Saturday, January 31, 2015

New Testament Lesson 5: Born Again

This weeks lesson discusses an interesting contrast of stories from John 3-4.
John 3
v.1 Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jewish people. That is to say he knew the law and he knew the prophets. He had all the possible help at hand to be able to understand the scriptures and recognize the Messiah like Simeon or Anna or anyone else we have thus far met in our New Testament study.

v.2 It's not stated clearly here but Nicodemus' seems to be asking who Jesus is and what is his purpose. He asks the question by essentially saying, "Listen Jesus, we know you are a good man because of the way you teach and the miracles you do but who are you, what are you trying to accomplish here?". This does not seem to be a sincere attempt to establish who Christ is but whether he will be a threat to the Pharisee's teachings and establishment.
Note also the setting. Nicodemus comes to Christ at night. We are not sure if he comes of his own volition or if he was sent by his fellow ruling Pharisees who do not want to be seen approaching Christ during the day. Either way, Christ takes this as an opportunity to teach Nicodemus personally.
v.3 His response to the unasked but implied question is "you will never really understand who I am until you are born again." I like the way the dark night adds to the feeling that although Nicodemus can literally see Jesus, he can't see him for who he really is. His spiritual sight is still unable to perceive the Messiah standing in front of him. Nicodemus here foreshadows the entire Jewish people rejecting the Saviour, unable to realize or see him as anything beyond the son of Joseph.
v.4 Nicodemus is obviously confused, taking Jesus literally he wonders how someone can be born twice.
v.5-8 Christ, possibly recognizing some sincerity in Nicodemus does try to explain that being born twice involves a physical birth AND a spiritual birth. He tries to teach him that not everything is literal or physical. This is a big deal and quite apt for a Pharisee as everything they do is literal and physical. They took the old law and made it a ritualistic hollow series of actions, stripping it of all spirituality. Christ tries to tell Nicodemus that the Spirit is not a physical thing you can see but something that you feel and see the effects of.
v.9 Nicodemus does not understand Jesus though.
v.10-13 At this stage of the conversation Christ now points out the obvious: "how can you have studied the scriptures all your life and miss the actual meaning. This is just the basics of the gospel. I can't even start to discuss deep doctrine with you." How many of us have neglected to study the scriptures with spiritual eyes? How many read it daily and do good actions but miss the whole point and fail to understand the "why" of what we do? How many people today have the scriptures by our bedside or in our bookcase but have not invited Christ into our lives? That is the question Nicodemus is asked.
 v.14-15 Christ continues to try and help Nicodemus understand that he is the Saviour by relating back to a story Nicodemus must have known very well. He compares the brass serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness to himself and tries to point out the symbolism to Nicodemus, prophesying of his own crucifixion. Of course the irony here is that even as then people refused to look at what was right in front of them, even so Nicodemus refuses or is unable to see the Christ who is mighty to save, right in front of him.
v.16 And then with the simplest doctrine of all, Christ further explains the great plan to Nicodemus. And all we have to do is believe and see.
v.19-21 And then his summary "But Nicodemus, this is the problem. Standing in front of you is the Messiah, the Christ, the light of world - but you choose to come to me in darkness and sneak around afraid to be seen with me. Until you accept me and choose to be seen with me in the light you will remain condemned to darkness spiritually."

It is a powerful visit with a man who should have known better and a powerful lesson to all those who profess to be religious.

Then comes act two of this fascinating contrast that John purposely sets up for us.

John 4
v.5-6 Note the setting here. Despite no longer being the seat of the Jewish people or their laws, there is deep spiritual resonance in this setting. It is here that Jacob settled after returning to the Holy Land. And what was the time? It is the sixth hour. What time is that? The Jews used to measure time by the rising of the sun. So the 6th hour was the 6th hour after sunrise. This was considered high noon! So compared to the visit of Nicodemus at the dead of night this story is happening at the height of the sun. There is more than enough light here.
v.7 Note also here the contrast to the previous story: Nicodemus of the chosen people, a teacher of the scriptures and the ruling class compared to a woman of no importance and of a people who were considered unworthy of the covenant blessings. Sometimes we think we know who is righteous by outward appearances. I think John is clearly showing that Christ's judgement is not based on outward appearances at all but on the heart. Being Mormon doesn't save us anymore than being a Pharisee Jew saved Nicodemus. Those that will be saved are those of sincere heart who are born again and accept Jesus as the Christ in thought and in deed.
And Jesus, possibly recognizing the woman's heart and sincerity asks her for some water from the well.

v.9-11 I love how this very human of conversations unfolds. The woman is shocked that a Jew would even speak to her. And Jesus immediately dismisses the enmity between Samaritans and Jews by saying "If you knew who I was and what I offer you would have asked me for water, living water!" v.12 She politely responds, questioning how he can give her living water when the well is deep and he doesn't have a pot to collect the water! And then she dares to ask the question that Nicodemus didnt dare ask. "Art thou greater than our father Jacob?" This openness and this sincerity without guile also sets her apart from Nicodemus' more sly and confused approach.
v.13-14 Christ then explains that the water he gives is not from the well but it is water that if drunk will mean she will not thirst again. Christ is obviously, as with Nicodemus, speaking spiritually.
v.15 Again another contrast to Nicodemus. I am not sure the woman understands fully what Christ is saying but rather than saying "What? That doesn't make any sense!" Her reaction is more innocent and curious. "Give me this water. So I don't have to come here to this well every day and draw water every day and drink every day." Or in other words, "Please make my life easier!".
v.16-19 Christ perceiving her openness to his message and yet discerning she is not quite getting it yet, proceeds to prove his prophetic spiritual abilities by explaining her personal situation. There is something about this conversation where you get the feeling that the woman is maybe flirting with this stranger. Here is a woman who has had five husbands. We do not know the circumstances of those marriages or their end but she is now instead living with a man but not married. To hear from a stranger that he will take away her work and provide for her living water may have been just what she wanted to hear and so she tells truthfully she has no husband but maybe purposely leaves out the fact that she is living with someone. "This strange but sincere man is offering to look after me forever!" But when Christ shows her that he knows more of her life, she starts to realize that this is not another suitor but the Saviour. She is cautious but again more direct than Nicodemus. "I perceive that thou art a prophet".
v.20-24 Now Jesus can see that she is ready to be taught of spiritual things and tells her that salvation must come of the Jews but the location of where you worship God is far less important. God just wants people that will worship him in actions and in the desires of their heart. They are those who will be saved.
v.25 Now the woman is clearly interested but still cautious, she utters her last statement. One presumes she must have by now, based on the progression of the conversation, had some idea, some hope, that this man was Christ. And she pushes it to that point by declaring she believes in a Messiah and when he arrives he will tell her. In essence she is forcing the Saviour to reveal himself to her.
Notice the gradual progression of her realisation that this man at the well is indeed the Saviour as illustrated by the pointed questions she asks. Unlike Nicodemus who came in darkness and left in darkness, this woman already had a light within and left with more light.
"Art thou greater than our father Jacob?"
"Give me this water."
"I perceive that thou art a prophet."
"I know the Messiah cometh...he will tell us all things"
The Saviour cannot leave now without clearly revealing who he is. If he does she will look elsewhere for a Messiah. And so her faith, despite being a lowly woman of Samaria is still stronger than the most learned of the Jews and she is rewarded for her faith.
v.26 Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.
That ranks among the many other scriptural moments I would love to have been present at. This is a powerful declaration and testimony of himself and his divine mission.
Her reaction is a clear foreshadowing of the gospel mission Christ himself preaches - to declare the good news to all and so she goes back to town to tell the men that the Messiah has arrived.
v.39-40 Many believe on her words and he is invited to stay and teach them. He stays 2 days and as a result many more believed declaring "this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world".

In essence there are two groups of people, those that sincerely are looking for the truth and those that are not. Sometimes those we think are sincerely searching for truth are not and sometimes those we might ordinarily dismiss are in fact the ones that are ready for the gospel. John clearly shows that the gospel will only save those who are sincere in their search for the Christ.

Additionally if you are sitting at home, lonely, forgotten, worn out, bowed down by life or even heartache doing your best to make ends meet as a single parent, take note. Christ has time for you. He is not a respecter of position or wealth. He is seeking for those who seek the truth. He can provide living water. He can save. Just come to him, be born again.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

New Testament Lesson 4: Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

Matthew 3:1-12
v.1 "in those days" - what days? refer back to Matthew 2:19-23 notice it says "take the young child". So John the Baptist started preaching in the Judaean wilderness in the same days that Jesus' family were back and settled in Nazareth.
v.2 what were the first words of John's ministry as recorded by Matthew? "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
cf. Matthew 4:17 what were the first words of Jesus' ministry as recorded by Matthew? "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand".
Why was the message of repentance so central to Christ's gospel? Is it still today?
"You may in time of trouble think that you are not worth saving because you have made mistakes, big or little, and you think you are now lost. That is never true! Only repentance can heal what hurts. But repentance can heal what hurts, no matter what it is." - President Boyd K. Packer, October 2011, Counsel to Youth, General Conference.

"Every soul confined in a prison of sin, guilt, or perversion has a key to the gate. The key is labeled “REPENTANCE” If you know how to use this key, the adversary cannot hold you." - President Boyd K. Packer, October 2010, Cleaning the Inner Vessel, General Conference

I love those thoughts - "only repentance can heal what hurts" and we each hold the key to repentance. No-one else has control. We have the key. We get to choose. We are masters of our own destiny.

What was the message he asked the apostles to share as he left them after his resurrection? see Matthew 28:19-20. 
The old gospel of law was fulfilled, many of the old generation needed turning from it and in most cases repenting for not living it. Eventually the message emphasis changed ever so slightly from turning from the old fulfilled gospel to becoming born again in the new gospel of spirit and love. cf 3 Nephi 15:2-10 

v.3-4 What manner of man was John? Here he stood, literally in the meridian of time, in the wilderness possibly symbolizing the once more lost state of the children of Israel. The one prophet whose duty it was to set the stage for Christ's mortal ministry. He was so important that Isaiah prophesied of him. The Christ himself said in Luke 7:28, "Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist" Why was it important that someone prepare the way for Christ's ministry and why John?

John's ministry brought many people out to explore, learn or just to watch what was happening. Luke's account gives us very interesting summary of some of the people that came to John and the things they needed to repent of.
v.7-9 cf.Luke 3:7-18 
Pharisees and Sadducees: self righteousness, they felt that their genealogy and position gave them heaven. They were opposites and proud of it. Pharisees regarded themselves as the upholders of the old law - to the letter. Sadducees consider themselves the forward thinking "free will" modern subscribers of the law. To be grouped together must have been a blow to both groups' egos.
Publicans (tax collectors): were taxing more than they should and likely keeping it for themselves
Soldiers: falsely accused people, used rough and violent tactics and were in constant complaint about their wages
The people: were not giving their surplus to the poor and needy.
What do we have need to repent of? Do we think just being LDS, saves us? Do we keep our surplus from others? Do we steal? Do we lie and complain about our lot in life?

v.13-17 After all these people in need of repentance then comes The One who has no need of repentance. Why was Christ baptized? What does it mean to fulfill all righteousness? cf 2 Nephi 31:6-7,9,5.

v.11 John says there was a difference between his baptism and the baptism that Christ would bring. What was that difference? 
Why could John not baptize of the Spirit? Aaronic priesthood is a preparatory priesthood. John's authority extended only to baptism of water, not baptism of fire.

Matthew 4:1-11 
v.1 note Christ did not seek temptation. The Joseph Smith Translation clarifies that Jesus actually went up to be with God. Satan, knowing that Christ's ministry was beginning, obviously this would be a good time to try and dissuade him from his important mission. 
The 3 Temptations:

setting: wilderness
temptation: "command that these stones be made bread" (v.3)
response: "IT IS WRITTEN: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" 
The Lord quotes Deuteronomy 8:2-3 where the children of Israel are told their 40 years in the desert where they sometimes hungered was so that they would remember whom they relied on. Israel forgot. Christ did not. Controlling our physical desires, appetites and passions is a necessary part of our covenant with Christ. He led the way for us with his example.

setting: pinnacle of the temple (v.6)
temptation: "cast thyself down"
response: "IT IS WRITTEN: thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God"
Satan here uses scripture to try to persuade Christ to prove he is the Son of God by performing some miraculous skydive from the temple followed by a heavenly host saving the Saviour. Surely if Christ had followed this path the people at the temple would have more readily accepted him as their Messiah from the beginning. Satan's many temptations may seem logical or fun or even serving a purpose but they always end up with us being lower in spirit than before. Ironically the act he chooses is to have Christ go from the highest pinnacle of the temple into the courtyard below. Such is the path Satan always demands of us.

Note also that with both of these temptations, Satan uses the conditional phrase "If thou be the Son of God...". This could serve two purposes. If there is any doubt in Christ's mind as to his origins Satan is definitely pushing those buttons. If on the other hand Christ is sure of who he is Satan is banking on Christ maybe feeling a little prideful and wanting to prove he is. But Christ falls for neither temptation.

setting: an exceeding high mountain (v.8)
temptation: "all these things I will give thee"
response: "IT IS WRITTEN: thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve"
Up to this point, Satan has arrogantly taunted Christ and subtly tried to create doubt in the mind of the potential Saviour of the world. But now he simply begs and bargains trying to use power and wealth to buy the Saviour's loyalty. And when it fails he is banished.
We too should consider Satan's sinful arc of descent here. So often sin starts off as self-gratification, a lack of self-control, becomes brazen and bold before getting us banished!
We have all fallen to one temptation or another. The gospel will teach us how to avoid temptations and how to resist temptations but still we all fall from the pinnacle of the temple from time to time.
But Christ did not. His way was sure.

Satan would have you believe that once you fall to temptation that you are no good and you may as well give up. He makes you feel embarrassed and he makes you feel like you need to hide (just as he did from the very beginning with Adam and Eve).
But Christ's gospel is a gospel of repentance and it is for us ordinary folk who make mistakes daily. We have the key. Use it. What a waste to sit in a prison when you yourself hold the key to your escape. Repent. 

"You may in time of trouble think that you are not worth saving because you have made mistakes, big or little, and you think you are now lost. That is never true! Only repentance can heal what hurts. But repentance can heal what hurts, no matter what it is." - President Boyd K. Packer, October 2011, Counsel to Youth, General Conference.

John 1:35-51
"where dwellest thou?" and "Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?"
Both questions are answered the same way "Come and See". Our invitation to all is whether you think you know of this Christ or have no idea where this Christ came from, Come and See. Get to know him, dwell with him for a while, converse with him for a while. The Christ came to us in the most humblest way, willing to live humbly, willing to avoid wealth and power, willing to sink to the darkest of our depths to save us. He knows you. He knows us all. Come and See.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

New Testament Lesson 3: Unto You is Born...a Saviour

Today's lesson focuses on the scriptures surrounding Christ's birth and the little we know of his youth. We have probably just put away all of the Christmas decorations but I like the idea of revisiting the Christmas spirit just at that point in the New Year when we may have forgotten it.

The following video has the 3 members of the First Presidency of the Church each speaking of the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke as a story of love, as a time of remembrance, gratitude and of forgiveness, where we should seek the Christ and offer our gifts to him. As you watch the video try to focus on those things that stand out for you in your mind and in your heart.

There are a number of topics that strike a chord with me from that video segment.
  1. Glad tidings of great all people (Luke 2:9-10)
  2. For unto you is born...a Saviour (Luke 2:11)
  3. The sign of the manger (Luke 2:12)
  4. The testimony of Simeon and Anna who was over 100yrs old (Luke 2:25-38)
  5. No ear may hear his coming but in the world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in. (O Little Town of Bethlehem)
  6. The wise men and the gifts we offer
Glad Tidings of Great all people
What is the meaning and significance of this declaration?
For the Jewish people awaiting their Jewish Messiah this declaration might have come as a shock. Clearly the angel Gabriel declares this is good news for all people, not just the chosen people.
Why did the angel choose these shepherds to make his announcement? What symbolism can we see in the angel's visit to the shepherds and what did they do to deserve such an honour? (Luke 2:8)
The hills of Bethlehem were used to pasture the temple flocks. Every day, once at the beginning of the day and once at the end of the day the priest would offer a sacrificial lamb on the altar of the temple, a lamb without blemish. It is most likely that these shepherds were entrusted with safeguarding the ewes and the lambs of the temple flock. These were holy shepherds and a holy flock.

When the heavenly hosts praise God it is recorded that together they declared "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men". Why?
As people who purport to follow Christ do we consistently feel peace in our lives and good will to others or are we more often stressed, inviting drama into our lives and pointing condemning fingers at others?

For unto you is born...a Saviour
What did the people think they needed saving from? The people were looking for a mortal messiah, a warrior, a king to free them from the yoke of subjugation. Remember they have been ruled by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and now the Romans. After 400-500 years of this physical rule over them the people were focused on saving their land rather than their souls. They wanted a king who would fight their rulers and drive them away.
Matthew and Luke both seem to emphasize 3 necessary traits that point to the true Saviour.
  1. the babe is of the house of David and thus royalty -  a true King
  2. the babe is divine and will be capable of redeeming the world - truly the living son of a God
  3. the babe is holy and was prophesied and foreordained to come - the Anointed One (Christ, Messiah, the Great High Priest)
In announcing these three things to the shepherds, Gabriel is declaring fulfillment of prophecy (Luke 2:11).

The Sign of the Manger
The shepherds were told in verse 12 that the babe would be lying in a manger and that would be a sign to them. Presumably one of the reasons for them needing a sign is to identify the baby who probably looked like any other baby in Bethlehem. But what other sign might Gabriel be pointing to?
Sign of the complete condescension of God (God, creator of all born as a mere mortal and laid in the feeding trough of a sheep), sign of the sacrament ( the Great Shepherd himself laid down symbolically as food for the sheep) might be possible answers.

Simeon and Anna
Just another day in the temple.
Luke 2:25-26 What if Simeon after his many righteous and devout years just got tired and decided not to go to the temple that day? Do we ever feel tired? Do we ever feel like we earned the right to stop listening to the Lord for a day or two? Maybe this week I wont go to church. I've been good. He wont mind. It's only one week. What if Simeon had said the same thing that day? But he didn't and as a result we get to hear about one of the most personal and patient testimonies in scripture.
v.27 "He came by the Spirit into the temple".
v.29-32 Simeon was obviously aware the Saviour would be a saviour for all mankind not just the chosen people.

v.36-37 Anna was married 7 years and a widow for 84 years. Logic suggests she was over 100 yrs old on this day in the temple. She never left the temple and fasted and prayed.

These two elderly examples of righteous waiting and patient living, not only got their reward but became one of the original witnesses of the Saviour's birth. They represent all those righteous who patiently await in faith the coming of the Saviour. I love these passages. They symbolize the reward that awaits us all if we do what is right.

This video is the classical song "Nunc dimittis". It is the Latin for the first two words of Simeon's wonderful testimony in Luke 2:29 "Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace...". Here is the culmination of his life's faith.
It's a beautiful piece of music.

No ear may hear His coming...
Philip Brooks was an Episcopal clergyman of the mid-1800's who became the Bishop of Massachusetts. He remained unmarried throughout his life and was seen as a pillar of virtue and man of humility by those that knew him despite his 6'4" frame.
He originally wanted to be a teacher but at age 20 was fired and declared "I wish I were 15 yrs old again. I believe I might become a stunning man: but somehow or other I do not seem in the way to come to much now". I wonder how many others may have felt that way at some point in their lives.
When he died at just age 58 in Boston, one observer of his funeral noted, "They buried him like a king. Harvard students carried his body on their shoulders. All barriers of denominations were down. Roman Catholics and Unitarians felt that a great man had fallen in Israel."
At one point in his life he visited the Holy Land and was inspired by the view of Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine. It was there he wrote the lyrics to "O Little Town of Bethlehem".
The 3rd verse reads:
"How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessing of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Lord enters in"

These people we discussed today heard the whisperings of the Spirit in their life and were blessed to witness miraculous events.
These special witnesses were only a few when compared to the rest of the world who continued to live their lives unaware of these great events. Most in Bethlehem were unaware of the significance of the babe born among them. Most did not see the star or the angel Gabriel or witness the heavenly host. Most in the temple that day probably had no idea what the fuss of two old people was over the little child.
"How silently how silently the wondrous gift is given".
Most were not looking for him, they were not listening. And yet silently, wondrously the gift is there for all who will receive it.

The Wise Men
We all know the story of the wise men recorded in Matthew, that came from the east looking for the babe that was born King of the Jews. And we all know they gave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh. But why did they give these gifts? Why not a child's play toy, or some clothes, maybe some cookies (ancient home-baked cookies of course)? The reason is again symbolism. Gold denoted his earthly right to be king as a descendant of David. Frankincense was used in priestly duties in the temple, in burnt offerings and in oil for anointing priests and is symbolic of his pre-ordination as the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Great High Priest. Myrrh represented his partaking of the bitter cup, the atonement, and his breaking of the bitter bands of death that only one of divine birth could do. The wise men gave wise gifts recognizing the infant child as King, Messiah and Son of God.
What gifts are we asked to give to Christ? A broken heart and a contrite spirit, service, gratitude might all be appropriate answers.

The scriptures give no indication how many wise men there were and there is also no indication from scripture that these men were royalty as has been suggested in popular modern Christian lyrics and literature.

Notice the reactions of these witnesses. The shepherds "came with haste", and then "made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child". Anna came "in that instant" and then "spake of him to all them that looked for redemption". And the wise men studied the stars and then, when they saw the sign of the star, traveled long distances and for at least many months to worship him.

Jesus' childhood.
What do we know of his childhood. We know by twelve he had become smart and wise and knowledgeable enough to teach the teachers and the learned men in the temple. How he became that way is discussed by Bruce R McConkie in his book The Mortal Messiah:

"He was as much the product of the mother who bare him as were her other children. As a babe he began to grow, normally and naturally, and there was nothing supernatural about it. He learned to crawl, to walk, to run. He spoke his first word, cut his first tooth, took his first step--the same as other children do. He learned to speak; he played with toys like those of his brothers and sisters; and he played with them and with the neighbor children. He went to sleep at night and he
awoke with the morning light...He learned to speak, to read, to write; he memorized passages of scripture, and he pondered their deep and hidden meanings. He was taught in the home by Mary, and then by Joseph, as was the custom of the day. Jewish traditions and the provisions of the Torah were discussed daily in his presence. He learned the Schema, reverenced the Mezuzah, and participated in prayers, morning, noon, and night. Beginning at five or six he went to school, and certainly continued to do so until he became a son of the law at twelve years of age...It is also apparent that Jesus learned much from nature--from observing the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, and the foxes that have holes for homes...Further: in his study, and in the learning process, he was guided from on high in a way that none other has ever been." (Bruce R, McConkie:The Mortal Messiah: 1:368-369).

The young boy was schooled by diligent, ponderous parents who were loving and obedient to the Lord. But he was also schooled by the Spirit and presumably other angelic instructors and his Father himself.

If you ever want a template of how to bring up a young man you won't find any better than Luke 2:52. I have often thought every LDS home and every young men's program in the church should be built on these four pillars.
"And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man"

That is a very complete upbringing.
Wisdom is not just education and learning but application and understanding of that knowledge.
Stature is the growth of your body and your character
In favour with God is spiritual growth
In favour with man is social skills and abilities, awareness and empathy.

We do not have much information on Christ as a boy or a young man but it is clear he had a complete upbringing with care and guidance from both his earthly and his divine parents.
We would not be wrong to strive for the same balance in raising our own children, and in our own lives!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

New Testament Lesson 2: My Soul Doth Magnify The Lord

Have you ever prayed for something in your life and never received it or had to wait way beyond what you expected, to receive it? Have you possibly given up praying for something thinking maybe it was not the Lord's will, only to be given it at a time when you least expected it?

How did you feel after such a long time, having not received it? Did it test your patience, your faith? Did you begin to question God? What scriptural examples can we recall of such events - Lehi and family and promised land. Moses, let my people go. Joseph in Liberty Jail? Today we will study another example of patience and faith being tested, with Zacharias and Elisabeth.

Have you ever received a calling that you felt overwhelmed by or that you felt was way beyond your capacity? Did you say no? Did you accept it but with reservation and doubts? How did you respond? If you accepted it, how did you do? What scriptural examples can we recall of such events? Abraham and Isaac, Samuel in the temple, Joseph Smith? Today we will study how two young teenagers, Mary and Joseph, responded to possibly the most overwhelming calls of all.

The annunciations of Luke 1 are a story of two impossible births. A birth to a couple too old and beyond hope of new life. And a birth to a couple not yet wed.
Could it be this story also sends a message to the Jews and the Gentiles.
The Jews were the old covenant that were losing faith in ever seeing their promised Messiah and while religiously obeying their duties no longer believed maybe as resolutely in the spoken words of the prophets.
The Gentiles were not part of the promises and covenants and had no right to be expecting a Messiah and yet through their faithfulness and obedience became highly favoured of the Lord and eligible for the new covenant.
As you study this lesson, consider the symbolism that Luke may have been pointing to in the beginning of his testimony.

Luke 1:5-10
Elizabeth was beyond the years of child-bearing, both her and her husband Zacharias were righteous temple workers. Zacharias off fulfilling his duties at the temple. His duty is to burn the incense in the temple while the people prayed without. The incense was symbolic of prayers ascending to heaven. The Bible Dictionary teaches us that,
"Live coals were brought from the brazen altar of burnt offering and placed on the golden altar of incense; then the priest entered alone into the Holy Place, carrying in a censer the incense, which he cast on the fire. Then bowing reverently toward the Holy of Holies, he returned to the congregation, who were praying outside and pronounced the blessing in Numbers 6:24-26"

This was what Zacharias was doing when Gabriel appeared to him.

Luke 1:11-13
"Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; AND thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son"
It is commonly interpreted that the angel Gabriel is answering a prayer that Zacharias has prayed for years and had built up to in this seminal moment of personal prayer in the temple before the veil but all the evidence, including Zacharias' doubting reply, is that the angel Gabriel was indicating the temple prayer on behalf of the people was heard, Zacharias' prayer of a righteous life was answered and that it was his life's deepest desire that was answered as opposed to any specific faithful prayer he was offering in that specific temple trip. How symbolic though that it is at the altar of incense by the veil that the Lord sets in motion the events that would ultimately answer the prayers of the people and the deep desires of this righteous servant and his wife. Why would the Lord choose this setting and this time to make this announcement? What does this teach us of the manner of prayer, the power of prayer, the purpose of prayer?

What a great blessing! As you read the blessing pronounced by Gabriel regarding the unborn John, what stands out to you? For me, one of the amazing parts of this blessing is that Zacharias is told his son will be "filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb". Was this a gift given to him prior to baptism or just an abundance of the Spirit? I find it a fascinating blessing. What was the purpose or point of such a blessing?

he's righteous, he's prayed for it many times before in his life, it is probably the one thing he desires most in his life and he's in the temple speaking to an angel and he asks "How will I know this is actually true!?" You might say he was dumbfounded? and so Gabriel(Noah) says "Are you kidding me? I am Gabriel, an angel sent from God's presence to answer your prayers with this good news here in the temple in front of the veil before the holy of holies and you dont believe me? You want a sign? OK sure, your sign will be becoming dumb until these prophecies are fulfilled.

For all his questioning, you cant fault his dedication - he heads home AFTER his duty is done and then Elisabeth conceives.

Luke 1:26-56
In the 6th month of Elisabeth' pregnancy, Gabriel visits a young virgin called Mary - you know Gabriel must be loving this role of announcing special births when compared to his mortal ministry where he had to watch so many people die. And now he announces the births of those set to bring about their salvation. God is good. Why do you think Gabriel was selected to be this messenger? What symbolism do we see here in comparison or in conjunction with his mortal ministry as Noah where he was asked to herald the world into a new era?

v28-29 she was troubled and "cast in her mind" what this greeting meant. Mary is also the one we are told later who at her son's birth and all the events surrounding it, "kept all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). This appears to be a very thoughtful and careful young woman.

What blessing does Gabriel pronounce regarding Jesus prior to his birth? Luke 1:31-33. That would be very overwhelming for a young woman (similar to the calling of Samuel in the temple or Joseph in the grove of trees). Her response again shows a very studious mind. Her reply is not a doubting reply but the reply of one who wants to understand and learn. How will it happen? I am a virgin and already espoused to Joseph.

v.35 For those of like mind to Mary the answer is fairly straightforward - "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee". I still don't know what exactly that means but the conclusion is very clear, "therefore [thy son] shall be called the Son of God".

v.38 Mary is espoused to another man, this certainly means divorce and quite likely death according to the laws and how these events will be interpreted by those around her and yet her response to this is one of humble acceptance.
"Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word"
Mary offers full submission to and complete acceptance of this calling no matter the effects on her personal life. How can Mary's example help us to make better choices in fulfilling our callings in life?

39-55 can you imagine this scene - not only two mothers announcing their news but wow what news!
must have been very exciting and emotional
Note too that even in womb John was filled with the Holy Ghost. One of the roles of the Holy Ghost is to testify of Christ. Is it any wonder the unborn baby John therefore reacts in the presence of his Saviour? That must have been an amazing experience for Elisabeth.
What does it mean "my soul doth magnify the Lord?" How can we magnify the Lord?

Mary stays with them about 3 months but leaves before John is born. But now consider. She left Joseph for 3 months right at the time of conception and during that first trimester. Why?

Matthew 1:19 he had respect for her and not going to have her stoned or publicly mocked but he was going to quietly divorce her. This must have been a very trying time in their relationship. It must have been tough for Mary and for Joseph for different reasons.
v.20 I wonder at what stage this happened? Was it after Mary returned? the text suggests it was. Certainly Joseph didn't rashly react. He was thinking on these things for a while. Jesus obviously had earthly parents who were slow to wrath and pondered and prayed.

They too are told to give the child a specific name Y'shua or in Greek (Jesus) means to save.
Joseph's reaction to his angelic visit? Obedience without question and total respect for Mary. This must have been a hard calling for Joseph. To be the adoptive father of the Son of God. To accept a child that is not yours. Yet he responded to the call.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie said:
“All the spirits of men, while yet in the Eternal Presence, developed aptitudes, talents, capacities, and abilities of every sort, kind, and degree. During the long expanse of life which then was, an infinite variety of talents and abilities came into being. As the ages rolled, no two spirits remained alike. Mozart became a musician; Einstein centered his interest in mathematics; Michelangelo turned his attention to painting. . . . Abraham and Moses and all of the prophets sought and obtained the talent for spirituality. . . .
“. . . When we pass from preexistence to mortality, we bring with us the traits and talents there developed. True, we forget what went before because we are here being tested, but the capacities and abilities that then were ours are yet resident within us. Mozart is still a musician; Einstein retains his mathematical abilities; Michelangelo his artistic talent; Abraham, Moses, and the prophets their spiritual talents and abilities. . . . And all men with their infinitely varied talents and personalities pick up the course of progression where they left it off when they left the heavenly realms.”
We all have the ability to perform our callings in life. We may have forgotten certain abilities and talents we had previously developed but the Lord our God has not. He knows us, he knows our capabilities and our strengths. It is for this reason many if not all of us were given callings in this life, duties to perform while here.
Like Zacharias and Elisabeth we must do our duty. Like Mary we must be humble and submissive. Like Joseph we must be quick to obey. We must ponder and pray.
If we do people will look at us and our lives and they will see the Lord in us. We will reflect His light. Our souls will magnify the Lord
Are we living the lives we were called to live?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

New Testament Lesson 1: That Ye Might Believe That Jesus is The Christ

The expression "out with the old and in with the new" rarely has more significance than when we start the new year saying good bye to our Old Testament studies and hello to our New Testament studies.
This lesson helps introduce our New Testament course by exploring why some of the New Testament authors wrote what they wrote. We will touch on 3 testimonies today. Each testimony declares Jesus to be the anointed one, the promised Messiah.
  1. The testimony of John
  2. The testimony of Matthew
  3. The testimony of Jesus
In John 20:30-31, the beloved apostle of the beloved Son of God wrote,
"30 ¶And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:
 31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name."
Very clearly John had 3 stated intents in writing his testimony or gospel.
  1. That ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ
  2. That ye might believe that Jesus is the Son of God
  3. That in believing ye might have life through his name.
His gospel was written to those who were already familiar with the basic teachings of Jesus and seemed to be directed more at members of the early church, urging them to recognize Jesus as more than just a great rabbi to follow. He was more than just a prophet. He was the one of whom all the prophets had testified would come into the world. He was the anointed one, The Messiah, The Christ. And he was also the Son of God. John frames his testimony around 7 miracles that Jesus performs building a clear picture for the Saints of a divine being with a divine purpose.

John begins his testimony with a fascinating discourse on who Jesus really is. Latter-Day Saints will be interested to study the first 14 verses of John Chapter 1 with Joseph Smith's translation, Doctrine and Covenants section 93 and Genesis 1. In John 1:1-2, John declares,
 "1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
  The same was in the beginning with God."
John starts his testimony boldly stating that Jesus was there from the beginning(the very beginning), was with God from the beginning and was not only part of the godhead but was Jehovah, the God of the Old Covenant. It's hard to see how John could be any more direct with his audience. He clearly feels these were facts that even the Saints needed reminding of. I have always found it fascinating that John took us back to the same literary structure as the opening of Genesis. It is almost like he wants us to go all the way back and realign how it all began. "In the beginning" but instead of a fairly impersonal and general story of creation, John is pleading with us to place Jesus firmly in the centre of that narrative. The beginning of our faith was not the creation nor Adam nor Abraham but rather "In the beginning was the Word"! What an introduction and what a testimony.

Matthew also wrote a record of his testimony. But instead of writing to the Saints of the church, Matthew wrote his testimony mostly to the Jews, the very people that had just rejected Jesus.
The first 17 verses of Matthew Chapter 1 are probably skipped by a lot of people. It contains a lot of "begats" and a lot of names that are either unfamiliar or hard to pronounce (sometimes both!). It is a genealogy from Abraham to Joseph and quite honestly, at first glance, it can come across as boring. But a closer look will reveal a fascinating opening to Matthew's testimony.
In verse 1 Matthew declares,
  "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham."
It seems like a very typical introductory verse but it is already sending a clear message to the Jewish people. Matthew declares Christ as the son of David and the son of Abraham. To understand the impact of this declaration we must understand a little of the Jewish culture and expectation. Historically the children of Israel had struggled to do as Jehovah had told them. As a result they lost their divine protection and were taken captive by the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians. However in their captivity the Lord often had his prophets foretell of a time when the people would be saved by an anointed one, of the seed of David. After the many military captures and their servitude under many empires and regimes the Jews believed this "anointed one" (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek) would be a king (of the royal lineage, a descendant of their King David) who would free them from the various military captors.
At the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were under the military rule of the Roman Empire and the Jewish people were looking for a military leader to save them. So when Jesus declared himself the "anointed one" (Messiah/Christ) they could not see how he fit the bill! He wasn't a military leader, he didn't fight the Romans. And eventually they killed him for claiming to be the "anointed one". But Matthew is determined to show them that in fact Jesus was and is the promised Messiah, that Jesus was and is in fact, the Christ. And so Matthew's opening statement of his testimony in verse one makes three claims:
  1. Jesus is the Christ (the anointed one)
  2. Jesus is the son of David (rightful heir to the royal throne)
  3. Jesus is the son of Abraham (hold the spiritual/priesthood keys of authority)
These apostles keep it pretty simple and direct.
Now the Jewish people loved their genealogy, they took pride in being sons of Abraham and being related to David. In fact they had started getting the attitude that their genealogy saved them, that just merely being a Jew (the chosen people) gave them salvation. And now Matthew does something that gets their attention using their genealogy. In the middle of Jesus genealogy (which is also the genealogy of David and Abraham - two of the most revered people in Jewish tradition) Matthew decides to break with tradition and introduce women, but not only women but Gentile women and not only Gentile women but Gentile women that all needed reclaiming.
  • Tamar
  • Rachab
  • Ruth
  • Her
Tamar was the Canaanite daughter in law of Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob. When her husband died leaving her without child, she eventually fooled her father in law into laying with her and giving her child.
Rachab was also a Canaanite living in Jericho. She was the prostitute who protected the spies of Israel and as a result was the sole survivor with her family from the destruction of Jericho.
Ruth was a Moabite whose husband also died and needed Boaz to reclaim her.
Her was Bathsheba wife of Uriah the Hittite. It was she whom David committed adultery and murder for.

Of course the obvious question is why would Matthew put these Gentile women in the most royal of Jewish lineages? I believe he wanted the Jewish people to see that their genealogy alone would not save them. Their genealogy was filled with sinning Jews and saved Gentiles! Matthew's message seems clear. Jesus is that promised Christ, the son of David and of Abraham and the Jews missed him. For all the prophecies and writings of old they, the Chosen people, had rejected their Saviour. And like the Gentiles in their genealogy, the Jewish people also need reclaiming as much as if not more than any Gentile does. Its a bold and stirring testimony and declaration, calling the Jewish people to repentance and asking them to look one more time upon the man they crucified.

The third and final testimony in this week's lesson comes from Jesus himself.
In Luke 4:14-32 we find an interesting story. Jesus has just returned from his fasting in the wilderness where Satan approached him and tried to dissuade him from his coming ministry. We believe that Jesus was about 30 years old at this time. We do not know much about his teenage or young adult life but we can presume a few things based on a couple of scriptures.

The last time we really heard of Jesus he was 12 yrs old at the temple, his parents had lost him and eventually he was found teaching the learned men the scriptures. I imagine that reputation continued beyond that one event. If he was teaching in the temple at 12, there is little reason he would have stopped teaching the scriptures after. And Luke chapter 4 finds Jesus doing what we last saw him doing when he was 12, teaching,
"14 ¶And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about.
 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all.
 16 ¶And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
 17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias..."
Everybody loved his teaching and in returning to his home congregation he is welcomed and given the scrolls of Isaiah to read. But Jesus is not there to just teach basic scriptures and gentle principles. He is now starting his mission and he wants to declare that mission. Instead of expounding on lessons from the lives of the prophets he decides to read what we now know as Isaiah 61:1-2. As Luke describes this is how it happened after receiving the scrolls of Isaiah,
"...And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
 18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
 19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
 20 And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
 21 And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears."
Wow! Could you imagine the scene? Oh how I would love to have been there that day! Now all of the Jews knew this scripture was a prophecy of the Messiah to come. They had been taught this scripture since they first entered the synagogues. What they did not understand was how it was to be fulfilled. So when this great teacher reads this scripture their eyes are all fastened on him in the hope that he may be about to give some clue as to when this Messiah will appear. That they could accept. But when this Jesus, who in their minds was the son of Joseph (not of David nor of Abraham and therefore no-one special by their reckoning), declared his testimony that He was the promised Messiah, his neighbours and friends and maybe even some of his family just could not accept it. That was too much for them and they took him out of the city and tried to kill him for blasphemy. This is an incredible moment in the bible. It is the first time the Lord publicly declares his mission to the world and testifies as to his true identity, as opposed to his adopted identity. It stands, as do the opening verses of John and Matthew, as a powerful opening testimony to his mission and ministry, declaring that he is indeed the promised Messiah.

I hope this is exciting to you. I hope the testimony of John and Matthew and Jesus himself inspire you to read and study more of the New Testament. There is great power in this record. This year we will study the mortal life and ministry of Jesus, adopted son of Joseph, son of David and Abraham, beloved and only begotten Son of God. I encourage to join me as we learn of the great mission he fulfilled and the life of love he led.

Old Testament Lesson 48:

Old Testament Lesson 47:

Old Testament Lesson 46

Old Testament Lesson 45:

Old Testament Lesson 44:

Old Testament Lesson 43:

Old Testament Lesson 42:

Old Testament Lesson 41:

Old Testament Lesson 40:

Old Testament Lesson 39:

Old Testament Lesson 38: