They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

“You Are My Friends”

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit-fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.
— John 15:12-17 (emphasis added)

When you read this passage of scripture spoken by Jesus, you immediately pick up on Jesus’ use of the word “friends”. Greater love has no man than this, that he would lay down his life for his “friends”. You are my “friends” if you do what I command. Instead I have called you “friends”. The word translated “friends” here  is not some nice, feel good, term that is all encompassing, like everyone is his friend. The Hebrew word used here for friends is “haverah” (plural) or haver (singular-hah-Vair). It is much more than what we think of as friends in the casual sense in the English language. Haverah is a religious brotherhood, a small group who intimately know each other.  It is an accountability and study group, where the members partner with each other to grapple with and discuss the religious text.  The brotherhood rises and falls together and everyone looks out for each other.  The term also means community and emphasizes togetherness and that no one is above the other. There is no room for “I” in the haverah. To illustrate the concept of haverah, the early rabbis often told the story of 3 men in a boat fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Suddenly, one of the men began drilling a hole in the boat beneath his seat. The other two men cried out for him to stop and the man replied, “what are you concerned about, I am only drilling beneath my seat”!

The concept of “haverah” was very important in Jewish history. Consider the words of this early rabbi who said, “When two sit together and exchange words of Torah, then the Divine Presence dwells among them”. Sounds a lot like Jesus’ words when he said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in there midst. Jesus spent most of his ministry living side by side with his haverim (friends). They traveled together, camped out together , and took their meals together. Now re-read John 15:12-17 adding what you now know about “friends”. We immediately see that it is more of a commitment than at first glance. It is going to take a lot of time and effort if we want to be part of Jesus’ “haverim”, because we are going to have to first learn what he commands and then do it. We learn to be his “friends” by spending time with Him and His words.  Jesus’ band of brothers are a tight knit, well  trained, sold out to each other and God , group , that are literally willing to die for each other.

Probably the greatest part of the whole passage is that we didn’t choose Him, but He chose us to be a member of His haverim. He wanted us to be a part of his close, tight knit, brotherhood and to learn to be like Him. Are you one of his friends?

We Played the Flute and You Didn’t Dance

…To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
‘We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge
and you did not mourn.’
Matthew 11:11-19

“We Played the Flute for you and you did not dance, we sang a dirge and you did not mourn”
Just like I had done on several other statements by Jesus in Matthew 11, I read over these comments in Verses 11-19 and never really tried to understand what Jesus was saying. I just decided that it was something that was only known to that culture and time period. It was kind of interesting to find the source of this little saying and it almost certainly is an Aesop’s Fable!

Aesop was a real person who lived during the time of King Croesus, in Sardis, in what is now modern day Turkey. Aesop was a member of King Croesus’ court and was one of the wise men that Croesus sought advice from.  He wrote a whole collection of stories and they were all stories that had a hidden meaning or moral to the story.  Even though they were written several centuries before Christ, you can buy a copy of Aesop’s Fables today in the bookstore.

There is a lesser-known fable of a fisherman who went down to the seashore and began to play a melodious tune on his flute. He just knew that his wonderful tune would have the fish jumping out of the sea and on to the shore.  When the fish wouldn’t respond, he became angry and went and got his net. He threw the net into the water and caught a bunch of fish and then threw them on the shore, where they lay flopping and dying. He said to the fish, “I played a tune for you and you did not dance,  and now all  you can do is dance.  In other words, “I gave you plenty of opportunities to follow my voice, but you didn’t take advantage of my offer”.  This little story was passed down through the generations and would have been familiar to them just like we are with the “Three Little Pigs”, or other favorite nursery rhymes.

Now back to our Matthew passage. Jesus was quoting an Aesop’s Fable when he compared this generation to children in the marketplace calling out to others this little story with a hidden meaning. He was telling the crowd, “John the Baptist and I have been piping and singing and you have not been responding”.  “You have certainly had your chances”, would have been Jesus’ message to the crowd.  Also, since Jesus mentioned that he had played both a happy tune and a sad song and they didn’t respond to either, there could be an additional message here.  He could have been saying, you have rejected John the Baptist’s (sad or stern) message and you have rejected my offer of salvation. We have come at you from every angle, yet you are not responding (a stiff-necked generation).

Now re-read the passage and see if that doesn’t make sense.  Once again, it helps to know the culture to try to understand more clearly what Jesus was saying. Just as we have many idioms and witty sayings that have been passed down for generations, so it would have been with their culture.  Let’s be careful not to just pass over some of the things that Jesus says that don’t seem to make sense at first glance. A little digging can result in some exciting and interesting findings.

The Kingdom of Heaven is Forcefully Advancing

“…The breaker goes up before them;
They break out, pass through the gate and go out by it.
So their king goes on before them,
And the LORD at their head.”

Micah 2:12-13

…From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.

Matthew 11:11-15 (ref. also Luke 16:16)

When you read these passages in Matthew, Jesus’ comments on the Kingdom of Heaven seem difficult to comprehend. The Kingdom of Heaven is forcefully advancing (some versions such as the NASB above say violently advancing) and forceful or violent men take hold of it? What does this mean? The key to understanding these passages of scripture spoken by Jesus lies again in the understanding of Hebrew traditions and culture and of the understanding of the Hebrew language, itself. I gained some valuable insight into this hard to understand (in English) passage from Ray VanderLaan and from reading the book,”Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus“, by David Bivin and Roy Blizzard Jr. When you realize what Jesus was speaking about, the scripture takes on a much clearer meaning.

In these verses, Jesus is talking to the crowd about John the Baptizer and what a great man he is.  Then he says, seemingly out of context, “that since the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing and forceful men lay hold of it”. The key to understanding these verses lies in two areas. First, the Greek word used for “forcefully” is “biazō” (Strong’s G971), which means to “violently explode”, or blow out”. The Hebrew word that has the same meaning is “perets” (Strong’s H6556 and Strong’s H6557), which is the word we would translate, “dynamite”, or “explode”, or “break out”.

The second key to this passage is a rabbinic interpretation (Midrash) of the Old Testament passage in Micah 2:12-13. This Midrash would have been present during Jesus time and would have been well known to studiers of the Hebrew Scriptures. As you read the Micah passage you will see that it is a Messianic passage that paints a picture of God gathering the remnant of Israel together like a shepherd would pen his sheep in a makeshift corral.  The enclosure is crowded with people, waiting and anxious to get out. The breach maker (verse 13), which is the Hebrew word “perets”, kicks open the gate and the sheep push and shove and “explode” out of the gate, in their eagerness to get out. In the Midrash, the breach maker and the king, later mentioned in verse 13, are two different people. The one who went before and kicked down the gate to start the stampede, was Elijah. The King, who also passes through the gate and leads the flock out of the fold, is the Messiah, the Branch of the Son of David.

Because of Malachi 4:5, the Jews always knew that Elijah had to come first before the Messiah would show up.

If Jesus was referring to this passage of scripture and its interpretation, then some things start to fall into place.  Jesus was saying the Kingdom of Heaven “is breaking forth”, or “breaking out” (exploding) and all the people in this Kingdom are breaking out of their bondage and laying hold of it. The Kingdom of Heaven is breaking forth like dynamite (perets) and individuals are finding liberty and freedom.

Jesus would have also been saying that John the Baptist is the breach maker, the one who kicked down the gate. He is the one who started the movement and is the Elijah of the Midrash of the Micah passage. To add credibility to this line of thinking, Jesus then calls John the Baptist, Elijah in the next verse, in Matthew 11:14. He opened and prepared the way for the King who will follow. Jesus, without having to actually say it, is alluding to the fact that He is that Messiah that the Micah passage talks about! Jesus is the King who will lead the sheep through the gate!

This is such a powerful image! Though Jesus doesn’t directly refer to himself as the shepherd who leads the sheep out, no listener who was in Jesus’ audience could mistake Jesus stunning claim-“I am the Messiah” and John the Baptist is the Elijah who started this whole process of the Kingdom of Heaven starting to break out. The Kingdom of Heaven is here and among you!

Another interesting note is that Jesus has dynamite as part of his DNA! Turn to Genesis 38:27 and read the story of Tamar giving birth to twins. The second baby exploded out of the womb past the first twin, so they named him dynamite (Perez), from the Hebrew word,”perets”! Perez’s father was, of course, Judah, and Perez became the head of the clan of Judah, and an ancestor of David, and ultimately Christ (look it up in Matt 1). Since we have been grafted into the stump of Jesse of the tribe of Judah, we have dynamite in our DNA, also! Where is our passion?  Jesus was not the pussycat of Judah, but the Lion of Judah! It’s in his nature and ours also to be passionate and explosive for the things of the Kingdom! Amen and Hallelujah! Read the Matthew passages again and the complementary passage in Luke16:16 and see if the words don’t jump off the page with Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah that the Jews had been so passionately waiting for!

John the Baptizer

“What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?…”
Matthew 11:7-15,Luke 7:24-30

This story takes place in the gospels after John the Baptizer has been thrown in prison by Herod Antipas for preaching  about Jesus as the Messiah. John sends some messengers to Jesus to ask him some questions. John is hopelessly locked in prison and is probably doubting his decision to be so bold in following and proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. His questions point to the thing burning in his mind – am I ever going to get out of here? Jesus’ response was always curious to me and I always wondered what he meant when he said to the people, “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” However, when you hear one of Aesop’s Fables that would have been popular and well known during this period of history, the analogy that Jesus makes jumps off the page.

The fable of the Oak and the Reed tells the story of a huge majestic oak tree and a small thin reed that were growing next to each other.  They argued about who was the strongest and the oak tree always had the more convincing argument. “I am powerful, thick, and mighty, the wind can’t touch me. You bend to the ground every time a small breeze comes up. I can withstand anything.” Then, one day a huge wind came up and the oak tree is uprooted and dies.  While the reed was severely bent low to the ground in the same wind, he was able to pop back up and withstand the gale forces.

Jesus was saying to the crowd, “Did you think that John the Baptizer was a reed that wouldn’t break under all this pressure? He was human, he had his breaking point, also, just like you. But I tell you, no man born of woman….”  . Then he begins to brag on what a great man John is and how fearless and determined he is and that he is even more than a prophet.

Now go back and re-read the story and tell me it doesn’t make more sense. If we just knew more of the culture and the context.