Friday, 21 February 2014

The Twelve Apostles (Part 1)

     After Jesus had been preaching in the region of Galilee for a time (Mark 1:14-15), he summons a dozen very diverse individuals to comprise his immediate band of followers: four simple fishermen (Mark 1:16-20), a loathsome tax collector (Matt. 9:9), a Jew with a decisively Greek name (John 1:43-44), an insurrectionist (Luke 6:15), a thief (John 12:4-6), and four other Galileans (Mark 3:14).

Matthew 10:2-4
Mark 3:16-19
Luke 6:14-16
Acts 1:13
Simon a.k.a. Peter
Simon a.k.a. Peter
Simon a.k.a. Peter
Peter
Andrew his brother
Andrew
Andrew his brother
Andrew
James son of Zebedee
James son of Zebedee
James
James
John his brother
John his brother
John
John
Philip
Philip
Philip
Philip
Bartholomew
Bartholomew
Bartholomew
Bartholomew
Thomas
Thomas
Thomas
Thomas
Matthew the tax collector
Matthew
Matthew
Matthew
James son of Alphaeus
James son of Alphaeus
James son of Alphaeus
James son of Alphaeus
[Lebbaeus]1 Thaddaeus
Thaddaeus
Judas son of James
Judas son of James
Simon the Kananaios2
Simon the Kananaios
Simon the Zealot
Simon the Zealot
Judas Iscariot
Judas Iscariot
Judas Iscariot


     Although Jesus had connections among the religious elite in Judea (cf. Luke 2:41-47), for some reason he starts his movement with a ragtag bunch of Galileans. The northern province of Galilee was once known as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 9:1; cf. Matthew 4:15), having been controlled by Phoenecian king Hiram I of Sidon and later populated by the Assyrians with exiled foreigners. Within its borders were pagan cities and Hellenistic centers, such as Sepphoris and Tiberias. Archaeological discoveries of Galilean synagogues reveal Phoenecian influences and tolerance of other cultures3 – a stark contrast to the less indulgent Judeans. As a matter of fact, the inhabitants of Galilee and their Judean counterparts to the south were different in many ways.
     Geographically the territory of the despised mixed-race Samaritans stood between Galilee and Judea (cf. John 4:3-4). Culturally the Galilean Jews tended to be less educated and less refined than the Judeans (cf. John 7:15; Acts 2:7; 4:13). Linguistically the Galilean accent was noticeably distinct from that of the more sophisticated Judeans (cf. Matthew 26:73). Politically the tetrarch Herod Antipas ruled Galilee, while Judea was under the control of the military prefect Pontius Pilate (cf. Luke 23:6-7). Economically Judea lacked the fishing and agricultural resources of Galilee and therefore faced greater economic hardships (cf. Acts 11:29). Religiously the Judeans enjoyed ready access to the temple and spiritual leaders, with a tendency to view their remote Galilean brethren with a degree of pious contempt (cf. Mark 2:18, 24). Needless to say, the relationship between the Jews of Galilee and the Jews of Judea was less than cordial.4
     Galilee also had a reputation for political extremism and was the birthplace of the violent Zealot movement (cf. Acts 5:37; Josephus, Ant. 18.1.1, 6).5 The Zealots resisted the Romans with armed aggression and went on to instigate the Jewish rebellion that eventually led to Jerusalem’s destruction. Jesus’ band of Galileans would be more likely to raise the suspicions of the Roman authorities, especially if one of the disciples were known to be a Zealot (Luke 6:15).
     Included in the original apostolic circle were at least two sets of biological brothers (Mark 1:16-20), although Matthew Levi the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 9:9; 10:3; Mark 2:14) and James the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18) could have been related as well.6 The apostles were married, leading about their believing wives (1 Cor. 9:5),7 and at least some of them were homeowners (Mark 1:29; Luke 5:29; John 20:10).
     There was nothing exceptional or remarkable about any of these men. In fact, they were rather ordinary and not without their share of shortcomings, struggles, insecurities and failings. They were not men of status and influence. They lacked formal education and religious training. None was an experienced teacher, spiritual leader, scholar, or traveler. Collectively they shared little in common. So why was this particular group of individuals assembled?
     Jesus’ selections were anything but random or haphazard. Before appointing the twelve, he spent all night in prayer (Luke 6:12-13). He then invested countless hours over a three-year period mentoring, instructing, correcting, and guiding. After one defected, the Great Commission was issued, the Spirit was sent, the truth was revealed, and within just three decades the gospel had been taken into all the world (Matt. 28:16-20; Col. 1:5-6, 23).8 Within three centuries Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, and despite horrendous odds Christ’s movement continues to flourish after nearly two millennia! 
     What happened to the intolerant, prideful, self-seeking “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17; 10:35-44; Luke 9:54)? One became the first of the apostles to lay down his life as a martyr (Acts 12:2) and the other is now remembered as the apostle of love (John 13:23; 1 John 4:7, 8, 19; 5:2; etc.). The impetuous, unpredictable, explosive Simon Peter spent the rest of his life honorably representing the Lord as a rock-solid man of character and faith (2 Pet. 1:12-15). Though Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot were natural enemies in the world, they were forever bonded together as brothers in Christ (Luke 6:15).
     Despite all their glaring differences, these Galilean misfits faithfully labored together as a unified force spreading the gospel message (Acts 2:14, 37, 42; 5:42), facing extreme persecution (Acts 5:12-41; 12:1-4), handling conflict (Acts 6:1-7; 15:6), and laying the foundation upon which Christ’s church now stands (Eph. 2:19–3:5; Rev. 21:14). They endured hunger, thirst, lack of clothing, beatings, and homelessness, working with their own hands to support their families (1 Cor. 4:9-12). They were reviled, persecuted, defamed, and regarded “as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things” (1 Cor. 4:12-13), while turning an upside down world right side up (cf. Acts 17:6).
     How did such ordinary men accomplish such extraordinary things in the face of such intense opposition? The bottom line is, “they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). It was Jesus who made the difference. Without him they were a motley crew with very little potential and no practical reason to be together. With him they were a powerful instrument through which God could and did effectively work.
     The church today is still comprised of a bunch of unimpressive, imperfect, unworthy human beings. Individually we have very little to offer the world, and collectively we are exceedingly diverse. God accepts us as we are but does not leave us as we are. Our shortcomings are not to be used as excuses but overcome with divine help. Our petty differences are dwarfed by what we share in common in Christ. As we remain loyal to God and his word and maintain the spiritual bond that holds us together, the Lord’s church continues to be a powerful instrument through which God can and does effectively work.
     “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men …. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty” (1 Cor. 1:25-27).
--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     1 Some manuscripts include the name “Lebbaeus” and others do not (see B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary [2nd ed.] 21; also M. A. Robinson and W. G. Pierpont, NT in Original Greek [2005] 19). It was not uncommon in first-century Palestine and the Greco-Roman world for a person to have more than one name.
     2 Simon is explicitly labeled "the zealot" by Luke (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13), while Matthew (10:4) and Mark (3:18) use the more obscure term Kananaios (from Kananites), which is rendered in many English versions as "Cananite" but is actually derived from a Hebrew word meaning "zealot."
     3 See Hebrew University of Jerusalem, "Remains Of Ancient Synagogue With Unique Mosaic Floor Found In Galilee," ScienceDaily, 27 Nov. 2007.
     4 See Justin Taylor, “Seven Differences Between Galilee and Judea in the Time of Jesus,” 17 August 2011. <http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2011/08/17/7-differences-between-galilee-and-judea-in-the-time-of-jesus/>. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.
     5 See Ancient Terrorists.
     6 Note, however, that Alphaeus was a fairly common name and would not necessarily apply to the same person.
     7 Possible exceptions are Judas Iscariot and John’s brother James, both of whom were deceased by the time 1 Corinthians was penned.
     8 See Around the World in Three Decades. Note that beyond the list of the apostles in Acts 1:13, only Peter, James and John are mentioned by name in the rest of Acts and the remainder of the New Testament outside the Gospels.



Image credit: http://blog.cancaonova.com/felipeaquino/files/2013/10/C2-1.jpg

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Tough Love of Jesus

     Despite Simon Peter’s best intentions and valiant efforts, his weaknesses and fallibilities were apparently just too great. With about three years of divine guidance, instruction, and training under his belt, he still didn’t get it. He brashly asserts his unwavering allegiance to Christ, only to forsake him just a few hours later followed by his infamous triple denial (Mark 14:27-31, 50, 66-72). It would seem that Simon Peter was a miserable failure, but the Lord wasn’t quite ready to give up on him.
      The women who first witnessed the empty tomb were instructed to inform the disciples “and Peter” (Mark 16:7), i.e. especially Peter. Why single him out from the others? Was he in need of special reassurance due to his woeful failings, or did he require extra confirmation because of his dismal faith? Either way, the risen Lord appears to him first before showing himself to the remaining apostles (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5).
     The struggling disciple had disavowed Christ three times, and on the third occasion of the Lord’s post-resurrection appearances to his followers, Peter is singled out again and asked three questions (John 21:14-19). The original discourse was most likely in Aramaic,1 which John has then translated and recorded in Greek. In English translation the same question is asked and answered three times, whereas the Greek text reveals nuances not observable in English involving three separate questions.
     In John’s recounting of this conversation, two verbs (agapaō and phileō) are employed multiple times yet rendered in our English versions by the single word “love.”2 Some have suggested that the Greek terms are interchangeable, citing passages like John 3:35; 5:20; 13:23; 20:2. However, none of these examples is comparable to our current text. They do not show an alternating of the two words within the same contextual setting, and each usage is explicable as distinct from the others.3
     Whatever agapaō entails, it is a concept that Jesus has repeatedly emphasized and one with which Simon ought to have been familiar (cf. John 13:34; 14:15, 21, 23, 24, 28, 31; 15:9, 12, 17). The same is true of phileō. A form of this word is frequently used in the biblical records of the Lord’s teachings and interactions, describing the Father’s regard for the Son (John 5:20), Jesus’ regard for his dear friend Lazarus (11:3, 11, 36), as well as the Father’s regard for Christ’s followers (16:27a) and their regard for Christ (16:27b).4
     The exchange in John 21:14-19 makes better sense if agapaō is understood in the cognitive sense of resolute commitment (cf. John 3:16; 14:23-24) and if phileō is understood as more sentimental with respect to natural affection (cf. John 11:36; 15:19).5 Jesus first enquires of Simon, “do you love [agapaō = ‘are you committed to’] me more than these?” (John 21:15a). The distinguishing expression here is, “more than these.” Simon’s reply, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love [phileō = ‘have affection for’] you” (v. 15b), is rather peculiar. It doesn’t really answer the question as asked. He has either misinterpreted the query or has intentionally averted it.6
     A few weeks earlier Christ had predicted that “all” of his immediate disciples would stumble because of him, to which Simon presumptuously retorts, “Even if all are made to stumble because of you, I will never be made to stumble” (Matt. 26:31, 33). His subsequent actions, however, have demonstrated that his professed allegiance to Christ is really not superior to that of his peers, in spite of his bold claims. The Lord’s question is relevant to the apostle’s rashness and lack of humility.    
     Though Simon promptly affirms his heartfelt esteem for Christ, he seems oblivious to his own arrogance or what it means to be a genuine disciple. Jesus responds by simply reminding him that even friendly association involves complementary action: “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15c). In other words, Simon ought to back up his warm verbal expressions by living up to the Lord’s expectations.
     Jesus’ second question to Simon is simply, “do you love [agapaō = ‘are you committed to’] me?” (John 21:16a). This time the focus is on Simon’s personal allegiance, irrespective of the other disciples. In the recent past Simon’s deeds have not supported his words, and he misses the point yet again by merely repeating his previous response: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love [phileō = ‘have affection for’] you” (v. 16b). Jesus again admonishes him: “Tend my sheep” (v. 16c). Simon is to demonstrate his avowed affection with more than hollow declarations.
     The third question is different from the previous ones: “Simon … do you love [phileō = ‘have affection for’] me?” (John 21:17a). Although Simon has already conceded his emotional affinity for Christ, he has yet to fully grasp what this entails. His frustration with the questioning (v. 17b) is apparently due to his inability (or stubborn refusal?) to understand what the Lord is trying to convey to him.7 Jesus states once again: “Feed my sheep” (v. 17c). Simon needs to step up and fulfill his sacred duty.
     All along the impulsive disciple has displayed an earthly focus, inclusive of his own self-reliance, and in so doing has resisted the Lord’s heavenly purpose (cf. Mark 8:33; 9:5-6, 10; Luke 22:24; John 13:7-8; 18:10-11, 36; et al.). He has reverted to fishing for fish (John 21:3) even though his allotted vocation is seeking the souls of men (Mark 1:17). He has been designated “a stone” (John 1:42) yet has failed to exhibit the solid character that would justify such a respectable name. He readily acknowledges Jesus as “Lord” (John 21:15, 16, 17) without backing it up with submissiveness and obedience. He has been quick to profess his loyalty and to claim his devotion and to express his care, but what are mere words without accompanying action?
     Jesus’ questioning challenges Simon’s humility, allegiance, and affection, none of which has been clearly attested. By choosing to follow Christ, he has made a solemn pledge to which he has not been totally faithful. The Lord does not overlook or downplay the apostle’s errors; he confronts and challenges him. In fact, immediately after the questioning Simon is reminded twice to get back on track and be a true disciple of Jesus (John 21:19, 22), the second time emphatically (“You follow me”). Far from being pampered, Simon is given the tough love he needs.
     When I confess Jesus as Lord, it has to involve more than mere words. I cannot claim to be a Christian while neglecting his will in favor of my own. To legitimately wear his name, I am obliged to behave in a Christ-like manner. When I make the inevitable mistakes, shame on me for trying to justify them or make excuses or pretend that it doesn’t really matter. I cannot rely on the Lord’s mercy and grace while ignoring his persistent calls for repentance. “But why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
     With God’s help Simon Peter did get back on his feet and eventually grow into the effective spiritual leader he was meant to be.8 What made the difference? He finally exchanged his worldly focus for a heavenly one (1 Pet. 1:3-5). He replaced self-reliance with tenacious dependency on God (1 Pet. 1:17-21). He traded arrogance for humility (1 Pet. 5:5-7). He went from unpredictable and erratic to self-controlled (1 Pet. 3:8-12) and steadfast (2 Pet. 3:14-18). He gave up his own stubborn will and spent the rest of his life in faithful obedience to the divine will (1 Pet. 1:13-16; 2:11-12). 
     Application? Following the same course of action will make an everlasting difference in your life and in my life, not to mention the lives of those within our respective spheres of influence.
--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     1 See Aramaic.
     2 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the NKJV, with slight modification in capitalization for consistency. Greek terms are transliterated in their lexical forms for simplicity and clarity.
     3 The verb agapaō in John 3:35 is employed in John’s description of the heavenly Father bestowing divine authority upon the Son, whereas phileō in 5:20 is used in Jesus’ portrayal of his affectionate relationship with the Father. Jesus’ agapaō with respect to John (13:23; 19:26; 21:7, 20) is related to Jesus’ confidence in John (cf. 19:25-27), while phileō in 20:2 pertains to emotional sentiment inclusive of two disciples (“to Simon Peter and the other [allon] disciple whom Jesus loved”).
     4 See also Matt. 6:5; and compare philos (“friend”) in Luke 11:5-8; 12:4; 14:10, 12; 15:6, 9, 29; John 3:29; 15:13-15.
     5 Seeing that both words are used in different contexts with a variety of meanings, this is admittedly a simplified distinction. But the dogmatic assertion that they are (or can be) synonymous is not as definitive as some have made it out to be. While Matthew observes that the Pharisees phileō the chief seats (Matt. 23:6; cf. 6:5) and Luke says they agapaō the chief seats (Luke 11:43), both would be applicable if emotional fondness and mental conviction are respectively in view.
     6 Simon has had a long history of misreading and misunderstanding the Lord’s purpose (Matt. 14:31; 16:22-23; 26:33-35; Mark 9:5-7; John 13:6-8; 18:10-11; et al.).
     7 The expression Legei auto to triton (“He says to him the third”) in John 21:17 would refer to the third question the Lord is asking rather than the same question asked for the third time.
     8 Cf. Acts 1:15; 2:14; 3:6; 4:8; 5:3, 9; 9:32, 39; 10:5-48; 11:1-18; 12:3-17; 15:7; 1 Cor. 1:12; Gal. 1:18; 2:7; 1 Pet. 2:25; 5:1-4; 2 Pet. 1:12-15; 3:1-2.


Image credit: painting by Guercino (1647), http://vultus.stblogs.org/st_peter.jpg

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Matthew 24: the End of the World or Jerusalem's Fall?

     While Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem, the Lord predicted the demolition of the Jewish temple (Matt. 24:1-2). Apparently the disciples assumed the destruction would take place when the Lord returned for judgment, because they asked the following two questions: "tell us, when will these things be?" (i.e. the desolation of the temple); "and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?" (v. 3).1
     Jesus answers their first question, concerning the temple’s destruction, in verses 4-34. Note: "assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled" (v. 34). [These things were in fact fulfilled about forty years later.] Jesus then answers their second question, about the end of the age, in verses 35-51. Notice carefully the words "these things" and "those days" (vv. 3, 6, 8, 19, 22, 29, 33, 34) in contrast to "that day" (v. 36).
     Before the complexities of this passage are considered, let’s note some interesting historical facts. 1. False christs and false prophets (vv. 4-5, 23-26): Josephus recorded over seventy who claimed to be the messiah prior to the AD 70 devastation of Jerusalem (see Ant. 20.5.1; 20.8.10; Wars 2.13.4-6; cf. Acts 5:36-37). 2. Wars, famines, earthquakes, etc. (vv. 6-8): From AD 68-69, four Roman emperors were killed; there were civil wars in Rome which spread throughout the empire; Acts 11:28 records a worldwide famine; pestilence and earthquakes are certainly not phenomena peculiar to modern times (cf. Matt. 27:54; 28:2; Acts 16:26). 3. Persecution (v. 9): This was obviously taking place prior to Jerusalem’s siege (Acts 7:59; 12:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:19-21; et al.). 4. Betrayal and lawlessness (vv. 10-12): When the Roman armies besieged Jerusalem, the Jews inside the walls turned against each other (cf. Josephus, Wars 2.13). 5. He who endures to the end shall be saved (v. 13): Over 1 million Jews were killed in Jerusalem’s fall, but there is no record of a single Christian losing his life during this tragedy; when the Christians saw the signs of which Jesus spoke, they fled to Pella for safety.
     6. The gospel will be preached in all the world before the end (v. 14): Colossians 1:5-6, 23 (written prior to AD 70) mentions the gospel having been preached in all the world. 7. The "abomination of desolation" (v. 15): Luke says this was preceded by Jerusalem being surrounded by armies (Luke 21:20). 8. Judeans escaping to the mountains, etc. (vv. 16-20): These verses simply cannot refer to the end of the world; the emphasis is on the urgency and the difficulty of fleeing to safety from the region where Jerusalem was located. 9. Great tribulation, etc. (vv. 21-22): Josephus vividly described the horrific events of Jerusalem’s desolation, including such abominations as starving mothers eating their own children. However, the siege of the Romans did not last long enough to spread to the places where Christians had fled. 10. The coming of the Son of Man (v. 27): Considering the context, this symbolically describes the Lord coming in judgment against Jerusalem (cf. Isa. 13:6; 19:1).2 11. Eagles (or vultures) gathering around a carcass (v. 28): This is another symbolic description of national Judaism’s death as the Roman armies gather together against the principal city. 12. The parable of the fig tree (vv. 32-33): Just like they saw the signs of a fig tree and knew that summer was near, they could also know that the destruction of Jerusalem was near by the signs of which Jesus spoke. 13. All these things to be fulfilled during the generation of these disciples (v. 34): There can be no doubt that the events Jesus describes in the previous verses have reference to something that was going to take place in the first century AD. 14. There will be no signs pointing to the end of the world; it will be sudden and unexpected (vv. 35-51).
     The primary difficulty involves interpreting verses 29-31. If these words are taken literally, Jesus seems to be picturing the end of the world. But note the transition into symbolic imagery in vv. 27-28. When the immediate context is considered, as well as the common figurative language used in the Bible to depict God’s judgment on a nation (see The Day of the Lord), there is no need to force a literal interpretation on this section. Remember that Jesus’ original audience was Jewish and therefore familiar with Jewish apocalyptic literature where these symbols are common. From a first-century Jewish perspective, what would these symbols have conveyed?
     Constellations falling from heaven (v. 29) symbolize the fall of prominent powers (cf. Isa. 13:1-11; 14:4-12; 34:1-5; Luke 10:18). The phrase "Son of Man coming" (vv. 27, 30) does not always portray his literal second coming but sometimes refers to the Lord coming representatively (cf. Isa. 13:5; 19:1). In Matt. 10:23 the Son of Man was to "come" before his contemporary disciples had personally gone through all the cities of Israel, referring to his representative coming in judgment against Jerusalem. Matt. 16:28 describes the Son of Man "coming in his kingdom" before some of his contemporary disciples had died (cf. Mark 9:1; Col. 1:13). Similarly, Matt. 24:27-30 figuratively describes his coming judgment on Jerusalem. Because of the Lord’s accurate predictions of this devastating event, everyone would know that this was his judgment against the unbelieving Jews.
     Jesus "coming on the clouds" is also symbolic in this context (cf. Isa. 19:1; Jer. 4:13; Psa. 68:4,34 [KJV]; 104:3; Matt. 26:64), describing his swift judgment. Verse 31 probably illustrates God’s providential care, protecting his righteous ones during Jerusalem’s siege. Angels are agents of God’s providence (Psa. 91:11; Heb. 1:13-14). Trumpets are symbols of sounding out warning (Num. 10:1-10; Jer. 4:5; 6:17; Zeph. 1:16; 1 Cor. 14:8). The word "heaven" is sometimes used to symbolize that which is widespread throughout the lands (cf. Deut. 30:4; Neh. 1:9; Isa.13:5).
     Despite the exegetical challenges of this passage, here are some important lessons to be learned: (a) the divine foreknowledge of Jesus; (b) the obvious historical fulfillment of the Lord’s detailed predictions, proving the reality of predictive prophecy and divine inspiration of scripture; (c) God’s providential care for his people (cf. Rom. 8:28); (d) with the Lord’s help, the gospel can be preached in all the world (Matt. 28:18-20); and (e) he who endures to the end shall be saved (cf. Heb. 3:14; 6:11-12; 10:35-36; Rev. 2:10).
     Admittedly portions of Matthew 24 are hard to understand. The difficulty intensifies when one is unfamiliar with the overall context of scripture and is laded with preconceived misunderstandings. But the important thing, whether or not one ever grasps the full meaning of this and related passages, is the paramount question: Are you ready to meet the Lord in the final judgment, whenever that may be?
Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     1 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the NKJV. See also the parallel accounts: Mark 13:1-37 and Luke 21:5-38. It was Peter, James, John and Andrew who asked the Lord these questions in private (Mark 13:3).
     2 See The Day of the Lord

Related Posts: Biblical Interpretation: Asking the Right Questions

Related Articles: Donald Taylor's Apocalyptic Literature


Image credit: http://planbox.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/end-of-the-times.jpg