Sabbath School Lesson Commentary for Lesson #7 (August 15, 2015)
Jesus was certainly the “Master of Missions,” to use the title for this lesson in the standard adult quarterly. But he earned that label by coming in the back door, not the front. By the time he returned to his Father he had surprised everyone.
As C. S. Lewis put it: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.” – A Grief Observed, IV.15
The Gospels are clear that the “popular” idea of the Messiah in Jesus’ day called for a conquering king who would deliver Israel from all her enemies. The idea of the Messiah as a missionary whose followers would circle the globe to win the nations for God apparently did not cross anyone’s mind – until after the resurrection. Let’s explore that concept under four key words:
1. Startling. As the anointed son of David, Jesus was born in the right city, Bethlehem, the city of David. But everything else was wrong: a virgin mother and born in a manger? First recognized by shepherds and foreign wise men? What a strange way for a Jewish Messiah to begin his earthly life.
After being taken to Egypt by his parents, he eventually returned to Nazareth, a wicked little town in Galilee where he worked as a carpenter’s apprentice until he was thirty. His public call to ministry came at the River Jordan where he was baptized by the recluse preacher, John the Baptist. But then Jesus disappeared again, this time into the wilderness for forty days where he confronted the devil and lived among wild animals.
According to Luke 4, early in his ministry he stood up in the synagogue at Capernaum and read from the Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me,” he declared, “to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, the recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free.” The people were enthralled – until he reminded them of Elijah’s sojourn with the Sidonian widow, and the healing of Naaman the Syrian – both foreigners. Adulation turned to anger and the people dragged him to the brow of a hill in order to throw him off a cliff.
2.Intriguing. But in spite of this rough beginning, when Jesus began a larger ministry, he drew huge crowds. And Matthew’s comment at the conclusion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is telling: “The crowds were amazed at this teaching, because he taught as one who had authority and not as their teachers of the law” (Matt. 7:28-29). No doubt there was a contrast in substance. After all, Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, not conquer them. But there was also a contrast in style. Compared with the rabbinic teachers of the time, Jesus’ method was both astonishing and refreshing. No rabbi would dare say anything on his own nickel. The more rabbinic authorities he could cite the better. By contrast, Jesus simply opened his mouth and spoke from his heart. He cited no authorities at all. The people were intrigued and impressed.
3. Shocking. Two aspects of Jesus’ ministry were shocking to his contemporaries. One involved his relationship to people, especially to women and non-Jews; the other involved his understanding of his own death in the fulfillment of his mission.
Two of the more striking New Testament incidents of women interacting with Jesus involved non-Jews: the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) and the Syrophoenician woman with the sick daughter who met Jesus near Tyre (Mark 7). In addition, within his own Jewish community, Jesus and his disciples were supported by a group of women, some of whom Jesus had healed. “These women were helping to support them out of their own means” (Luke 8:3).
Other Gospel stories openly attest to Jesus’ positive attitudes towards the despised Samaritans. The “Good Samaritan” helped a wounded Jew on the road to Jericho, a ministry opportunity which a Levite and a priest had both passed by (Luke 10:30-37), and Jesus commented on the fact that only one of ten healed lepers returned to thank him for healing: “Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17). Peter’s experience with Cornelius as told in Acts 10 indicates that Jesus’ attitude toward non-Jews hadn’t fazed the deeply-rooted anti-Gentile sentiment that still haunted the Jewish-Christian disciples. Peter bluntly told Cornelius and his friends, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Peter was so troubled by God’s path-breaking command that he took six Jewish witnesses with him.(Acts 11:12), and when the Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles, these Jewish Christians were “astonished” (Acts 10:45).
In short, Jesus’ open acceptance of both women and Gentiles was highly unusual for a Jewish male. “Shocking” is not too strong a word.
But the other shocking aspect of Jesus’ ministry involved his understanding of his approaching death. When Jesus began to open to the disciples his conviction that the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 was central to his own understanding of his mission, the disciples reacted with horror and alarm. Note the dialogue between Peter and Jesus in Matthew 16:22-23:“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’ Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’”
The sobering truth is that before the resurrection no one had accepted Jesus’ explanation of his death as essential to God’s plan. None of the disciples. None of the people. A suffering and dying Messiah? Never! Such an idea was too shocking to take seriously.
4.Inspiring. The resurrection changed all that. All at once, Jesus’ death and resurrection were seen to be at the very heart of his message and mission. The early chapters of the book of Acts tell the story. In particular, after Peter’s pointed sermon, Acts declares that the people “were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37). And as the disciples continued their bold testimony to Jesus’ power and kept performing miracles in his name, Acts states: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13)
Jesus’ path to becoming the “Master Missionary” was slow and difficult. But after the resurrection, those who had been with Jesus saw the light and carried forward the work that we are still called to do today. By God’s grace, our world can sense that we, too, have been with Jesus.
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