Jesus, Is Still Shaking the Church Like He Shook the First Century Religious Leaders

Righteousness and justice are the foundations of God’s throne. They are the building blocks of His character.

I wrote about A Mic Drop Moment in First Century Galilee back in March of 2020, referring to the passage in Luke 4 in which Jesus read from the Isaiah Scroll in the synagogue in Galilee where he announced his public ministry. I have been focused on that passage since the spring of 2019, when I was drawn to it for a talk on doing justice.

I am still continually drawn to that passage. I intended to write more about justice when I wrote that piece in March of 2020, but it wasn’t until July that I actually got around to it. (See Evangelicalism and Injustice Part I, Evangelicalism and Injustice Part II and The Need for the Church to Address and Injustice, for example.)

The world changed dramatically between March 2020 and July 2020. COVID shut down commerce and isolated people. The George Floyd killing happened in June, and we were embroiled in nationwide unease and unrest. The need for justice in a spiritually dry and parched world was quite evident, then, as the scabs of centuries of racial injustice were torn open and bleeding.

The focus of my writing has been on my fellow evangelicals. They way I have phrased this introduction may strike discord among my church family (or so I imagine as I write this).[i] I am convinced, however, these things are centrally important to God and how the body of Christ lives out the Gospel in the world.

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne. Mercy and truth go before Him. (Ps. 89:14)

If we want to get closer to God, to know Him better and to be like Him in this fallen world, we need to focus on these: righteousness and justice. They are the twin pillars of God’s character.


This morning, Jeff Frazier’s sermon at Chapelstreet Church in Batavia, IL was on the same passage in Luke 4 that I have been reading periodically since 2019.[ii] I focus on a particular emphasis today that prompts this article, but let me set the scene first.

The entirety of the passage is found at Luke 4:16-30.  I encourage you to read it now or read my mic drop description of it (as if Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll in a neighborhood church today).

The key points for this article are that Jesus went to his home synagogue and read from the Isaiah scroll to his “own people” who knew him well. When Jesus said the messianic message of that passage was being fulfilled in their hearing, the people asked him, “Aren’t you Joseph’s son?”

Still, they spoke well of him and marveled at his “gracious words”. (Luke 4:22) Then Jesus made them uncomfortable by foretelling that they would taunt him and reject Him, adding, “[N]o prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” (Luke 4:23-24)

I imagine the synagogue went quiet quickly. They probably looked at each, thinking or saying things, like,

  • What is he saying?
  • Did I just hear him right?
  • Weren’t we just saying how he has grown up into a fine young man?
  • Did  he just accuse us of rejecting him?
  • We haven’t done anything!
  • We weren’t even thinking those things!”

But Jesus didn’t stop there. He turned the heat up a notch! This is where things really got dicey in his hometown synagogue. This is the point I am seeing in this passage today – something for us to think about in the American Church today.

Jesus referenced two passages of Scripture and two stories of revered Hebrew prophets. His citation to Scripture may not have raised eyebrows. It was the application of them that riled up his synagogue audience.

Continue reading “Jesus, Is Still Shaking the Church Like He Shook the First Century Religious Leaders”

Thinking Outside the Circle and Focusing on the Center: What Direction are You Moving?

If we are not challenged to rethink what we think we know from time to time, we are not likely coming into close enough contact with Jesus.

I watched the Chapelstreet church service today and listened to the sermon by Jeff Frazier in Batavia, IL. It was just what I needed to hear. Not that it tills new ground; it covers familiar ground from a new angle. It avoids the ruts of old, tired ways of thinking and finds fresh new ground (for me) from which to approach how we see Jesus.

The sermon today was inspired by Matthew 9:9-13.[i] You can read it in full at the endnote below. In summary, Jesus called Matthew from the tax booth where he was sitting to follow him, and Matthew responded by following him. That was the extent of the initial story

Then Scripture jumps to another scene: Jesus reclining at a table with “many tax collectors and sinners”. We are left to draw our own conclusions about what happened in the interim. It could be that Matthew invited all his friends, who were naturally other tax collectors and “sinners”, to met Jesus who had just connected with him.

The focus of the new scene, though, isn’t on Matthew anymore. The focus shifts to the Pharisees who ask the disciples why Jesus eats with “tax collectors and sinners”.

Before I describe how Jesus responded to them, I want to focus on the fact that the people who had a problem with Jesus were the religious people. Jesus was hanging around with all the wrong people according to the religious insiders of his day.

This is nothing new. I have written often about the Pharisees, Jesus and tax collectors and sinners. In fact, I wrote on the same subject just two weeks ago. (The Danger that Good, Upstanding, Religious People Face Today)

It isn’t a new thing to realize Jesus defied categorization; he shattered expectations and common ways of thinking. He challenged everyone he met to see the world differently, but we sometimes forget the radicalness of Jesus in our routine orthodoxy.

I dare say, if we are not challenged to rethink what we think we know from time to time, we are not likely coming into close enough contact with Jesus!

Back to the story: in First Century Judea, tax collectors were traitors and sell-outs. They were Hebrews who collected taxes for the Romans and used the authority of the Roman occupiers of the Hebrew Promised Land to accumulate wealth for themselves. They were hated by good Jews. They were outsiders in their own community.

As outsiders, they naturally associated with other outsiders (“sinners”). Thus, for Jesus to establish a relationship with Matthew – and worse than that: to “hang out” with other tax collectors and “sinners” – was scandalous. It was unthinkable!

When Jesus heard the Pharisees challenge the disciples to explain why Jesus was associating with “such people”, Jesus famously responded:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:12-13

This is a familiar passage to us, but I think the application of the message is sometimes lost on us today. I think we can fall into the trap of the Pharisees in our thinking without even realizing it. Thus, we need to be challenged to see things from a different angle, just as Jesus challenged the Pharisees in the first century.

Again, these are not new thoughts, but the the change of perspective (for me) comes courtesy of Paul G. Hiebert. Born to missionary parents in India, he became “arguably, the world’s leading missiological anthropologist”.[ii]

When he moved back to the west, he wrestled with questions like these: What does it mean for an illiterate, Hindu peasant to know Jesus? How much of their old life and traditions must be left behind?

Having observed missionaries in India, he concluded that the western mission movement was importing too many western traditions and thoughts. He saw the need for thinking outside the western box – like Jesus encouraged the followers of his day to think outside the box…. or rather, outside the circle, as we will see.

Continue reading “Thinking Outside the Circle and Focusing on the Center: What Direction are You Moving?”

Ten Reflections on 2020 and Three Things to do in 2021

If God isn’t our first love, we are putting other things first.

The writer of Ecclesiastes asserted boldly many thousands of years ago that “there is nothing new under the sun”. The ancient date of that statement has always been a poignant reminder to me that we aren’t as wise as we think we are for all our modern sensibilities. We struggle with the same basic issues that are common to humanity, despite our scientific and technological advances.

God stands enthroned over all of His creation. From His vantage point outside of space/time, He watches as His purposes unfold, including the groaning of creation as some of His crowning creation “seek Him, feel their way toward Him and find him”. (Acts 17:27)

We fit into His purposes by doing just that – to know God and to grow in the knowledge of God is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purpose for us.

We easily get mired in the mundane concerns of daily life. Our future planning is often limited to the benefits we can obtain in our years in these jars of clay we call our bodies. We often fail to give full room for the eternity God set in our hearts. (Ecc. 3:11) We fail to allow the Holy spirit to have full sway in our hearts and our lives.

We are easily distracted and easily preoccupied by lesser things than our relationship with God the Father and His purposes.

I am forever grateful for the grace He has shown to us in the sacrifice He made for us that He has made a way for us to come to Him despite our frailties and sinful tendencies, and to continue coming to Him who receives us in Christ. I am more indebted to His mercy and grace now than ever before. His lovingkindness is truly new every morning.

As we watch the time closing out on 2020, looking backward, and straining forward, I am borrowing from another writer for my own ten reflections on 2020:

Continue reading “Ten Reflections on 2020 and Three Things to do in 2021”

The Story of the Magi Demonstrates the Universality of the Offer of the Gospel to the World

The significance of the story of the Magi at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew

The Adoration of the Magi; Border with the Queen of Sheba before King Solomon, from a prayer book of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (text in German), Bruges, Belgium, about 1525-30, Simon Bening. The J. Paul Getty Museum.

Matthew provides us the story the of the Magi priests (not kings) vising Jesus with gifts from afar. Magi is a Zoroastrian term referencing “dream interpreting astrologers-astronomers from Persia or Mesopotamia who possessed secret knowledge”.[i] We don’t know the actual number, though three is the popular legend. The number was postulated by Origen in the Third Century based on the number of gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  

The Feast of the Epiphany, which was first celebrated in Alexandria, Egypt, at the end of the Second Century or beginning of the Third Century (the home of Origen), celebrates the appearance of God to the world who became flesh in the person of the Christ child. The arrival of the Magi is acknowledgement of the worldwide, universal significance of the event.

“Matthew’s story about travelers following the trail of a mysterious star was all about including ‘foreigners’ in the Christmas story. Matthew showed Gentiles—in other words non-Jews, people who worshipped so-called pagan gods—acknowledging Jesus as king and, presumably, savior.”

The universal availability of Jesus beyond the Jewish community into which Jesus was born to the world is built right into the beginning of the narrative in Matthew. It resonates with all of Paul’s letters in which he maintains, to his own detriment among his fellow Jews, that Christ came for Jew and Gentile, alike.

That the offering of God in the flesh to the world which was built into the very beginning of the story was first celebrated in the Feast of the Epiphany in Northern Africa is intriguing to me. Though the Magi would have come from a different area of the world, the point of the story is the universality of Christ. We also forget how prominent in early Christian history was the African church.

The story in Matthew is only 12 verses long (Matt. 2:1-12). A longer version of the story exists in one other manuscript, “Revelation of the Magi”.[ii] This Syriac text that was translated into English only recently is apocryphal and likely dates to the Second or Third Century.[iii] It depicts the wise men coming from Shir, which is in China today.

Like many apocryphal texts, it smacks of myth and legend (the star they follow comes down and transforms into the baby Jesus). It is a whimsical story, perhaps, like the Chronicles of Narnia.

While the Revelation of the Magi is apocryphal and fantastical in its details, the idea that men came from the Far East is not. The Spice Route that comes into Jerusalem connects all the way to China and can be observed still today.

I have meditated before on the thought that Jesus came at just the right time in history when much of the known world was unified by a system of Roman roads and Roman rule opening the world to the west and north (to the British isles) for the spread of the Gospel. So also, we see that the Spice Route opened the world to the east for the spread of the Gospel, just as the Gospel spread south into Africa, with Alexandria being one of the three pillars of early Christian authority.

While I am very familiar with Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and faithful devotion to the promise God made to Abraham to bless all the nations through his seed, I had not noticed in the Gospel of Matthew, the Jewish-orientated Gospel, the significance of the Magi.

Continue reading “The Story of the Magi Demonstrates the Universality of the Offer of the Gospel to the World”

On the Delusion of Plausible Arguments, I Hold to Christ in Me

As I read through Scripture, I am always looking to understand it better. At the same time, I am listening for God to speak to me. In the process, I notice things. Like today. I noticed Paul’s statement to the Colossians:

I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.

Colossians 2:4 ESV

Hmmm… the delusion of plausible arguments. That’s an interesting phrase…

Paul is writing to the people in Colossae, a very Greek city. He had already been to Athens where the Athenians and foreigners who visited the city spent their time telling and listening to the latest ideas. (Acts 17:21)

In our modern view, we might imagine an ancient think tank in which new ideas are explored and developed toward some greater ends. We might be tempted to see Athens as an incubator of ideas for the benefit of mankind.

Luke, the writer of Acts, was not being complimentary, however, when he made this observation. The context suggests a contrast between a desire for novel ideas and a desire for truth. Ideas for the sake of ideas and novelty for the sake of novelty may be an erudite pastime for the bored elite who enjoy comfort and privilege, but they are not noble pursuits in themselves.

Unless one has a desire to know truth, entertaining new ideas is only an exercise in futility, diversion and delusion. The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, writing about a millennia before Paul set foot in Athens, recognized “there is nothing new under the sun” – even back then. (Ecc. 1:9) Chasing after ideas that are new for the sake of novelty is just a distraction from the truth. It is meaningless!

Paul views the sharing of ideas for the novelty of them in the same way modern people might play video games or read a book – entertainment to pass time. He had no time for such things.  

Truth had been revealed to Paul in the form of the risen Jesus, whom his people had crucified, and Paul had persecuted. Paul’s whole life was interrupted and set off on another course one day as he traveled with the intention of arresting and imprisoning Christ followers in Damascus.

Paul’s life would never be the same. By the time Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians, his motto had become “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. (Phil. 1:21)

If we can tell anything about the biographical and autobiographical sketches of Paul in Acts and his letters, we can see that Paul was fiercely and uncompromisingly concerned about truth. That attitude led him to persecute the followers of Christ with zeal when he thought the truth lay in that direction.

It was Paul’s commitment to truth that prompted him to turn in the opposite direction and accept Jesus whom Paul had persecuted as his Lord and Savior. Paul gave himself completely to be a servant of the risen Lord to the point of sharing in his own body the sufferings of Christ, as he described to the Colossians. (Col. 1:24)

Paul’s turn of phrase, perhaps, is what caught my eye as I read through Colossians this morning: the delusion of plausible arguments.

Continue reading “On the Delusion of Plausible Arguments, I Hold to Christ in Me”