CONTEXT, CONTEXT AND CONTEXT
PALM SUNDAY, 2007
Because I don’t believe I’m too old to learn, I welcome feedback on my sermons regardless if it’s favorable or not. The other day I received a very complementary email about my recent sermon concerning the way many Christians automatically and unconsciously add to and take away words from certain bible verses. When they manipulate God’s Words they change the meaning of what He has said. For instance, warnings about the end of the age that were addressed to first century Christians now seems as though they are addressed to Christians living today confusing people into mistakenly thinking that we are living in the end times. The man who wrote the email went on to say:
“If I am not misreading, you seem to suggest the “we” passages require they focus particularly on the first century audience. I have a problem with that, in that “we”/”us” passages oftentimes are corporate we’s encompassing the church of all ages.” He went on to cite a couple of examples to make his point.
1 Corinthians 6:14 (ESV) 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.
Concerning this verse the man said it “would teach that the first Century Christians were raised from death, but that this has nothing to do with us.” Another verse he cited was 1 Corinthians 8:6 which says:
6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (ESV). If I believed this verse applied only to first century Christians, the man continued it “would suggest that the first century Christians had only one God, but this may not speak to us today.”
Obviously the man is correct and you folks know I agree completely with the point he is making. Very often a bible verse does mean exactly the same thing to Christians today as it meant to the people it was originally spoken or written to thousands of years ago. For instance, when Jesus told His disciples:
John 13:34-35 (ESV) 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Not only did that particular command apply to His disciples more than two thousand years ago, but it also does to each and every one of His followers throughout this entire New Covenant Age in which you and I live just as numerous other passages do. The man who sent the email is right on the money when he said the we/us passages oftentimes are corporate we’s encompassing the church of all ages.”
As true as the man’s statement is, it’s important for us to remember there are also verses that apply only to the people they were written or spoken to and this is a fact I’ve been trying to drive home.
John 1:1-28 (ESV) 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.' ") 16 And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.
And this is
the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from
(Now they had been sent from
the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, "Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the
Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" 26 John answered them, "I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes
after me, the strap
of whose sandal I
am not worthy to untie." 28 These things took place in
If John wasn’t the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet, who was he? It certainly appears he was more than a voice in the wilderness heralding the coming of the Messiah and the deliverance He would bring, because he also warned them about the wrath to come. Who sent him, and on whose authority did John speak? Furthermore, why do you think the Pharisees sent priests and Levites to ask him those specific questions concerning Christ, Elijah and the Prophet? If we stumble over our answer, it’s because we are not as well versed in Old Testament prophesy as those Pharisees and people in that crowd were.
John had been boldly proclaiming the truth, not just about the promised Messiah but he also gave a passionate warning to those first century Jews that the time was fast approaching when Jesus would judge all unrepentant Jews who were alive at the time of Christ’s judgment upon the Jewish nation. I assure you those Pharisees and those Jews in the crowds would have known exactly what John was warning them about. For instance:
Luke 3:7-17 (ESV) 7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
Unlike many of us today, that crowd of people knew exactly what John was alluding to, and they certainly got the impression that the wrath to come was imminent. Look closely at how they react.
10 And the crowds asked him, "What then shall we do?" 11 And he answered them, "Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise." 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" 13 And he said to them, "Collect no more than you are authorized to do." 14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages."
15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, "I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Now think about what we just read. If you were one of the believers in that crowd, would you have gotten the impression that you and the other believers would soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit? Would you also get the impression that the Jews who were present that day and who didn’t flee from the wrath to come by repenting would become the chaff Jesus would burn with unquenchable fire when He came to exact judgment upon the Jewish nation? In other words, would you think these two events would occur during your lifetime or thousands of years later?
Some might say that, although the Baptism with the Holy Spirit event would occur during their lifetime, but the time of judgment was reserved for future unrepentant Jews; because when John used the word you, he wasn’t speaking about them personally, but rather all unrepentant Jews down throughout the ages. You could say that but you would be wrong. And, if you personally were one of those first century Jews and you were still alive at the time of Christ’s judgment, you would be dead wrong! Wrong because you misunderstood the context in which the warning was given.
Those Jews who were present in the crowd on that memorable day knew without a doubt that John was speaking to them personally. The tax collectors, soldiers and the rest of people in that crowd knew that John was warning them personally. That’s why they asked the question in verse 10: “What shall we do?” And John answered them.
Unless we were very familiar with Old Testament prophecy, and we were reading these passages for the very first time, you and I wouldn’t have a clue about all this judgment stuff. But those first century people in that crowd certainly did, as evidenced by the intelligent questions they asked. Questions such as: “What shall we do?” and who are you?” “Are you the Christ?” “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the Prophet?” Without any kind of outside influence, people reading these passages today for the very first time would never think of asking such questions. What did those first century people know that we wouldn’t know today?
Except for a faithful remnant throughout the preceding four hundred years of the Old Covenant, all the Jewish religious leaders and Jews in general lived their lives in a despicable manner; a fact those people listening to John were well aware of. They would have recalled the Lord’s indictment of the Jews together with His terrible warnings.
Malachi 2:17 (ESV) 17 You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, "How have we wearied him?" By saying, "Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them." Or by asking, "Where is the God of justice?"
Malachi 3:1-18 (ESV) 1 "Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
5 "Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
6 "For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. 7 From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, 'How shall we return?' 8 Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, 'How have we robbed you?' In your tithes and contributions. 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. 10 Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. 11 I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. 12 Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.
13 "Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord. But you say, 'How have we spoken against you?' 14 You have said, 'It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? 15 And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.' "
16 Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. 17 "They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. 18 Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.
Malachi 4:1-6 (ESV) 1 "For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3 And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts. 4 "Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. 5 "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction."
This warning was the last the Lord had given to the entire Jewish nation. And then, after four hundred years of silence, John the messenger suddenly burst upon the scene saying to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Luke 3:8-9 (ESV) 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
Those fearful people who were in the crowds that day were immediately able to connect the dots and asked in verse 10: “What then shall we do?” The Gospels of Matthew and Luke give us additional insight. Matthew 3:2 (ESV) 2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Matthew 3:12 (ESV) 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
There was some confusion about their understanding of these truths. Their memory would have to be jogged. For instance, speaking of John to Zechariah his soon to be father, the angel of the Lord said:
Luke 1:16-17 (ESV) 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared."
Later, again speaking to the crowds concerning who John was, Jesus said: Matthew 11:14-15 (ESV) 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear. It still took a while for this fact to sink in. For instance, we read later in Matthew 17:10-13 (ESV) 10 And the disciples asked him, "Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?" 11 He answered, "Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands." 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.
Truer words were never spoken as the events that were about to unfold this coming week of a little more than two thousand years confirm. Christ would suffer horribly. But at that point in time, those events which are in our past were still in the first century people’s future. And many of those Jews would live to see exactly what John had spoken about concerning those particular predictions of the Prophet’s Isaiah and Malachi. Lord willing, next week….