Chapter OneSince That Time
The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached. (Luke 16:16)
* * *
The year was A.D. 28, give or take a few. For a chosen people who hadn't
heard a word from God in four centuries, life was pretty good. The Jews
had covered their insecurities with a blanket of sameness. The absence of a
fresh encounter with God had them clutching to what they had left-the
Law. Interesting, isn't it? The Hebrew people climbed to the summit of
their legalism during the silent years between Malachi and Matthew. That's
what really religious people do when they don't have much of a relationship
In those days sons followed in their father's footsteps. Girls had no
need of formal education. After all, they would simply grow up and do
exactly as their mothers had done. The devoted uttered the same prayer in
the morning that had fallen from their lips the last time the sun came up.
Tomorrow would repeat the process.
Courtesy of a Herod who desperately needed their favor, the Jewish
people finally had their temple, and, boy, was it a beaut. For the most part,
they had things just the way they wanted them.
The Hebrew people wanted to know what they could expect out of
life, so they formed themselves an expectation and enforced it with a
vengeance. They arranged life the way they wanted it, threw it over their
heads like a security blanket, and hid from change.
I can relate. I've done the same thing a few times.
If anyone questioned the status quo, the committed acted like the blanket
had always been right there. No doubt many ascribed to the same prevailing
attitude described by 2 Peter 3:4 many years later: "Ever since our
fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation."
But they were wrong. Since the beginning of creation, things have
never simply gone on. A plan of inconceivable perfection has been under
careful execution. Always. Even in the silent years of Israel's history, God
was never inactive.
We have no idea how busy God's hands are even when His mouth
seems closed. Where God is concerned, silence never equals slumber. For
those of us looking for an overall grasp of what the God of the universe is
doing with planet Earth, few titles of Christ are more significant than those
issued from His own mouth in Revelation 22:13. He is "the Alpha and the
Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End."
I cannot describe how impressed I am with the manifold perfections
and consistencies of Scripture. The book that unfolds with the words "in
the beginning" draws to a conclusion with the One who declares Himself
both that very Beginning and the End. Life on this planet had a precisely
executed beginning, and it will have a certain end. He who planned them
both to perfection did not leave everything in between to go on as it
would . or as it always had.
God in heaven has a will for this Earth. Before He ever uttered, "Let
there be light," every day of His kingdom calendar from beginning to end
was filled with events. Man can refuse to cooperate, but he cannot keep
God from executing the critical events on His schedule. And thankfully, no
amount of tradition can stop God when He has a mind to change things.
Just about the time the establishment got things the way they wanted and
swore they had always been, someone had the gall to stick his head out from
under the security blanket. Sooner or later he'd lose his head for doing it, but
in the meantime he'd shake a few things up. Don't miss the implication of
a very deliberate God keeping a precise schedule on a kingdom calendar.
Luke 3:1-2 says, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar . during
the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas" something very critical happened.
The word of God came to a man named John.
Somehow John got labeled "the Baptist," but "the preacher" would fit
better. He came declaring, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee
from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do
not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell
you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The
ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce
good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Luke 3:7-9).
I began this chapter with a quote out of Christ's own mouth: "The Law
and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good
news of the kingdom of God is being preached" (Luke 16:16). Jesus
referred to the life of John as a pivot point of change on the kingdom calendar.
After four hundred years of silence, suddenly the Word of God
After such a long wait to see God reveal Himself afresh to mortal
creatures, I wonder if all of heaven hushed to hear it. Of course, those on
earth didn't have to hush. The Baptizer talked nice and loud. Loud
enough, in fact, that according to Matthew's version, Pharisees and
Sadducees from Jerusalem went all the way to the fringe of the security
blanket on the banks of the Jordan to see what all the commotion was
about (Matt. 3:5, 7). Theirs were among the few heads that stayed dry
that day. They held their security blankets over their heads to keep from
getting doused in change.
Always one to swim against the current, John the Baptist's message
traveled the Jordan upstream into the waters of a handful of fisherman in
a village called Bethsaida. Drawn like fish to bait, several of them trekked
to hear him and hung on every word he said. In fact, John 1:35 refers to
them as disciples of John the Baptist.
Don't let the term disciples seem heretical to you. The label seems
almost sacred to many of us in evangelical Christianity, but keep in mind
the only thing that made the twelve disciples of Christ sacred was the One
they followed. Disciple simply indicates a pupil and follower of someone's
Thankfully, John the Baptist turned out to be a man worth following
precisely because they followed him straight to Jesus.
The religious leaders challenged the baptizer: "What do you say
about yourself?." Who was he? Was he Elijah? Was he the Christ? Some
other prophet? The preacher dearly declared, "I am the voice of one calling
in the desert, 'Make straight the way for the Lord' . I baptize with
water . but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who
comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie"
(John 1:22-23, 26-27). John the Baptist defined himself in two ways:
1. He was not the Christ.
2. He was the one sent to prepare for the Christ.
The question the religious leaders asked isn't a bad one for us to ask
ourselves as we launch this boat together. So, what about you? What do
you say about yourself? What we don't say in words, we ultimately say in
deeds. Daily we say all sorts of things about ourselves. Sometimes what we
say about ourselves is not necessarily accurate, but it's what we believe.
Trust me. I know about this one. I lived much of my life with a highly
inaccurate estimation of who I wasn't and who I was. As a young person,
I swung dizzily between feelings of "I am a victim and I'm not as good as
anybody else" to "I'm no one's victim and I'm going to be better than everyone
else." As I stare at that brief testimony, I sigh at the recollection of it
all. Believing and living a lie was so exhausting. What finally got me off of
the swing? Learning to see myself in relationship to Jesus Christ.
Don't get the idea that I've arrived or that whatever I've learned so far
hasn't been a process. I still struggled with my identity even as I got a little
healthier. Still do at times. During my first years of ministry, I tried so hard
to be just like my mentor and to do everything just as she did it.
Have you discovered that trying to be someone else is exhausting?
Because of Jesus, John knew who he was and who he wasn't. Who
wasn't he? The Christ. Much of his public was plenty willing to hail him as
the Messiah had he let them. He didn't.
So who was John the Baptist according to his own definition? "I am
the voice of the one calling in the desert, 'Make straight the way of the
Lord.'" I find what he said about himself very refreshing. He understood
the greatness of Christ and how unworthy he was in comparison, but he
didn't give himself the value of an inchworm under a rock. His life had
value through its connection to the Messiah. John the Baptist introduced
a concept that another John will carry on for us throughout our travel
together. Among many other things, we're going to learn how to define
ourselves by our relationship to Jesus Christ. We'll arrive at an important
place of maturity when we're able to accurately assess and articulate who we
are . and who we are not.
As we try to compare ourselves to John the Baptist, we might be
tempted to think, "Well, one thing is certain. No one's going to get me confused
with Christ." On the contrary, some people will try to make anyone
with a semblance of spiritual maturity and identity their personal saviors.
Have you ever had anyone try to make a savior of sorts out of you? Our
most convenient response might be shifting all responsibility to the poor,
confused person. After all, can we help it if someone mistakes us for more
than we are? John the Baptist's example might suggest that we can and
must "help it" whenever possible. Like him, when circumstances and relationships
call for appropriate reassessment, we don't want to fail to confess,
but to confess freely, things such as
* "I'm so sorry if I've led you to believe otherwise, but I am not your
salvation. I have no power to deliver you."
* "I can't be our entire family's rock. If you're all standing on me for
stability, we're all about to have a sinking spell."
* "Not only do I not have all the answers; I'm still trying to figure out
So do we just let everyone down? No, we ask them to let us down-right
off that man-made pedestal of toothpicks. Our role in the lives of
those God authentically sends our way for help is not altogether unlike
John the Baptist's. We become a voice in their desert helping them prepare
a way for the Lord.
I can't wait to see why God has invited me along on this journey. I have
no preconceived notions. No idea where this study is going. An unknown
adventure lies ahead of me as surely as it does for you. I've rarely been more
excited about starting a study because I simply have no idea what awaits us.
I dearly love an adventure! I can't wait to see all the stops we'll make
and all the keepsakes we'll pick up along the way. But when all is said and
done, I have a feeling we will learn much about identity. Whose? Christ's
and two of His very important disciples. One we'll meet in our next chapter.
The other you can meet in the nearest mirror.
As we conclude this first chapter, let's form a baseline of our present
perceived identity so we'll be able to draw comparisons as we get much further
down the road on this journey. Please be completely honest. Just
between God and you, who have you discovered that you aren't? And who
have you discovered that you are?
I'm so glad you've joined me. Let's have a blast in the Word of God.
We'll begin with a look at one of the most important elements in Jewish
life . family.
Chapter TwoThe Identity of Family
Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of
Zebedee and his brother John. (Matthew 4:21)
* * *
Family. Only God Himself could be more important. To the devout
Jew, the familial could not be detached from the spiritual. God Himself
wove the two together from the beginning when He created Eve as the
complement to Adam (Gen. 2:21-22)-a spiritual act if you'll ever find
one. Then, in Genesis 4:1, God added the first child to the mix.
Family life became synonymous with family problems almost from the
start, but God never abandoned the concept. Indeed, family was a very
good idea and became a powerful medium through which God has worked
throughout history. The meshing of the familial and spiritual was emphasized
so strongly in the Old Testament that space permits me only a few of
many references: Exodus 12:25-27 says, "When you enter the land that
the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when
your children ask you, 'What does this ceremony mean to you?' then tell
them, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses
of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the
Joshua 4:5-7 says, "Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into
the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder,
according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign
among you. In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these
stones mean?' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the
ark of the covenant of the Lord."
Hebrew parents and children talked. The Lord did not say, "if your
children ask you," but, "when your children ask you." Fathers were even
more involved in the education of their children than were mothers. In a
typical ancient Jewish home, communication was virtually constant; to
remove the spiritual significance from their conversation would have served
to nearly silence them.
You are probably Gentile by heritage, just as I am. Any time we study
the life of someone steeped in an entirely different culture, we have to be
very intentional about seeing them in their world rather than ours. We can
make countless applications to our world but only after we have viewed the
historical figure such as John in his or her own. Not only was ancient
Orthodox Judaism an entirely different culture than ours, God made sure
it compared to none. He did not want His nation to be like any others. I'll
let God talk for Himself from Deuteronomy 14:1-2: "You are the children
of the Lord your God . for you are a people holy to the Lord your
God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen
you to be his treasured possession."
The people we will study together were Jews at a time when Judaism
had perhaps never been more Jewish. By this expression I mean that
although they were under Roman rule, they enjoyed significant freedom to
live out their culture. They were firmly established in their land and had
their temple. Every sect of religious life was functioning at full throttle: the
Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the teachers of the law, to name only a few.