Lent Series: Peter, the Rock and the Stumbling Block

When I was twelve or thirteen, I thought Jesus’ personality was probably like Mister Rogers. If you don’t remember, he had a popular children’s television show in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.

His manner was always gentle and kind. He never raised his voice. He was always sympathetic and compassionate. If you were feeling sad, angry, hurt, or frustrated, he could offer some constructive ways to cope with it. The way things are going in America now, I think we need someone like that, not just for kids but for adults, too.

I’d like to nominate Jesus for that, but I can’t. He is called compassionate in the Gospels, and most of the time he was. But as I first started studying the Bible seriously, it felt like he could be a little mean sometimes. Like when he said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Did he just call Peter the devil? If Peter needed to be reprimanded, Mister Rogers would have found a more tactful way to do it. I remember the first time I read it, at the tender age of twelve or thirteen, how hurt I would be if he said that to me. I didn’t see what happened before and after that. All I could see was Jesus equating his most faithful follower with his worst enemy.

As I’ve grown older, I have gained experience to help make sense of it. And also, I learned to read not only this but everything in the Bible in context. That has taken the sting out of it, and I think I’m beginning to understand where Jesus was coming from.

Who Is He?

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

(Matthew 16:13-15)

This sets the scene. They are at Caesarea Philippi, a city at the base of Mount Hermon in the northernmost part of the traditional kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. Philip the Tetrarch built the city in honor of Caesar (Augustus) and administered it as part of the territory he inherited from Herod the Great. That becomes significant later, but for now let’s just focus on this particular interaction.

Presumably, the crowds following Jesus have been sent away, and he is alone with the twelve disciples. His first question is who do people say he is. Easy enough to answer. They just have to repeat what they have heard. John the Baptist was executed, which means some people thought he had returned. Elijah was supposed to return to prepare the way for the Messiah. Jeremiah or one of the prophets also would have had to return from the dead. It is extraordinary that they would attribute any of these personalities to Jesus. But they had seen him make the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and heal all kinds of diseases, and perform miracles that other miracle workers of his day could not duplicate. Is it really impossible? Still, I wonder if any of the disciples laughed dismissively at these conjectures.

Then he asks the difficult question. “Who do you say that I am?” I imagine there was an uncomfortable silence then. They probably had some ideas about who he was but were afraid to speak up. Maybe they thought their ideas sounded as crazy as one of the prophets being reincarnated. When no one else will speak up, there is one you can count on to break the silence, Simon (Peter).

I Tell You, You are the Rock

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

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

(Matthew 16:16-19)

Can you imagine how Simon, son of Jonah, felt? Today, we call him Peter, and this is why. What better endorsement could Jesus have given him, saying “On this rock (petra in Greek) I will build my church”? There were no churches at the time, which is why many scholars think this saying of Jesus was added later (compare Mark 8:24-30, which does not mention any response to Peter specifically).

Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

Be that as it may, this has been an important part of church tradition. As the church grew, and the hierarchical structure with it, they used this saying to claim Peter as its first pope. I wonder if any of the others thought the same thing and wished they had spoken up. And that makes the contrast in what Jesus says next all the more startling.

Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

(verse 20)

This is a secret Jesus has been keeping. He knew speculation about him was rampant, and he had to be careful who he revealed his true identity to. To stop the disciples from getting caught up in the speculation, he told them but ordered them to keep it a secret. It would be revealed, but it was not yet time.

You Are a Stumbling Block to Me

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

(Matthew 16:21-23)

So this is what tripped me up some decades ago. The elders, chief priests, and scribes had already been plotting against Jesus. Isn’t it natural for Peter to want to protect Jesus from them? He was willing to die for Jesus, and Jesus called him Satan for that? So much for Mister Rogers.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Jesus then. But now, I see the similarity with when the devil tempted him with all the kingdoms of the world. “Away with you, Satan!” he said to that. I’ve said before I believe the devil was tempting Jesus to be the conqueror his followers wanted. This was Peter repeating that same temptation. That was why he could not accept the truth of Jesus’ mission. That was how he went from being the rock to the stumbling block in just two verses.

One common theme of this Lent series is that Jesus’ first followers believed he was (or might be) the Messiah but did not understand what that meant. It happened once again as Jesus tried to explain what following him means.

Are You Sure You Want to Be My Disciples?

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

(Matthew 16:24-28)

Peter expected Jesus to be the righteous king who would defeat all his enemies, and he would be right at his side for his glory. And he was not alone. The other disciples expected that as well. That was why they kept arguing about which of them was the greatest (Matthew 18:1-5; Luke 22:24-30), and who would sit at his right and left hand in his kingdom (Mark 10:35-38). Even when he called that path the path of Satan, they still did not give up on it.

You have to remember for Jesus, there were two sides to being the Messiah, like a coin. Heads was the conquering king, the Son of Man who would come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and … repay everyone for what has been done. Tails was the suffering servant, as Isaiah prophesied (52:13-53:12, et al), the one who said they must follow him by denying themselves and taking up their cross.

They thought he would defeat Rome, the Imperial Beast, and execute God’s judgment for all the injustice they had inflicted on the Jews. In their minds, God gave Jesus a coin that was heads on both sides, like Two-Face before his transformation. Heads is the only possible result, they thought. Jesus kept telling them this flip would be tails, but they did not get it. At least, not until after his resurrection.

Both sides of a two-tailed coin

That was why, when Peter had the chance to make good on his promise to die for him, he chickened out (Luke 22:54-62). He was willing to die for the glorious king, but not the suffering servant. We pick on Peter for this, but all the others did the same. After the authorities took him, they abandoned him, too. They thought the world was theirs because they were his disciples. Jesus told them instead, What will it profit … if you gain the whole world but lose your soul? [The word “life” in Greek is psyche, which can mean life, soul, or mind. I think in context, soul is the best translation.]

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Eventually, the disciples understood the Messiah came to save lives, not destroy them. They would never become rich or powerful. They would never conquer the world. They would see him take his throne—in heaven—but not on earth. They would all die as martyrs, just as their master did, losing their lives but gaining their souls. They would find eternal life by participating in God’s plan to redeem the world, not conquer it.

Is it weakness to embrace love and peace over force and vengeance? There is someone who probably knows the answer to that better than any of us, one who accepted the devil’s temptation to conquest and empire. Here is what he said.

“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.”

-Napoleon Bonaparte

He may not have been Mister Rogers. But he understood what it meant to take up his cross, to sacrifice for others. He built a kingdom by becoming a servant to everyone, even his enemies. And that kingdom still stands today. The disciples understood that (eventually). Napoleon understood it. And for anyone who says, like Peter, that they would die for him, does that mean you will be a rock or a stumbling block?


Thanks for reading. I hope you will come back for the next post. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7, verse 12.

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Grace and peace to you.

Three scenes with the devil tempting Jesus, devil leaves, angels appear

Lent Series: Temptation in the Wilderness

Let’s talk about the Temptations.

The Temptations publicity photo. Clockwise from top: David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams.
The Temptations 1964 publicity photo by Kriegsmann

No, not these guys. Well, maybe another time. I’m talking about the temptations Jesus experienced just before beginning his ministry. He has just been baptized by John, and he went off “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” It says he fasted forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:1-2).

I would not have passed that test. The longest I ever fasted was three days. But Jesus was tougher than I am in a lot of ways. It says the Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted, but it does not tell of any specific temptations until after forty days and nights. I wonder if he was tempted during that time, or if the fasting was to prepare for the temptations.

If you know your Bible history, forty days in the wilderness recalls Israel’s wandering in the wilderness for forty years. It is also one of many parallels with Moses, who also fasted forty days and forty nights as he received the Torah from God (Exodus 34:28). Many commentators believe the Gospel writers wanted to present Jesus as “the prophet like Moses” who was promised in the Torah.

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like [Moses] from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

(Deuteronomy 18:15).

You could literally write a book on all the connections the Gospels make between Jesus and Moses. But for now we will just look at how the devil tempted Jesus.

Three scenes with the devil tempting Jesus, devil leaves, angels appear
Temptations of Christ (mosaic), Saint Mark’s basilca, Venice

Turning stones to bread

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

But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

(Matthew 4:3-4).

The first temptation is obvious for someone who has been fasting for forty days. Turn these stones to bread. What harm could it have been? He was starving. Why not make a little bread so he could eat?

I’ve written before about how I believe one of the purposes of the Incarnation was so God could experience what it is like to be human. If he went around magically making loaves of bread every time he was hungry, he would not know what it was like for someone who had to work all day for that loaf of bread.

To counter that temptation, he quotes from Deuteronomy. He only quoted part of the verse, but I think it would help us to see all of it.

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

(Deuteronomy 8:3).

In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are about to enter the promised land. Moses is recalling for them the entire forty years’ experience of being delivered from Egypt and wandering in the wilderness. In this verse, he reminds them how they had no food, and God fed them with manna. But first, God let them go hungry.

Why would God let them go hungry? Two reasons are given. First, to humble them, God let them go hungry before feeding them. This would teach them not to panic when they look around and see no food but to trust God to provide for them. Second, this experience should have taught them that they do not live by bread alone but by the word of the Lord.

But come on, Jesus. You’re close to starving. Anyone would have understood if you made a loaf of bread.

Yes, and even under those circumstances, he did not give in to the temptation for the quick fix. As Jesus would tell his followers a few chapters later,

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

(Matthew 6:25, 33).

Easy for you to say, Jesus. You’re the beloved Son of God. You don’t know what it’s like to starve. You never came close to starving to death.

Oh, wait. He does, and he did. If he had given in to that temptation, he could not have spoken this with authority. Like I said, I would not have passed that test. That’s why I’m glad Jesus did.

Throw yourself down. God won’t let you get hurt.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

(Matthew 4:5-7).

The first temptation was about whether he would trust God, even when he was starving. This one is almost the exact opposite. It’s like the Devil is saying, “Okay, I get it. You trust God to take care of your needs. So I’ll give you another opportunity to trust God. Throw yourself down from this pinnacle. You’re God’s beloved Son. Surely, God will protect you. He even promised it in the Bible.”

This was probably the most insidious of the devil’s temptations, because he quoted scripture. I will probably say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting the Bible does not mean they are speaking the word of God. The devil quoted scripture. Do you need any more obvious sign than that?

The devil comes at him like, “It’s right there in the Bible. ‘He will command his angels concerning you. On their hands they will bear you up, so you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ You could throw yourself off this pinnacle, and you won’t get hurt. After all, you are the Son of God. If the angels will protect anyone, it’s you.

“What’s this? I see you hesitating. Are you telling me you don’t believe the Bible? This is the inerrant, infallible word of God. God promised you in the scriptures you won’t get hurt. This is the word of God, who cannot lie. Go ahead. Jump.”

Jesus quotes again from Deuteronomy, which says,

Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.

(Deuteronomy 6:16).

Massah is one of many instances when the Israelites tested God (Exodus 17:7). Moses warns them not to do that anymore. Jesus sees the connection there. Jumping off the pinnacle to prove he is the Son of God would be putting God to the test. If his forty days in the wilderness symbolically recreate Israel’s forty years, he passed this test where Israel failed.

If you are the Son of God…

Notice that the devil prefaced each of these temptations by saying, “If you are the Son of God…”. It seems he is trying to get Jesus to use his divine privilege to get out of difficult situations. As the Son of God, he could turn stones to bread. He could ask God to command the angels to protect him from harm, even if he does something stupid. Oh, what? Throwing yourself off a pinnacle to rocks below wouldn’t be stupid?

What do you think would have happened if he had thrown himself off the pinnacle? Would the angels have caught him? Maybe, maybe not. We can only speculate. But either way, that would have been the end of his mission. If the angels didn’t catch him, he would have died. If they did, it would only be because he claimed something as the Son of God that is not available to us. Both times he refuses to claim any privilege he could as the Son of God. He will live fully as a human, vulnerable in the same ways we are. Because he had a clear understanding of his mission, he did not fall for any trap that would sabotage it.

All the kingdoms of the world I give to you

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

(Matthew 4:8-10).

The devil could not appeal to him as the Son of God here. “If you are the Son of God, bow down and worship me.” That would make no sense. But he makes an offer that many people would have given in to. He offers all the kingdoms of the world, and all their wealth and splendor.

All of Jesus’ scripture quotes come from Deuteronomy, so he uses this verse to answer him.

The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.

(Deuteronomy 6:13).

To fall down and worship the devil could mean literally bowing to him and declaring, “All hail, Satan, ruler of this age.” But I think this temptation was more subtle than that. Jesus would never have worshipped the devil in such a blatant fashion, and he knew that. So what did he mean?

Remember, at his baptism, God already announced Jesus was the king God had chosen. What kind of a king would he be? That is what the devil is challenging him about. He could take over the world if he wanted, just like Alexander or Julius Caesar. They built their kingdoms through conquest, violence, and bloodshed. That was how all kings of the world took and maintained power. Still is. Was he going to be a king like them? Or would he be different?

Then the devil left him…

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

(Matthew 4:11).

To review, the devil has tempted him to take advantage of various privileges he could claim as the Son of God, for legitimate needs and for just showing off. He tempted him with power and glory, the likes of which would have made him the envy of the greatest conquerors in history. He even tried to bribe him into worshipping other gods (himself), a temptation the nation of Israel gave into over and over again.

The devil has finished tempting him. For now. But these same temptations would continue to dog him through the most well-meaning people, his followers and even the twelve apostles. They had been watching and waiting for centuries, eagerly awaiting the promised Messiah, the son of David, who would free them from Roman occupation and restore the glory of a united and free Israel. And if he went on from there to conquer the entire Roman empire and enslave it to Israel, and Rome had done to them, so much the better.

Going through these temptations, in private, mano a mano with the tempter himself (literally or figuratively), helped prepare him for when the crowds pressured him to be the Messiah they wanted. We should look at some of the ways his followers tried to tempt him. Who knows? We might be making the same mistakes today.


Thank you for reading. I hope this Lenten journey is meaningful to you. Until next time, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Grace and peace to you.

Note: Bible quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise noted.

John the Baptist dressed in red baptizes Jesus, dressed in a white loin cloth. Two other people watch, one to the right and one to the left. The Holy Spirit is represented by a dove above Jesus.

Lent Series: The Baptism of Jesus

Instead of the tradition of “giving something up for Lent,” I’m reflecting on passages in the Bible that best portray its meaning. First on the list is when Jesus was baptized. Each of the Gospels portrays it slightly different. For simplicity, I’ve chosen Matthew. Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotes come from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

(Matthew 3:16-17 NRSV)
John the Baptist dressed in red baptizes Jesus, dressed in a white loin cloth. Two other people watch, one to the right and one to the left. The Holy Spirit is represented by a dove above Jesus.
Andrea Mantegna, Baptism of Christ, ca. 1505

A voice from heaven. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that’s God. There is a lot packed into what God says. Three scriptures are echoed here that together paint a fascinating portrait of Jesus and his mission.

“This is my Son…”

Son is not capitalized in all translations. Like most Christians, I think it is appropriate in this case. In a sense, I could call myself a son of God, but not Son (with a capital S) of God. We reserve that title for Jesus alone.

This echoes a line from a coronation psalm.

“You are my son; today I have begotten you.”

(Psalm 2:7b)

This psalm was recited, or likely sung, at the coronation of a new king. In ancient Israel, the king could be called a son of God, but not Son (capital S) of God. It extols the king for his power and assures him he has God’s blessing. Even other kings and rulers better beware of him. God is ready to punish anyone who crosses him or defies his authority. That is exactly the attitude we expect God to have toward God’s anointed, right? “Touch not mine anointed.”

But does that truly reflect the kind of king he would be?

“…the beloved…”

This recalls God’s word to Abraham.

“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…”

(Genesis 22:2a)

Just as Abraham had one son (of his wife, Sarah), God has one Son, whom God loves. So far, it sounds like Jesus has it made in the shade. He is a king, God’s only Son, beloved of God, probably more than any other person on earth. Just as Abraham loved Isaac.

“…and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

(Genesis 22:2b)

So if God is referring back to the Abraham and Isaac, that means at the same time God affirms him as the “beloved Son,” God also says he must be sacrificed.

“…with whom I am well pleased.”

This comes from a passage in Isaiah about a figure called “the suffering servant.”

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

(Isaiah 42:1)

With whom I am well pleased recalls In whom my soul delights. God also says, I have put my spirit upon him. The Spirit of God descend on Jesus like a dove. Again, it sounds like things are going good for Jesus. Who wouldn’t like to hear God say God is well pleased with them? But in context, it means he will be the chosen servant who suffers for the redemption of others. That becomes clearer in another passage from Isaiah.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.

(Isaiah 53:10a)

Some translations say, “Yet it pleased the Lord to crush him….” I think the NRSV is more accurate. It’s not like God is a sadist who gets pleasure from seeing people tortured. But in this case, it was God’s will for him to suffer as he eventually did. But by using pleased instead of will, it is easy to see the connection with God’s pronouncement. Let’s continue.

When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

(Isaiah 53:10b-12)

He will be crushed as an offering for sin. He will live as a servant, and in the end, he will suffer in ways most of us cannot begin to comprehend. None of us knows what it is to be crucified, but it was a torture designed to totally humiliate and inflict as much pain as possible. The word excruciating derives from crucifixion. No one would go through it voluntarily. But that is exactly what God would call him to do, to suffer not for his own sin but for the sins of others. In doing so, he would make many righteous.

We know how his story goes. He will be crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day, he will rise from the dead.  He will descend into darkness, but then he shall see light. But as I read it, I try to put myself in the shoes of people there who witnessed the Spirit of God descend on him like a dove, who heard what God said about him. Did they really understand it?

Could he be the Messiah?

The text does not say who heard the voice. I think it’s safe to assume Jesus heard it. I’m approaching it as if John the Baptist and the others who were there heard it as well. They would not have to recognize all those scripture references I gave to know this guy must be special. But if they did recognize those echoes of prophecy, they would be thinking, “Could he be the Messiah?”

That question dogged Jesus throughout his ministry. You might think he would be happy to say, “Yes, I am.” But the title Messiah was fraught with political and religious tension. He had to be careful who he revealed it to. When King Herod found out he was destined to be “king of the Jews,” he tried to have him killed. The Romans knew the legend of a coming Messiah, a son of David, who would throw off the yoke of Roman occupation and re-establish the Davidic kingdom.

The Jews lived for the hope that they would see that happen. They believed Elijah would return just before the Messiah.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

(Malachi 3:1)

Those who were with John believed he was the messenger, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. If the forerunner was here, surely the Messiah could not be far behind. And then they hear God call this man “my son, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” The hairs on their necks must have stood up.

What did they hear in that message? He was a king, probably from the Davidic line. The Spirit of God rested upon him. God called him his beloved Son. God is well-pleased with him. I’m sure more than one of them thought, he must be the one. If they thought of the song in Isaiah 42:1-4, they would have thought of the last line,

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

(Isaiah 42:1)

Justice for them began with defeating Rome and making Israel a great nation once again. If he was God’s anointed, no power on earth could stop him. And the vast majority who followed him, including the twelve, wanted to be at his side when it happened. When they thought of the Messiah, they thought of glory, power, dominion, and freedom. They thought of the victories of Moses, Joshua, and David over God’s enemies that built the nation. They thought it was about to happen again. They would have had a lot of questions for him. They wanted to be sure they understood what they had just witnessed. But before they could ask any questions, he left immediately to wander in the wilderness for forty days (Mat 4:1-11). I guess he was not eager to answer those questions just yet. He knew how hard they were to teach.

One recurring theme in the Gospels is how people keep wanting to call him the Messiah, but they don’t understand everything that comes with it. The glorious king was just one side of the coin. The flip side was the suffering servant. He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. He would not overthrow their enemies. He would submit to death at their hands. All those people who followed him as the “Son of David,” how many of them continued to follow him to the cross?

A stiff-necked and stubborn people

When I see what passes for religious programming now, I can’t help but wonder, are we any different? They talk about victory, health and wealth, divine protection from enemies and pandemics, dominion over the earth, and personal freedom. “Don’t mess with me! I’m one of the King’s kids!”

You don’t hear about God’s power being made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). You don’t hear that having the mind of Christ means a willingness to serve and sacrifice for others (Phil 2:5-8). You don’t hear that you share in his glory by sharing in his suffering (Rom 8:17). Their message is resurrection without crucifixion.

What does it mean to follow a Messiah who came as king, Son of God, servant, and sacrifice, all at the same time? If you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments below.

Next, what happened to Jesus when he went into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil? (Mat 4:1-11).

-Grace and peace to you.

Crown of thorns highlighted on purple background

Lent and God Becoming Human

It might surprise you to know that not all parts of the Bible are theologically correct. For example, most people consider God omniscient, meaning God knows everything. I’ve even heard an atheist say, “If God existed, then he would know everything.” Omniscience, along with omnipotence and omnipresence, are three of the main attributes that make God God—at least in most traditions. So why would God say something like this?

I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.

(Gen 18:21)

What do you mean you will know? Aren’t you God?

In this scene, God is speaking to Abraham to discuss plans for Sodom and Gomorrah. God has heard people cry against the rampant injustice and violence there but apparently needed to come down to visit there and see if it was as bad as God heard. How can God talk as if God doesn’t already know? It might not make sense logically, but I think there could be a reason for this.

First, let’s start with what it means to know something. The word for “know” in Hebrew is yada`. It has many different nuances, like “know” in English.

  1. Intellectually. You know it as a fact, like 2+2=4.
  2. How to. It’s possible to know 2+2=4 simply as a fact you memorize and store in your brain. But if you know how to add, you understand it at a deeper level.
  3. Experience. Maybe you have several duplexes that are each rented by two couples. You can observe that four people live in each of those houses. From that experience, you know 2+2=4.

God knows there is injustice in Sodom and Gomorrah, but that knowledge seems to be intellectual at this point. But before executing an extreme judgement, maybe God wants to know through experience if it is as bad as God has heard. As Abraham said to God a few verses later,

“Far be it from you … to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

(Gen 18:26)

So God suspends judgement until God knows in the truest sense that they deserve it. That speaks to God’s justice. If God does not rush to judgement before gathering the facts, then neither should we. Just a thought.

But doesn’t God already know the facts? Yes, but as I already pointed out, there is a difference between knowing things intellectually and through experience. We see here God’s desire to know our pain through experience, which in a way foreshadows Jesus.

Crown of thorns highlighted on purple background
Heavy is the head that wears the crown

God’s Experience as a Human

I think one of the most important purposes of the Incarnation was for God to experience what it is like to be human, in all of our frailty, suffering, and limitations. God may have known intellectually the pain and struggles of being human. But through Jesus, God experienced it.

This could be why Jesus did not give in to the Devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread or throw himself off of a pinnacle and trust that the angels would catch him. If he went around magically turning stones into bread whenever he was hungry, he would not experience what it is like for someone who had to work all day for that loaf of bread. If he invoked supernatural protection from harm, he would not experience the limitations and fears that come with mortality. When it came time for him to die, he did so in the most torturous way possible, scourging followed by crucifixion. As a result, he knows what pain and suffering are, not just in some abstract sense. He knows because he experienced it. Therefore, the author of Hebrews was able to say in Jesus,

… we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

(Heb 4:15)

A Different High Priest

The role of high priest was important in the Old Testament. The high priest lived in the Temple complex and never left it. He was shielded to a great degree from human weakness, especially death and anything that symbolized death. Even looking at a corpse could disqualify him from performing his duties, so the other priests and the people had to assist in keeping him pure. This was necessary, so he could perform the sacrifices that would atone for the sins of the people. However, there was a lot there was a lot about being human, i.e., death, loss, and brokenness, that he just could not sympathize with because he could never get close enough to see the pain and suffering ordinary people had to endure.

After the Temple was destroyed, the high priest could no longer atone for people’s sins. Some Jews at the time believed there was no point in praying. Without the Temple and the sacrifices, they thought they had no more access to God. Imagine what it would have meant to them if they heard and believed, along with Christians, that Jesus has been given the mantle of high priest.

The Temple on earth is gone, but the Temple in heaven endures forever. Jesus serves there forever as high priest, and he is our access to God. And unlike the high priests of old, he was tested in every respect as we are. He did not hide from any of the pain of being human and mortal but experienced it himself. Therefore, he is able to sympathize with us in a way none of the prior high priests could. Furthermore, he is able to stand before God on our behalf, because he did it all without sin. His purity before God does not depend on us or anyone shielding him from death. He experienced death and conquered it through his resurrection.

A Parable

Here is a story I heard in church that I think really drives this point home, a sort of parable. One day, people of earth got angry with God and decided to put God on trial. They felt God had made life too harsh, and the reason God was not doing more to make things better was God lived up in heaven in his ivory tower with streets of gold, where there was no pain, hunger, greed, or suffering. What did God know about life on this earth?

It was time God experienced what it was like to live as humans in this world God created. Let him be born into a poor working family without the privilege of being God. Let the legitimacy of his birth be questioned. Let him experience hunger, thirst, cold, pain, exhaustion, fear, and suffering. Let him know what it is to mourn close friends and family. Let him be tempted with wealth and power as a mortal and see if he can refuse it. Let him come under the scrutiny of powers greater than him. Let him live under threat to life and limb. Let them capture him, torture him, and kill him in the most excruciating way possible for crimes he did not commit. And when that moment comes, let him die alone and forsaken, with crowds mocking and humiliating him, and abandoned by even his family and closest friends.

Then Jesus entered the courtroom and stood before his accusers. He showed them the scars on his hands and feet, the stripes on his back where he had been scourged, and the scars on his forehead from the crown of thorns he had received. One by one, from the oldest to the youngest, they left the courtroom.

“Where are your accusers?” the judge asked.

“They have left.”

“Case dismissed.”

Confession and Lent

Ash Wednesday is here, which means we are in the season of Lent. This particular season has become more meaningful over the years, especially Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I know we end with Easter, which is the most important holiday for Christians. But this Lent I suggest you not skip over the hard stuff Lent calls us to remember: our vulnerability, our sinfulness, and our mortality. What does it mean that Jesus knows what you’re going through in life right now? Again, I don’t mean he knows because he’s God. He knows because he experienced it: hunger, thirst, cold, loneliness, despair, pain, and suffering. And he is present now to walk through it with you.

Thanks for reading. Until next time, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

“In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Grace and peace to you.