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

Not by Might, Not by Power: A Study at Gamla, Home of the Zealots

While we are at Gamla, a tel north of the Sea of Galilee, studying the Zealot movement, it began to dawn us why it was so hard for the Jews to recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah. We always are mystified that the Jews didn’t recognize Jesus for who He was and didn’t understand his message or movement. A closer look at the historical events during this time period and what life was like under Roman rule will reveal to us that we are too hard on the Jews and in fact, we would probably have been just like them.

First, put yourself in the Zealots place. They are a very fervent, God fearing group of people that are disturbed at their countries downward spiral into the grips of Hellenism. Even God’s priesthood has become corrupt and the populace is slipping more and more into the Roman lifestyle. The Romans themselves are making life miserable for the Jewish population. Taxes are over 50%and there are crucifixions every week. They can make you carry their pack and can come into your house at any time of the day or night and make you feed them. The Zealots were desperately looking for a Messiah that would come and deliver them out of the hands of the Romans and lead them back to being a God fearing nation again. Then, along comes this man from the Galilee named Jesus who is drawing great crowds, healing the sick, raising people from the dead and feeding five thousand people at a time. This could be our man! They had even heard that Jesus went into the Temple and used a whip to drive out the buyers and sellers who were supported by the corrupt priesthood. John 2:17 says when the disciples saw this they remembered Psalm 69:9 that says,”Zeal for your house has consumed me”. This was one of the Zealots favorite scriptures! He’s one of us! He could be our guy!

To add to the complexity of the situation, there was a huge debate going on in the two major rabbinical schools of thought of the day. They debated, “How will God’s Kingdom Come”? How will the promised Messiah come?” On the one hand, there was the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 that said that the Messiah would come, gentle, riding on a donkey. God will take care of the Romans. We are not supposed to be violent .His Kingdom will come with His Power, not ours. On the other hand, in the same book (Zechariah 14:1-3), it says God’s Kingdom will come violently. To add to this, when they looked at their hero, the prophet Elijah, in his battle with God’ enemies, they read in 1 Kings 19:10 -“I have been very zealous for the Lord”! What had he just done in the previous verses? He had just killed 450 Baal Prophets by the sword! They also remembered the stories of all the patriarchs (Moses, David, etc) how they had triumphed over their enemies. They were sure they were right because it was in the text!

Do you see that there was a stark contrast between Jesus message and the dominant mindset in Galilee? We’re supposed to love our enemies? Love the Romans? It was hard for anyone to get this message because everyone so desperately wanted the kingdom to come in great power and get rid of the Romans. Look at the disciples for an example. Luke 6:15 says that Simon was a Zealot and Judas was from Quiriot, one of the main Zealot cities. Peter carries one of the small knives that the Zealots were famous for. When the soldiers came, the disciples asked Jesus if they should fight with their swords. Peter used his knife to cut off the ear of one of the soldiers to try to fight back against the Roman guard. They only ran away when they realized that Jesus wasn’t going to fight back! Don’t you know they were thinking, “What’s he doing? We don’t understand our leader! Can you see how hard it would have been to believe that the kingdom would come at the lowest point of weakness?

Now, let’s turn the table and point the sword at ourselves. Do we really believe that we can change our culture by loving our enemies and being kind to our neighbor? We don’t believe it, do we? We take our neighbors and fellow Christians to court to get justice. We are afraid to do something nice for someone because we are afraid they will take advantage of us. We’re Zealots!! We want God’s kingdom to come by power, elected officials, laws, etc. The truth is that His Kingdom Comes at the lowest point of weakness. Zechariah 4:6 says “Not by might, or power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord”. Jesus’ death, that lowest point of weakness, ushered in His Kingdom, the greatest power. His Kingdom now comes when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity, where we love our neighbor, consider others better than ourselves, wash feet, care for the poor, be meek, be a servant, be a sacrifice, be number two instead of number one. It is impossible to have the Kingdom of Heaven without the church (community) operating in this manner. If you are seeking the Kingdom, you become a part of that community and you give sacrificially to them and they do the same for you. You can’t love your enemy apart from community. It doesn’t just fall out of the sky so that you can do it individually. People have their hunger and thirst satisfied through community.

Doing this study has helped me to realize more what the kingdom of heaven coming down to earth really is. As we learn to obey his will, and live a life of putting others first and living sacrificially, his power will be evident in our community and his Kingdom will come through us. Amen and Amen!

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!

Nicodemus and John 3:16

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

In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven-the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”

— John 3:1-21

Moses lifts up the snake in the desert

Moses lifts up the snake in the desert

I’m having trouble getting my thoughts collected on this subject, but I wanted to write down some new thoughts I’m having on the idea being saved.

Christians have always made the John 3 passages about how do you get to heaven when you die. As I am learning more about the Kingdom of Heaven, I am thinking that the John 3 discussion has more to do with the “right now” instead of the “later”.

First of all, Nicodemus did not ask what he had to do to obtain eternal life like I had thought. He just starts a dialogue with Jesus by telling Jesus that he recognizes that Jesus came from God and that God is definitely with Him. Jesus then replies, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Then he says a second time, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Jesus was not saying. Here’s how you get to heaven, he was saying, here’s how you get into the kingdom of God. From what we have previously written, the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God is right now, God’s rule and reign now, where people are calling Him Lord and His will is being done.

His goal was not necessarily just to get a bunch of people to heaven, it’s his goal to get a community of people to be obedient, so that his kingdom is operating like it’s supposed to right now.

We have used the term “being saved” or “born-again” to signify the end of the process. We got saved and so now it’s settled, we have our papers, were going to heaven when we die. It seems to me that being saved is just the doorway to the Kingdom of Heaven, it’s just the very beginning of the process. When you are saved, you realize for the first time that Jesus is who he said he was and you want to make Him your King by being obedient to Him for the rest of your days. You have seen his great acts of saving power, you call Him Lord and you obey – that is the Kingdom of Heaven. So being saved is just a starting place to begin that life of obedience. It’s not just did you get in the door, it’s a lifelong process. It’s like just getting married, that’s just the start of the process. If you’ve been married for 35 years and it’s been a lousy marriage, the whole time, does that make you married in God’s eyes? To be married for 35 years, and to have worked and gone through the hard times together and to learn to love and sacrifice for each other – that is a picture of the life of being saved. Obedience is what makes God happy, because you are revealing his nature to others. Obedience is not a burden, it is the answer to all the hurts and ills of Egypt. Being righteous really matters to God. This is a lifelong process and puts you in the kingdom of God. Then when you die, you will live with Him forever. Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”. One other thing in this passage that I realized I had been teaching wrongly was Jesus’ statement “Unless you are born of the water and the Spirit”. I had always said you’re born of water the first time (natural birth), and then by the Spirit (spiritual birth). David Stern, in his Jewish New Testament commentary, says “Born of water” does not mean ordinary human birth, because if everyone was born of water ,in that sense, why would Jesus make a condition out of it and say “unless” you are born of water and the Spirit”. It now seems to me that “born of water” has to do with immersion, a ritual cleansing of the body for repentance, and “born of the Spirit” is referring to the Holy Spirit’s power to help you turn from sin and live a holy life. Both of these refer to aspects of purification.

In summary, Matthew 22:29 says “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” This is just more evidence to me that I really do not know much about the word. I’m glad God is stretching me and having some of my old thoughts challenged. One thing I do know is that I am being challenged to be obedient. I know that it is not just a one step process. “I’m saved”, I got that taken care of. I’m on my way to heaven, and I’ll live life the best I can. We are supposed to be a kingdom of priests; priests dedicated their lives to serving. How could we do any less? Lord, please help me with obedience. I want to be like you in every way.

Kingdom of Heaven Begins

Finger of God

Finger of God

The idea of the Kingdom of Heaven is born in the Hebrew Bible with the story of the Exodus. What is meant by the Kingdom of Heaven? It is a very important concept to get a hold of.

John the Baptizer came preaching in the Desert of Judea saying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near”. This phrase,” Kingdom of Heaven”, occurs 33 times just in Matthew. Jesus, in Matthew 4:17 began to preach, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” In almost every parable, He says the “Kingdom of Heaven” is like…

Paul, in Acts 28:31, says, “Boldly and without hindrance He preached the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. Mark and Luke use the phrase” Kingdom of God” to say the same thing. This phrase occurs over 30 times in Luke. In Luke 9:1 when Jesus sent the twelve out, He sent them to preach the” Kingdom of God”. In Matthew 10:7 Jesus tells His disciples, “As you go, preach this message, the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”

Although the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” doesn’t actually appear in the Hebrew Testament, it occurs 120 times in the New Testament. The Hebrew phrase is “Malchut Shamayim” which would have been a common phrase to their world. The phrase was used in a pious way to avoid using the actual name of God, which was commanded in Exodus 20. So you would think of a synonym for God. God was the God of Heaven, so use heaven as a synonym for His name. If you look it up, Jesus never used God’s name in the New Testament, He calls Him Father. In Luke and Acts the phrase Kingdom of God was used when they were writing to the Gentiles. Kingdom of God = Kingdom of Heaven.

Even though the expression” Kingdom of Heaven” or” Kingdom of God” does not actually occur in the Hebrew Testament, the one fundamental theological statement that is made in the O.T. is that God is the Ruling Lord, He is God, alone, and He alone is reigning on the throne of His kingdom. This is what is meant by the “Kingdom of God”. In Hebrew, the word translated kingdom (Malkuth) is a dynamic word signifying royal power, just as the English, kingdom, means the authority and power of a king. In the biblical tradition, the idea of the “Kingdom of God” is God’s exercise of His royal power (see David’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 29:11). To have a kingdom, you must have a king that is ruling and reigning over it.

The great example that serves as a pattern for the rest of the Bible, of God’s exercise of His sovereign power, is the Exodus. The events of God’s delivering His people out of the slavery of Egypt to the Promised Land were viewed by the Bible writers as the pattern for all His future acts of kingly power. Prophets looked for a second Exodus that would be greater than the first (see Isaiah 51:9-11 and Hosea 2:14-25), where the Kingdom of God would show up in power under the rule of His representative, the Messiah. The writings of the Essene community at Qumran showed that they believed the” Kingdom of God” was among them now.

Jesus said in Mark 1:14-15, that the time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel. This appears to mean that the time for waiting is over; God is now initiating the Second Exodus. When Jesus’ read the Isaiah 60 and 61 passages that predict the 2nd Exodus and the arrival of the Messiah, He says, “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. It’s here, the kingdom is here! So the concept of the” Kingdom of God’ is interwoven throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. But the concept of the “Kingdom of Heaven”, the place where it was born, where God first shows up in great kingly power to his people, is the Exodus, in Egypt. All the rest of the Bible is shaped by the Exodus. It is the pattern by which the rest of the Bible develops. What was the pattern?

Hathor & Osiris

Hathor & Osiris: gods of Egypt

The Kingdom of Heaven starts when God acts in great power and the finger of God shows up (Exodus 8:19, 31:18, and Psalms 8:3, Luke 11:20) – also similar phrase the “hand of the Lord”. Pharaoh’s magicians recognized these great powers as they saw the miracles of the plagues unfold. They told Pharaoh, this is just the finger of this God working, as if to say, what would happen if He put his back or legs into it. You better not mess with this God, He is all powerful.

After bringing the miraculous 10 plagues on the Egyptians and defeating the Egyptian gods, God leads his people out to a place where they camped at Pi Hahiroth. Here, He again acts in unbelievable power as the waters of the sea are parted and the Israelites walk through on dry ground. This leads to the 2nd step of the Kingdom, people call Him Lord. Exodus 14:31 says “And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in Him and in Moses his servant.”. They stood on the bank of the sea and danced and sang a song to God and called Him Lord. He is our God; we will follow Him, and not the old ones we used to follow in Egypt. “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord”, says chap 15 vs. 11. Think about that based on where they had just come from. The Lord will reign forever and ever says vs. 18. The children of Israel have finally decided who the King is! It’s not Pharaoh or the gods of Egypt who they were to serve.

What started as a night of great terror for the people turned into a great victory, by the finger of God. They came out of the water a different nation. Here, the nation of Israel was born, through wind (ruah) fire and water. The Red Sea became a birth canal through which they emerged as a new people. This is the first time a whole community of people called Him King. It is interesting to note here that the people were saved first and then believed. Our philosophy is that you believe first and then you are saved.

Immediately after this great miraculous saving experience God takes his people out into the harshest desert in the world. This is the third part of the Kingdom of Heaven story:

  1. The finger of God shows up and acts in great power
  2. People see and call Him Lord and King, and
  3. People obey the king.

God is saying you have called me King? Are you sure? Let me show you how to make me your king. Let me take you out to the desert. We’re going to leave the fertile place, the place with lots of water and food, and we’re going to go to a place where it’s hot and dry and you will have to count on me for your food and water. If you obey me in these circumstances I will make you a kingdom of priests.

Are you going to be willing to take on the yoke of obedience in your daily life? If you’re going to call me King and Lord, then you must go out and do my will. I want my will to be done. To call Him Lord we must be obedient to Him.

The Kingdom of Heaven is found in the desert. God did not let his children go the easy way. He led them into the most severe desert in the world, “to humble you and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger…to teach you that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”. Deut 8:2-4 (also read rest of Deut 8). The desert is the place where He gently and patiently takes us to teach us and demand from us, obedience. God’s desert plan is to put us in tough circumstances so we can see who we are and what we are doing here, and what is in our hearts. We can’t get away with just calling Him King; we have to make Him King, by being obedient, by actually serving Him and doing his will.

It seems, in the church today, we want to see the finger of God, and we want to see His great power displayed. We like calling Him Lord and King with our praise songs, but to submit to His will? We want very little to do with the obedience part. The Kingdom of Heaven shows up when people obey, it doesn’t come without obedience.

Exodus 19:4-6 says it perfectly: “‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ “. This conversation took place at Mt. Sinai and God was extending his covenant relationship to all the nation of Israel. This was an outgrowth of the covenant He had set up with Abraham in Genesis 15, 600 years earlier. “Now if you will” and “then I will” are covenant expressions. If what? If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then what? He will make us His treasured possession and we will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Israel was to be God’s kingdom (the people who acknowledge the fact that you are our King), and like priests we are to be wholly set apart to do his bidding, His will and His service. We are to be a holy nation – a nation that is set apart both individually and collectively as different, distinct people that are doing His will. We are to be set apart that much that we are like priests serving in God’s kingdom. We don’t call Him king, we make Him king.

In summary, we have grossly under stressed obedience. The Lord’s people should be a people who are called to and driven by obedience. We want to make our king dance like He made us dance. We should want to do everything in our power to make Him king. Obedience is always the response to grace. How else could we respond to what He’s done for us? We must walk as Jesus walked, must do what He says. I hope I can catch the importance of this in my life so His kingdom will come to me right now where I am, not just someday in heaven.