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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Psalm 23 - The Lord is MY Shepherd

Psalms is an amazing book. It’s a collection of 150 Hebrew poems, prayers, and songs—written over a span of hundreds of years by several different authors. Of the 150 Psalms, King David wrote 73 of them and nearly a third were written by anonymous authors.

The Psalms were written in Hebrew poetry, which has a few similarities to our English poetry but is, by in large, very different. Many of the Psalms came to be used by the choirs that sang in the Jewish temple, but the book of Psalms is not primarily a hymnbook. At some point after Israel’s exile into Babylon (after 586 B.C.) the various poems and songs were collected and arranged very carefully into the book of Psalms.

The book as a whole has a very unique design and message. There are Psalms of thanksgiving. There are Psalms for various festivals and feasts. There are songs of trust and meditation. But the two key themes of the Psalms that are woven through the entire Psalter are the themes of Lament and Praise.
Throughout the 150 Psalms the focus slowly shifts from lament to praise. Many of the early Psalms emphasize the personal and corporate sorrow of the nation of Israel. 

Psalm 4:1 “...answer me when I call, O God...
Psalm 5:1“...Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my groaning.

The book of Psalms Finally concludes with five Psalms of praise to the God of Israel—each of which concludes with the Hebrew word "Hallelujah!" which means "Praise Yah" or "Praise the Lord!"

The book of Psalms has long been a source of strength and comfort for God’s people. Many of the early church reformers of the 16th century who were martyred for their proclamation of the gospel leaned heavily on the Psalms as they faced execution. In the mid-twentieth century pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed for conspiracy in a plot to kill Hitler. It was from prison, just prior to his execution, that he penned one of his final writings entitled "Psalms: the Prayer Book of the Bible." As he neared the day of his execution, Bonhoeffer leaned heavily on the Psalms and its guidance in approaching God in the proper way.

Wherever you’re at in life—whether your rejoicing over the miraculous work of God or in the depths of despair and sorrow from a devastating blow in life—the Psalms will speak pointed truth into your life.

Psalm 23 is perhaps the most well known Psalm. It’s a Psalm of David as he reflects on the work of God in his own life and it gives us a beautiful pattern and promise of God’s work in the lives of his people. Many of the Psalms captivate us with their vivid imagery and realistic acknowledgment of the struggles we face in our daily lives. Psalm 23, perhaps more than any other Psalm, reaches to the depth of our soul with an unparalleled simplicity and beauty.

Like many others who grew up in and around the church, I memorized the twenty-third Psalm with the help of my mother before I even knew how to read it.

Psalm 23:1–6
1 A Psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup over ows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The twenty-third Psalm gives us a beautiful picture of God’s care for His people. There’s just one main point that you need to remember from the text this morning. It’s similar to the title that most of your Bibles probably have for the Psalm and it comes from David’s opening statement in verse one that the Lord is his Shepherd.

I. The Lord is a Shepherd

One of the few similarities between English and Hebrew poetry is the use of metaphors, similes, and other figurative language to convey a truth. The challenge with figurative language is that it’s often difficult to translate the exact meaning into other languages and cultures—especially when those cultures are separated by thousands of miles and years.

Just this past week my son, Grant, was reading a book to a visiting friend from Africa and one of the characters in the book said, “he was going to completely lose it!” Even nine-year-old Grant knew that was a figurative saying that our African brother might not understand, so he stopped to explain that “completely losing it” means he would “go crazy.”

Here’s another example of figurative language from Psalm 84:11 “For the Lord God is a sun and shield...” The psalmist isn’t saying that God is a sun or that God is a shield. He’s saying that God is like the sun and like a shield in that He provides life and protection for His people.

In Psalm 23 David uses a metaphor for God’s work in his life that is especially meaningful to him. David had served as a shepherd among his father’s flocks for years. He knew the intricacies of shepherding. He knew the difficulties and commitment required on the part of a Shepherd who genuinely loved and cared for his flock. He knew it was a wonderful picture of God’s genuine love and care for his people.

The biblical imagery of the Lord as a shepherd did not originate with David though. All the way back in Genesis 48:15 Jacob blessed his sons and described the Lord as “...the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day.

For David, describing the Lord as a shepherd was not some vague or random image. Rather, it reveals the comprehensive and committed care that God provides for his people. The concise and vivid way David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, describes God as a Shepherd in Psalm 23 is what has made it such a deeply moving and captivating Psalm.

There are many important details we’ll look at concerning the Lord’s role as a Shepherd of his people but they can be arranged and sorted into four main roles; four roles that are completely and perfectly fulfilled by the Good Shepherd of the New Testament—Jesus—the Messiah.

Almost 700 years before Jesus took on flesh and became like us, here’s how the prophet Isaiah described His coming ministry:  Isaiah 40:11 "He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young."

We are going to look at the four ways David describes God’s role as a Shepherd and then see how Jesus, fully God and fully man, perfectly exhibited those same roles in His life and ministry. The first implication or role of God as Shepherd comes from that first phrase of verse one. David said, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

(1) The Lord is a Shepherd who knows His sheep (23:1a)

David understood that a shepherd knows his sheep and the sheep know their shepherd. On those dark and stormy nights, tending to his own flock, when he couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face— David could call to his sheep and they would respond—because he was their Shepherd. God calls to his sheep and his sheep respond! Look at what Jesus said:

John 10:14–15 "14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep."

Jesus identifies himself as God through one of the many “I AM” statements in the book of John. This
“I AM” statement has a double emphasis since
he also equates himself with the Messianic shepherd promised in Isaiah 40. But look at what he said after that amazing “I AM” statement: “I know my own and my own know me.” 

Sheep are not that smart, but they know the voice of their shepherd! A shepherd and their sheep have a very personal relationship. God’s people enjoy a close, personal relationship with the Lord—because the GOOD Shepherd laid down his life for them. Jesus voluntarily, willingly gave His own life for His people.

Can you say, confidently—“the LORD is MY SHEPHERD? Jesus laid down his life for ME!” Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Good Shepherd will save you from your death sentence due to you because of your sin.

The second role the Lord has as a Shepherd is found beginning in the second part of verse 1: “I shall not want.” David meant that since he had the Lord as his shepherd, he had no other want; he was lacking nothing because...

(2) The Lord is a Shepherd who provides for His sheep (23:2a)

In our American culture we are under the illusion that we are the masters of our own destiny. If you work hard enough or long enough then the American nightmare (I mean dream) is that you can have all the toys you want!

So, we spend the majority of our lives trying to secure provisions: securing enough money to buy food, to by a home, to send out children to college, to retire, etc.! Our stomachs remind us of our need for sustenance morning, noon, and night. But we cannot provide for ourselves—especially when it comes to our spiritual need.

Children grow up and hopefully become less dependent on their parents. Sheep, though, are always completely dependent upon their shepherd. They never outgrow their need for the shepherd to provide for them! David said, “I shall not want.” There were no wants on the part of David because he knew God has met his needs. God’s people shall lack nothing because of His care. This is an expression of contentment in the Shepherd!

For those who are God’s sheep, God has already met and will continue to meet all your needs in Christ. It’s how Paul opened his letter to the Ephesians in chapter 1 verse 3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.

David had no wants because he was content in the Lord providing for his needs. And then he carries on the shepherd/sheep analogy and God’s provision by describing the provision in the first part of verse 2. “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Green pastures and lush grass, both essential to the success and survival of the flock.

The spiritual nutriment we need as God’s people comes from the Word of God! When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 “Man shall not live by bread alone, buy by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Just as sheep need lush, green grass that provide the essential nutrients to sustain life—God’s spiritual  flock needs spiritual food that only comes through the Word of God! Listen to how the prophet Ezekiel describes the coming role of the Messiah:

Ezekiel 34:14–15 "14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God."

One of the many places we see the importance of the Word nourishing the flock is at the end of Hebrews chapter 5. The writer to the Hebrews basically took the recipients of the letter to the woodshed. (There’s that figurative language again, so if you aren’t familiar with it, that’s not a good thing to go the woodshed.) The author basically said, “you’ve been fed long enough—you should be feeding others! You should be teaching others the nourishing Word of God—yet you aren’t even weaned off  the spiritual milk. You are still unskilled in the word!”

We must seek the provision that the Shepherd has given us! The food for your soul is the Word of God! Crave it! When you get to the sections that taste more like beets or brussel sprouts keep eating it up. Your mom and dad were right: the stuff  that’s hard to get down is often the most nourishing. Wrestle with the text—work through it and grow in your spiritual life!

If you are visiting with us today and perhaps looking for a church home, let me give some important direction to you... As you evaluate the churches you visit (including ours) ask yourself “will the teaching and preaching of this church grow me in my knowledge and understanding of Jesus and help me be weaned off  the spiritual milk if I join this church assembly?” Today many churches serve up energy drinks and candy. They provide a momentary high and excitement, but they have zero long-term nutritional value. To quote John Calvin, "[The] flock of Christ cannot be fed except with pure doctrine which is alone our spiritual food.”1

And let me say this to those of you who are elders in the church or aspire to the office of elder or to those of you who are members of our local assembly and will someday consider future elder nominations! Elders are often called under-shepherds because we are called to shepherd God’s flock serving under the great and good Shepherd.

1 Peter 5:2 directs elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” Elders are responsible for the local flock that is among us. How do we shepherd the flock of God? Primarily by feeding them! Jesus had a very pointed discussion with Simon Peter in John 21. Three times he repeated a similar command—Feed my lambs—tend my sheep—feed my sheep...

Elders, the under-shepherds should model God’s shepherding of his people—and the first and primary way we are to do that is by feeding the souls of the people through the Word of God! As one author put it, “A fundamental responsibility of any and every shepherd is to assure that the sheep are well nourished.”2 It’s why we see the Apostle Paul command Timothy—preach the Word! Be ready whenever to feed the flock!

The under-shepherds (the elders) ought to oversee the preaching and teaching of the Word to protect the integrity of the food. The elders are to oversee the singing of the Word to ensure that the lyrics are theologically rich and robust. The elders are to guard the practice of the Word through baptism and communion. The elders are to oversee and model one-on-one discipleship among the flock. In whatever form the Word is dispensed it is the responsibility of the elders to make sure that the food doesn’t spoil.

Ok, we’ve made it through one and half verses. We need to keep moving. The third way the Lord is a Shepherd (there at the end of verse 2 and 3) “he leads me beside still waters... He leads me in paths of righteousness...”

(3) The Lord is a Shepherd who leads His sheep (23:2b–3)

Humans need a leader. We need direction and purpose in life! The Israelites proved that point over and over again as God led his people out of bondage in Egypt and brought them through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. Once the people finally entered the Promised Land, God raised up judges to rescue them from their enemies and lead the nation. Finally, the people demanded a king because they knew they needed a leader and they failed to acknowledge God as their king.

David describes God as a Shepherd who leads his people to “still waters” for refreshment and cleansing—which results in “restoring the soul.” There is a tremendous spiritual lesson here that we’ve encountered over and over again reading through the Bible together. God provides forgiveness and peace for his people. Those who are His sheep follow him to forgiveness and cleansing... which then results in us following him down paths of righteousness. He makes us righteous and then helps us walk in right paths! What an amazing picture!

God desires to lead us into greater depths of righteousness in our daily lives! 1 Thessalonians 4:7–8 says, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” Striving to live a holy life as a Christian matters greatly to God! It’s why there are so many high qualifications (many of them pertaining to holiness) for leaders in the church!

Those who are in leadership positions in the church are continually reminded that they are to set an example for the flock (because the flock is behind them following their lead), but we must always remember that we are following the chief Shepherd so that HE gets the glory! Look at the end of verse three. The reason God leads his sheep is “for his name’s sake” that HE gets the glory!

All through the Old Testament God accomplished His words. He redeemed his people, He saved them from destruction, He led them out of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land for His name’s sake! We must always remember it is God’s work to lead his people, so that He gets the glory, but a key part of his leadership is through under-shepherds He has established to lead under his authority. Peter describes this biblical leadership as “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:3) 

Speaking of not domineering over the sheep but leading out in front by example... the story is told about a group of tourists in Israel who had been informed by their Israeli tour guide, after observing a  flock and their shepherd, that shepherds always lead their flocks from the front. He told his attentive listeners that they never “drive” the sheep from behind.  A short time later they drove past a flock along the road where the shepherd was walking behind them. The tourists quickly called this to their guide’s attention and he stopped the bus to step out and have a word with the “shepherd.” As he boarded the bus he had a sheepish grin on his face (pun intended) and announced to his eager listeners, “that wasn’t the shepherd, that was the butcher!”

Beware those who look like a shepherd but really are wolves in sheepskin! Which leads us to the fourth role that God fills as a Shepherd (found in verses 4 and 5). David’s words are pointed and powerful.

(4) The Lord is a Shepherd who protects His sheep (23:4–5)

Through the fiercest drought and storms, the darkest valleys of life, the valley that comes in the shadow of death, David feared no evil... and then he gave two reasons why:

(1) For you are with me. Before Jesus ascended into heaven he told his disciples “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” God is forever with those who are His own because he lives in us through the Holy Spirit! It is the Spirit that empowers and seals us for that great day of redemption!

(2) Your rod and your staff  they comfort me. These are the tools of the shepherd. David said that he defended his flocks against lions and bears using these tools. Think about what the Lord can do who has every tool and power at his disposal to protect His sheep!

When we turn to the New Testament, here’s how Jesus again establishes himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10:27–28 "27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand."

As God’s sheep we need fear no evil for what can man do to us!! Certainly, Paul had the amazing protection of the Great Shepherd in mind when he penned these words in Romans 8 under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: Romans 8:38–39 "38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

God’s persistent, steadfast love secures our ultimate salvation/redemption. But on the way toward our ultimate redemption there are many things that God provides/does for us as his sheep. Clearly, God protects His sheep by keeping us secure in our salvation, but look at the other ways God protects His sheep: 

(1) He uses the elders/overseers among the flock. Here are the words of Paul speaking to the elders at Ephesus recorded for us in Acts 20:28–30 "28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them."  God uses others who can protect us from those who would seek to pull us away and shipwreck our faith! This couldn’t be more perfectly illustrated than by this story put out by the Associated Press back in 2005. It came in from Istanbul, Turkey.

              First one sheep jumped to its death. Then stunned Turkish shepherds, who had 
              left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1,500 others 
              followed, each leaping off  the same cliff, Turkish media reported. In the end, 
              450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile, the local 
              newspaper said.  Those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher 
              and cushioned the fall. 26 families had their sheep grazing together and only 
              a few families had sheep left.4

I can’t even imagine what a pile of 1,500 white fluffy sheep must have looked like, but what a horrific situation for those families! We need under-shepherds who protect the flock from the errant sheep who runs off the cliff!  

(2) God also protects His flock by placing us together in local assemblies! In Matthew 18, immediately after telling the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus tells us what to do if our brother or sister in Christ sins against us. The first line of protection from the escalating trap of sin is to go talk to them alone. If they don’t listen, we are to talk one or two others. If they still don’t listen and repent of their sin, then we are to take it to the church—to the assembly. The assembly then becomes the protection for the name of Jesus and his reputation that could be marred by this one who claims to be a sheep but isn’t acting like it.

The Lord is a shepherd who protects his sheep. Now look at verse 5. Even in the presence of our spiritual enemies, he supplies us with what we need—down to the last enemy to be destroyed—death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)

David finally concludes the Psalm with the reminder of God’s faithfulness to His sheep. Those who walk by faith shall realize the goodness and mercy of God. David knew that God’s good, loyal love would vigorously pursue him throughout his life so that David might enjoy full communion and fellowship in the presence of the Lord ...another picture we see of Jesus with His sheep in Revelation 7:17 “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

I have 5 questions for you to evaluate your own life and evaluate whether you're following the shepherd in paths of righteousness.

(1) Is the Lord YOUR Shepherd? The question I asked earlier—Can you say, confidently—“the LORD is MY SHEPHERD? Jesus laid down his life for ME!”

(2) Do you long for the Shepherd’s return? 1 Peter 5:4 “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” We have a great hope to look forward to, the glorious appearing of the Good Shephard. Do you long for his return?

(3) Do you properly appreciate God’s provision in your life? If God is the shepherd who provides for the sheep, do you appreciate what he has done in your life? God gave His only Son, Jesus—to die in your place! When you fully grasp and believe in that truth in WILL transform your life! What does that appreciation look like in your life?

(4) Are you following the path of righteousness? Living a holy life, living a life worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, should define your life—if you are one of God’s flock. You should look like and act like one of His sheep.

(5) Finally, have you thanked the Shepherd recently? Have you thanked our heavenly Father for calling to you, for knowing you, for providing for you, for leading you, for protecting you?

May we together as the flock of God, say confidently and joyfully with David— The Lord is MY Shepherd!

1 John Calvin, Commentaries, trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 22:144.
2 Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 141. 
3 Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 156. 
4 beat/2005-07-08-sheep-suicide_x.htm

Scripture quotations are from the ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

What is a Healthy Local Church? (part 1)

Our consumer driven culture never ceases to amaze (and confuse) me.  Newer is always better, unless it becomes an "antique" or "aged," in which case older is always sometimes preferred.  Bigger is always best, except when you're talking about the new old electronic gadget in your pocket or on your wrist.  Companies spend billions of dollars each year trying to convince us why we need their product to improve our lives or satisfy our deepest desires.  There are even companies that evaluate products for us and tell us what we "can't live without" - for a small fee of course.

Sadly, this consumerism mentality has bled over into the local church.  Many people today decide to attend a local church because it's the biggest, shiniest, newest thing in town.  In an effort to attract as many people as possible – many churches, even with the best motives, use similar consumeristic techniques to create ministry paradigms that cater to the desires of the people.  Then, when the people come - because they are attracted to all the things the church offers them - the church automatically assumes they're a healthy church.  The problem is, once people get bored or allured by a newer, shinier model they jump to the next church that is riding the big new wave in innovative church growth.

Unfortunately, the questions most people are asking and, thus, the questions most churches are seeking to answer - are NOT a biblical measure for church health.

So, what makes a healthy, biblical church?  

The answer isn’t some quick fix, new building, flashy sign, or new program. Simply put, it’s the Word of God building the church.  Jesus, as the incarnate Word of God, said in Matthew 16:18 “I will build my church.”  Paul instructed Timothy to devote himself to the preaching of the Word (2 Tim. 4:2) because the Word makes the man of God “complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17).

Unfortunately, many churches have chosen to diminish the Word in favor of engaging, motivational speeches and high-energy entertainment that attract crowds of people, just as Paul warned Timothy against in (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

A few months ago I saw something online from another church in our community.  They had posted "10 things kids need to know from their parents" as part of a parenting sermon series.  Number one on the list was: “A strong belief in yourself as a parent.”  It sounds OK – certainly motivational for some – but NOT biblical.  Nowhere on the list of 10 things was anything about Jesus or the Bible!  Yet, that particular church was one of the top 10 fastest growing churches in our entire country a couple years ago.

American Theologian, Carl Braaten said this in one of his many writings:
If the aim of the church is to grow, the way to do it is to make people feel good.  And when people discover that there are other ways to feel good, they leave the church they no longer need.  The relevant church is sowing the seeds of its own irrelevance, and losing its identity to boot.  The big question today has become how to get the baby boomers back, what techniques and methods will do the trick.  Polls are taken on what baby boomers want and churches are competing to make sure they get it.” (Carl E. Brazen, "The Gospel for a Neopagan Culture," 19.)
The sad truth today is that most churches now reflect the world more than they do the Word.  

Jesus challenged his followers in the Sermon on the Mount to live distinctively different lives (Matthew 5:13-16).   Thus, the gathering of the saints (the church) ought to look distinctively different from the world.

God designed the church to be His embassy in a foreign land.  When you step into an embassy it should look different from its surroundings.  It will have certain characteristics of the country it is representing that will distinguish it from the country in which it sits.

When I was in Uganda a couple years ago I visited the American Embassy.  When I finally got through the security checkpoints it was literally like stepping across the ocean and instantly being back in the US.  The building construction and architecture reminded me of America.  The bushes and shrubs were landscaped like you'd see in America.  The waiting room was clean of red African dirt that seemed to permeate everything outside the embassy walls.  There were televisions on the wall playing the cable network news.  I even saw an desk clerk hard at work scrolling Facebook.  It was just like I was back home!

When people step in God’s embassy here on earth – among His ambassadors in the church - it should be a distinctively different experience from anything else on the planet!  A healthy local church must be sacrificially and wholeheartedly devoted to three biblical commitments:
  1. Worship - From it’s inception in Acts 2 the church has been defined by its worship. When the church is gathered at the end of the age, it will again be marked by its worship in Revelation 5.  
  2. Community - We are an independent, self-reliant, self-sufficient people.  The idea of interdependence, mutual submission, and accountability seems antiquated, weak and sometimes downright freighting. However, we were created to be in community and the church is to be a model community for the world to behold.  
  3. Service - Ephesians 2:10 says it best: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
Certainly, the forms churches take will look differently.  They may use different terms or phrases to describe their commitments.  But at the core of every healthy, local church stands those three commitments that will, by default, make it distinctively different from the world! To God be the glory!

(part 2 will propose a biblical definition of the church)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Origin and Role of the Synagogue

When the Jewish temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 the focal point of the Jewish sacrificial system disappeared. Since that time many have wondered how Judaism survived beyond the first century given the destruction of its central fixture. F. F. Bruce rightly observes that “Judaism survived, because the institution on which its survival, and Jewish community life in general, depended was already well established,”[1] in the synagogue. When the temple was destroyed it had, for all practical purposes, outlived its usefulness to the nation of Israel.[2] For generations leading up to the temple destruction the synagogue had supplanted the temple as the heart and soul of Judaism. Instead of the intense sacrificial system that the temple thrived on, the synagogue focused on the reading and exposition of the Law and Prophets. The intense focus upon the Scriptures developed a new way of thinking in many Jews that began to be obsessed with following the Law. It was these popular teachers of the Law, the Pharisees, who became the new voice for the people in the community and who ultimately became Jesus’ staunchest opponents.

Ultimately, it was the development and function of the synagogue that proved to be a vital and effective avenue for the spread of the gospel message throughout the Jewish and Greek communities of the first and second centuries.

The Development and Function of the Synagogue
The rise of the synagogue is very obscure but often linked with the Babylonian captivity of Israel.[3] In response to the loss of the original temple in 586 BC the synagogue may have arisen to fill the void. While many scholars agree with this theory there is no direct evidence pointing the presence of a synagogue prior to 450 BC, nor is a synagogue mentioned by name in the Old Testament other than possibly Psalm 74:8. Regardless, when the Jewish community returned from the Babylonian exile there must have been local places of worship that undoubtedly began to assume the form of the synagogue found in the New Testament.[4] The simple fact that a developed synagogue form existed in the New Testament points to its beginnings throughout the preceding centuries.

Generations before Jesus most Jewish communities had the synagogue as the common center of worship and community life.[5] When Jewish communities began to spread out across the land, particularly throughout the post-exilic centuries, the increased distance from the temple made it nearly impossible for the Jewish religious life to focus solely on the temple. As a result, local religious activities began to take place within individual communities apart from the temple. Groups of Jews would gather together to provide mutual encouragement to each other and worship God. These gatherings are undoubtedly the beginnings of the synagogue but had no intention of displacing the temple.[6] As the post-exilic centuries progressed (450-100 BC) the synagogue developed into a permanent fixture of Jewish life in Palestine and even in Jerusalem itself.[7]

By the time we arrive in the New Testament era the function of the synagogue was firmly established. Any ten Jewish men who came together to worship and share the law in order to learn and fulfill God’s will constituted a synagogue.[8] By the time of Jesus, its main purpose was to supply the community with a local center of worship, teaching, and community ties.

Every service of worship in the synagogue consisted of prayer, the reading of Scripture, including the Law and the Prophets, and often exhortation. Each of these functions was carried on by laymen in the synagogue. There was at least one presiding officer in the synagogue that was simply referred to as the ruler in Luke 13:14.[9] After prayer was offered by one of the laymen present, the reading of the Scripture would take place. The Law was read through consecutively according to a specific cycle. On the Sabbath, the consecutive lesson from the Pentateuch was followed by a corresponding lesson from the Prophets that related to the Pentateuch lesson.[10] Thus, the prophetic lessons were not read in consecutive order, but were chosen to complement the Pentateuch lesson.

Teaching in the synagogue also took on the form of a school for young boys.[11] It became a school where they could learn to read and know the Scriptures at the same time. The influence of the teaching of the Scriptures in the synagogue most likely led the transition from the Jewish focus on sacrifice to a focus on the Law. At the forefront of teaching boys from a young age to know and follow the law were the Pharisees. Thus, the fiercest challenges Jesus faced in the synagogues of Galilee was from the Pharisees and Scribes.

Even before the destruction of the temple, the synagogue had established itself as the premier fixture in the Jewish faith. With Jewish synagogues scattered throughout the land, the Law could be read and taught taking the place of the sacrifice. This new fixture in the Jewish community had a worship service that afforded the opportunity for Jesus and the apostles to propagate the gospel message quickly.

The Involvement of Jesus in the Synagogue
Throughout every major Jewish community in Galilee, Perea, and Judea Jesus found a synagogue.[12] Essentially, he used the synagogues as a springboard to begin his ministry because through them he could quickly reach the people.[13] He often preached in the synagogues because he would be permitted to speak after the reading of the Scripture. After his baptism and temptation in the desert Jesus returned to Galilee where he “taught in their synagogues” (Luke 4:14-15 NIV).

Unfortunately, very little of his synagogue preaching has been preserved.[14] However, one instance that was recorded by Luke provides a significant look into the service of the synagogue. In Luke 4:16-20 Jesus returned to Nazareth and entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day, which “was his custom” (Luke 4:16 NIV). Jesus stood up and read from “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah” (Luke 4:17 NIV). After reading the passage “he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down” (Luke 4:20 NIV). Jesus then began to admonish the people from the Scripture he had just read which follows the typical synagogue pattern of reading and exhorting.

It was in the synagogues that Jesus encountered some of his greatest opposition because he was at the center of Pharisaic influence.[15] Thus, this opposition was not accidental but inevitable because he was in essence preaching out of their headquarters. Nevertheless, the synagogues were an incredible platform for Jesus to present the gospel message to gatherings of people.

The Apostles’ Involvement in the Synagogue
The apostles, even more than Jesus, used the synagogue as a springboard and staging ground for their ministry in each new city they entered. By visiting the synagogues first, the apostles were able to appeal to people who already had at least a partial knowledge of the promised coming Messiah. Luke records that Stephen, who was a member of a Greek-speaking synagogue in Jerusalem, made some of the first gospel presentations to representatives of other Greek-speaking synagogues in Acts 8:8-9. Several of the Jews from these synagogues argued with Stephen but could not stand up against him.

Paul was the only apostle on record to use the synagogues for two distinct purposes. Before his conversion, Paul grew up as a strict follower of the law and was most likely taught much of what he knew about the Law in the synagogue. He was traveling to Damascus because he was going to visit the synagogues and flush out the followers of the Way to take them back as prisoners to Jerusalem. Paul even states later in his life that “many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished” referring to his persecution of believers (Acts 26:11 NIV). Thus, Paul originally used the synagogues as a place to catch and punish early believers. However, it was along that road to Damascus that Jesus appeared to Saul and gave his life a new direction. Paul, continued on to Damascus and still visited the synagogues, but instead of capturing the believers he was preaching “that Jesus is the Son of God” as a believer (Acts 9:20 NIV).

Whenever Paul entered into a new city it was his regular practice to begin preaching in the local synagogue.[16] The synagogue order of service provided him with an opportunity to speak to a crowd of people with the permission or at the invitation of the synagogue officials.[17] Many of the synagogues that Paul visited throughout his missionary journeys were a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. These Gentiles were called God-fearers because they attended the synagogue and somewhat followed the Jewish tradition, but were not fully incorporated into the Jewish community. One such synagogue Paul visited was in Pisidian Antioch. When he stood up to speak he addressed the group as “Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God” (Acts 13:16 NIV). It was out of some of these Jew/Gentile synagogues that the sharpest expression of the Christian faith and “its clearest challenge to ancestral Jewish customs” arose.[18] The main cause for the instant explosion of Christianity among Greek-speaking synagogues was the instant appeal the gospel made to the Gentile God-fearers.[19] Suddenly, there was an offer of salvation and acceptance by God without the strict requirements of the Mosaic Law or circumcision. The Gentile God-fearers that were present at Paul’s first synagogue message at Pisidian Antioch quickly spread the message and on the next Sabbath the synagogue was filled with Gentiles from “almost the whole city” (Acts 13:44 NIV). Many of those God-fearing Gentiles believed and “formed into the Christian church of Pisidian Antioch.”[20]

After leaving Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas visited the synagogue in Iconium and again “a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed” (Acts 14:1 NIV). Paul visited several synagogues throughout his missionary travels. Luke records that he visited the synagogues in Damascus, Salamis, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus. These records show that by the first century A.D. synagogues had already permeated Jewish communities throughout the Greek-speaking world.

As Paul continued to visit these Jew/Gentile synagogues as he traveled, the Gentiles who were considered to be on the fringe of the synagogue now formed “the nucleus of the church.”[21] Paul stayed at several synagogues for extended periods of time preaching the gospel message, sometimes exceeding a year or more at one location.

Even before the destruction of the temple, the synagogue had established itself as the premier fixture in the Jewish faith. The format of the worship service in the synagogue afforded Jesus and the apostles the opportunity to quickly propagate the gospel message. Jesus frequently visited the synagogues, especially in the infant stages of his ministry, and encountered fierce opposition from the teachers of the Law who ruled the synagogue. Likewise, Paul spent as much time as he could speaking in the synagogues and using them as a mouthpiece for the gospel message. Throughout the God-fearing Gentile portion of the Jewish synagogues Paul witnessed explosive growth.

Thus, the synagogue served as one of the major, if not the major, conduit through with the gospel message was preached. This foundation of the Jewish community became an instrument in the hands of the apostles to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. In some cases, the first Christian churches in some cities were formed from large portions of former synagogue congregations.

[1] F. F. Bruce, New Testament History. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1969), 147.
[2] Ibid.
[3] William G. Blaikie, Bible History. (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1925), 372-73.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Floyd V. Filson, A New Testament History. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964), 44.
[6] Ibid, 44.
[7] Bruce, 143.
[8] Filson, 44-45.
[9] Mark 5:22 and Acts 13:15 may indicate that some synagogues had more than one ruler, “the synagogue rulers.”
[10] Bruce, 144.
[11] Floyd V. Filson, A New Testament History. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964), 45.
[12] Ibid, 44.
[13] Ibid, 93.
[14] John Bligh, Historical Information for New Testament Students. (Baltimore: Helicon Press Inc, 1967), 49.
[15] Filson, 116.
[16] Acts 17:1-2 explains that it was Paul’s normal custom to go into the synagogue and preach when he came to a new city.
[17] Filson, 211.
[18] Ibid, 200.
[19] F. F. Bruce, New Testament History. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1969), 147.
[20] Ibid, 275.
[21] Ibid, 147.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Six Reminders Why We Pray

You would be hard pressed to find a professing Christian who wouldn't say prayer is a "good thing" but is prayer THE thing in your life?  Is prayer your passion?  Does communing with your Creator and Redeemer through prayer consume your thoughts throughout the day?  Is prayer your first response to any situation, good or bad?  Does a fervent, passionate desire to pray flow out of your heart?

IT SHOULD!  Prayer is faithful obedience to God as we trust in Him to do what we cannot do!

Still, we struggle to pray for a myriad of reasons.

Oswald Chambers said it so well, "Remember, no one has time to pray; we have to take time from other things that are valuable in order to understand how necessary prayer is."

Here are six important reminders regarding prayer that should fuel our prayer life:

(1) We are commanded to pray!  1 Thessalonians 5:17 commands us to "pray continually."  If we choose not to pray we are walking in disobedience to the command of God.

(2) Prayer is worship! Jonathan Edwards said prayer is an "acknowledgment of our dependence on him [God] to his glory."  When we express our dependence upon God through prayer it ascribes value to Him and is, therefore, worship!

(3) God's people pray!  Throughout both the Old and New Testaments God's people pray.  Abraham prayed to God in Genesis 20.  Moses prayed before leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Sampson prayed that God would return his strength one last time.  Perhaps one of the most powerful images of prayer is Epaphras struggling on behalf of the Colossians in prayer (Colossians 4:12).

(4) God hears prayer!  Psalm 65:2 boldly proclaims, "O you who hear prayer!"  In 1 Kings 17 Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal as they attempted to pray to their false God.  Again, Jonathan Edwards said it so well, "There is no other of whom it may be said, that he hearth prayer."

(5) Most prayer is done in secret!  I recently did a quick survey of 17 occasions Jesus prayed in the gospels and only once do we see Jesus praying with his disciples.  Every other time the gospel writer specifically tells something about Jesus withdrawing to a quiet place or going off by himself to pray.

(6) Prayer is an expression of faith!  Prayer and faith are inseparable.  You cannot genuinely pray without faith.  Regardless of circumstances or perceived results - we pray by faith!

In the wonderful words of E.M. Bounds:
                         “What the Church needs to-day is not more machinery or better, not new
                          organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost
                          can use—men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not
                          flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery,
                          but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men—men of prayer.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Distinctively Different

So, it's been awhile (many months) since I've blogged but there's good reason why.  It's been a very long and trying season for our family.  You can read more about it HERE in the much more eloquent and captivating words of my amazing wife.

I thought I'd take my first blogging opportunity in months to provide a sneak peak into the sermon series I'm starting in a couple weeks called Distinctively Different: A study of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

Change is inevitable in our world. Recent technological advances and instant global communication have accelerated those changes, for better or worse, at an ever-increasing rate. As I recently heard someone say, even nostalgia isn’t want it used to be. The question before us is what do these changes mean for us as followers of Jesus?

We, as Christians in America, are about to experience something that is completely foreign to us. As J. Dwight Pentecost points out:
“Because we live in what has been called a Christian nation, after 2,000 years of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we have been deceived into thinking the attitude of the world toward a believer has changed. That is a lie of the devil. It has not been changed at all. The world can only hate a believer. We have somehow been duped into believing we can change the attitude of the world toward Christ and toward Christians. We have tried to live before the world so as to change their thinking. We have tried to make ourselves acceptable. We are trying to do the impossible. We might as well try to take off for the moon with only our own two feet to get us there.”1
As biblical truth collides head-on with our pagan world, we will see a clarifying distinction between true followers of Jesus and those who are just hanging around the church because it is the popular or cultural thing to do. While this may be a new experience for us, it is certainly nothing new to Christianity.

Christians have long wrestled with the tension between our involvement with the world and our separation from it. The apostle Paul himself reveals the tension as he said he became “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22) yet also said not to “conform to the pattern of this world.” (Romans 12:2) Rather than wrestling with the tension or seeking biblical clarification many Christians have simply opted for inaction. C.S. Lewis challenges us against such a move:
“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”2
As we stare in the face of our lost world we cannot stand idly by as ordinary, decent eggs. We must be changed, “hatched” for the glory of God and the proclamation of His Word or we risk going bad. We have been called to represent God and His Kingdom as ambassadors in this world. (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:20) How then shall we live?

Near the beginning of His earthly ministry Jesus gave the greatest sermon ever preached; a sermon we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. The focus of His message was correcting some misunderstandings of Old Testament teachings and giving clear, practical guidance for how people of the kingdom of God ought to live. As one Bible commentator wrote,
“The sermon showed how a person who is in right relationship with God should conduct his life.“3
About midway through his sermon in Matthew 6:8 Jesus said, “do not be like them;” the “them” was referring to the unbelievers in the world. What we see through the teaching of Jesus is that the life of a Christ follower is to be distinctively different from, not similar to, the world. That’s what being “Christian” is all about: we are distinctively different from the world.

Jesus’ sermon created quite a stir as it confronted some long-standing teachings of the religious leaders. Matthew’s gospel tells us that “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 7:28-29) My prayer is that through this series you, too, will be astonished by the life-transforming words of Jesus and challenged to live a distinctively different life – for the glory God.

1. Pentecost, J. D. (1999). Design for living: lessons in holiness from the Sermon on the mount (p. 75). Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

2. Lewis, C.S. (1958). Mere Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Company), (p. 198-199).

3. Barbieri, L. A., Jr. (1985). Matthew. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 28). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Introducing the King

Everyone has their own view of God.  Some scoff at the idea of God and turn their noses to anyone who dares suggest there is a God.  Others are like the men of Athens in the first century AD who believed in "god(s)" but didn't know about the one true least not until the Apostle Paul told them (Acts 17).  There are others, like myself, who claim belief in the God of the Bible.  Yet, we live our comfortable lives from beginning to end, in our comfortable houses, going to a comfortable church in a comfortable car without ever stopping to think seriously about this God we claim belief in.  We busy ourselves with the things of this world and turn a blind eye to the majesty and splendor of God.  In our own ignorance we fail to know the true God and instead become idolaters, having made a "god" in our own image.  That's my tendency and it's yours.  It's the daily struggle we face as sinful people living in a fallen world.

Thankfully, God knows our natural bent, so He warned us through the prophet Jeremiah and said, "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.  For in these things I delight, declares the Lord." (Jeremiah 9:23-24)  May we heed God's call and strive to understand and KNOW Him better...because our eternity hinges on it...

John 17:3 says "And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."

Whether or not you know the only true God and His Son, Jesus, determines whether or not you have eternal life.  That means, the most important though you will ever think is what you think when you think about God.  In fact, all the problems we face living on this little ball of dirt floating in the universe and the solutions to those problems are theological (relating to the study of God).

In the early days of the Christian church various groups began to develop creedal statements and catechisms.  These short statements were often committed to memory because they clearly and succinctly describe what we believe to be true based on the teaching of the Bible.  One of the more well-known catechisms, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, asks and answers this question: "What is God?" The answer: "God is Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth." That's a great starting point for knowing God better but the people who can recite it from memory today are few and far between.

One of the blessings of living in the age in which we live is that we have almost an endless number of resources at our fingertips.  One of the curses of living in the age in which we live is that we have almost an endless number of resources at our fingertips.  I say that because people rarely stop to internalize or remember some of these vital truths.  YET, we must!

I encourage you to check out our current sermon series at Geist Community Church called Introducing the King.  May we "press on to know the Lord." (Hosea 6:3)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Christ as Servant in the Gospel of Mark

Each of the four New Testament Gospels focuses primarily on one aspect of Christ’s life and ministry. Matthew is well known for presenting Christ as King, while Luke and John seem to emphasize Christ’s humanity and deity as the Son of God respectively. The Gospel of Mark is no exception as it clearly presents Christ as the Servant who redeems in Mark 10:45. Paul vividly describes Mark’s presentation of Christ in Philippians 2:6-7 by saying that Christ is the One “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.”

The purpose of this study is to develop the concept of God’s Servant as presented in the Old Testament and relate that concept to its fulfillment in Christ. Ultimately, I hope to address the implications of Christ’s presentation as God’s Servant in the Gospel of Mark.

     Old Testament Concept of God’s Servant

The concept of God’s servant is developed throughout much of the Old Testament. Moses and Joshua are both referred to as the servant of the Lord several times in the book of Joshua. Likewise, David is referred to as the Lord’s servant frequently in 2 Samuel. However, for the purpose of this paper the focus will be on the concept of God’s Servant presented in the book of Isaiah and to establish its connection with Isaiah’s messianic roles in 9:7 and 52:13-53:12.

In general, in can be stated that a servant of the Lord in the Old Testament is an individual or group of people that the Lord chooses to do His Will. Those who are referred to as God’s Servants in the Old Testament are typically those people who are in close fellowship with the Lord. Isaiah frequently refers to the nation of Israel as God’s chosen servant. In Isaiah 41:8 God calls Israel “my servant” and refers to the descendants of Abraham as His “friend.” Israel was to be the chosen servant of the Lord that would proclaim His glory among all the nations of the earth. By Israel’s example, all the people of the earth would come to know the Lord God Almighty.

Unfortunately, Israel did not maintain their close fellowship with the Lord by following His commands and the Law of Moses. Instead, Israel turned to worshiping other God’s and fell into immorality and other types of sin. Thus, the Lord removed Israel as the chosen servant of the Lord and punished the nation.

As a result of Israel’s dismissal as God’s chosen servant, the ultimate redemption for Israel and the rest of the world now must come from the “ideal” Servant, “who will accomplish what the servant nation cannot do.”[1] Four specific passages in Isaiah, which are commonly referred to as the “Servant Songs,” speak of the coming Messiah and address His role as God’s ideal Servant.[2] The first passage is Isaiah 42:1-9, which introduces an individual that God calls “my servant” and “my chosen one” who is called “in righteousness” and will be made “a light for the Gentiles.” While some students of the Bible still see this passage as referring to Israel, the detailed description of the Messiah and His work is unmistakable. This profile can only describe the “ideal” Servant of the Lord, which is obviously not Israel since they have been rejected as His servant. The “ideal” Servant “will succeed where the nation had failed.”[3]

The second passage that is commonly referred to as a “Servant Song” is Isaiah 49:1-13.[4] In the first five verses the speaker is actually God’s Servant, who equates himself with Israel to indicate that “He would succeed where the nation had failed.”[5] The tasks of the Servant are again described as being a “light for the Gentiles” and to “gather Israel to himself.” Ultimately, the Servant “would fulfill God’s promised to comfort His people.”[6]

The third “Servant Song” passage is Isaiah 50:4-11. The “ideal” Servant is again contrasted with Israel because unlike Israel, he was not rebellious (50:5). Even in the midst of suffering the Servant proclaims, “I offered my back to those who beat me” (50:6). His resolve did not change as His face stood firm “like flint” as people mocked and spit at Him (50:6-7). The Servant ultimately knew that God’s deliverance from this torment would come and He will have accomplished the Lord’s Will. However, he exhorted those who “fear the Lord” to “trust in the name of the Lord” and rely on Him for salvation from their problems.

The fourth and final “Servant Song” is found in Isaiah 52:13-53:23. This song provides an unlikely ending as the “ideal” obedient Servant is rejected by the people and put to death through a series of five stanzas.[7] The first stanza, 52:13-15, highlights the Servant’s ultimate triumph, which will cause kings to stand in awe of the Servant’s accomplishment. The next stanza, 53:1-3, vividly describes the rejection that the Servant will face at the hands of the people. Stanza number three, 53:4-6, describes the Servant’s suffering on behalf of the peoples’ sins even though they thought he was suffering because of His own sins. The fourth stanza, 53:7-9, likens the Servant to a lamb as He is led to his death, yet He did not even open His month in protest. Finally, the fifth stanza, 53:10-12, highlights the Lord’s sovereignty as He offered His Servant as a “guilt offering” that bore the sin of many people. The reward of the Servant is that His name will be great and He will “divide the spoils.”

Overall, the Old Testament refers to several individuals and Israel as a nation as God’s servant. However, the specific sections of Isaiah referred to as the “Servants Songs” describe the “ideal” Servant of the Lord. This “ideal” Servant has a very specific description of His roles and His life. Not only will He be a “light for the Gentiles” and “gather Israel to himself” but He will be a “guilt offering” that bears the sin of many people.

     Christ’s Fulfillment of the Old Testament Servant

Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is the pivotal verse for the book of Mark and is the reason why the Gospel presents Christ as the Servant who redeems.[8] Mark wasn’t simply presenting Jesus as a servant of man; he was presenting Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the “ideal” Servant of the Lord. Jesus Christ is the “ideal” Servant spoken about in Isaiah. The first qualification of the individual Servant is mentioned In Isaiah 9:7, which declares that He must be a descendant of David in order to reign on David’s throne. Obviously, both Matthew and Luke established that Jesus is a descendant of David through either Joseph or Mary.

However, just because Jesus is from the line of David doesn’t mean that he fulfilled the concept of the Servant presented in the latter half of Isaiah. The last “Servant Song” in Isaiah 52:13-53:23 meticulously describe the roles and characteristics of the Servant’s life. Does Jesus truly fulfill the concept of the Lord’s “ideal” Servant presented in that passage? In order to answer this question Christ’s life and ministry needs to be compared with the five stanzas of that passage.

The first stanza, 52:13-15, highlighted the Servant’s ultimate triumph and says that He will be “raised and lifted up and highly exalted.” Not only that, but the passage speaks of His appearance being disfigured and marred beyond human likeness. Paul writes of Christ in Philippians 2:9, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” Christ appearance was obviously very disfigured and marred after bearing all the lashes and the crown of thorns that was thrust upon His head. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection can be easily compared with this verse.

The next stanza, 53:1-3, vividly describes the rejection that the Servant will face at the hands of the people. The passage describes Him as despised and rejected by men. Clearly, Christ was despised and rejected by the men that beat Him and hung Him on the Cross. John 12:38 explains that Jesus was rejected by Israel “to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet.”

Stanza number three, 53:4-6, describes the Servant’s suffering on behalf of the peoples’ sins even though they thought he was suffering because of His own sins. This is the crux of the “ideal” Servant’s role. Isaiah says the Servant “was pierced for our transgressions” and “by his wounds we are healed.” A more perfect picture could not be pained of Christ’s death on the cross for our sins. 1 Peter 2:24 says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and life for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” The following verse in 1 Peter provides further links Christ to Isaiah 53; “For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Matthew 8:17 references this passage of Isaiah and says that Jesus healed all the sick, which “was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah.”

The fourth stanza, 53:7-9, likens the Servant to a lamb as He is led to his death, yet He did not even open His month in protest. John 1:29 reminds us that John the Baptist described Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Matthew 26:63a says that “Jesus remained silent” rather than defend Himself. The fact that Jesus, an innocent man, was able to remain silent during all of the accusations, abuse, and ultimately death shows His incredible focus on fulfilling the Will of His Father as the “ideal” Servant. As Matthew 27:57-60 describes, Jesus was buried with the rich, just as Isaiah 53:9 says of the Servant of the Lord.

Finally, the fifth stanza, 53:10-12, highlights the Lord’s sovereignty as He offered His Servant as a “guilt offering” that bore the sin of many people. The reward of the Servant is that His name will be great and He will “divide the spoils.” What could have brought about the need for the Lord’s Will to include His Servant to suffering such a horrible sacrificial death as described in Isaiah 53:10?[9] The answer is found only a few verses earlier in Isaiah 53:6; “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord had laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The “ideal” Servant, Jesus Christ, paid the price for our sin by dying upon the cross in our place. Paul explained in Romans 3:24 that we “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ. Mark 15:28 states that Jesus was crucified between two thieves, which is likened to being “numbered with the transgressors” in Isaiah 53:12. Just as the Servant in Isaiah is said to make “intercession for the transgressors,” Romans 8:34 says that Jesus “is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”

The only possible answer to the question of Christ’s fulfillment as the Lord’s Servant is that He alone is the only individual capable of fulfilling the role and therefore is the “ideal” Servant presented in Isaiah. When Philip encountered the eunuch on the road he was reading the passage from Isaiah 52:13-53:12. The eunuch could not understand what the passage was saying so he asked Philip to explain the message to him. Philip’s response was to tell him about the good news of Jesus Christ, which is contained within the fourth “Servant Song” of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. It was through Christ’s words and deeds that He authenticated Himself as the Messiah, the “ideal” Servant of Isaiah, and consequently brought redemption through His sacrificial death on the cross.

     Implications of Christ’s Fulfillment

The end of Mark 10:45 states that Christ gave His life “as a ransom for many.” The term “ransom” may not mean very much in today’s culture, but it was a common image in Jewish, Roman and Greek cultures.[10] “It was the price paid to liberate a slave, a prisoner of war, or a condemned person.”[11] Once the price was paid that person was considered redeemed and no longer had any mark on their record. Thus, Christ’s act of redeeming us clears our record of any trespass or penalty that we owed because of our sin. Titus 2:14 says Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” This is the ultimate sacrifice of the “ideal” Servant described in Isaiah. Christ willingly laid down His life down so that the “sins of many” might be forgiven.

The most important implication of Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament concept of the Lord’s Servant is that we can have redemption from sin through Christ’s blood. The fact that Christ willingly laid down His life for us as the “ideal” Servant also serves as an example for us to follow. Once we realize that we are only redeemed because Christ chose to redeem us, we should be compelled to serve “the crucified and risen Lord who died to liberate us into such service.”[12]

------------------end notes-------------------------
[1] John A. Martin, “Isaiah.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Theological Seminary Faculty. (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1985), 1032.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Charles Dyer and Gene Merrill, Old Testament Explorer. (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2001), 566.
[4] Martin, 1032.
[5] Dyer and Merrill, 571.
[6] Ibid, 571.
[7] Ibid, 574.
[8] E. Schuyler English, Studies In The Gospel According To Mark. (New York: Arno C. Gaebelein, Inc, 1943), 358.
[9] Donald English, The Message of Mark. (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 181.
[10] Ibid, 182.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.