Friday, July 29, 2011

The Original Mary and Rhoda

In which city did Rhoda live? Jerusalem (Acts 12:13)

In 44 CE, Herod Agrippa I (10 BCE-44 CE) targeted the nascent Christian movement. He had the apostle James beheaded and Peter arrested (Acts 12:2-3). This barrage represented a crisis to the early Christians and they began to pray (12:5). On the night of his arraignment, an angel busted Peter out amidst heavy security (Acts 12:6-11). Free, Peter made his way to a safe house in Jerusalem owned by Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12). He was stopped at the door by Rhoda, who recognized his voice, announced him, but in her excitement failed to admit him (Acts 12:13-14). Ironically, Peter, who is often pictured as the doorkeeper to heaven, is prevented from entering by a gatekeeper. Finding the news too good to be true, the contingent of believers assembled do not believe Rhoda’s story, but that it her story and she sticks to it (Acts 12:15).

Have you ever known you were right when seemingly everyone assumed you were wrong? Did you waiver?

Rhoda and Mary were the names of two best friends featured on the iconic television series The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) played by Valerie Harper and Mary Tyler Moore respectively (pictured). Much like a Jewish home owner and Gentile servant, the two characters in the program are very different from one another. Many of the scenes involving Rhoda also feature the faceless expressionless voice of Carlton the doorman who presents Rhoda with decisions as to who to let up to her apartment. It is unknown if the characters’ names were influenced by the Biblical text.

The jail break marks the only time Rhoda appears in the Bible (Acts 12:13). Her name is Gentile in origin and means “Rose” or “woman from Rhodes”. She is described as a paidiske. This word means “young girl” or “maid servant” which is reflected in most translations: “maid” (ASV, NRSV, RSV), “servant girl” (ESV, NASB, NLT), “servant” (CEV, HCSB, NIV), “damsel” (KJV), “girl” (NKJV),“young woman” (MSG). Rhoda is the only paidiske named in the New Testament.

Rhoda is the first to receive the good news of Peter’s freedom. Her fellow Christians seem shocked that their prayer has actually been answered. Are you ever surprised when your prayers are answered?

The story bares many striking resemblances to another instance in Peter’s life - the night he denied Christ in the high priest’s courtyard (Matthew 26:69-76; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:56-62; John 18:17-18, 25-27). In each story, Peter is attempting to hide from someone but is recognized by his voice, not his appearance (Matthew 26:73; Acts 12:13). In both instances, he is identified by a servant girl (the same word, paidiske, Matthew 26:69; Mark 14:66, 69; Luke 22:56; John 18:17; Acts 12:13). In each case, the girl consistently confirms her identification in the face of opposition from a disciple or disciples. In fact, the word used for “insist”, diischurizomai, only occurs only in Luke-Acts and only in relation to these two stories (Luke 22:59; Acts 12:15).

Have you ever experienced déjà vu? Compare and contrast the two stories in Peter’s life. What point, if any, is Luke trying to make by using such similar vocabulary? What progress has been made in Peter’s life from one instance to the next?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Moses: You Can Look, But You Can't Touch

Why was Moses not allowed to go into the Promised Land? Because he struck the rock to cause water to come forth when he had been told to speak to the rock. [Disobedience] (Numbers 20:12)

Moses led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery in pursuit of the Promised Land. Tragically, though he guided the people for forty years, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Before dying atop Mount Nebo, Moses was allowed to glimpse a panoramic view of the land his people would inherit (Deuteronomy 34:1-6).

On the surface, the reason for his exclusion is simple. The Israelites were without water in the wilderness of Zin (Numbers 20:1-3). God instructed Moses to speak to a rock and extract water (Numbers 20:8). Moses successfully distilled water from the rock but instead of speaking to it, he struck the rock twice (Numbers 20:11). Moses did what God commanded but in the course of executing the directive, he did not use the proper method. As a result, it was decreed that Moses must die in the desert without entering the Promised Land (Numbers 20:12).

While the incident that kept Moses from the Promised Land is clear, the nature of the sin that warranted such an extreme penalty is far more ambiguous. Thirty-nine years earlier, the Israelites were in a similar predicament and God instructed Moses to strike a rock to produce water (Exodus 17:6). This indicates that the issue is not striking the rock but rather Moses’ rationale behind it. The sin is said to be one of pride. This is seen as Moses announces in front of all of Israel, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we [Moses and Aaron] bring forth water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10, NASB). Moses took credit for God’s handiwork.

In the midst of detailing the Israelites’ past rebelliousness, Psalm 106 claims that Moses was provoked and that “he spoke rashly with his lips (Psalms 106:33, NASB).” This implies that Moses’ words were as much an issue as his actions. Moses’ attitude is also revealed when recounting the incident. Instead of taking responsibility, he seemingly blames the people for his not making the cut into Canaan stating, “The LORD was angry with me also on your account, saying, ‘Not even you shall enter there.’ (Deuteronomy 1:37, NASB).”

Is the penalty too harsh? Does it fit the crime? Is Moses, as leader, held to a higher standard? Do you give God credit where credit is due? Why didn’t Moses simply follow God’s instructions?

There may be a practical reason for Moses’ being left in the desert - he may have completed his part of the mission. Moses led primarily through miracles and this was not how the land of Canaan was to be conquered. Though there are miraculous facets to the conquest of the Promised Land, it required standard warfare. Joshua, Moses’ successor, proves a very apt general. Moses could not have been seen as anything but a leader and his presence may have detracted from Joshua’s command. Some have concluded that it would not have been fitting for the law giver (Moses) to lead the way into the Promised Land.

Great leaders often do not live to see their work completed. Most of Christianity’s great doctrines emerged after their supporters were dead and often after they lost their lives in the battle. Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God was not completed in his lifetime.

What task will you undertake that you could or would not do without God? What mission will you accept for God that cannot be finished in your lifetime?

As a postscript, after the indiscretion, God still loves Moses so much that God handles Moses’ burial (Deuteronomy 34:6). Years later, Moses later appears to Jesus and three of his disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, a mountain located squarely within the confines of the Promised Land (Matthew 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pharisees: Blind Leading the Blind

Who were the “blind guides”? Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:24)

Jesus is often presented in contrast to the religious leaders of his day. The Pharisees, a prominent Jewish sect, are frequently his antagonists. The New Testament presents the Pharisees as rigidly enforcing the letter of the law and Jesus living by its Spirit. As the Pharisees were in a position of leadership, Jesus referred to them unflatteringly as “blind guides” (Matthew 15:14, 23:16, 24). In the latter references, the scribes are grouped with the Pharisees.

The idiom of the blind leading the blind does not originate with Jesus, though the English expression likely comes from the King James Version’s translation of Jesus’ words. The Katha Upanishad, a Hindu text written hundreds of years before Christ, also uses the saying. It reads, “Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind.” The metaphor of the blind leading the blind has come to speak of any leader who knows no more about her mission than her charges.

The only Biblical instances where “blind guides” have a specific point of reference occur in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 15:14, 23:16, 24). In Luke, Jesus presents the term “blind guides” in the “Sermon on the Plain” but uses it in general terms (Luke 6:39). The first time Jesus uses the expression to brand his critics transpires in a private session with his disciples (Matthew 15:12-14) but the second time it appears, he makes the claim public (Matthew 23:1-32).

Jesus never uses the word “blind” in relation to someone with a physical condition, but always to describe his adversaries’ spiritual predicament. Jesus emphasizes this in a series of woes in his last discourse in Matthew (Matthew 23: 16, 17, 19, 24, 26). In John, the Pharisees ask sarcastically if Jesus considers them blind. He responds, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains (John 9:41, NASB).”

Have you ever seen a group or organization where the blind were leading the blind? What did the Pharisees not see that made Jesus label them as “blind”?

Jesus openly criticizes the religious leaders of his time. He viewed the religious experts’ role as that of a guide. Guides are not above reproach.

How do you view the role of ministers? If you had to compare a minister’s job to one thing, what would it be? Do you perceive any modern religious officials to be blind guides?

“Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” - Sri Lankan evangelist D.T. Niles (1908-1970)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Prophetesses: Then. And Now?

Which women in the New Testament were prophetesses? Anna (Luke 2:36); 4 daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9)

The Bible makes no distinction between the prophetic ministry of men and women. Eleven Biblical women are deemed to be prophetesses: Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; II Chronicles 34:22), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), Isaiah’s unnamed wife (Isaiah 8:3), Anna (Luke 2:36-38) and the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9). Of the five New Testament prophetesses, all appear in Luke-Acts and only one is named, Anna (Luke 2:36).

Little is said of Anna. She was a devout 84-year old widow who spent her time in the temple (Luke 3:36). She was there when the infant Jesus was brought to be circumcised, praised God and thereafter spoke about the Lord “to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:38, NASB).”

Less is said of Philip’s daughters than Anna. Only their existence as virgins and prophetesses is acknowledged (Acts 21:9). Technically speaking, they are not deemed prophetesses. Though the NASB uses the word “prophetess” in relation to them, most translations accurately say that they prophesied (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). The fact that these women prophesied does not require the conclusion that they were deemed prophetesses. Other women might be said to have prophesied, such as Mary (Luke 1:48) and Elizabeth (Luke 2:41-45), but were not considered prophetesses.

The stories of the five New Testament prophetesses cover a total of only four verses (Luke 2:36-38; Acts 21:9) and in none of them does the prophetess do anything particularly noteworthy. Nor are any direct quotes attributed them.

What does it mean to be a prophetess? What do you think caused these women to be seen as prophetesses?

The role of prophetess is not clearly defined and the New Testament does not teach of an office of prophetess. It is clear that women did and were intended to prophesy in the New Testament era. Peter pronounces at Pentecost that women would prophesy (Acts 2:18) and Paul teaches that women who prayed or prophesied ought do so with their heads covered (I Corinthians 11:5).

Though many definitions abound as to what it means to be a prophet, one commonality is that prophecy requires revelation from God. Before one can speak for God, God must first speak to them. Since these women prophesied, the implication is that God spoke to these New Testament women.

If God speaks to women, should God also not speak through women? When has a woman voiced the words of God to you? Have you ever encountered a prophetess?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Ehud: A Cloak and Dagger Story

Who was the judge who was left-handed? Ehud. (Judges 3:15)

The death of Joshua (Judges 1:1) created a leadership vacuum which left the twelve tribes of Israel with no centralized government and susceptible to invasion. Periodically, charismatic leaders known as “judges” arose to give the Israelites a temporary respite from their enemies. Judges were not arbitrators of cases like today but rather more often than not guerilla warriors. Ehud is the second of the six major judges (Judges 3:15-30). His story is vulgar and a tale one would not expect to find in the Bible or to be heard in church.

Eglon, king of Moab, aligned himself with Ammon and Amalek and captured “the City of Palms”, Jericho (Deuteronomy 34:3; Judges 3:13). Jericho had been the Israelites’ first major conquest in the Promised Land (Joshua 6:1-26). Instead of obliterating the Israelites, Moab opted to subjugate them and extract tribute (Judges 3:15). Eglon was morbidly obese (Judges 3:18), presumably at the expense of his subjects. His tyranny endured for eighteen years before Ehud emerged (Judges 3:14).

Having no trained army at his disposal, Ehud devised a plan to assassinate Eglon opportunistically using his position as leader of the couriers that paid the Israelites’ tribute (Judges 3:15). Before leaving on his mission, Ehud fashioned a double-edged sword one cubit (eighteen inches) in length (Judges 3:16). The weapon was innovative for its time as the standard sword was curved with only one sharp edge. The straight sword was designed for stabbing and more importantly for Ehud allowed it to be concealed, unlike its curved counterparts.

Ehud’s left-handedness also aided his deception. In fact, he is the first left-hander mentioned in the Bible (Judges 3:15). This appears to be a genetic trait of his tribe, Benjamin (Judges 3:15, 20:16), which ironically means “son of my right hand” (Genesis 35:18). Being a southpaw, Ehud kept his weapon on his right thigh instead of the usual left. His bare left thigh made him appear unarmed.

Ehud obtained a private audience with Eglon under the auspices of relaying a secret (Judges 3:19). Alone with the king, Ehud thrust his weapon so deep into Eglon’s corpulence that not only the blade but the haft was lodged as well (Judges 3:22). This tactic prevented the immediate spurt of blood which would have alerted the guards. Ehud then locked Eglon in the room and escaped as Eglon’s staff misinterpreted the smell to be that of the king relieving himself (Judges 3:23-24). Before Eglon’s corpse was discovered, Ehud escaped to the mountains of Ephraim where the king’s death served as a rallying cry for Israel who then defeated the Moabites (Judges 3:26-29).

Ehud commits premeditated murder. His action was as risky as a double edged sword. To Moab, Ehud was an assassin but to Israel he was a “deliverer” canonized as a judge (Judges 3:15). Fortunately for him, Israel wrote the history.

Do you feel Ehud is a hero, villain, or something else in between? Why?

Hundreds of years later, another potentially left handed swordsman attempted to do battle for God. When Jesus was being arrested, all four gospels report that a disciple cut off the ear of one of the arresting party (Matthew 26:51-52; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49-51; John 18:10-11). John identifies the disciple as Peter and the victim as Malchus (John 18:10). It was Malchus’ right ear that was severed, meaning that either Peter was left-handed or a remarkably inept swordsman (Luke 22:50; John 18:1).

Jesus disapproves of the action and offers this aphorism of non-violence:
“Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52, NASB)
The contrast between the stories of the swordsmen, Ehud and Peter, demonstrates the radical nature of the kingdom Jesus was establishing.

How is the kingdom of God different from the kingdom of Israel? Could there ever be such a thing as a Christian assassin? If so, under what circumstances?