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Hebrew

In today’s Bible reading from Matthew 17, we come across a passage that is easy to misunderstand. Admittedly, I only came to see a nuance of this about a week or so ago. I was in our Adult Bible Study class at church and a friend brought out this issue of the “faith like a mustard seed”. (Matthew 17:20 ) He pointed out that the verse doesn’t refer to faith the size of a mustard seed. The verse refers to faith like a mustard seed.

Seriously? Am I really straining at the meaning of one little word? Actually, yes! Now, before I go any further, let me reiterate that I said that I came to see a nuance of this recently. I didn’t say that I didn’t understand it until recently. That’s one of the things about God’s Word that’s so interesting. I have no idea how many times I have read this passage, yet a brief comment in a Sunday School class revealed a new facet of faith that I had never seen before.

Words have meaning. But words only have meaning in relationship with other words. That’s why it can be dangerous to do “word study” Bible studies. A word in one language may be translated into ten different words in another language. It’s probably an urban legend, but I have heard that Inuit (aka “Eskimos”) have sixteen different words for “snow”. Assuming that’s true, it’s quite understandable; their knowledge of snow and their need to communicate about snow is much deeper than a simple “cold, white, powdery stuff that sometimes falls from the sky in winter”. The same can be true when translating words from the Biblical languages to English. And that’s why it is very helpful to use a couple of different modern Bible translations. It’s not just words, but how they’re used together that brings out meaning.

So what’s the difference between “faith the size of a mustard seed” and “faith like a mustard seed”? Your Bible may use either of these translations.

A mustard seed is small. It’s a little smaller than a sesame seed on your hamburger bun, but it’s larger than the poppy seed on your bagel. That tiny mustard seed — the smallest of the seeds known to First Century Palestine — grows into a large bush, large enough for birds to nest in it. (Mark 4:31-32) So, inside that small seed is a large bush. Inside an acorn is a strong towering oak.

When Jesus mentions mustard seed faith, he isn’t talking about the initial size of the seed, but rather the potential that’s in the seed. But unless that seed is buried and allowed to grow, it will never be more than a small seed. But once it’s planted, it can grow into full maturity. (John 12:24)

Perhaps the disciples weren’t exercising their faith when they were unsuccessful in trying to deliver the demonized seizure-ridden young man. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t have faith, but they had small faith, (Matthew 17:20a) and it sounds like maybe they weren’t exercising and growing it.

Application

In the grand scheme, it doesn’t matter how much or how little faith you have. What matters is what you’re doing with your faith. Are you letting it grow? Are you feeding it with God’s Word? Are you exercising it?

Believer, you are indwelt with the same Holy Spirit Who raised Jesus from the dead! (Romans 8:11) Let Him empower you to strengthen your faith.

This devotional was originally published on April 27, 2019.

Jesus grows up
Image source: Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing

In today’s Bible reading, Matthew applies several Hebrew (Old Testament) Scriptures regarding where the Messiah would be born and raised to show how Jesus fulfilled them.

These were three very different places. Bethlehem was a small town outside of Jerusalem. Herod would live in Jerusalem, so it’s logical that the Magi would come Herod’s palace to inquire about the new King of the Jews. Egypt was a country, the place the Jews had lived and then been enslaved for over four hundred years between Joseph’s death and Moses’ birth. Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus to Egypt for a few years. We aren’t told how long they stayed in Egypt and we aren’t told which city. When Herod died, God’s angel visited them and said it was safe to return.

And then there’s Nazareth. We don’t know how old Jesus was when Joseph and Mary moved back there, but that’s where they called home. (Luke 1:26) The surrounding area, Galilee, is where Jesus found His Disciples. But Matthew refers to a prophecy that doesn’t exist.

New Testament Scholar AT Robertson says this:

Matthew says “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets”. It is the plural and no single prophecy exists which says that the Messiah was to be called a Nazarene. It may be that this term of contempt (John 1:46; 7:52) is what is meant, and that several prophecies are to be combined like Psa. 22:6, 8; 69:11, 19; Isa. 53:2, 3, 4. The name Nazareth means a shoot or branch, but it is by no means certain that Matthew has this in mind. It is best to confess that we do not know. See Broadus on Matthew for the various theories. But, despised as Nazareth was at that time, Jesus has exalted its fame. The lowly Nazarene he was at first, but it is our glory to be the followers of the Nazarene. Bruce says that “in this case, therefore, we certainly know that the historic fact suggested the prophetic reference, instead of the prophecy creating the history.” The parallels drawn by Matthew between the history of Israel and the birth and infancy of Jesus are not mere fancy. History repeats itself and writers of history find frequent parallels. Surely Matthew is not beyond the bounds of reason or of fact in illustrating in his own way the birth and infancy of Jesus by the Providence of God in the history of Israel.[1]

In other words, Matthew — under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — draws from several otherwise obscure and unrelated Bible passages and applies them to Jesus.

Application

Once again, we can see how Matthew — again, under the influence of the Holy Spirit — takes his Bible and applies it to Jesus. He sees Jesus throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. And you can too, if you’ll just look for Him.

Take your Bible and look up the cross-references. Look at the many passages from the Old Testament and how they point to Jesus. This isn’t a coincidence. The New Testament writers knew their Hebrew Bible. Oftentimes they would translate directly from the Hebrew. Other times, they would quote from the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible). And other times, the writers do something like Matthew does here, loosely taking unrelated Scriptures and combining them to actually craft new Scripture.[2]

We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Again, He is operating under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Matthew is so excited to demonstrate that Jesus isn’t foreign to the Hebrew Scriptures, but is intricately woven into them.

[1] Robertson, A.T. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933. Print.

[2] Unlike the New Testament writers, we aren’t free to take unrelated passages and craft new scriptures because the Canon of Scripture is closed; God is no longer adding new revelation.

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"Virgin" or "young woman"?

Today’s Bible reading looks back to Isaiah 7:14 and finds its fulfillment in Jesus. Did Matthew go too far in applying this prophecy to Jesus?

Isaiah 7:14’s context is that God extends to King Ahaz an unusual offer to ask for a sign. When he refuses, saying he doesn’t want to test God, Isaiah steps forward and gives the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy. He says that in the time it would take a young woman to be married and give birth to a child and for that child to come to the “age of accountability”, God would deliver His people from their Exile. In other words, God would fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy in about a decade.

So what’s the problem? Isaiah says God would provide this sign in just a few years. Yet Matthew says Isaiah’s prophecy was about Jesus, born of a virgin young woman, Who came on the scene several hundred years later. So who’s right Isaiah or Matthew?

They’re both right!

Oftentimes, the writers of the New Testament — and even Jesus Himself — will quote from or allude to a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures (their Bible) and find the fulfillment of that passage in Jesus and the New Covenant. In this particular instance, Isaiah uses the Hebrew word for young woman, not necessarily a virgin young woman. (Note: Hebrew has two different words for 1) a young woman and 2) a virgin. If Isaiah meant virgin, he could/should have specified virgin; instead he used the general term young woman.) Yet, Matthew clearly understands the passage as referring to a virgin, specifically Mary, a virgin, a woman who has “known no man”. (Luke 1:34) In fact, Matthew points out that Joseph keeps Mary a virgin until after Jesus is born. (Matthew 1:25)

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Matthew freely reads and applies Isaiah’s prophecy to Jesus, just as Peter applies Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28–32) to the Day of Pentecost. (Acts 2:17–21) In other words, even if Isaiah isn’t specifying a virgin in 7:14, Matthew sees that Jesus, born of a virgin fulfills the prophecy.

I said earlier that both Isaiah and Matthew are right. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Isaiah the deliverance of God’s people in a few years. He may have — but didn’t have to — see Jesus as the fulfillment. The prophecy was fulfilled in two ways: immediately, and several hundred years later.

Application

Why make such a big deal about this? Because it matters! Critics say that Isaiah’s prophecy wasn’t fulfilled in Jesus because Isaiah used the word for young woman instead of virgin. This is a backhanded accusation that Jesus wasn’t born in a virgin birth. It’s an attack on Jesus. And it’s an attack on the reliability of the Bible.

But Isaiah didn’t have to know that virgin-born Messiah would be the fulfillment of His prophecy. The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth doesn’t live or die on Isaiah’s prophecy. The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth lives or dies on Matthew and Luke’s testimony and description of the unique conception of Jesus in Mary’s body.

How did it happen? All I know is what the angel told Mary and Joseph: The baby was from God. (Matthew 1:18, 20) The angel didn’t give Mary and Joseph “The Talk”. He just said Jesus had been conceived in a unique way. (Luke 1:35, 37) And the coming of Jesus would bring a new intimacy with God and mankind. (Matthew 1:23b)

The Bible is trustworthy. Don’t let the critics try to convince you otherwise. The Bible can stand up to the allegations and accusations of the critics. Every one of them has died and will die. But the Word of God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8)

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For God loved the world in this way ...

Today’s Bible reading includes one of the most memorized verses in the Bible. It’s a verse that so many people have loved and quoted. And it’s a verse that was only recently translated into English the way it was intended. WHAT????

Now, before I go any further, hear me out: I believe that God’s people can hear God’s voice in any translation of the Bible they can read or hear. I also believe that Believers should use translations that most closely uses words the way we do in common, everyday life. Language changes. Word usage changes. When God spoke and men wrote the Bible, they recorded it in the common, everyday language. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The New Testament was originally written in Koine (pronounced KOY-nay) Greek. In other words, God wanted ordinary people to be albe to hear Him in their common, everyday language. For this reason, I discourage using translations from several hundred years ago and recommend using translations from the past 50 years. The more recent, generally speaking, the better.

Most of us memorized the verse from the King James Version. The KJV was translated in 1611 so that the people of the day could understand it in their common, everyday language. The KJV translators recognized that as language changes, translations would need to be updated. As modern translators came to the famous verse, they mainly kept the wording the same, and updated “whosoever” to “whoever”, “believeth” to “believe”, and “everlasting” to “eternal”.

I have heard preachers say that the verse says, “God loved the world SO MUCH….” The implication — and many preachers have spelled it out in so many words — is that the world was worth so much, that God sent Jesus. But that isn’t what Jesus said!

I feel that the Christian Standard Bible brings out the best meaning with its translation. And it’s the first translation to translate it, “For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 (CSB) The Greek word translated in the CSB as in this way could also be translated thus/thusly or therefore. But in this way sounds better to our 21st Century ears than thus or thusly.

Jesus didn’t say that “God loved the world SO MUCH that He sent His Son.” Instead, Jesus said, “God loved the world by sending His Son.” It seems such a small difference, right? Paul said it this way, “But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 (CSB)

No, Jesus doesn’t say that the world was worth SO MUCH that His Father sent His Son. Rather, He says that our sin was SO GREAT because it was against a GREAT GOD that it took Jesus’ death to appease the Father’s wrath. The difference between those two statements is staggering. One statement places the higher value on the world. The other statement places the higher value on God.

Application

Too often, we’ve misplaced the emphasis of the Gospel on mankind. But mankind isn’t the central focus of the Gospel. God is! And unless we see God is the center of the Gospel, we won’t see the enormity of the bad news for lost people in light of their sin against a Holy God.

And thus, we’ll miss the corresponding enormity of the Good News that the Gospel brings.

Do you have a modern Bible? Can you understand it as easily as you do a newspaper, magazine, or book? In other words, was it translated in your lifetime? If not, there are lots of resources on the Internet that will let you read the Bible in lots of different translations. Normally, I recommend the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) and the English Standard Version (ESV). Check out Bible.com for a free downloadable Bible app (iOS, Android, etc.) that includes lots of English translations.

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"Read Me" on a Dusty Bible

When the New Testament writers told their stories, they had the memorized and printed Word of Scripture to draw from. Their Bible (our Old Testament) was written in Hebrew and Aramaic. It had been recorded in the language of the common people at the time.

By the First Century, many people in what is now Israel still spoke Aramaic. But many others throughout Asia Minor and Southern Europe spoke Greek. Scholars observed differences between Attic Greek and the New Testament Greek and thought that it was some kind of “Holy Spirit” Greek, something that only appeared in the New Testament.

However, at the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, many documents were discovered, written in this new form of Greek. These documents were everyday types of documents, not Scriptures. Scholars discovered that this new Greek wasn’t special at all. It just happened to be the language spoken by common, everyday people throughout the area conquered by Alexander the Great. This new Greek was called Koine (pronounced COIN-ay) Greek, or common Greek.

Side Note: We in Western Christianity have the Bible in our common vernacular than at any other time in history. While many of our homes have the Bible in several English translations, many other parts of the world only have the Bible in one translation and it isn’t even in their Mother Tongue because translators haven’t yet learned their language. I plan to share some news about a new tremendous translation effort in the coming months.

You may have heard the expression, “You may be the only Bible many people ever read.“? I think the idea came from 2 Corinthians 3:2-3, in today’s daily Bible reading.

Now, if that expression is true, what do people conclude about the Bible they read?

Do they see condemnation and pain? Do they see encouragement and comfort? Do they see a religious holier-than-thou attitude? Do they see redeeming love?

Oftentimes the Bible people read when they look at us reflects the Bible we read when we were growing up. I know a lot of Believers who grew up under “hellfire and brimstone” preaching. They never heard of God’s love. One friend said she always felt that God was mad at her and if she messed up, He might squish her. Many Believers today have only heard of a loving God and have heard nothing of God’s righteous judgement.

Unfortunately, those who know only God’s judgment and those who know only God’s love have an incomplete view of God. Despite the common belief, the God of the Old Testament is the same God we see in the New Testament. He doesn’t change. (Hebrews 13:8)

Application

If we are the only Bible some people ever read, then when people read us, they need to see a complete view of God, or as complete a view as possible, given that we are fallible, errant, and not inspired. That can only happen as we read across the genres of the Bible, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Prophecy, the History, the Poetry and Wisdom Literature, the Teaching Literature, and the Apocolyptic Literature. As we read, study, and apply the written Word, our attitudes, our beliefs, and our behaviors will begin to reveal a more complete Bible for our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers to read.

Spend a few minutes today contemplating the statement, “You may be the only Bible some people ever read.” Ask God to show you how you can reveal a more complete view of God in your attitudes, your beliefs, and your behavior.

Realize that you may be the only Bible that people read. Help them read between the lines. Tell them how God has made a difference in your life. Give them the Gospel message in words, not just actions. Without hearing the Gospel message, they will never come to a saving faith.

So faith comes from what is heard,
and what is heard comes through the message about Christ.
Romans 10:17 (CSB)

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