Pulling us up from the mud

June 12, 2012 in Mark, Africa, Bible, Front, Mission, Tanzania, Theology

Having been in Mpanda for three months now we are starting to feel settled and are enjoying our work, making friends and organising our house to feel like a home! I’m particularly enjoying my job as operations manager, helping to set up and maintain the office for the project as our colleagues work with the local language communities to write down their languages and start translating parts of the Bible.

One of my favourite (in a tiring kind of way) moments of the week is Thursday evenings, when I get together with several of our Tanzanian colleagues to do a Bible study in Swahili. We have wanted to read through one of the gospels, so have started with Matthew and read a few verses each week. Read the rest of this entry →

Matthew and the Genealogies: Who is this Jesus?

May 5, 2012 in Mark, Africa, Bible, Culture, Front, Mission, Tanzania, Theology

On Thursday, at the request of the guards at the office, we had the first of hopefully many Swahili Bible studies. I had no idea how the session would go but thought we would start to read through the gospel of Matthew.

The first week we read Matthew 1, and mainly discussed the genealogies, which led to some fascinating questions and discussions. Was David the same guy who killed Goliath? Was he the same one who was king? Where did Solomon’s name come from, and is he the same Solomon that Muslims talk about? Where did Abraham come from? Did he originate from the land of the Arabs? Why were Abraham and his descendents chosen, and not other people? Was the exile the Matthew talks about when the people left Egypt? Why does Matthew keep talking about 14 generations? Read the rest of this entry →

A missional reading of Matthew 3

August 29, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Mission, Theology

Our Bible study group continued a couple of weeks ago, trying to read the book of Matthew as the original hearers might have heard it, understanding the role the narrative played in the mission of God at that time, and the missional implications for the church as we engage with the text in our own situation.

John the Baptist Prepares the Way

1 In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, 2 “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” 3The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said,

“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”

4 John’s clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey. 5 People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. 6 And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? 8 Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. 9 Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. 10 Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.12 He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”

The Baptism of Jesus

13 Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. 14But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?”

15 But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.

16 After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”

Matthew 3

The first question we asked was what on earth was John doing? This is the first time baptism is mentioned in the Bible, so why is John doing it and what does it symbolise? The text seems to tell us that it had to do with repentance and preparing for the Lord returning to his people. The symbolism of passing through the river Jordan would presumably have brought associations with the journey from Egypt through the wilderness, and eventually into the promised land.

John himself would have reminded people of Elijah, especially as Matthew describes him as being in the wilderness with hairy clothes and a leather belt around his waist (c.f. 2 Kings 1:8). This association of John with the prophet Elijah continues elsewhere in the gospels, and should remind us of the last couple of verses of the Old Testament where Malachi prophecies that Elijah will come “before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives” (Malachi 4:5).

The quote from Isaiah 40:3 about preparing the way for the Lord’s coming is in the context of the return from exile and God returning to his people after their time of punishment. This is very much in keeping with Matthew’s theme that the exile is coming to an end through Jesus, although we are surprised that in Isaiah the road is being prepared for God to return to his people, whereas Matthew takes this prophecy and seems to suggest that John is preparing the way for Jesus the messiah. This is the first hint we have in the gospel that Jesus may be identified with Israel’s God himself.

Verses 7 and 8 give the first indication that this return of God isn’t just good news, but will involve judgement for those not living in a way that pleases God. John insists that being Abraham’s descendants doesn’t guarantee being right with God, hinting at a possible redefinition of what it means to be part of God’s people when he suggests that God could make new sons for Abraham out of stones if he wanted to.

This redefinition of God’s kingdom is quite startling in many ways, with even the Jews needing to be baptised to prepare for what God is doing. The threats of judgement are made using stark metaphors of cutting down trees (a picture that is reserved for the judgement of Gentile nations in the Old Testament, e.g. Isaiah 10:33-34, Ezekiel 31, Daniel 4:14) and throwing them into the fire. But along with this fire of judgement, the one who is coming will baptise with the Holy Spirit, carrying out what God has promised he himself will do (c.f. Isaiah 32:15, Isaiah 44:3, Ezekiel 36:26-27, Joel 2:28-29).

After this big build up and talk of fire, wrath and judgement as God dramatically returns to his people, Jesus quietly walks in, surprising us all (and John most of all) by asking to be baptised. He is obviously the one about whom John is talking, but when he actually arrives it seems almost an anti-climax, and very puzzling that he should ask to go through the baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.

Why does Jesus ask to be baptised? I wonder if it is again to do with the theme we see in Matthew of Jesus not simply being the representative of God to rescue Israel, but at the same time being identified with Israel herself who needed rescuing. We saw this briefly in chapter 2 as Jesus was identified with Israel “my son” in Hosea 11:1, and again we see Jesus becoming as Israel and going through the process of repentance and preparation that Israel herself was taking in anticipation of God’s return.

We finished with a few questions…

  • There is quite a sharp contrast between John’s build up to Jesus as the Lord coming to his people, and the reality of Jesus simply walking up and asking to be baptised – with baptism being the symbol of repentance which Mark also associates with turning to God to forgive sins (Mark 1:4). In what ways was Jesus surprising?
  • In this chapter we get the first clue that Jesus may be identified with God himself, but it is only a hint. Why does Matthew not say clearly at the start that Jesus is God? Why does he instead invite us to walk with him through the story, helping us to glimpse bit by bit who Jesus is as we journey with him?
  • What can we learn from how Matthew presents Jesus to his audience, for how we might help people to understand who Jesus is today? How can we invite people into the story of the gospel rather than immediately bombarding them with what we think are the answers?


A missional reading of Matthew 2

August 10, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Mission, Theology

Our Bible study group continued a couple of weeks ago in our study of Matthew, trying to read each chapter as the original hearers would have heard it, in order to understand the missional implications of Matthew’s words for them in their situation, and then for us in ours. Here are some of our thoughts…

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, 2 “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose,and we have come to worship him.”

3 King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. 4 He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. 8 Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

9 After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

The Escape to Egypt

13After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, 15 and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”

16 Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. 17 Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A cry was heard in Ramah—
weeping and great mourning.
Rachel weeps for her children,
refusing to be comforted,
for they are dead.”

The Return to Nazareth

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. 20“Get up!” the angel said. “Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.”

21 So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother. 22 But when he learned that the new ruler of Judea was Herod’s son Archelaus, he was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he left for the region of Galilee. 23 So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: “He will be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2)

The wise men are Gentiles coming from the East. They are the first to call Jesus the King of the Jews. This is mirrored by another Gentile, Pilate, calling Jesus the King of the Jews in very different circumstances at the end of the gospel.

The prophecy that Matthew highlights in verse 6 is a combination of Micah 5:2-3, speaking of the return of Israel from exile, together with 2 Samuel 5:2, where the words are spoken of in reference to King David.

So in these first few verses we again have the key themes from chapter one of the kingship of Jesus, the return from exile of Israel, and people of all nations being part of what God is doing.

The theme of kingship also highlights stark contrasts between Jesus and Herod. Herod is the illegitimate king, whereas Jesus is from the true royal ancestral line. Herod has earthly power but no genuine authority. Jesus has complete legitimacy and authority but no worldly power – he is just a baby. Herod isn’t even accepted by his own people, whereas wise men travel from far away to pay their respects to Jesus. Herod rules by power and fear, but Jesus will shepherd his people.

Matthew then goes on to narrate the escape to Egypt of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, and their subsequent return, with many echoes of Moses and the people of Israel escaping from Egypt. It is interesting that in some of these parallels Jesus is identified with Moses, the one who led Israel out of captivity (Jesus escapes being killed by the king as a baby, Jesus is exiled but returns “when those who were tying to kill him were dead”, c.f. Exodus 4:19), while at other times he is identified with the people of Israel themselves, who are being rescued (he is the son who is called out of Egypt, c.f. Hosea 11:1 where Israel is the son). There is a sense in which Matthew is identifying Jesus with both Moses, who led Israel out of captivity, and Israel herself who needed rescuing.

The last two prophecies again are interesting – one from Jeremiah relating again to the return of Israel from exile, and the other… apparently not from anywhere! No one seems quite sure what Matthew had in mind when he “quoted” the prophecy “he will be called a Nazarene”, as there is no such reference in the Old Testament, or in any other known texts. In fact it is thought that Nazareth wasn’t even built until after Old Testament times. To me the most likely explanation derives precisely from the fact that Nazareth was an obscure place that was never mentioned in the Old Testament – it wasn’t somewhere where God’s messiah could be expected to come from (c.f. John 1:46), and hence Matthew is pointing out that Jesus will be rejected, called a nobody, and overlooked due to the apparent insignificance of his birth and upbringing.

What does all this have to do with God’s mission?

We can see God’s mission continue to be worked out through this chapter. Matthew is strongly hinting that the exile (at least in a spiritual and political sense) that is still being experienced is coming to an end and God is rescuing his people, although there are some surprises in how he is doing so. The genuine king has arrived, but it is not just the Jews who will acknowledge and come to him. In fact he may be honoured by those from afar while at the same time being ignored and rejected in large part by his own people. The messiah has come, but he has needed rescuing from Herod, and is identified with Israel being rescued from captivity in Egypt.

As we seek to join in with God’s mission it is vital that we understand what kind of mission it is. This mission involves people returning to God and God returning to his people, but that seems to look different to what might have been expected. It is about enthroning the rightful king, but while this king has ultimate authority he apparently yields no earthly power or force. It is about God’s chosen one putting things right, but he appears to be as vulnerable, if not more so, than those he has come to save. He will lead his people, but as a shepherd, not through power, fear or intimidation. While God’s mission fulfills all the ancient prophecies, it is at the same time surprising, with those who seemed far away from God being the first to recognise what he is doing.

What does it mean for the church to join in with God’s mission as we see it demonstrated here in Matthew 2?

  • We need to expect the unexpected, with God working in and through people we may have considered to be far from him, and through places or situations we might have regarded as insignificant or ungodly.
  • We should understand that while God has ultimate authority in the world, his kingdom is not about exerting power or force to achieve his purposes.
  • The church, like Jesus, should expect to be rejected and misunderstood, to be both ignored and persecuted. God’s mission is good news for all, but is also deeply threatening to those who are clinging insecurely to apparent power, so the church shouldn’t expect God’s good news to be popular with all.
  • As we continue to read Matthew we will follow the theme of Jesus being both the rescuer of God’s people Israel, but at the same time being identified with Israel, the one who needed to be rescued. Maybe the church also needs to be vulnerable, standing in and with those who are hurting and taking on their burdens, while at the same time pointing to the rescuer.
  • Matthew has shown that Jesus is the long-awaited messiah and king, but that there are many surprises now that he has arrived. How can the church creatively communicate to the world that we believe Jesus is king and ruler, but that his rule may be very different to what we might have imagined?

What do you think?

Wise men

A missional reading of Matthew 1

July 26, 2011 in Mark, Bible, Mission, Theology

A couple of weeks ago I was asked by some friends to lead a Bible study (possibly a series) on anything I liked. What would you have chosen? I decided to try to put into practice some of the things I have learnt in my MA in Bible and Mission, to try to guide the group through what it might mean to read the Bible missionally.

I wanted to focus on the life of Jesus, so decided to choose the book of Matthew (probably because I happened to have a book around that related to Matthew…!) My aim was not to get into deep discussions about every verse, but rather to read paragraphs and chapters in the context of the whole book, putting ourselves in the shoes of Matthew’s original audience and trying to understand what he was trying to tell them.

Here’s how chapter 1 went…

The Ancestors of Jesus the Messiah

This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham:

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.
Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers.
3 Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah (whose mother was Tamar).
Perez was the father of Hezron.
Hezron was the father of Ram.
4 Ram was the father of Amminadab.
Amminadab was the father of Nahshon.
Nahshon was the father of Salmon.
5 Salmon was the father of Boaz (whose mother was Rahab).
Boaz was the father of Obed (whose mother was Ruth).
Obed was the father of Jesse.
6 Jesse was the father of King David.
David was the father of Solomon (whose mother was Bathsheba, the widow of Uriah).
7 Solomon was the father of Rehoboam.
Rehoboam was the father of Abijah.
Abijah was the father of Asa.
8 Asa was the father of Jehoshaphat.
Jehoshaphat was the father of Jehoram.
Jehoram was the father of Uzziah.
9 Uzziah was the father of Jotham.
Jotham was the father of Ahaz.
Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah.
10 Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh.
Manasseh was the father of Amon.
Amon was the father of Josiah.
11 Josiah was the father of Jehoiachin and his brothers (born at the time of the exile to Babylon).
12 After the Babylonian exile:
Jehoiachin was the father of Shealtiel.
Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel.
13 Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud.
Abiud was the father of Eliakim.
Eliakim was the father of Azor.
14 Azor was the father of Zadok.
Zadok was the father of Akim.
Akim was the father of Eliud.
15 Eliud was the father of Eleazar.
Eleazar was the father of Matthan.
Matthan was the father of Jacob.
16 Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.
Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is called the Messiah.

17 All those listed above include fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah.

The Birth of Jesus the Messiah

18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagementquietly.

20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:

23 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.’”

24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus. (Matthew 1)

What would stand out to you if you were a first century Jew reading this for the first time? Here are some thoughts we came up with:

  • There are four women in the genealogy – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. They are all (probably, although we don’t know for sure about Tamar) from outside of Israel, which seems strange for what is otherwise a very Jewish genealogy. Maybe there’s a hint from the start that this Jewish man, and messiah, is not only for the Jews.
  • Matthew seems to emphasize Abraham, David and the exile. These are key themes for him in understanding Jesus’ identity and vocation as messiah. We should look out for these as we continue to read…
  • The prophecy from Isaiah 7 and 8 comes from passages where the themes of judgment and exile are very prominent, albeit mixed in with the promise of salvation through the child who is born. The “saving people from their sins” in verse 21 would have been seen as very much relating to the plight of the nation and their judgment, rather than simply the private personal issue that we may read it as today.
  • The fact that Joseph named Jesus would have been significant, making him the legal father of the child, hence Jesus is rightfully part of Joseph’s genealogy even though Matthew is clear that Joseph is not the biological father.
  • Throughout the chapter Matthew seems intent on demonstrating that Jesus truly is the messiah people have been waiting for – he is the son of Abraham, the son of David, and he has come to save his people from their spiritual and political (although no longer geographical) exile.

Matthew knows his audience – he knows what they believe is wrong with the world (the Romans are in their promised land, the leaders are corrupt, God seems to have been absent since the exile) and how they are expecting God to put things right (through a messiah, a king like David, coming to save them). In this first chapter he tries to show his audience that Jesus is in fact exactly who they have been waiting for – he is God’s rightful messiah. Although as the book progresses we might find that he is not everything they would have expected from a messiah.

As we relate to people today we might want to ask: What do people see is wrong with the world? What are they waiting for? What do they believe is the solution? How might we, like Matthew, demonstrate that Jesus is actually the fulfillment of all that the world around us is waiting and hoping for?

I’m looking forward to tomorrow as we meet again to see how these themes develop in chapter 2 and beyond…

Men talking