Tag Archives: Bible

An Ancient Ritual; A Fresh Perspective

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.
Luke 3:21 (NIV)

Last week when our family was in South Carolina to celebrate the marriage of our daughter Madison to our new son-in-law, Garrett, we attended their local gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday morning. It was a celebration Sunday and several believers were baptized by immersion in a large baptismal pool that had been set up in the middle of the auditorium. It was fun to hear their stories about faith, following, and how Jesus had transformed their lives. The baptisms took place right in the middle of a loud, raucous, worshipping crowd singing and praising at dangerous decibel levels. There were so many people it was standing room only. Inspiring to say the least. Madison said it’s her favorite Sunday of the year, and I’m glad we experienced it.

My visit to the Holy Land many years ago changed the way I understood and experienced the Great Story. One of the things that changed drastically on that trip was my understanding of baptism. In Jesus’ day, ritual baptism was widely practiced by the Jewish people. In the wilderness around the Dead Sea there lived a colony of the monk-like ascetic priests, a Jewish sect called the Essenes. They believed in poverty, simplicity, benevolence, and daily ritual baptism. In the caves where they lived, you can still see the intricate system of baptismal pools in which their daily baptism was practiced.

Scholars believe that the Essene priests were celibate, and it is believed that they took orphans into their community to be raised in their ways and to grow their community. In yesterday’s chapter, Dr. Luke shares the story of John the Baptist’s miraculous conception to the elderly priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. In today’s chapter, the good Doctor fast-forwards to an adult John the Baptist living simply like a hermit in his camel-hair robe in the wilderness around the Dead Sea, preaching repentance, contentment, and baptism. He sounds exactly like an Essene. Born to elderly parents, it doesn’t take a huge mental leap to envision John being orphaned at a young age and his priestly family sending him to be raised by the Essenes, or perhaps a young John choosing to join the sect.

Being raised in the institutional protestant tradition of the Western church, baptism is considered one of the significant sacraments. Babies are sprinkled or adults are immersed. Most Christian theological traditions hold to baptism being a once-in-a-lifetime event. There are very strong feelings about the theology of baptism. Along my life journey, I’ve come to a very different conclusion than the tradition in which I was raised, especially after my visit to Israel and my exposure to the ancient tradition of ritual baptism that preceded and informed the Christian sacrament.

Baptism is a ritual of metaphor just like the sacrament of communion. It’s a sign and a visible word picture. Jesus said, “I am the water of life.” When a believer is plunged into the water it signifies dying to self and being buried in the likeness of Jesus’ death. When the believer rises up out of the water it signifies being raised to a new life in the likeness of Jesus’ resurrection, their sins washed away. It’s a ritualistic way-point on one’s spiritual journey, a fresh start, a new beginning, and an external, public proclamation of an inner-spiritual transformation.

Along my own spiritual journey, I can tell you that my spiritual path has wound itself through some pretty dark places. I’ve experienced my own periods of wilderness wandering. I have found myself the prodigal in far-away lands. I’ve discovered that my own spiritual journey is not a linear, straight-and-narrow interstate but a cyclical, meandering footpath. There are spiritual fits and starts. There are periods of stagnation, moments of repentance, and periodic commitment renewals. I think a ritual cleansing is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for important way-points along the journey. Just as the bread and cup can be a regular reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice, baptism can be a personal statement amidst a supportive community that marks an important shift in one’s spiritual trek.

In my spirit this morning I am still hearing the shouts of celebration, the screams of joy, and the ear-splitting worship that I witnessed with Madison and Garrett’s faith community in South Carolina. I had the opportunity to watch as some of those who were baptized walking out of the auditorium, dripping wet, wrapped in towels as they went to change into dry clothes. Every one of them was smiling, laughing, and visibly ecstatic. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “that’s the metaphor of baptism!” Washed clean, made new, old things passing away, and a fresh start on the right path in a good direction.

Who couldn’t occasionally benefit from that along a long spiritual journey?

Take me to the river.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Grappling with the Unexpected

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Luke 2:7 (NIV)

A few years ago, our daughter called late in the afternoon and asked if she could stop by. The last thing on Earth we expected to hear that evening was that she was pregnant. She and Clayton had been divorced for three years and we had no idea that they had seen one another. As the story unfolded, it became clear that Milo’s conception was as improbable as it was unexpected. There are times that God makes it perfectly clear that a baby is meant to happen.

I recommend you click on the image below and read Taylor’s post:

Ironic, isn’t it? The juxtaposition of yesterday’s post and today’s post is not lost on me. What a fascinating journey.

As I read the very familiar story in today’s chapter, I couldn’t help but recognize the poor interpretation that many of us were given in the bathrobe Christmas pageants of our childhood. The familiar King James version of today’s chapter says that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the Bethlehem Motel. The translation “guest room” is more accurate, and it gets to the bigger picture that is lost on most readers.

Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census because that was his family’s hometown and ancestral home. In those days, families all lived together communally. If Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census, so did his parents, siblings, and cousins. Many scholars also believe that the genealogy of Jesus that Luke provides in tomorrow’s chapter is the lineage of Mary, in which case all of Mary’s family, siblings, and cousins would have been required to go to Bethlehem as well. It was a full-scale family reunion thanks to the Internal Revenue Service of the Roman Empire.

A big family reunion in the ol’ hometown. And, there was no guest room available for a very pregnant Mary and her betrothed.

At the beginning of John’s biography of Jesus, he states: “{Jesus] came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” The prophet Isaiah wrote of the Messiah: “He was despised and rejected.” These things were true of Jesus from the very beginning before he was even born. An unwed teen mother telling stories about an angel saying she’s pregnant with God’s child didn’t receive a favorable response from the fam.

Wendy and I have been overjoyed the past two weeks to have our kids and grandson back in the states with us. Milo may have been an unexpected and improbable addition to our family, but there is no doubt in my mind that he was intended.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded that this life journey is filled with unexpected circumstances. I’ve observed along the way that our journeys rarely end up being what we thought they would be or what we planned for them to be. Nevertheless, it’s easy to feel disappointed, cheated, or somehow surprised by this reality. I’m not sure how or why I ever came to the notion of life’s predictability in the first place. The further I get in my journey the more I try to not fight the unexpected but to trust and flow with it instead.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Luke (Dec 2019)

Each photo below corresponds to each chapter-a-day post for the book of the Gospel of Luke published by Tom Vander Well in December 2019. Click on the photo linked to each chapter to read the post

Chapter 1: Grappling with “Never”
Chapter 2: Grappling with the Unexpected
Chapter 3: An Ancient Ritual; A Fresh Perspective

You’re all caught up! Posts will be added here as they are published. Click on the image below for easy access to other recent posts indexed by book.

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1 Peter (Nov 2019)

Each photo below corresponds to the chapter-a-day post for the book of 1 Peter published by Tom Vander Well in October 2019. Click on the photo linked to each chapter to read the post

Chapter 1: The Sower and the Seeds
Chapter 2: The Priest Paradigm
Chapter 3: “Bless You”
Chapter 4: The Mystery of Uncertainty
Chapter 5: The Flow and Right Timing

You’re all caught up! Posts will be added here as they are published. Click on the image below for easy access to other recent posts indexed by book.

Click Here for easy access to recent chapter-a-day posts indexed by book!

The Sower and the Seeds

From Peter, an apostle of Jesus the Anointed One, to the chosen ones who have been scattered abroad like “seed” into the nations living as refugees…
1 Peter 1:1 (TPT)

I’ve always had an appreciation for Vincent Van Gogh. The tragic Dutch artist who failed at almost everything in his life, including his desire and failed attempt to become a pastor. The story of his descent into madness is well known, along with his most famous works of a Starry Night, sunflowers, and his haunting self-portraits.

I find that most people are unaware that one of Van Gogh’s favorite themes was that of a sower sowing his seed. He sketched the sower from different perspectives and painted multiple works depicting the lone sower, his arm outstretched and the seed scattered on the field.

This morning I’m jumping from the ancient prophet Zechariah to a letter Peter wrote around 30 years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. In recent months, I’ve been blogging through texts that surround the Babylonian exile 400-500 years before Jesus. But that wasn’t the only exile recorded in God’s Message. Peter wrote his letter to followers of Jesus who had fled persecution from both Jews and Romans in Jerusalem. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, exile is a consistent theme in the Great Story.

At that point in time, thousands upon thousands of people had become followers of Jesus and were creating social upheaval by the way they were living out their faith. They were caring for people who were marginalized, sick, and needy. When followers of Jesus gathered in homes to worship and share a meal, everyone was welcome as equals. Men and women, Jews and non-Jews, and even slaves and their masters were treated the same at Christ’s table. This was a radical shift that threatened established social mores in both Roman and Jewish culture. So, the establishment came after them with a vengeance.

Peter begins his letter to the Christian exiles by immediately claiming for them a purpose in their exile. He gives the word picture of being the “seed” of Christ scattered by the Great Sower to various nations. They were to take root where they landed, dig deep, and bear the fruit of the Spirit so that the people around them might come to faith in Christ. God’s instructions through the prophet Jeremiah to the Babylonian exiles could just as easily apply to them:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Jeremiah 29:4-7 (NIV)

And, in the quiet this morning I realize that it can also apply to me wherever my journey leads me. There is a purpose for me wherever that may be. I am the seed of Christ. I am to dig deep, create roots, draw living water from the depths, grow, mature, and bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, perseverance, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I can’t help but think of Van Gogh, the failed minister who found himself in several exilic circumstances that inspired his paintings. I’ve read his letters, and I find that scholars tend to diminish or ignore the role of faith in Vincent’s life and work, despite his many struggles. Then I think of that sower who shows up again and again in his work. I can’t help but wonder if when he repeatedly sketched and painted the sower, if he thought about his works being the seed of God’s creativity he was scattering in order to reflect the light which he saw so differently than everyone else, and so beautifully portrayed. I find it tragic that he never lived to see the fruit of his those artistic seeds. Yet, I recognize that for those living in exile, that is sometimes the reality of the journey.

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The Important Thing

The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.
Zechariah 14:9 (NIV)

On my podcast this past week, I began a conversation about time. One of the more profound and mysterious aspects of God’s Message is, of course, the prophetic. What I regularly refer to as “The Great Story” is the story arc from creation in Genesis to the end of the book of Revelation when history as we know it ends and there is a new beginning.

One of the things I’ve noted in God’s creation is the number of recurring themes present. The way we depict an atom looks just like a little solar system, which is replicated in the moon going around the earth, the earth going around the sun, the solar system spinning in the galaxy, and etc.

One of the other great themes is simply the cycle of life and death. Physicists tell us that matter is energy. Genesis says God made humans from the dust of the earth, and when we die it was prescribed that “to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19). There is a natural part of the life-cycle of creation in this. Our bodies die, return to the ground, decay, and then are recycled by creation to feed new life.

As mentioned in my podcast, I see this cycle replicated in the Great Story. I look at human history and see all of the life stages: infancy, toddler, child, teenager, and etc. There is a course of macro human development that I find is very much like the micro stages of an individual human life. And, we are reminded by the prophets, history like each of our lives will have an end.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah envisions the death throes of human history. His vision dovetails with John’s visions in Revelation 16:14-16 and again at the end of Revelation 19. A final battle between good and evil, when God sets up rule and reign over the Earth.

Of course, all of this can be terribly confusing and even frightening. A couple of thoughts as I mull these things over this morning.

First, prophecy is not a science and there is no iron-clad understanding. I have learned to approach the prophetic humbly, recognizing that the most learned and scholarly of God’s people completely misinterpreted the prophets understanding of the Messiah. Even Jesus’ own disciples expected Him to become what the scholars and teachers of their day expected Him to be. Therefore, I assume that the most gifted and emphatic of today’s teachers claiming they know the truth about end-times prophecy is likely wrong about most of it. The most common truth I’ve come to accept about prophecy is that, in hindsight, it doesn’t end up happening the way everyone said it would.

Second, I believe that the important message is not in the details but in the theme. History moves towards a death of the way things are just as each of our lives ends with the death of our earthly journey. This death comes complete with the struggle and “death throes” associated with the human fight against our physical death. And then?

This is the critical piece to the Jesus Story. At the climactic, dark moment there is a eucatastrophe. Death does not have the final word. Resurrection. Life springs out of the depths. The phoenix rises from the ashes. The old order passes away and a new order comes.

Once again, I can’t help to see the layer of meaning. In the same way that I, as a follower of Jesus, believe that after death I will experience new life through the resurrected Jesus, so I believe that at the end of this Great Story of humanity there will be a death and a resurrection. As the end of Revelation envisions there is a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, and a new order of creation. This is such a natural part of creation that I find the truth of it is hidden in plain sight. Here in Iowa the fields have yielded their harvest. The death throes have begun. I feel it in the chill as I got out of bed this morning. Death is coming when everything in this beautiful land will be dark, and cold, and colorless. But, a new year will come with new life, and warmth, and abundance, and vibrant color.

In the quiet this morning I find myself curious but scratching my head with regard to battles, and plagues, and rotting flesh, and earthquakes, and etc. What I find myself focused on is on the important conclusion: new life, safety, a flow of living water, and “The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Zechariah (Oct/nov 2019)

Each photo below corresponds to the chapter-a-day post for the book of Zechariah published by Tom Vander Well in October 2019. Click on the photo linked to each chapter to read the post.

Chapter 1: The Pessimist
Chapter 2: Measuring Up for a Move
Chapter 3: No Apology Necessary
Chapter 4: Weathering the Storms
Chapter 5: A Tale of Two Building Projects
Chapter 6: Mystery and Knowledge
Chapter 7: Reflections on a Sneeze
Chapter 8: Hope Needs a Description
Chapter 9: A Different Kind of Kingdom
Chapter 10: Wander and Return
Chapter 11: Poet, Chorus, Character
Chapter 12: Pierced
Chapter 13: God in my Suffering
Chapter 14: The Important Thing
Click Here for easy access to recent chapter-a-day posts indexed by book!