Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 17 January 2023. Today’s topic: Testify About

This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” Matthew 3:3

Matthew testifies about John the Baptist, tying his (then) contemporary life to old testament prophecy.  The Jewish leaders (and people) of John’s day were familiar with Isaiah and this prophecy: that a man, like the prophet Elijah, would come to Israel ahead of the arrival of the Messiah.  They were well-aware that John had, in his eccentric ministry, drawn the attention, praise, and following of thousands of devout Jews.   They were well-aware that acknowledging John as the one foretold to herald the Messiah would mean that the Messiah had arrived…and that they were rejecting him.

So, in his account of Jesus’ life, Matthew clearly establishes this link between (then) modern day John the Baptist and words of the revered prophet, Isaiah, from centuries earlier.  He does it to leave no doubt about who Jesus is by establishing the proof about who John was.   Why does it matter today?

Open your eyes, my friend.   The powers-that-be in the world still deny who Jesus is.  Jews still deny Jesus is the Messiah.   Most of the world – 7 of the 8 billion humans alive here on the Third Rock – deny Jesus is the Messiah.  Most people on this planet deny, reject, or ignore the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth the same as they did when John testified about Him.

Testify:  that’s a word we like to use.   If someone testifies in a trial, generally, their testimony is considered to be authoritative.   Here, we have an account, from a first-hand friend of Jesus about a first-hand relation of Jesus, written in a time when there were still hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who knew or remembered one or the both of them (Jesus and John).  Matthew testifies about John the Baptist, corroborating ancient prophecies about him.  He did this because he (and John) both testify about Jesus being God Immanuel.  That’s accurate testimony.

So what?  Here, pay attention to what Isaiah said John would do: “make straight paths for him.”   John would clear the road, so that Jesus could walk down the middle of it.   That road was the path to peoples’ hearts.   Hundreds of people had gone into the wilderness of Judea to hear the wild-man preacher talk about repenting from sin, and rebuke those who refused.   John talked about the Messiah, and about who He would be, and about how He would attack sin where it lived; how He would harvest a crop of believers.   It was John the Baptist’s job to prepare the people who followed him to get ready to follow one far greater.  His whole, prophesied life was lived to testify about this.

For more reading:  Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 3:1, Luke 1:76, John 1:33, Matthew 3:4

Lord, bless the life of John the Baptist.   Thank You for all he did in Your service.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 16 January 2023. Today’s topic: In Those Days Here and Now

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 3:1-2

Now, we move ahead to the time of Jesus’ adulthood.   “In those days” was how, in another book, St. Luke begins his account of the Nativity.   In this book, it is the transition Luke’s contemporary, Matthew, uses to subtly advance our thinking from talking about genealogy, wise men, and obscure towns in Galilee to the ‘here and now’ that is the rest of Jesus’ ministry.  

“In those days” could be now because the here and now of Jesus’ ministry didn’t simply end when He ascended back to heaven.   It continues today, here and now.   It goes on and on and will until He returns…

…Just like the words John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, said before Jesus went public: “repent, for the kingdom of heaven as come near.”  John said these words to the throngs of people who walked out into the Judean desert to hear his preaching.   One of the things I like about the Baptizer is that he was the same with everyone.   He told everyone to repent, from unknown street people to the leaders of the Jewish faith who saw him as a threat.

John didn’t simply say these things on his own.  The Lord inspired him.  He was foretold by Isaiah and Malachi, and was an older maternal cousin of Jesus.  His entire life, like his cousin’s, was a preparation for the time when the Spirit would inspire him to say and do things that mattered, that would move the world.

John didn’t stand in the Temple courts, telling people to turn from their dangerous ways.   He lived in the desert, in the desolate country to the southeast of Jerusalem, near the Jordan River, which empties into the Dead Sea.  It was close to Jerusalem, and was an area where zealots, religious challengers, and first-century Jewish activists often found refuge.  Being close in proximity to the center of Jewish worship, it’s understandable that many people, dissatisfied with the mainstream faith or hungry for fresh interpretations of God’s word, would have found their way out to visit the enthusiastic preacher in the wilderness.

In those days.

And, again, in our own.   You and I:   we hunger to hear others preaching the words of Jesus, preparing us for the time in our lives when He will make us new.   That time is today, though.   Sure, there will come a time when Jesus returns and all things will change.   But why wait until then?   Eternity matters most now.   Why not heed John’s call and turn from our dangerous ways today, here and now?  John’s call matters today, and Jesus’ words are forever.  His Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

For more reading:  Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 3:1, Malachi 4:5, Luke 1:13-17, Luke 1:57-66, Luke 3:2-19, John 3:3-5, Acts 19:3-4, Matthew 3:3

Lord Jesus, I repent of my sinful ways and turn now to You, today.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 12 January 2023. Today’s topic: Hometown

and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.  Matthew 2:23

This is a prophecy that isn’t a prophecy.   References to Jesus being from Nazareth are replete in the New Testament.   Yet references to the Messiah being from Nazareth, or a Nazarene, are nowhere to be found in the Old.  My Concordia also makes reference to the Hebrew word “neser,” meaning “branch.”   When Jesus is referred to as the “branch” from Jesse (harkening to Isaiah 11), it confirms He is from the lineage of King David.   In that way, it is a fulfilled prophecy, albeit indirectly, about Jesus and where He came from.

My wife and I, we like watching “Hometown:” the HGTV show with Ben and Erin Napier, who are gradually restoring old houses in her hometown of Laurel, Mississippi.   We’ve been to Laurel, visiting the Napier’s’ stores; we even took our dog, Bonnie, when she was still a puppy and was the toast of Saturday morning there.    It’s a beautiful old Southern town, full of tree-lined streets, antebellum homes that are crying out for restoration, and charm you only find in places that have been around for awhile.   It’s a good place to call home.

Jesus’ hometown was Nazareth, which is several days’ walk north of His birthplace in Bethlehem (Joseph’s ancestral home).  Matthew talks about Jesus being called a Nazarene.   John, Matthew’s fellow apostle, records how their (other) fellow apostle, Nathanael, asked “can anything good come from Nazareth,” when informed of Jesus’ hometown.  People of Jesus’ time looked down on Nazareth.  They didn’t even think about Jesus being born, the branch of King David, in Bethlehem, then being raised as just another man in just another hometown.

We become who we are, in part, because of where we grow up.   Environment influences, but doesn’t determine, outcome; see “Pygmalion.”  Erin Napier became a design expert, in part, because she grew up in a place in need of it.   Jesus grew up to be a carpenter, in part, because He lived in Nazareth, in His parents’ home, apprenticed to His craftsman earthly father.  Free will still trumps environment but the latter still influences the former. 

But consider Jesus, who was born as the Son of God to live and die a life we couldn’t.   Yet the Father still put Him in a hometown like ours, like anywhere else, for OUR benefit; to grow among us so that we could better relate to Him.   Ask Ben and Erin Napier; they’re believers, they’ll tell you.   It’s so we might better know Him.  It was an action for us, born out of definition, to fulfill an informal prophecy so that we could more easily get to know Him and His true reason for living among us.  

For more reading: Isaiah 11:1, Mark 1:9, Mark 6:1, Luke 1:26, Luke 2:39 & 51, John 1:45-46, Matthew 3:1

Lord, thank You for living in Nazareth

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 11 January 2023. Today’s topic: We Should Do the Same

So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee.  Matthew 2:21-22

We should do what Joseph did.   What does this mean?

Joseph obeyed.  He heard what was said to him and he did what he needed to do.   God told him to take Mary and Jesus back to Israel, so Joseph heeded God’s command and did it.   We should do the same.   When God tells us to do something, we should do it.   Our ways may not be the same ways as Joseph, but our God is the same as his God.   And we should do what God tells us to do, through His Word and through our hearts.

Joseph paid attention to the world around him.  He paid attention to the news of things happening, including who had ascended to the throne of Israel after Herod’s death.   He understood that Archelaus, son of Herod to took over on the death of his father, would also be a threat to Jesus.   Joseph understood that things happen in the world that can affect us because he paid attention.   He realized that, while God doesn’t keep is in the same place forever, He does abide with us as He moves us in the world and He wants us to pay attention to what’s happening, for our own good.   Joseph did; we should do the same.

Joseph kept the faith.  His understanding from the angel (from God) wasn’t a one-time thing.  Joseph had been raised in Judaism and understood the words of the Torah, the laws, and the prophets.   They encouraged him to believe in God.   So, when God presented news and commands to Joseph, he understood them and believed in what they said.   We should do the same.   God has made Himself plain and clear to us through His Word, in ways similar to Joseph. We should believe like Joseph.

Joseph let himself be guided by God, through his knowledge and his conscience.   I’m betting he didn’t fully understand the dreams, or the reasons why God was telling him to do certain things, but he obeyed and let himself be guided.   God blessed Joseph accordingly.   Joseph submitted to God and God guided Joseph rightly.  We should do the same.

WWJD?   Yes, because “J” is both Jesus and Joseph.  Joseph’s example is timeless, and righteous, and one we’d do well to remember (and follow) in our so-called modern world.  He obeyed God.  He paid attention but still followed the Lord.   He kept the faith.   And he submitted to God.   You get the picture:   we should do the same.  

For more reading: Luke 2:39, Matthew 2:23

Lord, help me to obey, be faithful, to listen, and to be guided by You and You alone.   Thank You for the example of Joseph.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 10 January 2023. Today’s topic: God Doesn’t Keep Us in the Same Places Forever

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”  Matthew 2:19-20

God doesn’t usually keep us in one place forever.  Even if you grow up in your hometown and stay there for one hundred years, you aren’t the same person you were at the start.   Times change; people change; we grow and change.   It’s because God doesn’t usually keep us in the same place forever.

An angel had told Joseph to stay with Mary.   Then, an angel told Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt, to keep Jesus safe.   Now, an angel appears to Joseph again, and again in a dream, and tells him to go home because Herod and the conspirators who wanted to kill the baby Jesus are dead.  Examine these verses and you learn a few things.

First, Jesus was fully human.   His life was perishable (and would, in God’s right time, perish).   He could and would die, and because of who He was, He was in danger from would-be murderers.   Jesus was like us:  fully human yet still fully God.  I find that comforting, because it means that He identifies with us.   He didn’t let Himself descend into sin like we do, but He still felt other things we feel, thought things we think.  And He would grow up to be tempted as we are because He is fully human like we are.  He grew like we do.

Another thing:  Jesus’ life was influenced by the same kinds of things that influence and affect us.  Threats from other people, events set in motion by high-ranking individuals, travel to far-off places, parents caring and providing for Him, sleep and dreams, places to live each day   Jesus lived in a world with the same kinds of events and challenges that we face.    Just like Him being human like us, He was influenced by outside events.

Last, Jesus was a stranger in a strange land.  He and His family were transients in Egypt; there for a purpose (protection) but only for a short time (presumably a few years).   Egypt wasn’t their home:  it was only a place to stay for a little while.   Every day, you and I, we sometimes feel like strangers in strange places.   “How did I get here?” I sometimes ask myself.   How did my life turn out this way?   I’m not the same person I was, but sometimes I feel like I’m living in a strange land.  It comforts me to know that Jesus was once a stranger in a strange place, and that He can identify with what I feel. 

Thank God He doesn’t keep us in the same places forever.

For more reading: Exodus 4:19, Acts 5:19, Matthew 2:21

All praise to you, Lord, for how You move us (and with us) in life.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 9 January 2023. Today’s topic: We Do

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”  Matthew 2:16-18

I’ll admit:  whenever I read these verses, I’m conflicted.   Why did God spare His Son and not the other hundreds, maybe thousands, of other human sons around Bethlehem?   When Herod learned he had been spurned, he decided to kill every young boy in the area.   If he couldn’t find the Messiah in the crowd, he’d simply kill the crowd.  This is the part we don’t show in our Christmas Nativities.  It harkens forward to Revelation 12, where a dragon swoops in to kill God’s Son (an event Chad Bird refers to as “when a dragon tried to eat Jesus”).  It’s violent and visceral and murderous; hardly what you think of when you think of the story of those wise men.

Sort of like Chicago every weekend.   Or north Texas, where, on Christmas, a grandfather brutally murdered his 8-year-old grandson for reasons unknown.  Why did God spare His Son and not the sons of the families in northern Israel? 

Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves that we aren’t God.   That God tolerates our sins.   He doesn’t cause them; we do.   Instead, He works in our world to use the consequences of our sins to advance His kingdom, and His good purposes.  Here again, God fulfills a prophecy, this one from Jeremiah, brutally fulfilled twice in Scripture.   Knowing that, name one time in the Bible or your own life when God caused you to sin, or even one time when He said (or even inferred), “do this sin to get out of sin.”   It hasn’t ever happened.  

Nor will it because God loves us.   He loves us with a deep power we can’t even fathom.  He loves us enough to tolerate even our worst actions so that His Spirit might work among us afterwards.   Killings in the hood, Islamic terrorism, the Holocaust, slaughter at the Somme, Torquemada’s worst fantasies, Aztec sacrifices, Cain with a rock in his hand:  God tolerates our terrible, sinful choices so that He might redeem us from their deathly spiritual outcome.

The children murdered by Herod didn’t deserve it, but it happened.   Blame Herod; blame his conspiring advisors; blame the soldiers who carried out their heinous orders.   Blame the people who are actually to blame, not God.   Our sins, even the worst murders, aren’t God’s fault.   He doesn’t sin.   We do.

For more reading: Genesis 35:19, Jeremiah 31:15, Revelation 12:4, Matthew 2:19

Lord, I pray for the peace of those innocents killed by Herod, and for those suffering from our sins today.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 5 January 2023. Today’s topic: Out of Egypt

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”  So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”  Matthew 2:13-15

In this last part of the Christmas and Nativity stories, an angel tells Joseph to get up and go.  Once again, this happens via a dream.  The magi have been given similar instructions (to depart for home by a way different from their original route).   Now, God tells Joseph to take his family and go to Egypt, where the Son of God will be safe.   The Son isn’t safe in the land where God’s people reside; in that place, His life is in danger from a king gone bad.   So, the angel directs that God’s Son should be taken back to the historical home of Israel’s slavery, the place from which the Lord had once delivered them.

High irony.

By this time, Egypt, like Israel, was no longer an independent nation.  Like Judea, Egypt was another province under the control of Rome.   It had been this way for decades, since the last days of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.  It was no longer the land of the pharaohs or the way Egypt had been governed for over 2000 years.  By the time of Christ, Egypt was a foreign land under a familiar banner.

Why did God send His Son there?   Obviously, to save Him from Herod’s wrath but also to fulfill the prophecy, from Hosea, that is quoted in verse 15:  “Out of Egypt I called my son.”   That’s one of those dual promises that God had already kept when He delivered Israel from slavery.  His “son”, in that context, was His chosen people.

Now, God keeps that same promise again, sending His literal Son of the Trinity literally to Egypt from whence, in a few years, He would call Him back home:  to Nazareth, the home of Joseph and Mary, where Jesus would grow up.  That place, too, would serve God’s purposes.

In “The Chosen,” there is a scene where Jesus confronts an Ethiopian woman, speaking with her in Egyptian.   He tells her he grew up there.  When I watched this, I considered, for the first time, how Jesus had, indeed, lived in Egypt.   His earliest memories were of living near the Pyramids, not the Temple.   Of Egyptian customs, and the language, and the ancient ways of the world’s oldest extant nation.  It was because, ‘out of Egypt, I called my son.’

For more reading:  Exodus 4:22-23, Hosea 11:1 Acts 5:19, Revelation 12:4, Matthew 2:16

Lord, all praise to You for the intricacies of Your holy prophecies.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 4 January 2023. Today’s topic: Dream About That

And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.  Matthew 2:12

Dreams again.   Having been told, through a dream, to disobey King Herod’s command, the mysterious men from a faraway land went home via a different route.   Perhaps they went south, through Egypt (as Jesus would soon do).   Perhaps they went to the sea, then boarded a boat.   Or maybe they moved north, then east.   However they went, the magi went home.  After Matthew, the Bible doesn’t mention the wise men, however many of them there were, however many gifts they gave and left behind. 

We have sufficient information.

That’s a good lesson to remember because the Bible teaches it frequently.   God speaks succinctly.   He tells us what we need to know.  He’s God.   He knows how to get His message across.  To the magi, he spoke in a dream (just as He had done with Joseph earlier, and would soon again).  God told them, “Go home a different way.”   We don’t know if He told them why, or which way to go, or how to get there.   God told these wise new followers of the young Messiah to return home by a different route.   He has his reasons, and nothing further is mentioned.   From God’s short words, we have enough information to draw lessons:

  • Trust God’s word.  He tells us what He wants us to know and doesn’t waste words.   Wasting those words is left to me, and you, and all of us.   But boil down the extra words and we’re left to trust what God said.
  • Share God’s word.   Tell others.   Along your journey, tell others.   When you get home, tell others.   For the rest of your life, talk about this miracle God has done for you by telling others.   It’s logical to assume the magi did that.   We should, too.
  • Follow God’s word.   The dream told the wise men to bypass Jerusalem and Herod on their way home.  They complied.   The men went by a different route and didn’t report back to the king what they had seen or done.  As we’ll see next, this enraged Herod.   I’m sure the wise men talked about what slighting a powerful monarch might mean.   And perhaps they were afraid.   We don’t know.   After this, we don’t hear about the magi again…because we have sufficient information.   All we know is that they followed God’s instructions.

And all this came from the dreams.   Perhaps God revealed to each of them; perhaps only to one.  It doesn’t really matter.  We have all the information we need, from God’s account here, to know that we, like the Magi, should trust, share, and follow God’s word, now more than ever.  God bless we should all dream about that.

For more reading:  Matthew 2:13

Lord, You revealed Your will to these men in dreams.   Help me to know Your commands, then to trust, share, and follow You

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 3 January 2023. Today’s topic: Their Gifts Represent

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11

If you’re a long-time follower of Jesus, some of this may be old-hat.   Bear with me anyway because there’s something about it you might not have already noodled.

We don’t know if there were three kings or more.   As we’ve discussed before, we don’t even know if the men who showed up at the Nativity were even kings, or if they were wealthy men, or professors, or Zoroastrian astrologers.   From this verse, we know there were three gifts that were recorded as being presented to the baby Jesus.   That’s’ it.

In fact, the baby Jesus may not have been a baby anymore.   He might have been a toddler by this time.   He might have been older, and no longer residing in a stable.  The verse itself says “to the house.”  Not the stable, not a barn, not a big cleft in a rock where animals were kept.   The other Gospels don’t mention the magi.  By this time, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were in a house.

Ask yourself this:   does it matter?   Sure, the next time you set out your nativity scene, you want it to represent what really happened.   But does the historical accuracy of it really matter?   Not if you’re an atheist, or an unbeliever, or not a follower of Jesus.   To them, this is nonsense anyway.   And, not if you’re a modern-day professor; see the immediate-prior listing of people (as well as their usual conclusion).   And, not even if you’re a zealous, devoted follower of Jesus.

What matters is that the people who showed up at Chez Joseph worshipped Jesus, and presented Him with their best gifts.   From the heart, like we should; just like the reason for Christmas (and Epiphany) anyway.  Thinking about that, I like O’Henry’s famous story, “The Gift of the Magi.”   In it, a husband and wife give each other sacrificial gifts from the heart that cost them dearly so that the other might enjoy a gift of love.   At the end of the story, O’Henry compares their ironic gifts to those of the wise men, whose gold, incense, and myrrh, were valuable gifts for a king but hardly fit for a baby in poverty. 

If you don’t know what it’s used for, go look up myrrh.  At the birth of Jesus, it’s prophetically ironic.

We don’t know what happened to the gifts.  Perhaps Mary and Joseph sold them for food.   Or saved them for a later time.   And we’ll soon learn what the magi did next.  But, as I asked earlier, does it really matter?   Isn’t what matters most eternity, and the eternal worship of the heart that these gifts of the magi represent?

For more reading:  Psalm 72:10, Isaiah 60:3, Matthew 2:12

Lord, thank You for the examples of the Magi.

Practical Proverbial, from Matthew, 2 January 2023. Today’s topic: That We Might Worship Him, Too

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. Matthew 2:9-10

Happy New Year and may this new year be the kind of blessing to you that the Star of Bethlehem was to the Magi.   For decades, the world has been trying to explain that blessing, explain the Star to find some justification for it.   In 2021, there was a convergence of planets where they shone brightly, as if they were a single star.   Scientists and the media called it “the star of Bethlehem” and said that such rare convergences happen roughly once every 20 years, and rarely that brilliant.  According to them, that might explain the miraculous star from around the time of the birth of Christ.   No word from science to explain how the biblical star actually moved.

My explanation:   whatever.   Putting one’s faith in the truth of the Bible isn’t something that requires empirical proof.   You believe it’s true (because your heart tells you so), or you don’t.  If you don’t, keep trying.   Keep trying to believe, or just keep trying to find out proof.   As with the Magi, perhaps the science will lead you to the kind of faith they found when they followed the miraculous moving star.

Every year, my wife displays her nativity collection.  At last count, she has over 50 of them, literally from all over the world.   One from a village in east Africa; another from an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, one from Oberammergau, where the Passion Play is held, several from Israel; others made in China, from Hallmark stores, and some that are materially worth little but are worth much more to her.   Because she enjoys them.   Because they’re pretty.   Because, every time she looks at them, she remembers the story of the birth of Jesus and how celebrities from the Near East and shepherds from nearby fields both came to worship Him. 

Because they had seen the Star.  

We all occasionally ask God for signs.   “Show me a sign, Lord, and I’ll know what to do.”   Yet, when He does show us the signs, do we follow through?  The wise men did.   They studied the Jewish Scriptures, and looked for miraculous proofs all around them, and then they found one.   So, they followed it.   They followed it until it brought them face to face with the Son of God.

That’s my prayer for you, and me, and each of us, this year.   May God give us the wisdom to heed His Word and signs so that He might bring us face to face with the Son of God.   That we might worship Him, too.

For more reading:  Matthew 2:11

Lord God, bless this new year.   Teach me to heed Your holy Word and signs you give so that I might know Your holy Son.