Jesus’ birth and name. Matthew 1:18-25

Last week we looked at Jesus’ family tree in Matthew 1. There are a number of interesting things about that genealogy, which I tried to point out. But the main point is certainly that Jesus is a descendant of David who is qualified to be the Messiah and to sit on David’s throne.

Handout – After the genealogy there are five stories which have to do with Jesus’ birth and childhood. As we will see, each one has a dream and an Old Testament scripture connected to Jesus. And also, as we will see, each story presents a glimpse into Jesus’ future. I want us to go through these stories and see what we can learn about Jesus.

We begin today with –

The story of Jesus’ birth and name

– found in Matthew 1:18-25. This story opens with a difficult situation.

v. 18 – “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child – from the Holy Spirit.”

First, note the phrase, “betrothed to Joseph, before they came together.” This reflects the Jewish pattern of marriage at this time, which had two stages. First, you make a public commitment to each other before witnesses. You are legally married at this point. And if you are unfaithful it is adultery, and to get out of it requires divorce. Stage two is when you actually move in together and consummate the marriage, which could be a year or so after the first stage.

So they have gone through stage one, but not stage two, which is the problem. Because “she was found to be with child,” which should not have happened.

The phrase, “from the Holy Spirit” is Matthew’s own comment. Joseph doesn’t know this yet.

v. 19 – “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

He was just, or righteous in that he abided by the Law of Moses with regard to “the evil” of adultery – Deuteronomy 22:23-27. These verses deal specifically with a woman who is betrothed, but unfaithful. According to the Law the adulterer is to be killed. Although this was probably not enforced at this time, such an evil is still not to be tolerated. Hence his desire for divorce (apart from any personal feelings of betrayal).

But he also didn’t want to put her on public trial. So he resolved to proceed with a quieter form of divorce, with only two or three witnesses to spare her shame.

A dream from God.

v. 20 – “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”

As with the Old Testament Joseph, our Joseph will hear from God often in the form of dreams in Matthew 1-2.

In this one, God tells Joseph, instead of divorce, he is to stay with Mary. The phrase, “take Mary as your wife” can also be translated, “take Mary your wife home.” Either way, it means that he is to proceed to the second stage of the marriage relationship – although as we see in v. 25 without sex.

Why should he keep Mary? Because she has not been unfaithful. Rather the child is “from the Holy Spirit.” This is the second time this phrase is used of Jesus’ conception.

Just a note here: This idea of a virginal conception is different from anything else attested in human history (including stories of the gods and the like). For there is no male involved in the conception of Jesus and no sexual activity; not even a sperm donor. What’s claimed here is pure miracle. The Spirit, the creative power of God, uses an ovum from Mary and produces a child.

The angel goes on in

v. 21 – “’She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’”

The name “Jesus” or Yeshua, is a shortened form of Joshua. According to popular etymology it means – Yahweh is salvation. The angel gives the reasoning: call him Jesus, Yahweh is salvation, “for he will save his people from their sins.” So the name is fitting, given what he will do.

Next, Matthew shares a prophetic Scripture connected to Jesus’ birth.

vs. 22-23 – “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).”

The verse that is quoted is Isaiah 7:14 (LXX). In its original context this was a promise to King Ahaz of Judah. He was threatened with overthrow by Northern Israel and Syria, who planned to set aside the Davidic line and install a puppet ruler (Isaiah 7:4-6).

But the prophet tells Ahaz that he would have a son, born to a young woman. And that during the boy’s infancy, the current threat against Judah and the house of David would be overcome.

The original fulfillment of this was the birth of Hezekiah, as well as the preservation of David’s royal line in him, and the defeat of Ahaz’s enemies. All of which took place.

For several reasons, however, this passage was seen to go beyond this immediate fulfillment:

1.  Hezekiah was a son of David and a good king, and as such he foreshadowed the Messiah. That is, parts of his life can point to what will happen with the Messiah. In this case his birth.

2.  The name “God with us” points to something beyond just Hezekiah and his birth; something more substantial.

3.  This part of Isaiah 2-11 speaks of the coming of what we would call the kingdom of God, which didn’t happen in Hezekiah’s time. (Hagner, Matthew, p. 20 for #2 and #3.).

So, like so many others, and in accord with Jewish practice, this passage is seen to have a deeper and fuller meaning. It has another layer to it. And as Matthew shows us, this points to Jesus.

  • Hezekiah was born to a young woman. But Jesus is born to a virgin – a heightened fulfillment.
  • Hezekiah was a son of David. But Jesus is more. He is the Son of David and the Messiah.
  • Hezekiah’s birth was a sign that God remembered his promise and gave David a son to rule in Judah. Jesus’ birth is a sign that God remembered his promise and gave David a son to rule the world.
  • Hezekiah’s birth and the saving of Judah was a sign that God was with Judah. Jesus’ birth and the salvation he brings to the world is a sign that God is with us; that the kingdom of God has truly come.

So Jesus is the truest fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.

The story ends with Joseph’s obedience.

vs. 24-25 – “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

Joseph is immediately obedient to what he received in the dream. He took Mary into his home and he named the baby, Jesus.

This is really important because in Judaism at this time, someone’s son had less to do with biology, than with the fact that you claim the child as your own. And this is what Joseph does here. He legally adopts him by naming him. And so Jesus is given Joseph’s royal lineage, all the way back to king David.

As I said at the beginning, this story gives –

A picture of Jesus’ future

In this story it has to do with the circumstances of his birth, that is, the contrast between the appearance and the reality of his birth.

By appearance there’s a problem. In fact a scandal. Jesus looks as if he’s an illegitimate child. It looks like his mother was unfaithful. And this carried much social stigma in that day, and was a source of scorn and rejection.

An example of this can be found in John 8:41. In the midst of a heated argument with the Pharisees, they say to Jesus, “We were not born of sexual immorality.” The circumstances of his birth are thrown in his face as a way of dismissing him. And this kind of response and rejection continued among later non-believing Jews and Gentiles as well, for centuries.

So in this story we see a picture of his future – he will be despised and rejected for the circumstances of his birth.

But the reality is that Jesus is, in fact, the promised Messiah. What looks like scandal is just the opposite. He is born of a virgin, the true fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. He is conceived “from the Holy Spirit.” Instead of a cause of rejection, the circumstances of his birth should show us that he is the Messiah, who has come to save us from our sins and to show that God is with us.

Jesus’ family tree. Matthew 1:1-17

I’m excited today because I get to give a whole sermon on a Scriptural genealogy! Now, of course, I’m aware that this may have the exact opposite effect on you, as you think, ‘What could be more boring?’ Right? But it’s my hope that today, as we look at Jesus’ family tree, you will find this interesting. And even more so that it will build up your faith.

Overview of Matthew 1:1-17

If you will look at your handout: Matthew 1 Genealogy let me point out a few things –

1. The title of the section is in v. 1, “The record of the genealogy of Jesus.”

2. This section has two bookends (an inclusion with a chiastic structure) made up of the names – Abraham, David and the Messiah in 1 and v. 17. These bookends mark this off as a distinct section from the rest of chapter one. This was a common writing technique in that day.

3. Notice that it’s divided into 3 sets of 14 generations. As v. 17 points out, “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah fourteen generations.”

There are some additional notes on the handout for you to look at, if you’re interested.

A word about ancient genealogies

They can be quite different than modern ones. And I share this with you because if you start really digging in and taking a close look you might ask, ‘Well, what about this?’ or ‘What about that?’

First of all, there isn’t the same kind of focus on technical accuracy as we have today in genealogies. Let me give you two examples. 1) Names can be left out. For instance in the second section, v. 8 three kings are left out. Now these kings may have been left out for a reason (because they were under a curse?). But the point is they aren’t listed.

Now, leaving out names was not uncommon in ancient Jewish genealogies, so it’s not a big deal. Matthew may well be working with some common assumptions of the time about who should, and who shouldn’t be listed. And given these common assumptions he points out the symbolism of 3 sets of 14’s.

2) Another example of less technical accuracy is the alternate names that show up at points – Asaph for Asa, Amos for Amon, the former being alternate spellings for the latter.

Second, with ancient genealogies, you can be creative to make a point; to highlight certain people or things. For instance, the three time periods that are delineated highlight Abraham, David and the time of exile. Others could have been highlighted. And as we will see in a moment, this genealogy is set up to highlight Jesus’ connection with King David. Also, as we will see in a bit, Matthew adds in several women, which is quite unusual. But they are there for a reason, to make a point.

What do we learn from Jesus’ family tree?

1. Jesus is a descendant of king David or “the son of David” as v. 1 says. This is a royal genealogy. It traces Jesus’ lineage through Joseph to the royal line of David through Solomon. The point is that Jesus, by being adopted by Joseph, is a descendant of David, and is thus qualified to be the Messiah and to sit on David’s throne.

Now there are other things going on in this genealogy, as we will see. For instance, there is also a concern with Jesus’ connection to Abraham. But clearly the main focus in on David.

  • He’s the only person in a list with many kings, who is given the title – “the king” – v. 6
  • David’s name shows up five times in this genealogy – v. 1, v. 6, v. 17
  • For this next point a little background. In alphabets of languages that don’t use numerals, the letters become numbers. This was the case with Hebrew. This means that you can take a word and count up the numerical value of it letters, and that is the number of the word. And this number can be used for symbolic purposes. Who can tell me the most famous example of this? Revelation 13:18 and the number “666.” I said all this to say that David’s name in Hebrew has 3 letters, which equal the number 14. (d = 4; w = 6; d = 4). This is certainly a part of the structure of this genealogy – 3 parts with 14 in each part. The whole genealogy, as it is put together here reflects David’s name.
  • Also, David’s name is found in the 14th spot. (For this emphasis on David – Davies & Allison, Matthew, v. 1, p. 163-165)

In all of these ways David is highlighted among Jesus’ ancestors to show that Jesus has the credentials to be the Messiah and to sit on David’s throne.

2. A virginal conception isn’t that strange. This genealogy does teach that Mary was a virgin when she conceived. Throughout, the pattern is X is the father of Y. But when it comes to Jesus it reads, “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” – v. 16. The language has to change to account for this different kind of event.

Now the circumstances of Jesus’ birth could certainly seem scandalous. A young woman who is pregnant, while not yet with her husband. And, in fact, the only reason she isn’t divorced as an adulteress is that an angel told Joseph not to do this. But this genealogy points out that there have been several irregular unions between men and women that seemed scandalous to outsiders, which were used by God in the royal lineage. (Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, p. 73)

The addition of the following women makes this point:

  • Tamar – v. 3. She bore a child to Judah, under highly scandalous circumstances. But she is in the chosen line.
  • Rahab – v. 5. She was a Gentile and a prostitute at one time, but she is in the kingly line of Israel.
  • Ruth – v. 5. She was a Moabite who was not to be a part of Israel up to the tenth generation (Deuteronomy 23:3). But she was the mother of David’s grandfather.
  • “The wife of Uriah” or Bathsheba – v. 6. She committed adultery with David, but Solomon came from this union.

Mary is the other woman in this genealogy. We know that many at the time and afterward slandered her by saying that she was involved in sexual immorality (e.g. John 8:41). And so the point is that a virginal conception may seem scandalous, but it has been used by God.

3. Jesus fulfills God’s promises to his people. The way the genealogy is set up in three sections, highlights three periods of time, all of which have key promises for the future of the people of God, which Jesus came to fulfill.

From the time of Abraham: Genesis 12:2-3 – God said, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 17:19 – God said, “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” Jesus is the fulfillment of these promises. He is the offspring of Abraham and through him God’s blessings are received.

From the time of David: 2 Samuel 7:12-13 – The Lord said, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. . . . I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” This promise is applied to the Messiah in the prophets. Isaiah 11:1 – “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Jeremiah 23:5 – “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Jesus is the fulfillment of these promises. He is the promised Messiah who will reign.

From the time of the exile: Ezekiel 36:26-27 – the Lord promises that after this time – “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Jeremiah 31:31-34 – “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . . I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jesus is the fulfillment of these promises. He has brought true salvation – forgiveness of our sins, the giving of the Holy Spirit and the provision of a new heart for everyone.

As Paul says, “all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ in Jesus Christ” – 2 Corinthians 1:20. He comes at the end of this lineage to bring to fulfillment all that God has promised before.

4. Finally, we learn that God is faithful through the ages. A lot of time is covered in these generations. And all this time God was working toward his own end, the coming of Jesus. Through good times – David, Abraham,  and very bad times – wicked kings and exile, God has been working to bring about his plans and purposes.

And a God who can do this can certainly be faithful to us in our lives – in our good times and in our bad times. And God can bring about his purpose for our lives as well.

Jesus subdues the storm. Where’s the faith?? Mark 4:35-41

The literary structure of Mark 4:37-41

We’re looking for a second time now at the story of Jesus calming the stormy sea from Mark 4:35-41. We’re asking the question today, “Where’s the faith??” that is, on the part of the disciples in this episode.

A little review as we get started. Last week we saw how this story is primarily an unveiling of –

Who Jesus is

A storm, like Jesus was in, is associated with the powers of evil in ancient Hebrew thought. And Yahweh is the one who has the power to subdue storms and all the powers of evil.

But as Mark 4 shows us, Jesus subdues the storm and the wind and the waves cease and there is calm. And Jesus does this, not by praying to God, but by the mere power of his words. And this caused confusion for the disciples, because only Yahweh the Lord God almighty can do this, but Jesus just did it! And so v. 41 says, “they were filled with great fear (or awe) and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”

Who is this Jesus? And the answer is that he is the Son of God; he is God with us. That’s why he can do what only God can do.

Today our focus is on what we learn from this story about faith in Jesus, and in particular by observing the –

Unbelief in this story

First of all, the disciples are in a time of trial. There’s an intense storm and the boat is filling with water – v. 37.

 Now, “the waters” in the OT don’t just represent evil in an abstract way; they are the powers of evil that assault us, test us and threaten us in a very personal way. An example of this can be seen in Psalm 69:1-2 – “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.”

In the same way the disciples here are threatened with death, for the boat was filling with water. Their faith is being put to the test

In the midst of this the disciples display a lack of faith. Jesus was asleep in the boat. And so as v. 38 says, “they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’”

Here we have a portrait of unbelief. 1. They’re afraid. In fact, they’re in a panic, “We are perishing!!” When it comes to the mind the opposite of faith may well be doubt. But when it comes to the heart the opposite of faith is definitely fear. There’s no trust in God and so you feel like you’re on your own and since you’re unable to take care of the problem you feel desperate. And this is what the disciples feel. They must have believed that God’s plan for Jesus could be so easily thwarted that they would all die in the sea of Galilee.

2. They underestimate Jesus. They apparently just want him to pray to God for help, as I said last week. We know this because later in the story when he does perform a miracle they’re totally shocked. They had low expectations of Jesus.

And this is rooted in their lack of understanding of who Jesus is. If they had gotten who Jesus is – the Son of God, they would have known that he could easily take care of this and there was no need for fear.

Next we see how Jesus’ admonishes the disciples for their unbelief. But then he addressed the disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” – v. 40. He highlights their fear and lack of faith in him. In fact, Jesus says here that they have “no faith.” They had been with him and had seen enough that Jesus thinks they should have some idea of who he is by now.

And this is where the story ends. The disciples are left in awe of what Jesus just did. But don’t know how to explain it.

Now let me ask a question –

How should the disciples have acted?

What would it look like if they had faith in this situation?

This is how I would say it. 1. Knowing who he is, they would have realized that Jesus is more than able to take care of them in any circumstance.

And 2. Instead of fear they would have had calm trust in the midst of the crisis. I think it’s interesting that calming the storm was as nothing for Jesus. But getting his disciples to have calm trust was another thing all together.

But if they had calm trust, perhaps they would have awakened Jesus and said something like, “It’s bad and you need to take care of this. We know you can and we trust you to do it.”

 This kind of response is what Jesus commended as faith in the case of the Centurion. He said to Jesus, you don’t need to come to my house. Just say the word and my servant will be healed. And Jesus was amazed by his faith.

Alright let’s apply this to us –

How should we respond with faith in our times of trial?

Like the disciples, we will go through deep waters. We will go through difficult times. You likely have things right now that are causing you distress and that test your faith. This is a part of the Christian life.

And like the disciples who found Jesus asleep, sometimes it seems like Jesus is unaware of our needs. He is with us, but doesn’t seem to be doing anything. What should we do?

First, like the disciples, who came and woke Jesus we need to call out to Jesus in prayer. 

And then, second, remembering who Jesus is, we need to pray with faith. It’s human to be afraid in times of crisis. We will be tempted to panic, like the disciples. We will be tempted to complain about what’s going on, “Why aren’t you doing anything Jesus?” Instead of this, acknowledge that Jesus is able to take care of things. And put it in his hands. That’s praying with faith.

And then finally, we need to act in faith. Because you know Jesus is able, and you have given it to him, you can have calm trust – ‘a peace that passes understanding’ – as you wait for Jesus to act for you. And he will!

The subtitle today is –

Where’s the faith??

Is this how you respond in a time of trial? Would Jesus say to you in your trial, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” – v. 40. Or like the Centurion would Jesus be amazed by your faith?

 I certainly don’t always respond with faith. But notice that the disciples are given another chance. Jesus continues to walk with them, he doesn’t cast them aside. And we are given more chances too. Jesus bears with us as we learn to know him and trust him more.

My prayer is that God will help us to have faith; that we will grow stronger and stronger in our faith as we journey on with Jesus. May we have the faith expressed in Psalm 46:1-3:

– Though the earth give way

– Though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea

– Though the waters roar and foam

– Though the mountains tremble at its swelling

We will not fear! God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.

Jesus subdues the storm. Who is this?? Mark 4:35-41

The literary structure of Mark 4:37-41

Today we’re in Mark 4:35-41 looking at the familiar story of Jesus calming the stormy sea. This is a rich story, with a lot to teach us. So much so that I plan to work with it again next week. The focus for today is on what we learn from this episode about the identity of Jesus.

First we begin with –

The setting

As we saw, Jesus has just spent the day teaching the crowds in parables.

35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.”

Notice first of all that it’s “evening,” either dark or starting to get dark. And Jesus wants to go to the eastern shore of the sea of Galilee. [This is the first time that Jesus leaves Galilee after starting his ministry there, as Mark tells the story, going over to a predominantly Gentile region.] He may be, once again, trying to find some peace from the crush of the crowds (4:1; 36)

The phrase “they took him with them in the boat, just as he was” most likely means that since Jesus was already sitting in the boat when he was teaching (4:1) they simply left with him still sitting there.

JesusBoat
This is a boat recovered from the mud of the Sea of Galilee in 1986

The “other boats” with Jesus aren’t mentioned later in the story, although it’s possible that they too got caught in the storm.

Now let’s look at –

The story

And it begins in dramatic fashion with a great storm.

37And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.

“A great windstorm” refers to a sudden whirlwind from above, like a tornado. The sea of Galilee was (and is) subject to such sudden storms because of its geography. And this was an intense one. The wind pushed the waves over the side of the boat and it was filling up with water. If this didn’t stop, they would sink. It was a real crisis. We know it was bad because some of Jesus’ disciples were experienced fisherman, and as we will see, they thought they were about to die! (v. 38)

38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.

I think this shows his humanity. Jesus was tired! Tired from teaching all day and it was evening, or possibly night time by now. So Jesus is in the back of the boat asleep, unaware of the crisis taking place. But not for long. v. 38 goes on –

And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

The disciples are in a panic. And so they wake Jesus up and rebuke him, because he doesn’t seem to care! Undoubtedly they want him to do something so that they don’t die. But what they want is unclear. They certainly didn’t think he would perform a miracle, because when he does, they’re totally shocked. So perhaps they wanted him to pray to God for deliverance, that they would survive the storm.

Next we see how he does much more than this. Jesus himself turns the storm into a great calm

39And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Silence! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. (I have translated it “silence” instead of ESV’s “peace.”)

Jesus told the wind to stop and told the sea to shut up. By the mere power of his words the storm and the waves cease and there is calm. It went from being a “great windstorm” in v. 37, to being “a great calm” in v. 39.

40He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

So he not only rebukes the sea, but just as his disciples rebuked him, here he rebukes them. After seeing all that the’ve seen, do they still have no faith in him? We’ll come back to this part next week, Lord willing.

A great awe

41And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”

I think it’s interesting that his deliverance of the disciples from what they feared, paradoxically, makes them have great fear!

Notice the further movement of the story-line. It goes from a great storm, to a great calm, to a great awe on the part of the disciples. This is the awe that you have when you see God act in power to save. God is suddenly revealed and it’s astonishing.

With regard to his identity, Jesus is obviously much more than they thought he was. They had seen him teach with great authority. They had seen him heal people. They had seen him cast out demons. But this was something entirely more astounding, which causes them, and us – to ask –

Who is this?

“Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

To answer this, first we need to remember the Hebrew background of the “deep waters” which are connected to the powers of evil or Satan. 

That this is a part of what is going on in our story can be seen in that Jesus speaks to the storm as a personal force. He “rebuked the wind” telling it to stop! And he “said to the sea, ‘Silence! Be still!’” – v. 39. And in fact the words “rebuke” and “be silent” are the same words spoken to a demon in Mark 1:25 in the context of an exorcism. So we’re dealing not just with a nature miracle here, but with the powers of evil.

The second thing we have to remember is that Yahweh is the one who subdues the stormy waters, and all the powers of evil that they represent. For instance Psalm 93:3-4 says, “The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring. Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the LORD on high is mighty!” God is stronger than the stormy sea and the forces of evil and chaos.

But even more specifically 1. Yahweh rebukes the treacherous sea:

  • It is God who “rebuked” the primordial waters at creation and they receded – Psalm 104:7.
  • It is God who “rebuked the Red Sea and it became dry” – Psalm 106:9.

In the same way Jesus rebukes the storm in our story and it responds.

2. Yahweh stills the waters:

  • It is God “who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of the waves. . .” – Psalm 65:7.
  • It is God who – “rule(s) the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” – Psalm 89:9.

In the same way Jesus stills the waters in our story and they are calm.

What I’m saying is that the truth of Jesus’ identity is revealed in this incident. God miraculously saved them – but it was Jesus who acted! Not by praying to God, but simply by speaking the command. This is why the disciples are puzzled and confused. They ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Well, only Yahweh does this, but Jesus just did it! What does it mean? n the story they remain puzzled; they can’t seem to connect all the dots.

But for the reader of Mark it should be clear that Jesus is God’s Son. And so, ‘like father like son.’ Jesus does just what his Father does and calms the stormy waters. He is nothing less than God in the flesh, present with us.

Now, we may also underestimate who Jesus is, like the disciples did, so that we go through life afraid that he can’t take care of us in our trials. But in our story today we learn that Jesus is more than able to save us from any and all evil; from any situation we find ourselves in. Jesus is God with us. And he can speak peace and calm into our lives as well.

And not only this, Jesus is worthy of our awe and praise. The disciples were in awe of him, and later came to acknowledge him as the Son of God and worshiped him. And as we see Jesus do his work in our lives and in our midst, we too should be awed and amazed. And we should lift him up in praise and adoration.

An encouragement for disciples. Jesus’ kingdom parables. Mark 4:26-34

Two seed parables parallel structure – Mark 4:26-32

Have you ever worried about how Christianity is doing these days? I do. I think about the moral compromise of so many churches, the divisions over often silly things, the biblical illiteracy among us and how we are so unlike the early church that Jesus began. Is God really going to be able to use us to bring about his purposes?

Today we’re finishing up Jesus’ parable discourse in Mark 4, looking at vs. 26-34. Here Jesus gives his disciples words of encouragement because as we have seen the response to Jesus’ ministry thus far has been mostly one of rejection; it has been disappointing to say the least. And he gives his disciples encouragement by way of two seed parables, which I think can encourage us as well, as we think about how things are going in our day.

The first one is –

The parable of the growing seed: Mark 4:26-29

And here Jesus is once again speaking to the crowds.

26And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.”

Here the seed and the kingdom of God are being compared.

27He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.

There’s a contrast here between the farmer and the seed in the ground. After he sows the seed the farmer basically does nothing. Notice all that could be said, that isn’t – the farmer’s tilling, fertilizing, weeding and dealing with pests and so on. This is done intentionally to highlight what Jesus  wants to focus on – the growing seed.

It “sprouts and grows.” The farmer doesn’t even understand how this happens. It says, “he knows not how” the seed sprouts and grows. It’s beyond him. But the seed not only grows, it goes through several stages of growth – the blade, the ear and the full grain in the ear. And all this, we are told, happens “by itself.” The seed has within it the ability to bring forth life and growth.  So Jesus is saying – that once the farmer plants the seed – the life and growth of the seed, or the kingdom, comes from itself.

 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Now that the growing part is over the farmer comes back into the picture, but only to receive the result of the seed’s growth.

This image of harvest is a common one in the Bible for the resurrection. (The phrase “at once he puts in the cycle” echoes Joel 3:13) So the ripe grain speaks of the final day.

What’s the lesson we learn from this? Even though there is rejection and a disappointing response, and the kingdom which has been planted seems insignificant now, the kingdom will grow step by step by its own power until the final day and the harvest is ready.

Like the farmer we can’t make this happen or even understand how it happens – other than sharing the gospel. But the kingdom will produce life, growth and in the end, the harvest of the final day. This is a real word of encouragement to the disciples given what they are experiencing at this time following Jesus and the meager results so far.

The second parable is –

The parable of the mustard seed: Mark 4:30-32

30And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth . . .”

Once again, a seed – here a mustard seed – and the kingdom of God are being compared. The mustard seed, we are told is the smallest of all seeds. And it is like a grain of sand. Now, it’s not technically the smallest seed. Some seeds are microscopic. But proverbially in Jewish thought – it was used of the smallest of all things.

“. . . 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches . . .”

This is the key contrast of the parable and points us to the meaning. Something that starts off so small and seemingly insignificant, in the end becomes something quite large – the biggest of all garden plants. And the black mustard plant can grow to a height of 6-10 feet.

And then v. 32 ends –

“. . . so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Along with the language of “large branches,” this phrase emphasizes the largeness of the plant; birds can make nests in its shade.

But it also alludes to some Old Testament references where trees represent kingdoms and birds building nests in their shade represent nations under their control (Ezekiel 17:22-23; 30:6; Daniel 4:12; 21).So this is a way of saying that in the end the kingdom will have worldwide dominion. It will be the greatest of all kingdoms and empires ever.

So the lesson here is that even though there is rejection and a disappointing response, and the kingdom seems small and insignificant – in the end the kingdom will be the biggest kingdom with worldwide dominion

The smallness of its present form is not a true indicator of what it will become; it will cover the whole earth. This also is a real word of encouragement to the disciples given what they are experiencing at this time following Jesus, rejection and a meager response.

And then we come to the conclusion of this parable discourse –

Conclusion: Mark 4:33-34

33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.

 So these are just some of Jesus’ kingdom parables. There are others, for instance in Matthew 13 there is also the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the parable of the leaven, the parable of the hidden treasure, the parable of the pearl of great price and the parable of the dragnet.

When it says, “as they were able to hear it” it means that the content of his parables was pretty basic stuff. For instance, he’s not ready to talk to them yet about his death and resurrection and the role this plays in the coming of the kingdom. But the form of the teaching was still in parables, which were like riddles and had to be explained. And so he told his disciples what they meant.

Lessons

Alright, what can we take from all this? Notice that Jesus was drawing great crowds still. Chapter 4:1 begins by saying – “a very large crowd gathered about him.” Even as he’s turning away from the crowds and all those who reject him to focus on his disciples, he draws great crowds. But Jesus isn’t interested in great crowds. It seems to be all that American Christians care about, but not Jesus. Jesus is interested in disciples. People who are sincerely and earnestly learning to follow him and to walk in his way. And although there are few of these at this point, he turns his focus to them.

These parables also teach us a bit about how the kingdom comes into this world. The kingdom is already here, but not fully here yet. That awaits the final day. This is what some call the “already, not yet” of the kingdom of God. Many thought that the kingdom would come full blown all at once. But Jesus indicates that there’s a process involved. It begins with his first coming and there is growth and then the fullness comes with his second coming. The kingdom is already here, but not yet all the way here.

And then finally, I want to say that we too should be encouraged by these parables. We’re not in the disciples’ situation. Today Christianity is worldwide. But, as I said at the beginning, we can truly wonder at what passes for Christianity today.

These parables should also encourage us in our situation. The kingdom, that is, true Christianity, will grow step by step by its own power until the final day and the harvest is ready. And the kingdom, again, true Christianity, in the end will have worldwide dominion over all the earth. Like the disciples we can have confidence that our work will bear fruit in the end. God’s purposes will be accomplished.

Do you understand? Jesus’ kingdom parables. Mark 4:10-13; 21-25

The literary structure of Mark 4:1-34

Have you ever heard a riddle that you just couldn’t understand? Here’s an example from the book, The Hobbit, which I would never get on my own: “Voiceless it cries, wingless flutters, toothless bites, mouthless mutters.” What is this? The wind.

Well today we are looking at how Jesus’ teaching is often hard to understand, especially his parables, which he used as riddles, and he teaches us that only those who listen carefully to him and work hard at it will discover his meaning. The two passages that we’re looking at today are 4:10-13 and 4:21-25.

By way of –

Background

– remember that in our story so far Jesus has suffered a great deal of rejection:

  • When he healed and forgave the paralyzed man he was accused of blasphemy – 2:7
  • Because of his unique Sabbath practices we learn that the Pharisees sought “to destroy him” – 3:6
  • Then he was accused of being possessed by a demon and that his ministry was empowered by Satan – 3:22-30
  • Even his family rejected him, thinking he was “out of his mind” – 3:21

Two weeks ago we saw how all this rejection raised the question, ‘Why have so many not believed?’ And we heard Jesus’ answer in the parable of the seed and the soils. Many people have a spiritual condition of hardheartedness that won’t receive the good news of the kingdom.

But this rejection also brings about a change in Jesus’ approach. Now there are believers and unbelievers; insiders and outsiders. And in our verses today Jesus turns away from the outsiders – the Jewish leaders, the crowds, even his own family, to focus on the insiders; his disciples.

This is what we find in –

Mark 4:10-13

 – our first passage.

10And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.

By “alone” it means that the crowds are gone. Jesus is now just with the 12 apostles and it says “those around him” or the broader group of disciples. These are the insiders (literally in 3:31-34).

So they ask Jesus “about the parables” that is, how to understand what he has just taught the crowd.

11And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God . . .”

So God has given them something (“has been given” is a divine passive). What is it? “The secret of the kingdom of God.” This refers to Jesus’ teaching, which speaks of who he is – the king, what the kingdom is like and how it comes into this world. It’s the insiders who receive this; those who gather around Jesus.

But then Jesus says something quite radical –

“. . . but for those outside everything is in parables, 12so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”

Parables are often seen as illustrations that Jesus gives to make his teaching clearer, like sermon illustrations. Here Jesus tells us that the exact opposite is true. He uses parables , which are, as I said, like riddles or puzzles – to hide his meaning from the unbelieving; from outsiders. We can rightly ask, “What’s this all about?”

Well, he’s quoting a version of Isaiah 6:9-10 (It’s most similar to the Isaiah Targum). And just as in the context of Isaiah it’s a way of saying that God is judging those who have rejected him, here Jesus is saying that his parables are a judgment on those who reject him.

  • Parables further advance those who believe and gather around him because he gives them further insight and understanding into what they mean.
  • But parables keep at a distance those who reject Jesus, for no explanation is given.

He has shared the gospel with them and they have rejected it. So now they are held at a distance. And this is a judgment from God.

What he’s saying is that his teaching is concealed to outsiders, but is revealed to insiders. Turn to Mark 4:34. This verse says, “He did not speak to them (the crowd) without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”

Now don’t misunderstand. Any of these outsiders can leave behind their rejection of Jesus and become an insider if they want. But as long as they stay there they will get nothing further from Jesus. That this is true is seen in that Jesus’ family in chapter 3 rejects him, they are outsiders, but later they come to believe.

Then we come back to the insiders –

13And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?

 Jesus challenges them to see if they understand the parable of the seed and the soils. If they can’t understand this one, which he seems to be saying is pretty easy, how will they understand any of them? And so he helps them by telling them what it means in vs. 14-20, which we have already looked at.

This brings us to our second passage –

Mark 4:21-25

All these sayings, which are parables in themselves – and might seem like they aren’t connected, teach a simple truth: It takes work to understand the teaching of Jesus.

Even though he speaks in parables, and in general his teaching can be hard to understand, Jesus really does want his teaching to be understood. He compares it to a lamp in v. 21 (also Matthew 5:15; Luke 8:16).

21And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?”

Just as a lamp is meant to shine out, so his teaching is meant to give light to all.

Jesus’ intention is expressed in v. 22 –

22For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.” (also Matthew 10:26; Luke 8:17; 12:22)

Everything Jesus hides, he wants to come to light. Everything he veils, he wants to be made known. But, we have to do some work. Jesus hides his teaching so that only  those who really seek after it will find it.

The two exhortations that come next tell us what we need to do –

23If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear.”

We need to listen. Today we would say, “pay attention to what you read,” since Jesus’ teaching is now written out in the Scriptures. Jesus is saying, ‘If you want to understand, you need to listen carefully. You need to put some effort into understanding what he’s saying.

And then comes an important principle –

24With the measure you use, it will be measured to you . . .”

Jesus uses this principle in other places (Matthew 7:2/Luke 6:38), but here the focus is on understanding his teaching. What he’s saying, is that there’s a relationship between the effort we put in – and the understanding we receive from God.

  • To say it another way, the amount of careful listening you put in – seeking, puzzling, discerning, studying – equals the amount of understanding you will get.
  • And likewise, the less of these things you do, the less understanding you receive.

But then, there’s the generosity of God for those who put in effort. The end of v. 24 says –

“. . . and still more will be added to you.”

So, if you pay attention and receive from God in proportion to your effort, God will give even more understanding on top of this; a surplus; an added bonus.

In the first part of v. 25 Jesus says –

“For to the one who has, more will be given . . ..”

 The disciples are an example here. They have received the message of the kingdom and have gathered around Jesus and are asking questions. They have some understanding of his teaching and what he’s up to. So more is given. Jesus tells them what the parables mean.

But even for us today Jesus is promising that if we study carefully, the Spirit of God will help us to understand. An example of this is Peter when he confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus tells him that God revealed this to him (Matthew 16:17).

And then we have a warning. The last part of v. 25 says –

“. . . and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (For this whole saying see also Matthew 13:12/Luke 8:18; Matthew 25:29/Luke 19:26).

This is the other side of the coin, as it were, of God’s generosity. Those who don’t listen to Jesus, who put in no effort, will lose even what they have.

The examples here are the outsiders – those who have rejected Jesus. They have heard the good news of the kingdom but have not received it. So for these they get puzzles and riddles without explanation. They don’t receive anything else from Jesus. And like the seed on the hardened soil of the path the birds come and take it away. ‘Even what they have is taken away.

Let me end by asking us, we who are insiders –

Do you understand?

In contrast to outsiders, we have received the gift of Jesus’ teaching. Not just the parables but all that he taught as recorded in the gospels. We also have the Old Testament as background to understand it. And we have the rest of the New Testament that reflects back on it that helps us. And we are given the gift of the Spirit to lead and guide us as we interpret and apply his teaching to our lives.

What an amazing gift and treasure! Jesus says of his teaching in Mark 13:31, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” This is the gift we have.

But, are you putting in the work? Do you even read the Scriptures?

Are you content with what you already know? For there is much, much more than any of us will ever discover in one lifetime.

Are you hungry for more? Do you wrestle with it and struggle with it until you understand it?

Are you like the Bereans in Acts 17:11 who didn’t just take someone else’s word for it, but it says, “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

The measure of effort you give is the measure of understanding you will get – plus more.

Despair & Hope. Psalm 77

We’re looking at Psalm 77 today and the themes of despair and hope.

Let me say at the beginning that parts of this Psalm are translated differently, but I’m not going to get into any of that. I will use the NIV today.

Let’s jump right into the first part of the Psalm. And here we note that . . .

The psalmist is really struggling

There are several indications of this. 1) He’s desperately calling on God. 

v. 1 – “I cried out to God for help;I cried out to God to hear me.”

2) He refuses to stop crying out.

v. 2 – “When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;at night I stretched out untiring hands and I would not be comforted.”

Stretched out hands are a posture of prayer. He is, as it were, lifting his prayers up to God. Yet despite this, his prayers are unanswered. There’s no relief.

3) When he thinks of God, instead of being encouraged, he’s dejected.

v. 3 – “I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I mused, and my spirit grew faint.”

 4) He’s unable to sleep.

v. 4a – “You kept my eyes from closing.”

Here he addresses God directly and says, ‘You’re the reason I can’t sleep.’

5) He’s so upset he can’t talk.

v. 4b – “I was too troubled to speak.”

He is definitely going through a hard time: distress – v. 2; without comfort – v. 2;  groaning – v. 3; faint of spirit – v. 3; sleepless – v. 4; troubled – v. 4; speechless – v. 4.

Now let’s look at –

The source of his distress

v 5-6a says, “I thought about the former days,the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night.”

He’s thinking about a time in his life when things were better. When he used to sing joyful songs. When all was well. It isn’t like this anymore. Now he’s overwhelmed by difficulties.

This leads him to deep thought.

v. 6b – “My heart meditated and my spirit asked.”

And from this pondering he is able to articulate his inner struggle. This comes in the form of six questions – vs. 7-9:

“Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

It’s obvious from these that he feels rejected by God, uncared for, and forgotten. God is not answering prayer and seems entirely absent. All seems hopeless, which is highlighted by his language – “forever, never again, for all time.” It’s never gonna get better.

This is a full blown crisis of faith. He has the expectation that, if God is truly God, things should be a certain way – like they were before his troubles. So there’s a gap between what should be, his assumptions and expectations, and what is.

This leads him to question God’s character. Exodus 34:6 gives a foundational statement of who God is in the Old Testament. It says, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” It’s this very description that the Psalmist is struggling with in his questions, using some of these very terms. Is God really like this? Has God changed?

Now, his actual circumstances aren’t made clear. From the questions, and the Psalm as a whole, it seems that it’s not just something in his individual life. The problem involves the whole people of God; the people of Israel. And it has gone on for a long time without resolution. It could be that he’s speaking from exile in Babylon wondering if God will ever remember and deliver them from that foreign land.

Remembering the deeds of the Lord

This brings us to v. 10,which is the turning point in this Psalm.

“Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.’”

He decides to look back at when God was so active among Israel; when God’s favor was abundantly evident – in the days of Moses.

vs. 11-12 – “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

The focus is now on God’s actions in the past: “deeds,” “miracles,” “works,” “mighty deeds.” These, the Psalmist will “remember” (2x), “consider” and “meditate on.”

When he looks back at what God has done for Israel in the past, he can see God’s greatness.

vs. 13-15 – “Your ways, God, are holy.What god is as great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.”

 This refers back to the Red Sea crossing and even uses some of the language of Exodus 15:11-14, where Moses talks about this. From this the psalmist remembers that God is holy, that is, better than and greater than all other gods. He remembers that God is in a class all his own. God performed miracles and did deeds of power. God rescued his people.

Finally, the psalmist describes –

The great Red Sea deliverance

– in more poetic detail.

We need to remember here the symbolic meaning of “the waters” as chaotic, evil and in opposition to God. The waters were blocking Israel from escaping the chariots of Egypt. But God confronts the waters, who are afraid of him.

v. 16 says, “The waters saw you, God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed.”

vs.  17-18 picture God coming as a warrior on the storm clouds –

“The clouds poured down water, the heavens resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked.”

vs. 19-20 speak of the Red Sea crossing

“Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”

God defeated the waters of the Red Sea and saved his people by making a way through for them. And he did this without leaving any footprints.

The message is clear: God will also act to deliver the Psalmist and the people of Israel in their current situation. This is who God is. This is what God does.

So by looking back, he takes heart. He can’t see God at work in his present circumstances, but by seeing who God is in the past; God’s track record – he can have hope even in his difficult circumstances.

Lessons

What can we take from this? 1. You will go through times of despair. When we are young in years or new in faith, we may not think so. I didn’t. But your faith will be tested. It will be tried so thoroughly that you will have deep inner struggles and doubts about God and God’s faithfulness.

The Psalmist certainly went through this. And the point here is that this is normal. It’s a part of walking by faith. So, don’t be surprised when it happens.

2. It’s good to bring your doubts and complaints to God. Just as the Psalmist does here.

It should be done with respect, for sure. But we can be honest with God. God already knows our thoughts and feelings. So pour out your heart:

  • God, this is my distress.
  • This is how I feel.
  • This is what I don’t understand.
  • These are my questions

When we do this then God can help us to gain a right perspective. We can both be honest and also look to God for help in dealing with our situation.

3. When we’re despairing of God’s purpose, it helps us to see the bigger picture. In the smaller picture of our current crises all we can see is cause for despair. This was true for the psalmist. But when we step back and see the bigger picture; when we remember who God is and what God has done in the past to deliver, this gives us something to hang on to; it gives us some hope.

The seed and the soils: Jesus’ kingdom parables. Mark 4:1-9; 14-20

We’re back in the gospel of Mark today, in chapter 4, looking at the parable of the seed and the soils, sometimes called the parable of the sower. Chapter 4 is one long teaching by Jesus centered on parables. And this teaching is a response to the rejection Jesus has just experienced from various Jewish leaders and even his family.

Such rejection raises the question, ‘Why have so many not believed in Jesus and his message of the kingdom?’ The teaching today helps explain this, and it gives a message to his disciples as well, which we will need to pay attention to.

We’ll be looking at the parable in vs. 1-9 and the interpretation Jesus gives in vs. 14-20 to his disciples in private.

Introduction

1Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them. . .

So once again there’s a large crowd gathered around Jesus. And it says he was teaching them many things in parables. Parables have to do with comparing two things to make a point.

3“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow.

So we have a farming image, that, as we will see makes a point about the kingdom of God. These are the two things being compared.

From Jesus’ explanation to his disciples we learn that –

14The sower sows the word.

Jesus is talking about the good news of the kingdom of God that he’s sharing with everyone (1:15).

And then we come to the focus of the parable –

The four soils

The sower and the seed are all the same, but the seed lands on different kinds of soil. And these different kinds of soil represent different people in different spiritual conditions.

The first soil is that of the path.

4And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.

Jesus is here talking about ground that is a walking trail next to, or through a field. So the soil is packed down and hard. The seed can’t get into the dirt. It lays on top of the ground and so the birds eventually eat it.

And then we have Jesus’ interpretation in v. 15 –

15And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.

These people hear the words of the gospel but they don’t sink down into their minds or hearts. Their hearts are hardened. They might be religious, but they aren’t open to hearing God’s word concerning the kingdom. The result is that Satan takes away the seed.

So here there’s no germination of they seed. These people dismiss and reject the message Jesus brings.

And then we have the rocky ground.

5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away.

The idea seems to be some dirt laying on top of a large rock in the ground. The seed can germinate quickly because it doesn’t have a lot of dirt to break through. But it can’t sustain itself because the soil is not deep enough for roots. When the sun comes out it withers away.

Next we look at Jesus’ interpretation starting in v. 16 –

16And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.

These hearers receive the message, but it doesn’t go deep into their lives; it doesn’t become firmly rooted in their heart. And so when things get difficult they fall away from the faith.

So here there’s genuine faith and there’s germination and life, but only for a short time.

And then we have the thorny soil.

7Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.

This soil is productive because the seed grows. But there are other seeds or plants in the soil that grow to choke out the good seed so that there’s no fruit.

Then we have Jesus’ interpretation –

18And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

These people believe and grow for a time, but other concerns and pursuits “enter in” to their lives. They focus on worldly worries, trying to get more wealth and don’t have a single minded focus on the kingdom of God. These are the thorns.

The result is that the new life of the gospel in their lives is killed off and no fruit is produced. So here there’s real faith, there’s germination and life, but it dies before the time of harvest.

Notice the progression here – from no germination, to a sprout that quickly dies, to a growing plant that eventually withers away. Only the last soil actually bears fruit.

So let’s look at the good soil.

8And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.

Notice how the seeds here finish the process –

  • they germinate, unlike the hardened soil of the path
  • they continue to grow, unlike the shallow soil
  • and they bring forth a harvest, unlike the thorny soil.

And then we have Jesus’ interpretation –

20But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.

These hearers fully accept the message of the gospel.

  • In contrast to the soil of the path, their hearts are not hard to God’s word. They receive it.
  • In contrast to the shallow soil, the word goes deep into their lives. It is nurtured through attention and study. It is firmly rooted.
  • In contrast to the thorny soil, they stay focused on the kingdom and not the things of the world: getting caught up in maintaining our earthly lives with all the busyness and going in all directions at once that this involves; seeking security and comfort in getting more and more wealth; and pursuing entertainment and leisure.

These people get it and mature as disciples of Jesus and are blessed in the fullness of the kingdom.

Notice the description of a bountiful harvest – “thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” So even though ¾ of the total seed sowed bears no fruit, here the harvest is abundant. Even though so many don’t respond to Jesus, the harvest on the final day will still be great.

This leads us to the question we began with –

Why have so many not believed?

 The sower is the same, Jesus. The seed is the same, the good news of the kingdom of God. What’s different is the kind of soils that the seed lands on; the spiritual condition of people who hear the gospel.

Jesus is teaching us here that God is not forcing people to receive his kingdom. He allows us all to choose to receive it or not. And so many, if not most, will reject it. And specifically with regard to the Jewish leaders rejecting Jesus, the explanation is hardness of heart. The seed of the good news fell on the hardened path in their case. (See Mark 3:5)

And then we come to –

Jesus’ message to us

Beyond an initial reception of the gospel, which his disciples and we have done, that is weren’t not hard hearted toward the gospel, we must continue to overcome obstacles that stand in our way. What are the two enemies of disciples identified in this parable?

1) Living a shallow Christian life so that when testing comes we fall away.

2) Being focused on this life and not the kingdom of God.

And Jesus really wants us to get this message because he begins his parable by saying, “Listen” and he ends it by saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Are you listening this morning?

Honoring God’s Name

Today I would like to share with you on the topic of honoring God’s name, specifically how we use God’s name in our speech. And this, of course, leads us to the third of the ten commandments.

Exodus 20:7 – “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Also Deuteronomy 5:11)

This is the English Standard Version and is a fairly traditional rendering. The New Living Translation says, “You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.”

Now, we all know this verse, but let’s look at each part carefully so that we know what it teaches. First, we have the phrase –

Take . . . in vain

What does this mean?

  • “take” – means to lift up, utter, pronounce
  • “in vain” – means in a deceitful, empty, worthless or insincere way

As we saw, some newer translations put these words together and simply say “do not misuse the name.” The idea is don’t use the Name in a deceitful, empty, worthless or insincere way.

Now let’s look at –

God’s Name

God’s personal name is spelled YHWH. This is found over 6,000 times in Old Testament. In our translations this word shows up when you see “LORD” or “GOD” in all capital letters.

In the ancient world Hebrew writing didn’t have vowels, they were only added in when the words were spoken. And since the Name was eventually deemed too holy to speak (in part with regard to the 3rd commandment) its pronunciation was actually forgotten among Jews. So we just have the consonants – YHWH.

A little history here. When Jews read the Bible, they would say “Lord” or sometimes “God” in place of the divine Name in order to avoid saying it. Later, when vowel marks were added to the Hebrew Bible (ninth century), the vowels of the Hebrew word “Lord” or Adonai were put with the divine Name, as a cue to say “Lord.” This is where the word “Jehovah” comes from. When you put the consonants YHWH plus the vowel sounds of “Lord” together, you get “Jehovah.” But it wasn’t until, perhaps as late as the 1500’s in Europe, that people starting reading this as a real word, even though it was not. Now, of course, we have made it a real name or reference for God.

YaHWeH” seems to be the best pronunciation or the best way to add in the vowels. This is based on some early Christian texts that have vowels with the divine Name, the pronunciation of Samaritan priests who have pronounced the Name throughout the centuries, and archaeological finds with inscriptions that spell out the divine Name.

Well, it’s this personal name of God that is focused on in the 3rd commandment. It says, literally, “You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

In New Testament times, Yahweh wasn’t used. But the concerns of this command are applied to other references to God:

  • In Romans 2:24 when Paul refers to God’s name being blasphemed, he applies the concern of the third commandment, not to misuse the Name,  to the word “God.” (Theos in Greek)
  • In Matthew 6:9, when Jesus calls God, “Father” and then prays, “Hallowed be your Name,” he applies the concern of the third commandment, to honor God’s name,  to the word “Father.”

So, the scope of the command covers all our references to God“God,” “Lord,” “Father” and certainly also to “Jesus,” “Christ” and “Spirit.” However we name God, that’s what’s covered by this command.

Now let’s look at –

Wrong uses of God’s Name

First, it should be noted that we can dishonor God’s name without ever saying anything. That’s because we bear God’s name as God’s people and we bear the name of Christ, as Christians. So when we don’t live up to this in our actions, when we sin, we dishonor and thus misuse God’s name (Romans 2:23-24). But we’ll keep to our focus and look at wrongful uses of God’s name with regard to our speech.

1. Swearing falsely. The basic idea here is that if you invoke God’s name in an oath and then, for instance, don’t tell the truth, you have misused God’s name. You use the name to give the appearance of telling the truth, but it is really being used as a cover for a lie.

Leviticus 19:12 makes the connection between swearing oaths and the third commandment. It says, “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.” Swearing falsely profanes the Name.

2. Use of God’s name in profanity. You know how it works, adding the word “damn” to God’s name in anger or saying “Jesus” and/or “Christ” in anger. This is using God’s name to vent our anger or to try to be vulgar or to curse others or to get attention. We treat God’s name as a plaything that is at our disposal. We use God’s name for effect. This is not what God’s name is for.

3. Use of God’s Name to justify our ideas or actions. In Scripture this shows up when people speak in the name of God, for instance prophets, but are really only saying their own thoughts (Jeremiah 14:14; Ezekiel 22:28)

Today we have similar ways of doing this. For instance, politicians, who wrap themselves in “God language” in order to gain legitimacy for their ideas and agendas. And, has there ever been a war that wasn’t warranted by reference to God? And that, paradoxically, on both sides? These are examples of using God’s name to justify our actions, much or all of which have nothing to do with God.

We too need to be careful when we use God’s name to justify our actions. For instance, “I feel like God wants me to quit this job” – when really we just want to quit and don’t want to give the real reason. Or when we say, “God wanted me to tell you such and such . . ..” Well, if he didn’t, you have misused God’s name. You are using it to give more weight to what you have to say, when God doesn’t have anything to do with it.

4. Careless use of the Name. This is where we treat the Name as common, or use it in a casual way. This is, perhaps, where we have the most work to do. For instance everyday exclamations – “God knows!” or “O My God!” (texting OMG) or “For God’s sake.” These phrases may have all begun as real references to God, but that’s not how we use them. In these and in similar examples, what we are doing is trivializing God’s name into a kind of verbal punctuation mark for our conversations. This isn’t what God’s name is for!

Another example would be using God and God’s Name in humor. There may be differences of opinion on this, but it’s my counsel to you that it’s just best to stay away from this. We live in a very casual, informal culture and I am fine with that, but we still need to show deference to God. We need to treat God differently. I would encourage you to leave God out of your humor.

Well, we need to be careful with how we use God’s Name, especially as we look at –

Why this is so serious

A name in the Bible is connected to who you are. It has to do with your reputation and character. 1. So how you use a person’s name reflects how you view the personWhen we misuse God’ name we show that we have a low view of God. We don’t understand God’s awesomeness. We don’t have a proper reverence for God in our hearts, and so our mouth speaks out what is in our hearts – words that misuse God’s name.

2. This is serious because we will be judged for doing it. Exodus 20:7 ends with the warning, “The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.” (NLT). This is a promise from God that you don’t want to receive. God looks after his name. Rather, we need to ask for and receive forgiveness from God for our misuses of his name, and learn to be more  careful.

Let’s end with looking at –

How to use God’s Name rightly

  • Psalm 119:132 – We are to love God’s Name.
  • Psalm 102:15 – We are to fear his Name.
  • Psalm 113:3 – We are to praise God’s Name.
  • Psalm 103:1 – We are to bless God’s Name.
  • Matthew 6:9 – We are to hallow God’s name. That is, we are to treat it as special, not common. Just as God is holy, so is his name.

We should only use God’s Name reverently, sincerely, and thoughtfully.

How to overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19-21

When someone wrongs us a struggle is unleashed within us to see whether we will be overcome by it so that we respond in kind, or whether we will overcome the desire for payback and choose love. This is what we’re talking about this morning.

According to the world there’s really only one way to respond – we should strike back; we should harm our enemies in return. Now God put a limit on this when Moses taught in the Old Testament, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ (Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:17-2, Deuteronomy 19:19-21 in contrast to Genesis 4:23-24) That is, the payback has to be in proportion to the injury suffered. But still there is in our world an endless cycle of people harming each other through personal vengeance, the justice system and warfare.

But Jesus shows us another way; the way of love. For when Jesus’ enemies sought to kill him he endured the harm and suffering of the cross and returned good for evil. And in doing so he shows us how to overcome evil with good. He wasn’t overcome so that he did harm back to his enemies. He overcame through the power of love.

Paul speaks of this in –

Romans 12:19-21

And I want us to look more closely at this passage today.

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

First we look at the negative side of this –

Being overcome by evil

This comes from the phrase in v. 21 – “do not be overcome by evil.”

This is how it works. Someone harms you. This can happen on a small scale, for instance, someone insults you. Or it can be something truly terrible – for instance, someone kills a loved one of yours.

How will we respond? It’s natural to be angry and to want justice; in fact, we usually want more than “an eye for and eye;” we want to give back much more harm than we got. Evil is very powerful. Once we fall victim to it, it gets into our system and tries to replicate itself through our anger so that we start doing evil as well; so that we start harming people.

The question is, ‘What will we do with our anger?’ 1. Usually we give in to our anger to one degree or another; our desire for justice. And when we do this 2. we return harm for harm. In various ways through our words and our deeds we seek to hurt and destroy our enemy.

How to overcome evil with good 1

The result is that you are now harming another person, just as your enemy harmed you. You are doing the same thing. You have been overcome. You are now caught up in the cycle of evil for evil; harm for harm just responding to others based on how they’ve treated you.

But harm for harm never truly satisfies, even, for instance, if someone kills your family member and the criminal is executed. It doesn’t restore what was taken away from us. It doesn’t give us peace.

You may even the balances and that might feel good on a certain level, but you will never overcome the evil done to you with more harm. So we should set this response aside. As Paul says in Romans 12:17 – “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” or as it is better translated “harm for harm,” referring as it does to the teaching of “an eye for an eye.”

Let’s look now at the other side of this –

How to overcome evil with good

Paul tells us to do this in v. 21 – “overcome evil with good.” There are three steps in this process. When an enemy injures us:

1. Endure the harm without giving it back. Paul says in v. 19 – “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.”

Now, there’s a lot that we can do, within the limits of loving our enemies. That is to say, this doesn’t mean be passive and just take it. We can stand up for ourselves and for what is right. We can point out wrong. We can use force to stop an evildoer from what they’re trying to accomplish. There are redemptive things we can do in relation to our enemy. But fundamentally the point here is that we should not return evil for evil, harm for harm.

So let’s say someone breaks into my house and wants to hurt my family. If I could, I would stop them, let’s say disarm them. They have a bat and hit me hard, but I eventually take it away. What I can’t do is then take the bat and beat them. And I certainly can’t kill them because Jesus calls us to love our enemies, not destroy them.

2. Look to God for your justice. v. 19 goes on to say, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

It’s normal to have anger when someone harms you. This is due to our sense that an injustice has happened. This is how God made us. We are not to deny this or try to suppress it. And indeed God gives us the capacity for anger to stir us up to act to make things right.

Anger is not wrong. It’s what you do with your anger that’s the issue. Paul teaches us that we are to place our angry desire for payback in God’s hands. This is the key to overcoming evil and breaking out of the cycle of evil for evil; harm for harm – giving the agenda of justice or payback over to God.

He can fight for us and judge our enemies according to his will. This is what God says he will do, “I will repay.” Not, “you will repay,” but “I will repay, says the Lord.” So when we suffer harm from an enemy, pray something like this, “God I have been wronged. Take note of this and act for me in a way that is pleasing to you. I give it into your hands and trust you with it.”

It’s our trust in God that sets us free. We know that God can handle it. It might not happen right away; it might not happen until the final day, but all wrongs will be righted by God. We can trust God to take care of us.

3. Love and do good to your enemies.  Once we’ve placed the agenda of payback into God’s hands this frees us up to love our enemies and do good to them. We can focus on mercy, since we know that God will take care of issues of justice.

Paul says in v. 20 – “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Rather than harming our enemies we return good for evil.

How to overcome evil with good 2

This is counter-intuitive. It goes against what our flesh desires, for sure. But we can only overcome evil by returning good for harm; by choosing mercy and love. This releases us from being captive to the cycle of anger, hatred bitterness and harm for harm. The circuit is broken. We’re set free! Our trust in God sets us free.

Now we hope that such acts of love will lead our enemy to repent, and we should pray for this. But if not, we know that God is more than able to deal with them. Such judgment is described in v. 20 as “burning coals” coming down on their heads. 

Let me end by pointing out that Jesus modeled for us these three steps of overcoming evil with good when he died on –

 The cross

When his enemies conspired against him:

1. He endured the harm without giving it backAs 1 Peter 2:23 says, on the cross, “when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten.”

2. He looked to God for vindication. 1 Peter 2:23 tells us that while he suffered, he “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” He gave the agenda of payback and justice into God’s hands.

3. He continued to love his enemies doing good to them. As Luke 23:34 tells us, while he was on the cross, he prayed for his enemies, for mercy and forgiveness. While they were busy murdering him, he was dying for their sins.

Jesus models for us how to overcome evil with good on the cross. As Peter says Jesus left us an example, “so that (we) should follow in his steps” – 1 Peter 2:21.