Jesus’ Conversations with Individuals
With how many individual people did Jesus talk? We don’t really know. For example, when Jesus talked to the woman with the issue of blood, it was a private discussion overheard by a crowd of people (Mark 5:24-34). Jesus spoke with Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus who had died and now buried for four days. It was a personal message to each woman, again heard by a group of people (John 11). Yet, even these occasions support the principles we will consider in this section.
We’ll begin at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and preaching. His cousin, John the Baptist, was drawing and baptizing large numbers of people that were coming from many towns. In John 1:26-50, Bethany (on the Jordan) is identified as the location of this activity. That was also where Jesus, one by one, began calling and putting together his group of disciples.
What are called the “Synoptic Gospels” all give an account of Jesus’ baptism while John’s Gospel reports the testimony of John the Baptist. Luke tells us Jesus was about 30 years old when he was baptized and began his public ministry. Beside this information about the event, let’s review his discussion with his cousin John, as Jesus requested to be baptized.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. Mathew 3:1-6
This sets the stage for Jesus’ conversation with John. Check what John was asking people to do: They were confronted and commanded to confess their sins and repent. You’ll note that John was nothing like a smooth talking “politician” when it came to conveying God’s requirements. And he included religious leaders.
About the Baptizer, Matthew wrote:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” (Matthew 3:7-9)
So John told the religious leaders of his time they could not rely on either their traditions or their parentage for acceptance with God. They had to make the choice themselves—not someone else–to repent and demonstrate acts consistent with repentance. John’s message was about the Kingdom of God. Entrance into that Kingdom was personal, not as a member of some pre-selected group.
Jesus Asks To Be Baptized
Then, in an apparent switch in roles but like everyone else, Jesus asked John to baptize him. John is alert to the contradiction:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:13, 14)
You see, John understood who Jesus was—God’s Son sent for a specific purpose:
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” (John 1:29-34)
Let’s examine what is going on here. Jesus, the Son of God, a member of the Triune God, spotless and without sin, is asking for the rite of baptism signifying that he is in need of God’s forgiveness. Knowing the facts, no wonder that John says, “Wait a minute—I need baptism from you, not the other way around!”
But Jesus replies:
“Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (John 1:15-17)
To review this event, here is what took place: Jesus comes to John and asks to be baptized with a baptism signifying he is a sinner. Jesus is asking to be joined with humanity through baptism. He is declaring, “I desire vital participation and connection to the human race. This is my free choice to be joined with and be a part of a sinning human race.”
Luke’s Gospel, after detailing the event of Jesus’ baptism, immediately gives us the genealogy of Jesus—his human parentage—emphasizing his connection with humanity by birth. Yes, he is the Son of God and he is also the Son of Man.
Through baptism Jesus declared his decision to join and be part of fallen humanity.
John got the picture. Then after he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove on Jesus, he announced to those around him, “I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” He saw the full picture.
Peter’s Statement on Baptism
What we have read about John the Baptist was at the very beginning of Jesus public ministry. Let’s consider some Scripture we looked at just a few pages back from Acts, chapter 2. Here, the account is after Jesus had been crucified, raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. It’s after Jesus public ministry was completed.
You will recall in this chapter the disciples and others were being accused of being drunk “with new wine.” Peter preached a powerful sermon, explained that they were witnessing what the Old Testament Prophet Joel had prophesied. After listening to Peter, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims and others (in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, 50 days after Passover) felt compelled to respond to Peter’s preaching. We pick up the story from Acts 2:
36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, 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.39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
The key verses we want to check are 37 through 39. People there felt convicted and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Now think back to John the Baptizer’s words to people some 30 years earlier. Recall how Jesus came up to John and requested baptism—not to link up with God, but to connect with sinful humanity.
Here, Peter reorders the baptismal waters, if you will. He declared, if you want to link up with God, if you want to be part of his agenda on earth, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.” This is not a family affair: “Repent and be baptized every one of you.” It was a moment of truth for each person there. More than likely, many had stayed over from Passover. They knew of the events on that Friday and the reports of Jesus’ resurrection Sunday morning.
To get connected to God, Peter announced, take your stand by repenting and being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. It was a powerful sermon with compelling responses. Around 3,000 people made a public commitment to connect with God. This was just the beginning of a wave that in the next century would roll through the Empire: People publicly uniting together with God, joining his disciples. That is a persuasive response that needs to be heard again in our land today.
As a sidelight, notice that as the Apostle Peter concluded his remarks, people in the audience called out a rejoinder question: “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter didn’t finish until they had a chance to ask a question. That opportunity is rarely given in our liturgical churches. Perhaps a way to make that possible is to have trained individuals who would be available after each service to respond to questions or provide a time of prayer to any requesting that connection.
The Apostle Paul on Baptism
The Apostle Paul includes some discussion on baptism in Romans 6:1-14. Without getting into the text itself, you will note that Paul’s treatment of baptism makes clear that it is an adult rite. As already seen, that corresponds to the teaching we have about baptism in the Gospels and the personal experience of baptism by Jesus. So we can understand how the practice of baptism as an adult rite would be the accepted view a century later when Justin Martyr wrote about church life during his time, around 150 CE.
The unusual aspect about the Apostle Paul’s other comments on baptism is that they were written to correct the abuse of baptism in a church he founded in Corinth. The rite of baptism, which was to demonstrate our choice to be a follower of Jesus, was being used for unworthy purposes. He wrote to these friends as follows:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (I Corinthians 1:10-17)
Paul made the point that even an important rite instituted to strengthen believers could be exploited to the detriment of the church. Believers in the church were hitting each other on the head, so to speak, over who had baptized them. In other words, the value of baptism was not the person’s commitment and relationship with God, but rather the PR benefit of who baptized you.
Again, this raises the question for today whether baptism should be a ceremony for infants or as an adult commitment to be God’s person. Ask any five year-old who has been baptized if he or she remembers their baptismal day. It was and will always be a meaningless rite to them. But if that child as an adult were to stand in front of family, friends and other believers making a voluntary decision through baptism to be God’s person and a follower of Jesus—wouldn’t that have a powerful impact? Does that not deserve serious consideration by our churches today?
Jesus’ Talk With a Religious Leader and a Wayward Woman
Our main heading for this section is about Jesus’ conversations with individuals. Continuing on that topic, let’s highlight that baptism is an important part of our conversation with God. The personal aspect of baptism is the very heart of our commitment to God. Yet, Jesus himself did not baptize anyone. Some thought he did, but the Apostle John clarified that a few verses after it surfaced. Here are the Scripture portions that give us the full story.
They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” John 3:26 (It’s John the Baptist who is called “Rabbi”.)
A few verses later in the next chapter, the Apostle John explained what was actually taking place there by the Jordan River:
Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John—although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. (John 4:1-3)
This provides a perfect transition into two of the most extensive conversations Jesus had with individuals. Each interchange takes up almost a full chapter in John’s Gospel. One is with a prominent Jewish leader and member of the Sanhedrin. The other is with an outcast woman–in more than one way. We’ll begin with Nicodemus, leaving in the verse “markers” for reference purposes.
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” 4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:1-21)
The very first thing we notice is that Jesus and Nicodemus are having a conversation. It isn’t Jesus just jumping into the “teaching mode” and unloading a sermon on Nicodemus. Jesus wants to find out where Nicodemus is spiritually so he can understand where he is coming from, to know what it is that Nicodemus wants. Knowing that, Jesus can respond in a way that leads him to the truth. Read through chapter 3 again to see what Nicodemus was after.
From the opening verses, do you get the sense that Nicodemus had an agenda? But Jesus immediately directed him to life’s primary purpose and not what he was after. It’s not about religious or political power: It’s a relationship with God that brings new and everlasting life. People may desire and have much in this life, but if they don’t have eternal life, they are lost.
You’ll also notice in John 3, it’s Nicodemus who opens the discussion. With the woman at the well in John 4, Jesus initiates the conversation. And again, the dialogue does the same thing with both subjects of Jesus’ attention: It opens the heart’s door so Jesus can see the true need of the individual. Here is how it went with the Samaritan woman.
1 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. 4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. 7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” 11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” 17 “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” (John 4:1-18)
Notice the big contrast between Jesus’ two guests: one is a high-ranking member of Jewish society; the other is considered an outcaste by the Jewish majority and certainly a “fallen” woman in her personal life. Regardless, Jesus approached both in the same manner: He wanted to find out what was going on inside. That required conversation. He didn’t assume he had the answers even though as the Son of
God, he did. He moved each one through a discovery process called conversation.
Some churches in the liturgical wing believe they have all the answers. When you add the hierarchical structure with top-down control, you can create a perfect storm in our society to drive people out the door. It is not a welcoming place to many.
That was not the Jesus approach. With both Nicodemus and the woman from Sychar in Samaria, Jesus engaged them in gentle yet probing conversation. He wanted to reach them where they were—Nicodemus in his religious power and pride, and the Samaritan woman marinating in her guilt and barren living. How did it work out for Jesus?
Well, we don’t hear about Nicodemus again—until Jesus was in need. First in John 7:50, to protect Jesus before the Sanhedrin. Then later, after Jesus had died from the brutality of scourging and crucifixion imposed by Roman law. He desperately needed a burial place but he was dead. With permission from the Roman Governor, two men of standing obtained Jesus’ body. They buried him near the place of his crucifixion.
The names of these two men? Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus of the Sanhedrin. Both had quietly become disciples of Jesus. And they may well have encouraged each other to become Jesus’ disciples. (See John 19:38-42)
What of the woman from Sychar? She, the woman of low esteem and questionable character, left Jesus and her bucket at the well and ran back into town telling all who would listen about this man she encountered, whom she claimed was a prophet. Convincing many, they came out to meet him. Then, after more conversation, they persuaded Jesus to stay with them for two more days. That was testimony to her witness about Jesus.
Now, what can we take away from these two encounters with Jesus? Jesus was a people person—he listened before giving advice. He offered himself and his time to discover where people were and what direction they were headed. These are just two of many people Jesus talked with. There are others you can check out: Peter and Andrew; Zacchaeus and Martha; the rich young ruler and the woman with the issue of blood; blind men and the ten lepers; a crippled man at Siloam and Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, and children, and the lame and blind in body and spirit.
In all cases, Jesus met people where they were at—not where he was. Then he brought them to his side through sharing in their sorrow or pain, doubt or disbelief, hunger or disability. That model may be difficult to follow today in such a self-absorbed culture. It is, however, one of the keys to breaking the downward spiritual freefall in which we find ourselves today. And this model will be one that we can follow within the boundaries of current church polity, regardless of denomination.
How Jesus Validated the Old Testament
Just a few weeks ago (as this is being written) my wife and I visited the Qumran region in the Judean Desert by the Dead Sea. You may have heard or read about the trove of ancient scrolls that were discovered there between 1947 and 1956. The caves where these were found are on the west bank of the Dead Sea, about 1,300 feet below sea level. The location of these caves made a perfect place for preserving—for centuries—scrolls that had been placed in clay jars.
As you can imagine, this discovery sent shock waves through an excited company of archeologists and theologians, both Jewish and Christian. Here were scrolls and fragments dating back over 2,000 years that included portions of what we now call the Old Testament. (Here again, Wikipedia is a helpful resource on the Qumran Community and Scrolls).
There is much we could talk about right here, but one important result is often overlooked: these fragments and scrolls confirmed the integrity of the Old Testament. Before these discoveries and analyses, critics could (and did) argue that the Old Testament texts were “unreliable” because they were the product of years of hand written documentation, copied over and over. Errors, both accidental and contrived, had “crept” into the writings that were then available.
However, we now can point to documents much older than any we had before that conclusively debunks that kind of argument. Of course, there are other important findings these scrolls uncovered. But for the Christian community, the authentication that the Old Testament writings have been carefully reproduced looms large in value to Christian proclamation.
Yet, long before the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered and translated, there was a much stronger voice that had been heard. That voice had been ignored and written off as unreliable by many—the voice of Jesus, Son of God, Creator of heaven and earth. We want to look at how Jesus in his teaching and life and death validated the Old Testament. This makes the Old Testament a reliable guide today for Christians and, yes, denominations that sometimes don’t explore the Old Testament.
Earlier, we took a good look into Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River. His baptism has significant meaning for us. On that occasion, we saw Jesus stepping into shoes of mankind—taking his place with us and illustrating publically the need for us to follow his example. If Jesus, as the Son of God was to be “one of us,” his baptism gives us the evidence we need to accept God’s cleansing and forgiveness. Conversely, we can show that “we are one of his” by public baptism.
Then right after his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. For forty days, he was tempted by the devil. Read what Luke wrote about Jesus’ leaving the Jordan River, going into the wilderness.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.(Luke 4: 1, 2)
Luke, guided by the Holy Spirit, wanted readers to understand the vital connection between Jesus and humankind. First, Jesus joined with us through baptism, a rite set aside for confessing and repenting people. Immediately following that, he endured a long period of temptation—a very human experience. But between these two, Luke inserted the human genealogy of Jesus, going back to Adam and creation.
What is Luke trying to tell us? His intention appears open for all to see. Both the baptism and temptation of Jesus should remind us of our needs and our weaknesses, with an example we can follow. This gets us right into our topic—how Jesus validated the Old Testament by how he used the Old Testament Scriptures.
First, Jesus fends off the devil’s attempt to lure him into sin by using the Old Testament Scriptures. After each of the three temptations there in the wilderness, Jesus quoted from the book of Deuteronomy. Now is that the first book that comes to mind when you are tempted? But Jesus knew that all of God’s word to humankind is powerful. The verses were from the Torah which he undoubtedly studied as he was growing up. The verses, Deuteronomy 6:13, 6:16 and 8:3, proved effective in his encounter with evil.
What is the point here? Can we close our eyes to the Old Testament when we know it is God’s powerful gift to us to avoid evil? Each Sunday as we repeat the Lord’s Prayer we pray, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:13) So Jesus, during those 40 days of temptation, effectively used Scripture to defend himself against the Devil, something we also can learn to do.
Moving now to the end of Jesus time on earth, we find two disciples leaving Jerusalem late on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion. Friday had been the darkest day of their lives. The bright hopes they had for peace and salvation were gone. The occupying soldiers of the Roman Empire had snuffed those out. Jesus had died and was buried. For security, Pilate had placed a detail of Roman guards at the entrance to Jesus’ tomb.
Yet, by mid-morning on that Sunday, there were rumors circulating around Jerusalem. Some were even saying there were reports that Jesus had been seen earlier that day. Could it be possible? No! Impossible! They had seen him hanging lifelessly on the crude wooden cross. But since it was late in the day, the two friends decided to head home to Emmaus, a small village about 7 miles from Jerusalem.
As these two walked, they talked to each other, back and forth. They were numb with confusion about the rumors and what they had seen. Then a stranger catches up to them. He inquires: What are you talking about? This puzzled the two friends because on that day in and around Jerusalem, there was only one thing anyone was talking about. Luke put it like this in chapter 24:
“What things?” he (Jesus) asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. (Luke 24:19-21).
Then the two friends told the stranger about the rumors—some women saying they had seen Jesus alive. Others who then went to the tomb found it empty and no Jesus. At that point, Jesus started to explain things in a way they would understand: He began quoting from the Old Testament Scriptures. And how did that go?
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
That must have been some discourse the two friends got to hear. What Jesus said was, in effect, the Old Testament is worth looking at and reading. Everything that you have seen these last 3 years and the 3 days just passed had been predicted.
You should have known, Jesus said, because you are familiar with what’s written. It was all hidden from you—in plain sight—in the writings of Moses, David, Isaiah and the other prophets. Yes, the Old Testament is full of information about what’s happened and what’s to come. And prophesies in the Old Testament can help open our minds to these truths. But you have to read and study and be discerning.
Maybe you know the rest of the story: When they saw his hands as he broke bread with them they recognized Jesus (Luke 24:30-32).
Perhaps here we need to ask: Have we recognized Jesus? Have we seen his hands?
There is much more we could add to this section since Jesus frequently made reference to texts from the Old Testament. All told, there are between 45 and 65 Old Testament references that Jesus made as reported by the four Gospel writers (Some texts are repeated). In addition, Jesus used events from the Old Testament in his discourses and conversations with people. Just from the first five books (the Torah) Jesus, quoting Scripture, talked about:
Creation (Adam and Eve)
The Ten Commandments
The 1st and 2nd Greatest Commands
Feeding Israel with manna in the desert
We find as well that Jesus quoted from the Psalms, the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah, Malachi, Daniel, and Zechariah. Besides the creation of mankind, Jesus also validated the Prophet Jonah and his “voyage” in the belly of a giant fish (see Old Testament quotes in the New Testament).
Through Jesus’ frequent use of the Old Testament Scriptures, he placed his seal of approval on the nature of these writings: They were God’s word to his people. And he reinforced that with this strong statement in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20).
Then, shortly after his resurrection, Jesus met with his disciples by the Sea of Galilee:
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:45-49)
From all perspectives, Jesus left no doubt about the truth and reliability of the Old Testament Scriptures as God’s word. It appears that we blunder if we steer away from using what God gave and what Jesus validated. The Apostle Paul repeats to the Roman believers the added value we can have by searching the Old Testament Scriptures (the Gospels were all written after Paul’s epistles):
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. (Romans 15:1-4)
Yes, Paul says, the Scriptures were written to teach us, to give us endurance, encouragement and hope. Those are priceless gifts from God that will benefit us greatly today. They can be found in the Old Testament by every believer and by every church.
At this point, we come directly into a topic that for some seems to be just as important as the Scriptures themselves: The use of the Lectionary to guide the preaching and worshiping schedule in churches. Over the years, it’s certain that many tearful confrontations have erupted over the use of whether this or that Scripture will be used on a particular Sunday.
Lectionary Use In Churches
To write about the Lectionary with significant depth would require writing a separate book. But if we are going to address the renewal of the liturgical church, some reference has to be made about it. We introduced this topic earlier, but the current use of the Lectionary merits an extended look.
The Lectionary has established itself as a center for strong emotions and debate in churches as well as denominations. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that the journey to present editions of Lectionary’s came out of the Synagogue and through the Roman Catholic Church.
Two primary Lectionary’s are currently in use: the Roman or Catholic Lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary. Between these two variations, liturgical churches find their use. In trying to comprehend reasons for the use or non-use, the more significant arguments have centered on differences between sequential and thematic treatment of Scripture.
The Lectionaries in use today keep to a sequential pattern starting, for example, with the first chapter of Matthew followed the next Sunday with the second chapter, etc. That is the general pattern. A thematic treatment of sermon development would take a specific theme and build on that theme for several weeks, possibly moving from one book of the Bible to another. That approach would require a preacher/priest to dispense with the Lectionary for that series of teaching.
Regardless, underlying both of those headings are important selection and weeding issues based on disputed theological differences. For a sample of different thoughts on Lectionary preaching, here are two you may find interesting: The Path of Understanding: The Development of Lectionaries and their use in the Lutheran Church, by Alexander Ring, and Is the Lectionary Still Relevant? From Porter’s Progress blog.
We have already touched on the two following issues, but not in reference to the Lectionary. We have talked about the Hierarchical Structure of most Liturgical churches and that not ALL the Bible is included in the Lectionary. There are key Scriptures and swaths of the Bible that are not included.
If we are trying to reverse the downward trends that are reported in liturgical churches, structural and traditional patterns have to be examined. Too many warning lights and signs are right in front of us. The Lectionary can present a barrier to Christian growth and development that won’t be corrected by adding a verse or section of Scripture here and there. The second issue has to do with conversation and what we can learn about each other in that process.
Understand the Lectionary is a creature of the church; it is the servant of hierarchy and control. And it facilitates avoiding desperately needed teaching for Christian development.
That’s a strong statement, so how can I say that? For one, we don’t have an example of a Lectionary in church use in the writings of the New Testament. And a reading of the Old Testament reflects the same pattern used in the New. The Lectionary is the creation of another time, perhaps useful then but not helpful today.
In Jesus’ training of the 12 disciples and in ministering to hundreds of people, he talked with and preached directly to what they needed at that time. It was not to reflect on some long-gone saint of the past, but to focus on the needy person or condition in front of him. Jesus’ agenda was developing people—taking them from where they were to where they needed to be. Yes, as a first century Jew, he observed the Jewish festivals. But what he offered to his listeners was “new wine” in “new wineskins.” (Matthew 9:14-17)
The Apostles followed Jesus’ example. When they wrote their letters and epistles, they were talking to people about their real life situations. They wanted to provide specific spiritual direction and teaching to bring them to Christian maturity. So if the allocation of verses in the Lectionary addresses what the parish’s current needs are, why go elsewhere?
Unfortunately, a laid out pattern of Scripture for all churches provided by the denomination does not lend itself to conversation with your people to educate you to their needs. It can also lead to an incomplete or even lazy application of the preacher’s call to be a shepherd. Just remember Jesus’ parable about the good shepherd in John 10: He called each one by name and lay down his life for his sheep. Yet some in the audience said he was crazy!
Both the Apostle Paul and the writer of Hebrews strongly encourage the Christian community to move into Christian maturity. In our terms, they are saying, “Stop existing on baby food. Move into an adult diet that will enable you to reach and teach others.” Or, as Jesus said, “Be reproducing believers.” (See Matthew 28:18-20; I Corinthians 3:1-3; Hebrews 5:11-14).
You don’t want to be in a situation where what you hear, directly or indirectly, is preaching rather than conversation. Unfortunately, the liturgical calendar can contribute to that kind of communication—the church’s agenda rather than what individuals or the parish may need. That’s like a church saying, here’s where we’re going regardless of where you are on your faith journey. But Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17)
Yes, as far as the New Testament is concerned, there are some “general” epistles that are included in the canon. Most, however, were letters sent to individuals and groups addressing specific issues that they needed to grow into Christian maturity. And if congregations aren’t maturing into reproducing Christians, your work will be more “baby sitting” than leading people into their responsibilities as Christians.
As indicated above, there may be times when the Lectionary provides you with just the Scriptures your congregation needs. That is a plus in your plans for the year. And it is in step with your denomination. So let’s look at how Jesus worked within the “church” of his time. Similar patterns existed then as we have today. And he found a way to get his work done. So how did that go?
What Got Jesus Into Trouble?
Knowing the ending of Jesus’ life somewhat conceals the fact of how Jesus got into trouble with the religious leaders of his time. Had Jesus just gone along with the Pharisees on several key points, he might even have made it into the Sanhedrin. Well, since Jesus wasn’t married, that would have been a problem. The point is that Jesus could have worked out a political compromise with the Pharisees and Scribes and kept himself from his eventual fate.
From a practical point of view, though, why didn’t he seek an accommodation with the Sanhedrin members? This body was the keeper of the Old Testament Scriptures. And as we have just seen, Jesus was fully supportive of recognizing those sacred books as God’s word to humankind. We find in all four Gospels the writers reported that Jesus referred to the Old Testament writings as the “Scriptures.” There was no doubt in the mind of the Son of God.
But what had happened to the power and authority of the Old Testament Scriptures in Jesus’ time? Right along side the Scriptures something else had crept in. And it seems that what was put along side of Scripture eventually became more important and more authoritative than the Scriptures themselves. And what was that? The traditions of the fathers.
For some time, Jesus had been teaching by the shores of Galilee. He was gaining popular support and crowds of people were gathering to listen and to follow him. And that’s when the religious leaders became active. We pick it up in Matthew 15:
1Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” 3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ 6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
Jesus went right to the heart of the Pharisee’s reasoning when they accused his followers of not conforming to the traditions of the fathers. You gladly, Jesus said, break the commandment of God for your own financial gain, but you’re incensed with my disciples because they “broke” one of your traditions. And what did the gentle teacher from Nazareth say to them?
7You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 8“‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ ”Matthew 15:1-9.
Jesus went to the Old Testament, quoting from Isaiah 29:13, to correct their distortion of the Scriptures through the tradition of the fathers. In Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees, he gave an example of how their traditions were being used to trump the Scriptures themselves. This challenge to Scripture did not develop overnight—it took years and perhaps centuries. But now, the Scriptures—God’s word—was ranked below their traditions.
Jesus was declaring that human reasoning and opinion fall short of measuring up to God’s revelation. There had been a gradual usurping of God’s authority by human scheming. You see, the Pharisees had built their “system” with over 600 “rules.” They used it to gain control over the religious life of the nation and of the people as well. And on this occasion, they were attempting to control Jesus and his disciples.
They were not about to give up their position without a fight. And fight they did. Eventually, the Pharisees and teachers of the law convinced Roman authorities to put their nemesis to death.
What if Jesus had not challenged the traditions of the elders and gone along with what they imposed over Scripture? He would have fit right into their group and perhaps there would not have been a crucifixion—or burial—or resurrection. And as the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:16-18, we would still be in our sins.
What Jesus demonstrated was that some of what we do as a “tradition” might have outlived its usefulness. Even more than that, traditions may actually be getting in the way of fulfilling the entire purpose of your existence. Just think about this for a moment: Jesus commanded his disciples (including us) to go into the entire world and make disciples teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:18-20)
God’s Will For The Church
Do you believe that it is God’s will for his people, his “church” to be declining in vitality, weakening in influence, shrinking in numbers and failing to meet the demands of what it means to be a follower of Jesus? You know the answer. It was certainly Jesus’ intention that his followers would be worldwide evangelists, leading people to God, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (See Mathew 28)
Now, if Jesus is with us for this purpose to the “end of the age,” why would a church, bishop or priest or minister ever apologize to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and the rest, for trying to “evangelize” them since they already have their religion? Yet, that has happened with news media coverage. However, Jesus did not come to launch a new religion: He came to call people to repentance and bring them into personal relationship with God, giving up his life to make it possible. And the Holy Bible proclaims how it happened.
Even a casual reading of the gospels reveals Jesus’ message: “I have come so you may have life” and that he is “the way, the truth and the life, no one coming to God apart from him” (see John 14:5-11). Jesus also told the Pharisees on many occasions, it was their actions, their traditions, and their failure to follow the Scriptures that was actually preventing people from entering the kingdom of God.
Is that news to you? Read how Jesus challenged them in Luke 11:52-54:
52 Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. 53 You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering. (see also Matthew 23:13) And how did the religious leaders of that time respond? 54 When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.
You can follow up these verses by reading Matthew 23 and Luke 11 to get a flavor of how Jesus spoke about the religious leaders of his time. These are tough words. Again, if you are to be the carriers of the good news from God, the bearers of everlasting redemption for humanity and have the cure for the ills of our world, isn’t it worth evaluating what and how we’re doing things?
Yes, these may be some hard sayings that are sometimes passed over by churches. But Jesus didn’t come to make us feel good—he came to redeem us and bring us into fellowship with his Father. These words of his are not out of tune with the rest of Scripture. Is it possible, then that by ignoring some portions of Scripture in our preaching and reading we have only a partial view of Who God is? If that is a possibility, we should take a little time to talk about “hermeneutics.”