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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Luke's Christmas Story: The Theme of Poverty

God's compassion for the poor is a central theme of Luke's Christmas story. Consider the elements Luke chose to include in his narrative:
  1. Mary's song stresses that God's heart in sending His Son into the world was to exalt the lowly and care for the hungry (1:30). Mary's Son was coming to bring hope to the poor. 
  2. Mary and Joseph offered birds as their sacrifice after Mary's required time of purification (Luke 2:22-24). This was the sacrifice required of the poor (Leviticus 12:8). God chose to send His Son into the world to a family in poverty.  
  3. Shepherds were God's chosen witnesses for this dramatic event. In first century Israel, shepherds did not rank very high on the social ladder. In those days, at least two groups of people were barred from giving testimony in a court of law. One was shepherds; the other was women. According to a respected source (Strack-Billerbeck)  "Shepherds were despised people. They were suspected of not being very careful to distinguish 'mine' and 'thine'; for this reason, too, they were debarred from giving evidence in court." It is interesting that God chose shepherds to witness the birth of His Son, and women to witness His resurrection. 
  4. Elizabeth was barren, Simeon was elderly, and Anna the prophetess was a widow. Luke consistently portrays God as caring for those the world forgets and often abuses. This may be one reason he omitted the story of the magi. It did not fit his purpose of highlighting God's concern for the poor.  
As a doctor, Luke had a special place in his heart for the sick, the hurting, and the poor. Throughout his Gospel he returns to the theme of Christ's compassion for and elevation of the poor. This in itself was confirmation that Jesus was the Messiah. For it was foretold that the Messiah would "heal the broken-hearted" and "set the captives free." In fact, Luke highlights this passage from Isaiah as the mission statement by which Jesus lived.  

In chapter 4 Luke includes the story of how Jesus was handed the scroll of Isaiah and read from chapter 61.  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me," He read. Luke intentionally connects these opening words to the baptism of Jesus. At His baptism, Jesus was anointed by the Spirit who came upon Him that day (3:22). Jesus was then led by the Spirit into the desert (4:1), returned from the desert in the power of the Spirit (4:14), and then read this text about the Spirit of the Lord being upon Him (4:17). Luke used selection and arrangement to help us see that Jesus was indeed "the Anointed One" which from the Hebrew is "the Messiah" and from the Greek is "the Christ."  

For Luke, the anointing of Jesus is further proof that He is the promised Messiah. But he goes beyond that.  His selection of stories and details point us to the fact that the purpose of the anointing was to heal the broken-hearted and to set the captives free.  

At Christmas time, our hearts should naturally turn toward those who are less fortunate than we are. God places "the poor" in everyone's life so that we can be Jesus to them.  

Monday, December 19, 2011

Luke's Christmas Story: The Theme of Prophecy

The opening words of Luke's Gospel tell us his intended purpose. He is writing a carefully investigated, orderly account of the life of Christ as an apologetic. He wants Theophilus to "know the certainty" of what he has been taught. Luke's account was so carefully investigated, it changed lives. The nineteenth century archaeologist and skeptic, Sir William Ramsey, converted to Christianity as a result of his investigation of Luke's accuracy. Even the smallest of details related to proper titles for city and regional officials were found to be correct. There was no question that Luke had done his homework.

When we apply the principles of selection and arrangement to Luke's version of the Christmas story, we can see his apologetic purpose very clearly. Luke selects material that presents evidence for the divinity of Jesus. (1) Angels appear to Zechariah, Mary, and the Shepherds. Mary is specifically told by an angel that her child will be the Son of God. (2) Miraculous signs confirm the message of the angels. Zechariah is made mute. Elizabeth conceives in her old age. Mary has a baby even though she is a virgin. (3) Witnesses confirm these appearances and miraculous signs. The crowds at the temple witnessed Zechariah's transformation into a mute. Many rejoiced with Elizabeth when she got pregnant long after her child-bearing years had ended. The shepherds bore witness to what they had seen to those in the community. (4) Prophets confirmed the identity of the baby Jesus. Anna and Simeon both identified Jesus as a the Messiah foretold in Scripture.

Luke then arranges the material to issue a challenge: Will you, the reader, respond to this evidence in faith like Mary or in unbelief like Zechariah. Mary and Zechariah present an intriguing pairing. Both received angelic visits proclaiming a miraculous birth. Zechariah did not believe it possible (even though a woman conceiving late in life is surely more probable than a virgin giving birth!). Mary believed and obeyed.

In my next blog, I will explore the theme of poverty in Luke's Christmas story.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Studying the Bible

When I was in seminary, I learned two basic principles for interpreting the Bible that have forever changed the way I read it.  Those two principles are selection and arrangement.  The idea is this: every author begins with a blank page and a message.  His job is to use the best strategies available to communicate that message.

The first strategy used to communicate an author's intended message is selection.  He needs to decide what to include and what to omit.  This is especially true when telling a story.  There are so many details that could be included that most need to be left out.  What an author omits from the text is often an important clue to what he thinks is truly important.

For example, in 2 Kings 17 we read the story of the Assyrians conquest of Samaria and the exile of the northern ten tribes.  This is an important story.  There is a lot that could be written about politics, military strategy, the back story of key characters, troubled alliances, and the like.  Instead, the author takes six verses (basically one paragraph) to tell us the very simplest of details about the historical dimensions of this story.  He doesn't even tell us that the Assyrian king (Shalmaneser) who started the siege of Israel's capital is not the same king who finished it (Sargon).  After dismissing the details of the story in six verses, the author proceeds to take thirty-five verses to tell us why the exile occurred and to preach about the evils of idolatry.  His choice to omit history in favor of theology points us to his intended message: Israel's exile was punishment for idolatry; therefore, the reader should avoid idolatry.

The second principle I learned is arrangement.   Once an author decides through selection what to include, he needs to put that material in a particular order that will best communicate his message.  You don't have to read far in the Bible to get a great example of this.  Genesis 1 illustrates the importance of selection and arrangement in communicating an author's intended message.

First, notice how much information is omitted from the creation story.  So many details are left out that we immediately realize the author's purpose was not to satisfy our curiosities about the way it happened, as much as we might have liked that.  Instead, a select amount of material is placed in a very careful order.  The events of day 1 parallel day 4 (light - lights).  Day 2 parallels day 5 (sea and sky formed; sea and sky filled).  Day 3 parallels day 6 (land formed; land filled).  Day 7 stands alone as unique.  The overall effect of this arrangement is move the world from darkness to light, from chaos to order, from emptiness to fullness, and from abandonment to blessing.  The creation account is written as a story of redemption.  It reveals God as someone who is able to take what is formless and empty and give it form and fullness, so that its final state can be said to be "very good," "blessed," and at "rest."  How many of us would like that to be said about our lives?

In my next blog, I will explore how the principles of selection and arrangement and can help us understand the author's intended message in Luke's version of the Christmas story.

(Just a note on the age of the earth.  The creation account is written as if from the perspective of one standing on earth watching the planet being transformed.  On day one of creation, one standing on the earth would have seen light enter the atmosphere for the first time.  The question remains whether God created the entire universe in its finished form on the first day of creation, or whether the seven days of creation were used to take a planet that had been in existence for eons and turn it into a garden planet capable of supporting life.  How long had the planet been formless and empty; covered with water and darkness?  The text is vague on this point.  It is possible that the earth and therefore the stones, etc. are quite old and that everything at one time was under water not only from the flood of Noah but from this pre-transformation condition.

This is not theistic evolution, nor does it leave room for the evolution of life.  It does, however, open the door for the idea that it really did take billions of years for the light of the stars to reach the earth.  The point is not that light was created on day one, but that someone standing on the earth would have seen light for the first time.  It is also worth noting that the text does not say that the sun, moon, and stars were created on day four, but that they appeared on day four.  This may well imply that they had been around for awhile, but that God did a work on the earth's atmosphere that made them clearly visible for the first time on day four, thus filling the night sky with lights.

This is not a final answer, but it is an observation I have been encouraged by many to put into writing.)