Word Study #20 — The Kingdom, part 2

September 30, 2009

One critical element necessary for the understanding of Jesus’ references to the Kingdom is found in the passage commonly labeled “the Lord’s Prayer.”
Although it is reasonable to question whether Jesus ever intended it to become a memorized, rote recitation (I don’t think he did), by its grammatical structure, the prayer sheds an interesting light on the concept of the Kingdom.  Parallelism of structure is a frequently used tool in many cultures, both ancient and modern, for illustrating or emphasizing interlocking relationships.

Three phrases here are identical in form:
hagiostheto   to  onoma  sou
eltheto          he basileia sou
genetheto    to thelema sou
The first element – the verb – in each phrase is a third-person aorist passive imperative.  There exists no such form in English, and consequently all attempts to translate it fall far short.   In English, we assume the subject of an imperative verb to be the second-person – “you” – the individual being addressed.  A third person imperative requires a stated subject – in this case, the noun – “name” (onoma), “kingdom” (basileia), and “will” (thelema).  But then there is a problem, how to represent the verb.  Some have rendered it “may” or “let” this happen – but that is far too weak, carrying a wishful-thinking flavor (for which Greek would have used the optative, rather than the imperative mood), or a request that the hearer “allow” it to happen (which would require a hortatory subjunctive).  An imperative is much stronger than either of these.  Whether a second or a third person, it is a command, not a suggestion or a wish.  I have usually chosen to use “must” (which would usually be expressed with dei + an infinitive).  That is still not right, but I think it is closer.  Suggestions are most welcome!

The parallel structure, in any case, denotes a kind of connection, not quite an equation, but close, between the three elements, all of which are included in the summation, “as in heaven, so also on earth.”  One could even say, then, that these are the basic ingredients of the Kingdom:  it exists and flourishes wherever/whenever God’s name is recognized as holy (belonging uniquely and absolutely to him), and presently doing his will is the deliberate choice of his people.  In one sense, the coming of the Kingdom may be defined by the preceding and following statements.  This is already the case in heaven – and his people are called to model it as well as to pray for it, on earth: in effect, to incarnate the Kingdom.

Important aspects of the Kingdom are further illuminated in many of Jesus’ parables. One must be careful not to read too much into these stories.  Parables are usually designed to make one primary point.  Jesus’ purpose is not served by (as a dear teacher/brother/friend once put it) “counting and analyzing the hairs on the tail of the Samaritan’s donkey!”
Nevertheless, a few observations and questions may be helpful – not as definitive “doctrine”, but as aids to understanding the impact of the stories on the original listeners.  We will examine only the parables that overtly include some version of the phrase, “The Kingdom of God (or heaven) is like…”Others may also have bearing: these definitely do.

1.  The wheat and weeds in the field (Mt.13:24-30).  The workers are worried about the weeds, but the Master, conceding that they were planted by an enemy, chooses not to endanger his growing crop by allowing over-zealous weeding.  How much good grain has been destroyed by workers more eager to pull weeds than to cultivate the crop?  (Mark’s version – 4:26 – speaks only of the growth of the crop.)
2.  The mustard seed (Mt.13:31-32, Mk.4:30-32, Lk.13:18-19). It not only grows amazingly, but provides shelter for creatures!
3.  The yeast (Mt.13:33, Lk.13:20-21) also grows – not just to get bigger or make more yeast, but to make bread – basic sustenance for people!
4.  The treasure in the field (Mt.13:44).  Notice the delight of the man:  he does not think he is making a “sacrifice”!
5.  The pearl (Mt.13:45-46), also, is deemed of ultimate value by the merchant – well worth whatever it costs.
6.  The fish-net (Mt.13:47-50).  A grand mixture of varieties, useful and not, will be sorted later.  Compare this with the weeds (#1). These two combine present and future ideas, whereas #2-5 are strictly present.
7.  Three vineyard parables.  The two in Mt.21:28-32 and 33-41, while the Kingdom is mentioned only once (31), are sternly critical of the present unfaithfulness of the people entrusted with the care of the vineyard (long considered a symbol of the people of God), whereas the earlier one (20:1-15), describing the hiring of workers throughout the day, critiques the selfishness of even faithful workers who assumed that their seniority would confer higher status/salary.
8.  The wedding banquet (Mt.22:1-13) highlights not only the rudeness of the first folks invited to the party and the consequent random inclusion of outsiders, but a man who is improperly dressed.  It has been suggested that festive robes were customarily provided by the host.  Had this man perhaps refused the gift, thinking his own “good enough” (no need to change!)?
9.  The ten virgins with oil lamps (Mt.25:1-13) also combines present and future.  The girls are waiting for the arrival of the wedding party, but the focus is on having made (or not!) adequate preparations.  (Why is there no criticism for not “sharing”?)
10.  Similarly, the “talents” (Mt.25:14-30) and the “minas” (Lk.19:11-27) deal with an interim period.  Only Luke’s version mentions the Kingdom, or the overt hostility of some of the subjects.  Matthew has the servants’ responsibilities scaled according to their abilities (v.15), whereas Luke has them commissioned equally.  Those who acted faithfully are equally commended in Matthew, but Luke records a variation.  Both, however, exclude the slacker.
11.  The sheep and goats (Mt.25:31-46) is the only one of the Kingdom parables to be quite specifically focused on the future, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.” It is seldom pointed out that this “judgment” is explicitly said to be of the ethnoi – “nations” or “Gentiles” (same word), or that the criteria by which they are divided have nothing whatever to do with anything that either group “believed” (pisteuo, in any of its forms is nowhere to be found in the account), but rather concerns their behavior. Of interest, also, is the exercise of comparing the criteria Jesus lists here, with his “inaugural address” in Lk.4 (see part 1).  I do not believe the similarity is accidental.  Might these folks, although unwittingly, have actually been participating in Kingdom work?  I suggest that it behooves us to be slow to pontificate about who may or may not be included.

I have deliberately refrained from compiling these observations into a neat pattern of conclusions.  I don’t believe Jesus’ intention was to provide us with doctrinal weapons with which to clobber one another.  I believe he sought to engage our hearts, minds, and energies in the work of his Kingdom.
I hope these questions can contribute to that effort.

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Word Study #19 — The Kingdom –Part 1

September 28, 2009

I have chosen to divide this study into three parts:  one a generalized overview of Gospel references, another of more detailed examination of a few points, and the third of its final consummation.
One outstanding contributing factor to the difference between an observable, practical view of Christianity and the theoretical “pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye” version is the understanding that a group promulgates of the Kingdom of God.  Specifically, do they speak of it primarily in the present or the future tense?

Both of these occur in the gospel accounts, and elsewhere in the New Testament, but the Biblical balance is skewed heavily in the direction of the Kingdom as a present reality.  Notice the prevalence of Jesus’ statements and his instructions to his disciples to echo them:  “The Kingdom of God is (present tense) among you,” or, “The Kingdom of God has arrived” – eggiken – (perfect tense:  a past event whose effect continues in the present and perhaps beyond).  A few examples are in Lk.17:20-21; Mt.4:17; Mk.1:15; Mt.10:7; Lk.10:9-11.
Even more vivid, although frequently missed by English translators, is Jesus’ response to the hierarchy-types who accused him of a connection with the devil in his casting out of evil spirits, “If I am doing this by the finger [power] of God, then the Kingdom of God has gotten ahead of you!”  (Mt.12:28 and Lk.11:20)  Ephthasen is the aorist form of phthano, a rarely used word that speaks of one competitor in a race outrunning or overtaking another.  The tense here, in both references, is aorist: something that has already happened!

Jesus put it even more plainly in Lk.16:16 and Mt.11:12:  “The law and the prophets were (in effect) until John (the Baptizer).  Since then, the Kingdom of God is being proclaimed!” (present tense).  The King has arrived!  The Kingdom exists wherever the authority of the King is recognized!

In his inaugural address (Lk.4:18-21), Jesus set forth the principles upon which his Kingdom would operate:
It would be good news to the poor, who had been despised and marginalized by a society that equated riches with God’s approval.  (Does that sound familiar?)
He declared that he had been sent to announce (keruxai) release to the captives (explained at least partly in Hebrews 2:15).  A “kerux” was a herald:  the cultural equivalent of a news anchor – a public messenger of what was presently going on.
He would give sight to the blind (both physically and spiritually) – one of the most frequent manifestations of his power to heal.
He would set at liberty people who had been crushed by oppression (tethrausmenous).  This is the only NT use of thrauno, which denotes an utterly helpless and hopeless condition.  Tradition has interpreted this, and the earlier reference to “captives”, in a political sense:  but Jesus did not.  Neither did he postpone any of it to some sort of idyllic future.  He rather affirmed, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled (perfect tense) in your hearing!”

His subsequent teaching – and activity – were simply a practical demonstration of his announced purpose:  “proclaiming (keruxai again) the Lord’s accepted time.” An announcement is not a vague promise for some distant future:  it is giving notice of a present event.  (Eniauton refers to any defined period of time.)
Interestingly, when messengers come from John the Baptist asking about his identity (Mt.11:5, Lk.7:21), Jesus lists those same elements, with a few additions, as evidence that he is indeed “the one who was to come.”
This same orientation is present in the majority of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom.  Of eleven that he specifically says describe the Kingdom, 4 are clearly descriptions of present conditions and 6 contain both present and future elements.  Only one – the sheep and goats scene in Mt.25 – focuses on the future, and even that relies on the evidence of the present behavior of those judged.  (I have not counted parallels as separate events.)  It is helpful to look at these in detail, but that is beyond the scope of this post.  We will consider some outstanding elements of the parables in Part 2.

Jesus also found it necessary on several occasions to correct prevalent misconceptions about the Kingdom, some of which still persist, uncorrected, among his followers.  The scribes, to whom he responded with one of his banquet parables, clearly had “bye-and-bye” in mind when they piously remarked (Lk.14:15), “whoever eats bread in the Kingdom of God is greatly privileged [blessed].”  Jesus’ story points out that those invited do not all respond to the gracious invitation (16-24).   Even more bluntly, he replies to a group fixated on a future kingdom (Lk.17:20-21), “The Kingdom of God is not coming with meticulous observations.  Neither will they say ‘Look, here!’ or “There!’  For look: the Kingdom of God is already among you all!”
To those who expected that a final political consummation was imminent (Lk.19:11-24), Jesus gave a reminder that faithfulness (or lack of it) before “the end” governed the eventual outcome.
Even after the resurrection, the disciples were still asking, “Lord, is this the time you will re-establish the kingdom of Israel?” (Ac.1:6).  Jesus’ reply communicates that their question is missing the point completely:  he speaks instead of the gift of the Holy Spirit, who will empower the growth of his Kingdom among them.

During his time with them, Jesus had admonished his followers (Mt.6:33) to “keep seeking” for the Kingdom of God.  This is a present imperative.  And like most of his instructions, it is addressed in the plural – it is a mutual, group effort, not a lonely, individual quest.
He encouraged one scribe, who had responded thoughtfully in a discussion, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mk.12:34).
He told his disciples that they were privileged to have “the mysteries of the Kingdom of God” revealed to them, when he explained the meaning of parables (Mt.13:11, Lk.8:10), and urged them to dispose of anything that would hinder their participation in the Kingdom (Mk.9:47 and parallels).
There are similar indications in various epistles, of the contemporary nature of the calling to faithfulness.  More of those later.

However, there are definitely aspects of the Kingdom that are not yet realized.  Jesus also spoke (Mt.25 and elsewhere) of “when the Son of Man comes in his glory and the Father’s”, and several times of the Kingdom as an inheritance to be anticipated.  Someone has characterized this apparent ambiguity as “living between the already and the not-yet.”  Faithful followers must maintain this healthy tension, and neither discount the present nor ignore the future.
We will consider a few specifics in more detail in the next study.


Can you figure this out?

September 23, 2009

Can you figure this out?

I was really intending to begin work on a condensed treatment of the Kingdom (more fully explored in my 1993 volume, Citizens of the Kingdom), when I noticed something that I had missed previously, and have not seen treated anywhere.
It is well known that only Matthew uses the phrase “Kingdom of heaven” where Mark and Luke use “Kingdom of God.”  But upon closer observation, I noted that in all of Matthew’s 31 references to the “kingdom of heaven”, the word ouranos, “heaven”, appears in the plural – ton ouranon. (Those “o’s” in the endings are omegas.)  This does not show up in any translations of which I am aware, probably because a plural would sound awkward in English.  I have not found any credible explanation.

The lexicons are no help.  Liddell/Scott (Oxford) does not treat the question at all.  It simply lists the primary meaning as “sky”, and secondary “the abode of the gods above the visible sky”.  They note that philosophically, the term referred to the physical universe, and later to anything shaped like a dome or vault – even the roof of one’s mouth! – or a tent, dome, or lid for a container.  Bauer’s NT lexicon comments that the choice of singular or plural seems random.  (Maybe it is!)  Thayer gets very theological about it,  but does not offer consistent evidence.

Matthew’s other uses of “heaven” are nearly evenly divided between singulars (21) and plurals (20).  The phrase “Father in heaven” uses predominantly the plural, but when it is expressed with a participle, it is singular in form.  References to “treasure in heaven” appear with both singular and plural, as do the two conversations regarding “binding and loosing.”  The source of “voices,” “signs,” and “angels/messengers” also uses both.  I have been unable to discern any coherent pattern.

The other gospel writers aren’t much help either.  All of them consistently use “Kingdom of God” rather than “of heaven”, and their other uses of “heaven” are fewer, but no more consistent.  Mark has 12 singulars and 6 plurals (with “angels/messengers” in both).  Luke has 24 singulars and only 4 plurals, some of which reverse Mark’s choices.  In Acts, he uses no plurals at all.  Neither does John, in gospel, letters, or the Revelation.

The epistles offer a grand mix.  At first it seemed like Paul’s earlier writings used singular forms of “heaven”, and later ones the plural, but I Thess. uses one plural, and Col.4:1 a singular  (in the same context where Eph.6:9 uses a plural!), so one cannot make a pattern there.  Hebrews has 2 singulars and 3 plurals (one a footnoted inclusion).  James has 2 singulars, as does Peter who also throws in a plural.

I’ll be grateful if some of you will dig out your Young’s Concordances and weigh in with any insight you may have.  You will need to find the singulars and plurals by the use of a Greek text – if you do not read Greek easily, you can do it with an interlinear, which will allow you to locate the word.  For the forms of a noun, please see the appendix to my Translation Notes.  They are easy to recognize, if you know what to look for.

Please don’t use this invitation as a dumping ground for Dante-esque fantasies of multiple layers and such, or for fanciful diagrams that have their basis in doctrinal speculations rather than the Scripture text.
The word “heaven” may also deserve deeper study; but here, the question is simply the implication – if any (there may not be one!) – of the shift between singular and plural.

Remember that Word Study deals with the Biblical usage of a word, contextually, grammatically, and lexically.  The only “commentary” that is relevant is the text itself.  Within these parameters, all suggestions are fair game.

Thanks for your participation!


Word Study #18 — Witness

September 18, 2009

Few and fortunate are the faithful followers of Jesus who have not, at some point, been subjected to a massive guilt-trip by an enthusiastic, self-styled preacher-“evangelist”, roundly scolding them for the inadequacy of their “witnessing.”  This peremptory judgment is usually followed by an offer of reprieve, in exchange for submitting to lessons on “effective witnessing.”  The perpetrator of the guilt-trip then proceeds to outline a series of propositions (complete with chapter-and-verse proof-texts) which are to be carefully committed to memory, and retrieved on cue to demolish the defenses of a hapless target, thus fulfilling one’s supposed duty to “obey the Great Commission.”  I am quite certain that what the Lord had in mind when giving that assignment was quite different from this (only slightly) more civilized version of collecting scalps!  The only thing sadder than this abuse of the clear admonition of Scripture, is its deleterious effect on both the gullible “student” and his (not-so-unsuspecting) victim.

Let’s get one thing straight:  Jesus did tell his disciples (Lk.24:48), “You all are witnesses of these things (the fulfillment of ancient prophecies by means of his resurrection)”, and later (Ac.1:8) “You all will be my witnesses.”  Both of these statements are cast, not in the imperative (command) mood, but in the indicative:  a simple statement of fact.  A person who has observed or participated in any event is, by definition, a witness.

“Witness” and “testimony”, both translations of martus (the person) and its related words, martureo and marturomai (verbs), marturia, and marturion (nouns referring to the content of the testimony),  are, first of all, legal, judicial, courtroom words.  In antiquity, as in the first century, and still today, it is incumbent upon a “witness” that he report, as accurately as he is able, what he has personally experienced or observed – no more and no less.  He does not volunteer information, but simply answers questions.  Mere “hearsay” evidence is peremptorily  thrown out of court!

In his first letter, John outlines this principle ably and succinctly (1:3) – “It’s what we have seen and heard, that we are reporting to you!”  Luke, who did not have the privilege of first-hand experience, says (1:2) that in his account, he relied upon the “original eyewitnesses” for his information.  He does not call himself a witness, but a researcher-organizer of the testimony of others.  Paul, on the other hand, repeatedly refers to his own experience, in both oral and written testimony.

There are New Testament accounts of purported “witnesses” whose “testimony” was pre-programmed by others:  the false witnesses enlisted by the ecclesiastical authorities to testify at Jesus’ trial (Mt.26:59-60; Mk.14:55-58); the false report concocted by those same authorities to deny his resurrection (Mt.28:11-15); and the men brought in for the lynching of Stephen (Ac.6:11-15).  Which sort of company do you prefer to keep?

More commendable uses of martureo and its derivatives in the New Testament fall loosely into three groups:  simple evidence of a fact, or of a person’s reputation; verification of Jesus’ identity; and reports of his resurrection.  Notable among the first group are:  the requirement that two or three witnesses must agree in order for their testimony to be accepted (Mt.18:16, II Cor.13:1, Heb.10:28); Jesus’ instructions to people to give evidence of his having healed them (Mt.8:4, Lk.5:14, and Mk.1:44); and the integrity (or lack thereof) of individuals or groups (I Thess.2:10, Tit.1:13, Mk.6:11, and Lk.9:5).  This idea may also figure in Jesus’ word to his followers regarding their own prospect of being hauled into court (Mk.13:9, Lk.21:13). Even with their lives on the line, they are told not to plan out their “testimony” in advance.  By the Holy Spirit, he promises to guide it as needed.

Jesus frequently offered evidence for his claims regarding his relationship with the Father:  Jn.5:31-37, 8:12-18, and 10:25, and 37-38.  Everything he did was intended to serve as that evidence/ “witness”.   This is reminiscent of the admonition attributed to Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words only when necessary.”  In Jn.15:26-27, both the promised Holy Spirit and the disciples themselves are entrusted with the same responsibility to give that evidence: “because you all are with me from the beginning.”  (Are “lessons in witnessing” a substitute for having spent time with Jesus?)  And Jesus himself reminded  Nicodemus (Jn.3:11) that his own testimony dealt with what he knew and had experienced.

The overwhelming majority of NT references to “bearing witness” (for anyone other than Jesus himself) concern the glorious news of his Resurrection!  This was the reason Peter gave for needing to choose as a replacement for Judas someone who (1) had been with Jesus, and (2)could testify that he is alive! (Ac.1:22).  Clearly, this was the central burden of the New Testament sermons  (Ac.2:24,32; 3:15, 5:32, 10:39,41; 13:31).  It was the message that  Festus found so confusing (Ac.25:19), and against which the ecclesiastical authorities campaigned so vigorously:  “Jesus is alive!!!”

Still today, this is the source and the content of what we as his people have to offer to all who are still living in darkness, pain, or fear. Everything else—healings (Ac.3:11-15), changed lives (19-20), the consummated Kingdom (20-21) – is secondary to the fact that Jesus is alive and active among his people! As during his earthly ministry, it is his observable activity among us that serves as testimony (evidence) that the message is true!   In the face of dire threats from the temple hierarchy, Peter and John (Ac.4:20) replied, “We cannot keep from speaking of what we have seen and heard!”  Neither can we.

Faithful “witness” to our living Lord has nothing whatsoever to do with memorized “answers to questions that nobody is asking.”  It has everything to do with our allowing him to create among us a fellowship (see Post #8) where his Life can be seen! Genuine “witness” is simply giving first-hand reports of that Life – when folks see it, and ask.

“You all ARE my witnesses!” (Lk.24:48).


Word Study #17 — “I AM”

September 14, 2009

To understand the impact of Jesus’ use of “I AM” (ego eimi), you will need a bit of linguistics and a bit of history.  Many languages, including Greek (but not English), “conjugate” all of their verbs:  that is, the subject, “I, you, he, etc.” is inherent in the form of the verb, and does not require an expressed pronoun as a subject.  In ordinary speech, “I am” is adequately expressed by the verb, eimi, standing alone.  A pronominal subject would be used only for deliberate emphasis.
Historically, due to the account of Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3), “I AM” (with the pronoun) became traditionally recognized as the “name” of the Deity.  Somewhere along the line – I recently heard the suggestion that it may have been in order to avoid breaking the third commandment – people were forbidden to pronounce the “sacred” name at all.  Consequently, the use of the first person singular pronoun was forbidden to “ordinary people”.  The verb stands alone in the vast majority of Biblical references, even after the translation of the Old Testament into the Greek Septuagint, though it does appear, rarely, where strong emphasis is needed.

In light of the identification with God implied by the phrase, it is no surprise that the Gospel of John contains the greatest number of incidents where Jesus deliberately used that forbidden phrase.  John’s entire prologue is a paean of praise clearly identifying the Lord Jesus with the eternal God.
The first occurrence of “I AM” (I have used capital letters where the pronoun is included), and probably the earliest chronologically, is in Jesus’ conversation with the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria (Jn.4:26), where he matter-of-factly declares his identity as the promised Anointed One.  She obviously got the message, as did the townspeople she recruited!
Four times, Jesus uses it in combination with his other “trademark”, “Don’t be afraid!” – in the storm at sea (Mt.14:26, Mk.6:50, Jn.6:20), and when he identifies himself to John (Rev.1:17).  To his frightened followers, the recognition (or reminder) of who Jesus is, becomes a great comfort, as it was in his Resurrection appearance (Lk.24:39).

For his opponents, on the other hand, it only incites or increases their anger and determination to get rid of him (see the discourses in Jn.6:41-51 and 8:21-29).  Sometimes these conversations are interpreted to imply that the hearers were confused, but here I must beg to differ.  Both interviews are peppered with “I AM” statements (6:41, 6:48, 8:23 twice, 8:24, 8:28, 8:57).  They knew exactly what he was saying:  they simply chose not to accept it.  This is clear from the conclusion at the end of John 8 (58-59), as they threaten to stone him.
The same is true of the trial scenes in Mk.14:62 and Lk.22:70.  Jesus’ “I AM” statement is the capstone of their case against him – and he and they both know it.  Although the phrase does not appear in Jn.5:18, it is clear that the point has been made:  “The Jews were seeking to kill him, because he not only was breaking the Sabbath, but was saying that his own Father was God, thus equating himself with God!”  See also Jn.10:30-33:  “The Father and I are one!” Again, the Jews picked up stones to stone him… and when asked why, they replied, “We’re not stoning you about any good deeds, but for blasphemy, because you, being human, make yourself out to be God!!”  And indeed that would have been heresy, had it not been absolutely true!
The use of “I AM” as an identifier is also clear in Jesus’ warning to his disciples in Mk.13:6 and Lk.21:8, against falling for impostors who would come pretending to his position. (“World-ending” is an ancient profession!)
Perhaps the most vivid of the scenes with his opponents is Jesus’ encounter with the posse that came to arrest him (Jn.18:5, 7, 8).  He calmly greets them, and inquires what they want; and at his simple “ego eimi”–  “I AM”,  “they backed off and fell to the ground!”   Please note:
the Lord of Glory could not have been “captured” without his own permission!

The other major block of references where Jesus’ “I AM” statements are quoted, contain a predicate nominative.  These too are instructive.
Jn.6:35  “I AM the Bread of Life.”  Bread has been spoken of as the most basic sustenance.  It was God’s provision for the ancient Hebrews in the desert, and now again in the first-century wilderness.
Jn.8:12  “I AM the Light of the world.”  The first element of creation, light has always been associated with God’s presence and his ways.
Jn.10:7, 9  “I AM the Door.”  The door to a sheepfold provided both access and protection.  A responsible shepherd was said to sleep across the doorway, to protect his flock from predators.
Jn.10:11, 14  “I AM the good shepherd.”  Old Testament prophets had berated the official “shepherds” for abusing the flock for their own gain.  Ezekiel described God’s determination to take over the job, and Jesus proclaims himself to be the final fulfillment of that promise.
Jn.14:6  “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  Each of these is worth a separate study.
“Way”, hodos, may refer to a road, a journey, a direction, or a manner of life
“Truth” aletheia, indicates the opposite of falsehood; reality; or an actual event.
“Life” zoe, is one of three words translated this way; the only one that may (but need not) have an “everlasting” or “eternal” dimension.  It may indicate simply being alive, but may also refer to one’s livelihood, or subsistence, or even be a term of endearment.
Jn.11:25  “I AM the Resurrection and the Life.”  Martha had relegated resurrection to the future consummation, but Jesus does not. He goes on to explain that it is his very presence that confers Life (zoe).
Jn.15  “I AM the Vine.”  Prophets (Isaiah 3, 5, and Jeremiah 12) had applied the “vineyard” figure to the people of Israel.  Jesus’ parables also had critiqued their management (Mt.21, Mk12, Lk.20), and warned of the corrective action of God.  His teaching here explains the work of the true caretaker, as well as redefining the Vine (himself).

The “I AM” statements in Revelation are all focused on Jesus’ all-encompassing constancy:  Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last (1:17, 21:6, 22:13), in varying combinations.  An interesting slant is found in 22:16, where Jesus refers to himself as the “root and offspring of David.”  Genealogy buffs know that a mere person is one or the other – not both.
But it is the continuous, present tense that characterizes the Lord Jesus. This is also clearly revealed in the statement itself:  “I AM” is a simple present tense.  This is also seen in Jesus’ own quoting of the original Burning Bush statement in Mt.22:31 and Mk.12:26-27.
In a very real sense, both past and future are irrelevant, and consequently no cause for inordinate concern, to people who are joined to the only One qualified to use that simple yet profound declaration – “I AM.”
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Word Study #16 — “Fear not!”

September 7, 2009

Of all the imperatives in the New Testament, it may well be that this one stands in the sharpest contrast to the voices that constantly bombard our consciousness.  Economic, political, medical, social, and yes, even “religious” spokesmen, of every persuasion,  assault their already apprehensive audiences with the same message:  “Be afraid;  be very afraid!”
Jesus, in contrast, as well as virtually all of the supernatural participants in his recorded history, consistently greets worried or startled people with a reassuring, “Fear not!”  “Don’t be afraid!”
How have these encouraging words become so universally ignored among those who claim to represent him?  Indeed, the students in my husband’s class at a “Christian” high school, some years ago, overwhelmingly gave “fear of the consequences” as the primary reason for their commitment to the Lord! and a fellow teacher at the same school who called himself an “evangelist” questioned the validity of my own conversion when I said that I had never been “afraid of meeting God”!  This is not only tragic – it is a shameful misrepresentation of the one who commissioned us to spread his “good news”!

Even “before the beginning”,  the heavenly messengers’ greetings to Zachariah, to Mary, and to Joseph, were the same:  “Don’t be afraid!”  Zachariah’s prophecy at the time of Johns birth referred to the joyous prospect of serving God “without fear”(Lk.1:70), safe from the harassment of enemies;  and the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the frightened shepherds began with “Don’t be afraid!  I am bringing you good news!”
Jesus’ ministry was frequently punctuated with the same phrase:  admonishing his followers not to fear their persecutors (Mt.10:26,28, and Lk,12:4,7); reminding them of their great value in God’s sight (Mt.10:31, Lk.12:7);  reassuring Jairus about his daughter (Mk.5:36, Lk.8:50); promising the gift of participation in his Kingdom (Lk.12:32); and in his final bequest to the disciples before his death, the legacy of his peace (Jn.14:27).
One outstanding event appears in Mt.14:25, Mk.6:48-50, and Jn.6:19-21.  The scene is a ferocious storm on the Sea of Galilee.  The disciples are terrified at the sight of Jesus walking toward them across the waves. His greeting combines two of his “trademark” statements:  “Don’t be afraid – I AM!”  (The next post will explore the latter part in greater detail.  Here, I will simply remind you that “I AM” was God’s Burning Bush statement, a clear reminder of who Jesus is.)  It is only after they recognized him and received him into the boat, that the storm was stilled.
Luke chose to highlight a different encounter on the lake (5:4-10), one that contemporary “evangelists” would do well to emulate.  Overwhelmed by the huge catch of fish (quite an extravagant “thank you for the use of your boat”!), Peter reacted in the way many preachers expect (or demand) of their hearers:  “Leave me, Lord!  I’m a no-good sinner!”  But far from pouncing on that “confession” and flogging him with it,  (notice:  that was Peter’s diagnosis, not the Lord’s!), Jesus replied in a way more in keeping with his character:  “Don’t be afraid! (Don’t worry about it!)  I have a job for you!”  What a gracious welcome!

Matthew (17:7) records the same phrase addressed to the frightened disciples on the occasion of the Transfiguration.  Matthew (28:5) and Mark (16:6) quote the messengers’ address to the women at the tomb after the Resurrection, and Matthew also has Jesus himself repeating the same thing.
Twice in the Acts narrative, in Corinth (Ac.18:9-10) Jesus’ appearance to Paul, and just before the shipwreck (27:24) a “messenger of God” delivered the same message,   “Don’t be afraid!”  seems to have been almost like an authentication that a message was indeed from the Lord.  That is how John seems to have recognized that his visitor in Rv.1:17 was Jesus himself.  (It was combined with “I AM” there, as well.)

Even in contexts where fear is a very normal reaction to the perceived peril of a situation, (e.g., the storm at sea, etc.) Jesus consistently seeks to allay, not to induce, their fears.  There is only one context in which he does not do so:  the situations where the religious rulers, scribes and Pharisees, Herod, and even Pilate, are represented as fearing either Jesus himself, or the crowds who followed him, as they pursued their nefarious plans.

We cannot, of course, neglect the handful of passages that refer to the “fear” of God.  Unfortunately, ever since Aeschylus (5th century BC), the same word, phobeomai, has also been used to refer to the reverence or respect due to a deity, a government official, or even the master of a slave.   This sense of the word also appears in Philo (1st century) and Plutarch (2nd.century AD), as well as the Septuagint.  (cf. Bauer’s lexicon – see appendix.)  The context usually makes clear the intent:  some examples appear in Lk.1:50, 18:2-4, and 23:40;  Acts 10 (referring to Cornelius); several sermons, and some of the epistles.  “Those who fear [reverence] God” was a frequent reference to godly Gentiles.  It is a gross distortion to represent these as advocating that one should be afraid of God!

The noun forms of “fear” deal primarily with either “respect”, or the normal human reaction to peril, with a couple of major exceptions.  In Romans 8:15, Paul reminds his readers, “You all didn’t receive a spirit of slavery, (that would take you) into fear, but you received a spirit of being made (adopted as) sons!” , and in the same vein, Hebrews 2:14-15 affirms that through his death, Jesus once and for all destroyed the one who had the power of death, and rescued those who by fear of death, had been held in slavery all their lives.

As an old man, John sums up the faithful followers’ point of view at the end of his beautiful treatise on the love of God (I John 4:18-19):  “Fear doesn’t exist in love;  but a mature love throws out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who is afraid has not been made mature in love.  We keep on loving because he loved us first.”  At whatever level of maturity we find ourselves, this is the goal.

Faithful representation of the Lord Jesus will always seek to alleviate, never to instill fear.  This poor world has more than enough fear already.  An accurate presentation of “the Gospel” is the same today as it was to the terrified shepherds on the hillside so long ago:  “Don’t be afraid!   I am bringing you Good News!”

It is a message our world desperately needs!  Proclaim it faithfully!