph discovering that his bride-to-be is pregnant. Knowing that he himself is not the father, and being, like the great patriarch of faith, a righteous man, he thinks to divorce the girl quietly to spare her public shame. We hear the soft dinging of Genesis 15:6 as Joseph takes on the luminescence of Abraham.

Being the namesake of the great Old Testament dreamer, who was despised and rejected by his brothers, but sent ahead of them by God’s grace and providence to save many lives, this new Joseph has his own fateful dream. Joseph, the great dreamer, lends his own light for us here, as Genesis 37 chimes in the distance.

 

The New Testament Joseph

This new Joseph, like his forebear Jacob, beheld an angel of God in his own divine dream. Jacob beheld the angels ascending and descending heaven on the cusp of his first great adventure with God, and earned the name Israel upon his return as he wrestled a divine blessing from the very Angel of Yahweh. Jacob shines in Matthew as the knelling of Genesis  28:10-12 and 32:22-32 splits the air.

The angel greets Joseph with a messianic epitaph of hope from a host of prophetic cathedrals ringing in the coming angelic promise. He hails him, Joseph, Son of David. As David’s descendant, Joseph himself is a messianic hopeful for the fulfillment of the promises of eternal divine rule rising from the house of David. The valleys echo with the reminiscence of 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 2, 110, 132; Isaiah 11, 16, 22; Jeremiah 23, 30, 33, 34, 37; Hosea 3; Amos 9; Zechariah 12 and 13. The starlight of David’s grandeur glitters brightly over the scene.  

Like his father Abraham, Joseph is met in this vision with the words, “fear not.” Indeed, here and now, the Lord is preparing Joseph to play his role in fulfilling the very promises given to Abraham on that fateful day. The ultimate inheritor of the promises to Abraham, the blessing poured out to the whole earth is coming into the world through Mary. And this one, born of woman, has been conceived through the Holy Spirit. Genesis 15:1 lends its voice to the chorus of bells.

 

A Miraculous Birth

Indeed, this is a miraculous birth, greater even than those of Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. Their stories, as well as the great promise of Immanuel’s birth, are intoned at several points of Matthew’s tale. Mary is “found to be with child.” Joseph’s doubts are met with “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared.” Of Mary, the angel says, “She will bear a son,” and, “you shall call his name Jesus.” The chime of Genesis 16, 17, and 30, 1 Samuel 1, and Isaiah 7-9 answer the rest. 

As a true son of Abraham, Joseph too is commanded, “You shall call His name…” And what a promise attends that command! The Lord declares, “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” Genesis 17:19 goes ding dong ding!

And what is Joseph commanded to name the child? He is Jesus, which is Greek for Joshua. Here, the Spirit-empowered, prophetic heir of Moses lights our path. This heir is prayed for in Numbers 27:16-17, promised in Deuteronomy 18:15ff, and typified in the first Joshua in Deuteronomy 34. He becomes part of the last days’ hope of Israel and is met in this new Joshua as referenced in several New Testament passages: Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35; Luke 7:16; John 1:21, 25, 6:14, 7:40. The hills go wild with the melodious tintinnabulations of hope no longer deferred.  

 

A Promise Fulfilled

All this, says Matthew, is to fulfill the equally layered promise of the virgin born Immanuel from Isaiah 7:14… a sign as high as heaven and as deep as Sheol. Indeed, the earthly son from Isaiah 7 is a marker of hope for the house of David, born to Isaiah himself in Isaiah 8 as a sign of God’s deliverance. He morphs in Isaiah 9 to one who truly fulfills the name’s promise—Immanuel, God with us—a Divine King comes to rule an eternal kingdom, seated on the throne of David. 

From town to town, from distant mountains and out across the fields where shepherds keep their flocks by night and Magi read the starry lights, Matthew lets the Old Testament flutter around us like feathered rain. He illuminates the scene with reflections of the heroes of faith. He rings in the meeting of prophetic hope with the chiming of a host of Christmas bells. And he does it all in only 161 Greek words. It is truly a biblical wonderland of joy.

Categories
All Christian History

Feasting with a Thankful Heart

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

 

For hundreds of years, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in bondage as Egyptian slaves. Then, in a miraculous event that served as the very foundation of developing Israelite culture, God freed His people to bring them into their own land. Through Moses the deliverer, God sent plague after plague against His enemies until, finally, His people were released. God showed up in spectacular form, appearing as a pillar of cloud and fire, and led His people through the Red Sea on dry land. Notice, immediately after these amazing events, how the people respond to their God and Rescuer. Exodus 16:2-3 tells us: 

And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt…”

 

The Israelites Complain

Did you catch that? Miracle after miracle, spectacle after spectacle, with the presence of God visible in their midst, the first thing the people do is complain. And their complaining didn’t end there. When God provided food from heaven, the people complained. When God gave them water out of a rock, the people complained, and when God finally led them to the edge of the Promised Land, the people refused to enter, complaining about the size of its inhabitants. In fact, they had rejected God’s kindness so often that He decided to teach them a lesson they and their descendants would never forget. He taught them, among other things, how to be grateful. For this generation of ex-slaves, this lesson would take 40 years to learn.

It’s easy to sit back and judge these people. Certainly, I would have made better choices. I wouldn’t complain… But ask yourself; how do you respond to the goodness of God in your own life? How long after God blesses you with something amazing do you wait before grumbling about His blessings? When you are blessed with an education, do you complain about teachers or assignments? Or when you are blessed with a job, do you complain about the work you do, your boss, or your co-workers? When you are blessed with a child, do you complain about the late nights and dirty diapers? You see, it is so easy to become like the rebellious generation of Israelites who perished in the wilderness. 

So, what is the remedy to this problem? How do we keep from grumbling? While future generations of Israelites that we read about in the Old Testament don’t have the best track record, they did institute practices to help guard against an attitude of rebellion. Perhaps the biggest part of this was the Feast Days. 

 

Feasting with a Thankful Heart

Feast days, or festivals, were yearly opportunities to remember and give thanks for the goodness and kindness that God had displayed in the past. By celebrating festivals annually, the people would never forget what God had done for them. During these feasts, the people would come together and recite their history, giving thanks to God. To a lesser degree, the weekly Sabbath day of rest also served this purpose as it reoriented the worshipper to have a heart of praise and gratefulness toward God.

And what better way to celebrate than with food? Of course, we do this all the time. Try to think of a celebration that doesn’t involve food. Typically, the happier the occasion, the more it revolves around eating. It is a great way to establish gratitude in our hearts with good memories of friends, family, and feasting.

 

Our Feast: Thanksgiving

In the United States, we have a holiday that accomplishes this explicitly. It is even called Thanksgiving. Like the Jewish feast days, Thanksgiving is a time when we join together with our community and remember the goodness and kindness of God. We do this historically, remembering what God did in the lives of our ancestors. We do this in our community, recognizing what God has done and is doing in our nation. And we do this personally, cultivating thankfulness in our hearts toward God for His faithfulness. 

This Thanksgiving, as you look out over the holiday feast, or even as you microwave a single serving of frozen turkey, take the opportunity to remember and give thanks to God. Take the opportunity to guard your heart against grumbling. Remind those around you of the great things God has done in history and in your life. Practice thankfulness and see how remembering God’s goodness impacts your faith in a positive way. 

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