My wife, Barb, and I recently returned from a 10-day pilgrimage to Israel. The opportunity to join a group from our community on a pilgrimage surfaced about a year ago. Though not sure of the financial ability to make the trek, Barb and I agreed together that we should move toward this experience.  It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and us (cf Acts 15:28).

When I started this blog three years ago, I had two things in mind.  I discovered over the years that I am able to process my theological learnings and ponderings through writing, especially if I’m writing for others to understand (I credit my doctoral work at Bethel University for solidifying this for me).  So blogging has become a means of processing for me and in this posting, I will start to assess the amazing opportunity we had to visit the land central to our faith.

Secondly, I want to develop a theology that is practical, both for me and those reading these blog posts.  Thus the descriptor of this blog: We each need a theology that is practical for day-to-day living. A simple definition of theology is the attempt to understand God and what he is up to. Practical Theology Today is a blog focused on gaining a better understanding of God so that we can join in his work.

Though we went on this pilgrimage because it seemed right to the Holy Spirit and us, I didn’t go simply to “get closer to God” (though that certainly happened). I think I traveled to the Holy Land to solidify my theology (keeping in mind the definition of theology), further my understanding of God, and ultimately enlighten my journey as a Christ-follower.  So please join me as I start processing my trip…

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

As I said, this was a pilgrimage.  Our leaders, David and Elizabeth Sparks of Footstep Ministries, regularly referred to our time together as a pilgrimage. I’m beginning to understand the significance of the terminology. By definition, a pilgrimage is a journey of a pilgrim. A pilgrim is one that journeys in foreign lands and travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee. We certainly got to do that. The second definition of pilgrimage is the course of life on earth. The pilgrimage continues!

Pilgrimage is the course of life on earth.

With Context as one of my top CliftonStrenghts, I suspect visiting the land we call Holy will have a transformative effect on my ongoing pilgrimage. It occurred to me that God is the designer of the concept of pilgrimage (i.e., regular journeys to the temple) as part of the Israelite’s course of life (with their God).

Four times a year they were instructed to trek to the temple in Jerusalem for various festivals, with Passover as the granddaddy of them all. As we immerse ourselves in the Gospels as Christ-followers, we read several times about Jesus and his disciples, his students, going up to Jerusalem to attend a festival (the last one, the Passover, leading to his crucifixion).

Consider that journey, that pilgrimage from the Galilee region to Jerusalem in the first century. It was a 100-mile (160 km) walk, covering most of a week. They would typically travel south along the Jordon River to Jericho, then west the final 20 miles (32 km) up into Jerusalem on the road made famous by Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. [When the Gospel authors wrote “go up to Jerusalem,” that’s what they literally meant. The elevation of Jericho is roughly -850′ (-260 m) – yes, below sea level. Jerusalem’s elevation is close to 2500′ (760 m) above sea level – a climb of 3350′ (1020 m).]

The road from Jericho to Jerusalem (on the far side of the wadi)

As a Lenten practice this year, I’ve been reading through the Gospels. One does not need to spend a lot of time immersed in the Gospels to realize that Jesus and his disciples did a lot of walking. In addition to their regular Jerusalem treks, they traveled from Capernaum out to the Mediterranean Sea, north to Tyre and Sidon, north to Caesarea Philippi, south to Samaria – to name a few of their journeys. After seeing the very rugged, hilly, and rocky geography and topography of Israel, I’m beginning to realize how much time they spent together “on the road” (or on pilgrimage?) navigating the terrain.

As we immerse ourselves in the Gospels, we begin to realize that much of Jesus’ teaching was directed toward his followers as they journeyed from place to place, as they trekked the hills and valleys of Israel. It’s the nature of following – being with Jesus and learning from him (see Follow the Leader). I picture those first-century followers watching Jesus proclaim the Kingdom of God throughout Galilee with an approach significantly different than they had ever seen or expected, then Jesus taking them on long treks, pilgrimages, where he could help them understand what was going on, help them better understand the God of the Kingdom.

As Christ-followers, we are on a lifelong pilgrimage to seek and understand the God of the Kingdom. May it not be just a course of life on earth but rather the course of our life on the earth. Immersion in the Gospels is primary to our pilgrimage; a trip to Israel is a close second!

Follow the Leader

About 20-25 years ago I discontinued the use of the word “Christian” as a descriptor, choosing the term “Christ-follower” instead. In western and particularly American dialogue, the noun Christian has been relegated to use primarily as an adjective (i.e., Christian music, Christian books, Christian t-shirts, Christian schools). The noun Christian lost its meaning. A Christian is a person who follows (verb) Jesus. Nouns and verbs go together, thus Christ-follower.

But, what does it mean to be a Christ-follower, especially in the 21st century? How does it play out in our day-to-day living? Key to the answers to these questions is an understanding of what “following” implies…

When the first-century disciples heard Jesus say, “Follow me,” they understood exactly what he was asking of them.  When we look back in history, we look through the lens of what we know to be true today – Jesus was God’s Son, God in the flesh, the messiah, the savior, the resurrected one.  Not to those first ones he called.  To them, Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi.

Jesus entered a religiously driven culture and education system.  In first-century Palestine, the boys (sorry girls) started school at about six years old.  For the next 3-4 years they memorized the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Memorized.  The whole Tora!  By the time they were ten!  (Have you ever wondered why Jesus spoke to the people as though they had a good knowledge of the scriptures?  It’s because they did!).

By age ten, those with natural abilities to memorize and understand the scriptures began to distance themselves from others.  They were invited to continue on with their education.  The others?  They were invited to go back home and learn the trade of their fathers’.  Yes, they were cut.  Sounds a bit like sports in America.

Those that continued with their formal education spent the next four years memorizing the rest of the Hebrew scriptures – the Old Testament, as we know it.  Thirty-nine books.  Have you ever looked at how thick the Old Testament is?  Memorized!  During this time, the students also began learning the questions that surrounded the scriptures.  Questions, not answers.  We wouldn’t do so well with that in our culture, would we?  It also might explain why Jesus was more of a question-asker than an answer-giver.

As you can imagine, by age 14-15, only the best of the best students remained.  The rest were home learning their fathers’ trades.  Those remaining would then apply to a well-known rabbi to become one of that rabbi’s disciples. The goal of the student wasn’t just to learn from the rabbi but to actually become like him.  The student in effect, said, “I want to follow you – follow so close that I am actually covered by the dust you kick up as we walk together” (cf. Dust)

The rabbi would interview the student applicants to weed out the best of the best and end up with the “best of the best of the best.”  The rabbi wanted someone that not only could learn academically but that was actually willing to become like him.  Those weeded out would go home to learn the trade of their fathers.  To the ones he chose, he would say, “Follow me” and the disciple knew exactly what was being asked of him.  When the rabbi said, “follow me” he is implying to the disciple that he believed the disciple had what it took to learn from him, become like him, and join him in his mission

As is evident in the Gospel accounts, Jesus was viewed as a rabbi.  The rabbi Jesus lived around the lake Galilee region, probably in Capernaum.  He had likely lived in this fishing village for a few years.  It was a small town so it would be safe to say he knew and was known by a majority of its residents.  I suspect the locals were fully aware that their resident rabbi wasn’t like any other rabbi they knew, though they couldn’t quite put their finger on why he was different.

Peter and Andrew fished that lake for a living.  They probably learned from their father, which meant they didn’t make one of the cuts in the education system.  James and John also fished the lake with their father.  Maybe they were 15-16 years old. And they all paid taxes to Levi who probably set up his tax booth near the shores of the lake so he could witness their haul; so he could charge enough taxes to satisfy Rome, King Herod, and insure his personal wealth.

To all five of these guys Jesus said, “Come, follow me.”  They knew exactly what he was saying to them.  Exactly!  There were invited to be with him, learn from him, become like him, and join him in his mission – become fishers of people. Can you imagine the sting of being cut, of being told that you didn’t have what it took, that you weren’t good enough for God?  And then to hear this unique, renegade rabbi that seemed to speak differently about God say, “Follow me” – how cool is that? 

Why wouldn’t they follow Him?  Why wouldn’t any of us follow Him? And why would we settle for an adjective instead of a verb?

Baptism, Pickles, and Steel Poles

During this time of Lent, in preparation to celebrate Easter, I am reading through the four Gospels a couple of times.  One of the times is via Audible.  There is something quite beneficial in listening to familiar scripture – we hear things that we might easily have glossed over while reading. Listening to the Gospel of John, I became aware of a fair amount of discussion about baptism in the first few chapters – John the Baptist, Jesus’ own baptism, Jesus and John baptizing concurrently, etc. 

A question surfaced at Young Life College several years ago as to where the concept of baptism came from. To them, it appeared to have been something new with John the Baptist’s ministry.  So I did some digging and discovered some interesting stuff…

At the time of John the Baptist, baptism was not new to Judaism and was mostly reserved for proselytes (Gentiles converting to Judaism, which was rare).  It appears that first-century Christians borrowed a term used in the Greek world in describing what takes place within baptism.  Two different, though related, Greek words show up in the New Testament:

  • Bapto – which basically means to dip (as in ‘dip into dye’) and is used only three times in the New Testament, one being when Jesus dipped the bread into wine during the last supper (John 13:26).
  • Baptizo – derived from bapto, means to dip repeatedly (so the item being dipped gets washed), immersed or submerged (as in a sunken vessel).  It also means ‘to overwhelm.’  (cf. Uncharted Waters.) Immersion wasn’t a new concept to first century Judaism, either. Priests would achieve ritual putity via total immersion in a bath known as a Mikvah.

What is really interesting was the discovery of the use of both words in a Greek recipe for making pickles, dating to about 200 BC.  The text states, “that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ (bapto) into boiling water and then ‘baptized’ (baptizo) in the vinegar solution.  Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptizing the vegetable, produces a permanent change.” (Thayer, 1889)

This is fascinating!  John’s baptism suggested a change of mind (repent) and a respective change in actions leading to fruit-bearing (see Matthew 3 and Luke 3).  He also said that Jesus would essentially take it a step further, baptizing with the Holy Spirit.  In explaining this, the Apostle Paul said “don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3).   If baptizo implies submersion or sunk to the bottom of the sea (overwhelmed), one can assume death occurs!  I think that’s Paul’s point – baptism isn’t just a ‘ceremonial cleansing’ but rather death to the one being baptized, with reemergence analogous to resurrection and rebirth.

Paul uses “in Christ” language throughout his letters, reminding us “all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.” (Galatians 3:27) and in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  Permanent change!

Galvanizing of Steel Poles

I am reminded of the process of galvanizing steel poles that I used to design.  Here’s the galvanizing process in a nutshell:  the steel pole is dipped (bapto?) into an acid bath for cleansing, then immersed and submerged into a vat of molten zinc (about 600 degrees).  The pole remains submerged (baptizo?) until the steel reaches the same temperature as the zinc.  At this point, the steel and zinc molecules fuse together and something new is created.  When the pole is brought back up out of the vat, the molecular structure of the surface of the steel is permanently changed. *

Being baptized into Christ isn’t about cleaning up our act.  It’s about dying to self and being galvanized to Jesus, the result being new creation.  I like how the Amplified Bible treats 2 Corinthians 5:17:

Therefore if any person is [ingrafted] in Christ (the Messiah) he is a new creation (a new creature altogether); the old [previous moral and spiritual condition] has passed away. Behold, the fresh and new has come!

* An additional, interesting thing about the galvanizing process:  When the finished galvanized product is placed into the environment, the zinc actually sacrifices itself in protecting the steel.  Hmmm.

Reference: Grimm, C. L. W., Thayer, J. H., & Wilke, C. G. (1889). Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: Associated publishers and authors.

Ash Wednesday…

Lent 2022 starts today, Ash Wednesday. Lent (literally springtime) was popularized in the fourth century and had a different and more practical purpose than we might think seventeen centuries later. If we were to poll people this week as to the purpose of Lent, we would likely hear something about what we should give up during the 6+ weeks leading up to Easter. We might likely have a similar view. If so, we find ourselves entering into this springtime with a negative perspective. I live in Minnesota. With another snow event predicted for this weekend, I am not hearing many people dread the coming of spring. Who would want to approach spring sullenly? What about Lent?

The editors of Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter suggest that “Lent should never be morose – an annual ordeal during which we begrudgingly forgo a handful of pleasures. Instead, we ought to approach Lent as an opportunity, not a requirement.” After all, the main purpose of fasting (the forgoing of a pleasure) is to provide more opportunities to discover and enjoy God. There is an old liturgy that refers to the Lent and Easter season as “this joyful season.” How might we approach Lent this year (and every year) in a manner that brings joy? I will toss out a few suggestions, trusting readers to weigh in with other suggestions…

  • Read one of the Gospels. Read all of the Gospels! This is always my go-to. You can plan your reading so that you finish at Easter, providing you with the backstory leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
  • Read Walter Wangerin’s classic Reliving the Passion (based on the Gospel of Mark). It has been transformative for me over the years. (It’s available for Kindle… or Amazon can get it to you in a couple days.)
  • Read Bread and Wine.
  • Find a weekly Lenten service with the express purpose of discovering and enjoying God in new ways.
  • Since we are talking about the hope of springtime, N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope would be a good read (though it might take you past Easter to finish).

Whatever you choose to do during this season, God will meet you, further revealing himself to you (I speak from experience!). Blessings!

Tov Meod

Growing up on a farm, we had a dairy herd with a mix of registered and non-registered Holstein cows. My dad was on the cutting edge of dairy husbandry, locally and nationally. He served on the local Holstein Association board and on local and national levels of the Dairy Herd Improvement Association. I might have mentioned elsewhere that we received monthly computer printouts showing production, cost analysis, and mature potential for each cow, dating back to the mid-1960s.

The Holstein Association provides a classification system similar to academic grading. The herd owner pays a significant fee to have a “classifier” come to the farm to grade each registered cow. Even though a well-developed rubric is used, the process is a bit subjective. The classification categories are Excellent, Very Good, Good, and Fair. Excellent and Very Good classifications garner national attention, leading to a greater value of the cow, beyond just her production history. I noticed on the Holstein Ass’n website that there is a national “honor roll” of cows receiving one of these two classifications, as can be seen here. It’s a big deal! And we are only talking about cows.

Ever wonder how human value is classified/determined? Historically, we have created classification systems that separate out royalty, aristocracy, common people, serfdom, etc. (think Downton Abby). What about God? How does he classify humanity in the grand scheme of things?

Looking at the creation narrative (Genesis 1) we can see that at the completion of each of his creative activities, God saw that it was good (cf 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:21). The Hebrew word for “good” is tov. God looked at his creation, calling it tov. We love God’s tov creation, which is one reason we so enjoy nature and national parks so much.

I love looking at images from the Hubble telescope. The Hubble was designed to peer deep into space, into this massive universe that God created. Here are a few fun images…

Our Galaxy – the Milky Way

The bottom Hubble image is a photo peering deep into the Milky Way, our galaxy. Scientists estimate the Milky Way to be 100,000 light-years in diameter and 20,000 light-years thick (keep in mind that a light-year is approximately 6 trillion miles), consisting of a couple billion stars. And there are several billion such galaxies in this universe that God saw as good, tov.

Looking further into the Genesis 1 creation story, we find the description of the creation of humanity…

Right now I don’t want to focus on the “in our image” portion – that’s a whole nother conversation. What’s of importance here is the fact that the narrative repeated three times that God created humans. Something to know about Hebrew poetry: Anything stated is worthy of our attention. If stated twice, then more so. However, anything repeated three times is exponentially more important. We should lean in and take heed. Repeated three times is an indicator that the creation of humans far outweighs the creation of the rest of the universe, as beautiful and grand as it is. We are of great value!

After the completion of humanity, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Very good in Hebrew is tov meod. Only after the creation of humanity did God describe his creation project as very good, tov meod. Apparently, as the pinnacle of his creation, we are exponentially more valuable to God than the rest of creation. Or as someone reminded me 40 years ago…

As a creation of God’s, my worth is a given. There’s nothing I can do to gain more worth or to lose my worth – tov meod news!


I had an interesting conversation with my friend Kevin a couple of weeks ago that keeps ruminating in my mind. I first met Kevin four years ago when he left a 25-year career of church planting and pastoring to join our local Young Life region to help develop ministries in new communities. As a church planter, it was a natural fit for him.

During our conversation, Kevin was reflecting on his past years of ministry. He said he’s begun to realize, in recent years, that something seemed “off” in his previous 25 years of ministry leadership. He felt like he had been “selling Christianity as a package, with Jesus as one part of the entire product line.” Through his continual engagement with Young Life, he said he’s become increasingly amazed and enamored with Jesus. For him, Jesus has become the whole package that he gets to offer to others.

Enamored. Not a word I use often, but for some reason, it resonated with me. The dictionary definition would point one toward something romantic – affected by strong feelings of love, admiration, or fascination (Merriam-Webster). A synonym that further enhances an understanding of enamored is captivate. Captivate suggests being influenced or dominated by something irresistible.

As you may be aware, when disciplining or mentoring (mostly younger) people, I have them read the Gospels repeatedly – for all kinds of reasons, but mostly to “hang out” with Jesus, knowing its transformative value. The Jewish understanding of becoming a disciple of a rabbi was to become like the rabbi and join him in his mission. They become captivated and fascinated with the rabbi and pattern their life accordingly. I think becoming enamored with Jesus is the exact right outcome of one spending continuous time reading the Gospels.

I think of Jim Rayburn (Young Life’s founder) always saying that Jesus is the most fascinating person in the universe. What a great starting point for becoming enamored with Jesus. I suspect that our western Christian cultural approach is not to be enamored with the most fascinating person in the universe. Rather, we are enamored with what the most fascinating person in the universe can do for us (i.e., pave a way for us to go to heaven). Does that mean we are more enamored with heaven than with Jesus? Wouldn’t that be a form of idolatry? (NT Wright always reminds his readers/hearers that heaven is big deal, but it’s not the end of the world.)

What does it mean to be enamored with Jesus? Here’s a great question to ponder: What did Jesus’ disciples see in him that caused them to walk away from their work to follow him? I have always suspected that Jesus didn’t “cold call” people when inviting them to follow him – especially when we think of those first ones – fishermen Peter, James, John, and their local tax collector, Levi. I have to believe that Jesus had spent time with these guys, taking an interest in their work and engaging in their world. I suspect that these guys were fascinated and captivated by this different kind of rabbi – they were enamored. Enamored enough to drop what they were doing to discover more. Jesus was irresistible!

How does one become enamored with Jesus?

I don’t think it’s something we can make happen. I think it’s a natural (organic) outcome of focusing on Jesus, the most fascinating person in the universe. Focusing on who he is – his character, mission, interactions – not just on what he can do for us. It’s hanging out with him, becoming more and more fascinated and captivated by him. Like Kevin, it changes our perspective on everything else.

One of my favorite books is Jim Collin’s Good to Great. His team researched companies that experienced a transformation of growth that outpaced the stock market trends of the time. He studied the companies in an attempt to discover the cause of the growth. Most fascinating to me was the chapter recaps describing “unexpected findings.” I suspect an “unexpected finding” for Kevin was becoming enamored with Jesus!

I think that periodically it’s healthy for us to ask the question, “What are we enamored with? What fascinates and captivates us?” The answer to the question will shape the “package” we have to offer the world around us.


As I sit down to write this, we are almost two weeks into the New Year – far enough into 2022 for most New Year’s resolutions to now be obsolete, I suspect. Last week the parking lots (car parks for my British friends) of fitness centers were packed as people’s resolve to lose weight and/or get into shape were being enacted. I suspect by the end of the month, traffic into such establishments will be back to normal. Why might my suspicions be plausible? Probably due to 50 years of personal experience and observation of failed attempts to keep New Year’s resolutions.

That all began to change for me about 20 years ago. What happened? First, it was around the turn of the century that I resolved to never make any more New Year’s resolutions – the only resolution I have successfully kept! Secondly, I began to understand the concept of living with a focused and determined purpose, though I could have hardly articulated it at the time.

I have discussed previously the importance and value of Focus as we navigate life in this world as Christ-followers. Accompanying focus is resolve. I remember my friend and colleague, Ray Donnatucci, admonishing a group of high school and college-aged young people the value of resolve. He talked about the many young people he knew over the years that were no longer walking in the faith. Then his harsh challenge: Nor might you unless you determine (resolve) otherwise.

As I ponder this, I think of the discourse between God and Joshua as He was instructing Joshua to lead the people of Israel across the Jordon River to inherit the “promised land,” following a 40-year time of preparation. 

God to Joshua: “Be strong and courageous because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.  Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.  Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.  Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:6-9, also Deuteronomy 31)

Three times God put strength and courage together in his statement to Joshua.  In Hebrew thought, anything stated three times demands attention. So, being a dabbler in Hebrew, I poked around a bit to see what I could discover.  Strong and courageous are linked together because they are kind of the same word.  The Hebrew word for courage is amats, which means: To be determined, to make oneself alert, to strengthen oneself.   

Interesting!  Courage in Hebrew thought seems to have nothing to do with acts of bravery, which is what usually comes to mind when we think of courage.  It seems to have more to do with internal resolve. I immediately think of the Apostle Paul’s statement of resolve in his letter to the Philippian Christians:

[For my determined purpose is] that I may know Him [that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His Person more strongly and more clearly], and that I may in that same way come to know the power outflowing from His resurrection [which it exerts over believers], and that I may so share His sufferings as to be continually transformed [in spirit into His likeness].  (Philippians 3:10, Amplified)

What impresses me about Paul’s resolve is that he made this statement about 30 years into his journey as a Christ-follower. I suspect this resolve wasn’t Paul’s “resolution” for the year 62 AD. I suspect that Paul’s determined purpose to know Christ better and better had been a long-standing resolve. And it appears that he intended to continue that resolve. Thinking back to the last post suggesting a prayer focus for the year 2022, I might have been a bit short-sighted.

Maybe we should be thinking in terms of what we would like to be true about our relationship with Jesus 10, 20, or even 30 years from now. Resolve, indeed!

A 2022 Prayer Focus?

Preparing for worship this week brought me to Ephesians 3, specifically verses 16-19. As I’m wont to do, I read the scripture in a variety of translations (the beauty of tools like, ultimately landing on the Amplified Version (AMP). As you might recall, the editors of the AMP expanded the English to better align with the richness of the original Greek, helping us experience the writer’s intent – the Apostle Paul, in this case.

As I read Ephesians 3:16-19 in the AMP, I experienced a flood of memories. It was the purchase and use of a pre-owned Amplified New Testament 40-years ago that ultimately lead to my personal purpose/mission/vision statement: To know Him and make Him known; to be Good News to those around me. Reading Paul’s prison letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians & Philemon) in the AMP were core to personal transformation. As I read Ephesians 3:16-19 in the AMP on Sunday (1/2/2022), it occurred to me that this would be an excellent personal prayer focus throughout the coming year.

My 40-year old used AMP Bible (complete with classic red duct tape binding repair!)

So… I’ve posted it below for your pondering. Though Paul was writing a letter to a group of believers, it seems like it might be a worthy personal focus as well. What could be better than being “filled up [throughout your being] to all the fullness of God [so that you may have the richest experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself]?” Have a blessed 2022!

16 May He grant you out of the riches of His glory, to be strengthened and spiritually energized with power through His Spirit in your inner self, [indwelling your innermost being and personality], 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through your faith.

And may you, having been [deeply] rooted and [securely] grounded in love, 18 be fully capable of comprehending with all the saints (God’s people) the width and length and height and depth of His love [fully experiencing that amazing, endless love];

19 and [that you may come] to know [practically, through personal experience] the love of Christ which far surpasses [mere] knowledge [without experience], that you may be filled up [throughout your being] to all the fullness of God [so that you may have the richest experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself]. Ephesians 3:16-19 (AMP)

The Magnificat

I absolutely love poetry – when I hear it read. I remember attending a Cursillo weekend event in the mid-1980s where one of the spiritual directors read poems from his favorite author. The words leapt off the page and drew me in, so much so that I went out and bought the book for myself. To my disappointment, as I read from the book, the poems did nothing for me. I think we engineering-types struggle to read poetic literature. I know I do. To my dismay, the richness of so much poetry just never seems to leave the pages.

I’ve heard many people say they struggle reading Hebrew poetry, like the Psalms, as did I for about the first 45 years of my life. Then something changed. I took a seminary course in Pslams through the Reformed Theological Seminary in the mid-1990s. I remember asking the professor which English translation of the Bible gives us the best sense of the metre and intent of these great Hebrew poems and songs. He suggested reading from the New American Standard Bible. Thus began a new appreciation of Hebrew poetry.

The Magnificat, Linda Donlin

Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is certainly in the genre of Hebrew poetry. It reads like many of the Psalms, laced with thanksgiving and admiration of God along with declarations of his redemptive and loyal characteristics. We should keep in mind that Mary would have been quite familiar with Hebrew poetry, especially the Psalms. She might likely have sung some of the Psalms during her week-long journey to visit her cousin, Elizabeth.

It was at Elizabeth’s home that Mary mouthed the Magnificat. Magnificat is the title attributed to her poem/song of praise which was a response to Elizabeth’s reception and words of blessing of Mary and her unborn baby, Jesus. The term Magnificat comes from the opening line of the poem in the Latin Vulgate BibleMagnificat anima mea Dominum, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Though Mary’s poem appears to have been spontaneous, one could/should assume the contents could have resulted from things she would have been pondering since the visit from the angel, Gabriel, and most likely during her long trip to visit Elizabeth. I think of a couple different times in the Gospels that talk about Mary’s treasuring and pondering of events unfolding in her life: Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19, after the visit from the shepherds the night of Jesus’ birth) and his [Jesus’] mother treasured up all these things in her heart (Luke 2:51, after the young lad went missing and was found discussing theology with the teachers in the Temple).

And certainly a visit from an angel declaring that she would birth the Messiah would be cause for much pondering!

If you recall, when Mary reached Elizabeth’s home and greeted her, Elizabeth’s baby John leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:39-45). Elizabeth commended Mary for her faith and confirmed the angel Gabriel’s proclamation that she would indeed carry the Messiah in her womb. No wonder Mary broke into song (though scripture doesn’t indicate that she sang) and said…

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy* is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (ESV)

Read the Magnificat again and you will see the gospel, the good news that accompanies the arrival of a king. This King will be different than all other kings of the earth. Most kings, upon arrival, exalt those with wealth, position, and power. Most kings, upon arrival, throw celebrations and feasts for those of wealth, position, and power – celebrations and feasts catered by servants of humble estate. This King arrived through a servant of humble estate. This King would reverse the order, exalting the humble and humbling the exalted.

No wonder the late pastor and author, Eugene Peterson, referred to this good news as the great reversal. No wonder Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”

* Mercy is that rich Hebrew word, hesed, that I have previously discussed.

Mary Did You Know? (Part 2)

I have spent the last two weeks hovered over the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. I wouldn’t venture to guess as to how many times I’ve read the accounts of the announcements of John the Baptists’ miraculous conception and Jesus’ immaculate conception. This time I find I’m seeing and hearing some things differently than in past readings. Luke tells a much larger story than just the announcement of the two births.

In the previous post, Mary Did You Know? (Part 1), we discussed the angel Gabriel’s surprising appearance and greeting of Mary, the insignificant teenage girl from the insignificant little town of Nazareth, far from the religious epicenter, Jerusalem. Let’s continue to look into the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth, starting again with Gabriel’s visit announcing the birth of John the Baptist…

The Annunciation, Leonardo da Vinci

It was in the Temple in Jerusalem that Gabriel visited John the Baptist’s to-be father, Zechariah, as he was performing his temple duties. Zechariah was a priest. One of approximately 20,000 priests, he was required to be in Jerusalem, serving at the Temple, during each of the four major festivals – Passover, Pentecost, Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths. Additionally, he was scheduled to serve two, one-week stints throughout the year.

Priests were set apart to carry out duties associated with worship and sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish faith community. Their duties took place at the Temple where God was presumed to have resided. For the Israelites, the Temple was the intersection of heaven and earth. Priests, following Old Testament tradition, served God on behalf of the people and the people on behalf of God. On the day of Gabriel’s visit, Zechariah had been “chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:9).

The burning of incense was a twice-a-day ritual. As a crowd of worshipers assembled outside to pray, Zechariah entered the Temple’s Holy Place to burn the incense on an altar designed specifically for that purpose The altar of incense was just in front of the curtain separating the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place. This was indeed a holy experience for the officiating priest. After burning the incense, the priest came out of the Temple and pronounced the Aaronic blessing over the people, the same blessing we use today as a common benediction to our worship services.

The Temple, you see, is where the “with-you-God” resided with his people throughout the ages. The precursor of the Temple dated back to the time of the exodus from Egyptian captivity. God was content to live in a tent (tabernacle), but the people wanted otherwise. So God allowed them to build a temple. And the steps of the Temple were where people gathered to worship – this intersection of heaven and earth.

In the last post, we discussed the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary. Let’s look at the rest of his Annunciation. After reassuring Mary that she needn’t fear, and reminding her that she had found favor with God, he began to reveal to her the rest of the story, the reason for his visit. She would conceive and bear a son whom she would name Jesus. Jesus is a form of Joshua meaning “God is Salvation.” Gabriel, then, proclaimed five descriptors of God’s saving intervention that Jesus would embody (Luke 1:32-33):

  1. Jesus will be great. Gabriel did not say his greatness would be “in the sight of the Lord” as he did concerning John. Jesus’ greatness is unqualified. It stands alone.
  2. Jesus will be called Son of the Most High. Note that Luke capitalized Son of the Most High, grammerically reserved for royalty. Most High is derived from the Hebrew name for God, El Eylon, meaning the one true sovereign God.
  3. The Lord God will give Jesus the throne of his father David. Most Jewish people would have understood this to mean Messiah. I wonder what Mary was thinking at this point.
  4. Jesus will reign over Jacob’s descendents (Israel) forever. This was a somewhat contemptuous pronouncement considering King Herod’s attempts to establish his reign over the Jewsih people.
  5. Jesus’ kingdom will never end. Eternity is an attribute of God and in Hebrew understanding, only El Eylon’s kingdom is considered to be eternal.

Gabriel was clearly communicating to Mary that the Eternal, Most High, One true and sovereign God was going to take up residence in her womb. Mary understandably perplexed asked, “How can this be…?” Gabriel’s response:

“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)

A noteworthy word in Gabriel’s response is “overshadow” (Greek, episkiazein). Recall the tent/tabernacle that God was satisfied to live in. After the tabernacle was completed, God overshadowed it and infused (i.e., impregnated) it with his presence and glory (Exodus 40:33-35). Right there in the middle of the camp, God was present with his people. When the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek (known as the Septuagint), the word used for overshadowed was episkiazein. Luke did not use an inconsequential word when describing the immaculate conception.

The divine cloud that established God’s presence with his people in time and place now does so in a person. The divine overshadowing of the earthly tabernacle was a foreshadowing of the living tabernacle, the incarnation (Edwards). Thus the Apostle John’s distinctive declaration that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The Greek word for dwelling could be translated as tabernacle. Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrased John 1:14 in The Message, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

Bottom line: God left the building and took up residence right there in the middle of Nazareth!

Edwards, J. R. (2015). The gospel according to Luke. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapid, MI