The Fragrance of Christ

bannerMary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:3)

In Matthew 26 we read the story of Jesus being anointed by Mary with very expensive perfume. Most Christians focus on the story of the anointing as pointing towards Christ’s death at the end of the week, because of Jesus’ comment that she did it to prepare for the day of his burial (Matt 26:12).

Another thing was likely going on, however, that would have been obvious to the disciples, so obvious that Jesus didn’t even need to mention it. While fragrant oils were used on the dead, they were also used to anoint kings. Mary’s extravagant, worshipful action was quite likely intended as her own personal declaration of Jesus as the “Anointed One,” the mashiach in Hebrew, or christos in Greek.

Usually, the ceremony of anointment was reserved only for sacred objects in the Temple and for anointing priests and kings, to show that they had been chosen by God. Instead of being crowned during a coronation, kings were anointed with sacred oil that was perfumed with extremely expensive spices, making it like diamonds in terms of its preciousness. The fragrant, flowing oil was like an invisible crown that conferred an aura of holiness. Everything that had that unique scent would be known to all as God’s special possession. 

After their initial anointing, kings would anoint themselves with other precious scented oils for special occasions. We read that both king David and Solomon did this:

(From a psalm for King David) You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of joy above Your fellows. All Your garments are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. (Ps. 45:7-8)

What is this coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all scented powders of the merchant? Behold, it is the traveling couch of Solomon; sixty mighty men around it, of the mighty men of Israel. (S. of Sol. 3:6-7)

In ancient times, the majesty of a king would be obvious to those around him, not only because of the jewels and robes that he wore, but by the scent of extremely expensive oils that were poured on him. These royal figures would parade through the streets with the fragrance of the oils, telling all of the bystanders a king was passing by. We see this after the anointing of Solomon, who is placed on a donkey and parades through the streets of Jerusalem, while people stand by and cheer:

So Zadok the priest… went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule, and brought him to Gihon. Zadok the priest then took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” All the people went up after him, and the people were playing on flutes and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth shook at their noise. (1Kings 1:38-40)

As much as anointing portrayed a person as being set apart by God for a purpose, the ultimate “Anointed One,” that everyone hoped for was the Messiah, the Christ, the King of Kings who God would someday send to reign over the earth.

Mary’s action was not an “official” anointing, but an expression of her own extravagant, worshipful love of Jesus. She knew that he was the one that God had chosen to redeem the world and reign over it as Messiah and Lord.

I wonder if Jesus’ comment about her preparing him for his burial is somewhat ironic, because she intended to glorify him, but he saw her action as pointing toward his suffering and death. Indeed, it was through that death that he was glorified! But I’m not sure that Mary would have thought of it at the time, given that all of Jesus’ disciples failed to grasp the greater plan.

Yet, this scene has profound implications for Jesus’ final week before his death. Jesus owned only one garment that he wore every day, and washing and bathing were not done daily. Because of Mary’s anointing, Jesus likely smelled like royalty during the final week of his life. In a very subtle way, God gave the people who interacted with Jesus a powerful message about him. Every where he went, he smelled like a king!

John 12 relates that the very next day after his anointing, Jesus rode on a donkey on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, in a scene very reminiscent of the coronation of Solomon. As he rode past, the people who were cheering must have sniffed the air and said, “It was a king that just passed by!”

Imagine the passion week in that light. As Judas entered the garden with the guards to arrest him, the guards must have sniffed the air and wondered what royalty stood before them. As he stood trial, was mocked and stripped naked, this aroma would have quietly clung to him, suggesting who they were beating. Even when the tomb was empty except for his grave clothes, that odor would have wafted in the air when the women entered. What an amazing God we have!

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. (2 Cor. 2:14-16).


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The Great Shepherd

When we hear the term “the Good Shepherd,” many of us immediately think of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…” But there are actually several messianic passages about “the Shepherd” in the Old Testament, and we can learn a lot about Jesus’ mission and message by what these passages say about him. Let’s look at a few:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” … He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And He will be their peace. (Micah 5:2, 4-5)

We can see many truths about Jesus as our shepherd even in this passage. It says that he will be born in Bethlehem, like his ancestor David, who was a shepherd. His origins are from many ages ago, suggesting that he was co-eternal with his Father. It says he would have a kingdom that would expand to the ends of the world, and that he himself would be the source of the peace of his people. What powerful words!

Another passage about the shepherd describes his suffering too. Jesus quotes Zechariah 13 which says,

“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man, my Associate (one who is close to me),” declares the LORD of hosts. “Strike the shepherd that the sheep may be scattered; and I will turn my hand against the little ones. (Zech. 13:7)

This passage suggests that the messiah would have an especially close relationship with God, but yet God would allow him to be attacked and harmed by others. Jesus quotes this passage to tell his disciples that he expects to suffer, and that they as his “sheep” would be scattered: they would abandon him at his death (Matt 26:31, Mark 14:27).

Another passage where the shepherd is mentioned is in Isaiah 40. There, we hear about a person who would come before him who would be a voice crying out, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” We recognize this as the passage referring to John the Baptist (Jn 1:23). The rest of the passage talks about the shepherd who is coming after him:

A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. …You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, His reward is with him, and His recompense accompanies Him. He tends His flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; He gently leads those that have young. (Isaiah 40:3, 9-11)

Here, the amazing thing is that the shepherd who comes after the one who calls out is actually the Lord God himself! If this passage is about John the Baptist and Jesus, the implications are quite clear — the Messiah that John was proclaiming would be God incarnate.

Many messianic prophecies describe the coming of a great king, but do not explicitly say that he would be divine. This one, however, seems to imply that the LORD himself will come as the shepherd.

One of the most important passages about the Good Shepherd is in Ezekiel 34. It also has some very powerful things to say about the Shepherd:

For thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day.” “I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord GOD. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment. “As for you, My flock, thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Behold, I will judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and the male goats. …“ (Ezek. 34:11-12,15-17)

This passage contains several rich things that are in the background of Jesus’ statements about himself. We can hear the background of Jesus’ parable about the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to look for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7), or when he said he will judge between the sheep and the goats when he returns (Matt. 25:31-34). We even find a reference to this passage in his words to Zacchaeus: “…the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:9-10).

The Ezekiel passage clearly says it would be God himself who would come to seek out his lost sheep, and Jesus repeatedly says he is the fulfillment of these words. Through this, his listeners would have heard his very bold claim that not only is he the Messiah, he is God incarnate, coming to earth to rescue his people.


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Bread From Heaven

In John 6 we find the story of the feeding of the five thousand, which comes to an interesting conclusion:

Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone. (John 6:11-15)

Why did the people conclude that Jesus was “the prophet” from this miracle, and why did they want to make him king? In order to understand the story, we need to understand their messianic expectations.

The word “messiah” means “anointed,” and is most often used in terms of a coming king. Prophets and priests were anointed too, and prophecies also describe the messiah in terms of being a great prophet and priest as well.

Their thinking that Jesus is “the Prophet who is to come into the world” is most likely coming from Deuteronomy 18. In this passage, Moses says to the people:

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him… The LORD said to me: … I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account. (Deut 18:15, 18-19)

The Jewish people regarded Moses as the greatest prophet of all time, who was unsurpassed by anyone else in their history. God had said that with all other prophets he spoke to them in dreams and visions, but with Moses, God spoke face to face (Numbers 12:6-8). Moses had also done great miracles to free them from Egypt and led them out of bondage.

He had mediated their covenant, given them their scriptures, and they considered him their greatest leader of all time. To say that a prophet would come even greater than Moses was saying a powerful thing indeed! He would speak for God in an unparalleled way, and free them from their oppressors.

So, when the people saw Jesus had multiplied the loaves and fishes, it seemed to them as if he was duplicating the miracle of the miraculous provision of food in the desert. He was, in essence, giving them manna from heaven. They are imagining that Jesus would, like Moses, lead them into an era of freedom from their enemies and miraculous provision of their needs. They are obviously wanting Jesus to act as a “prophet like Moses” when they ask him to repeat the miracle:

So they said to Him, “What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform? “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat,'” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.” (John 6:31-34)

Jesus’ final response to them, however, is that they are looking for the wrong kind of “bread from heaven.” They are looking for a Messiah who will miraculously give them food to eat as they imagined Moses did. Jesus points out that Moses didn’t supply them bread from heaven, it actually came from God. When God gave them bread before, it sustained their lives for 40 years. Now, God was giving them a bread from heaven that could give them eternal life: himself as their sacrifice for sin!

That is why Jesus says,

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh. (John 6:47-51)


Photos: Ikiwaner [CC BY-SA 3.0], Rodolfo Marques on Unsplash

A Most Amazing Discovery

Back when I was in college, I took part in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Having grown up in a Christian home that mostly only read the Gospels and Paul, I was puzzled by the haunting lyrics of one chorus. It sounded like it was straight out of the New Testament, but I had never heard it before. I was moved to tears by each line:

Surely, surely, He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.
He was wounded was for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.

These lines obviously describe Christ’s suffering and atonement of our sins, but where did they come from? Puzzled, I searched my Bible. Even now I remember my shock when I learned that these lines were not the work of a New Testament writer, but were from the book of Isaiah, chapter 53:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:3-11, NIV 1984) 

Reading this passage, we can hear its clear and obvious message about Christ. It is so detailed and pointed in its description of Jesus’ death and resurrection that it seems to be a restatement of the basic tenets of the gospel message for the early church.

In fact, it was written almost 700 years before the birth of Christ! I found this a most amazing discovery — that the prophecy about Jesus’ mission on earth could be so clearly laid out, so many centuries before he was born. The New Testament writers refer to it many times, seeing that it so clearly foretold Jesus’ mission on earth.

Yet a More Amazing Discovery

For many years, I was quite thrilled at my Bible study discovery. If I had known my Old Testament better, maybe it would not have been that special. Then I began to learn more about archeology and the discovery of the the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1948, many ancient scrolls and fragments were uncovered in the Essene community of Qumran, in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea in Israel.

Before that discovery of the Qumran scrolls, the oldest known manuscripts of the Old Testament were from about 900 AD. Skeptics had charged that modern Bibles were full of legends inserted by pious believers. They were silenced by the finding of the Dead Sea documents, which were a thousand years older than any other manuscript they had found, from about 100 BC.

Of all the momentous discoveries at Qumran, that one that made scholars’ jaws drop was the “Great Isaiah Scroll,” which contained a complete manuscript of the book of Isaiah. Copies of almost all of the books of the Old Testament had been found, but they were in fragments that needed to be pieced back together. Just a few scrolls were found intact, including two copies of the book of Isaiah. Both the original text of Isaiah and the copy on this scroll predate the birth of Jesus.

The text of Isaiah 53 in this scroll was virtually identical to manuscripts of over a thousand years later, even though it had been hand-copied over and over again. The words I quoted above are actually in the text found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The only difference between that text and later copies is the small insertion in brackets, [of life].  The fact that so little change was seen over thousands of years shows the enormous reverence the scribes had for the text.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was tremendously affirming to Christians and Jews who wondered if the biblical text had been accurately preserved. But finding the Isaiah Scroll, and even a copy of Isaiah’s powerful prophecy in chapter 53 that existed a hundred years before Christ is to me the most amazing discovery of all.


Photos: Mark Kamin [CC BY-SA 2.5], Ken and Nyetta [CC BY 2.0]

Messiah, Mighty God?

One of the things that has intrigued me most as I have studied the Old Testament is what it says about Jesus as the coming Messiah. Even though the gospel about Jesus is the first thing every Christian learns, it is rare to hear a methodical explanation of what the Bible predicts about him.

What exactly is a Messiah? Why do we believe the Messiah would be God himself? We would be stronger witnesses if we could open up the Bible and trace from start to finish what it said about Jesus Christ.

The main picture of the Messiah is that of God’s chosen king. The prophecies that clearly predict this begin in the life of King David, when God promises David one of his descendants would have a kingdom without end. It says,

When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever. (1 Chron. 17:11-14)

One thing Christians may overlook is that many prophecies about the Messiah do not expressly say he would be God in the flesh. The term “Son of God” can refer to divinity, but is also occasionally used about angels and even people (see Gen. 6:2, Job 1:6, Matt 5:9). In the passage above, it could be interpreted to mean that the messianic king would be so close to God that he would be like a son to him.

In the life of Jesus we often look at his miracles as proof of divinity. However, Moses and Elijah and others had done miracles before Him, so even that isn’t conclusive.

Nevertheless, the church has believed from the earliest time that Jesus was God incarnate. It was probably one of the earliest Christian creeds that Paul quoted when he said,

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (Phil. 2:5-7)

An intriguing study is to find the passages in the Old Testament said that the Messianic King who was coming would be God Himself. In Isaiah we encounter one of the clearest statements that the Messianic King would be divine. It says,

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government
and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. (Is 9:6-7)

It is very clear the passage is talking about the Messianic king from David’s line, and also very clear that it refers to him with the words “Mighty God,” and “Everlasting Father.” The promised Messiah would be called “mighty God,” an obvious statement of the divinity of the messiah.

Another thing to note is that there are several precedents for God walking on earth in the Old Testament. It says that God walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8), that he visited Abraham and ate with him (Gen 18:1-13), and that Jacob wrestled with God (Gen 32:24 -38).

To see God walking again on earth as a man should not be a shock if he has done it before. The idea of the Messiah as God in the flesh is consistent with the witness of what the rest of scripture says about God’s ways.

An interesting thing to note is that in the Targums, ancient Jewish commentary-translations, whenever God walked on earth and interacted with humans, the Aramaic term Memra was used to refer to God. The term Memra actually means “Word”! One can hardly miss that this is the term the apostle John uses to refer to Jesus as the Messiah!

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1, 14)

We have hardly scratched the surface of the texts that point to the divinity of Christ, although some are indirect allusions. Jesus refers to many of them and applies them to himself, and his first followers would have recognized them.  As you read the prophets in the Old Testament, keep listening for the prophecies about the Messiah. We will see that Jesus used many of them to proclaim himself as Messiah, and even God in the flesh.


Photos: Dimnent Chapel [Public Domain], Carl Bloch [Public domain]

Come, Let Us Go Up

Isaiah is full of pictures of the Messiah and the coming kingdom of God. One of the first that we encounter is a vision for the messianic age is in Isaiah 2. It says,

Now it will come about that in the last days
The mountain of the house of the LORD
Will be established as the chief of the mountains,
And will be raised above the hills;
And all the nations will stream to it.
And many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That He may teach us concerning His ways
And that we may walk in His paths.”
For the law will go forth from Zion
And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Is. 2:2-3)

Isaiah is full of rich words and images to express God’s promises. If we can see the thoughts behind the pictures, the beauty becomes all the more evident. Let’s read through this poem, getting a sense of the word-pictures and the ideas behind them:

The mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains.

The mountain of the house of the Lord is the temple mount of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was built on Mt. Moriah, so when a person goes to Jerusalem, they always go up. If you go to visit, you will always remember the long climb that the buses make up the hill into Jerusalem. Even today in Hebrew, the Temple Mount is called Har HaBeit, which means “mountain of the house.” Throughout the Bible, the Temple is often referred to simply as “the house.”

Putting the Temple on the highest mountain in Israel was intentional. Shrines to worship gods were always established on hilltops, which were called “high places” in the Old Testament. God commanded the Israelites to destroy the idols on all of the high places, even though they never really did.

The picture in Isaiah 2 is of the mountain of the Temple being “raised up” over all of the high places where idols are worshiped, and the peoples around them realizing that the God of the Jews is the real God.

And all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD…

The word “nations” in Hebrew here, goyim, has a stronger connotation than it does in English. It often refers to entire nations, including Israel. But it is also translated as Gentiles, specifically those that are not Jewish. It often carries an assumption of pagan-ness, that one is referring to the nations that surrounded Israel who worshiped idols and practiced immorality. Once again, Isaiah 2 paints a picture of the lost sinners of the world finding the God of Israel and wanting to worship Him.

That He may teach us concerning His ways, and we may walk in His paths. For the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

When foreigners who do not know God come to Jerusalem, they want him to teach them his ways, so his torah will go out from Jerusalem. It is important to note that the word for teach, yarah, is the verb form of torah, teaching or instruction. In response to their desire to have God teach them, they will have God’s teaching (torah), instruction for how to live.

The words walk, lekh, and way, derekh, are frequent metaphors used when speaking about having a covenant relationship with God. Lekh means walk, but as Hebrew words tend to be very broad, it often describes a general life direction. Derekh means road, path, or street, but often is a metaphor for a way of living. To “walk in God’s ways” is to live out a relationship with God. Many times God says to Israel,

Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul? (Deut. 10:12)

In the book of Acts, the first Christians refer to themselves as “the people of the Way.” They often spoke of their movement as “The Way,” using this imagery to describe living out the teaching that Jesus gave them. They are thinking of learning from Jesus how to live in relationship with God.

The Fulfillment of Isaiah 2

The picture in Isaiah is of a coming time when people from all the Gentile nations will seek the God of Israel, to know and worship the God of the Jews. They will want to know the Lord and have a relationship with him, which is what salvation is in this life. It will begin at Jerusalem and go out to the ends of the earth.

The fulfillment first began at Pentecost, when people in the Temple were filled with God’s Spirit, and the gospel began to be poured out on all the world beginning in Jerusalem. In Acts 10 the first Gentile, Cornelius, was filled with the spirit and all his family became believers. This was a shock to Peter and the rest of Jesus’ Jewish disciples but the prophets had envisioned it long ago.

Then Paul brought the gospel to the Gentiles. It is still being fulfilled today as the all the nations of the world are hearing about the God of the Jews, how he came to earth to make a covenant of forgiveness of sin with his own blood. He came to walk on earth with us, so that we can learn to walk with him.


Photos: “Temple Model” by Lois Tverberg, “Temple Mount” from bibleplaces.comHenry Xu on Unsplash

The Hebrew Concept of Wisdom

Any student of language knows that each one frames the world in different ways. Often the same word is used for more than one thing that the culture considers equivalent, but distinguishes when differentiation seems important.

For instance, in Thai, the same word for cheese is used for butter, since they don’t eat much of either. In contrast, in Danish there are many different words to describe types of licorice, because it is a favorite in Denmark. Chiam Potok said that if you want to understand a culture, it is essential to understand the language, because that describes the very heart of the culture.

The heart of biblical culture is Hebrew. The Old Testament was written almost entirely in Hebrew, with a little bit of Aramaic. Even though the New Testament was written entirely in Greek, it was written almost entirely by Jews who knew much of the Old Testament by memory. It is filled with quotes from the Old Testament, and its commentary is full of Hebraic thinking. It is tremendously enriching to get into their minds by seeing how they framed their world in language. Let’s look at one more in more detail: wisdom.

Hokmah, Wisdom in Hebrew

We as Westerners think of wisdom as to have cognitive ability, to be able to think great thoughts. We think of the wise philosopher as being the opposite of the manual laborer who pounds nails, or paints walls, or lays tile.

In Hebrew, however, the word hokmah is used to describe both. It speaks of people who are skilled laborers as those who have “wise hearts.” We read this term applied to the skilled laborers who built the tabernacle:

Every skilled woman (literally, with a wise heart) spun with her hands and brought what she had spun – blue, purple or scarlet yarn or fine linen. (Ex. 35:25)

And the Bible says that the craftsman who designed the high priest’s robes were given the “spirit of wisdom”:

Tell all the skilled men to whom I have given wisdom (literally, the spirit of wisdom) in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest. (Ex. 28:3)

The word hokmah describes the ability to function successfully in life, whether it is by having the right approach to a difficult situation, or the ability to weave cloth. It is practical and applicable to this world, not just otherworldly.

Judaism has historically held manual labor in high regard, rather than disdaining it as unspiritual. When a great rabbi entered a room, people were to stop what they were doing and honor him. However, carpenters and other craftsman did not need to stop, because their work was considered just as honorable. This is part of the Hebraic affirmation of day-to-day life in this world. We can learn a lot of wisdom from the Hebrew word for wisdom!

As Westerners, we tend to believe God is only involved in giving us the ability to do what we call “spiritual,” like Bible study or prayer. We imagine that God’s input into our lives ends when we leave church on Sunday, and the rest is “secular.” Here, we learn that biblically, it is considered “wisdom” to do our jobs well: to be able to use a photocopier, or program a computer, or run a lawn mower. A janitor can be using his spiritual gifts as much as a pastor.

We can see from the word hokmah, as well as the rest of Proverbs, that all of our day-to-day lives are of concern to the Lord. God cares about whether we are a good 2nd grade teacher, or systems analyst, or check-out clerk. God is practical and down-to-earth. He cares about our credit card debt, whether our house is a mess, how much we watch TV. His desire is that we have wisdom in all things in order to live the life he gave us to the very best.

Let’s not make the mistake of believing that “eternal” life comes later. We are already in it: this is just the first part. The “wisdom” God has given us is meant to be used skillfully in this kingdom, prudently and for his glory.


Photos: Mahanga [CC BY-SA 3.0], La Compagnie Robinson on Unsplash

Fear and Trembling?

Many Christians are caught off guard by what Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13.

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

We struggle over these words because they appear to say something that seems incongruous with the rest of his writing. This passage sounds like we should be in perpetual worry about our salvation. He seems to be saying that salvation is something to be earned, yet we are taught throughout scripture that salvation comes through faith in God. Two Hebraic concepts Paul might have had in mind may shed some light on this verse.

Salvation is a relationship with God

First, in Hebraic understanding, salvation begins during our lives. It is not just something to look forward to after death. Someone who is not saved is estranged from the family of God — wandering from the flock — “lost.” Salvation comes through restoring a relationship with God by believing in the atoning work of his Son; it is to be rescued from a life separated from God.

The phrase “eternal life” is sometimes used to describe life in relationship with God here on earth that extends into eternity, and not just after our death. We can hear this understanding coming through in John’s writing:

Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

Unless we understand eternal life as life in relationship with God, both now and in the future, this verse makes no sense to us. It is true that there are many places where the scriptures speak of salvation in the future, in terms of being saved from judgment. So, of course salvation in that sense is something in the future.

It is clear from John 17:3 that in some sense, eternal life begins the moment we repented and believed in Christ. As Paul says, “By grace you have been saved…” (Eph. 2: 5, 8), using the past tense, not the future tense. In that sense, our salvation has already happened, and we are new creatures!

The Fear of God

The second Hebraic concept that may have been in the background of Paul’s saying is the concept of “the fear of the Lord,” yireh adonai. This is an often-used phrase of the scriptures which means an awe and reverence of God that causes us to want to do his will. It does mean to respect God, who will discipline those whom he loves (Rev. 3:19). The emphasis is on a positive, respectful relationship with God, not in terms of being terrified by him. Moses says to Israel:

And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul? (Deut. 10:12)

Also, as we read Proverbs this week, we will often hear about the wonderful benefits of “the fear of the Lord”:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Prov. 9:10)

In the fear of the LORD there is strong confidence,
And his children will have refuge.
The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life,
That one may avoid the snares of death. (Prov. 14:26-27)

If having a “fear” of the Lord causes us to live with integrity and wisdom about God’s ways, it will ultimately transform us. Paul was using the word “fear” in this sense: having awe and respect for the Lord.

He is exhorting us to live new (eternal) lives in obedient relationship with God, so that we can see him working out his plans to redeem every aspect of our lives. We may be looking forward to a future in heaven, but we will be enjoying the richness of our relationship with the Lord on this earth as well.


[For more on this topic, see “Does God Want Us to Fear Him?“]

Photos: Mélody P on UnsplashIgor Rodrigues on Unsplash

First Things First

The concept of the first, in terms of firstborn and firstfruits, comes up often throughout the scriptures. As Westerners, we tend to think only literally about being the “first” in terms of being the initial child or animal born, or the beginning of the harvest of the crop. But grasping the significance of the “first” in Hebraic thought will greatly enhance our appreciation of what we read in Scripture.

Firstfruit of the Crops

In biblical times, the first portion of every crop was considered to be intrinsically holy and set apart for God. In fact, until the first crops were offered to God, the whole field was considered to be holy, and none of it could be eaten (Lev. 23:14).

The idea that the crops of the land are holy until an offering is made is still practiced today among some traditional Africans. In these agrarian cultures, the fertility of animals and ability to grow crops is essential to survival, and assumed to be due to God’s favor.

In biblical times, the same thing applied to animals: the first male born of the mother was set apart to be given to God, out of thankfulness that he gave the ability to produce, trusting that he would bless with more later. The first products of animal and land, therefore, were considered to be great blessings, the most special offerings to give back to God. That is why  Proverbs 3 says,

Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine. (Prov. 3:9-10)

If we want to apply that to our own lives, that means that we should assume that the first and best of everything we have is a special blessing from God, and something we should offer back to him. He gave us our relationships, our family, our time, our job, and our money. Do we offer the best back to him, or do we give him the “last fruits” of our time, our effort and our money?

Firstborn son of the family

The firstborn son of a family also had great honor and status, and usually received a double portion of the inheritance, unless the father decided that another son was to be given preference. God also claimed the firstborn son of each family as his own, because he would have been the most valued child, the heir and successor to the family.

The other children of the family would treat the firstborn with special honor and respect, reflecting his status as the successor to the patriarch of the family. Because of this special favor that was given the firstborn, the term “firstborn” could mean “most exalted” or “closest in relationship” or “preeminent in status” even if it wasn’t literally speaking about something that actually came first. For instance, this week in Psalm 98 we hear God saying,

I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him… He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’ I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth. (Psalm 89:20,26-27)

David was youngest of his family, and God passed his other brothers by to choose him as king. When God said he would appoint him firstborn, he doesn’t mean that he would be first before anything else in sequence, but that David would be preeminent in favor and status.

Another instance of this is in Exodus when God spoke metaphorically of Israel as his “firstborn son.” God told Moses,

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'”
(Ex 4:22-23)

Once again, the term “firstborn” means “closest in relationship.” Israel is God’s “treasured possession,” his nation especially set apart for relationship with him.

The First Represents the Whole

One other generalization in Hebraic thought was that the first of anything was a representation of the whole. Adam was the first human, so he was the representative of the whole human race. Likewise, the Amalekites were the first enemies to attack Israel, so in Hebraic thought, they are seen as representative of all of Israel’s enemies. Often in the Bible, the name of a father of a tribe was used interchangeably with the tribe itself. For instance, it says,

You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. (Amos 6:6)

Using the name Joseph was a reference to the tribes that came from Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh, the largest tribes of the north who were destroyed by Assyria. The father of them, Joseph, represented them as a whole. So the prophet is talking about grieving over the destruction of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.

In the New Testament, we see Paul using the logic of the “first representing the whole” about Jesus:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. (1 Cor 15:20-23)

Adam was the representative of humanity, and because he died, we all will die. Christ is the representative of all those in his kingdom, and since he was resurrected, we all will be resurrected. He is the firstfruits, the promise of the harvest to come. He is not only representative of all because he was first, he is supreme over all because he is first. We find a similar thing in Colossians:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. (Col. 1:15 -18)

Listening to this passage with Hebraic ears yields insight on this passage. Since Jesus is co-eternal with the Father, to speak of him as firstborn suggests he is a created thing, not fully God. To think of him as firstborn in terms of being of greatest honor and closest to God, makes more sense.

He is firstborn from among the dead, a promise that all who are a part of his kingdom will rise too. Not only is he representative of all of his kingdom, he is also highly exalted over all creation, worthy of honor and glory as the firstborn son of God.


Photos: Marina Khrapova on UnsplashTim Bish on Unsplash, niklas_hamann on Unsplash

The Stone the Builders Rejected

Jesus comes head to head with his opponents in their final clash before his crucifixion in Luke 20-24. Tension has been building up to this point, and reaches the maximum in these final days. Jesus has been hinting throughout his ministry that he is the Messiah, the Davidic King who was to come.

In these last few chapters of Luke, references to passages about the coming of the Messiah are very important. Jesus says some of the most powerful things about his mission using many allusions from the Old Testament. His audience understood and reacted accordingly: either in adoration or in hatred. We can get some powerful insights by looking at the messianic passages Jesus referred to, and see what they said about him.

When Jesus rode on a donkey into Jerusalem, Jesus was making his most obvious claim to being this Messianic King, fulfilling the prophecy in Zechariah 9 that says:

Rejoice, daughter of Zion, shout, daughter of Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey. (Zech. 9:9)

Another key place we see a king riding into Jerusalem is in Psalm 118, which describes a Messianic King who conquers all his enemies and then enters the gates of Jerusalem. The people wave boughs in a procession up to the temple and exclaim, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

This is exactly what happens in the Triumphal Entry in Luke 19. The people see Jesus as the King who has come to defeat his enemies and they honor him as the one proclaimed in Psalm 118.

In this last week, Jesus has now “thrown down the gauntlet,” boldly declaring himself as the Messiah, denouncing the temple’s corruption and predicting that it would be destroyed. The Sadducean chief priests in Jesus’ day were deeply corrupt, stealing from priests and killing those who opposed them.

Jesus is directly standing up against them, and they want to kill him, too. They also want to kill him because they saw him as a threat to their relationship with the Romans. They worry Jesus will start an uprising against the Roman government or against them, since he has declared he is King.

Jesus’ Brilliant Use of Scripture

In a fascinating use of scripture, Jesus makes use of several prophecies to tell the temple authorities exactly who he is and what would happen because of him. He quotes Psalm 118, which he recently had fulfilled in the Triumphal Entry, when it says,

The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone …(Psalm 118:22)

There is a wordplay involved in saying that the stone has become the cornerstone. The word pinah, cornerstone, (or corner) in Hebrew is also used to describe one who is a leader. Several places in the Old Testament, “cornerstone” is used poetically to describe leaders (Judges 20:2, Isaiah 19:13).

In Psalm 118, the “stone the builders rejected that has become the chief cornerstone” is a description of the triumphant King who God has given the victory against his enemies. Not only is he a cornerstone, a King, he is the chief cornerstone, the King of kings!

Jesus makes a very bold claim when he expands upon his claim of being the cornerstone. He says,

Everyone who stumbles on the stone will be broken, and he on whom it falls will be crushed. (Luke 20:18)

At face value this says that no one wins who comes up against the stone. More importantly, however, Jesus was combining two powerful statements from the Hebrew scriptures to say a greater thing. In Isaiah 8 it says,

The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy… for both houses of Israel, He will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. (Isaiah 8:13-14)

This passage appears to be the background of the first part of Jesus’ statement — “Everyone who stumbles on the stone will be broken.” It speaks about judgment on Israel where the Lord is either their sanctuary or the stone that makes them stumble. It depends on whether they chose to believe in Him or not.

The Stone that Grows into a Mountain

The second half of Luke 20:18 comes from Daniel 2. King Nebuchadnezzar had a vision of a statue of a gold head, silver chest, bronze legs and iron and clay feet. He saw a rock cut out, not by human hands, that struck the statue on its feet and crushed them. The statue fell to pieces but the rock became a huge mountain that filled the whole earth. Daniel explains to the king that the parts of the statue represent kingdoms, beginning with his own. The feet of iron and clay represent the Roman empire of Jesus’ time. Daniel 2:44 says,

The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.

This is a reference to the coming Messianic kingdom. The rock cut not by human hands is reminiscent of the covenant tablets God cut for Moses, or the uncut stone they used to construct altars to God. The rock is a king sent by God, unlike all of the other kings. This appears to be the reference of the second half of Jesus’ saying: “he on whom it falls will be crushed.”

If Jesus is tying these two sayings together by the fact that they talk about a stone, he is pointing out that he is the Stone of Isaiah 8: either a savior or a stumbling block to Israel, the people to whom he came. It depends on whether they choose to believe in him.

Then he says, by alluding to Daniel 2, that ultimately, whatever their reaction, his kingdom will be established over all the earth. Not only will he triumph over the chief priests who will kill him, his kingdom will even triumph over the Romans, and be a kingdom without end.


Photos: Pontificake on enwiki [CC BY-SA 3.0], Ammodramus [Public domain], Intothewoods29 [Public domain]