August 9, 2020

Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery

Early in the morning while Jesus was teaching at the temple, the scribes and Pharisees presented a woman they claimed to have committed adultery. Attempting to trap the Savior, they ask what should happen to the woman. (John 8:1-11). The Master’s response teaches us a powerful lesson of both justice and mercy.

According to the Law of Moses, the act of adultery was punishable by death by stoning (Leviticus 20:10). The death penalty was also prescribed for several other types of sins including persistent disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18–21), breaking the Sabbath day (Exodus 31:14), and blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10–16), among others. Today, the severity of the punishment might seem archaic and overly harsh. However, a better understanding of the law reveals that it actually provided for both justice and mercy in a masterful way unmatched by even our modern legal system.

Before anyone was punished, the accused would be tried before the Jewish leadership where at least two witnesses must testify of the wrongdoing. If the verdict was guilty, the witnesses who accused the person had two options. First, while still being guilty of the crime, the person could be forgiven by the witnesses, thus receiving mercy. Their life is spared. If the witnesses refused to forgive, they were required to cast the first stone. The punishment of death would be required at the hands of the witnesses. They could not just stand by and watch. (Deuteronomy 17:6–7). If the accusation was later discovered to be false, the witnesses could also be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 19:15–21).

The stoning of Stephen by Robert Leinweber
In the Old Testament, mercy was the outcome in almost all instances where the law required capital punishment. For example, King David’s son Absalom was allowed to live even though he had tried to overthrow his own father’s kingdom and take the throne (2 Samuel 14:33). If stoning had been chosen every time a child disobeyed a parent or an Israelite failed to keep the Sabbath day holy, very few, if any, Israelites would have remained. The law, in essence, teaches the severity of disobeying the Lord, while also teaching the importance of being merciful—fulfilling both justice and mercy.

Now let’s focus on the Pharisee’s accusation of this woman. Typically, when adultery occurred, both parties were tried before the Jewish leadership. The woman’s husband would then decide whether to forgive the immoral act or cast the first stone. In this instance, no mention is made of either the man the woman was supposedly with or of her husband. This means one of the following three scenarios are possible: first the woman had committed adultery, second the woman had been raped, or third the woman was actually innocent and thus falsely accused. Whatever the case may be, this woman is not receiving a fair trial according to the law.

In order to trap Jesus, the Pharisees say, “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” (John 8:5). Silently, Jesus bends down and uses his finger to draw on the ground, the same finger who had written the law on the stone tablets on Mt. Sinai. This serves as a powerful reminder that he who wrote the law knows best how to interpret the law. In silence, the Master teaches a poignant lesson. He does not accuse the woman nor even ask her to defend herself.

Jesus and the woman taken in adultery by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri
The Pharisees continue to press for an answer. Jesus finally stands up and says this powerful statement, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (John 8:7).

The Master is exposing the Pharisees’ attempt to trick him. In essence, Jesus is saying, “If you think she is guilty and you are innocent, then stand as her accusers and cast the first stone causing her death.” Christ fully understands the true meaning behind the law, and he sees that these wicked Pharisees only seek to use the law to entrap him. In their minds, they could care less about if this woman is guilty or not. Christ again bends down and writes on the ground as the crowd contemplates their decision. One by one they leave. No one is willing to execute the punishment and the woman is left there alone. (See John 8:9–10).

Alone with her Savior who is without sin and could justifiably cast the first stone. He who knows whether she is indeed guilty of this crime. And yet, he does not condemn her.

We often are quick to think of this story, like the title, as the “woman caught in adultery” yet, notice Jesus never actually accuses her of the crime. He simply states, “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11) which could be said to any of us. Though we don’t know if this woman has simply been falsely accused in order to frame Jesus, perhaps the Pharisees, knowing the truth, held an unfair trial to trick Jesus into accusing an innocent person. In the end, we don’t know if she is guilty or not, but it would be wise to follow the example of the Savior and leave judgment to him.

As we read this story, it can be helpful to look for ourselves in the text of these events. Sometimes we might be like the Pharisees—quick to make an accusation or attempt to entrap others. Or maybe we might be like the members of the crowd—embarrassed and withdrawn when we recognize our own sins. Or there may be times when we feel like the woman—alone, unsupported, treated unfairly, and in desperate need of mercy. But among those who stood on the steps of the temple that early morning, no one stands as a greater example than the Savior. If Christ, being without sin, is unwilling to accuse the woman and cast the first stone, should not we, in our sinful state, do likewise? Should not we, like our Savior, lift each other up and offer a hand of mercy?

This will not be the last time these same Pharisees will seek condemnation without a fair trial. Eventually, they will accuse the very One they had previously sought to entrap, even Jesus Christ. Unlike the woman accused of adultery, he will not receive mercy. The Pharisees will chant, “Crucify him!” Christ willingly submits and dies on the cross—innocent of all crimes the Pharisees falsely testified he has committed. He does this so that we, who are sinners, can receive the very same mercy he had deserved. And just like the woman who possibly had been caught in adultery, we too can go free, thanks to the loving sacrifice of our Savior.

Script written by Heather Ruth Pack

July 26, 2020

Mary and Martha, Disciples of Christ

The stories of the two sisters Mary and Martha are some of the most remembered in the Bible. We learn of their many interactions with Jesus Christ. They fed him. They housed him. They learned from him. They wept with him. They were loved by him. As we look more closely at the lives of these two incredible women, we discover how the Savior’s love for them extends to all of us. We too can be disciples of Christ like Mary and Martha.

In ancient times, women’s responsibilities were primarily to prepare, cook, and serve meals while also caring for the children and other household duties. Men worked the land and various trades such as carpentry, pottery, and fishing. From a young age, boys were generally given a religious education at the synagogue. During the week and on the Sabbath, the men and boys would gather at the synagogue and learn and study the scriptures. Women were not generally afforded these same privileges; it was always men who were trained in the law.

Additionally, women normally would not socialize or mingle with men, except for their own family. According to Jewish law one who touched a dead body or anyone with open sores or blood became ritually unclean. Because it was difficult to know whether a woman was menstruating or flowing with blood, men generally avoided women. Consequently, women were not to disturb the men but serve them behind the scenes as they discussed matters of God.

Now let’s look more closely at Mary’s and Martha’s personal circumstances. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were siblings living in Bethany, a village just outside of Jerusalem. Apparently, Martha was quite well off as she was the householder. As an itinerant rabbi, Jesus relied on the support of others to feed and house both him and his disciples. Martha appeared to have the means to be able to do this for the Master.

Let’s consider the story found in Luke chapter 10 with this background in mind. Jesus arrives at Bethany with his disciples. This most likely would have been more than just the 12 who had been asked to follow, but others as well. Martha opens her home to Jesus and these travel-weary individuals. This monumental task, of caring for her guests, would have fallen on Martha and Mary, not Lazarus.

Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha by Robert Leinweber
What Mary chooses to do instead of helping Martha is of significant importance. She is not only mingling with Jesus and the other men, but also sitting at the Savior’s feet. This place is reserved only for the chief disciple. Mary is seen by Jesus as deserving not only of a religious education, but also of the seat for a chief disciple. Martha expresses frustration that she has been left alone to care for so many guests. “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.” (Luke 10:40).

Jesus answers by saying her name not once but twice, possibly to reflect his great love for ‘her, “Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answers, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:41-42 NIV).

When we ponder Jesus’ answer, we see that Martha was not necessarily being scolded, but rather lovingly taught an important principle. Jesus was not concerned with the societal norms at the time, but rather that both men and women learn of Christ and his teachings. Mary has chosen the better part—what is most essential for her at that moment—to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Luke ends the story here. We do not know what was said next or how Martha reacted to the Lord’s chastening. However, Martha’s story does not end here. She does not let this single moment define her as one who criticizes her sister or doesn’t understand what is most needful. In the book of John, we discover quite the opposite.

When Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus becomes sick, they send word for Jesus to come and heal him. In their moment of grief, they think to turn to Christ for help and healing. After Lazarus dies and is placed in the tomb, Martha receives word that Christ has finally come, she leaves her home and even the village to rush to meet him. In this moment, she expresses her deep testimony of the Savior.
“Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.” (John 11:21-22). What Martha says next is rarely said by those who knew Jesus, even by his closest disciples. She testifies that he is the Messiah. “I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.” (John 11:27).

Clearly, Martha holds no animosity or resentment to the One who previously had censured her. She shows us that she too has learned how to choose the better part by rushing to his side and declaring him to be the Savior of the world. And because of her faith, Mary and Martha can once again enjoy the companionship of their dear brother Lazarus. This is the moment that defines Martha, one who knows what is truly needful, Jesus the Christ.

Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead by Léon Bonnat
While Jesus’ interactions with Mary and Martha offer us several lessons, let us look at just a few.
First, Jesus shows us that both men and women alike can receive a bedrock understanding of the doctrine of Jesus Christ. No one is exempt from sitting at his feet and learning from him. While social norms might dictate otherwise, no one should feel excluded from both receiving and sharing God’s word. All women and men can be scholars of Christ just like Mary.

Second, it is interesting to note that Jesus did not criticize Martha for preparing the meal for him and his disciples. Just as Mary had done nothing wrong by sitting at the feet of Jesus, Martha has done nothing wrong by running her household and serving her guests. Where Martha needed correction was by wrongfully assuming what another’s role should be. Whether it is as a wife, mother, divorcee, widow, never married, homemaker, working professional, or caregiver, women’s roles are unique and endless. When we look past our own lives and decide what others should be doing with their own, we too could be told, “…you are worried and upset about many things…” Instead of judging another’s choices, we can strive to help each other fulfill one another’s unique roles on this earth.

Third, we all have moments when we mistakenly misread a situation and make the wrong judgment. These moments do not have to define who we are. Like Martha, we can humbly acknowledge our misstep and commit to improve by learning from the teachings of Jesus.

And finally, we see that Jesus loves whom he chastens. (see Hebrews 12:6) John tells us that “Jesus loved Martha.” (John 11:5) We should not feel that God does not love us when we are chastened by him. Rather we can be like Martha and continue to have a loving relationship with our Savior even if at times we might feel censured by him. Likewise, we can do the same for others. If at times we need to offer correction or guidance to another, we should show an increase not a decrease of love towards them.

In a world where we are worried and troubled about many things, we can follow Mary’s and Martha’s examples by sitting at Jesus’ feet to learn his gospel and by proclaiming to all those who will hear that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.”

Script by Heather Ruth Pack

July 13, 2020

The Widow of Nain

In the New Testament, we read of the miracle Jesus performed in Nain—raising a widow’s son from the dead. As we study this story’s historical context, we’ll discover she had stood to lose far more than just her beloved son. She would lose her financial security, her property and inheritance, and even her legacy and name. Christ’s miracle of restoring the son also restored her. Like the widow of Nain, through the atonement of Jesus Christ, we too can be restored to all that the Father has promised us.

The story begins just following the miracle of the Savior healing a centurion’s servant while at Capernaum (Luke 7:1-10). Nain is located about 20 miles south of Capernaum and well off the main road. The village was just a small farming community with probably no more than a few hundred people. As Jesus arrives with a large group, he sees the procession of mourners carrying the dead body of a widow’s only son. According to Jewish custom, if someone died, the body was to be prepared and buried on the same day. The fact that this woman had already lost her husband, and now her only son, would have significant implications on her future life.

Bearing many children today is often almost seen as a novelty in many societies. However, in ancient times, raising a large family, especially sons, was critical for a prosperous life. A bride and groom would marry while still in their teens and begin having as many children as soon as possible. Adult sons were seen as a form of Social Security so to speak. They would care for their parents and support them as they aged and became unable to farm and care for their land. Typically, only about half of a woman’s offspring would make it to adulthood. As a result, a couple would need to start young to bear as many children as possible ensuring financial security in their old age. Losing her only son meant this woman has lost hope for future prosperity.

In addition, women were not allowed to own property, meaning if a woman lost her husband, the property could only be transferred to a male descendant. Because of this, the law of Moses provided a way to ensure seed to the deceased husband through what is called the Levirate Law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). In essence, if a man’s widow has no children, it is the duty of the deceased’s brother or nearest kin to marry her so that she might bear a child who would then belong to her first husband. The Levirate Law would thus preserve her claim on her inheritance of her husband’s land. Luke describes the dead son as a young man, which the original Greek word implies that he is probably in his mid-twenties. Unfortunately, this means that even if she took advantage of the Levirate law, the widow is now most likely too old to bear more children. Having lost her husband and now her only son, this woman has lost hope for posterity and thus any right to property.

With no sons to inherit her husband’s estate, her situation is desperate. She will now most likely become homeless and forced to live in poverty. Begging for her very survival, she will be at the mercy of the tiny town of Nain. In Deuteronomy, we read that widows are to be cared for according to the law of Moses (Deuteronomy 27:19). While those living in Nain would have been well aware of this obligation, it is not a given such a small community could adequately provide for her needs. But even if they could, they may still not choose to come to her aid. The widow has now lost all hope for a financially secure future.

Many of her townspeople also likely saw such a devastating loss of both husband and son as a curse from God for having sinned in some way. Due to the judgment of others, her reputation potentially would now be sullied as well. Even more tragic, with no one to carry on the family’s name, she will not be remembered in future generations; her story is now cut off from the story of Israel. The widow has lost hope for a legacy.

Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain by Anton Robert Leinweber
It is at this very moment—in her time of greatest sorrow—Jesus comes to her. He has left the main road, traveling off the beaten path precisely when the widow needed him most (Luke 7:11-12). Jesus had to have known precisely when the son would die in order to arrive at the exact time of his burial, occurring the same day as his death. With great compassion, Jesus walks up to the grieving widow and says simply “Weep not.” (Luke 7:13). What he does next most likely would have surprised all who witnessed the loving act. He touches the funeral bier, what the dead son was resting on. By touching the bier, Jesus becomes ritually unclean. He then says to the dead son, “Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.” (Luke 7:14). The son’s life, once lost, is now restored, and so too is restored everything the widow had lost. She can now once more enjoy the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, her future is secure, her name will be known for generations.

This miracle occurred just on the other side of the mountain where another miracle was performed long ago by Elisha, known as one of the great prophets (2 Kings 4:32-37). He too had raised a widow’s son from the dead. This similarity may have been recognized by the people in Nain, for they say, “…a great prophet is risen up among us.” (Luke 7:16).

Elisha raising the son of the Shunamite by Frederic Leighton
But an even greater similarity is yet to come. For Christ, the only begotten Son, whose mother is also likely a widow, will die and yet live again. Just as the widow’s son’s raising of the dead restored her inheritance, Jesus Christ’s resurrection restores our inheritance. The Savior comes not just to the widows and the orphans, the sick and the lame, and the homeless and the oppressed but to each of us. He comes despite our uncleanliness because of our sins. He says compassionately the same words spoken in the widow’s ear, “Weep not” lifting us up from our despair and sorrow. Through him, we can enjoy all the blessings our Heavenly Father has promised.

Likewise, we can follow the Savior’s example and do the same for others who need our help. Just as Jesus knew precisely when the widow needed him most, we can be in tune with the needs of those around us and rush to their aid. We can serve others not just with kind words, but with action. We can sacrifice comfort, or even reputation, for the safety and healing of others. Sometimes those who need our help are not easily seen from the main road. We too may need to travel off the beaten path to find those who are suffering.

The story of the widow of Nain teaches us a powerful lesson about restoration. The loving Master compassionately restored the widow’s financial security, inheritance, and her name and legacy. Because of our sins, we each have lost our inheritance in the kingdom of God. In our fallen state, we too have a need of restoration—a redemption from our sins. Thankfully, just as the Savior was able to restore all that the widow had lost, the Savior can restore us to our rightful place as heirs of the kingdom. Just as he did for the widow, Jesus is eager to come to us in our moment of greatest despair. Not because we are deserving, but because of his great love for us. All that is asked of us is to accept him, repent, and strive to follow his example.

Script written by Heather Ruth Pack

June 19, 2020

What Would Jesus Do?

Throughout the New Testament, we read accounts of Jesus interacting with those who were labeled and despised by others: the slaves, the masters, the foreigners, the unbelievers, the sinners, the accusers, the sick, the lame, the oppressed, the traitor, or the believer. We also live in a time of great division. Many seek to label us as black or white, male or female, bond or free. They want to know which group to place us in—whether we are a friend or an enemy. When we ask the oft-repeated question, “What would Jesus do?” we see the Savior’s example of healing, listening, and compassion. He did not seek to divide but rather to unify for all are alike unto God.

Similar to our day, the people at the time of Jesus classified others into groups established by society. As we explore who these groups were, and how Jesus looked past their labels, we learn how we too can break down the barriers that society has placed upon us and seek for true unity among all people.

Probably the most significant division was that of Jew and Gentile. A Jew was anyone who was born from any of the twelve tribes of Israel, though predominately from the tribe of Judah. A Gentile was anyone who was not of Israel, and thus considered not part of the covenant race. As outsiders, they were considered to be unclean, and so many Jews would not even enter a Gentile’s homes out of fear of becoming ritually unclean themselves.

Included among the Gentiles would be the Roman soldiers. These men might have been seen similar to our police force today. They controlled peace and order in the providences of Rome, including Israel. The Jews however saw the Romans as invaders who just sought to control them. Roman soldiers could compel a Jew to carry his gear for a mile. Jesus taught the people to carry the gear for a second mile, or as more commonly said today, to “go the extra mile.”

Another group was neither Gentile nor Jew but rather a mixed blood. Centuries earlier when the Assyrians took captive the Israelites of the northern kingdom, they left behind the poorest of the poor to work the land and to intermarry with Gentiles who had been captured from other nations. Known as Samaritans, they were a people of intermingled cultural and religious traditions—and whom Jews often despised most of all. Many Jews would take the longer route from Galilee to Jerusalem just to avoid crossing Samaria’s borders and risk having to interact with a "less pure" Samaritan.

Women were another group looked down upon. They were often seen just as property, had no legal right to own land, and were not considered a credible witness in a court of law. Many Jewish men, especially the priests, avoided women since their monthly cycles released blood, and touching blood made one ritually unclean. Women even had their own court at the temple so as to prevent them from contaminating the priests. Men could enter the Court of the Women, but women could not enter further into the temple.

Another group of people who were shunned by the Jews, were the lepers. According to the Law of Moses anyone with any sort of skin disorder was considered ritually unclean. Known as lepers, they were not allowed to live within the confines of the city but instead dwell outside the city walls. If anyone came in contact with a leper, they too were ritually unclean and had to go through a process to once again be considered clean.

Jesus healing the ten lepers by James Tissot
While Jews would often go to great lengths to avoid even coming near these and other groups of people, Jesus appeared to do the exact opposite—seeking opportunities in order to interact with them. Throughout the scriptures we can find many examples of how Jesus “looked past the label” and saw just the person. We will share just three examples.

The first is with a centurion, a Roman officer in charge of 100 men. A centurion generally had served a significant amount of time and had proven their leadership. The Jews, however, would have viewed them as oppressors who did not belong in their land. When the centurion comes to Jesus seeking to have his servant healed, it is remarkable that Jesus does not avoid him but instead listens to his story. Considering that this centurion is a Gentile, what Christ says next is poignant. “And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him.” (Matthew 8:7). Remember, some Jews would not even enter into a home of a Gentile to avoid even the possibility of becoming ritually unclean. The centurion seems to understand this for he answered “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof; but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” (Matthew 8:8). Christ does not see this Roman soldier as other Jews see him, an unclean Gentile, an oppressor, who can inflict force on the citizens of Israel. He sees him as a man of great faith who is in desperate need of the healing power of the Savior.

The woman of Samaria by Angelika Kauffmann
The second example is of the woman of Samaria. Jesus and his disciples had been traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee. Instead of avoiding the Samaritan city of Sychar, like many Jews did, he left Israel and crossed the border into Samaria. While there he stops to rest at Jacob’s well, Jacob being an ancestor common to both Jew and Samaritan alike. A woman approaches and is surprised to see a Jew. He first asks for help. “Jesus saith unto her, give me to drink.” (John 4:7). We can only imagine how confusing this must have been for this Samaritan. Not only is he asking for her help, but he is willing to drink from a cup that she, a woman, has touched. He teaches her that he is the Living Water, and that all who drink of his water will never thirst again. He then says something that up to this point he appears to not have said before, he tells her that he is the Messiah. Christ does not see her as other Jews see her, an unclean Samaritan woman not worthy of his time or attention. He sees her as one who can stand as a witness that he has come to save the world.

The last example is of a leper who sought Jesus to be healed. As Jesus came down from the mountain with great multitudes following him, he is approached by one who wants to be made clean. What Jesus does next is significant for leprosy was considered to be a curse from God. Those afflicted with it were of the most profound impurity. For fear of them being contagious, lepers were left to fend for themselves with little support from anyone including friends or family. Christ does not see this leper as other Jews see him: unclean, unworthy, unfavored by God. He sees a man riddled with pain seeking healing from the One he knows can heal him. “And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean.” (Matthew 8:3).

Beyond these three examples, we have the greatest example of healing, and compassion. In a time when even his closest friends were not willing to stand up for him, he was willing to kneel, pray, and suffer for them. Christ showed that he does not view any of us as others may or even how we might perceive ourselves. He was willing to give his life for all of us who have been made unclean through sin. No matter how others may see us, black, white, male, female, sinner, saint, captive, free, native, foreign, atheist, or believer, the Savior just sees us. He knows our name, he knows our story, he knows our pain, he knows of our desire to love and be loved.

He invites all of us to do the same. Just as Christ stood silently before his accusers during his trial, there may be times when we too must choose silence over contention. Or just as Christ cleaned his Father’s house, we too may need to stand up boldly for what is right. But no matter what situation we may find ourselves in, we can always shed the labels that society places upon us and kneel with our brothers and sisters, praying for them, and serving them in unity and love. That is what Jesus would do.

Script written by Heather Ruth Pack

May 30, 2020

Understanding Pentecost and the Feast of Weeks

Fifty days after the Savior had been resurrected, the disciples gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. This important feast commemorated when Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai. As the disciples celebrated with tens of thousands of other Jews from around the world, the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples as flames of fire. Today this is known as the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). As we better understand the historical background of the feasts, we can gain greater insight into the importance of Pentecost and our own worship of the Lord.

The Feast of Weeks was the second of the three major Jewish Feasts of Passover, Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23). Each of these Feasts were interconnected and designed to help ancient Israel remember their exodus from Egypt and ultimately teach them of true deliverance through the Messiah. These three feasts were also connected with the spring, summer, and fall harvests.

A woman offering the first fruits of the harvest for the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot
To better understand Pentecost, it will be helpful to first understand the story and timing of the exodus. For hundreds of years, Israel was in bondage in Egypt. The Lord sent Moses to free his people from slavery by sending plagues down upon the land. As part of the last plague, Israel was commanded to kill a lamb and place the blood on the doorposts. This was to be a token for the destroying angel to spare, or pass over, the first born of that home. (See Exodus 12). With this significant event of the Passover, Israel crossed through the Red Sea and began their journey to the promised land (see Exodus 14).

As God’s chosen people, Israel had been promised that they would receive many blessings, including the Promised Land. With these blessings also came great responsibilities. The Lord expected Israel to follow his commandments and to bless the nations of the earth. As Israel traveled for the next several weeks after leaving Egypt, they again were shown many miracles from the Lord including being fed by manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16) and receiving water from a rock that Moses had struck (Exodus 17:1-7). These miracles were to help prepare Israel to become the Lord’s people by showing them the power and majesty of their God.

Though we don’t know the exact timing of when they arrived at Mount Sinai, the scriptures indicate that it was only about a month and a half later (see Exodus 19:1). After climbing to the top of Mount Sinai, the Lord spoke unto Moses. “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then … ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4-6). Having heard the voice of God, Moses came down to the people to ask if they would obey and they all proclaimed: “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8).

Moses again climbed the mount and was told by the Lord: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. For on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” (Exodus 19:10-11 NKJV). Though we don’t know what this process of consecration entailed for Israel by Moses, we do know what the consecration process involved for the priests, who represented Israel. As part of the ritual, Moses was to take Aaron and his sons to the door of the Tabernacle and anoint them with oil and then place blood on their right ear, right thumb, and right toe (see Exodus 40:12-13 and Leviticus 8:23-24). The priests were also dressed in sacred priestly clothing. This ritual prepared the priests to act on behalf of Israel.

Moses anointing Aaron with a horn of oil as the high priest
After the Israelites had covenanted with the Lord and had been washed and changed their clothing, Moses again went up to Mt. Sinai. The scriptures state “that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.” (Exodus 19:16). The smoke and fire that came down from heaven to the mountain is called the Shekinah in Hebrew. It symbolizes that God’s presence was there among the people. The Lord then spoke the Law from the mountain, and according to Jewish tradition, each was able to hear God’s words in their own tongue.

Filled with fear, the people requested that instead Moses go into the presence of the Lord on their behalf, refusing the opportunity to enter themselves (Exodus 20:18-21). Because of their rejection of God, the Lord revealed what we now call the Law of Moses. The Law was a preparatory gospel to teach them and prepare them for the eventual higher law. (See D&C 84:17-27). The Law prescribed many rituals, including sacrifices of animals, that would point them to the coming Messiah who would provide true ultimate deliverance.

The high priest and priest hold the first harvested sheaf of wheat
With this understanding, let’s now study the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. The Lord commanded Israel to celebrate Shavuot, the Hebrew word for weeks, seven weeks or 50 days after Passover (see Deuteronomy 16:9-12). The word Pentecost means fiftieth. Many of the rituals of Shavuot are progressive in nature, seeming to connect Passover and the Feast of Weeks. For example, during Passover the people were to eat unleavened bread, a symbol of their haste in leaving slavery in Egypt, and offer the first fruits of the barley harvest, barley being a lesser quality of grain. In contrast, seven weeks later during Shavuot, Israel was now to offer two large leavened loaves of bread made from the first fruits of the wheat harvest, wheat being the far superior grain to barley (Leviticus 23:15-21).

The high priest holds the two loaves offered for Feast of Weeks or Shavuot
This offering of the leavened bread is unique since yeast is prohibited in all other temple rituals. No wheat from that year’s harvest can be eaten by Israel until these two loaves have been offered to the Lord. When the priest receives the two loaves of bread, he waves them in four directions representing north, south, east and west. He also waves them down and up signifying earth and heaven. The people were also to offer other first fruits of their harvest likewise waving them before the Lord and then placing the offering before God (Deuteronomy 26:1-11).

Offering the first fruits during the Feast of Weeks
Because Shavuot was celebrated seven weeks after Passover, the same time period Israel received the Law at Sinai, the feast later also became a celebration for this significant event. Even with this we can see a progression between Passover and the Feast of Weeks with Israel progressing from slaves in Egypt, going through the waters of the Red Sea, then proceeding until they arrive at Mount Sinai approximately seven weeks later. Here they are washed and clothed and then “go up to the mountain of the Lord” (Isaiah 2:3) to covenant with him and to receive his law.

Understanding this background let’s now examine the events leading up to the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2). During the ministry of the Savior, a small number of disciples believed in the Lord. They revered Jesus for his teachings and the miracles he performed, but they did not understand the true purpose of his mission. As Passover came and they witnessed the tragic events of the crucifixion of the Savior, many of the disciples fled and even denied knowing the Lord. After the Savior rose from the dead, he ministered to them, teaching for the next 40 days (Acts 1:3). This time became a period of preparation for the disciples, helping them to learn of the ultimate purpose of the Messiah.

As the Apostles gathered for the Feast of Weeks, fifty days after the Lord’s resurrection, they like ancient Israel, had now been prepared to receive the fulness of the law. The events that occurred on the day of Pentecost are reminiscent of the events commemorated on Shavuot. Like the Israelites gathering at Mt. Sinai, the people gathered in Jerusalem at the temple built atop Mt. Moriah to be instructed of the Lord. When the Jews saw the cloven tongues of fire, they must have wondered if the Shekinah had returned, except instead of the fire resting upon Mt. Sinai, the fire is now resting on the apostles (see Acts 2:3-4).

After hearing the fervent testimony of Peter of the risen Savior, the gathered Jews asked what they must do (see Acts 2:37). Peter told them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). With this, 3000 Jews requested to be baptized on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:41). With the nearest body of water, the Jordan river, about 20 miles away, the baptisms of such a large group very likely took place at the Pool of Bethesda, or the Pool of Siloam. Both of these pools were used for ritual washings, which would make perfect sense for their use for baptisms. On this day, set aside to commemorate the event of ancient Israel established as a covenant people, it is Christ’s church that is established through the covenant of baptism. By also receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, a member of the Godhead, they can now spiritually enter into God’s presence.

Like the children of Israel and the Jews during the time of Christ, we too can each have our own exodus and day of Pentecost. Christ’s death and resurrection made it possible for us to escape the bondage of sin and death. Like the Red Sea, we enter into our own waters, the waters of baptism. Like the manna that came from heaven, we too can be nourished by the Bread of Life. Like the water that flowed from the rock, we can drink of the Living Water. Just as the Lord’s words from Mt. Sinai could be understood in every language, each of us can likewise understand the universal language of the Holy Ghost. We all have the opportunity to come to the “mountain of the Lord” and receive the Law and feel the presence of the Lord dwell upon us. It is there that we can become a kingdom of priests and an holy nation.

May 9, 2020

Mary the Mother of Jesus

In the first chapter of Matthew, we read of the genealogy of Jesus Christ including five mothers who each played a critical role in continuing the bloodline of the Savior, but most significant is the literal mother of the Savior, Mary. We are introduced to her before Christ is born, learn of her tender experiences with Him during His life and ministry, and discover she was a witness of His death and a disciple after His ascension to the Father. Only Mary, the mother of Jesus, can claim to be such a unique witness of the Messiah.

Her lifelong example of faith has been revered and respected by Christians and Muslims alike. Mary is mentioned in the New Testament, the Quran (19:16-35), the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 11:14-20; Mosiah 3:8; Alma 7:10), and many other writings. As we study her story and consider the historical background of life in Israel, we can gain insights into the mother who gave birth to the One who gave all of us life.

The genealogy of Jesus given in the New Testament tells us that Joseph, the one betrothed to Mary, descended from King David within the tribe of Judah (see Matthew 1:17). Since it was common to marry within the family line, Mary most likely shared this lineage as well. Additionally, her relative Elizabeth descended from Aaron (see Luke 1:5), the first Levite high priest—possibly making Jesus’ lineage from both a priest and a king.

Mary was probably born in Nazareth, a small village west of the Sea of Galilee. According to ancient Jewish tradition, young women were usually betrothed by the time they were about 12 or 13. When Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, she likely would have been near that same age. [1] The heavenly messenger tells Mary she is highly favored and blessed among women. He tells her she will conceive a son.

Mary’s response to this incredible news shows great humility. Unlike Zecharias, the father of John the Baptist, who expressed doubt when told that his wife was with child (see Luke 1:18), she inquires sincerely, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). She is not asking for proof, but simply for understanding. Gabriel answers her question and then responds by saying, “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37).

What happens next can serve as a foreshadowing of what would happen years later on the cross—ultimate submission to the will of the Father. “And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38). And like her son, her willingness to do what is required by her Father in Heaven is not without painful consequences.

When a man is betrothed to a woman, if at any time before the wedding feast the bride is discovered to be pregnant, the groom has two options. First, according to the law, he can divorce her publicly bringing charges against her. If found guilty she would then be stoned. Or he can divorce her privately. For the remainder of her life she would then be known as a mother who conceived out of wedlock. Either of these fates is what seemingly awaits young Mary. Amazingly, she humbly agrees to carry the Son of God.

When Joseph learns that Mary is with child, he considers divorcing her privately. He too is visited by an angel and told to take Mary as his wife.

The story of Jesus’ birth is known as one of the greatest stories ever told. However from Mary’s perspective, the story could be described as anything but great. She was a young recently wed bride far from home giving birth in what most likely was a cave. Despite these humble circumstances, she knew the significance of these events and “pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

To obey the law, 40 days after Christ’s birth, Joseph and Mary went to the temple to make their humble sacrifice of two turtle doves as they did not have enough money for a lamb. It is there they meet Simeon, a devout, faithful man who has waited his entire life to see the Messiah. He takes this newborn baby in his arms and gives a heart wrenching prophecy to the new mother. “Behold this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,)” (Luke 2:35). Looking at her precious baby not even two months old, how could she imagine what pain awaited both Him and her as His mother?

When Jesus is 12 years old, we read an account that must have been terrifying for Mary. In a heavily crowded Jerusalem during Passover, she experiences one of the greatest fears for every mother, even today. She can’t find her son. Joseph and Mary have traveled an entire day before she realizes that Jesus is not with the group as she had supposed. For what must have been three harrowing days, she frantically searches to find the One whom the Father has trusted to her care. Finally she discovers that He had lingered at the temple teaching the learned. Mothers know the mixed emotions that can arise when a lost child is finally found, both anger and relief bubble to the surface. “…and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:48-49). And even though she did not understand His words, she kept His “sayings in her heart” (Luke 2:51).

Sadly, this would not be the only loss Mary would experience, for this is the last time Joseph appears in the scriptures. At some point Mary becomes a widow, left to raise her family as a single mother.

While we don’t know much about Jesus’ upbringing, we do know Mary had more children, at least four sons, James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon, and at least two daughters. Apparently, these brothers did not see Jesus as the Messiah for they mocked Him. It wasn’t until His death and resurrection that they too became followers of Christ. How difficult it must have been for Mary to have such discord in the family, yet she was able to keep her own faith while raising non-believers in her own home.

Before Jesus officially begins His ministry, along with Mary, He attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee. When the host of the wedding feast has need of wine, Mary asks her son to perform a miracle. In today’s world, what Jesus calls his mother might seem odd or even derogatory when translated from Greek into English. He calls her Woman. This is the same word translated from Hebrew when referring to Eve. Just as Eve is the mother of all living, Mary is the mother of He who has made a way for eternal life. After Jesus agrees to perform the miracle, Mary gives the servants counsel that we would be wise to follow, “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.” (see John 2:5).

When Christ is crucified, Mary stands at His feet. She is a witness to the painful prophecy given over 30 years earlier by Simeon—now proven to be true. As she sees the piercing of her son, she must have felt as if a sword was also piercing her very own soul. Again we see Christ’s devotion to Mary, even while in the midst of great agony. He calls her by the same name He had before his ministry began, “Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold they mother!” (John 19:26-27). Though Christ is suffering, He wants to ensure that His mother will be cared for, just as she had cared for Him from the very beginning of His life.

The life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, serves as a poignant example for all of us today.

Mary humbly submitted believing that with God nothing shall be impossible. At times we too must choose to do what the Lord would have us do, despite what consequences might follow. Mary did not give birth to the Savior in ideal circumstances. We experience disappointment whenever we find ourselves in our own “caves.” Yet we can stay focused on the miracles around us and ponder them in our hearts.

Mary continued pressing forward with courage, hope, and faith despite a perilous future before her. We too can rise to whatever hardships await us. When Mary experienced a frightful loss, she listened to the words of the Savior. All of us have likewise experienced pain and fear, whether through our own fault or the actions of others, but we can keep the words of the Savior in our heart. Mary’s faith that Christ can perform miracles served as an example to the servants. We can encourage those around us to follow Christ and listen to his words.

Even as a single mother, Mary strived to keep her family together. We may find ourselves in a family whose faith is not the same as ours. This does not mean we reject them, even though they may have rejected us. Mary was asked to do the unthinkable—witness the crucifixion of her own son. We are also sometimes asked to experience the unimaginable, but as we keep our eyes focused on Christ, we will find the strength to endure.

Mary saw Christ open His eyes for the first time and close them for the last time as a mortal on earth. Her faith and desire to do the will of the Father never wavered throughout her life. How blessed we are that a young Mary, chosen to be the mother of the Messiah said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”

Script written by Heather Ruth Pack

[1] As there always is a debate on the age of Mary, here are a few notes regarding the age of betrothal for women in the Bible. The Midrash and Talmud both state that young men were married by the age of eighteen and girls by the time they were thirteen (Midrash, Aboth 5:21 and Talmud, Pesachim 113). "For the other parameter, age at marriage, no real statistics exist for ancient Israel.... In Egypt, girls were married between twelve and fourteen; boys, between fourteen and twenty." (Life in Biblical Israel, page 37). "The consent (betrothal), usually entered into when the girl was between twelve and thirteen years old" (The Birth of the Messiah by Raymond E. Brown, page 123). "The earliest age for marriage, which typically follows betrothal by a year, is twelve years and a day [meaning betrothal could be at the age of 11]." (BYU New Testament Commentary, The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, page 107). "According to ancient Jewish custom, Mary could have been betrothed at about 12." (Wikipedia, Mary, mother of Jesus)

April 19, 2020

The Apostle Thomas, a Witness of Christ

After his resurrection, Jesus appeared again to his disciples a week later—this time also to the apostle Thomas. Today he is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas.” However, when we gain a better understanding of who Thomas was by considering more of his story, we can learn a powerful lesson in courage, faith, and believing in Jesus Christ. We also gain insight into the mercy and compassion of the Savior. These lessons can help us in our own moments when we too may feel doubt or that our faith is wavering.

Thomas was likely born in the Galilee, the northern part of Israel. John gives him the title Didymus, a Greek word meaning twin. All the Gospels mention Thomas, but only in the Gospel of John do we learn of three recorded interchanges he has with the Lord. Each of these offers a better perspective as to Thomas’ character.

The first time we read the recorded words of Thomas, Jesus is traveling with his disciples. They had just received word that Lazarus was very sick. After two days, Jesus then told his disciples frankly that Lazarus was dead and they would go to the tomb. Fearing the Jewish leadership who sought Jesus’ life, the disciples tried to persuade him not to go down to Jerusalem. Thomas shows courage, however, as he says unto his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16). In this moment we see Thomas as one who is brave.

The second time we read the words of Thomas is during the Last Supper. Jesus was teaching his disciples and preparing them for what was to come. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke they were celebrating the Passover during the meal, traditionally a time of great rejoicing. Yet, Jesus was somber and spoke almost cryptically to the disciples.

While these chapters contain some of the most powerful and oft-repeated words spoken by Jesus Christ, at the time the disciples seem to have been quite confused by Jesus’ actions and message. It was Thomas who spoke up and asked for clarification at one point, thus revealing perhaps one of the more well-known teachings of the Savior. Jesus tells the disciples that he is to depart, and then “Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Next comes the profound response to Thomas’s heart-felt question: “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6). How blessed we are because of Thomas’ willingness to seek truth and better understand the Savior. Thomas’s search brought these comforting words not only to him but also to us! In this moment we see Thomas as one who is earnest and seeks to understand.

The last time we read Thomas’ words written by John, is after Christ has suffered on the cross, has died, and is now resurrected. Thomas had not seen the risen Lord when he first appeared to the disciples. He now stands alone as the only apostle who is not a personal witness to the miraculous events that had just occurred. He expresses a desire to also see with his own eyes and feel with his own hands that he too may join his brethren and sisters as a witness of the resurrection. Eight days later, the Savior appears and says, “Peace be unto you.” He then invites Thomas to “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing” (John 20:27). Thomas was invited to do exactly what he himself had expressed a desire to do a week earlier. The Lord had answered his prayers.

Thomas then responds, “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28). Not only does Thomas see him as his Lord and Master, but testifies that he is the God and ruler of this earth. In this moment we see Thomas as one who believes.

Like Thomas, we too may have moments when we feel courageous and bravely stand up for others or for our beliefs. Like soldiers going to war, we are willing to fight and even die for what we know is true. And like Thomas, we also may have moments of confusion. We seek for answers to our questions wanting to understand which way we should go and who to follow. And also like Thomas we may have times when we may feel ourselves wavering. We are surrounded by others who appear solid in their beliefs, and we too want that same witness and strong testimony. We cry out expressing the deepest desire of our heart—to see and feel for ourselves that Jesus died for us and know that he lives.

And in those moments, a loving, compassionate, and merciful God reaches out for us. He invites us to see with our eyes and feel with our hands the love that Christ has to offer all of us. He comes when we feel brave, when we are confused, and even when we doubt. He is always there with outstretched arms. With nail prints in his hands and feet, he invites us to hear the same message he spoke in that upper room so long ago, to the apostle Thomas, “Peace be unto you…be not faithless, but believing.”

Special thanks to Heather Pack for helping to write most of this script.

April 11, 2020

Mary Magdalene, the First Witness

Early on Sunday morning, before the sun began to rise, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb to finish a painful task, the burial of her beloved Lord and Master. The pain and agony she must have felt as she mourned the Savior’s death is beyond comprehension. As one of the Lord’s most faithful and devoted followers, Christ’s appearance to Mary that Easter morn, places her as the first witness of the resurrection! Knowing Jesus was willing to reveal himself first to her, gives us all hope that we too can testify of the Savior’s divinity no matter who we are!

While known today as Mary Magdalene, she would have just been called Mary. She was from the city called Magdala thus giving her the title of Magdalene. This ancient city on the northwestern side of the Sea of Galilee was quite prosperous and known for its fishing industry exporting salted fish, popular in Roman markets. In 2009, archaeologists discovered a beautiful first-century synagogue lined with benches on the sides, colorfully painted fresco walls, a mosaic patterned floor, and a stunning one-of-a-kind stone-carved Torah reading table. Mary may have likely attended this synagogue. Jesus may have even taught here.

Magdala Torah reading table (source: Wikipedia)
The Gospels tell us that prior to following the Savior, Mary had been possessed by seven devils or demons. The scriptures give us no details of the story, except to say that Jesus healed Mary and cast out the spirits (Luke 8:2). Once tormented, Mary was now freed by the power of the Messiah. She devoted the rest of her life to following the Savior. Luke tells us that like other women, Mary helped financially support Jesus in his ministry (Luke 8:2-3). As one from Magdala Mary would have likely had a successful business with enough wealth to support the Savior. In short, after having known darkness, Mary chose to be in the light by becoming one of Christ’s most faithful and devoted disciples.

Contrary to later tradition, the scriptures give no evidence that Mary was a prostitute or the sinful woman who washed Jesus' feet. Sadly, Christians later wanted to find a place for sinful women, and thus altered the story of Mary making her a prostitute.

Understanding who Mary is, let’s now turn to the final 24 hours of the life of the Savior. According to the Gospels, after Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, the apostles fled and hid (Mark 14:50). John names only one male disciple at the cross, the beloved of Jesus, yet names several women who stood by his side, including Mary Magdalene (John 19:25-26). While other disciples fled in fear, these faithful women, Mary included, were willing to mourn at the foot of the cross to the very end. One can only imagine the absolute heart-rending pain they must have felt and the strength they had to muster as they became eye witnesses to the Savior’s agony and death on the cross.

Despite all that they had just seen and endured, the Gospels tell us that these women, Mary among them, then stayed to help remove the lifeless corpse of Jesus from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus apparently were also there at least to help remove the body and carry it to the tomb (John 19:38-40). The Sabbath is now fast approaching. The women were not able to complete the full burial process. They would need to return to the tomb on Sunday, the first day of the week to finish the heart-wrenching task. As they walked away from the lifeless body of their beloved Master to begin their own day of rest, surely there would be little rest for Mary and these women.

Before the sun had even begun to rise, Mary Magdalene was the first to arrive Sunday morning, followed by the other women, showing a sincere desire to care for the body of her Lord as quickly as possible. But the tomb was empty! The body of her precious Savior was gone. With what one can only imagine as fear and anguish filling her already broken heart, she ran to tell the disciples (John 20:2). After hearing the news, Peter and John came to see the empty tomb for themselves. As they entered, Peter found that the clothes that had been so carefully wrapped around the Savior’s body, were now folded and carefully placed on the stone bench. (John 20:3-10).

The apostles left, but Mary stayed behind. She weeps as she looks into the tomb and sees two angels sitting where his body had been so carefully laid (John 20:11-12). What sorrow she must have felt as she turned away from the last known resting place of her master. Someone had taken away her Lord, and she knew not where he lay. Tears would have filled her eyes making it difficult to recognize even the very one whose loss she was deeply mourning. “Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou?” Supposing the man to be the gardener and possibly the one who had taken away the body, she says, “Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.” (John 20:15).

The resurrected Lord appears to Mary Magdalene
Then Mary hears just a single word--her own name. “Mary.” Immediately she knows this is not the gardener. This is the Savior—her Savior. Powerfully, it was not by sight that Mary has recognized Jesus, but by hearing the Good Shepherd calling her name. She must have next embraced the Lord whom she had just seen crucified and laid in a tomb, for He said “touch me not,” which is better translated from the Greek as “don’t hold me more” or “you can’t hold me forever” (John 20:17). [1] In this remarkable moment in history, Mary Magdalene has become the first witness to the resurrection of the Savior.

The significance of Mary Magdalene, chosen by the Lord to be the first witness of the resurrection can easily be missed. According to Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, a credible witness must be someone with a good past life, not a slave, and not a woman. [2] Here stood Mary, a woman having been possessed of seven devils—not a credible witness according to Jewish Law. Yet, the Savior not only first appears to Mary, but also to several other women who likewise had come to care for the Lord’s body (Matthew 28:8-10). Before appearing to Peter (1 Corinthians 15:5), who would become the head of His church, or any of the other apostles, Jesus first appears to women.

Jesus appears to other women after being resurrected, by James Tissot
The very same women had personally witnessed the crucifixion, and the burial, were now witnesses to the resurrection of the Savior. In a world where women were looked down upon and not valued, this powerful story teaches us that Christ does not see us for our worldly credibility, status, race, or gender, but instead sees our level of faith and devotion to him. In the darkest of moments these women had stayed by Jesus, supporting him, caring for him, even burying him. Now they are the first to have seen His light.

All of us have dark moments in our lives when we feel sorrow and despair. Like Mary who went to the tomb on a Sunday morning expecting to see the dead body of the Lord, we too may feel that all hope is lost. But on that Easter morning Mary found the living resurrected Messiah! He came to her just as the Savior comes to those who seek him.

In those dark moments when all seems lost, and our eyes are filled with tears, we too can hear our name, called by the Good Shepherd who knows us like no other. He brings light and joy to overcome even the darkest of days. Like Mary, we too can be witnesses of the living resurrected Messiah. Like Mary, we too can tell all who will hear of the glorious news of the Gospel. He is risen. Jesus Christ is raised from the dead! Come and see.

[1] See various translations from BibleHub. The JST says "Hold me not" implying Mary is already holding onto Jesus. Thomas Wayment translates the text as "Do not hold me back, for I have not yet ascended to the Father." (The New Testament, Wayment, pg. 204).
[2] Antiquities of the Jews, by Flavius Josephus, 4.219.

April 8, 2020

The Cleansing of the Temple

As the Savior entered and cleansed the Temple after arriving with his disciples for his last Passover, he teaches us a powerful message. The Lord’s honor and respect for the temple shows us how we too can become clean and pure through the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

According to Matthew and Luke, the cleansing of the temple took place on Sunday immediately after the triumphal entry. Mark, however, places the cleansing on Monday, the following day. Jesus and His disciples had come to celebrate the Passover, which would begin in just a few days. As they entered the city, they would have first likely entered through the southern gate of Jerusalem near the Pool of Siloam. They would then ritually wash in this pool or one of the many other mikvahs or ritual pools in Jerusalem. Jesus and His disciples would have then climbed the hundreds of steps up the Tyropoeon Valley until they arrived at the base of the Temple Mount.

The Temple itself was on a massive platform about 35 acres in size built over the top of Mount Moriah creating a large courtyard for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that arrived during Passover. As the Savior and his disciples entered the large court of the Gentiles, they encountered the money changers who were selling items and exchanging money in the house of God!

Tyrian shekel coin used to pay the temple tax
All Jewish males were required by the Law of Moses to offer a half shekel of silver once a year to help support the Temple. Because of the command against graven images, coins made in Palestine were minted with only depictions of nature such as grapes or sheaves of wheat. However, because the Temple authorities mandated only the purest of silver, these local and less pure coins were required to be exchanged for the Roman shekel and half shekel. These coins were minted with the image of the Greek divine hero Heracles. They also included the phrase "of Tyre the holy [city] and [city] of refuge." Many Jews found this requirement by the Temple leadership to be highly offensive since these coins were stamped with a pagan image and words denoting that Tyre, not Jerusalem, as the Holy City. In addition, these money changers charged an exchange rate of about 8%, much of which likely was pocketed by the corrupt temple leadership.

Jesus, upon seeing the money-making endeavors in the temple, made a whip from cords and began overturning the tables and driving out the money changers. In a loud voice, the Savior proclaimed: “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13). This is one of the few examples in the Gospels where Jesus shows true righteous indignation. The Temple was to be a sacred place designed to help Israel come closer to God, yet, the Jewish leadership were using it just to make a profit and gain worldly power.

Cleansing the home of leaven products
Within the context of the events of Passover the timing of this cleansing is highly significant. Leading up to Passover, which would be only in a few days, Jews were to cleanse their homes of all leaven products. This ritual dates back to the time of the Exodus when the Israelites fled Egypt. In their haste to leave captivity, they did not have time to allow their dough to rise. To commemorate their haste, just prior to Passover, families scour their home until they have removed all traces of leaven. The Bible states, "seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread therewith … for thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt in haste: that thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth." (Deuteronomy 16:3). The seven days without leaven began the day after Passover and was called the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Jews saw this time of cleansing their homes of leaven as a time of preparation in which they not only physically prepared, but also spiritual prepared. Leaven was often seen as a symbol of impurity or corruption because of how quickly it can spoil. A small amount of leaven raising an entire batch of bread was seen as symbolic of how a small amount of corruption could lead someone into darkness. This cleansing was a time of inner reflection and repentance so they could more fully enjoy the joyous festival of Passover.

Thus, as hundreds of thousands of Jews were cleansing their own homes of leaven, a symbol of impurity, Jesus cleanses his Father’s house of corruption. Desiring to properly prepare for this most sacred of weeks, Jesus does exactly as the Law prescribed. While Passover was a time to celebrate the miraculous story of the Exodus and deliverance from Egyptian bondage, little did these Jews know that this man who was cleansing the temple, would be their true source of complete deliverance.

Just as the Jews were commanded to cleanse their homes, and Christ cleansed the temple, so too should our own temples be cleansed, even our body and spirit. Paul taught “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? … for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). How beautiful the message of the cleansing of the temple that teaches us that just as Jesus cleansed the ancient temple, it is only through Him that we can also be cleansed. As we repent of our sins and come unto Him, He will cleanse us of all impurity! Only once we are purified through His atonement can we then truly enjoy perfect deliverance through Christ, our Passover Lamb.

April 4, 2020

Jesus Christ, the Passover Lamb

The events of the last week of the life of the Savior, Jesus Christ are the most significant in all of history. These eight days, from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday change everything. They give us hope. They show us that sin and death will never prevail. These eight days begin with Jesus coming to the beautiful city of Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover festivals. As we better understand Passover and the spring Jewish Feasts, we can gain powerful insights into Holy Week, the atonement, and the ultimate triumph over all things by Christ, our Passover Lamb.

Passover was first celebrated by the ancient Israelites as they were freed from Egypt after living in bondage for over 400 years (see Exodus 12). As part of this deliverance, the Lord commanded that on the 10th day of the first month, the people were to select a lamb without blemish and to bring it into their homes for the next four days (Exodus 12:3-5). During this period the family would examine the lamb for impurities and would likely become very attached to this young innocent lamb. The family also cleansed their home of all leaven products, leaven often symbolizing impurity because it can quickly spoil and mold (see Luke 12:1). On the 14th day of the month towards the evening, the people then killed the lamb without breaking any of the bones (Exodus 12:6). Using a branch of hyssop, they covered their door post with the blood of the lamb (Exodus 12:22). This was to be a sign for the destroying angel to pass by and spare the firstborn of that home. The Lord then commanded the family to gather that evening and share a meal of the slain lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8). The unleavened bread represented the haste in leaving Egypt, the Israelites not having enough time to allow their bread to rise (Exodus 12:33-34). The bitter herbs represented the bitterness of bondage and slavery. According to later Jewish tradition, wine was also part of the feast as a symbol of joy and redemption. [1]

Unleavened bread used during the Passover meal
Once freed from slavery, Israel was commanded to celebrate the Passover every year thereafter, to commemorate and help them remember the powerful hand of God in delivering them from bondage. In addition to Passover, each spring the children of Israel were also to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the observance of the First Fruits. The Feast of Unleavened bread started the day after Passover and ran for seven days from the 15th through the 21st of the month (Leviticus 23:6-8). During this period no leaven was to be consumed, again commemorating the haste with which the children of Israel fled Egypt. The offering of the First Fruits was celebrated the day following the first Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened bread (Leviticus 23:10-14). On the evening of the Sabbath, the priests would cut the best sheaf of barley and bring it to the temple to be threshed and ground. In the morning the flour would then be combined with oil and frankincense and a handful would be burned on the altar. The offering of the First Fruits symbolized the gratitude of the people by first giving to God an offering before enjoying for themselves the harvest of that season. [2]

With this understanding of the Passover celebrations, let us now examine the powerful significance of the timing of the events of Holy Week. According to the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus entered Jerusalem on the 10th day of the month, the same day when all the people would be selecting their Passover lambs preparatory for the coming feast. [3] At this same time, on the day we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus was welcomed with shouts of praise and acclamation (Matthew 21:7-9). Jesus, the true Passover Lamb, then entered His Father’s home, the temple of Jerusalem, just as the lambs were being brought into the home of all Jews to live for the next four days. Upon entering the temple courts, Jesus cleansed His Father’s house of impurity, driving the money changers from this sacred space (Matthew 21:12-13). At the same time all Jews would be cleansing their own homes of all leaven products.

The next few days of Holy Week, Monday through Wednesday, were days in which Jesus taught the people, spending much of His time again at the temple, in His Father’s house. During this same period of when the priests and people would be examining the lambs for impurities, Jesus was interrogated by the Sadducees and Pharisees asking Him of His authority and power.

According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, on the eve of the 14th day of the month, the Savior celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples (Matthew 26:19-30). As Jesus sat with His disciples during His Last Supper, he took the symbols of the Passover feast and converted them into symbols of His own deliverance that He would soon bring. He took the unleavened bread and broke it and taught His disciples that this represented His broken body, which the following day would be torn and bruised for their sakes. He then took the wine, a symbol of joy and redemption, and taught that it signified His blood which would be shed for them that evening in Gethsemane. These two symbols became what is now known as communion or the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It is interesting to note that Jesus did not incorporate the bitter herbs into the symbols of the sacrament, perhaps symbolizing that Christ in our stead would consume the bitter cup so that we can instead partake of the sweet cup of joy and redemption.

That evening Jesus entered a beautiful garden just outside the city of Jerusalem, and atoned and suffered for our sins (Matthew 26:36-46). As hundreds of thousands of Jewish families celebrated the ancient redemption of Israel, Jesus was suffering in Gethsemane providing true deliverance. Just as the blood on the doorpost protected ancient Israel from the destroying angel, so too the blood of Christ, shed in Gethsemane and on the cross, can protect us from the effects of sin and death.

In the dead of night, Jesus was arrested and taken and tried before Caiaphas the High Priest (Matthew 26:57-68). The remarkable fact is that, as the leading priest for the temple, Caiaphas had the ultimate responsibility for all Temple offerings. Here Jesus Christ, the true Lamb of God, was condemned to death by the very man who oversaw all temple sacrifices. Jesus was then taken to the palace of Pilate in the upper city, then Herod, and then Pilate again where He was condemned to death.

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus was crucified at noon and hung on the cross in pain for several hours (John 19:14-16). As he hung, a branch of hyssop, the same kind of branch used to cover the doorposts with blood, was raised up to Jesus (John 19:29-30). On the end of the branch was a sponge soaked in vinegar, or cheap wine to help with the excruciating pain. Then at 3pm Matthew tells us that Jesus died, breathing His last breath of mortal life (Matthew 27:46-50).

Concerning the events of Holy Week, there are some discrepancies in the timing among the four gospels, and one of the most significant differences is that John places the Passover on the following day, not the night of the Last Supper (John 19:14). This means that according to John, at the exact same time that the Passover lambs would be slain in the temple, which was from about 3-5pm, Jesus died on the cross for all of God’s children. [4] The symbolism is extraordinary! Jesus Christ, who was sinless, without blemish, is killed the same hour as the Passover lambs. John also notes that while the other two condemned men had their legs broken, Jesus instead only had a spear driven into His side, fulfilling the requirement that the Passover Lamb was to be killed without breaking any bones.

The body of Jesus was then laid in a borrowed tomb where on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, Jesus’ mortal body rested from all labors. The following day, on Sunday, the first day of the week, Jesus rose from the dead, overcoming all things. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus rose from the dead at the same time when the first fruits were being offered at the temple, thus fulfilling this aspect of the law, and as Paul stated becoming the first fruits of them that slept. (1 Corinthians 15:20)

The powerful symbolism is undeniable. Jesus seems to use every aspect of the spring feasts to help the Jews understand His ultimate redemptive power. He is chosen by the people on the same day as the Passover lambs. Jesus cleanses His Father’s home when the people are cleansing their own homes of all leaven. He teaches in the Temple and is examined and tried by the very priests who are responsible for all Temple sacrifices. He suffers and dies as the Passover lambs are slaughtered at the Temple. He then rises from the dead when the first fruits of the harvest are offered before the Lord. Jesus Christ is our true Passover Lamb. Because of Him we are redeemed from bondage and slavery. Because of His blood we are protected from the destroying angel and allowed once again to enter the presence of the Father. Truly as John the Baptist stated, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

[1] The Temple: Its Ministry and Services, by Alfred Edersheim, p. 185.
[2] Edersheim, pg. 203-205.
[3] There is a lot of debate on the exact timing of the events of Holy Week, but I will attempt to do my best to show likely connections between Passover and the last week of the Savior's life.