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Wednesday
Feb122014

Luke 23:1-25

As Jesus being brought before Pilate as Chapter 23 opens, it would seem from the outside as if everything is unraveling. Luke however has taken great pains, as do the other Gospel writers, to show that everything happens only through the allowance of Jesus as He faithfully carries out the Father’s plan. The legal appearances that begin the chapter reflect a muddled political situation. When Herod the Great died, his territory was divided among three of his sons. Herod Antipas and Philip both took over smaller parts, while Herod Archelaus took over the majority of the territory, but it was taken away from him and put under Roman governship in 6 AD. This area included Jerusalem, and it was at this point governed by Pontius Pilate, who was in Jerusalem for the festivals to help keep peace.

Pilate was already unpopular with the Jewish people because of the disrespect that he had shown to their religion, and history shows that his authority was already on tenuous footing as a result. This would have given greater reason for him to avoid upsetting the people as this matter is brought before him. The Jewish leaders bring Him to Pilate claiming that He is causing unrest, opposing payment of taxes, and claiming to be a king. The latter, if it includes advocating an overthrow of Rome, would bear the most weight and draws the focus of Pilate. When asked if He is king of the Jews, Jesus gives an implicit affirmation, but says nothing to demonstrate a political threat, leading Pilate to declare that there is no basis for their claims. However, when the people insist and reveal that Jesus started His ministry in Galilee, Pilate has reason to pass the case to Herod Antipas, whose territory included Galilee. Luke 9 first brought Herod’s curiosity about Jesus to light, and we learn now that Herod was eager to see Jesus perform a miracle. Jesus frustrates Herod not only by not performing a miracle, but also by refusing to even answer his questions. This frustrates Herod and he lashes out by mocking Jesus and dressing Him in the clothes of royalty before he sends Jesus back to Pilate. This ironically leads to a friendship with Pilate as both feel strong contempt for the religion of the Jewish people and feel that is an insult to them.

Pilate still finds no legal support for the charges that the leaders had leveled against Jesus. Since neither he nor Herod found any reason to condemn Jesus to death, he hopes to appease the people by simply having Jesus flogged as a warning against causing any unrest in the future. However, the people are not pleased with this solution. Since it was tradition for the Romans to pardon one prisoner during the festivals, they demand that Pilate condemn Jesus and instead release Barabbas to them. Barabbas was to be crucified after being convicted of murder and revolutionary activity. Likely a member of the Zealots, Barabbas was a well-known and likely popular figure among those who distrusted Rome. Since by this point the people did not seem to hold out hope that Jesus would be the political revolutionary that once believed Him to be, now they turn their support to someone who is. Pilate accedes to their demand, and although Luke does not reference this act, tries to signify his own innocence by ceremonially washing his hands. Since this was not a Roman custom, it was likely adopted from the Jewish tradition which was tied back to Deuteronomy 21.

Pilate’s washing of his hands did nothing to actually absolve himself, as Luke makes clear in Acts 4:4-7; everyone involved from Pilate to Herod to those in the crowd bears responsibility. Pilate’s recognition of Jesus’ innocence only serves to highlight his guilt; the guilt of one who sees the right thing to do and fails to act out of cowardice or a desire for personal gain. The crowds who once supported Jesus now see that He is not going to do for them what they hoped, which is to lead a political revolution. Now they support another figure whose activities were also well-known to them. Perhaps Barabbas, the revolutionary figure, will be the one to deliver them from the bondage of Rome, and so they choose that hope over supporting the one who would deliver them from the bondage of sin. But we also know that the conviction and rejection of Jesus happened according to the sovereign plan of God, to offer atonement for us for our sins. Even if it was Barabbas’ cross that Jesus took, we know that He was no less taking our place, and we need to look no further than ourselves to see why Jesus had to suffer the rejection and shame of the cross.

Wednesday
Feb122014

Luke 22:47-71

            Luke 22:46 ended with Jesus speaking to His disciples, exhorting them to stay vigilant in prayer in order to be ready for what was to come. Those events start immediately in verse 47 as Judas appears with several men. Although Jesus was a very well-known figure, unless the soldiers had personally seen Jesus, they would have no idea what He looked like. With the compounding factor of the darkness, they would have needed some help identifying the man they were supposed to arrest. When Judas kisses Jesus in greeting, that serves a practical purpose in his betrayal, but it also underscores the sharpness of the betrayal by one so close to Jesus. The disciples immediately start to believe that this is a moment for to use the swords they had just referenced in the last chapter, and Peter (identified in John but not here) cuts off the ear of a servant without waiting for approval. Jesus puts a stop to this with language similar to when they had brought out the swords before, and offers a contrast the violence around Him by healing the servant’s ear, an act mentioned by the physician Luke but not the other Gospel writers. Jesus also points out the hypocrisy of their actions to come with weapons in the darkness to seize someone who has posed no physical threat. Regardless of the number of men or their seeming physical advantage, the Gospels all make clear that it is Jesus who is in control of the situation.

The current High Priest was Caiaphas, but his father-in-law Annas was the former high priest and would have retained the title for life. The other Gospels reference appearances before both. While Luke doesn’t specify which high priest is being referenced here, it is likely that they lived in separate wings of the same house, making the distinction unimportant. The disciples have mostly fled, but Peter summons up some degree of courage to follow along while retaining his distance. Nonetheless, he is recognized as one of the disciples by a girl and immediately issues a strong denial of the fact when challenged. In fact, the language that he uses to deny knowing Jesus is similar to the language that was used when someone was cut off from a synagogue. A second person recognizes him and Peter makes the denial again. When the third person recognizes him by his accent as being from Galilee, Peter’ denial becomes even more fervent. It was at that time that Peter heard the rooster crow and Jesus turns and makes eye contact with him. At that moment, the realization of his failure hits home and leaves and begins to weep.

Blind man’s bluff is an ancient game, dating back to 500 BC, and variations of it were common in that area at the time. The guards are mocking Jesus by playing a cruel version of the game with Him, and Luke’s description brings across both how humiliating their treatment is and also how ironic. Jesus is being accused of blasphemy, but when Luke describes the guards’ treatment of Jesus he uses the word blasphemeo, which is the origin of our word “blasphemy.”

Luke turns his narrative back to the legal proceeding. What he does not recount are the council’s failed efforts to get corroborating testimony against Jesus, a requirement for a capital case. They need strong consensus in order to appeal to the Romans to condemn Jesus to death but are getting nowhere. They then try a different approach by asking Jesus directly if He is the Messiah. If He says no, then He will lose His popularity with the people, but if He says yes, then they will assume that He is lying since He is under arrest. Jesus refuses to answer on the grounds that they will not believe Him, but then quotes from Psalm 110 that He will be seated at the right hand of God. That Psalm is Messianic – He referenced it before in pointing out their lack of understanding of the Messiah – but also is greatly offensive to them as He is claiming to enter the presence of God. That statement serves as the evidence which they had sought, again confirming Jesus’ control over the process.

Luke makes very clear that everything that is happening is according to the Father’s plan, which Jesus is carrying out in perfect obedience. God’s sovereignty, however, does not excuse the actions of those who choose their own path over God’s. Even if the reason is misguided fervor to serve God, such as the disciples brandishing their swords, we are still without excuse. We know that we will be tested, and often our most difficult tests of obedience often don’t come in calls for spectacular displays of courage but rather in quiet moments alone. When we do fail, we can be comforted and convicted by the knowledge of God’s grace and mercy and pray for the strength to faithfully endure the next test to come.

Wednesday
Feb122014

Luke 22:21-46

Following the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gives His final discourse to the disciples. His discourse begins by predicting His betrayal and indicating that the betrayer has shared the meal with them. The betrayal after sharing a meal, a very intimate event in the culture, added to the shock for the disciples. More importantly, Jesus’ awareness of the betrayal illustrates that He is allowing it to happen, leaving no question of His choosing the path that leads to His crucifixion. Nonetheless, the disciples understandably begin to argue about who will be the one to betray Him, which leads to an argument over which one is the greatest. Although they have gone down that path before and been corrected for it, their pride still takes over. Jesus is giving them instruction in regards to how they should set themselves apart from those in the world, and to do so, He gives them examples of how they should not live. Earthly rulers seek power and glory and then abuse it, all while forcing those under them to give them benevolent titles such as “benefactor” to increase their prestige. In contrast, Jesus points out that He Himself has taken on the role of a servant, a role which in that culture would not only be associated with a lowly person, but would cause others to show them little respect. If He who is greatest is willing to do that, then they should be all the more willing to follow His example. That obedience does not come without reward; those that have stood by Him are promised that a greater reward than the earthly prestige they desired will come in the Kingdom.

Faithfulness comes with testing and trials, and Jesus makes clear that they will face those. Although He speaks to Peter, Jesus’ use of the plural form of “you” indicates that they will all be tested, but He then returns to a singular form of “you” to demonstrate that He is giving Peter specific responsibility to lead them. His challenge does come with a qualification though: Peter is going to first turn against Jesus. This apparently shocked Peter because He immediately insists that He is ready die with Jesus. Sadly, this is not true and Jesus predicts Peter’s three denials to come that night. Peter’s bravado may be partly based on their success in ministering under Jesus over the past few years, but they are about to enter a very different time with greater opposition. While they had been sent out once before with the instruction to rely on the provision of others, now they will have to fend for themselves. All of Jesus’ popularity is about to go away as He will be declared a traitor and criminal, and this will impact how the people look at the disciples as well. His instructions go as far as to tell them that they must be prepared for conflict, even selling their cloak to buy a sword if they don’t have one. The disciples misunderstand His comments and believe that He expects them to go out in armed conflict, and when they brandish their swords to show their readiness, Jesus ends the conversation.

Jesus had been returning to the Mount of Olives every evening, but this night He goes for a different purpose. Luke does not give as full of detail as Matthew and Mark, but we know from those Gospels that it is to the Garden of Gethsemane that He is headed. Once He gets there, He first leaves most of the disciples behind and takes only Peter, James, and John with Him further. He then instructs them to pray to prepare for what they will face, and then goes on further Himself to pray alone. He prays that the Father will “take this cup” from Him, a phrase that is used in the Old Testament for the wrath of God. Yet His prayer also reflects complete obedience to the will of the Father, which would be for Him to suffer the wrath and rejection that was owed for our sins.. As extreme as the physical suffering of His crucifixion would be, that is nothing compared to enduring the wrath of the Father, and His anguish is described using such strong terms that we have no good English equivalents. Unlike the martyrs that will follow Him, often going to their deaths bravely and joyously through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will be alone in His suffering. In this moment of anguish, He cannot even count on His inner circle, who are too exhausted to stay awake and pray. As Mark tells us, He returns to them three times, but they still cannot follow His instructions to prepare for their coming trials through prayer. Although they may be willing in spirit to obey, their human nature is too weak.

The reminder of the weakness of our human natures is important for us as we prepare to be tested. Just as Peter’s bravado failed to hold up when he faced opposition for which he wasn’t prepared, we also may be prone to overestimate our own strength in times of comfort. Even then, we must prepare through prayer and Bible study to be tested. If we do fail, as we know that we will, we must be willing to repent and turn back, to strive even more fervently to obey and serve. Those tests will never cease in this life, but we have to make the choice to follow God’s will instead of our own. Jesus’ prayer serves as the ultimate example of such submission. Although sin had entered the world through Adam’s choice of his own will over God’s in another garden, the obedience of Jesus offers us forgiveness for our sin. Our challenge must be to demonstrate our thankfulness for that undeserved sacrifice and grace by continuously striving to live lives that are reflective of our identity as Christians.

Saturday
Jan182014

Luke 21:37-22:20

After Luke covers Jesus’ warnings to the disciples in 21:34-36, he returns to giving an overview of Jesus’ activities during the week. While we are unclear as to the reason that Jesus stayed outside of the city, Luke makes it clear that He did do so, entering the city during the day to teach, setting the stage for the events of chapter 22. Luke also emphasized Jesus’ popularity with the people, a popularity which caused a problem for the religious leaders who were looking for an opportunity to arrest Him without incurring the wrath of the people. The celebration of the Passover marked the day before the seven Days of Unleavened Bread, but the two were often referred to together as an eight day feast. This year, Passover fell on a Thursday. As that day approached, the priests and experts in the law, who wielded great political influence as well as religious, still lacked the means to arrest and try Jesus.  What they did not anticipate, is that the betrayal of Judas would create that opportunity.

When Luke makes it clear that Satan entered Judas, he is emphasizing Satan’s continuing involvement in spiritual conflict, but he is not absolving Judas of responsibility. Rather, Judas allows Satan to enter him. While Judas’ motives for betraying Jesus are never clear, we are given plenty of context that could indicate motive. Although the money he receives is a paltry sum, we have already received indication of his greed. He is also a lowly regarded disciple, certainly not in the inner circle, and that could have led to resentment. We also have some evidence that he was connected with groups advocating a violent overthrow of Roman rule; a position which would have made him impatient with Jesus’ approach and could have led him to try to force Jesus to take more drastic measures. Whatever his motives were, what is clear is that there was something that he valued more highly than obedience to Jesus. Despite all of his time with and around Jesus, he still was not willing to truly follow Him.

      The day on which the lamb had to be sacrificed would have been Thursday. The lamb was sacrificed in the temple, then each family took their lamb home to roast it and prepare it with bitter herbs. The meal was supposed to be eaten within the walls of Jerusalem, which mean that travelers to the city would have to find a place to celebrate it. For that reason, residents who had an extra room were expected to have that room ready for travelers and to give it to them to celebrate the Passover if they asked. Needing the same thing, Jesus sends Peter and John into the city to prepare for the feast, and tells them to look for a man carrying a jar of water. Since men usually carried water in skins instead of jars, this man would have stood out, indicating that it was his house they were to use.

      Luke’s narrative of the Last Supper is more condensed than some of the other Gospels, and it also gives less information about their actual celebration of the Passover. Luke’s gentile audience would have been less familiar with the history and meaning of the celebration, so Luke may have felt that it was less necessary to tie Jesus’ institution of communion into the original feast. The Jewish people usually celebrated Passover with a feast that was organized around four cups of wine, each with a distinct meaning that tied back to the promises of Exodus 6:6-7. These promises both reflected on their deliverance from bondage that had already occurred, and looked forward to a future as God’s people. When Jesus says in v. 18 that He will not drive of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom comes, He is also giving us reason to look forward when celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

      The betrayal of Judas is perhaps the most disconcerting warning in Scripture of the futility of proximity to the Church without true conversion. All of Judas’ time around Jesus and the disciples did nothing to save him. Because he valued his own desires over obedience to Christ, he allowed Satan to enter him and guide him in betrayal. Those who have accepted Christ, however, can be assured by the promise that we will be preserved in Him and delivered from sin. While the practice of communion, like baptism, does not save us, it is provided for us to give an outward indication of our inner conversion. Just as we celebrate our deliverance from sin through His blood, so too do we look forward to an eternity with Him, with the promise that He will be our God, and we will be His people.

Saturday
Jan182014

Luke 20:20-47

As we enter Luke 20:20, we are continuing the account of Jesus is in Jerusalem. Luke is in the process of giving clear evidence of Jesus’ innocence of the charges that would leveled against Him. Luke is also illustrating how the Jewish leadership is proceeding in order to get rid of Jesus but also avoid the blame for doing so. As they proceed, they are in a difficult position because of Jesus’ popularity with the people.

The paying of taxes to Rome was a touchy issue with the Jewish people. Although most Jews paid the tax, some groups such as the Zealots, advocating refusal to pay the tax on the basis that doing so amounted to slavery. Two groups that normally would be fierce enemies, the Pharisees and Herodians, now join together to send spies to hopefully trap Jesus (their affiliations are not specified in Luke but are provided in the accounts of Matthew and Mark) by trying to force Him to take a side in this debate. By asking Him whether the paying of the tax is the right thing to do, they feel that He must either support the tax and disappoint the Jewish people are anxious for a revolution, or reject the tax and thus give cause for the Romans to arrest Him. Even without the ability to reference New Testament passages such as Romans 13 which speak specifically to civic obedience where possible, Jesus could easily have reference Old Testament passages such as Proverbs 8:15-16 that support the same. However, knowing their true motive, Jesus recognizes the chance to illustrate the hypocrisy of His interlocutors and teach an even broader lesson. Roman law did not require the tax to be paid in Roman currency, but that was still common practice at the time. When Jesus asks them who is on their own coins, and they reveal that it is Caesar, they are also acknowledging that have made a tacit acceptance of Roman rule, even as they are hoping to turn the crowd against Jesus if he supports the tax. By instructing the people to “give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s,” Jesus is supporting the authority of Rome in the matter of tax, while making clear that Rome should not be given the worship that is owed only to God.
            This answer may have quelled the challenges from those groups for the time being, but now representatives the Sadducees are ready to mount their own challenge. They distinguished themselves religiously by accepting only the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, as Scripture and rejecting the existence of angels and any existence after death. Although the latter is not commonly referenced in the Old Testament, texts such as Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2 (neither being in the Pentateuch) are clear on it. Eager to look for a way to disprove resurrection, the Sadducees had developed an outlandish scenario in which one women is married to seven men during her life (a theoretically possible but unrealistic example) which they liked to pose to the Pharisees and now brought to Jesus. If the resurrection is real, then there must be an answer to the question of to whom she would be married in the resurrection, but the Pharisees could never answer it. Jesus not only sees through the scenario to point out an erroneous assumption behind the challenge (that marriage in the resurrection would be similar to marriage in this life) that renders it useless, but even goes a step further to point out that even Exodus 3:2-6 (a passage from the Pentateuch) gives evidence to the reality of the resurrection, but they have ignored what it was teaching.

The recently embarrassed Pharisees may have been happy to see the tables turned on the Sadducees, but their mirth is short lived when Jesus puts a challenge back to them. They are unwilling to accept Jesus as the Messiah because His teaching does not coincide with their expectation of a man who would come to deliver the political victory they desired and would support the traditions that they had built up. Instead, Jesus forgives sin and claims spiritual authority that contradicts and supersedes theirs. Ironically, the title that they preferred to use for the expected Messiah was “Son of David,” recognizing that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. Yet Jesus points out that in Psalm 110, David himself refers to the Messiah as his Lord, which would not be appropriate in Jewish tradition. That contradiction can only be resolved if the Messiah is both God and man. The arrogance of the leaders blinds them to the teaching of Scripture, just as it leads to the hypocrisy and abuses that Jesus condemns and warns the people against in the following verses.

The section ends with a condemnation of pride, the very thing that set these events in order. Just as the pride of the religious leaders backfired on them, Jesus warns of similar pride for others. Such pride takes honor away from God, overshadows other people, and can even end up causing harm to others. The effects, however, are also felt personally. Each of these groups approached Jesus with a misunderstanding of theology and doctrine, yet eager to demonstrate what they felt was their superior knowledge. In each case, their misunderstanding was in spite of scriptural evidence that should have pointed them to the truth. Sadly, their pride prevented their understanding and led to their embarrassment and disgrace on this day, and far more dire consequences later on. It is also a reminder to us to approach God’s Word with humility and diligence. It can be a daunting task to understand all of what Scripture is teaching us, yet we are instructed to spend our lives dedicated to that very task – constantly approaching the Bible with a desire to learn more and a heart that is receptive to the guiding of the Holy Spirit toward greater understanding and knowledge.