Haggai 1:9-11

Haggai 1

You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. 10 Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. 11 And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”

One of the most profound reflections on death I have ever read is Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. As Ivan lay dying, he thinks about his life. As he does so it occurs to him that he has not lived his life well, that he has chased after things that do not matter, and that, in fact, his life was squandered. Here is how Tolstoy unfolds Ilyich’s thoughts on his life:

It occurred to him [Ivan Ilyich] that what had seemed utterly inconceivable before—that he had not lived the kind of life he should have—might in fact be true.  It occurred to him that those scarcely perceptible impulses of his to protest what people of high rank considered good, vague impulses which he had always suppressed, might have been precisely what mattered, and all the rest not been the real thing.  His official duties, his manner of life, his family, the values adhered to by people in society and in his profession—all these might not have been the real thing.  He tried to come up with a defense of these things and suddenly became aware of the insubstantiality of them all.  And there was nothing left to defend.

            “But if that is the case,” he asked himself, “and I am taking leave of life with the awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters—what then?”  He lay on his back and began to review his whole life in an entirely different light.

            When, in the morning, he saw first the footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every gesture, their every word, confirmed the horrible truth revealed to him during the night.  In them he saw himself, all he had lived by, saw clearly that all this was not the real thing but a dreadful, enormous deception that shut out both life and death.  This awareness intensified his physical sufferings, magnified them tenfold.  He moaned and tossed and clutched at his bedclothes.  He felt they were choking and suffocating him, and he hated them on that account…

            …Her [Ivan Ilyich’s wife’s] clothes, her figure, the expression of her face, the sound of her voice – all these said to him: “Not the real thing.  Everything you lived by and still live by is a lie, a deception that blinds you from the reality of life and death.”  And no sooner had he thought this than hatred welled up in him, and with the hatred, excruciating physical pain, and with the pain, an awareness of inevitable, imminent destruction.

As Ivan’s despair at having wasted his life grows, Tolstoy has him ask a poignant and desperate question.

            “Yes, all of it was simply not the real thing.  But no matter, I can still make it the real thing—I can.  But what is the real thing?”  Ivan Ilyich asked himself and suddenly grew quiet.[1]

Ivan Ilyich’s question is the question of the ages: “What is the real thing?” “What,” in other words, “matters most?” This is the question that we have been considering with the prophet Haggai’s help. And we have concluded that what matters most in life is an authentic and viable union with God’s person, God’s plan, and God’s priorities.

For Israel, this was symbolized in the temple, the ruins of which the Israelites had neglected for sixteen years, and the construction of which the prophet Haggai was now thunderously calling them back to. This mattered because the temple was more than a building. It symbolized the presence of God in the midst of His people. Thus, to neglect the temple was to neglect the Lord God most high. When Haggai called the people to come back to building the temple He was calling them back to an authentic and viable union with God’s person, God’s plan, and God’s priorities. It was never really about a building. The church father Theodoret of Cyr expressed this well when he wrote:

Now the God of all made these threats on account of the neglect of the divine house, though not for any need of it: the Maker of all things has no need even of heaven, creating everything out of lovingkindness alone. Rather, it was in his care for them all and his interest in their salvation that he ordered the building of the temple…[2]

So, too, with us! God calls us to come back to what matters most because it is only when we are grounded in what matters most that life can truly be lived. Christ Jesus, who is our temple, is what matters most, and our lives are only truly lived when they are lived in Him.

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Exodus 34:29-35

UnknownExodus 34

29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. 32 Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. 33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. 34 Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, 35 the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

When I was in high school I went to Rome and, while there, I was privileged to be able to see Michaelangelo’s majestic sculpture of Moses. It was, like all Michelangelo sculptures, absolutely breathtaking! It is a famous statue, not only because of the artist and the artistry, but also because of an oddity. If you look at Moses’ head, there appear to be horns coming out of it! Why is this? The answer has to do with our text and a particular translation of it. Patrick Murray, writing for “Art & Liturgy,” explains:

This statue of Moses, housed at San Pietro in Vincoli (Basilica of St. Peter in Chains), is part of the tomb of Pope Julius II, who was notable for commissioning the Sistine Chapel, as well as the destruction and reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica.

At first glance, the statue seems ordinary, or at least as ordinary as a Michelangelo masterpiece can. Look more closely, though, and you’ll find that the subject has sprouted a pair of horns.

Michelangelo’s sculpture is the most famous of many images with the same quirk. What’s going on here?

This bizarre addition stems from an oddity in Scripture.  Here’s the relevant passage, Exodus 34:29–30, in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.

The original Hebrew uses the word qaran or keren here. It can refer to a horn (like a goat’s) or a ray of light. You know, because a light beam can be kind of horn-shaped, I guess. The first translation is more common by far.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Greek translation of Scripture, called the Septuagint, translates this phrase as “his face was glorified.” 

Later on, one of my favorite saints, Jerome, produced the Vulgate, which was the first comprehensive translation of Scripture into Latin. Jerome translated qaran as cornuta. The root of this Latin word, cornus, can mean a horn (like a trumpet) or a horn (like a goat’s). This is where we get the English words cornet, cornucopia, and, yes, unicorn.[1]

The “horns,” then, are a particular way of trying to translate and understand Exodus 34’s description of Moses’ face beaming with light as he came down from the mountain. I like this particular oddity because it shows just how difficult it is to take hold of, much less depict artistically, the reality of what happened to Moses in Exodus 34.

Why was Moses’ face shining and what was happening here? What does this mean?

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Haggai 1:8

Haggai 1

Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the Lord. 

Of all the stories surrounding the amazing life of Francis of Assisi, I think the most compelling is the story of his efforts to restore the little church of San Damiano. In the year 1205, Francis, a young man in the midst of a spiritual crisis, wondered into the ruins of a little church called San Damiano. While there, he says he heard the voice of God speaking to him through a suspended crucifix. The voice said, “Francis, can’t you see that my church is in ruins? Build my church!”

Many people would have interpreted these words to be a call to become a great reformer in the church across the world. But not Francis. On the contrary, he interpreted it with all the literalness of a child. He took it to mean to that he should literally rebuild that church, the church of San Damiano. So, one stone at a time, Francis starting building. He would go out and beg for stones. In fact, Francis started working on rebuilding a number of churches that had fallen into ruin.

Eventually, Francis would become known as “Saint Francis” and would, indeed, be used by God as a worldwide church reformer. But I like to think that Francis became so great precisely because Francis had no notion of greatness. I believe that Francis was used to build something amazing precisely because he was willing to build something small.

Of all the lessons we can learn from Francis, I think the lesson of how to start is one of the greatest.

Once you have become convinced of the need to get back to what matters most, how do we begin? Once we desire to see the temple of God built in our lives (to use the analogy we are using to interpret the book of Haggai), how do we start? Where do we begin?

Let us remind ourselves of what matters most. What matters most in life is an authentic and viable union with God’s person, God’s plan, and God’s priorities. For Israel, this was symbolized in the temple, the rebuilding of which they had neglected for sixteen years after returning from exile in Babylon. But Haggai the prophet had been sent by God to call them back to what mattered most, to the rebuilding of the temple, to the restoration of what mattered most. And so, through Haggai, the call continues to this day. We too are being called to return to what matters most, to rebuild the temple, we might say, to return to an authentic and viable union with God’s person, God’s plan, and God’s priorities.

But how? How do we start?

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Videos from the April 12, 2018, “James Leo Garrett Jr. Day” at Truett Theological Seminary

I was deeply touched by both of these videos. Dr. Garrett’s sincerity, sharp mind, and tender heart are a true inspiration. Here is the lecture and the lunch Q&A:

Haggai 1:1-7

Haggai 1

1 In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. 

Fred Craddock tells a jarring story about a friend of his named Glenn Adsit this illustrates well what good priorities look like.

            Glenn Adsit, a schoolmate from years ago, ministered mostly in China.  He was under house arrest in China when the soldiers came one day and said, “You can return to America.”

            They were celebrating, and the soldiers said, “You can take two hundred pounds with you.”

            Well, they’d been there for years.  Two hundred pounds.  They got the scales and started the family arguments:  two children, wife, husband.  Must have this vase.  Well, this is a new typewriter.  What about my books?  What about this?  And they weighed everything and took it off and weighed this and took it off and weighed this and, finally, right on the dot, two hundred pounds.

            The soldier asked, “Ready to go?”

            “Yes.”

            “Did you weigh everything?”

            “Yes.”

            “You weighed the kids?”

            “No, we didn’t.”

            “Weigh the kids.”

            And in a moment, typewriter and vase and all became trash.  Trash.  It happens.[1]

I suppose all of us get the point. The Adsits were given the gift of a shocking moment of perspective and priority. They suddenly understood and, in that moment, there was no question. Everything else becomes trash in the face of what really matters!

The book of Haggai tells the story of how God’s people were given a similar gift of clarity. God used a prophet named Haggai to bring it about. My prayer is that, as we study this amazing little book, we too will have a moment of shocking clarity!

First, however, we need to understand what is happening. The book of Haggai makes real sense only when we understand the historical context surrounding it. Probably the easiest way to get at this is to highlight five important moments in Israel’s life that set the scene for this book. They are:

606 & 597 BC – Babylon invades Jerusalem

586 BC – Babylon destroys the temple

538 BC – Persia conquers Babylon (with Cyrus ruling initially then Darius in 522 BC)

536 BC – many Jews return home

520 BC – Haggai prophecies to the Jews

The last two dates specifically will help us get at what is going on here. Many of the Jews return to Jerusalem in 536 BC. In 530 BC the prophet Haggai rebuked them for not rebuilding the temple of the Lord. Mark Dever puts the problem nicely when he writes:

The Israelites had been living back in the land for more than sixteen years at this point. They had spent several months rebuilding the temple at the beginning of those sixteen years. But then they had become indifferent to the rebuilding effort, and foreign opposition gave them all the more reason to spend their money elsewhere. In fact, they were taking the meager amount of money they did have and were spending it on their own homes. So the Lord used Haggai to rebuke them and tell them that this was not right.[2]

What we find in the book of Haggai is therefore a corrective and a challenge to all who have neglected or forgotten or turned away from what matters most. But in order to understand this, we must first define what matters most!

What Matters Most

The book of Haggai begins with a list of the powers: the king of Persia, the governor of Judah, the high priest, and the prophet.

1 In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.”

It is telling to note that Haggai’s prophecy was actually addressed to the governor, Zerubbabel, and the high priest, Jehozadak. Responsibility for the negligence that Haggai would address therefore rested on the shoulders of these leaders. However, as these institutions, for lack of a better word, represented the totality of the lives of the Jews, Haggai’s prophecy must be seen as being addressed to all Israel through these representative heads. And what, in essence, was Haggai’s complaint? His complaint was that, “These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.”

His complaint, in other words, was against the shoddy priorities of the people who had lost their way. But his complaint also defined what mattered most, and what mattered most was the rebuilding of the house of the Lord, the temple?

Why? Because the temple was more than simply a structure. It was a living symbol (a) that God was in the midst of His people, (b) that the people were orienting their lives around the person and will of the one true God, and (c) that the people realized there was something above their own individual existences.

The Jews knew, of course, that God was omnipresent, that He was not literally contained in any structure, temple or not. Even so, the temple was where God’s people went to worship and the Holy of Holies was seen as that sacred and set-apart place where the high priest would stand before God interceding for His people. It meant, in a very real sense, that Israel at least recognized that their lives needed to be caught up in the life of their God and that His presence needed to be the empowering center of their existence.

Haggai’s complaint was not therefore primarily about a structure. It was primarily about what the neglect of the structure revealed about the hearts and minds of God’s people. His complaint was about their abandonment of what matters most.  And, for our purposes, how would we articulate this great truth? We might say that what matters most is the alignment of our very existence with the person, work, character, attributes, and plans of the one true God who made us and in whom alone we can find meaning, peace, joy, and true life. What matters most, in other words, is God.

In essence, this is what Haggai was saying. It just so happened that the way in which this was communicated concretely in the life of Israel was through the great symbol of the temple and all that it meant. To neglect it was to neglect God, not because the temple was God but because they knew that the temple was the place where they consistently came to stand before God.

How about you? Does the temple stand in ruins in your own life? Do you walk by it every day without ever turning to consider it, to rebuild it, to see it regain a place of prominence in your life? Would you say that God is the single most important thing in your life and that your priorities reveal that fact?

How We Avoid What Matters Most

Many of us cannot say that this is the case. This is because we ignore the temple, the presence of God in our lives. It lies in ruins and we have become accustomed to the ruins. How does this happen? Haggai, fortunately, reveals how it happens.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.”Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”

There are two realities to which Haggai points in his diagnosis of the problem.

  • Procrastination (“These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.”)
  • Bad priorities (“Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”)

The former leads to the latter. When we neglect the things of God other things take the place that He alone should occupy. Things like our own comfort and our own lives. In other words, “paneled houses.” What does this mean. The IVP Bible Background Commentary offers a nice explanation.

The term “paneled” can mean “covered,” “roofed,” or “paneled,” but the point in any case is that it represents the finishing touches. Their homes were not “in process” but were fully appointed, while the temple remained a ruin. The term does not imply luxury or great expense, though paneling can be of that nature. Wood paneling was unusual in private residences, although Solomon’s throne was “paneled” (1 Kings 7:7).[3]

Thus, whether or not this is a reference to luxury, it is definitely a reference to the shameful fact that their own houses were now finished while work on God’s house had been neglected and seemingly forgotten. What are your paneled houses? What are those areas of your life that you know you have neglected God to tend? They need not be negative things in and of themselves. They might just as easily be good things if tended to in the right season and in the context of a viable relationship with God. But good things can become condemnable things if they are achieved at the cost of the prioritizing of God and His ways.

Mark Dever poignantly asks:

Consider this: what would your life look like if you got what you really wanted? Do you have a picture of that in your mind? Now ask yourself, would God be there? Is he at the center of your desires, or is he repeatedly neglected by the true center of your heart’s desires?[4]

And what is “the true center of your heart’s desires?” Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:21—“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Your heart is really in whatever you most treasure. The only question is, will we treasure our own paneled houses or will we treasure the Lord our God?

Be honest with yourself: are your procrastinating in building the temple? Is that showing up in your priorities? Is there even room in your life as you have created it for tending to the things of God? I plead with you to make it so if there is not!

The Folly of Avoiding What Matters Most

Why? Why does it matter so much? It matters so much because anything in life that you move to the center of your life where God alone should be is doomed to frustrate you and leave you empty. Consider Haggai’s description of what these returned exiles’ lives had turned into.

Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways.

Haggai’s description of the symptoms of Israel’s sickness is devastating:

  • “You have sown much, and harvested little.”
  • “You eat, but you never have enough.”
  • “You drink, but you never have your fill.”
  • “You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm.”
  • “And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.”

This is devastating because it is one of the best descriptions of modern American life I have ever read. We consume and consume and consume, but all for nothing. At the end of the day, after all of our laboring and trying and buying and consuming, we are left empty.

Consider the ways of the modern, upwardly-mobile American. He must have that car and those clothes and that spouse and those kind of children who do those kinds of things with those kinds of people to create that specific kind of image for us to put on Facebook! Consider the ways of the modern American enslaved to social media. He must take one thousand selfies so he can delete all but one in an effort to find just the right image to put on his social media platforms so hopefully just the right people will think just the right thing. Consider the successful American businessman who spends all of his time, often to the neglect of his family, to climb the ladder so that he can finally tell himself and others that he has made it, that he has arrived! Consider the helicopter mom who must control her children and everybody else around them so as to create what she considers to be the optimal outcome. Consider the neurotic parents who demand that their children perform in such and such a way so that they can live vicariously through them.

Consider your ways! Consider all the ways we as modern American try desperately and spend ourselves in a frantic effort to achieve some goal, we often know not what, to impress some people, we often know not who, so that we can be thought well of! We consume things and time and each other in a frenzied and misguided circus of activity all in the hope that we might matter!

And we so often do these things while the temple of God lies in ruins in our own hearts!

Tellingly, these descriptions of Israel’s life are bookended by the statement, “Consider your ways.” In other words, the problems they were experiencing were a direct result of the lives they had chosen to live. So too with us! We are reaping what we have sown!

But here is the good news: you do not have to live that kind of life and you do not have to run that kind of race and you do not have to be a hamster on a wheel in a cage of empty consumption. You do not have to neglect the things of God! You could turn to God and to the life He has for you. You could lose yourself in His glory and nourish yourself on His word! You could turn to the rubble of the temple in your life and simply begin!

And when this happens, when we set down our stuff and dare to turn our attention back to what matters most, we will suddenly find that we are now equipped to handle our stuff! If we get the most important thing in the right place then the other things can get in their right places and then we can actually start living life as it is meant to be lived!

The beauty of this is that Jesus will say the exact same thing Haggai said. In Matthew 6, Jesus said:

33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

And that, in a nutshell, is what Haggai is about! It is about getting the kingdom in front of us instead of behind us or off to the side. It is about letting God’s Kingdom and His ways and His life dominate the horizon of our lives as we move forward. It is about following Jesus first, not as an afterthought or as a religious custom. For Christ is the temple of the living God! He said so in John 2:19 when He said, ““Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He was speaking there of Himself!

Christ is the temple and, in His resurrection, He has been raised up in our midst! To turn back to what matters most, to turn our attention to the temple where we meet God and worship and abide in His presence, is to turn to Jesus Christ!

Jesus is what matters most!

Do not neglect the Lord of Lords! Consider your ways! Is He at the very center of your life?

 

[1] Fred Craddock.  Craddock Stories (St. Louis, MO:  Chalice Press, 2001), p.22.

[2] Mark Dever, The Message of the Old Testament. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), p.886.

[3] John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.797.

[4] Mark Dever, p.889.

 

Mark 16

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 16

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. 12 After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. 14 Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” 19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.

A few years ago CNN did a story on the controversial New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan. Crossan is controversial because he does not believe in the supernatural. He is in the forefront of what is called “the search for the historical Jesus,” which is, proponents say, an effort to get at the “real” Jesus behind all of the myths and superstitions with which the Church has allegedly surrounded Him. What this means is that, among other things, Crossan does not believe in a literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. He believes that the story of the resurrection as presented in scripture is a parable intended to make another point. Here is how the CNN story puts it:

Crossan says, however, that he’s “trying to understand the stories of Jesus, not refute them.”

Still, his findings often end up challenging some of Christianity’s most cherished beliefs.

Consider his understanding of the resurrection. Jesus didn’t bodily rise from the dead, he says. The first Christians told Jesus’ resurrection story as a parable, not as a fact.

“Crucifixion meant that imperial power had won,” Crossan says. “Resurrection meant that divine justice had won. God is on the side of the crucified one. Rome’s values are a dead issue to me.”[1]

That final comment intrigues me: “Crucifixion meant that imperial power had won. Resurrection meant that divine justice had won. God is on the side of the crucified one. Rome’s values are a dead issue to me.”

Do you see what this does to the New Testament account of the resurrection of Jesus? It makes it not a historical account of an actual miracle but rather a feel-good story that essentially means God prefers one set of values over another. To use a modern term, Crossan’s reading of the resurrection account reduces it to some kind of divine virtue signaling whereby God, through a parable, lets the world know that he thinks Rome did a bad, bad thing and He does not like it, not one bit. Rome’s values may be dead to Crossan, but the problem is that, according to his theory, so is Jesus!

Then there is this, from a First Things review of the book Belonging to the Universe. Listen to these comments of a Benedictine monk named Thomas Matus:

Is Christ’s resurrection a stumbling block for the hip? No problem, answer the Benedictines. “That’s not theology,” says Matus of Jesus’ Easter victory over death. “No responsible theologian is going to dredge that up today.” The Resurrection, he says, was just a mental “experience” the disciples underwent because they couldn’t bear the thought of “a wonderful, lovable person . . . being subjected to capital punishment on the basis of ambiguous allegations.”[2]

So in Matus’ view the resurrection is a case of what is called psychological projection whereby the untrue story of the resurrection was conjured up because the thought of Jesus being killed by Romans was simply too difficult for the early Christians to handle.

What is most unsettling about both of these faulty views is that they come from two who would, if asked, call themselves Christians. But, to be blunt about it, this simply will not do.  The resurrection is not a parable about how God does not like bad people who do bad things and it is not the projection of a psychologically soothing story that the foolish Christians could hide behind in their effort to avoid the disturbing reality of the cross.

No, it was the actual resurrection of the actual Jesus from the actual dead! It was a staggering and shocking display of divine power. It was, in short, a miracle, and one that changes everything!

As we journey through this final chapter of Mark’s gospel. Let us consider what the resurrection of Jesus means for humanity. As we do so, we will see why it matters as much as it does and why it must not be jettisoned.

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Exodus 34:9-28

yeshua1Exodus 34

9 And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” 10 And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. 11 “Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 12 Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. 13 You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim 14 (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), 15 lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, 16 and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods. 17 “You shall not make for yourself any gods of cast metal. 18 “You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Abib, for in the month Abib you came out from Egypt. 19 All that open the womb are mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20 The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before me empty-handed. 21 “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. 22 You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end. 23 Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. 24 For I will cast out nations before you and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land, when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year. 25 “You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover remain until the morning. 26 The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” 27 And the Lord said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

Last November Peter J. Leithart wrote an interesting article for First Things journal entitled, “The Promise and Limits of Covenant Polity.” In it he argued that the language of “covenant” might elevate American political discourse above the tired and hackneyed verbiage into which it has so shamefully fallen. In defense of using the language of “covenant,” Leithart argued the following:

First, covenant has deep roots in Western political history. American order is laid out in covenantal and quasi-covenantal documents, from Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity to the U.S. Constitution…

Second, covenant polity’s anti-individualism combats the corrosive effects of liberalism…

Third, covenant polity is polity of mutual obligation…Politics isn’t reduced to the defense of rights…

Covenant polity, finally, unites law and love. Biblical covenants are initiated by the God who loves Israel for the sake of their fathers, and the covenant people are knit together by the bonds of love for neighbor and one’s enemies. Love is not privatized romance but a “macro” value that overarches what Benedict calls a “civilization of love.”

But Leithart concluded his article with an interesting observation:

Covenant isn’t anything like a cure-all. It’s been badly abused. At times, it has taken a racial or tribal turn. It underwrites aggressive nationalism when it treats some nation-state, rather than the church, as the “new Israel.”

The biblical references above expose another difficulty. Western politics borrowed its notion of covenant from the Hebrew Bible. Once we start talking about “renewing the national covenant,” we may have to turn to Israel, as many of the Reformers and their children did, as a model polity. How will that fly?

And then, even more foundationally: Is it possible to speak of a covenant polity without acknowledging a covenant Lord who transcends the polity? Who will that Lord be? Fudging that question will put us right back where we started, with a post-liberalism indistinguishable from liberalism. Facing it will expose how thoroughly covenant polity challenges foundational premises of liberalism.[1]

I think he makes an important point there at the end. “Covenant” outside of an eternal, immutable, faithful God upon whose person and character the covenant can find deep and abiding grounding is likely nothing more than mere political talk like all the rest with which we are so unfortunately familiar. Fortunately for Israel, they had both the language of covenant and faith in the God who issued and ensured the covenant. This becomes especially clear in Exodus 34:9-28 and God’s reinstatement of the covenant with Israel.

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Mark 15:40-41, 47 and 16:1

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 15

40 There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.

47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

Mark 16

1 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

It is said that Rudyard Kipling wrote his poem, “Mother o’ Mine,” in order to please his mother after the ending of one of his novels had disappointed her. It is a simple poem, but a powerful one about the lengths to which a mother’s love will go to reach her son. Kipling wrote:

If I were hanged on the highest hill,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
I know whose love would follow me still,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
If I were drowned in the deepest sea,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
I know whose tears would come down to me,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine!
If I were damned of body and soul,
I know whose prayers would make me whole,
Mother o’ mine, O mother o’ mine![1]

Time and time again in human history has revealed the powerful extent to which a mother’s love will compel her. Most notably, we see it in Mary’s presence at the cross. But there is more. Mother is present at the cross with other women. Marks tells us of three women. But the presence of these women is not recorded simply for information’s sake. No, Mary, Jesus’ mother, and the other women tell us something powerful and important about the nature of discipleship and about what a true relationship with Jesus looks like.

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Exodus 34:1-8

213363Exodus 34

1 The Lord said to Moses, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready by the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. No one shall come up with you, and let no one be seen throughout all the mountain. Let no flocks or herds graze opposite that mountain.” So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first. And he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. 

Philip Ryken passes on a story that makes us chuckle and helps us understand what is happening in Exodus 34.

            Maxie Dunnam tells the story of a woman who “took a friend with her when she went to a photographer to have her picture taken. The beauty parlor had done its best for her. She took her seat in the studio and fixed her pose. While the photographer was adjusting his lights in preparation for taking the shot, she said to him, “Now be sure to do me justice.” The friend who had accompanied her said, with a twinkle in her eye, “My dear, what you need is not justice but mercy.”[1]

While we laugh at the audacious comment from the lady’s friend, there is something actually quite profound about that statement: “My dear, what you need is not justice but mercy.” To which we might say: Indeed! Indeed that is so!

That was certainly the case with Israel and it is certainly the case with us as well. We need mercy, not justice! The last couple of chapters have been chapters of justice for Israel, and rightfully so. They had earned justice and God’s wrath because of their disobedience. So do we all. But what God reveals about His character in Exodus 34 is that, while His justice is pure and His anger is always just, He is the God who delights in mercy.

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Mark 15:42-46

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 15

42 And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. 45 And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. 46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 

Everybody loves enigmatic characters, those characters that have an air of mystery about them. In the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Joseph of Arimathea—the man who asked for the body of Jesus and who buried Jesus—is one of those enigmatic character. And, as usually happens with enigmatic characters, people’s curiosity gets the better of them and increasingly strange stories grow up around them. This seems to be especially true of Joseph of Arimathea. There are countless legends that have grown up around Joseph, many of them quite old. Undoubtedly this is because we do not know all that we would like to know about Joseph. So people allow their imaginations to fill in the blanks! The BBC has provided a fascinating list of some of these legends.

  • He was the first person to bring Christianity to Britain, having been sent with other disciples by St Philip.
  • He built Britain’s first church (some say this was actually the first church in the world).
  • He was Mary’s uncle, and thus Jesus’ great-uncle.
  • He was a merchant who visited England to buy Cornish tin.
  • He took Jesus with him to England when Jesus was a teenager (local legends say that among the places they visited were St Just in Roseland and St Michael’s Mount).
  • He brought to England two vials containing the blood and sweat of Jesus (or two vials containing the sweat of Jesus).
  • He brought the Holy Grail to England and hid it in a well at Glastonbury, now called the Chalice Well.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says of Joseph of Arimathea:

Acc. to the apocryphal “Gospel of Nicodemus” he played an important part in the foundation of the first Christian community at Lyddia. In the “De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesie,” written by William of Malmesbury between 1129 and 1139, occurs the earliest mention of the story that St. Joseph came to England with the Holy Grail and built the first church in the country at Glastonbury, but the passage relating this incident was added to the book at least a century later.[1]

It is also said of Joseph of Arimathea that he planted his staff in the ground of Glastonbury and it blossomed into a thorn tree. It is said that this where Glastonbury Thorn comes from. All of these legends are fascinating and a bit amusing, but they do point, again, to the mystery surrounding Joseph of Arimathea.

Even so, what is truly intriguing about Joseph of Arimathea is not the legends but rather what we do know, what scripture does tell us about Joseph. All four gospels mention Joseph, a fact that is very important. When all four gospels mention a figure or an episode, attention must be paid.

So who was Joseph and why does that question matter to us? Who was Joseph of Arimathea and, specifically, who was Jesus to Joseph?

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