Archive for November, 2013

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November 30, 2013

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(65) It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to Life! – Acts 11:18

November 29, 2013

The scattering of the Jerusalem church led to the good news about Jesus being spread throughout Judea and Samaria. Luke gives an account of Philip, one of the seven chosen to attend to practical matters in the church, who went to Samaria, the old capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, which was then a city of Samaritans. His preaching and healing drew large crowds and brought joy to the city.

Just as things were going really well in Samaria God told Philip to go about fifty miles south to a desert road heading south from Jerusalem. There Philip stood with no one around wondering why he was there until a chariot came by with an Ethiopian government official in it. Philip ran alongside it and heard that he was reading from the prophet Isaiah about a man who “was led like a sheep to the slaughter” (Acts 8:32 quoting Isaiah 53:7). The official asked Philip who the prophet was talking about so Philip told him the good news about Jesus. The Ethiopian saw some water and asked to be baptised and “went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39).

The persecution of the church lasted for some time. Luke gives us no indication of the timescale in Acts but it would be reasonable to assume that it was a few years before his next summary statement: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers” (Acts 9:31). By this time there were churches established in towns throughout Judea and Samaria and beyond. These were groups of Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was their promised Messiah and put their trust in him.

The apostles travelled around the fledgling churches teaching and encouraging them in their faith. They also performed miracles. Luke records that Peter, the leader of the twelve, prayed for a lady called Tabitha who had died and saw her restored to life. This created a stir in her home town of Joppa and he stayed there and saw many come to believe in the Lord Jesus.

While he was there Peter saw a picture of animals that were ‘unclean’ – meaning that the law prohibited Jews from eating them – and heard a voice telling him to eat them. He refused but the voice said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). Peter was perplexed by this but it turned out to be the preparation for one of the most significant steps in the development of the church.

The previous day an angel had appeared to a Roman Centurion called Cornelius living in Caesarea, thirty miles up the coast from Joppa. We are told that “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly” (Acts 10:2). The angel told him to send men to Joppa to fetch Peter. When they arrived Peter was prepared to go with them and they journeyed to Caesarea.

When Peter arrived at Cornelius’s house he found a whole group of people waiting to hear what he had to say. The Jews at this time were brought up not to associate with people from other nations, or even visit them and, as Peter explained to Cornelius, he was unsure what to say. Jesus had operated almost exclusively among the Jews which meant that Peter had no example to follow in his dealings with Gentiles. (The word Gentile is sometimes used to translate the Hebrew and Greek words for ‘people’ or ‘nations’ in English Bibles when they refer to non-Jews.) Reflecting on the strange vision he had seen the day before, but still struggling to adapt to this new situation, Peter told them about Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. To the complete surprise of Peter and his Jewish companions, while he was speaking, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (Acts 10:44). God conclusively demonstrated to them that the good news about Jesus was for all nationalities.

Peter had to explain himself to a suspicious and critical church back in Jerusalem, but when they heard his account they, praised God that, “It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to Life!” (Acts 11:18 in The Message). The church was now set for a dramatic new phase of expansion to the Gentiles.

(64) More and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number – Acts 5:14

November 28, 2013

The early church grew rapidly in Jerusalem in its early days. The Sadducees, a group among the religious authorities who didn’t believe in any form of resurrection “were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2) and, after they healed a crippled beggar, Peter and John were hauled before the Sanhedrin to give an account of their teaching and their actions. The authorities could not decide what to do with them so warned them not to talk about Jesus any more, but Peter and John said that they could not obey them rather than God.

The apostles performed many miracles and met in the temple courtyard. Luke makes an interesting couple of statements about the early church that seem contradictory: “No-one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (Acts 5:13-14). The church was not a club that people casually joined. To become part of it was to be fully committed to a group of people with common power and purpose. They shared their material possessions and boldly proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

The Sadducees, jealous of the apostles’ popularity, arrested them all and imprisoned them but an angel led them out of jail overnight so that when the Sanhedrin assembled and sent for them they found the jail empty. Someone then told the Sanhedrin that the apostles were back teaching in the temple courts. Fearing a riot if they used force they sent officers to ask the apostles to come and appear before them. Under questioning Peter accused the high priest of killing Jesus. This infuriated the Sanhedrin to the point that it was ready to put them to death but they were rescued by a moderate Pharisee called Gamaliel who advised the council to let the apostles go free. He made an astute observation that, “if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39). They were released with a flogging and continued to preach the good news.

The apostles not only faced hostility from the authorities but also had practical problems to deal with. As people became followers of Jesus they became aware of their social responsibilities and brought money to the apostles to provide support for widows who had no form of income. But as the number of disciples increased there were complaints that the distribution of food was unfair. The apostles realised that there was a danger that they would get drawn into practical matters and neglect preaching. In response they appointed seven men to serve the practical needs of the disciples.

One of the seven, Stephen, was “a man full of God’s grace and power” who “performed great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). When this led him into opposition he preached so powerfully that his enemies accused him of blasphemy and brought him to the Sanhedrin. Luke records a long speech that Stephen made to the assembled group, where he recounts the history of God’s people from the time of Abraham to Solomon. Then he accuses the religious leaders of murdering the promised Messiah which infuriates them. After he claims to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God they take him out of the city and stone him to death.

Up until this point the focus of the church is confined to Jerusalem. But in response to this dreadful event Luke records that, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). The second phase of the expansion of the church was initiated by the death of the first Christian martyr.

(63) All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit – Acts 2:4

November 27, 2013

The fifth book of the New Testament, after the four gospels, is the Acts of the Apostles. This is Luke’s second volume which, like his gospel, is addressed to his patron, Theophilus. He sums up his first book by saying, “In my former book … I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1-2). The use of the word ‘began’ indicates Luke’s view that Jesus continued to act after his death and resurrection through the church and he describes how this came about.

Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus told his disciples that they were to go and proclaim his message in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth and Luke uses this geographical list as a loose structure for Acts as he tells us how the gospel spread west from Jerusalem to Rome, the heart of the empire. Others took the gospel east into Asia – it is traditionally thought that Thomas travelled to India – and south into Africa – Acts includes an account of a government official from Ethiopia who became a believer. In the decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection the good news about him spread rapidly across the world, with his followers using Roman roads and shipping lanes to get around and the common Greek language for speaking and writing.

After commissioning the disciples to go, Jesus also told them that initially they were to stay where they were in Jerusalem until they were empowered by the Holy Spirit. So, the apostles, along with a wider group of Jesus’ disciples numbering around 120 men and women and including Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers, stayed in Jerusalem devoting themselves to prayer. On the day of Pentecost, ten days after Jesus returned to heaven, they were all together in an upper room when “suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues (or languages) as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:2-4). (The same word in Greek can be translated ‘tongue’ or ‘language’ and in English we use the word ‘tongue’ to mean ‘language’ too as in the expression ‘mother tongue’.)

This dramatic event was noisy and a crowd soon gathered to find out what was happening. This included Jews from all over the world who were in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost and they were amazed to find a group of uneducated Galileans speaking in a huge variety of languages and “declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:11).

Some accused the disciples of being drunk, which gives an indication as to what the scene was like, but when Peter got up to speak to the whole crowd he said that they weren’t drunk as “It’s only nine in the morning!” (Acts 2:15). He told them that this was the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy that in the last days God would pour out his Spirit on all people and a time when “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (see Acts 2:17-21 quoting from Joel 2:28-32). Peter described how Jesus did many signs and wonders before he was crucified and how he was then raised from the dead, something that could be confirmed by the 120 witnesses with him.

The people were “cut to the heart” by what Peter said and asked what they should do. Peter told them to “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38). This promise was for them and for their children and “for all who are far off” (Acts 2:39), both in terms of geography and time. The impact of Peter’s preaching was immediate in that around three thousand people responded and were baptised.

The church was born and proclaimed Jesus’ love to people, caring and serving them in the power of God the Holy Spirit, something that it continues to do to this day.

(62) He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight – Acts 1:9

November 26, 2013

Jesus continued to appear to his disciples for forty days after the resurrection and he used this time to get three messages across to them.

First he explained how his life, death and resurrection were a fulfilment of what was written about him “in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). The disciples had grown up with expectations of a warrior Messiah who would throw off Roman rule and establish the nation of Israel as a strong independent nation as in the time of King David. They had resisted Jesus’ talk of needing to suffer and die – most directly when Peter told Jesus that “This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22) – and were unable to accept his teaching about going to the cross. Now he “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45) and explained how the Messiah needed to suffer, die and rise from the dead in order to bring in the new covenant of forgiveness for sins in response to people’s repentance.

Secondly Jesus commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses. They had lived alongside him for three years, heard his teaching and seen his miracles. The saw him crucified and buried and now, most importantly, they witnessed his resurrection. The religious leaders knew that the tomb was empty and paid the soldiers who had guarded the tomb to tell people that his disciples had stolen the body while they were asleep – hardly a story that reflected well on their own ability as guards – and this story was widely circulated. But the disciples saw Jesus alive as he appeared to them over the forty days and their testimony was important.

Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to over five hundred people at one time and makes the point that many of them were still alive when he was writing. Indeed, all of the New Testament was written during the lifetime of those who had witnessed Jesus’ resurrection. Their contemporaries were unable to challenge the accuracy of their accounts because of the volume of eye witnesses who were still alive. The number who saw Jesus also discredits the idea that people were hallucinating. Individuals can sometimes see things that they want to see, but the disciples were not expecting to see Jesus again and were surprised when they did. Jesus had to overcome their reluctance to believe by eating some fish to prove that he wasn’t a ghost.

Perhaps the most compelling confirmation of the truth of the resurrection was that history tells us that many of the eleven apostles, plus many others, were martyred for their belief in the resurrection. If they had stolen the body and hidden it then surely at least one would have cracked under the threat of death and admitted that the resurrection was a fabricated story? When Peter and John were arrested for “teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2) and brought before the Sanhedrin (the council that had tried Jesus) they were told not to speak about it but Peter and John replied “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

As witnesses Jesus commanded them to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). This ‘Great Commission’ was accompanied by a promise that Jesus would be with them always.

The third message that Jesus gave the disciples was that he would send the Holy Spirit to empower them. John the Baptist had said that Jesus would “baptise them in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 3:16) and Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until they experienced this. He was then “taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). Two angels appeared to tell them that Jesus had now been taken up into heaven and his resurrection appearances came to an end. The work that Jesus came to earth to do as a man was complete. But this was not the end of the story.

(61) Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! – Luke 24:5-6

November 25, 2013

Jesus was crucified on the day before the Sabbath and the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to ensure that those being crucified were removed from their crosses before it began. He sent his soldiers to break their legs which hastened death as they could no longer push themselves up to breathe. The two criminals who were crucified with Jesus suffered this fate but the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead and pierced his side with a spear just to be sure.

Joseph of Arimathea, one of the religious leaders who had secretly followed Jesus, went to the Roman Governor, Pilate, and asked him if he could take Jesus’ body away for burial and Pilate granted his request. Joseph took the body and hastily placed it in his own tomb as the Sabbath was starting.

The chief priests and Pharisees knew that Jesus had claimed that he would rise from the dead so they posted a guard of soldiers to prevent Jesus’ disciples from removing the body and claiming that he was alive. But although they were worried about Jesus rising from the dead it seems that this was not on the minds of his closest followers.

Two of the women who had followed Jesus, Mary Magdalene and another Mary, wanted to pay their respects to Jesus by preparing the body for burial properly. No work was done on the Sabbath so it wasn’t until the dawn of Sunday that they went to the tomb with the spices they had prepared. When they arrived they were puzzled because, “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus” (Luke 24:2-3). Then two angels appeared to them to ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5-6). Still baffled they went to the disciples to tell them what had happened.

Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb weeping and encountered a man she thought must be the gardener. When he asked her why she was weeping she asked him if he knew where the body had been taken. It was only when he said her name that she recognised that it was Jesus. Later it took the disciples some time to recognise him too, although once they did, they were completely convinced as to who he was.

Jesus had a one to one meeting with Peter, although we know nothing about what was said. Peter had boldly sworn that he would never abandon or deny knowing Jesus but when questioned by onlookers during Jesus’ trial he denied ever knowing him. As Jesus left the trial Luke records that “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter” (Luke 22:61) and the knowledge of what he had done left Peter devastated. With Jesus dead he felt that he had no opportunity to ever make it right. Now Jesus had risen from the dead he had to face him again. Their meeting must have been an emotional encounter but we know that Jesus forgave him and Peter played a leading role in the early church.

Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples, but on the first occasion Thomas was absent and he refused to believe the others until he saw the marks of the nails and the spear mark in his side. When Jesus reappeared he told him to put his finger in the marks but Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Doubting Thomas believed.

Luke records Jesus’ meeting with Cleopas and his companion, a couple who are not mentioned elsewhere in the gospels. They were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a journey of about seven miles, when they were joined by a man they didn’t recognise. They told him all about the events of the previous few days and the man responded by explaining from the Old Testament how the Messiah had to suffer. They invited him to stay with them but it was only when they sat down to eat together that “their eyes were opened and they recognised him” (Luke 24:31). Rushing back to Jerusalem they found the disciples who confirmed, “It is true! The Lord has risen” (Luke 24:34).

Jesus’ death made it possible for us to be right with God, but his resurrection makes it possible for us to have a living relationship with him as well as giving us assurance of life beyond death.

(60) They crucified him, along with the criminals – Luke 23:33

November 22, 2013

After he was arrested, Jesus suffered three brutal beatings before he was crucified. He was beaten by the Jews, mocked and beaten by Herod’s soldiers and then flogged by the Romans, a punishment so brutal that it often left the victim dead. They then put a crown of thorns on his head and struck and mocked him. Jesus would have been very weakened by the pain and the loss of blood even before he was crucified. He was forced to carry his cross to the site of his execution but, presumably because of his weakness, the Romans had to conscript another man to carry it in his place.

Luke very simply records that, “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals” (Luke 23:33). The full meaning of this would have been well known to those living in the Roman world as crucifixion was commonly used by the Romans to punish criminals. It was a barbaric and cruel punishment which inflicted severe pain over a long period. The word ‘excruciating’, that we use for the worst pain today, comes from the same root as the word for crucifixion, meaning to be fixed to a cross. The criminal had nails driven through their wrist into a cross bar that was then hoisted up and attached to an upright beam which their ankles were then nailed to. The victims were crucified naked to add to their humiliation. The combination of the loss of blood and the difficulty in breathing – as the victim had to push themselves up on their nailed feet to be able to take in air properly – resulted in a slow, lingering death, which could take up to a number of days.

It was common to put a notice up indicating the man’s crime and Pilate put a sign over Jesus which read “Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews” (John 19:19). The chief priests objected to this, saying that Jesus only claimed to be the king of the Jews, but Pilate irritably dismissed their complaint.

As the soldiers were nailing him to the cross beam Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), a remarkable expression of compassion for his executioners.

The gospel writers record a number of things that Jesus said on the cross. John tells us that Jesus’ mother Mary was there watching her son suffer and that Jesus asked him to take care of her. Luke tells us of a conversation with one of the two criminals who were crucified with him. One mocked Jesus but the other recognised that Jesus had done no wrong and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Matthew tells us that there was complete darkness for three hours as Jesus hung on the cross. God, the source of light, hid his face from his Son because, as Paul put it, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21) and he could not look on sin. As he endured this separation from his Father, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) quoting David’s words from Psalm 22. After this he cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30) as he realised that his earthly work was complete and then “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” as he “breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).

Jesus’ death was accompanied by various signs. In the temple the curtain that hid the holiest place from the view of everyone except the high priest – and he entered only once a year – was torn in two from top to bottom symbolising that Jesus’ perfect sacrifice had now made it possible for all to enter into God’s presence (see Hebrews 10:19-20). There was also an earthquake which broke open some tombs and a number of people came back to life and went into Jerusalem. Those watching were in awe and the centurion, who had overseen many executions, saw that Jesus was different and said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).

(59) Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God – Matthew 26:63

November 21, 2013

The events leading up to Jesus’ death are carefully documented by all four gospel writers. Jesus was in Jerusalem with thousands of others to celebrate the Passover, the meal that remembered the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt. The chief priests and other religious leaders were keen to put him to death to avoid any disturbance to the status quo. Jesus was publically teaching in the temple courts each day and, ironically, the difficulty in arresting him was not finding him but ensuring that they found him away from the crowds that were hanging on his every word. For this they needed an insider, someone close to Jesus who could lead them to him at a time when he was away from the masses.

The first three gospels list the twelve disciples or apostles that Jesus chose to be with him during his time on earth. They heard most of his teaching and saw the most of his healings and went on to form the core of the church that spread the good news about Jesus. However, there was one notable exception. The twelfth on every list was Judas who Matthew and Mark refer to as “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him” (Matthew 10:4, Mark 3:19) and Luke calls “a traitor” (Luke 6:16). Despite all he had seen of Jesus, somehow Judas became disillusioned with Jesus and went to the chief priests to offer to betray him to them.

Jesus and the twelve celebrated the Passover together in an upper room in Jerusalem. This meal contained many symbols from the time of the Exodus: the lamb that was killed, its blood shed so that God passed over the house and didn’t punish its sin, and shared bread and wine. Jesus invested this, his last supper, with new meaning. He shared the bread and wine saying, “This is my body given for you” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:19,20). This meal became the Christian equivalent of Passover, reminding Jesus’ disciples of his sacrifice as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Christians regularly share bread and wine today, following Jesus’ command to eat and drink “in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24,25). Paul calls it “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20) while today it is also called communion, breaking of bread, or the Eucharist from the Greek word for thanksgiving.

After the meal, Jesus and his disciples went out to the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus wrestled in prayer, aware that he was facing a painful death in order to allow men and women to be reconciled with God. As he finished praying Judas arrived, leading the temple guard to Jesus in the garden. They arrested him and took him to the high priest’s house.

Jesus had a number of ‘hearings’, all of which were rigged and unjust. The high priest tried but failed to find false evidence to justify putting Jesus to death. Eventually in frustration he asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed one?” to which Jesus answered, “I am” (Mark 14:61,62). This blasphemy in the eyes of the high priest required the death penalty but only the Romans could carry out such a sentence so they took Jesus to the Roman governor, Pilate.

Despite the charges of the chief priests, Pilate was unable to find fault with Jesus and, hearing that he was from Galilee, was pleased to have an excuse to send him to Herod, the man who had killed John the Baptist. Herod was hoping that Jesus would perform a miracle for him but Jesus said nothing to him and so Herod sent him back to Pilate.

Pilate was baffled by Jesus’ claim to be the King of the Jews and frightened to hear that he had claimed to be the Son of God and so told the chief priests that he would release him but they stirred up the crowd into a frenzy shouting for him to be crucified. After a message from his wife warning him to have nothing to do with Jesus, Pilate took water and publically washed his hands to symbolise that he was innocent of Jesus’ blood (see Matthew 27:19, 24) before handing him over to be crucified.

(58) See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey – Matthew 21:5

November 20, 2013

With the city of Jerusalem buzzing with the news of him raising Lazarus from the dead and the religious leaders planning to kill him, Jesus keeps his head down until the week before the Passover. Between them, the gospel writers devote a third of their writing to Jesus’ last week on earth as it is the dramatic climax to his work on earth.

On the Sunday before the Passover, Jesus approaches Jerusalem. He sends two of his disciples to find a donkey in a village and he then rides into the city to a rapturous reception. Crowds flock into the street and cut down branches to line the road ahead of him. In doing this, Jesus is clearly fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah, “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9 quoted in Matthew 21:5).

By fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy Jesus was raising the people’s expectations. Immediately after prophesying that he will come gently riding a donkey Zechariah says that the king  “will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10). For the Jewish people who had lived under repressive Roman rule for almost a century this raised their expectations that Jesus would be the one who would finally give them independence. No wonder the people cried out “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 21:9 quoting from Psalm 118:26).

Jesus went straight to the temple where he threw out the money changers and those who sold animals for sacrifice. He called them thieves as they were not only operating in a place that was for prayer but were also exploiting the poor. The people thronged around him and he healed them as the children cried out in praise to him. The chief priests were horrified but Jesus quoted from a Psalm to explain their actions and by accepting their praise he confirmed that he was in no doubt that he was God himself.

Jesus spent the next few days teaching and healing in the temple. The religious authorities were afraid to arrest him because of the reaction of the crowd – any riot would have been quickly and brutally suppressed by the Romans – but they sent various delegations to trick him with questions.

One group asked him where his authority came from but he turned the tables on them by asking whose authority John the Baptist operated under. They realised that if they said it was God’s then he would ask them why they didn’t believe in him, but if they said it was by man’s authority then the crowd would turn on them. They feebly said that they didn’t know so Jesus said that he wouldn’t answer their question – which had the same answer – either.

Another group asked if they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. It would be unpopular with the crowd just to say yes and it would bring the wrath of Rome if he said no. So, he took a coin and asked them whose picture was on it. When they replied that it was Caesar’s he said the famous line, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Jesus upheld the legitimate responsibilities of the civil authorities, whilst making it clear that God had the ultimate authority.

After Jesus dealt with a few tricky religious questions he asked a group of Pharisees how the Messiah could be the Son of David and yet David called him Lord. How could a man call one of his descendants God? The Pharisees had no answer for this, so demonstrating the limitations of their knowledge. Jesus then launched into a public attack on the behaviour of the scribes and Pharisees. He exposed their pride, their hypocrisy and their distortion of the law, making a big deal out of minor matters whilst neglecting mercy and faithfulness. In another vivid picture he accused them of carefully removing a gnat that had fallen into their drink and then swallowing a camel that they had overlooked (see Matthew 23:23-24).

Jesus was at the height of his popularity with the crowds but now had a wide range of enemies who were determined to remove him from the national stage.

(57) It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish – John 11:50

November 19, 2013

Jesus’ miracles caused the biggest headache for the Pharisees and other religious leaders. John records the story of a man who was blind from birth. Jesus was passing by when his disciples asked him whether his blindness was a result of his own sin or, given that he was born blind, his parents’ sin. Jesus told them that it was not the result of either’s sin but that “the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).

Jesus made the grand statement that, “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5) – and promptly followed it by spitting on the ground! He then made some mud, put it on the man’s eyes and told him to go and wash in a nearby pool. The man did this and came back seeing.

Understandably this created a stir among his friends and neighbours who took him to the Pharisees to investigate how this happened. They were divided as some said that because the healing happened on the Sabbath Jesus could not be from God while others wondered how someone not from God could perform such miracles.

They questioned his parents, who confirmed that he was their son who had been born blind but refused to be drawn into a discussion about Jesus. The Pharisees then question the man more harshly. His testimony is simple: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25). He gets increasingly irritated at their questioning and boldly mocks their lack of understanding. This infuriates them so much that they throw him out. Jesus finds him and accepts the man’s worship while commenting that those who are spiritually blind will, like this man, see. Meanwhile those like the Pharisees who claim to see, will become blind.

The miracle that finally caused the religious leaders to plan Jesus’ death is the most dramatic. When Jesus visited Jerusalem he often stayed at the house of Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Jesus receives the news that Lazarus is ill but delays going to see him until he has died. By the time he arrives at his house he has already been in the tomb for four days and he finds Martha and Mary mourning with their friends.

Both sisters meet him and demonstrate their faith in Jesus by saying that if he had been there he would have healed Lazarus and avoided his death. Jesus is moved by the mourning and weeps with them. But when he came to the cave where Lazarus was buried he shocks everyone by telling them to take away the stone that sealed the entrance. Martha protests but allows the tomb to be opened whereupon Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. To everyone’s amazement he appears, bound in grave clothes but alive.

This event caused many to believe in him, but others went to tell the Pharisees. They gathered with the chief priests and decided that Jesus had to be stopped. If he continues, his popularity will cause such trouble that the Romans will crack down hard, so threatening the position of the religious establishment. Caiaphas, the high priest, summed it up by saying, “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50).

The Pharisees had wanted Jesus out of the way for some time but now they started serious planning to put him to death. Jesus had to be removed and, as they saw how people flocked to see Lazarus, they planned to kill him too. The scene was set for Jesus’ last week on earth.