The Parallel Parables of Luke 14

Open your Bible to Luke 14:28-33. In this passage, Jesus teaches the same truth by means of two different parables, one concerning the building of a tower and one concerning a king deciding whether to commit his nation to a hopeless war.

The heading over these parables, in almost every English Bible, says something like “The Cost of Being a Disciple.” I have never heard any Bible teacher, or read any commentary, that attempted to contradict that interpretation.

But I think it’s wrong.

I think we built that interpretation because it is the most facile understanding of the first – ONLY the first – of the two parables.

So I would like you to join me in a little thought experiment. Let’s say that Luke never recorded that first parable of the man seeking to build a tower. Let’s start with the second parable:

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.” Luke 14:31-32

The king finds his own army to be half the size of that of his enemy. Should he go to battle (and certainly lose)? Or should he surrender, and ask for ‘terms of peace’?

Remember, we know nothing of that other parable. How would you interpret this one? Who is the king? Who is the opposing king? What is the dilemma?

This is a parable about discipleship. Jesus is informing people that the choice between following him and not doing so is exactly like a choice between surrender and stubbornly going in to a hopeless battle. The wise person, Jesus says, goes to the opposing king in humility and subjection and seeks out the terms of peace. These are not his own terms; he must accept whatever terms the opposing king gives, if he is to have peace.

The opposing king is God Himself, surrounded by his angels, ready to judge mankind. The king is YOU, listener, would-be disciple. How long will you cling to your kingdom? How stubborn will you be in the name of human bravery? If you do not give up everything you have; i.e., if you refuse to surrender, Jesus insists that you cannot be his disciple (v.33), and you place yourself under the judgment of God. But if you come to Him in humility, lay down your arms, you will find Him utterly gracious.

The lesson in the parable is that one ought not stubbornly hold on to one’s own selfish ‘kingdom.’ The only reasonable course of action is to surrender. That is the only path to peace. Surrender. The conditional phrase “if he is not able” invites an affirmative response (“yes, he is not able!”).

Now, with that teaching firmly implanted in our minds, we return to the first parable:

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’”  Luke 14:28-30

Jesus connects these two parables by the little word “or,” indicating that they are intended to convey the same truth. “You can understand what I mean by this illustration,” he says, “OR that one.”

In both parables, we have a person with a desire:

King considering a war | Man wants to build tower

In both parables, we have an obstacle:

King is outmanned | Man lacks sufficient funds

In both parables, we have a dire consequence looming if the obstacle is not overcome:

Kingdom is destroyed | Man is ridiculed for half-finished project

However, only in the king/war parable is a potential solution mentioned:

King surrenders | ???

If these parables are truly meant as parallels of one another, what is the parallel solution for the man building the tower? What would a wise builder do if he lacked funds?

I submit to you it is this: Surrender. Give up the project. Acknowledge your inability. Find peace.

This interpretation flies in the face of the usual heading of “the cost of discipleship.” Interpreted in this usual way, the parable leads one to a completely different application – “Following Jesus will be costly, but press on! Be strong! Charge ahead!”

Such a teaching is not wrong, but this parable doesn’t teach it. The cost-of-discipleship interpretation is incorrect, I believe, because it is difficult to understand the king/war parable in that way. Would you really teach that the lesson of this story is that the king should boldly go into battle? That whatever “cost” he incurs in terms of lost lives and destruction is actually worth it? I can’t imagine anyone preaching a message that way.

Why? Many passages encourage believers to press on, regardless of the apparent odds. Many Old Testament heroes (Hezekiah, Joshua, Gideon) won great battles against poor odds. But this parable doesn’t conclude like that. It is summarized by a “surrender” verse (14:33). The parable obviously commends the king’s wisdom in seeking peace rather than a pointless war.

We have the wrong elements assigned within the tower parable:

Man:  Believer  Potential believer
Tower:  Discipleship  His own religious system
Money:  Commitment  Human works
Lesson:  Fight On!  Surrender

Building the tower is not Christian discipleship. Building the tower is a man building his own religious system – a project he must abandon in order to follow Christ. No edifice built of human works will survive the judgment. That is the true ‘cost of discipleship’ – that a person must, in order to call himself a disciple, abandon all pride, all pretense, all personal projects.

(This subject was explored earlier, from the perspective of the king, in the original song “Terms of Peace.”)

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A Ransom for Jerusalem

Harness the steeds to the chariots, inhabitants of Lachish;
it was the beginning of sin to the daughter of Zion,
for in you were found the transgressions of Israel.

Micah 1:13

Aha! Here Micah gives us the beginning point. The anatomy of sin. Micah says that the downfall of the nation of Judah began in the town of Lachish.

What happened in Lachish?

Micah wrote at the time that the “northern kingdom,” called variously Israel and Samaria, was about to be swallowed up by the bloodthirsty Assyrian king Sennacherib. Soon that whole population would be dragged away to exile, hundreds of miles to the north, many dying along the way due to the Assyrians’ unspeakable cruelty.

But Micah in fact had no business with the northerners. His prophetic ministry was to the southern kingdom, which would not only survive the ascendancy of the Assyrians, but in fact soon deal them a stupendous, debilitating blow. Only a few years later, having swallowed up every kingdom in the region, Sennacherib’s mighty army surrounded lonely Judah, the last holdout, clinging to the rugged hill country around Jerusalem and began a siege. Good king Hezekiah beseeched YHWH for help. And the answer, recorded by Micah’s contemporary Isaiah, was truly miraculous:

Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”

And the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh.

Isaiah 37:33-37

This story is a wonderful example of prayer being answered despite impossible odds. Hezekiah is justly lauded by the chronicler: “Hezekiah trusted in the Lord… There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him.” (1 Kings 18:5)

Sadly, as good Bible students know, this miracle was but a reprieve. YHWH’s judgment on the southern kingdom (Judah) would come eventually, several generations later, at the hands of the Babylonians. At that point Jerusalem was destroyed. The people of God no longer had a national presence.

This was the result of their own rebellion, of course. But what started Judah down the road to losing their place on earth? What was the root of their sin? What happened at Lachish?

Shortly before the miraculous massacre of the Assyrian troops at Jerusalem there was another incident between Sennacherib and Hezekiah. This one does not reflect nearly so well on the good king of Judah. He acted out of desperation rather than faith:

In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, “I have done wrong; withdraw from me. Whatever you impose on me I will bear.” And the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasuries of the king’s house. At that time Hezekiah stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord and from the doorposts that Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid and gave it to the king of Assyria.

2 Kings 18:13-16

Hezekiah came to Lachish and was horrified at what he saw — the destruction, the mounds of dead and near-dead bodies, men, women and children. He saw the trails of blood from his own people having been dragged off (with hooks!) to Nineveh. He was the cruel Assyrian soldiers gloating. Hezekiah was frightened for Jerusalem. This menace was coming too close to home. He asked for a price. Sennacherib gave it. Hezekiah’s men then set to work dismantling the beautifully-adorned Temple, and hauling out of the royal palace all the silver and gold that had lain there since Solomon’s time, two hundred years earlier. A parade of heavy ox-carts came trundling down the hill from Jerusalem and arrived in Lachish, a ransom for Hezekiah’s capital city.

Yet Hezekiah found, to his regret, that paying off the evil Sennacherib did not satisfy his thirst for blood. Within a very short (unrecorded) span of time, he was laying siege to Jerusalem. One can imagine Hezekiah and all his officials saying “What is with this guy? We paid him all that silver and gold to make him withdraw, and yet he continues to press in against us! What a rat! What a waste of money!”

What can we learn from this incident? The sin of Hezekiah was his attempt to buy off evil. Hezekiah trusted (in this instance) in the wealth of his nation, rather than the God of his people. As it was with Hezekiah and Sennacherib, so it is with us and our adversary the devil. We try to compromise, to appease, to buy his favor — but he remains bloodthirsty, attacking again and again. Making concessions to him doesn’t satisfy him. It emboldens him. He comes back hungrier, expecting us to be even weaker than before. This is how Lachish became the “beginning of sin” for the nation of Judah. They gave away what was sacred. The judgments that fell upon them 140 years later had their origins in that devil’s bargain at Lachish.

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Loaves, Fishes, Perfume

It is not a matter of how many loaves we have in our hands, but whether or not God has blessed them. ― Watchman Nee

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭26:6-13‬

Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭14:19-20‬

Jesus invests with meaning the offering of the woman at Bethany. Where she brought a simple act of perhaps extravagant devotion, he finds in it a vital piece of the drama unfolding during the last week of his eathrly life: “She did it to prepare me for burial.”

As with the loaves and the fishes, Jesus’ blessing transforms a simple offering into something magnificent and meaningful. So I ought never be shy about making such offerings, out of thankfulness or devotion or just because it seems like the best thing to do. He is neither limited by its smallness nor offended by its extravagance. The point is that it is offered, and that he blesses it.

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The Foolish Virgin

I was that foolish virgin. And all those around me were likewise.

We pick up the story in Jesus famous parable after the ten young women have fallen asleep waiting for the bridegroom to arrive:

At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

Matthew 25:6-12

No one enters the kingdom of heaven by slipping in the door with another party. The wise virgins, it is said, have oil for their lamps. The foolish ones have none, only what remains in the wick. Though all the lamps appear equally bright at the moment, only those with a reservoir of oil will remain lit.

This is a parable, of course, not advice about illumination. Why are the wise virgins admitted to the feast? Because they have oil in their lamps. They are persons transformed, fueled internally by the Holy Spirit. They have been born again. The foolish virgins have only the appearance, a light that once appeared bright, but is about to go out. “I do not know you,” says the doorkeeper at the wedding feast. These are people who have a profession of Christianity, maybe even some works to show for it. But the answer here is the same as Jesus’ prediction many chapters earlier:

Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭7:22-23‬

“I never knew you.” I don’t recognize you. We have no relationship. When a person needs to have a document notarized, he or she goes to a notary public. Pretty much all of us have used, or at least know, a notary public. The point of having something notarized is that you sign the document in the presence of the notary, who knows you by sight. He or she vouches for your identity. They are effectively saying, “This person who signed here – they are who they claim to be, because I know them.”

Admittance to the Kingdom of God is not about having done enough works to buy a ticket. It’s about a relationship. Does Jesus know your face, or not? Are you someone he recognizes, or not?

I grew up going to a church in which the notion of being “born again” was never broached. It was tacitly assumed that if one was in the church, one was in the faith. Every person in that congregation, including myself, would have called me a Christian in good standing.

But we were all wrong. I was the foolish virgin. There was no anointing, no Holy Spirit, no regeneration, no oil for my lamp. I was spiritually dead. Had the bridegroom appeared in 1980, I would have rushed out to meet him, only to be icily shut out of the kingdom.

I am thankful that God had other plans.

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Human Refuse

Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet…”

Matthew 15:29-30

Stop right there. What do we picture? A great crowd has gathered, coming from the surrounding villages. To this hillside, where they have heard that Jesus has come, they carry their disabled friends, their children, their loved ones. Lovingly and tenderly they lay them at the feet of Jesus, begging for a miracle.

But look again. The Greek word rendered “put at his feet” is a form of the verb “rhipto.” “Rhipto” is not a nice word. “Rhipto” is not the word one uses when one brings an ailing relative to the healer, motivated by compassion and love. “Rhipto” is more commonly used for discarding refuse, as in, “Hey, it’s Monday night, don’t forget to rhipto the recyclables by the curb.”

Now the picture changes. These people are not bringing their beloved daughters and servants to Jesus. They are probably motivated by two factors: first, the lure of celebrity and spectacle – they rhipto these people at Jesus’ feet, not because they want to see them healed, but merely to see a miracle occur. Second, they are hoping to be rid of a nuisance. These beggars and panhandlers clog their streets. Some have been isolated into special homes and communities, away from the “normal” people. The villages are weary of this useless burden on their resources. They are hoping that maybe this Jesus fellow can solve their problem. So they rhipto them at his feet.

To the world, these people are human refuse, articles to be discarded after stumbling over them one too many times. Our society today does the same thing. We dehumanize classes of people. We wantonly discard the unborn in the pursuit of personal autonomy for the more powerful. We dismiss entire races or religions. We cast aside our aged, our infirm, anyone who cannot participate fully in the common life of the world.

But Jesus does not see them this way. The story concludes:

…and he healed them, so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking,the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel. Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd…”

Matthew 15:30-32

Out of this apparent pile of human refuse, Jesus raised up a congregation of worshipers. We do not know the subsequent history of these healed persons, but it is certainly conceivable that some of them became followers of Jesus after this stupendous miracle.

Far too often our ministry focus is on the salient one: the leader, the wealthy, the influential, the strong, popular extrovert. “If we could reach out to Tom,” goes a common youth-ministry conversation, “imagine what kind of an impact he would have for Jesus in this school! Captain of the football team, popular, handsome, well-respected. Lord, please convert Tom!”

While praying for the conversion of anyone is always good, the above represents a wrong attitude, one rooted in regarding persons according to the standards and values of the world:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.

2 Corinthians 5:16

We must break ourselves of this ingrained habit, this utilitarianism, this evaluating of persons from a worldly point of view. We must learn to see others exactly as Jesus sees them, whether they are rich or poor, influential or reserved, healthy or ill, well-connected or lonesome. Because God is interested in making things new, and using unlikely building materials, which brings worship to Him alone, and not to the one having natural attractiveness:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being [literally, ‘no flesh’] might boast in the presence of God.

1 Corinthians 1:27-29

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Every Plant

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

John 15:1-6

“Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.”

Matthew 15:13

Reading this latter verse reminded me of one of my favorite passages from The Normal Christian Life:

We can take meetings, and build churches, we can go to the ends of the earth and found missions, and we can seem to bear fruit; but remember that the Lord’s word is: “Every plant which my heavenly Father planted not, shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13). God is the only legitimate Originator in the universe (Gen. 1:1). Anything that you plan and set on foot has its origin in the flesh, and it will never reach the realm of the Spirit however earnestly you seek God’s blessing on it. It may last for years, and then you may think you will adjust here and improve there and maybe bring it on a better plane, but it cannot be done.

Origin determines destination, and what was “of the flesh” originally will never be made spiritual by any amount of ‘improvement’. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and it will never be otherwise.
Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life

I admit that when this little book was first recommended to me I had no idea what it was talking about. It was solid food; I was still subsisting on milk. In my self-important arrogance, however, I assumed that my inability to understand it was due to its mystical “Christ-in-you” theme, which I found impractical. I recall our dear sister Sharon F. (now promoted to glory) urging this book on me and telling me “It’s not about what you do for Jesus; it’s what Jesus does through you that counts.”  “Sure, that’s all good,” I would counter, “but what is it that I am supposed to DO? Just tell me what to DO!”

Thankfully, God dragged me out of that “practical” state.

Today I find Nee’s truths to be powerful and liberating, very near the center of my own heart for teaching and discipleship.

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Son of God

What Kind of Man is This?

Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
Matthew 8:26-27

"Christ on the Sea of Galilee," by Eugene Delacroix (1854).

“Christ on the Sea of Galilee,” by Eugene Delacroix (1854).

The disciples, at least four of whom (Peter, Andrew, James and John) were seasoned boatmen, openly lamented their impending death in the watery grave of the lake. Jesus commanded the storm to be still, demonstrating his power over the forces of nature. Upon seeing this miracle, his followers marveled: “What kind of man is this?”

Astute readers will note that this is a question. They ask a question because they do not yet have an answer. In a short time they will have found out at least part of that answer.

Another Lake Event

Shortly thereafter, the boat was again out on the lake. After the miraculous late-afternoon feeding of the five thousand on a remote hillside, Jesus dismissed the crowd and “made the disciples get into the boat” (Matthew 14:22) so that he finally could spend some time alone in quiet prayer. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, he began walking out to the boat atop the water. Again the disciples were in awe, and faced with an identity question, suspecting the mysterious figure to be a ghost. But Jesus soon invited Peter to come and walk on the water for himself. The story is familiar, but I want us to examine the reaction of the men in the boat at the end, as Jesus and Peter rejoin the group:

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Matthew 14:32-33

This latter incident on the lake elicited not a question but a declaration: “Truly you are the Son of God.” The identity question has been answered.

Son of David

But “Son of God”? This is unusual terminology, even for those Jews who were prepared to see the Messiah. Typically their term for Messiah was “Son of David.” For instance, Matthew’s lengthy opus actually begins with the words ” This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David…” (Matthew 1:1).

Blind men on the streets of Israel called him “Son of David”:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”

Matthew 9:27 (see also 20:30-31 for a strangely similar account)

The common Jewish people called him “Son of David”:

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

Matthew 12:22-23

The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Matthew 21:9

Soon after this, Jesus quizzed the Pharisees about Messianic expectations. They replied similarly:

Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.

Matthew 22:41-42

Clearly, the Jewish people of the Second Temple period, from the best-educated professor to the poorest beggar, had been expecting a Messiah who would evict the Romans from the Holy Land and restore the Davidic kingdom. This Messiah would come as a descendant, a “son,” from the lineage of David. This idea was well-inculcated in the minds of first-century Palestinian Jews.

Son of God

The title “Son of David” carries political-military overtones. In the context of Israel occupied by Imperial Rome, the title took on a specific temporal meaning. But the disciples’ boat-borne declaration “You are the Son of God” goes beyond the accepted theology of the time. Up to this point they might have had a variety of opinions about him, or perhaps they uniformly accepted that Jesus was the “Son of David” earthly Messiah they had been taught to expect. But no one in all Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, was expecting a “Son of God” Messiah. This is entirely a new thing.

What may be surprising to modern Christian readers is that the term “Son of God” does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament. This is not a case of the teachers skipping over certain verses, or emphasizing one kind of Messiah over against another. It simply isn’t there at all. (Here we are discounting the phrase “sons of God” in Genesis 6 which appears to refer to fallen angels, and Nebuchadnezzar’s seeing “a son of the gods” in the furnace in Daniel 3:25). Read through the dozens of Messianic prophecies – you will never find the expression “Son of God.” Common as it may seem to us two millennia later, it simply could not have been an orthodox, recognized Messianic title in the first century AD. Jesus’ disciples would not have heard this language at any time in their lives – not from their rabbis, nor in their yeshivas, nor from their parents, nor from the scribes and Pharisees.

The pertinent question is then, Where on earth did they get this verbiage? Where had they ever, prior to that early morning on the lake in Matthew 14, heard of the notion of calling their Messiah the “Son of God”?

The answer may surprise you. It actually comes to us as New Testament readers in several forms, from several sources. We will look at them in roughly chronological order.

First, Luke reports that the archangel Gabriel, in making the announcement to Mary, referred to the one who would be born as the “Son of God”:

“So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

Luke 1:35

This is a consequential announcement. But the disciples were not with Mary; they may not even have been born at the time Gabriel made this announcement. So they did not learn it from the angel.

During Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Satan twice referred to Jesus as “Son of God” (Matthew 4:3, 6).

The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

… Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.

“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down…”

Matthew 4:3-6

But again, the disciples weren’t there in the wilderness. No one heard Satan say these things to Jesus, except Jesus himself. The disciples first heard the title “Son of God” applied to Jesus at a later time.

The narratives of Mark and Luke both include an account early in Jesus’ public ministry in which the phrase “Son of God” was uttered:

Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”

Mark 3:11

Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!”

Luke 4:41

These comments are related not as one-time incidents, but as a sort of habitual description. The earliest disciples may have heard this one or more times during Jesus’ exorcisms. It is possible these demonic entities planted a seed in their minds, which would later become a confession.

However, there remains one more defining moment, more directly pertinent I think, which we will examine shortly. It’s interesting to note at this point, however, that we have thus far collected five mentions of the phrase “Son of God” – all of which, remarkably, come from the spiritual realm of angels and demons, not the natural / political world of mankind. Evidently “Son of God” is the appropriate spiritual-realm title of the Messiah, how he is known in that realm, while “Son of David” is the earthly-realm title.

In the Boat After the Storm

Now return to the first scene on the lake. Jesus has commanded the wind and waves to be still. But Matthew’s account doesn’t give us the boat’s coordinates. Presumably they were trying to point the bow in a northwesterly direction, to return to Capernaum or Bethsaida, where the fishermen of the group (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) made their living. Instead, the westerly wind had blown them off course, to the eastern shore of the lake, a strange, uncivilized place inhabited by – gasp! – Gentiles. This is the frightening land of the Gadarenes, part of modern-day Syria. As the boat reached that forsaken shore, it seems that none of the disciples even dared to climb out and walk up the beach – in the account that follows, only Jesus is mentioned.

Imagine yourself in the boat, among the Twelve, as they row through the still, shallow water, awaiting the bump of the sandy bottom. Look at the shoreline with the disciples. Look at that large herd of sheep on the hillside. “Thousands of sheep. A fortune,” says Matthew, the accountant.

“Wait,” says one. “Those aren’t sheep.” You look again. He’s right. Those are pigs.

“Where in the world are we?” asks a voice behind you. There are gasps. This boatful of good Jewish youths is about to land in a filthy world of unclean animals.

The boat strikes the sand. Peter and Andrew jump out, splashing in knee-deep water to drag the craft ashore. Jesus steps out and begins to stride purposefully up the stony beach, toward the dark cliffs. You decide to stay in the boat, squinting into the morning sun rising above the pastures. As you marvel with the other disciples at the pigs in the distance, from the caves and cliffs a human form appears. He is clothed only in filthy gray-brown rags (if anything at all). His hair is wild and tangled. His nails are long. As he comes close, loping along like an ape, scratching at the stones and dust beneath him, it becomes apparent that he is covered with scars – hundreds of self-inflicted cuts. He holds a sharp flint in one hand, the better to cut Jesus, or himself. His eyes are wide open. He bares his teeth and screeches and grunts like an animal. Spittle drips from his scraggly beard.

You, like the others, have crouched down behind the gunwales. The braver ones peer over the top. “I knew we shouldn’t have landed here,” says one of the cowering disciples. “This is a dreadful place.”

“My parents always told me this is how Gentiles live,” says one, probably Peter or Nathanael, devout Torah-observant Jews. “Uncivilized brutes, drawing their own blood, eating the flesh of pigs and unclean things.”

The crazed man is now standing directly in front of the Master, chillingly close. With a few steps and a swipe of the flint knife he could easily injure him. The men in the boat gasp and point to the cliffs. A second similarly wretched human has appeared behind the first one. (Again, Matthew’s account differs from Mark’s and Luke’s in the inclusion of a second demonized man, but it’s possible that of the two men, one did all the talking.)

When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way.

Matthew 8:28

“Oh no. How many of them do you suppose are in there?” asks one.
It is far too late to intervene. You can only watch with the other disciples. The first crazed man opens his mouth. Terror fills his eyes. In a guttural rasp he forms words, directed at the Master. The words come slowly, rasping, but in clear, understandable Aramaic.

“What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”

Matthew 8:29

“Did you hear that?” whispers one of the disciples, in the bottom of the boat. “They called him ‘Son of God’!” Their minds race back to their childhood at the synagogue. Messiah was always referred to as the “son of David” – a king returning to restore Israel’s kingdom. And yet here is another voice from the realm of the spirits, announcing that this rabbi – the one they have called “Messiah” – is actually a ruler in a completely other sense. This is a new revelation for the disciples.

This is now the sixth instance of the Messianic expression “Son of God” appearing in the Gospel accounts. This one is certainly not lost on the men in the boat. When they are next on the lake, and they see their Messiah walking on the water (and enabling one of their own number to do the same), one of them (Peter? Nathanael? Thomas?) at last speaks the words: “You are the Son of God.”

The notion of Jesus as “Son of God,” an apparent novelty in first-century Messianic Jewish theology, came to the twelve disciples by way of the world of angels and demons.

Peter, John, and Paul

This recognition continues to ripen in their thinking until the moment of Peter’s great confession two chapters later:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 16:15-17

As Jesus points out so clearly, this theological insight was not revealed to him by “flesh and blood.” No human teacher had ever included this on his syllabus. This is a new revelation, destined to overtake and transform the world. By the end of his own gospel account, John is asserting that belief in Jesus as the “Son of God” is the whole point of his writing, and indeed the path to eternal life:

These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:31

Question: What was the first thing that Paul began preaching, immediately after his conversion on the Damascus road? With all his years of rabbinical training, he was uniquely able to expound upon Old Testament texts and prove that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the promised Messiah:

Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.

Acts 9:22

This sort of biblical argumentation was a hallmark of his later ministry recorded in Acts. Yet two verses earlier, Luke tells us that the actual launching-point of Paul’s preaching ministry consisted of this startling theological innovation:

At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.

Acts 9:20

Such an idea must have scandalized Saul’s former classmates. Had he preached that Jesus was the “Son of David,” he might have encountered opposition or perhaps only a friendly discussion. But “Son of God” implies divinity: a Messiah possessing an office far higher than the mere throne of David. Peter, John, and Paul, the three primary New Testament writers, had glimpsed the spiritual realm, and all explicitly acknowledge Jesus as the “Son of God.”

After this, the title “Son of God” becomes the predominant appellation of the apostles for describing Jesus, appearing dozens of times in the Epistles that follow.

The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20 (Paul)

Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

1 John 5:12-13


Notes:

  1. We have consciously neglected to include the first two recorded instances of “Son of God” in John’s gospel. It might be argued that the somewhat formulaic-sounding utterances attributed to Nathanael (John 1:49) and to Martha (11:27) were put into their mouths by the author John, in keeping with his stated purpose of writing; i.e., to show that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” One can, without denying or diminishing the inspiration and inerrancy of the text, acknowledge that John’s narrative style allows for statements of doctrine to be mingled with what appears to be dialogue. (See, for instance, John 3:10-21 – where exactly do Jesus’ words end and John’s words begin? Or does it matter?) Jesus also refers to himself as the “Son of God” in his prophecy about the resurrection of the dead (5:25).
  2. Psalm 2, acknowledged by all to be Messianic, does in fact encourage the nations of the world to “kiss the Son” (v.12) – but again, the phrase “Son of God” is not used explicitly.

 

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The Aluminum Cross

Imagine the following advertisement:

NEW! The perfect gift for the stylish disciple on your list! Had enough of those bulky, clumsy wooden crosses? Why should carrying your cross be burdensome? Well, say goodbye to the sore back, the painful splinters, the aching shoulders! Our new lightweight cross is made from aerospace-grade aluminum, and features a comfort-grip carrying handle. You’ll forget you’re even carrying it! It also folds to the size of a matchbook, and comes with a handsome black nylon case, so that you can conceal it discreetly when needed. Carrying your cross has never been easier!

Dimensions: 12″ x 6″ x 1.5″ (fully extended)
Meets TSA guidelines for carrying on domestic flights
Weight 0.2 lb
MSRP: $29.95

“And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Matthew 10:38-39 (ESV)

As I read this, I wonder: Who are these “whoevers,” these putative disciples who do not take up their crosses? What sort of person is it that would claim to be “worthy” of Him, yet neglect to pick up their cross and follow? What do these ‘disciples’ look like? They take no risks. They choose not to venture beyond their self-defined circle of comfort. They deny themselves nothing (Luke 9:23, Matthew 16:24). They wish to change nothing about their lives – because they have “found” their lives, they have established their places in this present world and have no real longing for another one. They love their lives and expend their effort in augmenting and perfecting them (John 12:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24).

They have opted for the aluminum cross. A cross that demands nothing. A cross whose effect on this earthly life is as minimal as possible.

Am I this person, this risk-averse, unbelieving disciple? What steps have I taken solely in obedience to following the way of the cross? Am I still shopping around for a lightweight, convenient, aluminum cross, while the seconds and days and years slip by? How presumptuous! Perhaps the time for excusing myself is past.

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Backstory

I’d like to do something dangerous.

We understand, as astute Bible students, that bringing an extra-biblical background to the Scriptures is fraught with potential problems. We ought not, we are told, make assumptions about the things we see in the Bible. We should instead approach the Scriptures with an empty mind, free of presuppositions, hewing strictly to what the text gives to us and no more. This technique will enable us to avoid error. It is part of “correctly handling” (or “rightly dividing”) the Word. What we want is “exegesis” (drawing meaning from the text) rather than the dreaded “eisegesis” (using the text to support a meaning we already possess).

But of course, none of us do this. Let’s be honest. We come to the Bible with a whole panoply of presuppositions, of cultural assumptions (wrong or rights), of biases and prejudices. Most often these presuppositions are tacit, unacknowledged by us. This is why it is so vital to understand cultural contexts, and especially to listen to Bible teachers who come from outside our own cultural milieu, so that we can have the benefit of their different insights – that is, their own tacit biases might be a good foil for our own. Rather than deny that we have these unspoken biases, we should admit that we in fact do have them, and then expose our minds to other perspectives.

Today I took up and read Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:17-20

The Mount, and the Famous Sermon thereon.

The Mount, and the Famous Sermon thereon.

As I pondered this familiar passage, something jumped out at me. Notice that Jesus says “Do not think” (or “do not suppose”), as though anticipating the expectations of the crowd. Why would he mention this? Why express it in this way? And if he is perceiving their expectations, where did they develop those expectations? “I have not come to abolish them.” He focuses on what he has not come to do, as though refuting a false notion. “You may have heard X, but X is not true.”

It’s a strange way of speaking. It suggests there must be what Hollywood calls a “backstory” – something happening prior to the scene that sets it up. In fact, it seems as if, in gangster-movie parlance, somebody got to him. Perhaps he is saying this because he was warned about saying otherwise. Here I am venturing into the dangerous territory of inventing a backstory. But I do this with my eyes open, aware that whatever I may bring to the text is mere scaffolding – a temporary, provisional construct to be used for a time while we work on the text.

Cautiously, then, we proceed.

Recall the secret meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, described for us by the apostle John:

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

John 3:1-2

Nicodemus is not speaking for himself alone. Significantly he uses the first person plural (“we know”). He is no mere fan-boy, or an interested semi-follower. He has been sent to Jesus by the ruling council. Ruling councils being what they are, they rarely send a messenger simply to gather information out of curiosity. They dictate. They rule. They have sent a powerful man, under cover of darkness, to speak to this novel Galilean preacher. Flattering words notwithstanding, Nicodemus carries a veiled threat from the council. This is their attempt to get a situation under control. It is a sort of first salvo in what will eventually become full-on opposition.

What was Nicodemus sent to say? The text goes silent on this point. Jesus’ discourse that follows (“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again”) seems to come as a rude interruption of Nicodemus’ prefatory remarks. Nicodemus seems to lose his footing a bit, puzzled by Jesus’ unexpected spiritual diatribe (“How can this be?”). John’s account never has Nicodemus returning to his original purpose, if there was one. Jesus pre-empted that purpose.

But I would guess that at some point, then or later, the conversation between Jesus and Nick went something like this:

Nicodemus: “Now, as to the reason I asked to see you: Many of the council members are disturbed by reports of your teaching. It is said that you incite the people against the scribes and Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Some have become zealous against their leaders, and against the Law of Moses. This should not be. Now, Jesus, you must know that there are some of us on the council who want to believe in you. We see you as a teacher who has come from God. We know that you do not teach falsely, but only what is in accordance with the Law, given to our people for all time.”

Jesus: “I speak only the words the Father gives me.” (John 8:28, 12:49)

Nicodemus: “Yes, I understand. But I am concerned for you, Jesus of Nazareth; this kind of teaching could land you in a great deal of trouble. Think about John. Already the council is determined not to protect him, if he continues to preach as he does against Herod and against us. He could be imprisoned any day.”

Jesus: “What would you have me say, then?”

Nicodemus: “Only this: When you speak publicly, make it clear that you have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. Say this to the people, so that they will not be carried away by a spirit of rebellion. Then we will know for certain that you are from God and teaching what is right.”

Jesus: “Very well.”

Nicodemus returns to the council, armed with what sounds like a concession from the Galilean. “Excellent,” they reply. “We shall watch the Galilean now, to be sure our message was heard.”

Now, we return to the mount from which Jesus gives his famous sermon. The crowds have gathered. Mostly peasants, they are dressed in ragged, soiled brown and tan fabrics. The women and the children are with them. His disciples sit close by, hanging on his words. Over to one side, dressed in white and blue priestly robes, stand a group of religious leaders. Their beards are long. Their expressions are grim and serious. The people murmur about their presence — are they here to spy on this teacher? Are they here because they see him as the Messiah? Or because they wish to shut him down? The presence of the blue-and-white crew casts an uneasy pall over the gathering.

Their purpose, however, is neither to accept nor challenge the words of the Galilean. They want only the satisfaction of knowing that his words will not be outside the bounds of normal Jewish teaching. They want to be sure that Nicodemus did his job and delivered their message. If not, then more drastic measures will be in order.

So they listen closely to the message. Before too long, Jesus utters the words they are waiting for:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.”

“See?” says Nicodemus to his colleagues, relieved. “See, this is no rebel. He is a true teacher of Israel.” The other leaders nod gravely. Jesus continues:

“I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. “

“Hear, hear,” offers one of the councilmen, tapping his staff on the ground in tribute. “The Torah is forever!” They exchange glances; they are pleased. Nicodemus’ words have reached their mark.

Then, suddenly, Jesus cracks a bullwhip in their faces:

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“What?”

The leaders exchange harsh glares. “Did he just say ‘surpasses’?”

“I think he means ‘equals,’ yes?”

“Perhaps ‘approaches’ would have been a better choice of words.”

The crowds are merely surprised by this teaching, maybe a little startled by its severe moral implications. But the Pharisees and scribes and lawyers in their white robes are scandalized. This cuts like a knife. Jesus implies – no, he directly states – that Pharisees and teachers of the law possess insufficient righteousness to merit the kingdom of heaven. They cannot enter. If you wish to enter, you will have to be more righteous than they are.

“What sort of teaching is this?” they mutter. The councilmen turn to Nicodemus. “What did you say to him?”

“I told him exactly what we agreed to,” he insists. “And truthfully, he said exactly what I asked him to say!”

There are grunts and harumphs. “Maybe so,” they say. “But we will not stand here and be humiliated like this.” And they leave the scene indignantly, as Jesus begins to delineate the difference between living by the law (“you have heard that it was said…”) and living a Kingdom lifestyle (“…but I tell you”). One by one he trots out various teachings of the Jewish leaders and contrasts them with new commands.

The Pharisees and their counterparts in every religious tradition want to defend their turf. They have created a system of rules to be applied to everyone under their leadership. Even the great Law of Moses, given by God Himself with great glory, was co-opted by the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ time as an instrument of pride. Intended to point out the need of Man for redemption, the Law was instead presented as a vehicle of redemption. When Jesus disrupted this false notion of human ability with that shocking word “surpasses,” it blew a fatal hole in the side of the ship. “I have not come to abolish the Law,” he said. True, but the one who looks to mere obedience of the written commandments will certainly not reach the Kingdom. The Law stands; it does not pass away. The Torah is forever. But it exists to point the way, not to BE the way. It cannot save. It cannot impart new life. It cannot produce righteousness. What the Law points to is Christ himself:

[I]f a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

Galatians 3:21-25

Other translations render “guardian” as “schoolmaster” – the idea being an adult who takes responsibility for a child’s education and development until he reaches adulthood and can function in the world without supervision. This, brothers and sisters, is where we stand as Christian believers. We can choose to live a life governed by the Law. Doing so, we will become prideful, domineering, moralizing misanthropes. The alternative available to us is to live a life of grace: grateful for God’s forgiveness through Christ, and confident in his righteousness being counted as our own. As one ex-Pharisee poignantly wrote,

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.

Philippians 3:7-9

Stand in his righteousness, brothers and sisters, and do not trouble yourselves with false ideas of personal righteousness earned through works.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Colossians 2:20-23

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The McKinley Worship Protocols

In an endeavor to couch my criticism of modern evangelical worship music in positive terms rather than negative ones, I propose the following Protocols as basic principles for designing a worship service:

ONE. The congregation is the most important entity in the room.

Worship is a democratic endeavor: “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn…” (1 Corinthians 14:26). We prefer a worship gathering that is egalitarian, and a congregation that is engaged. Protocol #1 implies that the worship leader or leaders are not elevated above the congregation, neither physically, nor in terms of lighting, nor in volume, except as necessary to coordinate the worship activity of the congregation. The leaders serve the congregation by keeping them together and providing direction and structure. We reject the concert / show paradigm for worship, in which musicians offer a performance to a passive audience.

TWO. Participation, not excellence, is the standard.

Success in leading worship is measured by the level of participation among the people. A misplaced emphasis on ‘excellence’ leads to poor decisions that downplay the importance of the congregation (see #1).

THREE. The congregation can hear itself singing.

Protocol #3 carries a threefold implication: 1) The sound level of the accompaniment is sufficiently low; 2) the acoustics of the room are sufficiently live; 3) participation is maximized.

FOUR. Worship music is singable by non-professionals.

The range of the music is appropriate (no notes higher than D), and avoids technical difficulty; i.e., excessive melisma, melodic leaps, syncopation, and improvisational elements.

FIVE. Worship lyrics are coherent, relatable, and theologically sound.

They are coherent: they express a single theme in a way that is logical and linguistically correct. They are relatable: the average congregant knows and understands the meaning of the words he or she is singing. They are theologically sound: they are Biblical, orthodox, and glorifying to God.

SIX. No solos.

The congregation is active and engaged at all times. Solos, special music, and choir pieces are by definition non-participatory and are eliminated or minimized.

SEVEN. Every sound of worship is produced by people present in the room.

We believe that an important principle of any ministry, including worship ministry, is that we will do only what God provides the people to do. We rely solely on live, human musicians playing in ‘real time’: we permit no pre-recorded music, no accompaniment tapes, no backing tracks.

EIGHT. Worship music engages the mind.

Protocol #8 derives from 1 Corinthians 14:15 – “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.” We prefer thoughtfully-composed music to that which is formulaic or trite. We avoid music that falls into too-comfortable patterns, or depends upon nonsense syllables or endless repetition of a single phrase.

Worship music is an encounter with truth. We reject emotional manipulation and excessive sentimentality. We reject the performance emphasis that seeks to generate artificial feeling. Worship music evokes a response in the worshiper because of the truth and power of what is sung. An encounter with God’s grace already expressed in Christ (and not a plea for a new outpouring) will engender true worship from a place of thankfulness.

NINE. Worship music has a historical legacy.

Protocol #9 does not mean that we use only old-fashioned hymns, nor do we disdain the use of newer worship music. But it does mean that our preference is for music that has been vetted through a long history of use in the church, an effective filtering system to eliminate what is merely trendy and fashionable and preserve what edifies and sustains.

TEN. Worship music is simple and portable.

We are wary of music that requires certain instrumentation, whether orchestral, or a pipe organ, or a full contemporary band, in its presentation. We prefer music that is readily portable into different formats and styles, to increase freedom and flexibility within the church, and permit sharing among diverse church bodies.


Note: The use of the first-person plural pronoun in the above implies a consensus among a group — but thus far, it’s only me. I would be interested in finding allies.

“McKinley” is a mostly arbitrary title: the name of the street on which my church is located. Pick a different president if you prefer.

These Protocols are a distillation and extension of ideas presented in an earlier post. See https://shuzensoxon.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/a-different-kind-of-worship/

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