The sign of contradiction. (Series on the Gospel of Luke, #3)

The Gospel of Luke used to drive me crazy because it is so obviously out of chronological order. And, as an Engineer, I like order. But as an Engineer I also like Logic; and it wasn’t until this go around that I realized that a logical exposition was precisely what Luke set out to give us. Two blogs ago, I began my excursion into this Gospel by focusing on what I called, the formula: Repentance + faith = forgiveness of sins which produces Love. Today I want to continue where I left off. In doing so, I need to flesh out in more depth some of what I talked about then.

Luke’s avowed purpose for writing his Gospel is to provide us with the certainty of those things we have come to believe. His arrangement of the Gospel is more than didactic, it is dialectic. In the tradition of the great Greek teachers and thinkers (Socrates, Plato), he is going to lay out the facts of the story of the Christ (facts that he presupposes we already know) in such a way as to enable us to contrast and compare the claims Jesus made, against the claims the world and its people (including us) make. Only by evaluating them side by side, by thinking through which bring life and which doesn’t, which give real hope, which speak the truth that our spirit recognizes, only then can we make a binding decision on which we are willing to stake our life, our eternal life.

This is what certainty means: In Greek: asphaleia – that which cannot totter: Firmness that equates to security, safety, reliability. As Jesus said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, those that hear His words and live by them will be able to withstand the storms of life.

The first theorem

We touched briefly last time on Jesus’ declaration of his Messianic mission in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21). That moment is a culmination of a logical argument Luke set out to carry from the beginning of his Gospel. In chapters 1 and 2, through the story of the birth of Christ, and the songs of Mary and Zacharias, we see that:

  • God chose this particular moment in time, and this precise place in the world,
  • to carry out His plan of Salvation.
  • That Salvation is the Redemption promised through the prophets,
  • and it comes through the remission of sins,
  • for all mankind.
  • So that we can serve God in righteousness.
  • And God will carry all this out supernaturally, by His own Son.

That message by itself is momentous. It deserves pondering because it is not the way Israel had been expecting that Redemption to happen. Redemption, deliverance from our enemies, yes. But deliverance from ourselves, from our sins? Did we know that that was the real, the worst enemy? And the Redemption is not leading to the earthly Kingdom we were expecting but rather, as Zacharias says, it leads to our ability to finally love and serve God the way we were supposed to all along.

The truth is that the revelation is surprising only because we tend to cast all stories, all hopes, into what we think we want… into what I think is best for me. In reality, none of this revelation should have been surprising. From the very beginning of the nation, from the song of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, we have known that the problem is our heart:

Deut. 30:1-6 And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt take them to heart among all the nations whither Jehovah thy God hath driven thee, and shalt return to Jehovah thy God, and shalt hearken to his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy sons, with all thy heart and with all thy soul; that then Jehovah thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will gather thee again from all the peoples whither Jehovah thy God hath scattered thee.

Though there were of you driven out unto the end of the heavens, from thence will Jehovah thy God gather thee, and from thence will he fetch thee; and Jehovah thy God will bring thee into the land that thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers. And Jehovah thy God will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.

We ought to have known.

Then the story of John the Baptist continues the thought: It is up to us to respond. The call of the prophet to make straight His paths, to fill up every gorge, to level every mountain down, and straighten every crooked way is the call to us to Repent. The logical exposition continues thus:

  • Repentance from our sins is the requirement.
  • And as sure as the waters of Baptism cover us, God’s forgiveness will cover us.
  • And then we will be able to live the life of Love God requires of us.

It makes sense. Repentance makes sense. Honesty about all my failures is plenty to drive me to my knees and ask for this baptism. But how does that last point follow? How can I “magically” become the person I have never been able to be?

The answer was there in Deuteronomy 30:6: And Jehovah thy God will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live. The only way I can obey the great commandment – to love God with all my heart, soul, and strength – is by His mighty hand. He does the heart operation; He transforms my heart.

This is why the Redemption could only come supernaturally. This is why the Savior had to be the Son of God. And the story of the Baptism of Jesus prepares us for this answer. We know from another Gospel that John tried to tell Jesus, “you don’t need to be baptized,” pointing out that here was a man that had no sin. Then, as Jesus steps out of the waters, there comes the witness of the Father and the Spirit that He is more than just a man: He is the beloved Son. And then the triumph over the temptations of the devil wrap it up: Here is indeed One who is more powerful than sin. This is why this Redemption story began with His birth.

And so, Jesus’ declaration in the synagogue at Nazareth completes the thought:

Luke 4: 16-21 And he came to Nazareth, where he was brought up; and he entered, according to his custom, into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up to read. And [the] book of the prophet Esaias was given to him; and having unrolled the book he found the place where it was written, [The] Spirit of [the] Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach glad tidings to [the] poor; he has sent me to preach to captives deliverance, and to [the] blind sight, to send forth [the] crushed delivered, to preach [the] acceptable year of [the] Lord.

And having rolled up the book, when he had delivered it up to the attendant, he sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him. And he began to say to them, To-day this scripture is fulfilled in your ears.

  • The way my heart can be changed, and I can fulfill the requirement of Love, is through the power of this Jesus.

We know that by the time Jesus came to that synagogue his fame as a miracle worker was growing. He had already started preaching the good news to the poor. The wedding at Cana had already happened. The miracles He did in Jerusalem (John 2:23-25) during the Passover had already happened. The healing of the courtier’s son (John 4:46) had already happened. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that he had already healed some blind people.

So, as Jesus is reading this passage from Isaiah, the people there know it sounds like Him. And then He says: ‘Yes, this is me.’

And so Luke completes his first proof, his first Theorem about the Kingdom:

Repentance + Faith in Jesus = forgiveness of sins which produces Love.

The sign of contradiction that reveals the hearts of men

Photo of bridge vanishing into the fog

BUT there is something else that we learned in the Nativity story. Simeon in the Temple declares:

Luke 2:33,35 …this [child] is set for the fall and rising up of many in Israel, and for a sign of contradiction… so that [the] thoughts of the hearts of many may be revealed.

And we see the fulfilment of that prophecy here in the synagogue at Nazareth.

Luke 4: 22 And all bore witness to him, and wondered at the words of grace which were coming out of his mouth. And they said, Is not this the son of Joseph?

It appears that Jesus, after that declaration, started teaching; for it says, “all bore witness and wondered at the words of grace he spoke”. What he taught then, we do not know. But it certainly made an impression with its grace and wisdom. But their reaction is the most telling: “Is not this the son of Joseph?” Faced with grace undeniable, knowing the fame that surrounded Him, seeing that indeed this passage from Isaiah sounded like him, they were faced with a contradiction: How can this simple man be the Messiah?

This is a carpenter’s son; no one ever trained him on the Scriptures… A carpenter from Nazareth? No, this cannot be God’s plan. Who does he think he is? And so, the sign of contradiction reveals the hearts of men. Their own prejudices, their own pride, keep them from accepting what the signs all point to. We know what they were thinking because Jesus tells them:

Luke 4:23 And he said to them, Ye will surely say to me this parable, Physician, heal thyself; whatsoever we have heard has taken place in Capernaum do here also in thine own country.

They wanted proof. But proof in a way that was worse than Zacharias’ challenge to the angel. Zacharias said, “how can I know this will happen?” Here these people are saying: “We get to decide what’s true or not. We get to decide the level of proof God has to give for us to accept that this is His Plan.”

Jesus’ answer is: “No, actually, you get to decide whether or not you receive God’s blessings or God’s wrath.” And He tells them this by reminding them that their ancestors lived in the Kingdom of Israel long ago before it got taken over by Rome, or Greece, or Babylon, or the Assyrians. The chosen people lived a long time in a Kingdom that kept ignoring God’s voice. And to that Kingdom were sent two prophets: Elijah and Elisha. The first sent with power to prove to them that Jehovah is God. The second to remind them that their Savior is God. Yet, in spite of all the divine power that flowed through those two prophets, no Israelite ever received a blessing of God from them. Only Gentile pagans received God’s grace from them.

Luke 4:24-27 And he said, Verily I say to you, that no prophet is acceptable in his [own] country. But of a truth I say to you, There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, so that a great famine came upon all the land, and to none of them was Elias sent but to Sarepta of Sidonia, to a woman [that was] a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed but Naaman the Syrian.

And we might wonder, did anyone there think about that reply long enough to realize the parallel they were living? For John the Baptist, whose name meant Gracious is Jehovah, came as a prophet doing the promised Elijah’s mission. And just as Elijah of old, he made an enemy of a powerful woman, the King’s wife. (Remember, just before this event at the synagogue, John was thrown into prison.) Then on his heels comes this second prophet, Jesus, whose name means Our Savior is Jehovah… and He is healing everybody else… except me. Did anyone wonder?

But as Simeon said: He came to be the sign of contradiction that He would reveal our hearts. In the presence of this contradiction the pride of their hearts won out:

Luke 4:28-30 And they were all filled with rage in the synagogue, hearing these things; and rising up they cast him forth out of the city, and led him up to the brow of the mountain upon which their city was built, so that they might throw him down the precipice; but *he*, passing through the midst of them, went his way.

And, again, we can wonder, did anyone realize what they just did? Both Elijah and Elisha were threatened with death by their own King. Here they just tried to kill this self-proclaimed prophet.

I believe there is another thought, another theorem that runs through Luke’s narrative, and it is this:

  • The Kingdom of God is what God wants it to be, regardless of what I want.
  • The Redemption of Israel was not for Israel alone but to fulfill their mission to save the whole world.
  • The Redemption is not about defeating worldly enemies and restoring our earthly kingdom. It is about defeating the ultimate enemy – sin – and to restore us to the Kingdom of God.
  • This is why, though John the Baptist was Elijah, he was not the Elijah they were expecting.
  • And this is why Jesus is the Messiah but not the Messiah they wanted.

It is a good thing to pause on this thought for a moment and consider our lives today in the light of this revelation. It is a good thing to imagine ourselves there in that synagogue and faced with the same contradiction. What would we have done? When Jesus’ words and deeds revealed our hearts, what would we have discovered?

What expectations or preconception do we have of God? Why do we think those things? Is it because Scripture reveals Him that way or is it because that’s the way we want Scripture to read? We all can make mistakes. We all can misread or miss-think. But the heart of the matter, the heart of the man, is revealed when God, divinely steps into our reality and tells us: “you got it wrong.”

He steps in

photo of lightning storm at nightAnd God does supernaturally step into our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not. In fact, whether we acknowledge it or not may also be revealing our heart. But, as Elihu told Job, when Job kept implying that God was hostile toward him unjustly, “You don’t realize it, but God has been trying to get your attention.”

Job 33:14-18 For God speaketh once, and twice,—[and man] perceiveth it not—In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed; then he openeth men’s ears, and sealeth their instruction, that he may withdraw man [from his] work, and hide pride from man. He keepeth back his soul from the pit, and his life from passing away by the sword.

God’s purpose in all this is to save. And He will use any means He judges right.

Job 33:19-22 He is chastened also with pain upon his bed, and with constant strife in his bones; and his life abhorreth bread, and his soul dainty food; his flesh is consumed away from view, and his bones that were not seen stick out; and his soul draweth near to the pit, and his life to the destroyers.

And if none of this gets your attention, He will even send you an advocate…

Job 33:23-24 If there be a messenger with him, an interpreter, one among a thousand, to shew unto man his duty; then he will be gracious unto him, and say, Deliver him from going down to the pit: I have found a ransom.

… even someone to pay the ransom… Because the whole point is to save me.

Job 33:25-28 His flesh shall be fresher than in childhood; he shall return to the days of his youth. He shall pray unto God, and he will receive him with favour; and he shall see his face with shoutings, and he will render unto man his righteousness. He will sing before men, and say, I have sinned, and perverted what was right, and it hath not been requited to me; He hath delivered my soul from going into the pit, and my life shall see the light.

So that that salvation comes finally through my repentance.

Job 33: 2-30 Lo, all these [things] worketh God twice, thrice, with man, to bring back his soul from the pit, that he may be enlightened with the light of the living.

The book of Job ends with him repenting, and God carrying out in his life the purpose He had planned for it from the beginning: to be His priest; a purpose Job was blind to in all his former prosperity.

Facing the sign of contradiction is not easy, it is not painless, because where we are may be very far from where God – in His infinite Love – has planned for us to be.

Facing that sign of contradiction is what Søren Kierkegaard called coming face to face with the possibility of the offense, where we are forced to choose who is right: God or I? It may mean accepting that what I think I want is not necessarily what is best for me. It may mean accepting that the gifts God has placed in my life, He placed there to carry out a job in His Kingdom, a job that my flesh may not like, a job that will bring me no earthly reward in this life, a job that may very well earn me enemies in this world, and pain, and suffering: In summary, a job that is best described as picking up and carrying my cross.

When that time comes, how will I respond? Will I, like the people in the synagogue, be offended and say, “that can’t be God’s plan”? Or, will I follow Him?

It is only through facing that kind of choice that we find faith.

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