Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 6

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Chapter 6

The Number One Killer

Jesus analyzes the heart

Cancer is a word that ignites ugly fears. No disease has captured the attention of Americans the way cancer has. That is strange, because health statistics prove that heart disease kills far more Americans than cancer does. Yet when opinion surveys are taken in America, most people will predictably rank cancer as a greater killer than heart disease.

From these facts, it appears that we are easily distracted by things that have a strong emotional component. Cancer seizes our attention and summons strong feelings. Other things that are dull and simple, even though vitally important, may easily be forced from our conscious minds.

In this media-driven age, we watch television programs with multi-million dollar budgets on our HD-TVs and become increasingly attuned to flash. One communications expert has said that our society has become so used to over-stimulated communication that it takes sensory overkill to get people’s attention.

The Leading Spiritual Killer

Happily, only a fraction of us will ever have to face cancer or heart disease. But I invite your attention to an insidious killer that threatens every one of us to one extent or another. First, be warned that this killer comes disguised in dullness and simplicity, so you are already conditioned to ignore it. Some of you will feel little urgency when I tell you what it is, and that’s too bad.

This silent assassin is spiritual heart disease, a problem Jesus treated with utmost seriousness. In fact, he spoke about it in his very first parable. Jesus warned people from the outset that, if they wanted to understand anything else that he was going to say, then they had to deal with this problem.

In the early part of his ministry Christ had gained wide acceptance and popularity. Because of his great miracles, people thronged from the entire region to see him. Once again the spectacular had captured men’s minds.

But Jesus had drawn some unfavorable attention as well, and agents from Jerusalem began to track him around. Pharisees and Sadducees could always be found near him, opposing what he said. They couldn’t deny that Jesus had great power to work miracles, so they had come up with an explanation.

They acknowledged Jesus’ miraculous powers, but said that he drew them from Satan rather than from God. In response, Jesus rightly accused them of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. As such opposition hardened against him, Jesus spoke increasingly in parables. One such parable focused on spiritual heart disease.

The Field and the Farmer

4 While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: 5 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. 6 Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.
7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.

8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
(Luke 8:4–8)

Jesus had been traveling from town to town in Galilee in the manner of an itinerant rabbi. He was spreading the word about the kingdom of God and how men might enter it. Some who heard trusted in Christ; others flatly rejected him; and still others had every response in between. The parable speaks of various ways that people respond to the Word of God.

Jesus said that some of the seed fell along the path (Luke 8:5), which seems like a strange place to be sowing seeds. But the farmers of Israel had clever ways of reducing the labor involved in planting a crop. They would take the family donkey and strap a sack of seed on his back. After cutting a small hole in the sack, the donkey would be released to wander at will around the property dropping seed. Some seed dribbled out onto the path. After the donkey had done his work, the farmer would simply go out and sow seed in the spots that the animal had missed.

The seed that fell on the path suffered a predictable fate — “it was trampled on” (Luke 8:5). The Greek verb can mean that something is physically stepped on, but it also has the figurative meaning of treating something with disdain. We have the same idiom in English. Most of us have seen pictures of foreign nationals trampling on an American flag to show their contempt. Trampling on God’s Word is worse!

The seed on the path didn’t stay for long; it had only a brief opportunity to take root. Soon it was taken away altogether.

The next portion of seed fell on rock (Luke 8:6). Many parts of Israel have thin layers of soil on top of rock shelves. You can’t tell the rock layer is there by looking at the soil, or even by looking at the plants. But as the plants grow larger it soon becomes evident that their root systems have no access to moisture. After a promising start, such plants soon wither under the burning sun.

The seed that falls among the thorn bushes (Luke 8:7) also struggles to live. The thorn bushes compete with the new plants for both moisture and sunlight, making survival difficult.

Only the fourth type of soil, the “good soil” (Luke 8:8), had any production, but what amazing production! As we will see, this yield was God-given.

After telling this simple parable, Jesus did something quite extraordinary: he shouted in a loud voice to the crowd, saying, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (Luke 8:8). Jesus gave his words terrific emphasis in two ways: first, by the intensity of his shout, and second, by a grammatical construction that communicated an added impact to his listeners. The NET Bible says, “The one who has ears to hear had better listen!” That is outstanding translation!

In the discussion above, I have introduced a small amount of interpretive material, but for a moment put yourself in the place of the original listeners. What would you have known, based upon the simple facts of the parable?

Without interpretation being provided, I doubt if anyone would have known very much. In fact, some who came out to hear the great teacher and miracle worker probably turned to one another and said, “Is that all there is? Is that all he’s going to say? I didn’t need to come out here to hear that!” Some of Christ’s listeners likely turned away and went home in disappointment. Was he testing them?

A Desire to Hear

9 His disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.’”
(Luke 8:9–10)

The Greek grammar of Luke 8:9 makes it clear that Jesus’ disciples asked him repeatedly what the parable meant. That should lead us to question why they had to demonstrate such persistence.

The simplest answer is that Jesus did not reply to them the first time they asked. He didn’t divulge the meaning of the parable to them immediately. He designed his response to act as a filter, screening out those who were resisting the teachings of the Word of God.

But that approach also met the needs of those who had spiritual hunger, the receptivity of the human heart to spiritual things. So, the ones who didn’t want to know gave up and went away, while those heeding his command to “hear indeed” were granted deep understanding.

The Lord’s method reminds me of what he said in the Sermon on the Mount, when he instructed the disciples to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking so that the door might be opened to them (Matt. 7:7–8). Jesus acknowledged his method by quoting the prophet Isaiah, who described a people who would see, and yet not see, who would hear and yet not hear.

The Parable Interpreted

11 “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. 12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. 14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. 15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
(Luke 8:11–15)

In interpreting the parable, Jesus never revealed the identity of the farmer, but it seems obvious that he is the farmer. Most commentators agree on this.

Jesus interpreted the soils by describing four kinds of responses by the human heart to the Word of God.

  • Resistant (Luke 8:12), on the path;
  • Opportunistic (Luke 8:13), on rocky ground;
  • Distracted (Luke 8:14), among thorns;
  • Receptive (Luke 8:15), on good soil.

Let’s study each type of heart in detail.

The Resistant Heart

The first soil, the soil on the path, represents the resistant heart. I find that Christians who study Luke 8:12 often miss part of the meaning by jumping to the concluding part of the verse. Notice first that these people do hear. Even so, the things Jesus said do not find a reception in their hearts. Like the hard-packed ground of the path, the soil of their hearts doesn’t take in the seed.

As a result, the seed has no opportunity to penetrate. After a brief period, the devil removes any further opportunity “from their hearts.” Here Jesus plainly identified the soil with the condition of the heart. He was talking about spiritual heart trouble and making a diagnosis. Such people have had ample opportunity, but, by hardening their hearts, they have failed to make any use of their moment.

The Opportunistic Heart

The second soil represents the opportunistic heart. By “opportunistic” I mean someone who has — as Charles Dickens said of one of his characters — “a keen eye for the main chance.” The opportunist asks, “What’s in it for me right now?”

Jesus intentionally used the Greek middle voice for the words translated “receive” and “fall away.” The middle voice frequently implies self-benefit. Such people either embrace the Word or reject it, depending upon whether it seems to benefit their purpose at the moment.

Christ made it quite clear that the beginning of hardship leads such a person to see no further benefit in hearing the Word. That’s when they fall away. It may be that some of the people Jesus was speaking about had been influenced by the Pharisees’ charges that he worked his miracles through the power of Satan. Such criticism could have easily deflected the opportunistic heart from the Word of God.

After all, such a person could expect expulsion from their synagogue for following Jesus. What immediate benefit would that bring?

The Distracted Heart

The seed that fell among the thorns represents the distracted heart. In my own spiritual heart, this danger threatens most. At times I allow the worries and concerns of this world to crowd out concern for what God is doing. Riding in the car listening to an all-news radio station constantly injects worries about economic troubles, terrorism, pandemics, street crime, and many other things.

I’m not suggesting total isolation from those things, but I find that my heart is too often distracted by them. In most cases I can do absolutely nothing about the problem, and yet it occupies my conscious attention. The common availability of a 24/7 news cycle means that lots of people are getting paid to ask questions and raise fears.

Jesus warned that distraction comes not only in a negative form, but in a positive one, too. The riches and pleasures of this world can also occupy the central focus of our lives.

In many parts of the Western world we have an unprecedented chance to enjoy the pleasures and challenges of life. We need not regard such opportunities as inherently wrong, because they aren’t. But the pursuit of pleasures can achieve such dominance in our lives that it crowds out more important things, such as drawing closer to God.

The dull and simple challenge of nurturing our own spiritual lives pales by comparison to the flash and glitter of our iPad or Internet feed. How tragic it is if we can only be reached by the sensory overkill of our culture and not by the spiritual challenge of life with Christ! At this writing, Facebook absorbs enormous amounts of time from Christians who ought to know better.

I’m not alone in this problem, because we are a distracted culture. It concerns me that so many people in church hear God’s Word, walk out the door and soon sit down to watch two back-to-back professional football games. (I often watch, too.) No one will keep this balance for us. Our spiritual heart condition is our personal responsibility.

Jesus says that the distracted person never matures. The stunted plant cannot produce mature fruit. Failure to mature always has a high price.

The Receptive Heart

The good soil represents the receptive heart that eventually produces tremendous, God-given bounty. Just as in the case of the other three kinds of people, the receptive person hears the Word of God. The difference is that they cling to it. Actually, the Greek word gives the idea of holding onto something for all you’re worth!

Once I was standing on the deck of a Navy submarine in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A helicopter was hovering over me with a long cable and sling hanging down beneath it. They were going to use this rig to lift me from the submarine into the helicopter. Almost the instant I sat down in the sling, the young sailor told me, “Hold onto the cable.” And up I went!

You better believe I held onto that cable! There wasn’t another thing on my mind! That’s the kind of grip that a person with a good and noble heart gives to the truth of God.

But notice that Jesus said that retaining the Word is not enough; the fruitful person must also persevere before producing a crop (Luke 8:15). At this point some of us encounter another cultural stumbling block. Americans don’t persevere very often. Yet a person can’t plant the seeds and reap the crop the next day; nor the next week; nor the next month. It requires persevering care over an extended period of time before the harvest comes. Our cultural emphasis on the instant and the immediate undermines the concept of perseverance.

Many people find it difficult to make commitments and then stick to them. It’s not simply because of difficulties that come along. Distraction often rears its ugly head and draws a person off toward some better offer. That concerns me, because the body of Christ requires commitment at every level. That’s what it’s all about — commitment to Christ and to one another.

The Warning

16 “No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. 17 For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. 18 Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them.”
(Luke 8:16–18)

It’s obvious that most of the parable deals with the issue of salvation rather than Christian living. Jesus began by talking to an audience largely composed of unbelievers (Luke 8:1, 4). Their hope lay in allowing the Word of God to find a place in their own hearts so that they might trust in Jesus and have eternal life.

Yet pertinent principles for Christian living can be drawn from each of the soils, or heart types. Certainly by the time Jesus spoke about persevering to produce a crop, he had gone beyond salvation.

The sober warning that begins in verse 16 was addressed to Jesus’ disciples, who pressed him earnestly so that they might “hear indeed.” They had to take these matters seriously, because God always gives his blessings for a purpose. He has given the Word of God to instruct us, the Spirit of God to dwell within us, and the body of Christ to encourage us so that we can yield an abundant harvest. That’s the meaning of Luke 8:16.

God has lighted the lamp so that it will cast light and accomplish his purpose (Luke 8:16–18). In this indirect way, Jesus challenged his disciples not to waste what God had implanted in their hearts.

Jesus also told them that in the course of time their response would become known. Because there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed in time. By application to us, that means that what we do with the Word of God will ultimately show up in our lives.

In his final challenge to his disciples to hear carefully Jesus said, “Whoever has will be given more” (Luke 8:18). That’s the outcome I want in my life and in the lives of other believers.

Testing and Healing Our Hearts

Use the following concepts to evaluate your own heart condition and your behavior.

1. In light of our Lord’s parable, how would you evaluate your general heart condition — your response to Christ and his Word?





The American mindset in the 1970s became so self-interested that it was labeled the “me generation.” Self-interest can eat up everything else! Unfortunately, in 2011 things are not much different.

Or perhaps you are distracted. Facebook, sports on cable television, ferrying children to activities and other things already make that possible.

2. One way to determine whether we are receptive to God’s Word is to evaluate our behavior.

Do you think that God’s principles are increasingly being integrated into your behavior as time goes on?

What kind of feedback do you get from others about your commitment to Christ and growth in him?

I hope that they tell you that you are becoming more mature in Christ and that they see growth in your life. You probably won’t get any feedback unless you overtly ask for it. Certainly I see value in each of us monitoring their own spiritual condition, but we tend to believe what we want to believe. Others may give a more realistic evaluation.

A Final Word

In every phase of life we must pay attention to priorities. I don’t think I was ever struck so much by that fact as when I went to my first Dallas Cowboys football game. My father had bought end zone seats, and we were watching the game through binoculars.

Pittsburgh had the ball, and their linemen came up to take position at the line of scrimmage. Pittsburgh’s quarterback was looking hard at the Dallas defense as he walked slowly toward the line to take the snap. The Dallas defense was jumping all around trying to confuse him.

Distracted by the movements of the defense, the quarterback put his hand under the right guard to take the snap. Then he called the snap signal and the center — one person to his left —  snapped the football straight up into the air. There was a wild struggle to catch the loose football when it came down.

The quarterback may grasp the defense perfectly, but if he doesn’t get the snap from center, he’s in big trouble! The distracted quarterback had forgotten about priorities.

Our top priority is to deal with our own spiritual heart condition. Only in that way can we yield a crop “a hundred times more than was sown.”

Coming next . . .

In Chapter 7, we see Jesus in the midst of his ministry. The challenge was that everyone had an agenda for Jesus to follow. How did he manage those pressures?

Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 5

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 Chapter 5

The Last Word

Jesus limits judging others

Just after a national election, a defeated senator complained about the opposition of certain Christian groups to his candidacy. The senator accused those groups of violating Christ’s own command: “Do not judge” (Matt. 7:1).

I’m sure you’ve heard that argument before, and perhaps have used it yourself. Yet all of us make judgments about people in the common course of life. We do it almost unconsciously when we look for a “good” doctor or want a “dependable” babysitter.

In business, friendship, or marriage, people want someone they can trust; that means that some others cannot be trusted. And parents must often decide which of their children is telling the truth.

In all of those experiences, judgments are made about other people. In fact, I am making a judgment about you by saying that you do those things, even though I don’t know you. I hope you won’t conclude that I’m unfair, because if you do you’ll be making a judgment about me!

How do these common events stack up against Christ’s command? The senator expressed the most popular caricature of what Jesus taught, but the senator was dead wrong. At least he pointed us in the right direction, because Jesus taught about this crucial subject in what we call his Sermon on the Mount.

The Right Way to Judge Others

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
(Luke 6:36)

It was no accident that Jesus made that statement right before he gave his famous command about not judging; Luke 6:37 parallels Matt. 7:1 (“Do not judge, or you too will be judged”). The statement made in Luke 6:36 shows that mercy is the backbone of all that Jesus said about judging.

To understand what it means to “be merciful,” consider the strongly related concept of compassion. Compassion involves being emotionally moved by another person’s distress so that you have a desire to help them.

Jesus was saying that, as we evaluate another person, we ought to do so in a spirit of concern for them. That means that we care about them. Jesus treated mercy as the leading idea and then dealt with judging others as a subordinate application of that theme!

Judging Mercifully

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
(Luke 6:37–38)

Here we run smack into the main problem: What did Jesus mean when he said, “Do not judge”? That question can be readily solved, if we assume that Jesus knew we would need further elaboration and that he gave it immediately.

In other words, when Jesus said, “Do not condemn,” he was explaining what he meant by saying, “Do not judge.” Believers are not to judge in the sense of condemning another person with harshness and finality.

I have two reasons for thinking that this is what Jesus meant. First of all, the cultural situation in which Jesus spoke supports this viewpoint. At that time, life in Israel was largely influenced by six thousand men known as Pharisees. They had influence far out of proportion to their small numbers. That’s why Jesus could refer to them and say that a little leaven could affect the whole lump of dough.

The Pharisees treated all others with extreme judgmentalism. They looked down on others with a scorn and contempt that would jolt us if we encountered it in our own culture. Their contemporaries considered them harsh, unfeeling, and severe in their criticism. People feared them, and not without reason!

To demonstrate the high and mighty approach taken by the Pharisees, I would like to recount a story out of rabbinic tradition. According to the story, on one occasion in heaven God was having a discussion with the heavenly council about some difficult question of ceremonial purity. After tossing the question around for a while, God and the heavenly council couldn’t resolve it!

So, God sent down to earth and brought up the leading Pharisaic rabbi to settle the question — as if the Pharisees could even teach God a few things! From that lofty vantage point, it isn’t hard to judge other people!

Jesus knew that his disciples had been strongly affected by the precepts of Pharisaism. By contrast, Jesus used the Pharisees and their approach as a case in point of what not to do.

Here’s the second reason for believing that Jesus meant “do not condemn” when he said “do not judge.” Matthew also records an occasion when Jesus was teaching his disciples about these principles. Right afterward he gave them a command that made it obvious that they would not always be able to avoid evaluating other people.

He said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Matt. 7:6, italics added). Jesus wasn’t talking about house pets and barnyard animals; he was describing certain kinds of people. To follow this command, his disciples would have to be discerning and make value judgments about people, distinguishing the “dogs” and “pigs” from more receptive people. By using those terms, Jesus was referring to people who treated the Word of God and the miracles of his Son with contempt.

So, Jesus was not saying that we can never evaluate other people or form opinions about them. He knew that his disciples would have to do that. That’s simply part of life. But the spirit in which it is done makes a great difference; compassion is required.

Jesus next switched attention from the negative to the positive. He instructed his disciples about how to make such evaluations properly. Consider the literary arrangement of the four commands in Luke 6:37–38. Jesus used an order that literary scholars would call chiastic, which means that the commands follow an “A-B-B-A” pattern that is common in the Bible:

A   “Do not judge” (Luke 6:37)

    B   “Do not condemn” (Luke 6:37)

    B   “Forgive” (Luke 6:37)

A   “Give” (Luke 6:38)

Each “B” command explains the nearest “A” command. And so in the case of the latter two commands, the thing that Jesus wants us to “give” is forgiveness. Here, too, the theme of mercy predominates.

The last part of verse 38 pictures the way in which God has generously given mercy and forgiveness to us. The picture comes from an ancient grain market. Suppose for a moment that you were going to such a market to buy wheat. After striking a bargain with you, the merchant would use his scoop to measure the quantity that you had agreed upon.

If you happened to be dealing with a particularly generous merchant, he would measure the grain and then pack it down with his hand so as to make room for more. Next he would shake the container so that the particles would pack together more tightly. As a final step of generosity, he would allow the grain to literally run over the top of the scoop as he poured it into your outstretched cloak.

That’s the way that God measures out his mercy and forgiveness for each of us! He doesn’t miss a single opportunity to give us as much as possible.

Bad Models Yield Bad Copies

39 He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.
(Luke 6:39–40)

This brief paragraph must be understood by using both culture and context. Jesus was warning his disciples about the deep danger of following the example of the Pharisees. He did so with a brief parable that not only asks questions, but also implies the answers — a useful feature of Greek grammar.

The first question anticipates the answer no: a blind man cannot lead a blind man. The second question expects the answer yes: if a blind man leads a blind man, then they will probably both fall into a pit. Jesus seemed to be asking questions, but actually he was making statements. His audience knew that.

This parable reminds me of an embarrassing incident. The offices for our church staff were to be painted, and one staff member kindly volunteered to get paint samples so that we could pick the color we wanted.

Buried with work, I simply told him to pick a color that he liked and use that for my office too. Several days later, the painters arrived, and his office began to get its treatment. The moment I saw the half-finished office, it set my teeth on edge!

My friend had picked a bright, bright yellow that reminded me of suddenly biting into a lemon. Then I found out that the man I had sent to pick out paint for our offices was color blind! I had sent a blind man to do my seeing for me.

But Jesus was speaking of spiritual blindness and specifically that of the Pharisees. He called them blind guides on numerous occasions. In effect, Jesus was telling his disciples that if they followed the harsh judgmentalism of the Pharisees, then they were no better than blind men following blind guides. They would soon meet disaster along that course.

Jesus challenged his disciples to consider carefully the person they were going to pick as their model in this whole matter of judging others. If they were the disciples of the Pharisees, then they would become more and more harsh and condemning. However, if they considered themselves his disciples, then they must follow his lead in showing mercy. Over time Jesus’ disciples could expect to become more merciful.

Learning to See

41 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
(Luke 6:41–42)

I wish we all could have been with Jesus to see the gleam in his eye when he used humor. These verses should at least hint to us that taking everything super-seriously is not a requirement for spirituality. Jesus pictured a ridiculous, exaggerated situation to drive his point home.

Imagine a man whose eyesight was so keen that he could pick out a small speck of sawdust in another person’s eye, without even realizing that he had a telephone pole in his own eye. The word used for “plank” in verse 41 commonly referred to one of the structural beams that would hold up a building.

The Pharisees could spot in others the tiniest infraction of rabbinic rules, while they utterly failed to realize how repugnant their own judgmentalism was to God himself.

The key principle that Jesus expressed in these two verses is that whenever we evaluate others, we should always do it with one eye on ourselves. If we tend to see all of our problems as originating “out there” in the hearts of others, then we are basically looking at people the way the Pharisees did.

Only by realizing that we have problems within ourselves can we temper our evaluation with a measure of mercy. Other people may differ from us in degree but not in kind. Every one of us has personal flaws and could stand some improvement. By dealing with our own motives and behavior, we can become better able to evaluate others with righteousness and truth tempered by mercy.

Jesus is absolutely not suggesting that we must be perfect before we can ever get to the point of judging others. That meaning would produce contradiction not only with our Lord’s own teaching, but also with other portions of the New Testament that instruct us about cases in which we must make evaluations and judgments about others.

I think we could summarize the whole passage with three principles.

  • First, mercy must dominate any evaluation of other people.
  • Second, it pleases God when we model our lives after people who evaluate others with mercy and forgiveness.
  • Third, any evaluation we make of others should take into account our own share of the problem and our own flaws.

Learning to See More Clearly

Use the following concepts to help you in judging others as Christ commands.

Examining Ourselves

Certain things in our own hearts can take us over that fine line into condemning others. Circle the items below that you think may lead you towards judgmentalism:

1. Anger towards someone

2. Personal weaknesses:

(a) Lack of love and compassion

(b) An inflated or sagging self-esteem

(c) A tendency toward perfectionism, dogmatism, and rigidity

3. Learned responses to certain kinds of people and situations

I become more judgmental when I’m angry. If a husband and wife are mad at each other, they really know how to give it to each other with both barrels.

We know intuitively that some people find it difficult to express love or compassion toward others. Such people often find it impossible to love themselves; they become their own worst critics.

Regrettably, some groups of Christians simply exude judgmentalism. A person within such a group will quickly realize that they must either toe the line or suffer the consequences.

Examining Others

Use the following ideas to help you evaluate others more accurately. Consider your own motives and purposes in evaluating others; if you don’t really need to, then don’t! Consider your own life; do you have credibility as an evaluator of the other person? Do you know them well and have their interests at heart? If you passed the motive and credibility tests, then use the following ideas to guide your evaluation.

Evaluate others from alongside, not from above.

Give others time to change and room to grow.

Be willing to revise your evaluations of others. Use other people’s perspectives to refine your own.

Remember how it feels to be on the receiving end of judgment.

So that you don’t misunderstand me, there are some real “jerks” in this world. I’m not saying that they aren’t jerks or that your opinion of them ought to be different. (Remember what Jesus said about “dogs” and “pigs.”) However, we must not reach such a strong evaluation lightly. I think we should also be quick to extend mercy if such a person shows signs of changing.

It may help to visualize two cliffs that you don’t want to fall off of. One cliff consists of thinking that the problem always lies “out there” within other people, rather than “in here” within you. That view of life simply paints others as too evil and you as too good.

But the other cliff can do you an equal amount of harm. It consists of an inability to show mercy to yourself. My early struggle with perfectionism has taught me a lot about how intolerant I can be toward my mistakes. I act more like a Pharisee toward myself than I ever do toward others.

Have you fallen off one of those two cliffs?

Are you willing to try to change that area of your life with Christ’s help? Jesus warned that we must consider carefully who our models are in judging others.

I used to eat lunch weekly with a friend who spent most of our time together running down other people. It was a constant slide down into the same pit. I had my own struggle in that area and didn’t need his help! Perhaps you should consider your own circle of social relationships, and also your church environment.

Are those people helping you to learn more about showing mercy, or are they simply blind guides leading you toward the nearest hole?

A Final Word

When I graduated from seminary knowing the technical matters of theology, I had a lot to learn about interpersonal relationships. That personal deficiency eventually led to some painful criticism from others. With a moment’s thought, I’m sure you can recall similar experiences in your own life.

You and I are going to be evaluated by others for the rest of our lives. There’s no avoiding it. The other side is that we ourselves will evaluate other people. Christ calls on us to use mercy in reaching such evaluations.

We may speak the latest word about someone else, but Christ will speak the last word about them and about us!

 Coming next . . .

In Chapter 6, near the end of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, he began to teach in parables. Resistance to Jesus’ ministry was rising as he taught the disciples how to analyze the heart.

Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 4

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Chapter 4

Final Exam

Jesus defeats demonic temptation

Some of my teachers are hard to remember, while others I will never be able to forget. I never liked Mr. Crutchfield, but he won immortality in my hall of bad memories.

I made sure to get to his college physics class early and to sit down quietly. Almost two hundred of us would wait in the large, steeply-sloped lecture hall for his grand entrance through the side door. His coming was an important event. You see, the moment Mr. Crutchfield entered, trailed dutifully by his grader, a holy silence had to dominate the entire room. Immediately!

If some unthinking soul failed to see the mighty man enter, Mr. Crutchfield would look up with a scowl and snap, “Take out a sheet of paper.” Then would come an all-too-regular pop quiz. At times, even when the room was just perfect, Mr. Crutchfield would give us a pop quiz anyway. Keep in mind that we’re talking college physics here.

Fortunately, I will never have to face those surprise tests in physics again, but life throws its own little tests at me regularly. Although I don’t like them any more than ever, I have to face them, just as you do.

Testing, trials, and temptations come in many forms. They swoop down frequently, if unpredictably, throughout the course of life. At such times, we must face the hardship of living in tension. Some tests strike with the suddenness of a lightning bolt. Other problems, such as chronic illness or an unhappy marriage, can linger for years with quiet savageness. Those things are the bad news.

The good news is that Jesus thoroughly understands how it feels to take tests in life. He faced both kinds: the sudden, sharp tests and the long, grinding ones. Christ knows from experience what we so desperately need from him in our own hour of crisis. For Jesus, every test took on the dark hues of a final exam, because his whole mission could have been destroyed through a single act of sin. By considering his model, we can learn how to endure when the sky begins to fall.

The First Test

1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
(Luke 4:1–4)

After being baptized to identify himself with those turning to God, Jesus entered the wilderness to face the onslaught of Satan. To the Israelite mind the wilderness was a place of testing. It also represented a place of purging and preparation before full possession of the Promised Land.

Like Israel, Jesus faced trial in the desert, the scene of the nation’s great failure under temptation. Jesus was the keystone of a new beginning for the people of God, so the Father tested him to prove his qualifications for that mission. The Spirit led him into the desert, demonstrating that this encounter for the Son had the direct approval of the Father. The Father had a totally constructive purpose for Christ in imposing this test.

The Holy Spirit did not commune alone with Jesus in the wilderness. An unholy spirit, Satan, met them there as well. He came to destroy Jesus and his ministry, if possible. If Jesus could be made to stumble even one time, then he would be disqualified as our sinless sacrifice upon the cross. At that crucial moment both God and Satan were operating in the wilderness. The two unequal forces collided in the heart and life of Jesus Christ.

The Greek verbs imply that Jesus faced temptation during the entire forty days. Luke draws our attention to the end of that time so that we can appreciate the tension at its greatest intensity. Jesus had eaten nothing, and by that time his hunger must have been severe. To hunger is not wrong, and to satisfy hunger would not normally be wrong either. But to interrupt a God-intended hunger would defy the decision of the Father.

In his hunger Jesus was reenacting the experience of Israel during the exodus, but with one vast difference. The Israelites’ hunger had led them to grumble against God in unbelief (Exodus chapter 16), but Jesus never faltered in trusting the Father to meet his need at the proper time.

In meeting the test of bread, Jesus quoted from the teaching of Moses (Deut. 8:2–3). Moses told the Israelites that God had tested them in the desert to know their hearts. He had allowed them to know hunger and afterward fed them with manna so they would realize that man doesn’t live merely on bread.

On the surface, it is clear that Satan was tempting Jesus to prematurely end the God-intended test. But underneath that, I see this attack as an attempt to get Jesus to distrust the Father. In other words, Satan was trying to disrupt the relationship.

Jesus could easily have met his own need by converting the stones into bread, just as Satan proposed. But that would have demonstrated a lack of trust in his Father’s loving care. Jesus passed this test with ease.

Lessons from the First Test

Our times of testing resemble those Jesus experienced in certain ways. Both God and Satan can simultaneously work in a given case. The test itself is often amoral, like a knife. A knife in the hands of a surgeon can cut out a cancerous growth and promote healing, yet in the hands of a murderer, the same knife brings death.

So it is with testing. In the hands of the Lord it takes on a constructive purpose, but in Satan’s hands it turns toward our destruction. The Greek verb peiraz?, used in verse 2 by Luke, can mean either “tempt” or “test.” Satan tempts us to bring destruction, but God tests us to confirm obedience and promote maturity.

The Second Test

5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
(Luke 4:5–8)

Matthew says that this temptation took place on a high mountain (Matt. 4:8). In the Bible, mountains often symbolize authority, power or a kingdom. So in a symbolic sense, Jesus was taken to the very throne room of Satan, from which he could survey the entire kingdom that had fallen into Satan’s hands. All the wealth, power and glory of the earth lay within Christ’s grasp in those moments!

With consummate persuasion, Satan put great emphasis on the personal pronouns in the Greek text. “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me” (Luke 4:6, italics added). Satan brought all this pressure to bear “in an instant,” perhaps hoping to bring about an impulsive response from Jesus.

Jesus suddenly faced an opportunity to grasp something he should not have. That’s an experience all of us have had and will have again. This kind of temptation invites all kinds of internal justification.

Let’s look more deeply at what Jesus was being asked to do. Satan was inviting him to rule the world immediately. Would that have been wrong? After all, the world rightfully belongs to Christ, and one day he will return to rule over all of it.

So, it wasn’t wrong for Jesus to want those kingdoms, but his time had not yet come. To have the world immediately would have meant the abandonment of his purpose to die on the cross for our sins. In effect, Satan was saying, “Jesus, instead of facing all the pain and suffering that you will endure, why not take all into your hands right now? It’s so easy! All you have to do is bow down and worship me.”

In that second test, Satan played the role of God by taking Jesus to that high mountain and showing him the kingdoms of the world. Jesus saw what he could not then have. This situation recalls the occasion when God took Moses to the top of a high mountain and allowed him to look at Canaan, which he would not be able to enter at that time (Deuteronomy 34).

That second test centered on immediate rule. On the surface, Jesus was invited to worship Satan. But to do that, he would have had to reject sole allegiance to the Father. Again, Satan was attempting to disrupt the relationship between the Father and the Son.

In his answer to Satan, Jesus maintained his sole allegiance to the Father: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (Luke 4:8). Christ passed up unlimited pleasure and chose unlimited pain, to maintain his complete loyalty to the Father. Satan was thwarted a second time.

The Third Test

9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
(Luke 4:9–12)

I agree with Alfred Edersheim, a Jewish Bible scholar who embraced Christian faith, who said that Jesus was taken to the highest point of the temple at the time of morning worship.[1] At that hour a priest would blow a great horn, and the thousands of worshipers would pass through the huge doors into the temple.

The Jewish rabbis taught that when the Messiah appeared, he would do so on the roof of the temple. They supported their dramatic prediction with several verses from the Old Testament. Knowing all that, Satan brought Jesus to a moment of great opportu­nity. Underneath him walked thousands of those he came to save.

When Jesus looked at the people, Satan reminded him of a promise from the Psalms (Psalm 91:11–12). If Jesus really were the Messiah, then the Lord’s angels would not let him fall and die. Instead, they would save him from harm. Such a miracle would undoubtedly have brought immediate acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. By this tactic, Satan again tempted Jesus to avoid the cross and have the kingdom in an easier way.

In answering this enticement, Jesus again relied on the Old Testament: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut. 6:16). Jesus stopped without mentioning the next few words of the quotation: “as you did at Massah.”

The sad story of Massah is told in Exodus chapter 17. There the Israelites tested the Lord and said, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exod. 17:7). They were insisting that God prove that he was among them by performing a miracle to provide them with water.

They were wrong in trying to force God to act. The Lord doesn’t have to prove himself to anyone! For Jesus to throw himself from that temple roof would be presumptuous and an insult to his Father. Jesus rightly rejected such a proposal. Again, he triumphed where Israel had failed.

This third temptation consisted of immediate acceptance. Satan invited Jesus to force the Father to act in his behalf. It was another attempt on Satan’s part to disrupt the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Son had come to carry out his mission in humble obedience to the Father. Unlike Israel, Jesus proved obedient, even under the severest pressures.

Strategic Withdrawal

13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
(Luke 4:13)

Satan would come again. This had been an opportune time for him, but there would be others. Satan used surrogates again and again to offer those very same temptations to Jesus. Consider, for example, the test of the bread. After Jesus fed the five thousand, they followed him to the other side of the lake and tried to get him to perform the same miracle again (John 6:25–30). He refused, on the grounds that they had only come to satisfy their physical hunger.

They wanted to live on bread alone, rather than on the words that come from the mouth of God, so Jesus refused their request. He didn’t come to be a magic man, and he refused to work that miracle because of the people’s distorted spiritual priorities.

In the same time period, the test of immediate rule recurred. Because Jesus had fed them, the people wanted to immediately make him king by force (John 6:15). He rejected this alternative to the cross, as he had before.

Even as Jesus hung on the cross, the people taunted him, as Satan had, by urging him to prove his claims by saving himself from crucifixion. They said that if he worked a miracle by saving himself from death, they would believe in him (Matt. 27:42). Thus, the temptation of immediate acceptance was repeated. Jesus never yielded to any of those temptations, in either their original or altered forms.

The Temptations: A Snap or a Strain

Believers sometimes give the impression that such temptations were a snap for Jesus. They seem to think that Jesus felt no strain at all. But think carefully about the temptations he faced. He was asked to make a choice between limitless pleasure and unbounded pain. That’s far more pressure than any of us will ever have to endure!

Christians often speak about the agony of the crucifixion, and certainly it was terrible. But Jesus experienced no more physical pain on the cross than thousands of others who died by Roman execution. The real agony of the cross struck when the sinless Son of God became sin incarnate, by having all the sin of the ages dumped upon him.

Such shame and degradation surpasses our imagination. That was the unique pain of the cross. Satan invited Jesus to avoid such misery by simply bowing down and worshiping him. In this way Jesus was put under pressure far greater than any of us will ever see.

When I am tempted, I sometimes give in. Doubtless, you do the same. In those cases, I never experience the full force of the temptation, because I cave in before reaching that point. But Jesus didn’t have that luxury. He had to experience the full force and duration of every temptation that was ever thrown at him. There was no easy way out for him. In this respect, too, Christ’s temptations far exceed our own.

A third awesome element of Christ’s temptations is that he had the worst possible opponent. I really don’t believe that many of us, if any, are personally tempted by Satan. But Jesus was. Certainly we may face demonic harassment at times, but Jesus was attacked by Satan — the maximum enemy.

So, if you ever find yourself thinking that temptations presented Jesus no problem, consider those three factors. In order to save us, Jesus had to forgo unlimited pleasure and endure unlimited pain. To be the sinless Son of God he had to endure the greatest force and the longest duration of temptation. And, in Satan, he had the worst possible enemy a person can have. In those three respects, Christ’s temptation far exceeds anything we will ever have to face.

Tips for Passing Tests

Use the following applicational ideas to take advantage of what Jesus teaches us in his resistance to temptation.

1. Satan takes delight in seeing Scripture distorted. This could even be done by isolating one verse and ignoring other pertinent parts of God’s Word. That’s exactly what Satan did in the third temptation. Every “Christian” cult uses distortion of Scripture to gain converts. Use these principles to protect yourself from such practices.

Gain a general grasp of the whole Bible; concentrate special attention on the New Testament, but do not ignore the Old Testament. Even a general grasp can give you considerable protection, although the more you know, the better off you will be!

Before drawing a conclusion from a single verse of Scripture, read the paragraphs before and after it. Is your understanding of the verse consistent with its meaning in context?

When verses are taken out of context, they are often given a meaning that God never intended. I would suggest that whenever you read Christian literature and encounter Bible verses, you look each one up and study its context. Don’t be lulled to sleep just because someone throws in a few Bible references.

Avoid interpreting all statements made in the Bible to others as if they had been stated directly to you. Develop a sense for the difference between a general principle to be followed by all believers and a statement having only historical significance.

In many cases, we do this automatically. Let me illustrate by using two commands Jesus gave to his disciples in the upper room: (1) “Love each other” (John 15:17), and (2) “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). Did Jesus mean for you to go out and buy a sword? (It was a command!) No, of course he didn’t mean for you to do that. He was speaking about a specific historical situation.

But the command about love is one command that he wants every Christian to obey. How do we know the difference? Partly, it just takes intuition and good sense, aided by the Holy Spirit. A more objective method would be to consider whether another part of the New Testament repeats the command. The apostles do not repeat the command about buying a sword in the rest of the New Testament, but we find the command to love each other restated frequently.

2. Consider the subtle way that temptation often comes. It strikes at our trust in the Father’s concern for our needs. That’s exactly what Satan did in the test of bread. He didn’t come to Jesus to suggest that he go out and rob a bank, as believers sometimes seem to expect. No, Satan approaches in far more subtle ways than that. He leads us to question the Father’s actions and to “cut corners,” by letting the end justify the means; such was the case with the test of immediate rule.

Or, temptation may suggest that we take rash, willful action to end a time of testing; that was the test of immediate acceptance. Satan will probably not try to get us involved in drug-running. Rather, he will try to get us involved in so-called “small” sins.

How about you? What are you doing to resist temptation? Can you affirm the following statements?

I’m trusting God to meet my needs.

The presence of hardship in my life has not caused me to lose confidence in the Lord.

I’m not going to solve my problems by taking the easy, disobedient way out.

I’m committed to resisting rash or willful actions that I think would displease God.

3. Jesus understands and feels your struggles, and he rewards those who seek him. He was hated, rejected, unappreciated, attacked, tired, even moved to tears — just as we are at times. That’s why the writer of Hebrews tells us that, because Jesus suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help us when we are being tempted (Heb. 2:17–18). The same writer tells us that Jesus can “empathize with our weaknesses,” because he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are” (Heb. 4:15). So, when you hurt, he hurts with you. He knows what you are going through!

Apply the following questions to yourself.

Have you prayed for strength to cope with your test?

Do you really believe that Jesus knows how it feels to live in constant tension?

What problem or need should you take to him today?

A Final Word

In some ways our lives resemble a college course with its periodic tests. Assuming you are a believer in Jesus Christ, I have some good news and some bad news about your life-course. First the bad news: You’re going to keep on having pop tests. They will keep happening as long as you live.

Now for the good news: Jesus took the final exam in your place. And even though the course isn’t over yet, your final grade has already been posted.

You passed!

 Coming next . . .

In Chapter 5, we listen as Jesus teaches his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount during his early ministry in the northern region called Galilee. The subject: judging others.


[1] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 1:304.

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Chapter 3

The Sword-Pierced Heart

Jesus’ mission afflicts Mary

I served for five years as a nuclear engineer under Admiral Hyman Rickover, the “father of the nuclear Navy.” That time made a profound mark on my life. His group of engineers gave me my first experience with work, and I often felt as if I were chasing a fast freight down the tracks.

Many things the Admiral said influenced me, but one particular comment has stuck with me through the years: “Wherever there is motion, there’s bound to be friction.” He used that engineering principle to describe the steady resistance that must be overcome in accomplishing change.

Rickover spoke of opposition out of his own ex­perience in fighting to build a nuclear-powered Navy. However, the same principle works in doing things for God. Even when believers are moving in the right direction and living for Christ, friction will impede their progress.

Joseph and Mary exemplified this principle in their long struggle to survive and to establish a home for themselves and their infant son, Jesus. We can imagine no more godly endeavor than that, yet the friction proved intense. And it took a severe toll on Joseph and Mary, especially Mary.

God sometimes sets us in motion and then uses the resulting friction to shape us into people who can be even more useful to him. He also allows opposition to challenge our willingness to follow him. Those factors certainly worked on Joseph and Mary when they struggled with external threats, their own fears, and — we will see — conflict with one another.

We too easily forget that Joseph and Mary were real people, just like us — a dad and mom who had hopes for their child and also a deep concern for their own lives. Through them God accomplished great change, but not without struggle. Yet the Lord proved faithful to them in their moment of need.

Because they endured friction in accomplishing change, Joseph and Mary give great encouragement in my personal life. Recently my wife and I prayed for her son and daughter-in-law while they were making a difficult but mandatory move to another city. Although they were under terrific stress, God brought them through the move against seemingly impossible odds.

So, I see the story of Joseph and Mary having direct application in the lives of each of us as we strive to live for Christ.

Matthew’s Midrash about Mary

I have stressed the importance of five women’s names in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. Matthew used these names to direct attention to several related stories in the Old Testament. The first two women’s names related primarily to Joseph’s story and that of King Herod, but the next three are all about Mary, the mother of Jesus.

By reviewing Table 1, repeated in the Appendix to the current chapter, you will notice that the Old Testament stories of Ruth (1:5), Bathsheba (1:6), and Miriam (the Old Testament equivalent of Mary in 1:16) underlie the part of Matthew’s account that we will consider in this chapter.

Matthew used these women as types of Mary and used their experiences to help clarify Mary’s experiences. You will remember that the Jews called this comparative technique midrash.

Matthew also selected Old Testament quotations to supplement his streamlined narrative. Thus, he made many of his points by implication rather than by direct statement.

A Forgotten Prophecy

Christ’s godly parents took him to be dedicated in the temple forty days after his birth. During this trip many prophecies were revealed — most of them concerning Jesus. By concentrating on him we can easily miss Simeon’s specific prophecy about Mary. Simeon predicted the controversy that would swirl around Jesus and the way that his ministry would reveal the very hearts of people. He concluded by saying to Mary “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35).

The sword represents discernment of Jesus’ real identity and division over that identity; the sword does not represent divine judgment. Concerning Mary’s situation, scholar Raymond Brown says, “Indeed her special anguish as the sword of discrimination passes through her soul will consist in recognizing that the claims of Jesus’ heavenly Father outrank any human attachments between him and his mother. . . . Mary here is part of Israel to be tested like the rest.”[1]

Little did Mary know how quickly the secret thoughts of her own heart would come out into the open in the events that would follow. She had been granted an unparalleled privilege, yet an unusual burden came with it.

Death Hunt

13 When they [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
(Matthew 2:13–15)

Using Matthew’s lead — the mention of Ruth in the genealogy of Jesus — I believe that the Book of Ruth correlates with this brief paragraph. The book pictures God’s protective care over his people. To describe all parallels between the two stories would take us too far afield.

To inspire your own comparative study, I will mention that the Book of Ruth tells about a husbandless woman — similar to Mary when she became pregnant — who had a son (under righteous circumstances!). This son became famous in Israel and was part of the royal line of David.

The story of Ruth also involves a family that fled Bethlehem in time of great trouble to take refuge among the ancestral enemies of Israel. It suits Matthew’s purpose perfectly to refer to this story of God’s sovereign protection in troubled times.

The husbandless woman was Naomi (Ruth 1:3, 20), who felt bitter because she thought God had brought affliction upon her life. In view of the many parallels between the stories, I think Matthew uses midrash to imply that Mary experienced similar feelings during her family’s flight to Egypt. Remember Simeon’s prophecy about the sword piercing Mary’s heart and consider the circumstances of the escape. Jesus’ parents didn’t even have time to wait for dawn, but had to leave in darkness to escape Herod’s troops.

Many of us have never experienced mortal danger so it’s hard for us to grasp the emotional impact of such an experience. God’s protection was quite real, but so was the danger! Swift obedience saved them.

Matthew’s account informs us that the stay in Egypt led to the fulfillment of prophecy: “Out of Egypt I called my Son” (Hosea 11:1). Many scholars have commented that in this journey Jesus reenacted the national experience of Israel during the exodus, except that he always responded in total obedience whereas the Israelites rebelled against God.

Fulfilling prophecy sounds great. However, after undergoing vicious ridicule in Nazareth, traveling by donkey to Bethlehem in advanced pregnancy, fleeing from a death order, and leaving her own country, we can certainly grasp that Mary went through a lot. She and Joseph had to take each step in an atmosphere of danger and uncertainty. It wasn’t easy!

A Reason to Hope

Though we recounted all of Herod’s history in the previous chapter — to cover it in one place — his biblical appearance extends briefly into our current passage below.

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
(Matthew 2:16–18)

Matthew used the name of Bathsheba (called “Uriah’s wife” in Matt. 1:6) to connect his own account with the Old Testament material that relates to this section. We find Bathsheba in chapter 11 of 2 Samuel, whose theme is that God establishes his king upon the throne in spite of sin and opposition in his path. This theme — God overcoming royal opposition to accomplish his purpose for the nation — perfectly correlates with Matthew’s account.

In 2 Samuel chapter 12, the king was tricked, became enraged, and as a result ordered death, a penalty that fell on the house of David. In each of these respects, the story in 2 Samuel matches Matthew’s story about Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Realizing that he had been tricked, Herod flew into a rage and ordered death for all of the children near Bethlehem under two years of age. The people called Bethlehem “the city of David,” and this penalty fell on the house of David. Scholars estimate that about twenty young boys were slaughtered.

Various opinions have been offered about why Herod killed children under two years of age. Some think this means that the Magi had seen the “star” two years previous, while others simply see a ruthless man providing plenty of margin. For Herod to kill a few more people would hardly warrant special notice. He had done much worse before.

Matthew used the quotation from Jeremiah 31:15 for his own literary purposes. In the context of this Jeremiah quote, God rebukes Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Jacob. God tells her, “They [her children] will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your descendants . . . . Your children will return to their own land” (Jer. 31:16b–17).

Matthew was telling his readers that, in the midst of tragedy due to the death of the children at Herod’s order, God was working to bring hope for the future of his people in a child’s return — the return of Jesus — from the land of the enemy, Egypt. In this way, Matthew continued to use the midrash method to make comparative comments on the events related to Mary and Joseph.

The rebuke of Rachel also symbolizes a rebuke of Mary for her response to the terrible events of these days. If that sounds like speculation, I would remind you of the prophecy concerning a sword piercing Mary’s heart and urge you to reserve judgment until you hear the story of Miriam, which underlies the final paragraph of Matthew’s story.

Motion and Friction on the Road to Israel

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
(Matthew 2:19–23)

Mary’s name stands fifth and last among the five women Matthew listed in the genealogy of Jesus. We would expect this final section to deal with her life in a special way. Just as we traced the other women’s stories through their Hebrew names, using the Jewish technique of midrash, so we must look for Mary’s counterpart in the Old Testament stories through her Hebrew name. “Mary” is derived from the Hebrew name Miriam, a famous woman in Israel’s history.

Matthew cleverly drew upon the story of Miriam from Numbers 12–14 to help reveal the deep struggle Mary and Joseph went through in returning to the land of Israel. They were in motion, accomplishing God’s purpose, and yet friction relentlessly balked their steps.

The book of Numbers fits Matthew’s literary purpose because it tells the story of the struggles in the Israelite approach to the land of promise. Miriam’s opposition to Moses blends with the larger conflict between the people and God. Because of the Israelites’ unbelief, rebellion, and disobedience, the journey that should have taken a few months took over forty years. The episode with Miriam retarded the march toward Canaan, and it could not resume until God had dealt with her directly and decisively.

Matthew was implying that the sword had pierced Mary’s heart to a similarly grave degree. God had to deal with Mary before the family of the Messiah could complete its journey back to the land of Israel. Table 5  in the Appendix portrays some of the fascinating parallels between the Numbers incident and Matthew’s story about Mary.

A Tale of Dispute and Correction

The problem between Miriam and Moses initially centered on Moses’ wife Zipporah, who was a Cushite woman (Num. 12:1).[2] Miriam then disputed that God spoke only through Moses and claimed that God spoke through her as well (Num. 12:2).

Moses, a humble man, did not try to stop this rebellion, but left it in the hands of the Lord (Num. 12:3). The Lord immediately called three people out of the tent of meeting: Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. There God revealed his anger against Miriam, in particular, for her rebellion against Moses, and he inflicted her with leprosy for seven days (Num. 12:4–10).

Afterward, the people of God continued their journey toward Canaan. As part of their preparations to enter Canaan, the Israelites sent spies on a reconnaissance mission (Num. 13:2–3). When the spies returned, the majority spoke adversely about the land and the prospects of conquering the Canaanites (Num. 13:31–33). This new obstacle led to fresh unbelief among the people, so God directed them away from Canaan and into the wilderness (Num. 14:25). But God set Joshua apart, along with Caleb, as a man who had followed him without reservation (Num. 14:30).

How It All Fits Together

Following Matthew’s lead, I will now correlate the Numbers story with what Matthew said about Mary and Joseph.

Just as Moses had a conflict with Miriam, Matthew implies — through the midrash using Numbers — that Joseph was having a conflict with Mary, who was rebelling against his authority to take them back into the face of danger. Perhaps Mary questioned whether God had really commanded them to return, and stressed that the Lord hadn’t told her anything about it! The angel had spoken to Joseph (Matt. 2:19), not Mary, about returning to Israel.

Joseph, a humble man like Moses, left the problem in the hands of the Lord. As a result, the Lord summoned Mary, Joseph, and the child and dealt decisively with Mary’s resistance. This is never stated but is implied by the midrash using Numbers.

In the wake of this crisis between Mary and Joseph, the journey continued until a bad report was received about the land — similar to the report from the twelve spies about Canaan. The report concerned Archelaus (Matt. 2:22), the foolish and ruthless successor to the dead Herod.

Archelaus had Herod’s willingness to kill, but he lacked the cleverness and diplomatic skill of his father. Because of this, Archelaus quickly fell into conflict with the Jews and, very early in his reign, killed three thousand of them in the temple during Passover. I believe that was the report that was given to Mary and Joseph, and it ignited their fears.

Matthew directly states that Joseph feared to enter Judah (2:22) and indirectly suggests that Mary struggled with the same thing (just like the Israelites). In response to this, God directed their path to a new destination, just as he had redirected the children of Israel when they struggled. Mary and Joseph would return to Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

Even in this change of plans, Matthew saw a fulfillment of the words spoken by the author of the Book of Judges: “He would be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23 quoting Judges 13:5). To be a Nazarene or Nazarite means to be set apart to God from birth.

Jesus, whose name is derived from the Old Testament name Joshua, was set apart for the work his Father had given him and for the fulfillment of all the promises to Israel. This resembles Joshua, whom God set apart to enter Canaan, defeat the enemies of God, and gain an inheritance for all the people.

Another Glimpse of Friction

One final element of Matthew’s account confirms the general interpretation of events given above. The angel said to Joseph, “Those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead” (Matt. 2:20). Scholars have long wondered why Matthew spoke in the plural (“those”). They have also noted God’s similar words to Moses: “all those who wanted to kill you are dead” (Exod. 4:19).

While researching this reference in Exodus chapter 4, I was amazed that it involved another story — in addition to Num. 12:1 — concerning Moses and his wife Zipporah! After all, the name Zipporah only occurs four times in the whole Bible, so this connection has to be intentional.

In this puzzling episode (Exod. 4:24–26), God called Moses and his family to return to Egypt and deliver his people, but that directive resulted in a grave conflict between Moses and his wife on the journey. Only God’s highly threatening intervention resolved the conflict between Moses and Zipporah and allowed the journey to continue. The similarity to the other stories is obvious; Matthew clearly made another attempt to give the reader background information about the story of Mary and Joseph.

The story of Moses and Zipporah suggests that Moses did not do all that the Lord had instructed, and Matthew’s use of this tale probably implies that Joseph also failed in some of his responses. Matthew certainly informed us that Joseph feared to return to Judea (Matt. 2:22) in spite of the protective hand of God. Mary was not the only one feeling the pressure!

A Backward Glance

Supplementary information is fascinating, but I don’t want it to distract you from the main point. In accomplishing God’s will and fulfilling their role in the salvation program, Mary and Joseph moved forward only in the face of friction from every quarter.

Their experiences amply fulfilled Simeon’s prophecy that Mary would struggle within herself. Mary and Joseph were real people — not the strain-free caricatures we so often carry away from Christmas pageants. Their lives illustrate the friction we too will face in bringing about God’s purposes in our own lives. He will protect us and care for us, and at the same time leave us under certain tensions, which he will also use to shape our lives.

Our Motion and Our Friction

Use the following ideas to bring this truth home in your own experience. Remember that God teaches us his principles to change our lives, and not just to make us smarter!

1. Discouragement, bitterness toward God, fear, and resistance to God’s guidance all find expression at times in the lives of righteous men and women. We will never enjoy it when we see those responses in ourselves. Every believer will experience such feelings at points, though it takes emotional sensitivity and courage to admit to having those emotions. We cringe when we see ourselves resisting God. How do you relate to the following statements?

I need to deal directly with such responses so that I am not hindered in living for Christ.

The Lord concerns himself primarily with my overall attitude toward him; he knows I will have lapses, and he deals with me patiently.

God didn’t dump Mary and Joseph because of their problems. He continued using them to play a vital role in the life of his Son. The Lord undoubtedly took into account that this righteous man and woman were facing tremendous pressures. He takes our circumstances and limitations into account as well.

2. Some types of personal growth take place only through repeated applications of pressure. I used to jog six days a week, but not because I liked it. To me it was never fun. But I couldn’t get into good physical condition without repeated applications of exercise.

Some types of growth and change in life can only come through stressful experience. You can’t learn everything you need to know out of a book. Even Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). In spite of this reality, many of us think of learning as something that happens only in a classroom. That’s only the tip of the iceberg!

What is Christ trying to teach me through my experiences — especially the hard ones?

Focus particularly on repeated patterns in your behavior. Have you missed some important insights that could enrich your life?

Do you find yourself running into the same brick wall again and again? Do your failures tend to cluster in a certain area? What is God trying to teach you through those experiences?

3. God uses the hardships we face to prepare us for the future. I don’t think he ever leaves us totally tension-free. If he leads us into a troubled situation, we can trust him to be there with us. Ask yourself:

What does the Lord want me to face?

Am I facing it or running from it?

A Final Word

During World War II, the Japanese sent kamikaze pilots on suicide flights in a desperate attempt to prevent defeat. Those men flew what amounted to bombs with wings on them.

Most planes have landing gear, but Kamikaze planes had wheels that fell away on take-off so the pilot couldn’t change his mind! Some of the pilots didn’t appreciate the missions they were ordered to do. One man took off, flew his plane over his commanding officer’s house, and strafed it with machine gun fire before heading out to sea! You see, those men were expendable in the eyes of their superiors.

God may send us into spiritual battle, but he doesn’t consider us expendable. We are not like paper cups that God casually throws aside after each use. The Lord wants to use us, just as he did Joseph and Mary, but it won’t always be easy and our faith will be tested at times.

As we live for Christ and grow in him, we will accomplish motion only by facing friction. As he calls on us to overcome great opposition, he will personally go with us every step of the way.

 Coming next . . .

In Chapter 4, we join Jesus at the point just following his baptism when the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. That temptation must be endured before Jesus enters his public ministry.

Appendix to Chapter 3

Table 1 shows the women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy and the corresponding material in the Old Testament that contains their stories.

Table 1 (repeated)

The Literary Structure of Matthew 1–2


Related Old Testament Story


Tamar (Genesis 38)


Rahab (Joshua 2–6)


Ruth (Book of Ruth)


Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)


Mary = Miriam (Numbers 12–14)


Table 5 illustrates the kind of comparison that lies at the heart of the midrash technique Matthew used to add depth to his lean account about Jesus.

Table 5

A Clue to a Conflict between Mary & Joseph

Numbers 12–14 Matthew 2:19–23
Problem with Moses’ wife (12:1) Problem with Joseph’s wife*
God speaks to Moses (12:2) God speaks to Joseph (2:19–20)
Moses a humble man (12:3) Joseph a humble man*
Three called out (12:4) Three called out (2:19–20)
God deals with Miriam (12:5–10) God deals with Mary*
Journey continues (12:15) Journey continues (2:21)
Report about the land (13:26–33) Report about the land (2:22)
God directs new path (14:25) God directs new path (2:22)
Joshua set apart (14:30) Jesus set apart (2:23)

*Implied by the parallel passages in Numbers.


[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1979) 465.

[2] I am downplaying Aaron’s rebellion for clarity.

Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 2

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Chapter 2

When you can’t see the bottom line

Jesus’ royalty threatens Herod

Every generation has its pet phrases to express things. When I was growing up, the word “cool” described just about anything good. With the proper voice inflection and context, you can make phrases like that mean anything you want.

Teenagers regularly create such new expressions, but adults can also get in on the action. In conversations among men, and especially older businessmen, someone will, at appropriate points, mention “the bottom line”.

The bottom line gets its meaning from the world of accounting. When you get your bank statement, a little box on the page tells you the current balance; that’s the bottom line. By extension this phrase comes to mean the outcome, the summary or the end result.

Our problem is that we can’t usually know what the bottom line of our decisions is going to be. What do we do then? In fact, we must decide some of the most important issues of our lives without knowing the bottom line. In choosing a marriage partner, a career, a home, and many other things, we must make a choice without knowing the eventual outcome.

These uncertainties about personal decisions are compounded by other factors far beyond our control. Terrorism, crime, and economic crisis spread their fears into the lives of almost every American. Faraway events— tsunamis, earthquakes, political turmoil in the Arab world — can disrupt our whole culture.

In such an atmosphere I find it comforting to know that behind the scenes God rules as King over all. To know that my allegiance to Jesus Christ makes me a part of his kingdom and affords me his protective care helps to calm me in the midst of many chilling threats.

Is there any evidence of this principle at work after the birth of Jesus? Oh yes!

Haunting Similarities in Jericho

By intentionally including the names of five women in the genealogy of Jesus, Matthew hints at Old Testament stories that relate to Jesus’ birth (see Table 1 in the Appendix to chapter 1). Using these stories for comparison with the story of Jesus and his parents involves an ancient Jewish technique called midrash. Matthew used midrash throughout Matthew chapters 1 and 2 to introduce additional information.

By using the name Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who hid the Israelite spies in Jericho (Joshua chapters 2 and 6), Matthew informs us of a relationship between her story in the Old Testament and Matthew 2:1–12. This key will help us unlock the historical background for Matthew’s story about the visiting Magi — learned Persians or Babylonians who studied signs — who worship Jesus during the frantic execution of a deadly plot by King Herod to kill him.

Table 3 — see the Appendix to this chapter —details the many similarities between the story of Rahab and Matthew’s account of the Magi. You may want to refer to this table again after learning more about Herod and the events at the end of his reign.

The parallel story of Rahab helps determine that King Herod was strongly involved with Jericho during the general time of Jesus’ birth and the arrival of the Magi. Ancient Jericho was located fourteen miles east of Jerusalem. By correlating that fact with the history written by Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, we learn that the Magi appeared during the final few months of Herod’s life and reign. Such timing fits perfectly with the findings of modern scholarship that Jesus was born just a few months before Herod’s death.[1]

Where is the king?

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
(Matthew 2:1–2)

The Greek text of Matthew 2:1 provides a bit more dramatic impact than the translation given above. I would put it like this: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, behold Magi from the east appeared in Jerusalem.” The Magi suddenly and unexpectedly burst upon the scene in Jerusalem. I believe they came secretly and quietly, similar to the way that the Israelite spies entered Jericho in the parallel account about Rahab.

The Magi asked a question filled with threat: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Herod, who was ruling as a vassal king under the Romans, had not descended from the house of David. New Testament scholar Stanley D. Toussaint says, “Herod, of the Idumaean dynasty, was a usurper.”[2] Rome had put him in power to reward his cooperation in previous wars.

The people hated Herod because he was not a Jew and also because he had killed members of his own family who were Jewish. So the question posed by the Magi meant double trouble for Herod. It reminded the people who heard it that Herod was not a Jew and that another had been born to be king over his own people.

A King Searches for the King

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
(Matthew 2:3)

To protect his throne, Herod had informers and agents spread throughout Judea. Herod ruled his territory much like a modern dictator, using military force and any other means — such as torture and death — he considered necessary to hold power. Herod was agitated by foreign visitors asking threatening questions about his throne.

I always understood why Herod was disturbed, but it puzzled me that all Jerusalem was alarmed as well. Everything fell into place when I studied the period through the eyes of Josephus (A.D. 37 – c. A.D. 100), the Jewish historian of that era.

When Christ was born during the final months of Herod’s life, the king was seventy years of age. Herod had been stricken with various physical problems — literally from head to foot — and the Jews did not expect him to live much longer. False rumors of his death regularly produced confusion.

During his final illness, Herod became even more ruthless and paranoid. Anything that threatened him increased the chance that people would suddenly be grabbed off of the street, hauled off to one of his fortresses, and tortured for information.

The birth of Jesus brought a fresh threat to Herod’s rule, but there had been others. Over the years, five of Herod’s wives and seven of his sons figured into the struggle to succeed him. Herod dealt with his own family just as ruthlessly as he did with those outside. He murdered one of his wives and three of his sons over the course of his life because he suspected plots.

So, for their own self-protection, the people living in Jerusalem kept themselves aware of anything that might disturb King Herod. Such events could initiate a new reign of terror!

Partly from Matthew’s own lead and partly from the history written by Josephus, we know that Herod spent considerable time in Jericho during the period of time in which Jesus was born and the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. By living in his winter palace at Jericho, Herod could stay about ten degrees warmer during those months than he could in Jerusalem. And he also had access to warm water baths on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. His physicians held out hope that those baths might cure his many ailments.

As Herod lay ill in Jerusalem and Jericho, God unfolded his own movements right under the king’s nose. Herod could never lay a hand on Jesus.

Part of the story’s irony involves Herod exerting all of his energy to find and kill Jesus, while the Lord casually brought the Magi into the capital city and on to worship Jesus without Herod being able to stop it. Jesus and his parents enjoyed complete safety in the midst of danger because of the Lord’s hidden rule.

Herod’s Searching Questions

4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
(Matthew 2:4–6)

Herod summoned the Jewish religious leaders — in either Jerusalem or Jericho — and kept on pressing them for information about the birthplace of the Messiah. From the Scriptures they informed him rightly that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Even with this accurate word, Herod could not alter the bottom line.

The material quoted by the experts from the Old Testament actually comes from two different places. The name Bethlehem comes from Micah 5:2, while the closing statement about Jesus, saying he “will shepherd my people Israel,” comes from 1 Chronicles 11:2.

In both Old Testament contexts, the immediately preceding verses have a message relevant to the passage in Matthew. Micah spoke of a walled city against which a siege is laid and in which a ruler dies (Micah 5:1) — quite reminiscent of the Jericho story (Joshua 2 and 6). As we will see, Herod, like the ancient king of Jericho, will also die in Jericho while trying to oppose God.

Similarly, 1 Chronicles 10:14 tells how the Lord put Saul the murderous king to death and turned the kingdom over to David. Just as Saul often tried to kill David and prevent him from becoming king of Israel, so Herod tried to kill the son of David, Jesus, the coming King.

Matthew is extensively using the comparative techniques of midrash to add detail from these stories.

An Audience with a King

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
(Matthew 2:7–8)

Herod next summoned the Magi secretly, either in Jerusalem or Jericho. He took tremendous pains to extract precise information from them.

Undoubtedly, Herod would have worshiped Jesus with the point of a knife if only he could. Herod hoped to turn the Magi to his own purposes through their zeal to find Jesus.

The “Star” Leads the Way

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
(Matthew 2:9–10)

The Magi could not know for sure that Bethlehem was their destination. They were relying on God’s guidance to bring them to the right place. When the supernatural light appeared to them once again, they experienced a joy verging on ecstasy.

Contrary to what you have heard, the “star” that guided the Magi was not a star in the night sky. This shining light guided them in such a specific way that it must have been a more earthbound supernatural light that guided them to their destination.[3] Matthew tells us that the light “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Matt. 2:9).

New Testament scholar Craig Keener says, “The description of God’s leading the Magi by a moving, supernatural sign may recall how God led his own people by the fire and cloud in the wilderness (Exod. 13:21–22).”[4]

Conduct a simple experiment for yourself. Go out tonight, look into the sky to pick out a star, and then ask yourself over which house that star is standing. You will quickly realize that a normal star could not guide anyone to a specific location. In my city, a normal star positioned near the horizon could be considered to stand over thousands of houses on a line toward the horizon.

Further, such a star could as easily have guided King Herod’s agents as it did those eastern wise men. Extensive efforts to relate this supernatural light to conjunctions of planets, comets, and other astronomical objects all amount to misguided effort. The “star” was a guiding miracle of God, given to a select group of men so that the Lord could carry out his plans in the midst of deep danger.

Jewish shepherds first bowed down to the newborn Jesus on the night of his birth. Much later — perhaps as much as 45 days — the Gentile wise men came to worship. It is amusing that while Herod is called king many times in the course of this passage, no one bows down to him! Only Jesus receives honor and worship. Matthew indirectly makes clear that Jesus is the real king, not Herod.

Just as the spies did not go back to Joshua’s army by the same route after scouting Jericho (Joshua 2:15–24), so also the Magi returned to their own country by another path. They avoided returning to Herod, and thus they completed the God-given mission undertaken with Herod’s full knowledge. Under God’s guiding hand, Herod proved powerless to stop them or to use them for his own purposes. God wrote the bottom line!

How It All Fits Together

Now we are ready to weave Matthew’s account together with secular history in an attempt to reconstruct the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. (To examine this information in table form, see Table 4 in the Appendix to this chapter.)

In December, 5 B.C.[5], Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, just five miles south of Jerusalem. Angels and shepherds worshiped him. Forty days after his birth, Jesus was dedicated by his faithful parents at the temple in Jerusalem.

With disturbing suddenness, the Magi arrived in Jerusalem. They began quietly asking questions about the one who had been born king of the Jews. Herod’s many agents soon carried word to him and greatly disturbed his suspicious mind. All Jerusalem feared the consequences.

Because of his illness, Herod first summoned the religious leaders to his bedside — in Jerusalem or Jericho — to reveal to him the location where the Messiah of the Jews would be born. Next he secretly summoned the Magi to reveal all they knew (Matt. 2:7). Then he sent the Magi to find Jesus and report back to him.

The Magi, guided by the supernatural light, found Jesus at a certain “house” (Matt. 2:11) and worshiped him. Then they departed without returning to Herod because God had warned them not to.

In response to another dramatic warning from the Lord, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:13). This timely warning spared them from Herod’s own order that the children near Bethlehem be put to death. Herod had become enraged when he learned that the Magi had eluded him and ordered the death of Bethlehem’s youngest children (Matt. 2:16) — thought to be about twenty in number.[6]

As word spread that Herod’s illness was entering its last stages, his opponents in Jerusalem became more bold. Herod had erected a golden eagle on the temple in violation of Jewish law. Suddenly a rumor circulated that the king had died. Buoyed by this news, two men named Judas and Matthias incited a crowd to tear down the golden eagle.

But the rumor proved false, and temple troops managed to seize forty of the men and take them before the ailing king. Herod sent them to Jericho for trial and punishment.

By this time, Herod’s illness was growing worse, and the mineral baths near the Dead Sea were not helping. Herod’s son Antipater, who was in prison in the winter palace at Jericho, heard an outcry when his father attempted to kill himself with a paring knife. Antipater celebrated, and that act cost him his life because his father’s suicide attempt had been stopped!

Five days later, the ruthless, death-dealing Herod died in Jericho. Everyone rejoiced!

A Backward Glance

In the midst of an evil, corrupt kingdom, God sent a defenseless family and helpless baby to face many uncertainties and real dangers. But God protected them through it all, fulfilled the prophecies about Jesus’ birth and carried out his plan for the family’s escape without Herod being able to stop it.

That gives me tremendous hope when I run into the threats and dangers we all face in our own lives. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we also belong to God’s family, and he can write the bottom line for us too.

Applying the Truth to Life

Use the following ideas to allow the principles from this story to change your own life:

1. God’s oversight of our world is a reality often hidden from our view by the clamor and tension of current world events. Too often we fearfully focus our attention on the news media and forget God. He has the power and authority to intervene at any level, including the personal circumstances of this world’s most wicked rulers. I think these facts should lead you to take the following steps:

Pray for God’s guidance for your governing officials.

Pray that God will oppose the power of evil rulers.

Pray for the Lord’s protective care over your own household.

2. Clearly, the obedience of the Magi and Joseph to God’s command spared them from death. Those who respond to the King of heaven and earth are shielded from much of the pain and sorrow that sin brings upon our world. How about you?

Do you know God’s revealed will, the Scriptures, so that you know how to respond to life-situations that you face?

Do you see yourself as one who generally obeys God’s principles for living?

Are you growing wiser and more responsive to God as each year fades into another?

3. What important situations are you facing right now whose outcome you can’t see?

How do you feel about the uncertainty?

What involvement do you think God could have in your circumstances?

A Final Word

I generally don’t take risks unless compelled to. So, it still baffles me that before leaving for Dallas Theological Seminary I quit a very secure job without knowing whether the Seminary would accept me. To do otherwise would have delayed my application for two more years. It felt funny to burn my bridges behind me without having a clear path ahead. The bottom line lay far beyond my control.

In such times of uncertainty, God’s hidden rule over my life helps to chase away anxiety. I know that he can totally control the bottom line. Just as he protected Jesus and his parents from Herod’s evil schemes, so he can shield me in hidden but powerful ways. That knowledge helps me to take necessary risks and to make choices.

The assurance of God’s hidden rule will comfort you, even when you can’t see the bottom line!

 Coming next week . . .

In Chapter 3 (next week) we learn that Mary, the mother of Jesus, experienced great stress and even exhibited disobedience due to the dangers directed toward her family.

 Appendix to Chapter 2

Table 3 illustrates the kind of comparison that lies at the heart of the midrash technique Matthew used to add depth to his brief account about Jesus.

Table 3

Matthew 2:1-12 Joshua 2 and 6
Magi seek facts (2:2) Spies seek facts (2:1)
King and city disturbed (2:3) King and city disturbed (2:9)
Threat to rulership (2:3) Threat to rulership (2:9–12)
Search party sent out (2:8) Search party sent out (2:7, 22)
Magi succeed (2:11) Spies succeed (2:23)
Return by another route (2:12) Return by another route (2:22)
King dies in Jericho (2:15) King dies in Jericho (6:21)
Woman and family safe (2:14) Woman and family safe (6:25)


Table 4

Events Related to the Birth of Jesus

December, 5 B.C. Jesus born in Bethlehem (Matt. 1:25)[7]
February, 4 B.C. Jesus dedicated at Temple (Luke 2:22)
Magi arrive (Matthew 2:1)
Herod summons teachers (Matthew 2:4)
Herod summons Magi (Matthew 2:7)
Magi find Jesus (Matthew 2:11)
Magi depart (Matthew 2:12)
Jesus and parents flee (Matthew 2:14)
Feb., 4 B.C. (?) Herod orders infants killed (Matthew 2:16)

c. Mar. 10, 4 B.C.

Golden eagle incident at Temple*[8]

March, 4 B.C.

Sick Herod goes to Jericho*[9]
March, 4 B.C. Herod executes his son Antipater*
March, 4 B.C. Five days pass*
March, 4 B.C. Herod dies in Jericho*

*Source: Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian.

[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976) 13–27.

[2] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980) 52.

[3] Agreeing is R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 69.

[4] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1993) 49.

[5] Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 27.

[6] R.T. France, Matthew, 85.

[7] Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 27.

[8] Peter Richardson, Herod (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999) 15.

[9] Richardson, Herod, 18.

Copyright © 2011 Barry Applewhite. All Rights reserved worldwide.

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Chapter 1

A blessing in disguise (Matt. 1:18–25)

Jesus’ birth afflicts Joseph

When Theodore Roosevelt (“TR”) was a child, his health was so bad that his father had to spend most weekends taking TR to upstate New York to relieve frequent asthma attacks. Such infirmity would have crushed the spirit of many children, but young Theodore began to embrace a life full of rigorous physical challenge and discipline.

As a result, TR became one of the most energetic figures in the world. Indeed, he once spoke for ninety minutes at a political rally after being shot in the side! Defying expectations, what seemed at first to be a health disaster had propelled his life to great heights.

The apostle Matthew used this same pattern — defeat transformed into victory — to describe Christ’s birth in the first Gospel. When Mary, the mother of Jesus, was found to be pregnant, her intended husband Joseph hit bottom. We will see how God turned Joseph’s apparent defeat into victory.

A vital clue to Matthew’s thinking

Before we get into the story of Jesus’ birth, we need to consider how Matthew tells his story. Biblical genealogies may seem boring, yet buried within the Messiah’s genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew lies a set of vital clues to the literary structure for his account of our Lord’s birth. Matthew signaled his intentions by doing something unusual: he included the names of five women in the genealogy of Christ.

To include women in the genealogy deviated from common practice. Luke mentioned only one woman, Mary, in his genealogy, and did it only to make clear that Joseph had no biological role in Jesus’ birth. Matthew oddly mentions Tamar (1:3), Rahab (1:5), Ruth (1:5), Bathsheba — mentioned as “Uriah’s wife” (1:6), the woman who had the adulterous affair with King David — and Mary (1:16).

In chapters 1–3 of this book we will see how these women’s names shine fresh light on the birth and early life of Jesus. The key to understanding what Matthew is doing lies in learning how he uses a Jewish teaching technique known as midrash — from a Hebrew word that means to study or investigate — to add meaning to his brief narrative. To understand Matthew’s story requires several detours to related stories in the Old Testament for comparison.

When you read Matthew’s first two chapters, you find that he wrote a very lean narrative. He provides few details about the momentous events he describes. But Matthew cleverly brings additional material to bear in two ways: 1) by quoting from the Old Testament and 2) by drawing attention to several Old Testament stories having intentional similarities to the story of Jesus. That second technique is midrash.

Far from being an enigma, the women’s names act as signposts toward meaning. Table 1 in the Appendix to this chapter shows how Matthew supplemented certain portions of his narrative with the stories of five women from the Old Testament.

As we consider Christ’s birth, we will follow Matthew’s intentional lead by contrasting the story of Mary and Joseph with the story of Tamar (Matt. 1:3) and her father-in-law Judah from Genesis 38. Tamar is the first woman Matthew named, and so her story adds the first supplemental material to the story of Jesus’ birth. From it we learn more about Joseph’s struggle over the pregnancy of Mary.

Broken promises and a crisis in disguise

The story of Judah and Tamar, who are in the royal line of Christ, contrasts sharply with that of Joseph and Mary because Judah and Tamar did not live as righteous people ought to live. See Table 2 in the Appendix to this chapter for a detailed comparison of their stories with Bible references included.

Judah, the son of the patriarch Jacob, was harmed by Tamar after breaking a pledge to her that she would marry one of his sons. Tamar got her revenge by disguising herself as a prostitute and taking an unannounced trip to seduce Judah, who was on a journey. Worse still, she became pregnant! To Judah’s great shame, his sin was exposed. This was Judah’s crisis, and he threatened Tamar with death.

It’s not a pretty story! The saga of Judah and Tamar reeks with struggle, intrigue, and sin. But, amazingly enough, God used this reversal in Judah’s life to shape him into a better person. In Genesis 44, Judah offered his own life to save his younger brother’s life (Gen. 44:27–34).

It is striking that Matthew intentionally refers to this story to highlight Joseph’s crisis, but he clearly does. Both stories involve men facing crises that relate to the birth of the Messiah; both Tamar and Mary are part of the biological line of Jesus. Judah was an oath-breaker and a man willing to kill. How will Judah compare with Joseph? We will unpack Matthew’s midrash — a form of comparison — and find out.  [See Appendix 1 below for details of this comparison.]

In both accounts God turns defeat into eventual victory. The individual crises of Judah and Joseph were blessings in disguise.

The unwanted child — Jesus

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
(Matthew 1:18–19)

Clearly, Joseph learned about Mary’s pregnancy before hearing the facts of the matter from her. At this point, Matthew leaves much unsaid, but we can get insight by considering Luke’s account (Luke 1:26–56). God sent an angel to inform Mary of her impending pregnancy, and she immediately departed to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah.

Mary’s story resembles Tamar’s story in several respects. First of all, Mary’s unannounced journey led to a conflict. She returned after three months of pregnancy to await her marriage in her father’s house (like Tamar). Her pregnancy then became known, and the crisis hit Joseph with full force. Remember that Joseph had never read Matthew chapter 1!

How would you have felt if you were Joseph? He was a righteous young descendant of David who had selected a godly young woman from among his people. After a three-month journey to Judah, his wife-to-be was pregnant, and he knew the child was not his own. What would you have thought? Surely any of us would have drawn the same conclusion that Joseph did.

Joseph’s dreams of the life he would live with this woman he deeply loved were instantly shattered. His life hit rock bottom, and he himself was probably subjected to ridicule due to Mary’s condition. Feel with Joseph the pain of that terrible moment. Just as Judah mistook Tamar for a common prostitute, Joseph also misjudged Mary as sexually unfaithful. The comparison of the two related stories confirms this conclusion about Joseph even though Matthew does not say it outright. That’s how midrash works.

Joseph demonstrated a compassion for Mary that his counterpart Judah didn’t show for Tamar; Joseph tried to prevent any harm from coming to Mary. The Jews regarded infidelity during engagement as seriously as they did after marriage. As an apparent adulteress, Mary could have received the death penalty, but Joseph took steps to quietly break the engagement.

On the surface Joseph’s story is filled with wrongdoing, tragedy, and defeat, but behind it all stands God, who transforms defeat into victory. He was using Mary and Joseph to accomplish a profound act in bringing salvation to Israel and the world. But the world continually misunderstands what God is doing.

A blessing in disguise

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
(Matthew 1:20–23)

In the midst of disaster, God intervened decisively with Joseph and Mary. The angel urged Joseph to take Mary home as his wife and not to fear the consequences. That action amounted to a legal, public claim that Mary was his wife, in spite of the fact that she was three months pregnant!

The surrounding community doubtless misunder­stood this action. Even though Joseph and Mary would have wanted to maintain a discreet silence, pregnancy cannot be hidden after a certain point. Stories about them were probably already circulating within Nazareth. The angel quieted Joseph’s baseless fears by revealing that Mary’s child had been conceived by the miraculous, creative act of the Holy Spirit.

After predicting the birth of a son, the angel commanded Joseph to name the boy Jesus — a name filled with profound meaning. It is derived from the Hebrew name Yeshua, which means “the Lord saves.” This name reveals the first part of what Jesus came to do; he came to deliver his people from their sins.

Then Matthew explains another name Jesus was given, that reveals another part of his mission: “‘they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matt. 1:23).

When we think of Jesus delivering us from our sins, we usually visualize it as happening someday. Certainly Jesus will save us from divine judgment on that day, but we fall short of understanding if we don’t realize that he also came to deliver us from our sins right now!

Immanuel, which means “God with us,” brings out this present aspect. Jesus continually transforms the defeats, struggles, and hardships of our lives into ultimate victory. Jesus is not the God-whom-we-will-see-someday or the God-way-off-there-somewhere; he is God-with-us-right-now!

We may see ourselves as more like Judah than like Joseph, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus will abandon us. His very name tells us he won’t do that. Jesus Christ came into our world not only to resolve our sin problem, but also to transform our current defeats into ultimate victory.

A response of faith

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
(Matthew 1:24–25)

Joseph placed himself squarely within the camp of those who willingly respond to the Lord’s revelation. He showed a readiness to take whatever risks would be involved in receiving Mary and her child into his home. Joseph’s decision cleared Mary from suspicion.

By naming the boy, Joseph legally claimed Jesus as his own — not biologically, but legally. His action both cleared Mary of any wrongdoing and put the responsibility for Mary’s pregnancy squarely on his own shoulders. Demonstrating his righteousness, Joseph followed the Lord’s directives to the letter, trusting him to turn defeat into something good.

A backward glance

In thinking back over the two contrasting stories, we find two very different couples. God had to teach Judah and Tamar the fundamentals of right and wrong. Their story betrays little concern about what God wanted in their lives; their own self-concern was paramount. They belonged in spiritual kindergarten learning basic lessons about life. Still, God used them as part of the lineage of his divine Son.

In the other case, Joseph and Mary most certainly struggled, but their goal was to please God. Both were trying to serve him in baffling circumstances. Through Joseph and Mary, the Father brought about the culmination of his salvation plan.

God’s transforming power permeates both episodes and the lives of all involved. In both cases, defeat turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Lessons for our generation

Perhaps this has been a year of struggle in your life, as it has in mine. Two unexpected operations and a trip to the emergency room have provided more excitement than I wanted. There is no doubt that such experiences are unpleasant. But when we become adopted members of God’s family through faith in Jesus Christ, defeat takes on a promising new element.

1. The Lord wants to use our pain and misfortune to bring about strength, growth, and blessing. To accomplish that purpose, he will get personally involved in our lives. To confirm this in the Bible, see Genesis 50:20; Romans 5:3–5; 8:28; and 1 Peter 2:10–20. Use the following questions to evaluate your own life.

Am I so absorbed with my adversity that I have lost sight of God’s intention to bring blessing?

What has the Lord taught me, or what does he want me to learn from my struggles?

In what ways has God used misfortune in my life to bring change and shape my outlook about myself and others?

Judah couldn’t learn very much about his immoral ways until he suffered a real crisis in his life. He wouldn’t face up to his Canaanite associations, casual fornication, covenant-breaking, and vengeful anger until God brought him up short.

Long ago I felt a certain contempt for people who had personal problems. Inwardly, I put the blame on them. But when I found out that what happened to them could also happen to me, it changed me profoundly. Such an experience allowed me to bring to others the comfort that God brought me in my crisis (see 2 Corinthians chapter 1).

2. In spite of all their sin, the Lord used Judah and Tamar to help accomplish salvation for a lost world. Don’t you feel a bit surprised that the Lord would use people like them as part of the royal line of Jesus Christ?

But that fact is tremendous! It shows us that God can, and will, use believers of all maturity levels to bring about his purposes. The frailty and weakness of man does not hinder the power of God in cutting through obstacles to fulfill his promises. You may consider yourself a spiritual failure. You may be a person like Judah who has been running on the wrong side of the tracks for quite a while, but repentance and confession can change that. The Lord can still use you!

In light of that, can you personally affirm the following statement? God will use me with all my flaws to help carry out his purpose for those around me.

Consider the other side of things for a moment. In the story of Joseph and Mary, God clearly demonstrates his intention to bring even greater blessings into the lives of men and women seeking to live a godly life.

Are you willing to make it your goal to move even closer to the Lord in the days to come?

A final word

My unexpected trip to the emergency room was no picnic, but it led to the “accidental” discovery of a separate medical problem. As a result, my first surgical operation for the year removed a defect that could have threatened my life!

My trip to the ER has proved to be a blessing in disguise. God used it to bring about an important change that might never have happened without the crisis. This experience has taught me that Jesus really lives up to the name Immanuel, “God with us.” Where he is involved, even a crisis bears the promise of grace. Even adversity can be a blessing in disguise.

Coming next week . . .

In Chapter 2 we will see how the Father protected the newborn Jesus from the murderous Herod,  guided the Magi to worship Jesus, and then got the family to safety in Egypt.

Appendix to Chapter 1

Table 1 shows the women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy and the corresponding material in the Old Testament that contains their stories.

Table 1

The Literary Structure of Matthew 1–2


Related Old Testament Story


Tamar (Genesis 38)


Rahab (Joshua 2–6)


Ruth (Book of Ruth)


Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)


Mary = Miriam (Numbers 12–14)


Table 2 illustrates the kind of comparison that lies at the heart of the midrash technique Matthew used to add background to his brief account about Jesus.

Table 2

Judah and Tamar Compared to Joseph and Mary

Genesis 38 Matthew 1:18–25

A pledge to marry (11)

A pledge to marry (18)

A journey leads to conflict (12-26)

A journey leads to conflict (18)

Tamar seen as prostitute (15)

Mary seen to be unfaithful (18)

Unmarried Tamar pregnant (18)

Unmarried Mary pregnant (18)

Pregnancy revealed (24)

Pregnancy revealed (18)

Judah calls for death (24)

Joseph avoids death penalty (19)

Judah’s plans reversed (25)

Joseph’s plans reversed (20)

Judah affirms Tamar righteous (26)

Joseph affirms Mary righteous

No further sexual contact (26)

No further sexual contact (25)

Copyright © 2011 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

Books: The Path to the Cross by Barry Applewhite (first of a series)

Front Cover









Today begins a set of posts to present the contents of my latest book, The Path to the Cross (ISBN 978-0-9830658-4-5), available for purchase at Initially we will only cover the introductory material and include a book review. Going forward, a new chapter will be posted every week with the first starting 10/5/2011.

The first three chapters may be a bit difficult for some readers because they are based on an unfamiliar method of Jewish biblical interpretation called midrash. To help resolve that problem I have prepared a post describing midrash. You will get even more out of the book if you read it first.

Be ready to learn some things about Jesus that you may not have known before!

[BOOK REVIEW follows . . . ]

Books: Stanley D. Toussaint reviews The Path to the Cross

“The Path to the Cross is a simple and comparatively brief exposition of the life of the Lord Jesus from his birth to his resurrection with appropriate and relevant applications to life. Not all would agree with Applewhite’s use of [the Jewish interpretive technique called] midrash in the early chapters of Matthew, but they are presented in an interesting fashion. Barry Applewhite draws on all four Gospels and makes them pertinent to everyday experiences. The scholarship in the book is wrapped in simple language; everyone can benefit from this work.”

— Stanley D. Toussaint, Senior Professor Emeritus of Bible Exposition, Dallas Theological Seminary

[TITLE PAGE follows. . . ]


The journey of Jesus that shook the world
and still demands a response

Barry Applewhite

Biblical Concepts Press
Plano, Texas

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

ISBN: 978-0-9830658-4-5

[TABLE OF CONTENTS follows . . .]



Chapter 1  A Blessing in Disguise (Matt. 1:18–25)

          Jesus’ birth afflicts Joseph

Chapter 2  When You Can’t See the Bottom Line (Matt. 2:1–10)

          Jesus’ royalty threatens Herod

Chapter 3  The Sword-Pierced Heart (Matt. 2:13–23)

          Jesus’ mission afflicts Mary

Chapter 4  Final Exam (Luke 4:1–12)

          Jesus defeats demonic temptation

Chapter 5  The Last Word (Luke 6:36–42)

          Jesus limits judging others

Chapter 6  The Number One Killer (Luke 8:4–18)

          Jesus analyzes the heart

Chapter 7  Conflicting Signals (John 7:1–9; Luke 4:42–44; Mark 1:35–42)

          Jesus pleases the Father

Chapter 8  What’s in it for me? (Luke 14:1–14)

          Jesus models loving others

Chapter 9  Wise Nonsense (Mark 10:15–31)

          Jesus changes the unchangeable

Chapter 10  A Big Difference (Mark 10:35–52)

          Jesus commends serving others

Chapter 11  Stress Test (John 18:33–19:16)

          Jesus’ trial mocks justice

Chapter 12  An X-Ray of Reality (Luke 23:32–49)

          Jesus’ death dictates choices

Chapter 13  Not in Vain (Luke 23:50–24:8)

          Jesus’ resurrection promises meaning

[INTRODUCTION follows . . . ]

The Path to the Cross: Introduction

Jesus of Nazareth shook this world to its foundations! The world has never stopped reacting to his miraculous birth and resurrection, and many are still struggling to grasp his eternal significance.

In thirteen short chapters we will survey the life of Jesus from his birth to his resurrection. Along the way you will read fresh insights from the four Gospels, and some of them will surprise you. No matter how much you love and worship Jesus, he is even more amazing than you think!

The book falls into three sections which are roughly in chronological order. Chapters 1–3 cover the biblical background Matthew suggests for the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Be prepared to go beyond the neat little story presented in the Christmas pageant at your church, because Matthew’s Gospel shows you a more stressful context for Jesus’ birth and early life.

Chapters 4–10 present Jesus’ temptation by Satan followed by several of his essential teachings. The disciples were reeling under the changes Jesus was showing them! Chapter 9 highlights some of the brain-twisting methods Jesus used to make his points.

Chapters 11–13 explain Jesus’ puzzling trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and then detail how his death on the cross and bodily resurrection from the dead altered the prospects for all humanity.

In every chapter, you will have an opportunity to apply what Jesus is teaching to your life. Even the birth narrative offers practical lessons for a rewarding life by accessing God’s gracious care.

The path to the cross was challenging, and following that path will cause your faith in Jesus to grow. His journey demands a response, so in the next post we’ll get started!

Copyright © 2011 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.