Part 5: Sheep

I’ve always had a fascination with the return of Christ, and I think so too do many in the church. Although to be fair, it’s easier to pay attention to the timing of His return rather than the more practical concern of what we are to be doing when he returns.

 

Midway through the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a parable to a guy obsessed with material possessions about a rich man who thinks he has it all but is unaware of his life being finite.  On a given evening, (Luke 12:20) God tells this guy that his time is up and that he can’t take all his possessions with him. It’s clear from the parable that the guy didn’t give thought to eternal things. In the end, he didn’t have any crop, barns and goods and his soul was dead.

 

Directly following this, Jesus tells his followers that they should not worry about food and clothes; “life is more than food and the body more than clothes.” (Luke 12:23). We are more than mere animals.

 

Not to impugn their business model, but have you ever considered that Woolworths (S.A.) caters for those who are very cognizant of food and clothes? Even I shop at Woolworths from time to time, however for some people, having clothes or food items branded from Woolies is an obvious source of pride.

 

Jesus reminds his disciples that the Father takes care of birds and provides beauty for wild grass and lilies, which beauty is not necessarily even seen and noticed by people. God’s care extends to all parts of creation, and if He takes care of them, He will take care of us.

 

Jesus refers to God feeding the ravens (Luke 12:24); basically these birds are part of the same genus as crows. Ravens are typically larger than crows. I don’t like crows and so I’m sure I wouldn’t like a larger-than-average crow-type bird. Mainly because they are scavengers and have a call like a witch with a bad case of laryngitis. And yet God feeds them. They don’t have a system for processing food or storing it and yet as my friend Craig always used to say, you don’t see many skinny birds.

 

Jesus further tells his disciples that giving to the poor secures treasures in heaven and our hearts follow our treasure (Luke 12:34).

 

What I get from this chapter is not to worry about the basics, that God has it covered. I need to be focused on what Jesus tells me is important: working for the Master, knowing that He could return at any moment.

 

“Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes.” (Luke 12:35 – 37a). We are to be heavenly minded, not earthly minded.

 

Jesus provides the example of a homeowner who, if he knew when a thief would try break in, would prevent it (Luke 12:39). The way to be on guard against a thief is to live in a constant state of readiness.

 

I’ve always been fascinated with the USAF guys hooked into NORAD, who at a moment’s notice and with properly formatted orders in hand can send missiles aloft toward an enemy. And that’s just dealing with nuclear attack and defence. The return of the Master is a somewhat bigger deal with greater impact than mere nukes.

 

Peter asked Jesus whether this teaching about being ready applied to everyone or only his disciples. Jesus likens the believer to a manager; a steward in charge of whatever God has given him or her. For myself, I have a family, a job, responsibilities, and I need to do the best that I can, being vigilant, knowing that it’s to Him that I will give an account. It’s my heavenly Father’s business, and I’m managing a branch of the franchise (to put it in business terms).

 

What does a good manager look like? Treating those in my area of responsibility well, being of sober and consistent habits, not being worldly. In other words, love, spiritual focus and self control.

 

Further on in Luke, we see the Father’s heart for the lost (chapter 15). This is the reason behind why the Christ had to be born and why he had to go to the cross; this is what it’s all about: the lost.

Naturally, the religious leaders, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were dismissive of Jesus hanging out with sinners and sharing meals. They muttered about it (Luke 15:2). Here we see the heart of the religious class of the day juxtaposed with the heart of the Father. In the parable of the lost sheep, the man who owns the sheep leaves the 99 grazing and goes off to look for the one sheep that is lost. And he doesn’t give up until he finds it, and then he carries it back and rejoices with his friends and neighbours.

 

The heart of the Father for a single lost soul is extraordinary. He notices the lost. It’s merely a parable but I imagine the 99 sheep left in the pasture were in safe hands. Perhaps the angelic equivalent of a Reaper drone equipped with Hellfire missiles for any deluded wolf who tries to mess with the sheep. Regardless, the emphasis is on the lost sheep.

 

This is the Father’s heart, and in 2019 I want it to be my heart too.

 

 

Part 4: On Mission

In his account, Luke selects the occasion of Jesus reading Scripture in his local synagogue in Nazareth to summarize Jesus’ purpose and ministry.

 

Jesus had been baptized by John and full of the Holy Spirit, had been led by the Spirit into the desert where he was tempted by the devil. Its directly after this, and by way of context, that Jesus attends the synagogue and is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read aloud. Jesus finds this particular passage:

 

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18 – 19, NIV)

 

It gets everyone’s attention, they’re all looking at him and then he tells them that this passage is being fulfilled in their hearing, there and now.

 

Jesus is the real deal but he’s grown up in Nazareth and so they all think they know him and that this is simply chutzpah.

 

The year of the Lord’s favour signifies that the kingdom has come, salvation is proclaimed. Many scholars in Israel had been expecting a political kingdom but Jesus was interested more primarily in liberating people from their sin.

 

Jesus moves on from Nazareth and proclaims the kingdom (Luke 4:43, 44). By the 8th chapter of Luke, Jesus is going from town to town proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and ‘The Twelve were with him, and also some women…’ (Luke 8:1, 2). Then Jesus called the Twelve together and ‘gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God…’(Luke 9:1, 2). He had showed them how to do it, and now it was their turn to go out.

 

Jesus instructed them to essentially travel light and enjoy the hospitality of people they would end up staying with on their circuit of Galilee (Luke 9:3 – 6).

After the apostles returned they gave Jesus a report back and the group withdrew to a town called Bethsaida, however they didn’t manage to remain alone and a large crowd showed up. Which was fine with Jesus as he preached the kingdom. This is the time where the miracle of the feeding of the 5 thousand takes place.

 

The apostles have just returned from doing ministry and Jesus miraculously feeds 5 thousand people, and its been just over a week and Jesus has been transfigured on the mountain, and this is where they start to remind me of myself. They’re unable to:

 

  • Cast out a demon (Luke 9:40)
  • Understand Jesus’ stated purpose to go to the cross (Luke 9:45)
  • Refrain from arguing about who is the greatest (Luke 9:46 – 48)
  • Distinguish confederates from opposition (Luke 9: 49 – 50).

 

Sometimes when you look at the guys that Christ selected as apostles and see how in-artful and fumbling they were, and basically how much of a hot mess, you wonder.

 

But then you read Luke and Luke’s second book, Acts, and you read about how these apostles finish and they finish strong. And you realise Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. These were they guys that would take the church into the second century. And here we are in the 21st century.

 

The feeding of the 5 thousand is the only miracle (besides Jesus’ resurrection) recorded in all four of the gospels. This was just after the apostles had returned from their circuit of Galilee and withdrew to Bethsaida. Apparently there is a plain near the town of Bethsaida criss-crossed by streams where there would have been grass and sufficient space for 5 thousand people to spread out in groups.

 

Late in the afternoon, the Twelve suggest to Jesus that he disband the gathering so that the people can find themselves dinner and lodging and when Jesus suggests to them that they feed the crowd, you can almost hear the incredulity. Evidently they had taken an inventory of the food on hand and took stock of the 5 loaves and 2 fish. In fairness, I would not have imagined that a miracle like multiplying food could take place, so I can’t be too hard on the Twelve. Earlier Jesus had sent them out and told them to accept hospitality from those who would shelter them on their circuit and now it was their turn to be good hosts and think about the needs of the crowd.

 

Scripture doesn’t explain how the loaves and fishes multiplied except to record that Jesus gave thanks and broke the food in pieces and gave it to the disciples who gave it to the people. I’ve watched hundreds of movies and if I were filming this scene, I don’t know how I would show the multiplication. Astonishingly, there were twelve baskets of leftovers.

 

“As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51).

Hanging over even this time of ministry, Jesus never forgot where it would all end: at a cross. That is of course until resurrection morning.

Part 3: Fish

 

 

John the Baptist was born to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah.

 

It’s striking to think that their mothers had greeted each other before either John or Jesus were born and that when Mary greeted Elizabeth, John as a foetus had leaped in his mother’s womb.

 

John had been raised essentially as a Nazirite, like Samson, not cutting his hair and avoiding fermented drink and dead bodies. Scripture relates that his diet was locusts and wild honey. If we put this in today’s context and with a bit of literary license, John may have looked like a Rastafarian, smelled like day-old braai on your shirt (plus man-sweat), ate bugs, and honey (which was made by other bugs).

 

You would be hard pressed to find somebody of that description now. For all his curiousness, John was no loon out in the wilderness. He had a very specific message – repentance. Moreover, he was very specifically a forerunner for the Messiah.

 

Picture it, people of almost every type taking a moderate journey out into the wilderness to be baptised in a river. According to the account of Scripture, these are common people, including tax collectors and soldiers.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+3%3A10+-+15&version=NIV

 

These were ordinary people on the periphery of political power. Luke placed the timing of this chapter by listing the political powers-that-be: the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was governor, Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, Lysnias tetrarch of Abilene. The high priests were either Annas or Caiaphas (depending on who you asked). During this specific time…

 

None of the people in political power were about to go out to John to be baptised.

 

Crowds of people going to listen to John suggests two things for me: there was a significant desire for spiritual things, and there may have been a lack of preaching about repentance that the people had to make their way to John. Repentance comes after you’ve heard something that convicts you. You know you’ve been doing wrong and you want to do right. The Greek word in the text is metanoia (dealing with compunction of guilt and implying reversal of decision).

 

When the people asked what specifically they should do, John told them what repentance should look like for their occupation: for the soldier to stop extortion, for the tax collector not to take some cream off the top when charging a levy, and for people generally, to share with those in need. Repentance is an action (for those Type A personalities, you could grade it on a spreadsheet and call them ‘deliverables’) and is inherently practical.

 

The powerful do not take criticism well, and since John rebuked Herod as well, the tetrarch of Galilee had him imprisoned. Herod stole the wife of his brother and by implication had a long list of other abuses of power. John never got out of prison.

 

I’m delighted with the description of John baptising Jesus because it shows the Trinity on display…The voice of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as a dove.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+3%3A21+-+22&version=NIV

 

For the Children of Israel, fishing had only recently taken off – in historical terms. This is inferred from linguistics as before Jesus’ time there was only one Hebrew word for fish (dag or dagah – pronounced dawg or daw-gaw – 1709 and 1710 in Strongs Concordance).

 

https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/they-left-their-nets-behind

 

By Jesus’ time however it seems that fishing had become more commonplace. Magdala, a town known in Scripture for Mary Magdalene was recognised as a place where sardines were dried and pickled.

 

It’s little wonder with fishermen making up at least a third of the apostles, that the motif of a fish came to symbolise Christianity:

 

 

https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/what-is-origin-of-christian-fish-symbol.html

 

Fisherman typically fished at night, and in Luke’s account we find Jesus interacting with Simon Peter after a long night of fishing. Simon Peter and his brother followed Jesus’ direction and caught a large number of fish, which they hen immediately left behind along with their nets and boats to follow Jesus. From that point on they would be catching men, men’s souls.

 

I wonder who ultimately ended up with the commercial value of this large catch of fish? Who sold it? I don’t have an answer, but it is an interesting question.

 

The world of Jesus’ time had different social constructs which we would find curious and ‘back-to-front’. For example at a wedding the guests wait for the bride to show up and when she’s late the guys might remark that its typical for the fairer sex; back in the day, it was the bridegroom who showed up out of the blue to claim his betrothed and marry her. I imagine weddings back then had a more spontaneous feel. Also, ever since I’ve been attending church the pastor stands at a lectern to deliver the preaching of the message and the congregation sits; back in the day, when teaching a rabbi would sit and his disciples would stand.

 

People didn’t simply used to study Scripture as a subject, they learned from a rabbi and were discipled. The student would then become like his master. Its actually more comprehensive if you think about it:  not only do you study Scripture, over time you see how the rabbi applies Biblical teachings and learn what that looks like in a practical sense.

 

For the better part of three years,  the disciples were taught by Jesus, and saw how it looked in his life.

 

Jesus spent the night praying before selecting and naming his 12 apostles. In Scripture, Peter is always named first and Judas Iscariot last.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+6%3A12+-+16&version=NIV

 

We can count Paul as an apostle because even though he was not one of the twelve, he did experience a meeting with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.

 

Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome circa 66 A.D. Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified. Apparently, Peter was crucified, but upside down at his own request because he felt unworthy to be put to death in the same way as Christ. This was under a persecution by the Emperor Nero.

 

Peter’s brother Andrew took the gospel to Eastern Europe and Asia Minor and was also apparently crucified under Roman persecution. Reportedly he elected to be crucified on a cross that was actually in the shape of an ‘X’, also not feeling he was worthy to be crucified like Christ.

 

It didn’t get any easier being a Christian for Thomas (formerly the doubter). He took the gospel east of Syria and as far as India before being killed by soldiers with spears.

 

The Roman persecution continued with Philip, who preached in North Africa and Asia Minor. For the inconvenience of converting a local Proconsul’s wife, he was arrested and either beheaded or crucified.

 

Matthew preached in Persia and Ethiopia and the circumstances of his end are not clear but he may have been stabbed to death in Ethiopia.

 

Bartholomew travelled extensively to take the gospel to unreached peoples: to India, Armenia, Ethiopia and Southern Arabia. Also reportedly martyred.

 

James, son of Alpheus, ministered in Syria, stoned and clubbed to death.

 

Simon the Zealot apparently ministered in Persia where Zoroarstrianism was pretty big. After refusing to sacrifice to the sun god, he was killed, by some accounts sawn in half, like a magic trick gone wrong.

 

Judas Iscariot…we all know what happened to him.

 

Matthias, the apostle chosen by lot to replace Judas Iscariot. According to tradition he preached in Syria with Andrew and met his end by being burned. The gospel often elicited strong reactions from those who hated it.

 

John was apparently the only apostle who lived to be an old man.

 

Most of these guys go unremembered by the world. Historians don’t tend to think of them as being worthy of study in the same way as empires and political movements in Rome or Constantinople. And yet Christians are here today because of their witness.

 

https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/whatever-happened-to-the-twelve-apostles-11629558.html

Part 2: In those days

In those days…

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+2%3A1+-+3&version=NIV

 

Those days that Luke is referring to was a time of Pax Romana, a Roman Empire at peace.

 

The historical context of this Christmas story was the Second Triumvirate:

 

https://www.ancient.eu/Second_Triumvirate/

 

To cut a long story short, Julius Caesar had been assassinated in Rome and this threw the Roman Empire into a tailspin. Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian formed an alliance with Mark Antony and Lepidus to form a ruling council of three: to avenge Caesar and rule the empire.

 

As you can imagine, the alliance didn’t last as nobody wants to play second and third fiddle. The feel at the time was probably much like the depiction in Ridley Scott’s movie ‘Gladiator’ with the murder of Marcus Aurelius and the commission of Maximus to see that power is wrested from Commodus and restored to the Senate.

Bread and circuses; a Roman Colosseum

Lepidus was sidelined, the assassins of Julius Caesar met bloody ends. Mark Antony and Octavian marshalled their forces and met in battle.

 

William Shakespeare later wrote a play about Antony (the same Mark Antony of the Second Triumvirate) and Cleopatra.

 

For all his political deviousness, apparently Mark Antony had a weakness for Cleopatra.

 

When the dust had settled, Octavian was left standing. No more internal opposition. The Empire was at peace (Pax Romana). Octavian became known as Augustus Caesar.

 

In those days, this Augustus Caesar decreed that everyone had to register in their home town. This wasn’t to test the Empire’s system of transport. If you know who is where, you can tax them. Caesar needed to fill the Empire’s coffers after the financial downturn during the previous war.

 

Each citizen of the Roman world had to go to their home town, one of the effects of which would be family reunions. Think the Griswold’s in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

 

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097958/?ref_=nv_sr_1

 

Perhaps not as extreme as that; nobody does Christmas family chaos like our American cousins.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+2%3A4+-+7&version=NIV

 

Everyone knows the story. While they were in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth and wrapped the baby in torn shreds of cloth and placed him in a manger, a trough that domestic animals normally ate out of.

 

There were likely many children born in Bethlehem who were wrapped in bits off cloth but only one who was laid in a manger. This unique fact helped the shepherds to know when they found the right place and the right baby. The angels had specified:

 

12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

 

 

He was born like this because there was no room at the inn. There was however room on the cross for Him, some years later.

 

On presenting him in the Temple, Simeon, a devout man dedicated the child, confirming that He would reveal God to Israel as well as the Gentiles.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+2%3A25+-+35&version=NIV

 

Around 12 years later, Jesus as a young man just prior to his Bar Mitzvah journeys with his family to Jerusalem:

 

41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom.”  (Luke 2, NIV)

 

Jesus’ parents followed the law and followed the custom. Later in Scripture, Jesus often goes to the Synagogue, a custom he doubtless picked up from his parents.

 

His parents inadvertently leave Jesus behind at the Temple and I would imagine search frantically when they return to Jerusalem.

 

48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”[f] 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2, NIV)

 

It seems like at quite a young age, Jesus was already beginning to grasp larger things, that his Father was calling him, and yet was obedient to his parents.

 

As has been written before, Mary treasured all these things in her heart.

Part 1: God breaks his prophetic silence

There are 24 hours in a day, 24 days in December until Christmas morning and 24 chapters of Luke in the New Testament book.

 

Franklin Graham on Twitter suggested reading a chapter a day before Christmas rolls around, and accordingly I found my nose in the Gospel of Luke. It has occurred to me recently that a large part of writing involves research and reading about either historical or contemporary context, especially if opinion is proffered.

 

I’ve been reading Luke slowly and methodically and have yet to catch up with the goal of a chapter a day. Luke is apparently the only Gentile (human) writer of a gospel. Trained as a physician, Luke seems to have spent a lot of time interviewing eyewitnesses – in particular Mary, Jesus’ mother – and collated the information in a very logical presentation. As a physician, he would have been trained in observation and methodology.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+1%3A1+-+4&version=NIV

 

Nowadays, federal and local police dismiss eyewitnesses to public acts of criminality and the phrase ‘eyewitness’ takes on a taint of unreliability. This is true, but it also depends on the context when you consider a brief public event catches people unawares and if they are untrained they battle to recall what happened with any accuracy. If somebody wants an eyewitness to a period of my life and they ask my family for information, they will get a pretty good picture. Luke seems to have spoken with a lot of eyewitnesses and interviewed Mary extensively. It’s more than once that the Gospel of Luke refers to Mary pondering things in her heart. If I may extrapolate, it seems Mary kept a lot of deep things to herself, and Luke managed to draw some of that out.

 

Luke begins with the account of Christmas and the birth of John the Baptist:

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+1%3A8+-+25&version=NIV

 

Evidently at this time of history there were around 20 thousand priests and the priest to burn incense was decided by lot, essentially like a dice. It was very rare and a privilege to be the priest that burned incense in the temple. This would have been a once-in-a-lifetime for Zechariah. And it so happened that God used this occasion to reveal that Zechariah would have a son. To not have a child was seen is those days as to be missing a blessing that was common. Doubtless it weighed heavily on Zechariah and Elizabeth. From the account we learn that Zechariah had been praying for a child and up until this point it had remained a prayer without an answer.  This is an interesting co-incidence as the incense in the temple was seen as a symbol of prayers rising up to heaven.

 

As a priest, Zechariah would have been praying corporately for Israel and in accordance with the traditions of his caste. It is doubtful that Zechariah would have engaged in personal prayer for his needs at this time. Perhaps he and Elizabeth had once prayed for a son but had given up over time.

 

The angel announced that they would have a son named John. This buttresses the core idea of one of my favourite psalms: Psalm 139 which details God’s knowledge of the psalmist before he was even born. John the Baptist was already know to God before he was born, or even conceived. Zechariah expressed doubt we are told and as a consequence, he was rendered mute until the time came for John to be circumcised and named.

 

As priest, and after burning the incense, Zechariah needed to exit the holy place and pronounce the blessing over the congregation. But he was mute. The larger context of this is the fact that God had not spoken to his people through prophets or angels in around 400 years with the last minor prophet being Malachi.

 

Here an angel announces a new messenger, John, and Zechariah is mute. Mr Irony called and he wants his metaphor back.

 

He would also have to later tell his wife about the news that she would get pregnant and give birth. He couldn’t speak. Zechariah went home and ‘after this’ we are told, his wife became pregnant.

 

Can you imagine knowing that the next time you lie with your wife she will get pregnant? Knowing that it will be a son? Zechariah’s head must have been spinning. Becoming pregnant after years of hopelessness, Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months.

 

It would be in those five months where it would not be glaringly obvious that Elizabeth was pregnant. In other words, she would not be showing her pregnancy so obviously. So why the seclusion? Various commentaries suggest that she was almost counting her blessing and seeking God’s face in this time.

 

The angel Gabriel who visited Zechariah also visited Mary. In a deviation from how Zechariah received the news of his son in his older age, Mary was very receptive.

 

In a sign of how far down the slippery slope of the ridiculous that our society has fallen, a psychology professor from Minnesota suggested that God behaved in a predatory fashion towards Mary and that she could not have consented to the incarnation:

 

https://masscentral.com/minnesota-professor-says-the-virgin-mary-got-metoo-ed/

 

To me it’s not the blasphemy that’s surprising, but that someone with views this ridiculous is employed.

 

Forget the professor and contrast the reaction of Zechariah and Mary. Zechariah was a priest, older and wiser in some ways, but more busted up by life and unfulfilled hopes. Mary was young and surprisingly Biblically and theologically literate. She asks a legitimate question of Gabriel but immediately agrees:

Angel

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”

(Luke 1, NIV).

 

Later when she goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, she offers praise which is reflective of themes in Hanna’s prayer as recorded in 1 Samuel 2:

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A1+-+11&version=NIV

 

Mary’s song echoes Hannah’s prayer after Hannah discovers that she is about to have her first child by God’s will. Mary clearly knew Scripture and the account of Hannah and the significance of child birth in God’s plan and she identified with another woman whose story was chronicled in Scripture.