Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Jesus of History Part 1

While this title may be misleading, I chose it to define by virtue of God’s written, inspired record in the Bible, the only Jesus Christ this world will ever truly and knowingly be acquainted with. I know there are those (such as the “Jesus Seminar”) who say the Christ presented in Scripture is distorted so as to be unreal, yet they speak such things out of their own unlearned and ignorant opinion, basing it upon nothing more than an utter disbelief that God exists, that He has revealed Himself in the Person of our Savior, and left for us the written account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Granted, Jesus name is mentioned in the annals of ancient writers such as Josephus. But very little is spoken of Him. The Talmud, written by the Hebrew Rabbis, considered Jesus an Egyptian sorcerer, for example. But as Jesus Himself declared, wisdom is vindicated by her children, Luke 7:35.

The gospel narrative, written by eyewitnesses who were with Jesus from the first, or dictated to others from such first hand accounts of being with Him, provides suitable proof of who He was, what He said, and how the cross He bore changed history. The cross was the summation and pinnacle of Jesus’ career; it was not some ignominious and embarrassing defeat as secular reasoning views; a tragic miscarriage of justice or the passion of a well meaning zealot. It was Christ, the Messiah, God the Son redeeming mankind from the penalty of sin, moral guilt and spiritual death before the living God, so that we could truly approach Him through Christ’s atoning work. The cross is our key to new life, where our old self with it’s inherent sin dies, along with former passions, while we walk anew, born again by faith in the Son of God, who loves us and died for us. As Christ died on the cross and rose again from the dead to die no more, so too does every man and woman that places their faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, John 11:25.

This was a momentous moment in history, when God became a Man and stepped into our finite little universe, to teach us and redeem us. In that respect, I would like to walk through the Gospel of Matthew, and look at the fulfilled prophecies littered within its pages; scores of such prophecies which testified to the Coming One, that were given hundreds or even thousands of years before Jesus was manifested in the flesh. But in the fullness of time as Paul eloquently states it, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are the redeemed. Jesus Christ, who lived as a Jew and died as this world’s Savior, set us at liberty. This Jesus is the fulcrum of history, where faith in the Old Testament became sight in the New, Isaiah 9:2. Jesus is the apex of God’s revelation, Hebrews 1:1-2, greater than angels, the law, or the temple service. Understanding that, let us look into Matthew’s Gospel and look at how this God-Man walked through history and left His indelible mark upon all that He touched, so that not a thousand “Jesus Seminars” could dislodge the flame of faith which was ignited at His first coming.

First, I put forward a defense of the gospel’s authenticity and historicity. Many liberal scholars and even theologians debate whether the gospels (especially John’s) were written by the named authors during the first century. Matthew and Mark were said to have been written between 55-65 AD, while Luke is estimated to have been written between 60-68 AD. John, the gospel which comes under the most violent attack by critics, is said to have been written near the close of the first century (90-100 AD). Papyrus fragments of John’s gospel have been located and dated from early second century AD, providing reliable grounds for accepting the date of authorship. What I would like to take a moment to point out is the seemingly superficial incongruities within the gospels that so many skeptics and critics vehemently attack, I would even dare to add without truly looking with any degree of thoroughness.

What at first may seem a sound argument devolves into trivial hair-splitting. Truly, if the gospels were forgeries, who in their right mind would have permitted such apparently glaring contradictions to remain? The Jews proved to be marvelous editors in their time, preserving manuscripts with unparalleled care; would the infant Christian church (initially composed primarily of Jews) have done less? Likely they had to have read their own writings, and the authors could have easily aligned their testimonies to be absolutely congruent, but that would have seemed like deliberate collusion, not the honest witness of men putting down what they had seen and heard.

Luke, in his gospel account, writes, “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,” Luke 1:1-3. Luke was writing his account after others (presumably Matthew and Mark) had already put their own in order. Various eye witnesses tend to have reports that reflect different details, or different sides to a given incident. John, upon writing his gospel, would likely have had access to the first three “synoptic” gospels.

That which was missing from the others, or items which he felt needed to be addressed or stressed to the exclusion of topics already spoken about, John emphasized. John himself confesses, “And many others signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book,” and then emphasizes his point for writing his gospel: “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name,” John 20:30-31. One may critique the gospels as frauds or cunning lies, yet their writers were honest enough to allow apparent superficial discrepancies to abound, knowing that such discrepancies did not exist. If they were thus confident in a time when living witnesses could openly refute and disprove them (such as producing Christ’s body; that would have been embarrassing!), we too ought to have great boldness in sharing and defending our faith. It rests on firm ground: the inerrant word of God.

Now onto the subject at hand: Matthew’s Gospel. I will also touch upon Mark, Luke, and John where and if the context requires it, but I will primarily be looking into Matthew’s account of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Matthew was also named Levi, and was a Publican; that is, he was a Jew who was a tax-collector for the Roman government, and not well looked upon by his own people. Matthew’s gospel stresses Jesus as being the Jewish Messiah (Savior or Anointed One) that the nation had been waiting for since the days of Abraham. Jesus is portrayed as King and Savior, the hope and culmination of the Jewish wish for God to visit His people. As such, Matthew took pains to trace the lineage of the Christ in a genealogy which begins his gospel. It is important to note that he includes both David and Abraham’s names as the chief ancestors of Jesus’ earthly lineage, Matthew 1:1.

Why is that? Both men were given unconditional promises by God in the Old Testament about their Seed. Abraham was told, “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed,” Genesis 12:3. How would all nations (families of the earth) be blessed through believing Abraham? The Coming One, of course. David likewise received confirmation of his Seed enduring to all time: “I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever…I will be his Father, and he shall be My son…and thine house and thy kingdom shall be established forever before thee: thy throne shall be established forever,” 2nd Samuel 7:12-14, 16. While the immediate object of these words happened to be Solomon, David’s son, it is clear that there was a more profound meaning.

Solomon was a type of Christ who ruled with wisdom and extreme splendor and glory, but it is apparent his kingdom did not endure forever. Solomon eventually died (1st Kings 11:43) and at length even Judah was taken into exile and their monarchy ended (2nd Kings 25:1-21). While there was immediate fulfillment in Solomon, giving David a son to rule after him, God’s eye was toward the Son, who would spring from the loins of Solomon and David. As such, Solomon is included in Jesus’ genealogical line (Matthew 1:7). This lineage actually describes the blood line of Joseph, Jesus’ adopted father, through whom He was not begotten, but inherited the titles of David’s royal lineage by having Joseph as His adopted human father. Why was this necessary? Jehoiachin (Matthew 1:11), of whom Joseph was descended, suffered God’s curse for his obstinate impiety, “Thus saith the Lord, Write ye this man childless, a man that shall not prosper in his days: for no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting upon the throne of David, and ruling anymore in Judah,” Jeremiah 22:30. Joseph’s blood line could no longer govern, according to the will of the Lord. Thus while it was necessary that Jesus inherit the kingly lineage of Joseph, He was not born of that bloodline; since it was under the curse He put upon it.

A point to ponder for Roman Catholics: I know of the theory regarding Mary's children; that they were the sons and daughters of Joseph's previous marriage (of which Scripture is utterly silent). But if Joseph had children, especially a firstborn son, prior to Jesus' adoption as the firstborn, then Jesus would not be capable of inheriting the kingly lineage of Joseph. Jesus needed to be the firstborn, and as a result Scripture speaks for itself: the younger siblings of Jesus were also Mary's children by birth, Matthew 1:25.

This is why Luke’s gospel, in chapter 3, has an apparent anomaly in its lineage of ancestors for Jesus Christ in the flesh. You will note in Luke 3:31 we find David listed, but after David his son is listed as Nathan, and not Solomon, which suggests that Luke is following Mary’s genealogy, and not Joseph’s, since Matthew sufficiently covered that ground. This is why in Matthew the name of Joseph’s father is Jacob (Matthew 1:16); whereas in Luke’s account his name is Heli (Luke 3:23). Why? Obviously Heli is Joseph’s father in law, and Mary’s natural father, having descended from David’s son Nathan. This makes sense, since Luke was portraying Jesus as the Son of Man to the Greeks and followed His mother's bloodline.

As to the matter at hand, the first prophecy fulfilled in Matthew’s gospel, Matthew 1:21-23, happened with Jesus’ birth. In Isaiah 7:14, a prophecy recorded between 700-800 B.C. foretold that a virgin would give birth to a child, and that child would be named Emmanuel, or God with us. This is also a fulfillment of Genesis 3:15 (spoken perhaps more than 6,000 years ago!), which foretold of the Seed of the woman, who would crush the head of the serpent. Jesus was indeed the Seed of the woman (Mary) since He had no human father, and was born of the Holy Spirit. The prophet Micah, writing about 700-750 B.C., prophesied that Messiah would be born in the village of Bethlehem, called the city of David, which Jesus indeed was (Matthew 2:1), as also the scribes and chief priests well knew when Herod the king questioned them as to where the Christ (Greek for Messiah) should be born (Matthew 2:4-6).

Another miracle and prophecy was fulfilled around that time, when the wisemen seeking this newborn King followed what they called “His star” to Jerusalem. Long ago the prophet Balaam, a soothsayer and ally to the Midianites, predicted this star rising out of Jacob (Israel) in times to come, Numbers 24:17. Spoken and recorded between 1400-1500 B.C., Balaam was compelled to prophesy by God’s Spirit, and said, “I shall see Him, but not now: I shall behold Him, but not nigh: there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel…out of Jacob shall come He that shall have dominion,” Numbers 24:17, 19. Jesus Himself testifies to John when He gives the apostle the visions recorded in Revelation, “I Jesus…am the root and offspring of David…the bright and morning star,” Revelation 22:16.

But what of this sceptre Balaam speaks of? The sceptre in the Bible always refers to rulership. In this particular case Balaam is confirming something Jacob told his sons shortly before his death, recorded in Genesis chapter 49. While blessing his sons, Jacob confers this blessing upon Judah, the line through whom Messiah would come, “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah [and his descendants], nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be,” Genesis 49:10. This prophetic statement indicates two things: that Jesus would descend from Judah’s tribe and no other- from whom both Joseph and Mary were descended- and that He would rule all Israel as King. Ezekiel the prophet, writing about 605-586 B.C., wrote of the end of Judah’s reign, and the Coming One in this manner: “And thou, profane wicked prince of Israel (Zedekiah), whose day is come, when iniquity shall have an end, thus saith the Lord God; remove the diadem and take off the crown…it shall be no more, until He comes whose right it is; and I will give it to Him (Messiah),” Ezekiel 21:25-27. In short, Messiah would hail from the tribe of Judah, in a time when Israel’s power to enforce their laws and govern themselves was waning. Such a time was during Roman occupation, which was the fullness of time God had been waiting for.

Matthew 2:15 finds the next Old Testament parallel from the prophet Hosea, circa 750-700 B.C. Joseph had taken Jesus and Mary into Egypt, and Matthew compares the parallel between Israel and their Messiah. They were born in Canaan, the Promised Land, and yet traveled to, and remained in, Egypt for hundreds of years afterward, only to be called and led out by God. Likewise with Jesus, who was born in Israel (what was once Canaan before Joshua conquered the land), traveled to Egypt, and was called back to His homeland by the Father. Even as Joseph was leading his wife and Child into Egypt, King Herod was fulfilling another prophecy spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah sometime around 600 B.C., scant years before Judah was carried into exile by Babylon.

Matthew 2:17-18 sees the reality of what Jeremiah spoke when he said, “In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they were not,” Jeremiah 31:15. Herod had been duped by the wisemen, and sent his soldiers to kill all of the infants in Bethlehem where Jesus had been born so that no rival for his throne would ever come to pass. In Genesis, when Rachel was to give birth to her second son, Benjamin, they were in Bethlehem, and she cried in hard labor, and died while having him. Apparently Rachel’s legacy was adjoined to this village, and it may well have been heavily peopled with Benjamites, who would be the blood descendants of Rachel’s son Benjamin, and so she wept for her slaughtered children.

The next happening is slightly enigmatic, for there is no Old Testament equivalent for it. Matthew 2:23 states, “He…dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.” Many years later the apostle Paul would be called, “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes,” Acts 24:5, obviously connecting him directly with the Christ. Nazareth was apparently a despised town in Jesus’ time; even one of His disciples, when he learned that the Messiah had been found, and that He was a Nazarene, said, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” John 1:46. Numerous prophets such as Daniel and Isaiah spoke of the Messiah’s rejection and death at the hands of His own.

Here we see the wisdom of God in bringing His dearly beloved Son into Nazareth: “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things that are despised, hath God chosen, yea and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are,” 1st Corinthians 1:27-28.This also plays into Jesus’ humble ministry; He was not born in Jerusalem (the theological metropolis of the day), and did not bear the credentials that should have enabled Him to have such a vivid and victorious ministry, which inspired the envy and hatred of the religious leaders of His time. In this was fulfilled the words of the Psalmist when he wrote, “They hated Me without a cause,” John 15:25; Psalm 69:4. It was King David who wrote that Psalm more than 1,000 years before the day Jesus spoke of its accomplishment in Him the night of His betrayal.

John the Baptist’s ministry as forerunner of Jesus was also prophetic. Matthew 3:3 records that John was recognized as the voice crying out in the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3), that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, again more than seven centuries before his time. In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells the Jews that John was not merely a prophet, but the self-same one whom the prophet Malachi spoke of (around 400 B.C.), saying, “Behold I send My messenger before Thy face, which shall prepare Thy way before Thee,” Malachi 3:1. The angel Gabriel told John’s father Zacharias in words closely paralleling Malachi 4:5-6 that John would make ready a people for the Lord (Luke 1:17). Yet most of the people rejected John, as they would the One who would follow, as foretold in Isaiah 53:3; John, in his gospel, put it more simply when he wrote, “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not,” John 1:11. But that must wait for a little while.

After John had been arrested Jesus went to Capernaum, in the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali, which completed yet another prophecy. Isaiah the prophet (750 B.C, roughly) wrote, “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali…by way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the nations [Gentiles]…The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined,” Isaiah 9:1-2. This was recorded in Matthew 4:13-17. What was that light? Matthew does not leave us in suspense. Jesus began to preach the gospel in Capernaum (verse 17), so those who heard it had the light of God’s salvation shine upon them.

We shall continue this investigation of prophetic fulfillment with my next post, God willing. I hope anyone who reads has found my efforts useful or edifying, and may God bless us all with greater knowledge of His Son, and the grace to serve Him cheerfully.

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All Scripture is taken from the King James Bible (KJV) or New King James Bible (NKJV). Copyright 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.