The Land They Call Holy…

“Five gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books and the one you will find in the land they call Holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you.” – Jerome (347-420 AD)

It’s easy to miss – among all the city life, the politics, the ethnic and religious tension, among the sunsets and mountain vistas, even among the holy sites and ancient ruins. With all that beauty and history and tension that is Israel, it can be easy to miss the signs that point to something greater than the place itself. It’s as if the land is whispering, inviting us into the story that unfolded among its hills and cities.

If the land itself whispers, it is beckoning us not to itself, but to what was revealed here: nothing less than the very glory of God. Here God’s glory was revealed not by mountain vistas or sunsets over the seas. No, God has revealed His glory in the person of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:6) – and this land bears testimony to His life and His ministry.

Still jet-lagged, Kristin and I returned yesterday (Monday) from 10 days in Israel with my DMin cohort. From the weather and the food to the teaching and the ancient sites, this was an amazing experience! I hope to walk through some of the highlights site-by-site in the coming weeks. For now, however, here are a few images that we managed to capture from our time in Israel!

Scenes from Caesarea Maritime, where Peter preached to Cornelius (Acts 10) and Paul was imprisoned (Acts 23-25). Clockwise: Herod’s aqueduct; the ruins of Herod’s palace; the ancient theater.
To the far north (Golan Heights) for Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13-28; top) and Dan (site of a rival temple, bottom right)… then to the Sea of Galilee for Capernaum (synagogue, bottom left) and Magdala (the Magdala Stone, bottom center)!
A breath-taking wealth of treasures! Clockwise: Sea of Galilee (looking towards Magdala), Megiddo (an ancient altar used in pagan worship for over 2000 years), Sepphori (a city neighboring Nazareth, which likely provided carpentry work to Jospeh and Jesus), and the remains of an ancient fishing boat (roughly 1st century) outside Tiberias!
Traveling from Galilee to Judea, we moved south through the Decapolis (its capital Scythopolis, right), down the West Bank and to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity (left).

Jerusalem is simply too much for words.
Clockwise, Herodium, the Western Wall, the Garden Tomb, and Joffa. In addition to all the amazing sites, the teaching by Scot McKnight (left) and Joel Willitts (right) made our time truly exceptional.

On the Road: Headed to Israel

Passport: Check

Itinerary: Check

We’re knee deep in preparations here. In just a few weeks, Kristin and I will join a crew from my Northern Seminary DMin Cohort for a 10-day study tour of Israel!  While we’ve had the opportunity to see many biblical sites in Turkey and Greece, this will be our first time in Israel. Guided by our doctoral professors, Scot McKnight and Joel Willitts, our cohort have the opportunity to see firsthand the sites and scenes that help to animate much of the Bible. This kind of context isn’t a mere backdrop to the biblical drama, it is integral to the story unfolding on the pages of scripture.  If you read the Bible carefully, the setting is a rich and compelling character, used by the authors to give nuance, depth, and detail to the story!

For those who might be interested, I’ll be doing my best to offer some highlights here on the blog. Here’s a simplified itinerary of our time:

Day 1 – Depart the US

Day 2 – Arrive in Tel Aviv; Tour Joppa/Jaffa and Caesarea

Day 3 – Tour Megiddo, Mt. Carmel, Druze Village, Nazareth, Cana, Galilee

Day 4- Mount of Beatitudes, Golan Heights, Caesarea Philippi, Tel Dan, Sea of Galilee

Day 5 – Galilee, Capernaum, Jordan River, Beit Shean, Bethlehem, Jerusalem

Day 6 – Mount of Olives, Palm Sunday Road, Garden of Gethsemane, Jewish Quarter, Temple Mount, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Southern Steps

Day 7 – Masada, Ein Gedi, Qumran, Dead Sea

Day 8 – Shrine of the Book (Dead Sea Scrolls), Model City, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, St Peter in Gallicantu, Garden Tomb

Day 9 – Jerusalem, Herodian, Khirbet Qeiyafa, Elah Valley

Day 10 – Depart to the US

It’s going to be a whirlwind, but we can’t wait for the opportunity to learn and grow together!

What good news?

In the church world, we throw around the word gospel on a daily basis. Indeed, it has become the adjective de jour in the Christian publishing world (gospel-centered this, gospel-shaped that). And yes, we should be a gospel-centered people and churches… I agree emphatically. The problem is that sometimes we use the word in a way that is disconnected from its Biblical roots. The gospel can easily become short-hand for a specific system of doctrine, or for a particular way of looking at salvation. Doctrine and salvation are so important… but they are not the gospel itself. They flow out of the gospel; they are implications and applications of the gospel… but what is the gospel (good news) in Biblical terms?

In 1 Corinthians 15:1-7, a very early account, Paul tell us pretty squarely:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

What’s the good news here? The person and work of Jesus in history. Jesus is the good news! Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is good news… all of which occurred “in accordance with scripture” – that is, Jesus (especially in view here is His death and resurrection) is the climax of the redemptive work that God has been about throughout the “scripture” (read: Hebrew Bible/Old Testament).

As Scot McKnight says, “It’s not about us. It’s not about salvation. It’s about Jesus. But in getting Jesus, we get salvation, and us, and a lot more flourishing than we could ever imagine”. Check out this short interview posted by the people over at the Regeneration Project:

What do you think? Helpful? More important, biblical?

The Prophet's Call

In Luke 9:61-62, a would-be disciple tells Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus responds by reflecting on the radical commitment necessitated by his call: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

If you know your Hebrew Bible well, you might notice some parallels between Jesus’ interaction with this would-be disciple and Elijah’s call of Elisha in 1 Kings 19:19-21. In both texts we note the plow imagery, a potential disciple requesting furlough to attend to matters at home, and the dynamics of the charismatic-prophetic figure enlisting disciples into service of his mission. This isn’t a coincidence. It would seem that Jesus sees the call of Elisha by Elijah as prototypical to His own call of disciples. But there is an important difference between Jesus and Elijah’s interactions with these potential disciples: where Elijah permits Elisha to return home, bid his family farewell, and offer a sacrifice of the oxen, Jesus doesn’t allow this would-be disciple to return home. This is Jesus’ intensification of the call to discipleship.

Here’s what I think is happening: Jesus is intentionally recreating this scene from the Hebrew Bible. Like other charismatic leaders of late Second Temple Period, Jesus can be counted as a scripture prophet – “prophets who searched the scripture to discover their own life and destiny in the pages of the Tanakh” (McKnight, 77). As Dodd observes, it was Jesus Himself who “directed the mind of His followers to certain parts of the scriptures as those in which they might find illumination upon the meaning of his mission and destiny…” (Dodd, 110).

The scripture prophet is guided by a self-understanding derived from some preceding religious texts or sources. In Luke 9:61-62, if Elijah’s call of Elisha is prototypical, Jesus is directing his disciples to see Him as a new Elijah – or possibly one greater than, but in the same tradition as, Elijah.

Jesus isn’t drawing our attention to Elijah’s call of Elisha for nothing. Jesus is using the language and imagery of this classic Hebrew story to help would-be disciples understand something about His own mission. Here we have a archetypal call narrative from the Old Testament – and Jesus puts a bold spin on it. In refusing this disciple leave, Jesus is making emphatic the exclusive and disruptive nature of His call, and his own sovereign authority. The urgency of Jesus’ message – and His own messianic authority – allows Him to break with social and even religious protocol. Likewise His disciples are expected to prioritize this mission above competing allegiances: comfort, safety, vocation, and even family.

A Week in the Life…

I love exploring the New Testament’s first century context. There’s such richness of history and insight to be mined. But this isn’t just learning for learning’s sake. I’m convinced that familiarizing ourselves with the cultural context of the Bible helps us understand and apply the Bible’s truths. It helps us ask the right questions of the text. It helps us hear Jesus as He would be heard in His world. It helps us appreciate the dynamics and tensions that run just under the surface of the text – but often fuel the drama and conflict of the narrative.

So, I was excited when IVP sent a new book my way last week: A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion. Here Burge, a NT professor at Wheaton College, imagines a Roman Centurion in first century Capernaum – his work, his culture, and his interactions with an itinerant preacher called Jesus. If you’re interested in the context of the ancient world but prefer a well-told story over the wooden prose of a textbook, then Burge’s book may be for you. Yes, it’s fiction – but it may just help you become conversant in the culture in which Jesus lived and ministered. What do you think? Is this just another way to sell books… or is this a useful way to bridge the gap between scholars and the people in the pews?

If you’re interested, here’s an interview provided by IVP that helps us understand Burge’s heart behind this latest book:


Traveling Back To Roman Times

UnknownWhether it’s teaching the New Testament to undergraduates at Wheaton College or publishing commentaries on the Gospels, accomplished New Testament scholar Gary Burge is passionate about helping people understand the context of the Middle East and the unique world of ancient Judaism in order to read their Bibles better. In pursuit of these same goals, Burge recently tried his hand at writing A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion, a fictional account of a Roman centurion during the time of Jesus. He gives insight into this experience in the interview below.

What compelled you to take this fictional approach?
Gary Burge: My interest in the book came from the need to explain the cultural assumptions that are always at work within the New Testament. We do this frequently in our textbooks, but this is a modality that is a lot more fun.

How did this experience differ from your nonfiction writing?
Burge: I have written extensively about the Gospel of John, and in my teaching I specialize in the Gospels and the history and culture of first century Galilee. For the past few years, I have been interested in bringing to more popular audiences the things we scholars read and discuss regularly. There is a huge gap here. Regular readers of the New Testament do not know the things we take for granted. And when we fill in the picture for them, suddenly they see that the New Testament has real life in a real living context.

Was writing fiction easier or harder for you?
Burge: I found that the genre of fiction was reasonably challenging. Those of us who write non-fiction descriptions of the Biblical world or theology don’t think about story arcs or the development of characters.

What were your goals with the story?
Burge: In this case, I wanted the main character, a centurion, to seem real: he is a violent man, he drinks heavily, he has a concubine, and he doesn’t mind visiting a brothel. And yet there is loyal side to him—not just to his legion but to those in his familia. And the narrative brings a slave into his familia. It is this relationship that I wanted to explore—and it is in this relationship that I wanted to present a difficulty that needed resolution.
Above all I did not want to write Christian fiction that converted the centurion. That would be too easy. This is a complicated man. And he wouldn’t simply become a “Christ follower” overnight. He is skeptical, he is suspicious of the Jews he controls, and he’s been disappointed by religion many times.

Who do you hope will read this book?
Burge: My intended audience is a Christian who has some acquaintance with the New Testament and would like to know more about the background of its story. Or the reader may be someone who is fully acquainted with the New Testament and has read little that is new for a long time. My hope is that this will surprise both of them.

Check it out here!

Jesus' Call in Context

I’m working on a paper this week for school. In lieu of something more personal or original this week for the blog, here’s a taste (1/20th) of my paper on the call narratives of Jesus (minus the footnotes). In examining these call narratives (when Jesus calls someone to “follow me”), my hope for the paper is to show how the gospel writers frame Jesus’ purposes, expectations, and distinct social location within his first century Jewish context. Sounds like a party, right? Anyway, here’s a snapshot (and forgive the wooden, academic language):

The gospels often speak of the Jesus’ disciples – as well as the disciples of John the Baptist and those of the Pharisees. The gospel accounts use a specific term to denote such disciples: mathetes (μαθητής). In the first century, this Greek term and its Hebrew equivalent (תַּלְמִיד//talmidh) could readily be used to refer to a learner, in a general sense, or more technically to an adherent of a significant teacher or master. While the term mathetes rather literally denotes a disciple, the gospels also employ a metaphoric use of the term akolouthein (to follow; ακολούθει) to describe a disciple’s relationship to a master. Thus, with two simple words, Jesus calls Matthew (or Levi) from his tax booth: “Follow me.” Matthew followed, and from this point forward is consistently numbered among the disciples of Jesus. Indeed, the term akolouthein plays a significant role in the gospel call narratives, where it can, as Kingsbury argues, “connote accompaniment in the extended sense of discipleship.”

On the other hand, of course, the gospels also use akolouthein in a strictly literal sense. Matthew’s gospel provides a ready example: after an encounter with a “ruler” (whom Mark and Luke identify as Jarius, a synagogue leader), “Jesus rose and followed him.” The language is that of akolouthein – yet nothing in the context would suggest that Jesus is now a disciple of this ruler. Given these examples from Matthew’s gospel (cf. Mt. 9:9 and Mt. 9:18), the question becomes how the reader determines whether Matthew (or any other gospel author) is using akolouthein in a literal sense (to come/go after a person in sequence) or a metaphoric sense (to come/go after a person as a disciple). How does one discern whether a gospel author intends to indicate a sense of discipleship in a given use of akolouthein?

Along this line of inquiry, Kingsbury, in his analysis of Matthew, identifies two factors that characterize the metaphorical use of akolouthein: personal commitment and cost. In the context of call narratives, then, it does not surprise the reader to find Jesus telling would-be disciples to forego familial obligations, take up one’s cross, deny one’s self, or sell one’s possessions to benefit the poor. Fundamental to akolouthein as discipleship is Jesus’ call for a personal commitment (whether by way of a direct summons or a word addressed to his disciples) – an invitation which entails some sense of sacrifice, renouncement, or cost.

Already then, the reader begins to form some conclusions about Jesus’ position in the socio-religious landscape of first century Palestine. The almost formulaic connection between call, commitment, and cost as found in the metaphor of akolouthein as discipleship is nowhere recorded in the context of appointed office or authoritative succession. Rather, as Hengel observes, “these ideas occur in contexts where the traditional order and its standards are repeatedly broken down, or indeed outright rejected.” Jesus’ call to follow did not stem for a position of institutional authority (be that the Temple or a Pharisaic school of thought). This call comes from one who seemingly never even had formal instruction under a recognized rabbi.

Blindsided: A Rock

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.   – Matthew 7:24-29

The first hearers of Jesus message weren’t saying, “Hey, this is cute… Jesus is doing children’s ministry. Let’s turn it into a song.” No, they were astonished. In the Greek, this word carries the idea of being amazed so as to be overwhelmed. They were awestruck, floored!

My Bible has Jesus’ words in red. I gravitate to them. Don’t you?  I mean: His words are the very words of God, right? And yes, they are! But don’t overlook those other words, the words in black. This is the words of the narrator (Matthew in this case) and these words are essential.

Two quick reasons: First, they’re scripture, so they are also God-inspired. But secondly, they serve as stage directions in the gospel (see Don Everts’ God in the Flesh for more on this). In a theater or film script, stage directions are those little notes between the dialogue that says, “so-and-so exits stage left” or “so-and-so gasps.”

In the gospels, these words in black can serve a very similar purpose. Again and again, they tell us how people respond to Jesus (His presence, His ministry, His teaching). Sometimes people fall down on their faces; others break into spontaneous worship; sometimes the crowds get angry. People are offended or amazed or sacred – or sometimes all three! There are all sorts of responses to Jesus’ teachings and actions. And these responses can often clue us in to the context…

>>If the original audience is angry or offended, and I just can’t figure out why: that’s a clue that there’s some cultural context I’m missing (may Jesus was challenging some deeply held values or power structures that I’m not familiar with).

>>If the original hearers break into praise and worship, and I don’t get what they are so excited about: it’s a clue to me that I’m not picking up on some underlying context (maybe Jesus was speaking to an expectation from scripture or Jewish literature to which my ears aren’t attuned).

>>And here in our text this morning, if the crowd is astonished (amazed so as to be overwhelmed) by Jesus… but I’m just like, that’s a cute story, or hey, that could be a cute kids song… I’m probably missing the point!

So let’s ask the question: What are we missing?  Why is the crowd astonished?


I was a joy to preach through this text last month at LifePoint. You can download the message here (right click – or control click – to save file) or just listen below.

In Suffering

[Be sure to check out part 1 (Follow Me) and part 2 (On Mission) of this series on discipleship.]

I get it: We want to accentuate the positive. We Christians like to emphasize the positives of following Jesus – and minimize the negatives. But Jesus is pretty straight forward about the costs of discipleship. Matthew 8:19-22 is a great example.

And a scribe came up and said to [Jesus], “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

Jesus isn’t very seeker friendly here. He essentially calls this first scribe clueless; this guy doesn’t understand what he’s saying. Following Jesus means sharing his values and priorities – which are sometimes in direct opposition to our nature instincts. Jesus just doesn’t make comfort and security the kind of priorities that we do! Jesus is pushing this would-be disciple: “You say that you will follow… but do you know what that will cost you?” In speaking of foxes and birds, I don’t think that Jesus is just being cute. In the Old Testament (esp. the prophets), the opponents of God are compared to various animals. In fact, Jesus himself calls Herod Antipas “that fox” (Luke 13:32). I think Jesus is making a point about his purposes here: His opponents (the foxes and birds they are) have the comforts and security of home, but the Son of Man knows none of it. Jesus knows the suffering that is ahead of Him. Jesus demands that His disciples’ priorities reflect His own. And Jesus suffered greatly to accomplish His purposes. 

And this second interaction is interesting as well. Again, Jesus pushes back: “You say that you want to follow me… but do you understand what that means for your priorities?” Burial was likely a yearlong process. At death, the father’s bones would be set in a cave/niche for one year. On the one-year anniversary, the oldest son would see if the bones easily separated. If they did, the father’s remains would be set in a bone box and buried. A proper burial is the penultimate way that a son honors his father. It’s the ultimate act of obedience for an older son. The Mishnah (a later rabbinic text) says that this burial is the only thing that excused a son from reciting the Shema (a daily recitation from the Torah). Burial was a huge deal. Yet Jesus is saying that even your family obligations must come second.

In both of these encounters, Jesus is emphasizing the cost of following Him. Jesus came suffering – as with the master, so with the disciple. In order to follow Jesus, He must be more important than comfort, safety, even family (a theme which Matthew returns to again and again). Disciples of Jesus are called to share in His suffering and sacrifice. Matthew emphasizes this in Mat. 16:21-24 [as well as a ton of other places; see 10:38; 17:22-23; 20:26-28; 26:35].

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Jesus tells His disciples that He will be killed, then raised up again. And what happens? Peter steps in… and gets burned, “Your mind is not on the things of God, but the things of man.” Jesus is showing his disciples that there is a great purpose to His suffering. Jesus knew that God would be doing something amazing, not in spite of His suffering, but right in the midst of Jesus’ suffering and death.

Can Jesus’ disciples share this faith that God will do something redemptive through their suffering? That question is posed to us as well. If you would follow me, Jesus says, deny yourself (your comfort and security are no longer your first priority), take up your cross and follow me. The picture here is death. And ironically, Jesus is talking about death as a way of life for His disciples! Death as a way of life? That sounds a bit extreme, but it’s exactly Jesus’ point. Take up your cross – and keep on following me (present, active, imperative). This isn’t ‘take up your cross, go die and be done with it.’ It’s a paradox: life in the midst of death; a life of dying.  Jesus talks about suffering, sacrifice, and self-denial as a way of life – as a way of discipleship. This is what it means to follow in the way of Jesus – as with the master, so with the disciple.

Jesus bids us to follow. But He warns us not to be blind to the costs. As Bonhoeffer notes, in speaking of costly grace, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” (The Cost of Discipleship, 47).

What does it look like for you to live out the cost of discipleship?

What does “a life of dying” look like in practical terms?

How do we help those we are discipling to identify with Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice (best practices, failures, experiments)?