8. The Life and Ministry
of Jesus Christ: I
Why are the stories of Jesus' birth so important to us?
Why are the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus so closely connected?
- Certainly they are wonderful stories that we should cherish dearly. But they seem not to have been too terribly important to many leaders of the early church.
- The Apostle Paul, whom we believe to be the earliest New Testament writer (20 to 30 years after Jesus' death) did not mention anything about Jesus' birth. But then Paul didn't mention anything about Jesus' life and ministry either--except Jesus' last supper with his disciples before his arrest, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the grave. We would know almost nothing about the actual life and ministry of Jesus if we had only Paul's letters to rely on.
- Mark, whom we believe to be the earliest of the gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John--who actually wrote a biography about the life of Jesus) didn't think it was important enough to include in his story anything about the unusual birth of Jesus. Mark began his story of Jesus with Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist--when Jesus was about 30 years of age and starting his ministry.
- Nor did John, the fourth of the gospel writers. He also began his story with Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist.
- Matthew, who was probably writing his gospel story for a community of converts from Judaism--because he constantly emphasizes how who Jesus was and what he did was in fulfulment of one or another Jewish prophesies--starts up his story by how Jesus was a descendant of David, even though his true paternity came from the Holy Spirit, not Joseph. In Matthew's account the hero of dealing with the difficult situation of Mary's pregnancy was Joseph--not Mary.
- Luke, who was a disciple of Paul's, puts the story together from the account of others (Luke may have written 50 or more years after Jesus' death). His birth account is the fullest of all of them. He relates Jesus' birth to the birth of John the Baptist a few months earlier--showing how the two were actually blood relatives through their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth. And in Luke's account Mary is clearly the heroine in dealing with the events of her strange pregnancy. It is Luke who also tells us the story of the strange happenings when Jesus made his first visit to the Temple in Jerusalem at about age 12--and dazzled the teachers with his knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament).
- All in all, the birth accounts are given in order to clear up the question of how Jesus might be fully God and fully human. They are wonderful explanations about a very complex theological point. But still, they are not matters on which our salvation depends. Certainly Paul, Mark and John did not think so.
Why was Jesus then immediately led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness to be tested by Satan?
- Read John 1:14-34.
- All four of the gospel stories show how Jesus' ministry actually began when Jesus was first baptized by John the Baptist at the Jordan River.
- John was described as a kind of Elijah (though John himself denied being the Elijah whose return Israel was waiting for)--preparing the way for the arrival of the Anointed One of God: the Messiah (Hebrew name) or Christ (Greek name). John looked, talked and acted like an Old Testament prophet, who was calling Israel to repentance and cleansing from its many sins so that the nation should be ready to receive this Messiah. In short, John is part of the story because he was the one chosen to ready Israel for Jesus' arrival.
- As Jesus was being baptized by John, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove and a voice from the sky announced indeed that Jesus was this long-awaited Anointed One, God's beloved Son in whom God was well-pleased.
- After this grand start-up event, Jesus was ready to begin his own ministry in Israel.
In his ministry, did Jesus intend to start up a new religion called "Christianity?
- Read Matthew 4:1-11.
- Remember that Jesus was fully human as well as fully God. The human side of him meant that Jesus knew no more about himself and his ministry than any man ever would. As fully human, Jesus was going to have to discover, every step along his way, through constant prayer and self-examination, exactly what was required of him as the Anointed One. Like any human, he certainly knew what his general duty to God was, what his call was. But how he was actually going to carry out this call would depend specificially on what his heavenly Father revealed to Jesus as he moved from situation to situation.
- The Holy Spirit set up a testing exercise in the wilderness beyond the Jordan River by Satan (the "Accuser" or "Adversary": similar to a Prosecuting Attorney who brings charges against an individual in a case in a criminal court). Satan's job was to see if Jesus could be smooth-talked away from a total dedication or loyalty to God--just as he once had smooth-talked Adam and Eve away from a total dedication to God. Satan even quoted scripture to try to catch Jesus off guard!
- [Beware of those throwing a lot of Scripture at you in order to get their way! People can manipulate Scripture to their own purposes. Scripture was meant to be carefully studied as God's Word--to be struggled over spiritually in order to gain a true hearing from God. Remember that Scripture is only words on paper until God's own Spirit has revealed to our spirits the true meaning for us and our lives of the words written there!]
- Jesus truly had to struggle with the voices inside himself as to what he was to do as the One whose job was to redeem Israel, for all eternity. Jesus knew what his duty was--but he didn't know how exactly he was to carry it out.
- Satan suggested that Jesus use his mighty powers to promote his ministry the way any well intended professional might do things. After all, Jesus had the power to turn stones into bread.
- What about jumping off the temple heights? Nothing would hurt Jesus--and wouldn't that impress the people! Probably thousands would be converted to his ministry in just that event alone. But Jesus knew that these were the thoughts of the flesh, of the world--in its desire for success at any price. Jesus rebuked (rejected) these thoughts submitted by Satan for he knew they would draw Jesus away from total reliance or dependence on God.
- Satan even promised Jesus rulership over all the kingdoms of the earth--for Satan was indeed Prince of the Earth. But Jesus knew that he had come for a purpose higher than that. He was not going to become some great world conqueror like Alexander the Great. He had come to deliver all humankind from its sin--so that human souls would live with God eternally. This was a much more important job--and Jesus was not going to be drawn off course by the promise of worldly success, no matter how great that success might be.
- It was good that Jesus got his mind clear on these matters--for immediately upon his return from his testing in the wilderness, people around him began to pressure Jesus to shape his ministry just as Satan had recommended. Because of his testing, Jesus was now quick to recognize the voice of Satan in such advice, even, and especially, when it came from his friends, his family and his closest disciples!
Thus Jesus wants us to "die" to this worldly (or fleshly) nature -- in order to become spiritual in nature . What does this mean?
- Jesus was always well aware that he had been sent to us to bring us to the one thing that breaks Satan's power: trust in God alone. He also knew that Satan offered "religious achievement" as a "smoothie" alternative to true faith in God -- to draw our souls away from God.
- Religion is something that we feel we can do to help us get to God. Religion is something that we can "control" from our end of the relationship with God. Doing "religion" is supposed to put us in good standing (make us "righteous" in God's eyes). But beware: this is the Adversary's most devious trick to draw us away from a simple, total trust in God alone.
- Jesus makes it clear that all the religion in the world will not work for us. God does not want our religion. He wants us. He wants us as children -- trusting in his control, not our own.
- Read John 4:1-24; note especially verses 21-24.
- The Jews and the Samaritans constantly disputed about religious differences. But Jesus was not really terribly interested in these religious issues. He wanted people to come to God through some kind of "spiritual" relationship that would join their hearts closely to God -- through their total faith or trust in God and his care for them.
- The religious people in his day, the very religious Jews (the Pharisees), once they caught on to Jesus' message, were very upset with Jesus. They were angry that Jesus placed no importance whatsoever on all their religious performances. They wanted to kill him because he was encouraging others to come to God not through their religion, but through simple trust or belief in God's total care.
- Such faith is not an easy thing to do for us to come up with -- because it goes so directly against our worldly natures. We like being in control (or what seems like control). We don't really like to trust our lives, our futures to a God that cannot be manipulated.
- Read John 3:1-17.
- What do you think Jesus means when he tells Nicodemus that he must be "born again"? Why does Jesus make such an important distinction between life in the "flesh" and life in the "Spirit"? Does Nicodemus understand Jesus? Why can a man of his great religious accomplishment still have such a hard time understanding what Jesus is telling him?
- Why does Jesus place so much importance on this matter of faith or belief in God (and in his Son) rather than a lot of religious achievement? Does it seem that horrible things can happen if we don't come to the straightforward belief in God that Jesus is telling us is necessary for entry into God's eternal kingdom?
- Read John 3:16.
- This is a famous verse. Have we ever really noticed the part about perishing when we recite this verse? What did Jesus mean by "perish"? Does this mean that some people might not make it into God's kingdom? Is Jesus worried about this possibility? Does this reflect God's concern that some of us might of us might not make it into eternity with him?
- If God is so powerful, why doesn't he just cause us to believe in him? But would that truly be belief? Is a robot capable of belief --or just following instructions? Does God really want robots to love him and be with him for eternity -- of does he want people who out of their own free will desire to love and fellowship with him?
- Of course this makes our freedom particularly a major problem, doesn't it? In our freedom we naturally want control. But God want us to use our freedom to set aside just those instincts -- in order to come to him as a matter of even deeper love for him than for all the control in the world.
- Adam, of course, failed on that account when tested by the Adversary. Adam didn't use his freedom to stay in devoted fellowship with God. But Jesus, also put to the same test, did not fail. Jesus removed the blindness that Adam put on the human race. Jesus showed us the way to eternal life. All we have to do is let go of our control natures -- and come to God through the same direct belief that Jesus demonstrated. This is what it means to "believe," to believe in God in and through Jesus, our saving Lord.
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Miles H. Hodges - 2002