Biblical Landscapes – Sea of Galilee

Sometimes we read our bible and we skim over the geographical details. If we are not familiar with the biblical landscapes then we can over look some of the details that help us understand the biblical narrative. Some of the gospel stories take place around the Sea of Galilee, a body of water in the north of Israel. From the fresh waters of the Sea of Galilee flows the Jordon River which flows south, past the baptismal spot of Jesus, into the Dead Sea which is 33% salt.

In understanding the significant landscapes of northern Israel at the time of Jesus, we need to understand that there are two sides to the Sea of Galilee:

  1. The Jewish side – the people known as Galileans are the Jewish people that live on the western side of the sea. Their towns were adapted to their Jewish culture with synagogues and ritual cleansing baths. The farming and work practices on this side allowed the people to follow the jewish law and cultural practices. Many of the jewish people stayed in their area of Galilee to avoid the unclean habits of non jewish towns and cities. The Jews also reduced their payment of taxes to Rome if they did not cross the borders into the other regions.
  2. The other side – many other people lived and worked around the Sea of Galilee that were not practicing Jews. There were some hellenized or secular jews living in these towns The towns on the other side of the sea were formed around roman culture and roman styles of building. The towns often had pagan temples, secular bath houses, amphitheatres and cultural buildings.

In the gospels we read stories where Jesus got into a boat and traveled to the other side. Perhaps we might have over looked this geographical detail in the past. If we understand that this also means Jesus is taking the disciples into gentile areas then perhaps there is deeper meaning to the travel log given by the Gospel writers.

For example in Matthew 8 and Mark 5 we hear that Jesus is talking to teachers of the law, this places Jesus in the Jewish areas of Galilee. Jesus heals sick people here showing that He has command over sickness. Jesus and the disciples then cross the Sea of Galilee in a boat. On the journey across Jesus calms the storm, showing that He has command over the elements of nature. Final Jesus arrives on the other side.

When we read the narrative that takes place on the other side, we might notice that this is a pig farming area which indicates it is a gentile area. In the Matthew account the people of the region (gentiles) are not impressed by the loss of their pigs and force Jesus to leave their region. This was perhaps a good learning opportunity for the disciples to have an encounter with non-jewish region. In the gospel of Mark the reaction is a little different because the man who was healed goes back to “his people” and shares the good news in the Decapolis, a region of 10 roman cities. Mark states that all the people were amazed; gentiles were amazed at the work of Jesus.

So why did Jesus cross over to “the other side”? Maybe Jesus just wanted to go for a sail and he just happened to land on the other side. It is more likely that Jesus saw this as a training opportunity for the disciples. Perhaps Jesus knew that the good news would go to all the nations and therefore he needed to form the disciples for cross-cultural ministry while he was still with them.

In our world today there are secular forces that would love to push the church back into its shell, to keep the church on its side. The temptation for Christians is to stay out of the public and stay on our side of the public debate. Yet Jesus didn’t just cross over to the gentile areas, he sent the disciples out to the ends of the earth to make disciples of the whole world. Are we prepared to go to the other side to spread the good news? I wonder what the other side looks like in your work and ministry setting.

My hope is that this insight into the biblical landscape might help you take notice of other geographical details in the biblical narrative. Even if you need to read your bible with a map in your hand, there is often one in the back of the bible, hopefully you will gain new insights into the stories by locating them in the Jewish or gentile areas.

Please leave a comment.

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Eye witness proof of Jesus

People often ask about the proof about the existence of Jesus, did you know that we have eye witness testimony of the existence of Jesus?  Yet why do so many people base their views on Jesus from writers from a different millennium?  Do they have factual evidence to reject the testimony of eye witnesses?  What are the claims of eye witness testimony in Scripture?

On Sunday night here in Melbourne, Channel Nine aired a television drama called “Howz that!”  It is a re-creation of the events surrounding the 1970’s split between the Australia Cricket Board and the cricket players, leading to the creation of World Series Cricket.  The interesting thing about the drama was the actors were portraying real people and their version of events.  In the week after the show aired most of the media were asking the real people about their version of events.  Whilst the show was exciting to viewers, nothing beats the testimony of a person who was actually there.

This got me thinking about the value of eye witness testimony to prove what happened at certain events.  At the same time I was reviewing commentary of 1 John and realised the weight of eye witness testimony in the Epistle.  So what is the eye witness testimony in the bible:

  • The Epistle of 1 John claims to be from an eye witness of the life and ministry of Jesus.  In the Epistle it claims that Jesus was the Son of God and really died on the Cross as an atoning sacrifice for sin.
  • The Second Letter of Peter, 2 Peter, also claims to be an eye witness to the life and ministry of Jesus.  Peter also claims to have seen and read the writings of Paul, and found them difficult to understand.  See 2 Peter 3:15-16.
  • The Gospel of Luke claims eye witness testimony of life and ministry of Jesus.  The author, Luke, also claims eye witness testimony of the life and ministry of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.

Some modern writers claim that the Old Testimony prophesies about Jesus are so vague that they could mean anything.  Whilst I disagree with this perspective it still doesn’t change the fact that there are at least three written eye witness accounts of Jesus.  We also know that  these writings have been tested over the centuries and found to be as legitimate as any document from that period.  If you want more on this see the work of John Dickson from the Centre of Public Christianity.

So it really comes down to the question “why do people reject the eye witness testimony of Jesus and get their understanding of Jesus from a 20th Century atheist?”  We have to wonder if it is because the message of Jesus is too confronting for them.  Perhaps the message of Jesus demands too much change in the way these people live their life.  Just because a person don’t like a message doesn’t make it untrue.

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Easter Sunday

We celebrate people who overcome

Rejoice! Rejoice! Christ has Risen, Christ is Risen.  Today, Easter Sunday, we celebrate that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.  After three days in the tomb, the stone is rolled away because Jesus has risen from the grave.  The empty tomb is the symbol of Easter Sunday because Jesus has overcome death.

When we look at our society today, it is hard to explain this victory to people.  People celebrate the most amazing victory ever with cheap chocolate that gives you a quick sugar rush, then a crushing low only a short time later.  This is hardly the appropriate symbol to celebrate a once and for all victory over death.

Here is a more appropriate image:

In our society we celebrate people who overcome great adversity to succeed in a task.  How much more then should we celebrate someone who overcame death?

Let me give you a few examples:

  • My Son’s Year 5 teacher went in the Melbourne IronMan event that involved a 3km swim, 100km bike ride and a 42km run.  It would be a great achievement to complete one of these legs but she finished all three.  The school community celebrated her achievement; she was a hero to all the boys in her class.  It was because the task involved difficulty that people celebrated her achievement.
  • I worked with a teacher who was planning a trip to Mount Everest.  In the training he discovered he had cancer.  He was determined to beat cancer so he could make to Everest base camp.  After months of therapy he had overcome cancer and made it to base camp.  Overcoming cancer made him a hero to many people but then going to base camp was even more impressive.  It was because he overcame difficulty to achieve his task that people celebrated.
  • We celebrate all kinds of people who climb Mt Everest.  Anyone who makes it to the top is a hero.  But if you make it to the top unassisted that is even more heroic.  When a blind person climbed Everest that was even more heroic.  It seems we celebrate people who overcome great adversity to achieve a task.
  • We celebrate people who achieve in business all the time.  Yet if someone started out with nothing then we celebrate their achievement even more.  But if someone starts out with nothing during a depression, goes through a recession and comes out successful then books are written about them.  Even in the secular world of business we celebrate people who overcome great adversity to achieve a task.

So what about Jesus? Why is that we celebrate people who overcome great adversity yet we expect God to give us everything easy or God is not faithful?  Why is that we expect God to give us everything we think we want in order to show us God is great?  Wouldn’t it be more logical to let us overcome adversity so that we feel we accomplished something?

Here is the amazing thing about God:

  1. Jesus overcomes death – if you think it is hard to fight cancer in order to climb Mt Everest how much more difficult is it to overcome death itself.  Jesus didn’t just wake up from a coma caused by the Crucifixion, he had a new body, able to walk, talk and eat.  Jesus walked a few miles on the road to Emmaus only days after dying on the Cross, this is not a simple healing but a new beginning.  Jesus overcame the greatest challenge of all and we should celebrate.
  2. God is faithful – God knows what we are like and sent his Son to die for us as a sign of God’s faithfulness.  We don’t have to overcome any great challenge to join in this victory, we have it easy because God is faithful.  We can stand before God blameless because Jesus overcame death on our behalf.  Isn’t this something that we should celebrate?

My hope is that you celebrate that Jesus overcame the greatest obstacle so that we can believe that anything is possible.  My hope is that this Good News is something that you celebrate because it is greater than any IronMan, any climb of Mt Everest or any Business tycoon.  What a great day this is.

What does Easter mean to you?  Please leave a comment.

A Good Friday reflection

Can one person really die for the sins of everyone?

It seems that when it comes to the concept of Jesus dying for our sins on the Cross, many people can’t get their head around the concept.  How could one man die for all the sins of all people? People say things like “If Jesus was God couldn’t he just say you are forgiven?”  Perhaps Jesus could have done this but I think there is more to it than that.  The Cross is a sign of a greater reality.  God could have used a different sign but instead God chose the Cross.

Jewish Background

When the Israelites were giving sacrifices to God throughout the year they would give the sacrifice on the outer altar of the Tabernacle (Exile) or the Temple (Jerusalem).  They would take an animal and place their sins on the animal then sacrifice this animal as a “payment” for their sins.

Throughout the year the Tabernacle or the Temple would be “contaminated” by the sins of all the people so the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holy’s to make a once a year atoning sacrifice to cleanse the Tabernacle or Temple.

The Jewish People in the time of Jesus would understand that one High Priest could make a sacrifice for the sins of everyone because they saw it every year.  Given that modern day Christians don’t have this sacrificial system, we may not understand this imagery.  But for the Jewish people of the day, they could believe that one man can pay for the sins of everyone.

Secular Context

Think about these few examples in our secular world today:

  • Big Business – Today when a company is found to have done something illegal or wrong, the “market” calls for the CEO to resign.  The press will wage a campaign to have someone pay the price for the misconduct of the entire company.  The CEO might send someone else to take the fall on behalf of the company but someone has to pay.  After one person has resigned it seems that people continue to do business with this company as they everything it back to normal.  When one person pays the punishment the company gets a new start.
  • Criminal system – it seems that when the media find out there is a mass murder who has killed many people that justice isn’t served until they have been locked up in gaol.  Or perhaps people want the death penalty, even in a country without the death penalty.  Even though the murdered victims will never come back again, justice is seen to have been served when one person has received their punishment.
  • Sporting teams – it doesn’t take long for fans to cry for “blood” when their beloved sporting team continues its losing streak.  In AFL crazy Melbourne people are already making accusations about certain teams and it is only week two of the season.  How often do we see fans get back onside when the coach or captain is made to resign to “start a new chapter”.  How can the loss of one key player or a coach turn around a team and yet the fans seem to have a new hope.

Perhaps you might get the parallel that I am drawing with the issue of Jesus dying on the Cross for the sins of everyone.  Even in our secular non-christian society we have examples where “Justice is served” when one person takes the fall for the sins of many.  How much more powerful then is the example of Jesus who is the God who was sinned against, taking on the punishment for the sins against him?

My hope is that this Good Friday is a time for you and your family to see that God has paid the price for our sins so that we can live in freedom.  Not just a once a year payment or sacrifice like the Jewish people believed in but a once and for all payment.  Not just a scape goat punishment like in business, criminal system or sporting teams, but full restoration in our Hope because of Jesus.

Have a blessed Good Friday.

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Two ways to start something new

At times we feel God is calling onto something new but we are not quite sure what it is.  Maybe you feel that you need a fresh idea, a new ministry, extra team members or a different job.  Here are two great stories about Peter in the Bible that teach us something about how God calls us to begin something new.

1. Jesus calls Peter to fish on the other side of the boat (John 21:6) – Peter and the Apostles have been fishing all night and haven’t caught anything.  They have gone back to their trade after the death of Jesus and they know these waters very well.  Yet an unknown man, Jesus, stands on the water’s edge and asks them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat.  They cast their nets on the other side of their boat and they catch so much fish that the nets begin to tear.

To me this is a story about beginning something new within the same boat.  Sometimes in ministry we have been tying something without much success but we don’t feel called to jump ship.  If we are to keep going within the same boat (a particular ministry or church) then perhaps we just need a new perspective for a fresh catch.  Perhaps there is a ministry within your church that has not been

producing but it is a good team of volunteers, then start something new with the same team.  This new ministry activity will produce fresh energy that could lead to growth.  Or maybe you have a good model for a ministry but you just need to inject some new people into the team.

Sometimes God calls us to stay in the boat but fish with a new perspective.

2. Jesus calls Peter to walk on water (Matt 14:27-29) – Peter and the Apostles are in a boat again, this time they are caught in a storm.  Peter is worried about their safety when suddenly Jesus comes to them walking on water.  Jesus calls Peter to get out of the boat and walk across the water to him.

Again in this story we have Jesus calling out instructions to Peter.  This time Jesus is calling Peter to leave his boat.  To me this is a story about having the faith to leave the comfort of what we know to follow Jesus into something new.

There are times in our ministry career where we have to leave our established boat (a particular ministry or church) to venture out into the unknown of a new ministry.  Just like Peter in this passage, we have to have the faith to take the initial step out into the unknown without knowing the outcome.

Sometimes God calls us to leave our boats behind and follow him.

In the first story there can be a certain amount of comfort because you know the ministry, the church or the team.  When God calls us to fish with a new perspective the challenge can be to inspire the team of volunteers to give it one more go.  The resistance can come from people who say “we have tried things before and it didn’t work.

In the second store there really is no comfort because we are called to step out into the unknown.  When God calls us out of the boat the challenge can be to have enough faith to take the first leap into the unknown.  The resistance can come from people who are scared by the uncertainty “what if we cant do it?”

Maybe it is time for you to begin something new but is it within the same organisation or are you called to leap out into the unknown.  Both stories show us that following God takes faith and courage to get something new a try.  Please leave a comment.

Discipleship is like a Christmas tree

This week I was looking through all the Christmas catalogues that landed in my mailbox.

One major department store were advertising a beautiful Christmas tree for $27 dollars. The picture of this $27 Christmas tree was amazing; it was so beautiful that it made me want one in my house. My second reaction was “how can a tree that beautiful be worth $27?” Then it hit me that this tree would have had over $200 of ornaments, lights, tinsel and other decorations on it. The picture of the $27 dollar Christmas tree I was looking at was really worth about $227.

When you think about a Christmas tree,

it looks rather plain without any decorations. Yet if you had the beautiful decorations but no tree, then all you would have is a pile of decorations. The tree is the major element and the decorations are the extras; you need the tree to hang everything on. The same is true with discipleship; we need something to hang everything off. Let me explain.

Just like in the Christmas tree example, the key to element to discipleship is our relationship with Jesus. Without a relationship with Jesus there is no discipleship. We can get so distracted by the “lights and tinsel” that we forget the core element. We can think that if we have the extras then our relationship with Jesus is secure; in reality that may not be the case. Sometimes we need to strip back the extras to see what is really lying underneath it all.

In the case of the $27 Christmas tree, I am sure once you take the $200 worth of decorations off it isn’t the best looking tree. When you strip back all the extras in your spiritual life what does your relationship with Jesus look like? Is it something that you would be proud to show off to the world by itself or do you want to put all the extras back on? Some of the extras that could distract you from the core relationship with Jesus could include:

  1. Attendance: sometime we think the more we attend Church the more we love Jesus. See Attendance vs Commitment
    for more details
  2. Friends: sometimes we think that if we hang around lots of other disciples that makes us a disciple; discipleship through association.
  3. Routine: sometimes we think that if we fill our routine with spiritual exercise that will makes us more of a disciple, we might be busier but do these exercise fill our time or draw us closer to Jesus?

As a person with the Mark of Faith on your life, sometimes you have to strip back the extras to show others the core element of that faith; your relationship with Jesus. Please leave a comment.