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Spiritual Development Studying the Bible

Did Jesus Claim to be God?

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

 

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I’ve seen the faith of more than a few ministry students over the years crumble in the face of easily addressed “difficulties.” One such issue involves the deity of Jesus. More than a few times, students have come to me shaken to their core when they realize (usually because some atheist or agnostic biblical scholar mocks the Church over the matter) that “Jesus never claims to be God, and that the New Testament writers never declare Jesus to be God,”

Now you can ask yourself, “Is that true? Did Jesus never claim to be God? Did the New Testament Writers (other than John) never claim the deity of Jesus?”

Short answer: No, it is not true. There are other New Testament writers who make such claims.

Long answer: It depends on what you will accept as declarations of deity. Let’s look at a few examples.

A Trained Eye

If one is waiting for Jesus to jump on a table and shout to passing crowds, “Hey! Look at Me! I’m Incarnate deity!!!” then no, that never happens. If one is demanding that narratives and epistles be systematic theology texts that take the reader step by step through a categorical discussion on the enumerated doctrines of true believers, then, again, no, that never happens.

If, however, one allows the New Testament writers to be artful narrators and the Epistles artful addresses to church issues, then yes, the Scriptures do declare Jesus to be incarnate deity… and they do so quite clearly by Ancient Near Eastern standards. The problem is that modern eyes are often too poorly trained to observe it.

Always keep one carefully focused eye on the Old Testament when reading anything in the New Testament.

Jesus and Jonah

One important way for biblical storytellers to declare the deity of Jesus is to cast Jesus in the role of Yahweh from significant Old Testament passages. For example, in Mark 4:35-41, the author tells the story of the calming of the storm with clear allusions to the story of Jonah. The key to Mark’s telling is that Jesus plays the role of both Jonah, the sleeping prophet, and God, who controls the elements of nature and strikes more fear into the hearts of the sailors through His power to calm the raging sea, than the sea itself causes in all its raging.

Mark actually quotes bits of Jonah 1:6 from the Greek—Where the captain says to the sleeping prophet “Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” Mark has the disciples call out to Jesus Himself, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

Mark also strongly alludes to the work of Yahweh in the sea storm passage of Psalm 107, when Jesus speaks to Mark’s storm. In verse 29 we find, “He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” In Jesus, Mark 4 presents “the deeds of Yahweh, his wondrous works in the deep.” (Psalm 107:24) Jesus is declared incarnate Yahweh, “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9)

You Will Be My Witnesses…

Acts 1 presents us with yet another incident of such character.

Each gospel ends with some version of the Great Commission, including Luke, which says in 24:45-49, “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” After this Jesus ascends into heaven.

Acts, though written by the same author, begins with a varied retelling of this scene. In 1:8, we read, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” This idea of witness is a recurring theme in Acts. The term itself shows up 16 times in reference to being witness for Christ, once directly declaring the sending of the Holy Spirit as God’s witness of Christ.

Witnesses of Yahweh

Three times in the Book of Isaiah Yahweh says to the Servant and to His community of restored Israel, “You are my witnesses.

In Isaiah 43:10, after challenging the pagan nations to provide witness for the power of their gods (something they cannot do), Yahweh boasts of the witness that His people can bear of His prophetic word fulfilled in their lives. He declares, “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.” Yahweh follows saying, “I, I am the LORD, and besides me, there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed when there was no strange god among you, and you are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and I am God.

In Isaiah 44:8, Yahweh addresses those who have experienced the power of the living God, He who redeems, who promises and predicts, and who brings it to pass. He says to them, “…you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.

The servant who has come to restore Israel is called “witness” again in Isaiah 55:4-5. “Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.  Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Witnesses of Christ

Four times in the Book of Isaiah, Yahweh calls the Servant His witness. Three times, He includes those bound to the servant saying of them, “You are my witnesses.” In Acts 1:8, Jesus is both Servant (Jesus) and Incarnate Yahweh addressing the community of witnesses who are sent to tell of the fulfilled promises of salvation come to men by Yahweh’s hand working in His Servant.

Jesus intentionally uses the language of Isaiah, referring to witnesses of Yahweh, to refer to himself. Any ancient reader would have understood the connection and implication. Jesus was making himself equal to Yahweh. These are only a couple among many examples of similar declarations.

Remember: always keep one carefully focused eye on the Old Testament when reading ANYTHING in the New Testament.

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Spiritual Development Studying the Bible

Guest Blog: How (and Why) to Memorize Bible Verses

Author: Kayla Hyatt, Guest Author Ministry Assistant Services

 

It is a great kindness that God has given us His word to read, study, and memorize. His Word has the power to transform us to be more like Jesus, and whether you are a new Christian or have been following Jesus for a long time, it’s always a good idea to bury Scripture in your heart.

Memorizing Scripture appears early in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 11:18 says, “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul…” From the beginning, God wanted His people to know what He had spoken. Even when The Law was written on stone tablets, God’s preference was always that His Word would be written on the hearts of His people. We have been given access to God’s living and active Word, and we know that it pleases Him to do so, so let’s commit it to memory.

What happens when we memorize Scripture?

Matthew 4:1-11 is an excellent example of the power of Scripture and why we should take the time to memorize it. In this passage, Jesus had been fasting for 40 days and nights and was understandably hungry. Matthew 4:3-4 tells us, “The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. ” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Twice more, the enemy tempted Jesus, and each time, Jesus responded with, “it is written…” and quoted Scripture! After the third time, Matthew tells us that the devil left.

We fight against the enemy and run from sin.

Just like Jesus in Matthew 4, we are tempted at times. To combat the enemy’s schemes, Ephesians 6:17 tells us we should carry “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God…” The Word of God is a sword we can use to stand firm and fight against the enemy when he tempts us with lies and half-truths to lead us to sin. Psalm 119:11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” The antidote for sin is knowing the Word and storing it in our hearts. The more we know God’s Word, the more we know what pleases Him (and what doesn’t). It doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes, but we will be heading in the right direction.

We are encouraged, and we share it.

Another reason to memorize Scripture is that it is incredibly comforting. Have you ever gone through a season in life that was less than stellar? Maybe you’ve suffered the loss of a job or a loved one. Perhaps you’re in that season right now. Whatever you’re going through, there is a wealth of encouragement in the Bible for you and your situation. When you’re at a loss for what to do, you can whisper (or scream) Psalm 121:1-2 I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” There is something powerful about reminding our souls that the God who made heaven and earth is our helper! And when we know Scripture like that, the Holy Spirit reminds us to share it in conversations when our friends, family, and even strangers need to hear it.

That’s just the beginning of what can happen when we hide Scripture in our hearts. If you’re ready to get started committing Scripture to memory, here are a few easy ways to get started:

Pick your passage.

The best place to start is to decide what verse(s) you want to memorize. It might be a verse about something you are struggling with or something you want to work on. It also might be a verse that you find particularly comforting. If you don’t know where to start, my favorite place to look is the Psalms. There is so much encouragement packed in there!

Read, Write and Listen.

Once you’ve picked your verse (or verses), study the passage surrounding it. Context is so important when it comes to remembering and applying Scripture to your daily life. Read the entire chapter your verse(s) are found in, and maybe a chapter before and after. When you have a feel for the context, focus on reading your verse out loud. Over and over. The trifecta of seeing it with your eyes, saying it with your mouth, and hearing it makes memorizing so much easier. Once you’ve done that a few times, write it down. And then write it again. This is another great way to hide Scripture in your heart, especially if you learn by doing. Writing it down with colorful pens or markers can also be helpful! Finally, listen to it by recording it or using a Bible app with a reading feature. You can listen while doing other things, so take advantage of your commute, the time you spend doing chores, etc.

Sing it.

You might remember learning things in school by singing songs. That is because it is one of the ways our brain memorizes new information quickly. And don’t worry; being a great singer is not a prerequisite! Pick a verse or two (the Psalms are especially great for this strategy because they were written to be sung) and sing it! You can make up your own melody or borrow a tune you already know. Keep singing it, and soon, you’ll know that verse by heart!

Word games.

If singing really isn’t your thing, you can use word games to memorize Scripture. The first game you can try is reading your verse while covering a word and filling it in by memory. Each time you read the verse, cover an additional word until you know the entire thing. Another strategy is using the first letter of each word as a reminder of what the verse says, almost like an acronym. For example, Psalm 23:1 says, “The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” The way you would write this is “TLIMSISNW.” Read over your acronym as an aid for memorizing your verse!

Post it and pray it.

After some practice, your verse(s) should be committed to memory. The challenge now is to not forget it, and practice makes permanent! I love to add reminders in places I look often. You can write Scripture on sticky notes and stick them on your mirrors, kitchen window, or car dash. You’ll know where you’ll see it most, so write it out (again) and post it! Then, whenever you see it, pray through that verse. Ask the Lord to help you continue to remember it, and ask Him to bring it to mind when you need it most.

Hopefully, memorizing Scripture doesn’t seem like such a daunting task anymore. I pray these tips are helpful and you find the joy of hiding the Living Word in your heart. It is one of the best life-long habits you can cultivate, and there’s no better time to start than right now!

 

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Digging Deeper into the Word Studying the Bible

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 into the Word Studying the Bible

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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