Lift Up Your Heads: Tisha B’Av and the Messiah


Today is Tisha B’Av.  The 9th day of the month of Av.  A day on the Hebrew calendar that has come to be regarded and observed as a most solemn time of fasting and prayer.  It was on this day that Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.  It was on this day that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans.  It is on this day that the Jewish community remembers and reflects upon these and many other calamities that have beset God’s chosen people over the years.

As I’ve sought to plug into the ebb and flow of God’s calendar through the Messiah, I have found that Tisha B’Av is probably the one day that I try to fight against the most.  The reason for this is that there is often very little hope that is associated with it.  Do I remember the destruction of the Temples on this day? Yes.  Do I fast in unison with the Jewish people worldwide? Yes.  Do I seek to honor those who have lost their lives on this day? Yes.  In doing all of this I’ve always found myself asking where is the Messiah in all of it?  Where is the hope?  If there is any time at which the Messiah should be found, wouldn’t Tisha B’Av be it?  As so many souls collectively mourn the loss and devastation commemorated on this day, from our darkness and hunger shouldn’t we turn to the source of light and sustenance?

And here is where I’ve found him.  Here is where I am able to recognize that the heart of Tisha B’Av draws me to realize the depths to which the Messiah descended in order to ascertain freedom and life for his people.  In the wake of destruction that has been caused by sin, the Messiah lifts his people from the rubble and sets us in a new place.

That both Temples were destroyed on this day has always astounded me.  The Temple was intended to be the meeting place between God and man.  The one place on earth where God’s presence would dwell among His people.  God chose to place His name in Jerusalem, and as a diadem the Temple was set in this city.  While not downplaying the significance of this fact, it’s important to also point out that the Temple reflected a heavenly reality.  Based on Psalm 78 and Exodus 25, G.K. Beale points out how the Temple was made up of three main parts that all symbolized a major part of the cosmos:

(1) the outer court represented the habitable world where humanity dwelt; (2) the holy place was emblematic of the visible heavens and its light sources; (3) the holy of holies symbolized the invisible dimension of the cosmos, where God and his heavenly hosts dwelt.[1]

With this in mind we can point out how both the cosmos/creation and the Temples in Jerusalem both experienced destruction because of the sins of mankind.  Looking back to the Garden of Eden[2] we see that sin enters the world through Adam and mankind no longer enjoys the same access to God that was experienced before sin.  Similarly it is because of the sins of the nation of Israel that both Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.[3]  Thus, as we remember the destruction of both Temples on Tisha B’Av, our minds and hearts are also lead to remember the effects that sin has had on the cosmos as well.  It is this great sin problem that has plagued us since Adam, and it is this great sin problem that saw the Messiah humbly empty himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Again, this is where the Messiah is found on Tisha B’Av—in the midst of our mourning and searching for answers about the effects of sin.  In the midst of our longing to once again know and experience a clear access to God.

A very important tradition that is observed on Tisha B’Av is the reading of Lamentations. This emotion-filled, heart-wrenching lament attributed to the weeping prophet Jeremiah who watched as Jerusalem was ransacked and leveled by the invading Babylonians captures the essence of Tisha B’Av.  In Lamentations 2:9 we find a verse that describes Jerusalem and the severity of the invasion.  

“Her gates have sunk into the ground, he has destroyed and broken her bars. Her king and her princes are among the nations; The Torah is no more. Also, her prophets find no vision from the LORD.” (Lamentations 2:9)

The situation is bleak.  “Her gates have sunk into the ground” is a very telling description of how the invaders destroyed and buried the gates and walls that surrounded the city and the Temple of Solomon.  It is from this condition, a place left desolate because of sin, that we are left looking for hope.  And again, it is here where we find the Messiah.

One of the most glorious descriptions of the coming of the King of Israel is found in Psalm 24, and in many ways it describes the prophetic reversal of Lamentations 2:9.  It states:

“Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!” (Psalm 24:7)

The gates which were once sunken because of sin, the city which was once left desolate, and the King who was once exiled will one day be gloriously lifted up, reestablished, and restored fully.  It is my contention that this points to the second coming of the Messiah Yeshua.  The coming of the glorious King who has already joined us in our darkness and destruction, who has put on human flesh and been tempted as we are, who has met us in our sin and desolation, and who has joined us and tasted the effects of sin by enduring death.  He has risen from the rubble, lifted up the gates so that we may enter with him and experience an access to God that has been lost for so long.  Where is the Messiah on Tisha B’Av?  He is with us…rebuilding.

[1] G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2004), 32-33.

[2] The Garden of Eden is considered the archetypal Temple with Adam set as the High Priest, but this is a topic for another blog post.

[3] Idolatry and the ignorance of the Sabbatical year for the Land lead to the destruction of the FirstTemple.  Rejection of the Messiah, or traditionally “hatred without a cause” lead to the destruction of the SecondTemple (compare Psalm 69:4 and John 15:25…this will probably be another blog post in the future as well).

After Saturday Comes Sunday

I’ve been watching the happenings in the Middle East as closely as I can through articles, videos, reports, and messages from friends and co-workers in Israel. It’s clear that we have entered a time where the temperature is rising, and I’m not referring to ‘climate change.’ Since the start of Israel’s defensive operation to put a halt to the onslaught of Hamas rockets upon its citizenry in early July, the world seems to have gone mad. So many people, especially in the West, have used the Israel-Hamas conflict as an excuse to vent their deep-seated antisemitism. A recent study revealed that there has been a 383% increase in antisemitic acts worldwide since the conflict began. Yes, three-hundred and eighty-three percent. The regions surveyed in the study weren’t even “Muslim” or “Arab” nations. They were Europe, Canada, the U.S., South America, South Africa, Oceania, Central America, and Mexico.  We’re seeing that in many cases, behind the veneer of anti-Zionism, antisemitism is found.

I’ve encountered a bit of this attitude myself, as have others in NYC. I was verbally castigated by an irate woman–a complete stranger–who only described herself as “Catholic” at Brooklyn Bridge Park last week because I had the gall to suggest that Israel was surrounded by those who sought its destruction. There was no reasoning with her. Facts didn’t matter. Anger had taken her. I ended the conversation with a “God bless you,” and turned away.

This brief encounter pales in comparison with the brutal manifestations of this hatred. A rabbi murdered while walking to shul on Shabbat in Miami. A swastika etched onto a mourner’s car during his funeral. Similar vandalism taking place near New York. Marches and riots in France calling for the expulsion and murder of Jews. And it is spilling over into Germany as well. All of Europe seems to be under the same spell. And all of these are just examples, a microcosm of what is taking place.

Simultaneously what we are witnessing with ISIS is a pursuit of the reestablishment of the Caliphate in Iraq. The Islamic State (or ISIS/ISIL) has been systematically making its way through Syria and Iraq, filling the power vacuum that has been left in the region since the U.S. pulled out. Their conquest has been characterized by murder in the name of their god. It is a holy conquest. A holy conquest that leaves death and destruction in its wake. Anyone and everyone who does not accept their god and their god’s law must die–especially Christians and Jews (although some actually make this ridiculous claim). Right now in Iraq, since there are no longer any Jews there, the Christians are receiving the full brunt of this army’s merciless force. Are Christian women suffering? Yes. Are Christian children suffering? Yes. Being beheaded. Being buried alive. Being cut in half. This is really happening. Stop and think about that. This is really happening–right now–as you read this.


I can’t help but recall an excerpt from a book I read a number of years ago:  “The Israelis,” by Donna Rosenthal (2003). An amazing glimpse into the complexity of life in Israel, she includes a chapter on Christians who live in Israel. At one point an unnamed Palestinian Christian woman in Jerusalem shared her true feelings about the radical Islamists.  She said:

“[L]ook at that wall.”. . .[she] translates the Arabic on it: ” ‘After Saturday comes Sunday.‘  Do you know what that means? It means ‘After we are finished with the Jews, it’s the Christians’ turn.’ ”  With muted anger, she continues, “They hate our religion. They call us infidel dogs.  Heretics.  They want us out.” (p. 320)

I remember when I first read those words–after Saturday comes Sunday–they struck me. Maybe it was their simplicity. Maybe it was their succinctness. Perhaps the moment I read them was the moment I realized just how inextricably intertwined the fates of both Jews and Christians are. What I believe is becoming clearer now is that these words are real.

The temperature is rising and we are watching it happen. There is a very real force that seeks the destruction of the followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We see it in Iraq and Syria, in Iran, in Gaza, in France, in Germany, in the UK. We see it in Miami, in Mozul, and in New York.

As a follower of Yeshua (Jesus), the Jewish Messiah, I find myself increasingly compelled to take some sort of action in the face of this force and I believe other believers ought to do the same. It’s no secret that Israel’s greatest supporters are found in some evangelical Christian circles, as Robert Nicholson brilliantly explains here. As such, we must be realistic about what may lie before us. There may be suffering, persecution, arrest, torture, death. Of course, I pray that this will not take place here, but is that something any of us can guarantee?  Whatever happens we must stand for truth and justice; for the oppressed and not the oppressors.

This is not sensationalistic fear-mongering. This is a simple reminder that we may come to the point in Western evangelicalism where there is no longer safety sitting in the pews.  This is a simple reminder that in the absence of strong leadership in the West, we must believe that it is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes. This is a simple reminder that we may be called upon to follow in the footsteps of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s and the Corrie ten Boom’s who have gone before us.  This is a simple reminder that through it all, we will be neither abandoned nor forsaken. That in the end there is a promised time of “the restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time.” (Acts 3:21) It appears that ‘Saturday’ and ‘Sunday’ are upon us.  What will we be found doing in their midst?

Please comment below with your suggestions, insights, or wisdom.

Remembering the Holocaust: What We Can Learn from Denmark

There is a famous legend that during World War II the Danish monarch, King Christian X, boldly stood up to his Nazi occupiers by refusing to give in to the demands of the Führer and force the Jews of Denmark to wear the degrading yellow Star-of-David patches to clearly identify and distinguish them from the rest of the nation.  The story goes that the King emerged from his quarters the following morning wearing the yellow patch himself, causing a domino effect that saw the rest of the Gentile population of Denmark follow suit and wear the yellow patches as a sign of solidarity with their Jewish neighbors and friends.  While this is an inspiring legend, one will be hard-pressed to find evidence that this event actually took place.  The fact of the matter regarding the Danish response to Hitler’s attempt on the lives of the Jews within their borders is much more bold, much more inspiring, and proved to achieve much more than a mere protest of solidarity.  The Danish response saved the lives of nearly 95 percent of the Jewish population in Denmark from certain capture and death at the hands of the Nazi regime.  That percentage was unparalleled in any other occupied nation during the war.  Such an act of selfless humanity by an entire nation during a time of such great depravity is deserving of a closer examination of the events that took place.

The Occupation

When the war began, Denmark quickly sought to remain neutral.  They had disarmed in the early 1930’s, and were rather committed to staying out of the war to pursue the rebuilding and maintenance of their own national economy.  Denmark was the only European nation that actually had a higher standard of living than Germany entering the war.[1]  In an attempt to keep Denmark as an ally financially, Germany respected their desire and on May 30, 1939 the two nations signed the German-Danish nonaggression pact. [Yahil, 270] This pact did not last one year before the Germans claimed that they were forced to break it and invade Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940 to preemptively prevent an Allied invasion of Norway, thus protecting their own northern borders.

The Germans sought to implement this invasion as delicately as possible.  The German government’s official note to the Danish foreign minister reads, “In keeping with the good relations which have always existed between Germany and Denmark, the Government of the Reich assures the Royal Danish Government that Germany has no intention now or in the future of encroaching upon the Kingdom of Denmark’s territorial integrity or political independence.” [Yahil, 270]

The implications of this statement were huge.  Essentially, Denmark was granted the privilege of maintaining their government while being occupied by Germany.  This included functioning in accordance with the parliamentary system in their constitution, maintaining their army, navy, police, courts, and freedoms of political expression. [Yahil, 270]  While this sounds well and good, naturally there were real concerns on Denmark’s part.  Primarily the fact that Denmark’s 7,700 Jewish residents were now within range of Nazi Germany.[2]

The Deportation Attempt

For three and a half years after the initial German occupation of Denmark, “daily life in wartime remained remarkably the same as it had been before the Occupation.”[3]  Hitler referred to it as the “model protectorate,” as he viewed the Occupation as a friendly act of defense that favored and protected the Danes from an invasion by the Allied forces.  The Nazis continued to grow in power and confidence, and the storm was on the horizon as they thirsted for more Jewish blood.  The first rumbling of the approaching thunder came on September 24, 1942 when the German Foreign Ministry sought to “hurry as much as possible the evacuation of Jews from the various countries of Europe.” [Gilbert, 466]  They specifically sought to begin with the deportation of the Jews of Bulgaria, Hungary, and Denmark. [Gilbert, 466]  As word of the German intentions spread, the boldness of the Danish citizens began to manifest.

A Danish Underground group was formed to help protect the Jewish citizens and prepare the nation for further German attempts on the autonomy with which Denmark was living.  This did not please the German occupiers at all, and on August 29, 1943 the Germans imposed martial law in Denmark after a number of acts of resistance from the Underground.[4]  They disbanded the small Danish army, and “the SS general Dr. Werner Best, the German envoy, assumed full powers as Reich plenipotentiary.”[5]  The Germans sought to take advantage of the martial law and deport all of Denmark’s Jews and half-Jews to the concentration camps and certain death.  The full deportation was to take place on October 1-2, 1943…Rosh HaShanah. [Gilbert, 614]

The Danish Response

Over the course of the three days leading up to the deportation, the events that transpired are nothing short of amazing.  First, “the general in charge of the German army in Denmark refused to allow his men to participate in the roundup.” [Flender, 67-8.] Then, another German with a conscience stepped up and seized the moment.  On September 28, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, the commercial attaché in the German embassy leaked the full plans of the impending German attempt on the Danish Jews to Danish friends. [Paldiel, 469]  They immediately shared the information with the Danish Underground and the Jewish community.  Acting quickly and decisively, the Danish nation would band together to help deliver the Jewish people within their borders to safety.

Both the Danish government and the Danish church were very vocal with their support for the Jews during those crucial days in late September and early October, 1943.  We see this support in a letter from Danish Lutheran bishops to the German Occupation officials issued on October 3, 1943.  They write, “We will never forget that the Lord Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary, according to God’s promise to the Chosen People of Israel.  Persecution of the Jews conflicts with the humanitarian conception of the love of neighbors and the message which Christ’s church set out to preach.” [Flender, 469] They go on, “Persecution conflicts with the judicial conscience existing in the Danish people, inherited through centuries of Danish culture…Notwithstanding our separate religious beliefs we will fight to preserve for our Jewish brothers and sisters the same freedom we ourselves value more than life.” [Flender, 469]

The Rescue

The rescue began the same weekend that the deportation was set to take place.  It involved secretly ferrying the Jewish refugees on fishing boats across the Sound to neutral Sweden which had opened its doors to many Jewish refugees, including those earlier in the war from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. [Gilbert, 416]  The Danish Underground wasted no time recruiting the help of many average citizens who were more than willing to assist.  “They included doctors, schoolteachers, students, businessmen, taxi drivers, housewives and, of course, captains of fishing vessels.” [Paldiel, 470]  Even the Danish policemen were aiding the resistance movement.  They would often overlook the secret acts of rescue that were done during the day, and there are numerous accounts of Danish policeman assuring the safety of the Jewish refugees and respectfully saluting them as they sailed away to safety.  In cases of pro-German Danes reporting the acts of rescue to the Danish police, the police would oftentimes “arrest” the Jewish refugees and rescuers only to let them go after driving a bit down the road, or taking them to a safe spot for crossing the Sound. [Paldiel, 472]

The stories of heroism and boldness are truly encouraging to read, but the question of ethics was raised during and after the events took place.  The Danes had a strong heritage of respect for the law.  How could so many citizens be openly involved in deceiving the occupying nation?  Their morality answered that question very easily.  They knew that it was a greater crime to step aside and allow the Nazi regime to have its way with the Jewish people.  When asked much later why they did it, Preben Munch-Nielson, one of the rescue couriers, responded, “It was a matter of decency. It was simply the only decent thing to do.” [Paldiel, 474]  Again, the Lutheran bishops spoke to this issue.  “(We) clearly understand the duties of law-abiding citizens, but recognize at the same time that they are conscientiously bound to maintain the right and to protest every violation of justice. It is evident that in this case we are obeying God rather than man.” [Flender, 69]

A key figure in the rescue was a sea captain and owner of the Snekkersten Inn, Henry Thomsen.  He led the Danish Underground and gave his own life for the cause.  The Snekkersten Inn was located near the town of Elsinore in the north of Denmark, at the narrowest point of the Sound—the ideal location for ships to sail carrying Jewish refugees.  The Inn became the hub of the exodus.  Many Jews secretly made their way to the northern coastal towns, with the help of many Danish citizens.  Those who were unable to make it over the Sound often spent the night at the Inn as they waited for the next opportune time to leave.  Soon the Gestapo began to search the hotels and inns, so many of the Jews were housed in empty vacation homes.  All of this was organized and lead by Thomsen. [Paldiel, 470]

As the ships sailed across the Sound, the Germans were essentially blind to it.  The Danes used small, speedy motorized vessels for the transports.  The Germans had large, clumsy boats with weak motor power.  “The Germans were also undermined by their own rigid schedules, and one could always be sure that the Sound would be open every day at 12 noon,” as the Germans would dock in the harbor to eat lunch. [Paldiel, 473]  The Danes moved quickly, worked together, and knew full well what was at stake.

The Aftermath

When all was said and done, “Danish sea captains and fishermen ferried 5,919 Jews, 1,301 part-Jews…and 686 Christians married to Jews, to neutral Sweden.” [Gilbert, 614] As the Germans implemented the roundup of the Jewish people of Denmark on the evening of October 1-2, 1943, instead of finding the full 7,700 they could find only 475. [Paldiel, 469] The rest were either in hiding, awaiting transport to Sweden, or already safely there.  The 475 captured Jews were sent to the camp at Theresienstadt, and most made it through the war alive.  In all, out of the 7,700 Jews in Denmark at the beginning of the war, 53 died at Theresienstadt. [Paldiel, 470]

It is likely that the work would not have happened if not for the heroic efforts of Henry Thomsen and all of the Danish people.  Thomsen was arrested in August 1944 and sent to the Neuengamme camp in northern Germany on September 9.   He lasted only three months in the camp and died on December 4, 1944 of maltreatment at the age of 38.  His memory lives on, though, as a monument was erected across from the Snekkersten Inn on September 4, 1946, the three year anniversary of his first illegal crossing to Sweden.  Later, in 1968 a tree was planted in his honor along the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.  There is also a small Danish fishing boat on exhibit in the museum to honor the fishermen who risked their lives. [Paldiel, 474]


This remarkable achievement can be attributed to the bold and steadfast unity of a nation that stood up in the face of an oppressive force with murderous motives.  One can learn from the simple conviction of an entire people, the coming together of an entire nation to stand resolute in the face of the enemy, holding fast to what is true and right, risking their own lives for the sake of others.  May the memory of this nation’s courage live on and not be forgotten.

[1] Leni Yahil, “Under State Protection,” Voices & Views: A History of the Holocaust, ed. Deborah Dwork (New York: The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, 2002), 271.

[2] Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy (London: Fontana Press, 1987), 119.

[3] Deborah Dwork, “Introduction to ‘Gentile Life under German Occupation,’” Voices & Views: A History of the Holocaust, ed. Deborah Dwork (New York: The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, 2002), 240-1.

[4] Harold Flender, Rescue in Denmark (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), 67-8 as quoted in Scattered Among the Nations: Documents Affecting Jewish History 49 to 1975, ed. Alexis P. Rubin (Toronto: Wall & Emerson, 1993), 259.

[5] Mordecai Paldiel, “Henry & Ellen Thomsen and the Danish Underground,” The Righteous Among the Nations: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Publishing House Ltd., 2007), 469.

Thanksgivukkah? How about “Taberthanksgivukkah”?

Chanukah. Thanksgiving. Their paths cross for the first time since 1888 this week.  But is their chance encounter this year the only link between them?  Could there be more that binds these two separate holidays commemorating events that took place nearly 1,800 years apart? And is there more that we can take from our simultaneous celebration of the two?

I’ve been thinking about this a bit.  Knowing a little of the history of each holiday helped me realize that there is indeed a common (or holy) denominator—the biblical feast of Sukkot.  Sukkot, aka “Tabernacles” or “Booths,” is that great eight-day celebration that draws the hearts of the covenant members to rejoice before God, thanking Him for providing sustenance through an abundant harvest and commemorating how He dwelt with and provided for His people in the wilderness after the exodus from oppression in Egypt.  And it’s ultimately a time to realize, know, and acknowledge that our awesome God dwells with us.  When studying the origins of both Chanukah and Thanksgiving, we see that Sukkot served at the very least as a template for each.

The situation in the land of Israel during the 2nd century BCE was bleak.  The evil and oppressive Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, ruled with a heavy hand.  The observance of God’s word was outlawed.  This included the celebration of the Sabbaths, eating kosher, circumcising sons, and offering sacrifices to the God of Israel.  The apex of Antiochus’ arrogance was reached when he desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by erecting an idol to Zeus (which happened to look like Antiochus) and sacrificed swine on the altar. Soon a small band of Jews, zealous for God and His word, rebelled and fought back despite being severely outnumbered and outmanned.  These men, known as the Maccabees, against all odds but with God on their side eventually defeated the Seleucids and were able to retake Jerusalem and the Temple.  Their first task was to cleanse and rededicate the Temple to reestablish worship.  When they did, they celebrated a new festival that was based on an ancient one.  Here’s what 2 Maccabees 10:5-6 says:

“It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of Tabernacles, remembering how not long before, during the feast of Tabernacles, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals.”

While Chanukah was not intended to be Sukkot, it was celebrated in a similar manner and there were marked similarities.  Both lasted eight days; both were characterized by rejoicing; and both brought to mind the theme of God delivering His people from the oppressive rule of gentile kings.

Jumping ahead to 17th century CE Europe and we find a small band of Puritans seeking shelter and deliverance from the religious oppression they experienced in their native land.  In 1620 they wound up in America and experienced an extremely harsh winter that lead to the death of many in their group.  The following Autumn they reaped a great harvest and celebrated what is traditionally known as the first Thanksgiving.  There is much speculation and debate about what may or may not have influenced the celebration of that group of Puritans that year.  Some historians suggest that Sukkot was a factor.  While there is no explicit evidence for this, there are some interesting reasons to believe this to be the case.  First, before landing in America the Puritans spent some time in Holland living among Sephardic Jews there.  Second, these Puritans were adherents to a replacement theology which means they saw themselves as a “new Israel” that was experiencing a new kind of exodus and deliverance from oppression.  They also knew the Bible very well.  Certainly they would have been familiar with God’s feasts as found in Leviticus 23, Sukkot included.  At the same time, however, they would not have viewed what they considered ceremonial or ritual aspects of the Torah as binding upon their group—and Sukkot would have been considered one of these non-binding commands.  Either way, it’s certainly possible that Sukkot thematically informed the earliest Thanksgiving celebration of those Puritans.

So what does this have to do with us on this Thanksgivukkah as we enjoy our turkey, stuffing, gelt, and pumpkin-filled sufganiyot?  Perhaps it can further enhance our celebration as we give thanks.  Psalm 105 is helpful for us here. It opens like this:

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name;  Make known His deeds among the peoples.  Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; Speak of all His wonders.  Glory in His holy name; Let the heart of those who seek the Lord be glad.  Seek the Lord and His strength; Seek His face continually.  Remember His wonders which He has done, His marvels and the judgments uttered by His mouth, O seed of Abraham, His servant, O sons of Jacob, His chosen ones!  He is the Lord our God; His judgments are in all the earth.”

The Psalm opens with the command to give thanks, and as we read the rest of the Psalm (which I encourage you to do) we see that it is almost entirely a reflection on how God has been faithful to His covenant—delivering, providing for, sustaining, and dwelling with Israel throughout her history from Abraham to the Promised Land.  And this gratefulness is really at the heart of our regular celebration of Sukkot, of the Maccabean institution of Chanukah, and the Puritan institution of Thanksgiving.  As we celebrate both Thanksgiving and Chanukah this year let’s seize this unique dual opportunity to reflect on how God has not abandoned His covenant people and let us give thanks to God for His faithfulness to us throughout our history.  And let us also know that if and when we are in a situation where we are oppressed by rulers, leaders, and governments because of our faith in and relationship with the God of Israel and His Messiah Yeshua. . .He will not abandon us either.


Mark, Peter, and Isaiah 53: Prophecy Fulfilled…By Us?

In the previous two posts on Mark’s Gospel we took a look at the Messianic Secret (here) as well as discipleship (hereand how both relate to a major theme in Mark—the suffering of the Messiah.  I’d like to wrap up this short series by using Mark as a springboard outward to broaden our view of the topic of suffering.  To do this we have to realize something about Mark’s Gospel.  It gains apostolic authority and a stamp of approval because of Mark’s relationship with Peter.  In many ways Mark can be considered Peter’s Gospel.  While Peter obviously didn’t write it, it’s likely that it was heavily influenced by him. Taylor points out:

“There can be no doubt that the author of the Gospel was Mark, the attendant of Peter. This is the unbroken testimony of the earliest Christian opinion from Papias onwards.”[1]

Peter is by far one of the most flamboyant, zealous, and distinct personalities that we meet in the Bible.  Based on the custom of the day and some internal evidence in the Gospels (see the footnote, you’ll enjoy it) it is probable that the disciples were between 16 and 21 years of age during their time with Yeshua.[2]  Peter was likely the oldest of all the disciples, emerging as the leader among them.  He was often the mouthpiece of the group and would regularly provide answers to Yeshua’s questions and actively respond to the situations that arose.  He was in Yeshua’s inner circle with James and John and experienced extreme ups and downs throughout Yeshua’s earthly ministry.  He walked on water, overheard a conversation between Moses, Elijah, and the transfigured Yeshua during Moses’ first appearance in the Promised Land, and even denied knowing the Messiah three times in one night.  This one man was present as the Holy Spirit fell upon the believers in Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 2), Samaria (Acts 8:14-17), and those from the nations (Acts 10:44). 

For all the great things that Peter saw, did, and experienced in his life he also knew the reality that this walk is not all hummus and pita.[3]  Peter knew suffering.  He knew the place it had in God’s redemptive plan, and he knew the place it had in the life of the follower of Yeshua.  What’s interesting about Peter is how we see him use Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to support his theology of suffering for both applications—for Messiah’s redemptive death, and for the suffering a disciple endures.

Isaiah 53—the one chapter in the Tanakh that so strongly and clearly describes the death, burial, and resurrection of one innocent man.  A suffering servant who pays for the crimes, sins, iniquities, and transgressions of Israel and the world by offering his life as a guilt offering.  This chapter knows what it is to suffer with a purpose, and it is no mistake that Peter would appeal to the prophet’s words so often.[4]  It makes sense to me to use this chapter to point to the significance of Yeshua’s death, and to be honest this is how I normally read it and share it with others.  Peter, however, helps us to look at the text of Isaiah 53 and see ourselves as well. 

This is most evident in 1 Peter 2:20-24 where we find Peter providing a sort of midrash on Isaiah 53.  He addresses the issue of how we are to deal with suffering when we do nothing that warrants it.  His answer is for us to patiently endure just as the Messiah did through his death.  By bringing our attention to the Messiah’s death and Isaiah 53, Peter reminds us where we are to look when we are experiencing this unjustifiable suffering:  1) we look to what Messiah has done for us, and 2) we remember our identity in Messiah.  With our eyes and hearts fixed on the “tree” where Messiah patiently endured as he fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy, we find the example for how we are to react when suffering comes.  He is the example for us.

Fruchtenbaum helps us see some of the results of this:

“If believers suffer patiently after being beaten for sins committed, there is no merit. Endurance for deserved punishment is not commendable.  But, if wrongful suffering occurs (v. 20b), believers are to patiently endure; patient endurance is acceptable to God, and this knowledge should provide even greater patient endurance.”[5]

Knowing that patiently enduring while suffering is pleasing to God will strengthen us to patiently endure even more.  This is being like Messiah.

Be sure that the steady erosion of morality and the attack on our constitutional rights in the United States will lead to more of this suffering—not for sins that we have committed against God or others, but simply because our values, convictions, and ultimately our identity in Messiah is at odds with the direction that society is heading.  I’ll say that again, our identity in Messiah is at odds with where society is going—in government, school curriculums, political parties, television shows, movies, the cool kids, and on and on. 

Our identity, the core and essence of who we are in Messiah, will be the reason we suffer.  I am not trying to make you feel bad or like any less of a disciple if you aren’t experiencing this suffering now.  And I’m certainly not suggesting that any of us give up trying to have a positive effect on this world for the sake of the Kingdom—including in government, school curriculums, political parties, arts, entertainment, and on and on.  All I’m doing is trying to encourage you to know that when it comes, we need to remember the words of Peter—that we are to be like the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, to be like the Messiah Yeshua, and patiently endure this suffering.  Remember that if the world hates you, it hated Him first.  Remember that He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.  Remember.

[1] Vincent Taylor, Gospel According to Saint Mark: The Greek Text with Introduction, Notes and Indexes (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), 26.

[2] Consider Mt. 17:24-27 and the two-drachma tax. According to Exodus 30:13-16 only men 20 years and older were required to pay this tax.  We can make an educated guess that since Yeshua sent Peter to the lake to get payment for the two of them, and not for the other disciples, then Peter was the only disciple at least 20-years-old.

[3] My lame attempt at humor—kind of like saying “peaches and cream,” only with a middle-eastern flair.

[4] Mark 10:45 contains a strong allusion to Isaiah 53.  Peter uses the chapter in Acts 3:13; 4:27, 30; 10:43; 1Ptr 1:11, 2:21-24; 4:1.  For a more full treatment of the New Testament use of Isaiah 53 see the essays by Wilkins and Evans, respectively, in Darrell Bock and Mitch Glaser, eds., The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2012), Chapters 4 and 6.

[5] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Messianic Jewish Epistles: Hebrews, James, First Peter, Second Peter, Jude (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2005), 350.

Walking Trees? Is this Mark’s Gospel or Tolkien?

At the very heart of Mark’s Gospel both structurally and theologically are two events that take place in 8:22-30.  Each one includes the messianic secret theme (for more on the messianic secret read my post here) and together they act as the hinge upon which the entire message of Mark turns.  Up to this point in the Gospel, Mark has focused primarily on Yeshua’s interactions with the crowds through a “twofold sequence of feeding miracles, sea crossings, conflicts with the Pharisees, conversations about bread, [and] healings.”[1]  Beyond this portion Mark begins to zero in on Yeshua’s interactions with his disciples and his impending sacrifice.[2]

So what takes place here that is so significant for Mark as he relays his account of the Gospel?  First, we come to 8:22-26 and see Yeshua heal a blind man using spittle.  What is odd about this healing, however, is that at first the man does not see clearly.  Instead his vision is only partially restored as he reports seeing “men like trees walking around.”  Yeshua touches his eyes again and then the man could see “everything clearly.”  He is then sent to his village with the command from Yeshua to keep silent concerning the matter.  Next, 8:27-30 records Yeshua on the road to Caesarea Philippi, asking his disciples who people say he is, and who they say he is. After hearing the responses and especially Peter’s confession that he is the Messiah, Yeshua commands the disciples to be silent on his identity.

Many see these two events as distinct and unrelated.  It may not be so easy, however, to flippantly cast them as unconnected.  Referring to the healing of the blind man, Bailey and Constable suggest that “this account was probably intended as a visual aid to expose the disciples’ lack of spiritual perception.”[3]  While I agree with this assessment, I believe we can take it a step further and read this portion as a parallelism that joins the two events together and allows Mark to transition from the first half to the second half of his Gospel.  Seeing the healed blind man as representing the disciples, we find Mark using the parallels in each account to illustrate the growth and development of the disciples as they began to inch closer to a full understanding of who Yeshua is and what he would perform.

The parallel relationship between the two events may be illustrated as follows:

The Blind Man

The Disciples

After spitting on his eyes and laying his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” (8:23) “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27)
“I see men, for I see them as trees walking around.” (8:24) “John the Baptist; others say Elijah; but others one of the prophets.” (8:28)
Then he again laid his hands on his eyes… (8:25) “But who do you say that I am?” (8:28)
He began to see everything clearly. (8:25) “You are the Messiah.” (8:29)
And he sent him home saying, “Do not even enter the village.” (8:26) And he warned them not to tell anyone about him. (8:30)

Both accounts open with Yeshua asking a question of perception. At this point in his ministry many were still confused about who he was and the fullness of his identity had not yet been revealed.  Some were beginning to recognize something special about Yeshua.  Just as the blind man replied that he was seeing a hazy picture of men as trees walking around, so too the disciples report that many people had a hazy understanding of who Yeshua is.  Is he John the Baptist?  Elijah?  Or one of the prophets?

It is important to mention here some of the Jewish background to this.  There are a number of key passages throughout the Tanakh, and even in some of the earliest Mishnaic literature, which use the illustration of men as trees.  Here are just a few:

“A person is like the tree of a field.” (Deut. 20:19)

“For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people.” (Isaiah 65:22)

“He will be like a tree planted near water. . .” (Jeremiah 17:8)

We also see the picture of a righteous man being “like a tree firmly planted by streams of water. . .” in Psalm 1. And the concept is probably most evident in Isaiah 61:3 where the result of the Gospel in the lives of the followers of God is that they become “trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.”

The picture that the early Sages gleaned from such passages is one of a follower of God being compared to a tree in his study, learning, and application of the Torah.  In other words, a disciple of God is compared with a tree in his development and walk with God—his discipleship.  This idea is evident in Pirke Avot 3:22 where it states:

A person whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds is likened to a tree whose branches are numerous, but whose roots are few. The wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down. But a person whose good deeds exceed his wisdom is likened to a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous. Even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place. [emphasis added]

Why does this matter when we come to Mark?  Because walking trees are meant to draw our attention to discipleship, and the growth and development of the life of the follower of God.

With this in mind, Yeshua touches the blind man a second time and the result is clearer vision.  Similarly, he brings the question home to the disciples and gauges where they were in their understanding of his identity.  Peter for the first time in Mark’s Gospel verbalizes the simple truth that he believed—that Yeshua is the Messiah.  Peter’s vision is clear.  While neither the blind man nor the disciples may have fully grasped the glorious potential that lay before them as they now began to see clearly, one thing remains certain for both—from that point on they would see and experience the world in an entirely new light.  The blind man would be able to experience the fullness of an awakened sense—beholding the physical beauty of a sunset, the sheer force of a storm, or peering into the eyes of a loved one, all for the first time.  The disciples would be able to experience the fullness of an awakened faith as they would begin to understand more and more the identity of their Rabbi, their Master, their Messiah.

Both the blind man and the disciples are told to keep silent—the messianic secret is put in effect.  And from this point on in the Gospel we see a pattern used by Mark—the “thrice-repeated pattern of passion prediction, discipleship failure, and instruction regarding true discipleship (8:27-9:1; 9:30-41; 10:32-45).”[4]  Yeshua would now lead them down the path of understanding a very important, yet sometimes ignored, aspect of discipleship—suffering.  By bringing their attention to his own impending suffering and death, he was also instructing them in the difficulties that they would face as his followers.  Surely they too would suffer.

And surely we who are followers of Messiah will suffer as well.  Nevertheless, we must understand that just as a tree grows from a seed, to a shoot, to a full-grown tree, so too our discipleship experience is a long-term process through which we incrementally grow in our knowledge, understanding, and obedience to the Word of God. And when the wind picks up and the storm approaches, we are to remain firm, grounded, and rooted. This is a lesson that Peter knew well, and that is what we will look at in the next post. Blessings.

[1] Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 282.

[2] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), 171.

[3] Bailey and Constable, The New Testament Explorer, 81.

[4] Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2009), 246.

Did the Messiah Have a Secret?

Frequently in Mark’s Gospel we see that after Yeshua performs a miracle, a healing, or an exorcism he implores those present to abstain from revealing his identity to anyone else.  Rather, he demands their silence on the matter (see Mk. 1:44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26). We see him hush Peter after his profound confession in 8:30. We see him command the silence of the disciples after the transfiguration experience in 9:9.  And even with the interpretations of the parables, the “outsiders” were not to hear the insight (4:10-12).  This strong feature of secrecy within Mark’s Gospel has earned the name “the messianic secret” and has elicited questions of its purpose and place within the writing.  So, what’s the deal? Wouldn’t he want everyone to know that he is Messiah?  Why is there such an undercurrent of secrecy surrounding Yeshua’s ministry in Mark’s Gospel?

Well, I’m glad you asked.  Elwell and Yarbrough suggest a three-fold division of the specific instances of Yeshua’s calls for silence.  First, in exorcism occurrences Yeshua is seen silencing the demons because he did not want them testifying to the truth of who he was (1:32-34; 3:11-12).  However, when a demon-possessed man is healed he is told to go and testify to the healing (5:19).  Apparently it was acceptable for the healed man to testify, but the cast-out demons were to be silenced.  Second, some people who were healed were told to remain silent in order to “relieve the pressure of the crowds” from seeking Yeshua.  Lastly, and this is probably the most significant for what we will look at here, Yeshua often silenced his disciples because they did not fully understand his messianic office and would not until after the resurrection.[1]

Some have interpreted this feature through the lens of form criticism and see it as Mark’s attempt to justify his own belief in the deity and messianic role of Yeshua despite Yeshua’s lack of messianic profession and the early believing community’s lack of attributing the title of “Messiah” to Yeshua.[2]  At the turn of the 20th century William Wrede popularized this view by suggesting that the “messianic secret” motif was Mark’s attempt at redacting the life of Yeshua, and using the theme as an excuse for why Yeshua supposedly did not claim the title of Messiah.  It has also been suggested that the use of the messianic secret by Mark was intended to “soften the political offensiveness to Roman authorities of a ministry that was overly messianic.”[3]  Both of these views take much liberty with the text and its context and assume that Mark’s account is inaccurate and shaped more by the world around him, rather than intended to change the world.

It is more likely, however, that Yeshua was aware of his role as Messiah and that the explanation for the messianic secret was his desire to prevent political fervor among the Jewish community.  While there were certainly diverse messianic expectations among the first century Jewish communities, it is evident that many were expecting a great religious and political messiah figure to rise up as the conquering King of Israel, freeing the people and the Land from Gentile domination and restoring the Davidic Kingdom and throne to Jerusalem.  Even looking at the various reactions of the disciples in the Gospels and Acts, the prevalent expectation of the people is evident.  Acts 1:6 records the disciples asking the risen Yeshua if he was now going to “restore the kingdom to Israel,” showing their pre-understanding of the political ramifications of the Messiah’s arrival.  Even more, looking to Mark 9:9 and the Transfiguration event, Peter’s interpretation of the timing and unfolding of events in God’s plan reveals his messianic anticipation.  His initial response to receiving a glimpse of the full glory of Yeshua, along with the presence of Moses and Elijah, was to build sukkot (booths) and begin the time of rejoicing that will one day become an eternal Kingdom reality.  Peter’s is just such a reaction that Yeshua likely wanted to avoid as he encouraged the silence of the people.

As we see throughout the Gospels when it comes to Yeshua’s identity being revealed, timing is everything.  And it’s no different with comprehending where the messianic secret fits in.  To understand this we must consider another major theme of Mark’s Gospel—the suffering that Yeshua, as Messiah, would endure.  Before he would achieve all that was written concerning the full realization of the Kingdom promises, Yeshua first had to achieve all that was written concerning the suffering and servanthood of the Messiah.  It is not inconsistent to see why Mark would highlight Yeshua’s desire to keep his presence a secret and thus keep the fervor of the people for their King at bay—timing was everything.  He first had to die.

Blomberg points out the strong connection that is made between the two themes of the messianic secret and the suffering servant within Mark’s Gospel, especially in what is considered the capstone verse of the entire Gospel, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)  Blomberg states:

 The term “ransom” calls to mind the redemption of slaves in the marketplace and highlights the need for Jesus to die a substitutionary, atoning death. . . Although Mark never uses the exact expression, the concept of suffering servant (as in Isa. 52:13-53:12) perhaps best encapsulates this very human side of Jesus’ nature and mission.[4]

Indeed the overarching theme of the suffering of the Messiah appears to go hand-in-hand with the inclusion of the messianic secret.  Rather than redacting the events and circumstances of Yeshua’s life and ministry, Mark sought to use this motif to magnify the identity of Yeshua as the suffering servant Messiah, a concept that we see brought out more in later rabbinic literature.  Next post, we will take a closer look at one of these specific examples in Mark.  Blessings.

[1] Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament: a Historical and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 1998), 95-96.

[2] William Wrede, The Messianic Secret, (London: J. Clarke, 1971 [Ger. orig. 1901]).

[3] Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003), 127.

[4] Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: an Introduction and Survey (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 1997), 119.