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"Why Have You Forsaken Me?Sunday, December 11, 2022
Psalm 22 is one of the richest chapters in the Old Testament, in terms of its messianic prophecies. Nearly everyone will recognize the first line, and many can even quote it in Aramaic, because that’s how Matthew and Mark record it for us:
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27.46)
He’s deliberately quoting Psalm 22. There’s debate whether the sentiment expressed is an accurate representation of what was happening between Jesus and his Father at that moment, or only a reference to a psalm full of prophecies; there’s an answer available to that debate, but it’s not our purpose at present. Whatever Jesus felt at that time, he surely said this at least partly to direct the minds of those who stood there, watching him die, to the prophecies he was fulfilling.
It’s sad to say, by and large they didn’t get it. “And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, ‘This man is calling Elijah’” (Mt 27.47). He was not calling Elijah. Elijah had nothing to do with it. Their idea wasn’t totally baseless—the final two sentences of the Old Testament promise, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4.5), and as the populace wanted for the Son of David to come and save them, this messianic prophecy had taken center stage. Needless to say, they were a bit confused about what it meant, though. And even while they misapplied one messianic prophecy, they completely missed the one Jesus actually meant.
But Psalm 22 is among the most powerful prophecies in the Bible! It didn’t only predict that Jesus would feel forsaken by God; there’s so much more!
“All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads…” (Psalm 22.7)
The sign placed above Jesus on the cross read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (Jn 19.19). The bystanders, including the chief priests, scribes, and elders, and even the thieves crucified alongside Jesus “derided him, wagging their heads.” But it gets even more specific. In Psalm 22, the mockers say, “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (v8). What did the religious authorities say about Jesus?
“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27.42-43)
These are the people whose job it is to know the Scriptures! Do they hear themselves quoting Psalm 22 to their own detriment? Apparently not.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint… (Psalm 22.14a)
Part of this is metaphor, but part of it is not. Victims of crucifixion had their entire bodyweight suspended by their outstretched arms at an awkward angle, putting enormous tension on the joints. Their shoulders, at least, were usually dislocated.
…my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast… (Psalm 22.14b)
Crucifixion is a convoluted method of execution, because it’s not blood loss or direct disruption of the nervous system that brings on death. Instead, the awkward position diminishes lung capacity and makes it progressively difficult to breathe, slowly suffocating the victim over a period of several, miserable hours. This naturally leads to heart trouble, as it races to compensate for decreased oxygen in the blood, and meanwhile isn’t getting enough oxygen itself.
…my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death. (Psalm 22.15)
One of the few things Jesus said from the cross was very simple: “I thirst” (Jn 19.28).
For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet… (Psalm 22.16)
Presumably this needs little explanation. It’s one more in a long string of fulfillments, and is among the most alarmingly precise of all the messianic prophecies.
…they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22.18)
It’s not always acknowledged that victims of crucifixion weren’t generally given any provision for modesty. Their clothes were removed when they were put on the cross. What did the soldiers do with the clothes? “And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots” (Mt 27.35).
There are more of these to be found in Psalm 22, but those are the most obvious, and it forms an astonishing picture. When David composed Psalm 22, he didn’t know the importance of what he was writing; but in retrospect, now that we know its fulfillment, it’s impossible to read without seeing Jesus in every line! Apart from a testament to God’s foreknowledge and the surety of his prophecies, what does it matter? Well, the Psalm doesn’t end with its protagonist being stripped of his clothes; in the face of certain death, he still looks forward to life—to being rescued! And what would be the effect? Let’s give the last word to the Psalm:
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22.27-28)
PrejudiceSunday, December 04, 2022
But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. (Mark 15.11-15)
This passage is just one short snippet of all that was said and done in the process of shuffling Jesus off to be crucified, but its overall theme can teach us a lot about human nature and our own desires. Pilate had not wished to execute Jesus—not out of allegiance to justice, but out of a desire to keep his jurisdiction in order, avoiding nasty riots and civil conflict. Knowing that the Jewish authorities were trying to get rid of Jesus “out of envy” (Mk 15.10), Pilate appealed to the crowd, and demonstrated why it’s a mistake to appeal to the majority in any argument. Even if the majority was on your side a moment ago, that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way, and now you’ve handed over the decision to the mob. In this case, that was, “Crucify him.” Caught off guard and unwilling to believe this was really the prevailing opinion, Pilate asked their reasoning: “Why? What evil has he done?” In response, we might have expected a repeat of the charges the council had filed against Jesus when they first brought him to Pilate: “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king” (Lk 23.2). But Pilate had found these charges to be ridiculous, so they didn’t repeat them. What’s their answer, then? What’s their rationale for wanting Jesus executed? Their reply is telling: “Crucify him” (Mk 15.14). There’s no explanation, no insight into Jesus’ nefarious deeds. Instead, it’s an exercise of pure will. Why crucify him? Stop asking questions and just do it!
The same spirit was at work the next day, when the chief priests and Pharisees—the same folks who’d repeatedly faulted Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, mind you—found it quite reasonable to seek an audience with Pilate and conduct their own official business on the Sabbath, in order to set a guard on Jesus’ tomb. Why? They told Pilate,
“Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” (Matthew 27.63-64)
The purpose of the guard was to make absolutely sure there could be no grave robbery. But Jesus’s body went missing, anyway. The guards reported the arrival of a being with superhuman strength and such a dazzling appearance that these trained men-at-arms fainted out of fright (Mt 28.2-3, 11). What did the authorities conclude?
[T]hey gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” (Matthew 28.12-14)
Let’s not bother asking how the soldiers were supposed to know the identities of the grave robbers, if they were asleep; instead, let’s focus on the ones in charge. They’d demanded guards from Pilate, to avert precisely this problem! Yet, it’s their only explanation of what happened to Jesus’ body. They may even have managed to convince themselves it was really true. But it’s obvious they’d already determined the conclusion—just as they had done with regard to crucifying Jesus—and all reason had gone out the window, in order to get where they wanted.
But it’s not just the chief priests and the Pharisees. It’s human nature. They’d already made a judgment, determining a particular endpoint to be good, and so even when contrary evidence was presented along the way to reaching their desired goal, they flatly disregarded it, and stuck to the narrative they’d already established. We could call this prejudice, and rightly condemn these people for it; yet, we all engage in prejudice. Despite what we’d like to think, prejudice is, in fact, essential to everyday life! We don’t have time in the day to thoroughly vet everyone and everything we encounter. We have to make snap judgments with very few pieces of evidence. Is this bridge strong enough for me to cross? Does the approaching stranger mean me harm? Is this lettuce safe to eat? Has my vehicle’s extended warranty really expired? When decisions must be immediate, we lump in a few scant facts with a large dose of prejudice, choose a course of action, and hope it was the right one. When it’s rooted in truth, a certain degree of prejudice serves us well. In the spiritual realm, it keeps us from being
tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4.14)
But when our prejudices are rooted in our selfish desires—as were those of the authorities seeking to do away with Jesus—it leads very obviously in the wrong direction! The highest official in the land declared Jesus innocent; no matter, crucify him! Their own guards reported that an angel descended and rolled back the stone to Jesus’ now empty grave; no, his disciples stole the body! It’s easy to see their folly, but the truth is that we’ve all done this. We all do this. Can we see it in ourselves? As we strive to be more closely conformed to the image of Christ, is it a true reflection of God’s glory, or an idol we’ve built in our own image?
Are You Beyond Hope?Sunday, November 27, 2022
“The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) (John 6.63-64)
This is the earliest hint we receive, in any of the Gospels, that Jesus already knew which of his disciples would turn against him. It’s not the first acknowledgment of Judas’ future, of course—the other three Gospels all make that point very clear from the time Judas is introduced, saying things like,
“…and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.” (Luke 6.15-16)
Several of the Apostles need extra details to identify them, because names like Simon, James, and Judas were so common among the Jews. So, the second James is “the son of Alphaeus,” the second Simon is “the Zealot,” and the second Judas is “the traitor.” Yet, that’s not quite what Luke said, is it? As John told us, Jesus “knew from the beginning…who would betray him,” and yet Luke points out, Judas wasn’t a traitor from the beginning—he became one. Perhaps this should have been obvious, since a traitor must first have an attachment or allegiance, in order to betray it. There were many others seeking to arrest and kill Jesus, and while they were his enemies, none of them was a traitor. Judas was, because he had been a trusted member of the group. His consistent placement at the very end of the list suggests that he was among the last to join up, but he wasn’t a late addition to this number.
In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles… (Luke 6.12-13)
Judas was one of the many who followed Jesus around in Galilee, before he was chosen and named an Apostle. Even though Jesus knew from the start that Judas would eventually betray him, he selected him from the crowd, and treated him exactly the same as the others for nearly three years, even entrusting the group’s treasury to him. When Jesus told his assembled apostles at their final Passover that one of them would betray him, no one thought, I bet I know who it is—Judas has always been a little shaky. Rather, they “began to say to him one after another, ‘Is it I, Lord?’” (Mt 26.22).
Let’s leave aside Judas, and compare the last Apostle on the list, to the first: Peter. Peter wasn’t the first of the disciples to begin following Jesus; he was beaten to that honor by his brother Andrew, and another, who remains unnamed but may very well be John (Jn 1.35-42). Nevertheless, he is consistently the first on the list of Apostles, and his aggressive personality meant that he generally took the initiative, got the ball rolling, and said what needed to be said—or, in some cases, what he mistakenly thought needed to be said. His outspokenness included a strident devotion to Jesus, and one which the others were happy to imitate. Shortly after Judas had left to do his evil deed, Jesus took the remaining eleven out of the city, to the Mount of Olives.
Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same. (Matthew 26.31-35)
Peter was certainly vocal in his insistence! He wasn’t shy about throwing his brother and the rest under the bus—even if all of them fall away, you can rely on me! But, just like with Judas, Jesus knew what Peter was going to do, and the rest, as well. Was a triple denial less of a sin than Judas’ betrayal? Judas’ action was more severe, and had more severe immediate consequences; but Jesus had said, not long after calling Peter, “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 10.33). They both failed spectacularly.
But that is where the similarities end. It’s tough for us to imagine events playing out in any other way than they actually did, with Judas betraying and Peter denying, then a contrite Peter reconciling to Christ and a remorseful Judas fleeing responsibility (and running headlong into judgment). It seems as if it had to take place just like this; and certainly it was prophesied just so. But the prophecies are not constraints—they don’t compel anyone to fulfill them. Jesus’ foreknowledge of Peter’s denial and repentance didn’t force him to fail the test, or to come back. His foreknowledge of Judas’ betrayal and abandonment didn’t force him to commit those sins. Judas chose his own course; and Peter, likewise, chose his.
Jesus accepted Peter back after a horrible betrayal, of sorts. Would he have rejected Judas, if he had similarly repented and sought forgiveness? We have only to look at the Apostle Paul’s conversion. Paul was on the same mission as the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees who killed Jesus, and yet Jesus brought him into the fold and used him to accomplish great things for his kingdom. So, what have you done, that’s so unforgivable? We’ve all done horrible things, things that deserve eternal punishment. Jesus’ blood is equal to the task of cleansing you, even so. Turn to him, seek forgiveness, put away the sin, and be redeemed for honorable purposes, instead.
What Does It Mean, to Know God?Saturday, November 19, 2022
“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17.24-26)
These are the closing words to the long and moving prayer Jesus spoke prior to leaving Jerusalem for Gethsemane. He was about to be betrayed by a friend, handed over to liars and murderers, to be tortured and killed unjustly; and yet what was foremost in his thoughts at this moment? The good of his apostles. That is remarkable on its own, but there’s even more to contemplate in these words. Typical of John’s Gospel, this passage is a series of perfectly coherent sentences that often leave the reader wondering what he has just read. If we’ll slow down and dissect it carefully, we’ll find an important lesson for us, buried among the tangles.
“with me where I am”
They’re already together in the same place, but that’s not what Jesus means—he’s looking forward to the near future. He’s about to be tortured and killed, of course, and in a way, he does want his disciples to follow him into this; but really he’s thinking of the next step—he wants them to join him in God’s perfect rest, where he’s soon to go and prepare them a place (14.2).
“to see my glory”
Glory is typically defined as praise, honor, adulation, renown—that sort of thing. How, exactly, does one see these? It’s an abstract concept, most easily expressed in the form of spoken words. You can see the sunrise, but seeing love, or victory, or justice, or malice is quite another task. We can see indicators of such things, and surely that’s involved—Jesus wants his friends to see what he suffers and accomplishes, and conclude that he deserves great praise. But from the way Jesus says this, we get the feeling he means something more direct. There’s a hint in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth: “And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Lk 2.9). This suggests the appearance of light, in the dark night. Paul suggests the same thing in his description of Moses: “the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory” (2 Co 3.7). When he came down from the mountain, “his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Ex 34.29). This is the source of the halo seen in medieval paintings, surrounding the faces of Jesus and the saints; but we all know there’s more to it than a physical phenomenon of light inexplicably radiating from a person’s face. It’s not just about physical perception; it’s about the spiritual.
“I know you”
This is what Jesus means—he sees his Father’s glory. He knows him. Do the apostles? Not fully. Earlier, he told them, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (Jn 14.7). There’s something lacking, but it’s in the process of being remedied. They don’t yet fully know, and they don’t yet fully see; but what do they know? As Jesus said in his prayer, “these know that you have sent me” (Jn 17.25).
“I made known to them your name”
Jesus has shown his Father to them, as much as their meager abilities will allow up to this point. They can see God in Jesus, because Jesus does the works and embodies the character of God. It’s not just that Jesus has shared with them the super-secret name by which God calls himself. God had long since proclaimed his name—in fact, several of his many names—to the patriarchs, to Moses, and to Israel. It wasn’t a great revelation to them that God called himself, “I am who I am,” or “YHWH” (e.g. Ex 3.14-15). They all carefully avoided uttering that name, and replaced it in their speech with “the Lord,” for fear of offending God by putting his holy name in their profane mouths. No, it wasn’t about learning the proper combination of syllables to use when addressing God. Teaching his disciples God’s name was more like what God did, when he “proclaimed the name of the Lord” (Ex 34.5) to Moses:
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. (Exodus 34.6-8)
God described this process as passing his glory by Moses and allowing him to see it from behind, since neither he nor anyone else alive could handle the full picture (Ex 33.22). Notice that his name is more than just a label, a tag associated with this particular person, yet ultimately unimportant. Instead, it’s a testament to his character—his essence. That’s what Jesus has been teaching to his disciples and, by extension, to us—if we’re willing to pay attention. And what will the result be? Moses shows us the proper response—to fall down and worship. And Jesus tells us where it leads—“that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn 17.26). The goal is to bring us into the family, to sit at the table with God, forever. So, what about you? Do you know God?
Never Good EnoughSunday, November 13, 2022
And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” (Numbers 21.5-6)
When you know where to look, there’s a lot of comedy to be found in the Bible. The children of Israel, often so-called, are putting their childishness on display in this episode! In a single sentence they have complained that they have no food, and also that they don’t like their food. Their overwrought criticism is typical of a dissatisfied, entitled child, and we might translate their grievance thus: you’ve given us food, but that’s not good enough! We may laugh at the Israelites’ folly, but as always, they’re not the only ones to behave like this; we’re all difficult to please, and never seem to be fully satisfied.
Since elections to offices local, state, and federal were just held all across the country, political circumstances are more sharply in focus than usual. Try to fashion a concise political philosophy that will address all of society’s ills. If you were in charge, how would you fix all of the problems? Much needs to change, right? Because what we have now isn’t good enough. Of course, you’re not the supreme ruler of the world, but if you were, and you enacted your own policies, it still wouldn’t be enough. We’re never satisfied—and neither were the Israelites! God fashioned for them a system of governance set forth and bound by the Law he himself gave them from on high; within those relatively lax boundaries, he appointed prophets and judges to speak on his behalf, pronounce judgments, and lead the people in war and peace. How many people have died in the quest for a degree of that liberty? And yet the Israelites said it wasn’t good enough. They wanted a king! God warned them through Samuel the prophet that this was a bad idea, and that they would come to regret it when their kings got it into their heads to reign.
But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8.19-20)
We can see the same refusal to be satisfied with God’s blessings, in the personal sphere. What would it take, in the physical world, to make you happy and satisfied? When you get it, is it ever enough? We’re no different from Eve, who was given everything she would ever need, in God’s own lush garden. Satan tempted her with more. She was happy, until she realized something was being withheld. When she tasted the forbidden fruit, did it bring lasting happiness or satisfaction? Similarly, after David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of his faithful servant Uriah, and then had him killed to alleviate the awkward situation it produced, the prophet Nathan told him,
Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? (2 Samuel 12.7-9)
The message is clear: I gave you everything you could want! Was it not good enough? Like Eve, and like David, no matter how richly God blesses us, we manage to find fault with it, and go traipsing off in pursuit of the next idol we imagine will satisfy our longings.
When we scrutinize this behavior in others, it’s easy to pass judgment; when we see it in ourselves, we’re more inclined to make excuses. Let’s find the middle ground, and simply seek to understand. Why do we all do this? As often happens with our behaviors in the physical world, it’s a reflection of something far more important in the spiritual realm. Even if we don’t admit it or use the same words to describe it, each one of us is seeking perfection—and each one of us knows he has not achieved it. In the moral realm, whether we’re justifying our own actions or spiritually flogging ourselves for our shortcomings, it’s clear that we all know, just as we judge that it is never good enough, in the same way we are never good enough.
God knows this, of course, and has had it in mind since the very beginning. We can see an illustration of the point in—once again—the Israelites. Moses recounted their forty years of following God’s cloud of Presence in the wilderness:
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8.3)
He deliberately withholds some things, in order to teach us that we’re insufficient, and that we must trust and serve him. This also encourages us to look forward to the perfect rest with him, which we’ll never find on earth. Jesus embodies the perfection we’re all seeking. Do you want a king, like the Israelites? Jesus is your man. Want liberty? King Jesus guarantees it. He’s also the friend and brother who both showers innumerable and priceless blessings on you, and also tells you the uncomfortable truth, and demands that you give yourself over entirely to him. That brings us back to where we started: nothing is ever good enough in our judgment, and we’re never good enough, in God’s. But Jesus is good enough. If we will lean completely on him, trusting his promises and his commandments, he will forgive our imperfections, and give us lasting peace in this life, and the next.