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Margins of Miraculous – Hananiah’s Folly by Shawn Blythe

We all want to hear good news.  More specifically we all want to hear good news from God.  We want that clear message that our loved ones will be healed, our families will be protected, and our problems will be resolved.  We want to be reassured of financial success, long life, and good health.  We want the equivalent of hearing Jesus tell us to wash in the pool of Siloam and our sight will be restored (John 9). We want the blessings of God to rain down on us.

On the other hand, nobody wants to hear bad news.  We don’t want to hear that illness will lead to death or that financial hardships will not pivot to fiscal stability.  News that challenging times will continue, or that the problems of today will get worse are poorly received or even rejected.  We don’t want to be told that our “wound is incurable, [our] injury beyond healing” (Jeremiah 30).  The lack of receptivity to bad news was the challenge that Jeremiah faced during the reign of Zedekiah.

Zedekiah’s reign as King of Judah came at a historically bad time for Judah.  The Babylonians had effectively conquered the land.  His nephew (King Jehoiachin) had already been taken captive to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar.  There was not much left of Jerusalem after at least two sieges by Babylon culminating in the removal of everything precious in the Temple and the exile of anybody of any value to the victors (i.e. soldiers, craftsmen, artisans, etc.)  Per II Kings 24 “only the poorest people were left”.

This is where we find King Zedekiah.  He is facing a disheartened people and had no personal relationship with God on which to base his rule.  As a result, he looks to others for guidance and receives two very different messages ‘from God’.  The first is the repeated message of doom and gloom from Jeremiah.  Jeremiah prophesied an extended punishment for the sins of Judah.  He not only confirmed the current hard times but prophesied harder times ahead if the people did not repent.  In contrast with this prophecy of judgment and prolonged servitude to the Babylonians, Hananiah (Jeremiah 28) was delivering a message of hope.   His was a message of short-term deliverance.  The exiles and King Jehoiachin would return and the riches of the temple would be restored to their rightful place.  The oppressive bondage perpetrated by the Babylonians would be broken.  This is clearly a message the people wished to receive.  It is a message that requires no repentance, little judgement and promises a short-term deliverance from the current situation.

While Jeremiah was parading around with a yoke around his neck symbolizing the prolonged subservience to Babylon, Hananiah was prophesying deliverance within two years.  At one point they both find themselves in the temple at Jerusalem.  Hananiah repeats his prophecy of deliverance while Jeremiah challenges the source (i.e., it’s only a message from God if it comes true).  Hananiah responds by removing the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and breaking it as his own symbol of the yoke of oppression being broken.  Jeremiah apparently sees no benefit to further discussion and departs.

The rulers and people listening to these two diametrically opposed messages have a choice to make.  Which news do they believe?  In our own lives we face a very similar situation.  There is a secular song lyric that I have always found interesting which challenges how we speak with God and more importantly, how we interpret His response:

“Tell me again how you can talk to God
And how he tells you what to do
And how you’re sure it’s not your own voice
Disguised as something absolute” – Birdtalker (from the song “Nothing’s Right”)

Although I may be offended by the insinuation, I think we can all agree it’s a legitimate question.  When we pray, whose response is it that we hear?  Is it the message that we want to hear?  In other words, are we taking our own wishes and desires and wrapping them up as a message from God?  After all, if it’s just ME saying something that’s one thing (particularly if it’s something I want anyway).  But if it’s a message from God, who can argue with that?

It is easy to blame Hananiah for being a false prophet and he suffers the consequences as we will see.  But it is worth considering, how many times have we prayed – and in the absence of an immediate positive response filled the silence with a response of our own liking?  We convince ourselves of the veracity of the message and are filled with relief that our prayers have been answered.  We wait in anticipation of the promise while God is likely shaking his head in disbelief at our willingness to put our words into our Creator’s mouth.

The people of Judah were likely no different.  Do they wish to believe a prophecy of hope and short-term deliverance (two years) or do they wish to believe a prophecy of continued servitude and long-term deliverance (seventy years)?  From a human standpoint, it is easy to see why people would be swayed to the first message.

But as the messenger who led the people astray, Hananiah bore personal liability for this false testimony.  Shortly after leaving Hananiah in the temple, Jeremiah returned to him with a new message from God.  God explicitly confirmed that He was not the author of Hananiah’s message and as a consequence Hananiah would die within the year.  Two months later he was dead.

I would like to believe that none of us would purposefully lead others with a false testimony.  However, I must admit it is easy to believe our own.  I am quick to believe news that is beneficial to me.  I dismiss the refinement that prolonged hardship may bring.  I cast aside the possibility that my misfortune may be the result of my own doing.  I reject the thought that God may be using a situation for His own purposes.  I pray to God and before the silence has even had a chance to settle in, I fill the void with my own wishes, desires and judgement regarding what is fair or right for me.  

I purposefully replace my faith in things hoped for, and substitute evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11) with scenarios more convenient for me.  I place my own message above words of the Almighty God.  In fact, the only difference between Hananiah and me is that I am only fooling myself. 

Why do we do this?  Scripture tells us over 70 times (depending on how you count!) to WAIT on the Lord.  We are given a long list of examples in the Hebrews’ passage above of people who listened to God rather than competing voices and were ultimately blessed for it.  I can look back at my own life with the perspective of time and see the examples of grace in those situations where I can silence my own voice long enough to hear God’s guidance.  We know the overwhelming sense of peace that comes with knowing that you have placed yourself in the arms of your Creator.  We remember how the inconveniences and cares of this world fade away as you we consider the infinite love of our God and Savior.  There is no question in my mind that God is speaking to us.  The question is are we listening?

We are cautioned not to boast of our wisdom, riches, or strength (Jeremiah 9).  But of course, this is exactly what we do when we place our own words into the mouth of God.  We exchange eternal wisdom for temporary expedience.  We ignore the ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 11) and chart our own path with self-serving guidance.  This is the same trap to which Hananiah fell victim.  When we hear a voice whispering in our ear, we should pay careful attention to consider whose voice it is.


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Margins of Miraculous – Michal by Shawn Blythe

We all know people who seem to get the short end of the stick at virtually every occasion.  They are in constant peril, suffer endless setbacks and are never able to get their heads above water.  Even when things are going well for them, it is difficult to enjoy the moment as there is the clear expectation that it will be short-lived – and when it ends it will likely be in spectacular fashion.

Michal is just such a person.  She was King Saul’s youngest daughter and therefore an important part of the royal family.  Michal likely knew things that the general population did not.  She was a first-hand witness to the royal family dynamics and certainly would have been a respected person among the Israelites. 

She would have also been aware of her father’s fear and jealousy of David and subsequent efforts to eliminate him.  As part of Saul’s first attempts to neutralize David, she watched as her father offered her older sister Merab to David in marriage.  After David turned down this offer, she would have been there to experience the despair or relief of her older sister depending on Merab’s feelings toward David.  Michal at some point fell in love with David herself.  This provided her father with a second opportunity to eliminate David by requiring the death of 100 Philistines as the price to become his son-in-law.  His assumption was that this task was too great for David and would ultimately result in his death. 

It is worth pausing a moment to consider Michal’s position.  We know very little about her other than she was the younger daughter of Saul (I Samuel 14:49) and was in love with David (I Samuel 18:20).  It is difficult to think that she did not at least have some understanding of her father’s feelings toward David.  It is likely that she and Merab may have discussed it given that both had been offered to David. The palace scuttlebutt would likely have been split on David’ ability to meet the requirements to obtain Michal’s hand in marriage.  I can even imagine a palace betting pool with Saul’s supporters betting against David and David’s supporters betting against the Philistines.  Perhaps she recognized that she was being used as a pawn in a game of royal subterfuge, but simply didn’t care if she ended up with David in the end.  Perhaps she was furious with her father for setting such a seemingly insurmountable obstacle (remembering that there was no such requirement when her father offered her older sister Merab to David). 

But it is equally plausible that Michal was so in love that she assumed David would conquer hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands to be her husband.  It is important to note that at no point does the scripture indicate that David loved Michal.  In fact, in discussing the situation, David refers to the opportunity three times as one related to becoming the king’s son-in-law rather than becoming Michal’s husband.  More specifically it states that David accomplished the task specifically to become Saul’s son-in-law (I Samuel 18:27).  Regardless of the motivation, Michal got what she wanted as David met the requirement twice over and the scripture now refers to Michal as David’s wife rather than Saul’s daughter.

It is difficult to tell how much time David spent at home following his marriage.  We know that he fought regularly with the Philistines and therefore likely spent some time away from home.  But we also know he was around enough to play the harp in Saul’s house on occasion.  Whatever familial routine that had been established was quickly disrupted as  Saul returned to his efforts to kill David.  Michal maintained her allegiance to David rather than her father by taking an active role in helping David escape.  She took an idol and placed it in the bed with goat hair around the head to make it appear as though David was asleep in his bed.  She lied both in claiming that David was ill – and then after being caught lied again in claiming that David threatened to kill her if she didn’t help him escape.

We will pause here a second time to touch on a point that could easily be passed over.  Michal used an idol (in Hebrew the word is teraphim) that she had in the house.  It is the same word used in Geneses 31 to describe the household gods that Rachel stole from her father Laban when she and Jacob left her family to return to the land of Jacob’s father Isaac.  The presence of an idol in the house would indicate that at least Michal (and perhaps even David) had not wholly eliminated idols from their home.  It would suggest that although Michal was in love with David, her undivided love did not extend to the God of Abraham.  It is possible that she worshipped the man God had created, rather than God the Creator.  This is a mistake which inevitably leads to disappointment and would so in this case.

At this point Michal’s life takes a turn for the worse.  David is on the run, avoiding Saul while periodically winning battles against the Philistines.  Saul dies and David is anointed King of Judah.  However, at no time does he seek out Michal.  In fact, there is a notable passage that describes David taking the time to find a refuge for his father and mother while hiding from Saul (I Samuel 22:3), but there is no record of any such thought or kindness toward his abandoned wife.  He has time to tenuously and temporarily reconcile with Saul, but no time to reunite with his wife.  Rather, over this time period David takes other wives (I Samuel 25:43) and Michal’s father Saul effectively reclaims his daughter from David and gives her to a man named Paltiel (I Samuel 25:44).

Let’s be clear – Michal is not being treated fairly.  Her father used her for political advantage.  Her husband has abandoned and forsaken her.  She is caught up in events far beyond her ability to control.  Her life is not turning out as she may have imagined so many years earlier when she fell in love with a brave, handsome young man.  It is only when David is about to be anointed king of Israel that he demands that Michal be taken from her current husband and returned to him (II Samuel 3:14-16).  There is no record of a joyous reunion and no indication that this was a rekindling of long-lost love.  In fact, the only indication of love we have is the anguished weeping of Paltiel as Michal is being taken from him.

I believe that somewhere between helping David escape from her father and her return to David, the love she had for husband had died.  Their relationship had not been fed, nourished or otherwise encouraged.  In its place was a bitterness that would become apparent in the last record we have of Michal – who is now once again referred to in scripture as the daughter of Saul rather than the wife of David.

In celebration, David danced as the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Jerusalem.  However, Michal was furious and the anger in her sarcastic attack is palpable: “How the King of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (II Samuel 6:20) And David responds with an equally devastating reply stating quite clearly that he simply doesn’t care what she thinks and actually places more importance in the honor bestowed on him by slave girls than the concerns of Michal.  It is a painful end to their relationship and Michal is only mentioned one last time as being childless to her death.

We will pause a third and final time to consider Michal’s position.  She would be well aware of David’s other wives – many of which had already had children with David (II Samuel 3:2-5).  She may have lived to see the debacle with Bathsheba.  She saw a “man of God” behave in the worst possible ways and was a victim of a man who most others held in high esteem.  She was his first wife.  She married him and risked her life for him when he was nothing but a young soldier.  But now that he was the King, she was no longer worthy of his attention or honor.  There must be an enduring loneliness in that position.

It is not possible to know the full story here.  Perhaps I am having more empathy for Michal than she deserves.  Perhaps she was rejected by God just like her father was.  But it is equally plausible that she is just like so many other women who were treated like property – bartered and traded for the benefit of others.  Who was Michal’s advocate?  Who pleaded her case before the decision-makers of the day?  Who provided comfort through her life’s many setbacks?

It is a reminder of the role that we as Christians must play when we see the Michal’s of the world being unfairly treated.  I often wonder what would have happened if Michal had a godly influence in her life besides the clearly flawed David.  Somebody to reinforce that the unfairness of this physical world is temporary and must not distract us from our spiritual responsibilities.  Somebody to remind her that her role on this earth was not limited to being Saul’s daughter or David’s wife.  Somebody to remind her that our eyes must remain on the Creator, not the created. 

We should actively search for those opportunities to be that somebody.


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Margins of Miraculous – Habakkuk by Shawn Blythe

For those of you who may know little about Habakkuk apart from a book in the Old Testament being named after him, you are not alone.  Apart from the fact that he potentially lived and prophesied in the period of Jehoakim’s reign over Judah, virtually nothing is known of him.  He appears in the scripture unknown and departs the same way.  I am including him in my Margins of Miraculous series because his interactions with God are very similar to what I believe most of us experience: long periods of silence followed by intermittent responses we may not like or even understand.

Habakkuk lived in a time of strife where the law was ‘paralyzed’ and ‘justice never prevails’.  He observes the wicked overcoming the righteous and cannot understand why God tolerates it.  He observes this continuing condition and cries out to God for a remedy.  He not only calls to God – but does so repeatedly for such a length of time without results that he resorts to the phrase that all of us have used at one time or another: “Why don’t you listen to me?!”

It is a cry of desperation and frustration – and we have all been there.  We witness situations that are so egregious or experience such loss or pain that we cannot understand why God does not act to comfort us.  Or better yet, why He didn’t act to prevent the situation from the start.  We know that God can act, but it appears that God won’t act.  This failure to come to our rescue subsequently raises an additional level of concern regarding whether God truly cares for us at all.  Habakkuk was no different.

When God finally did reply, His response was not what Habakkuk had hoped for.  Habakkuk, like us, was looking for God to come to the rescue.  God’s answer was something quite different.  He tells Habakkuk (paraphrased), prepare to be amazed because I am sending the Babylonians to run roughshod over your country.   God warns Habakkuk that He is going to do something that Habakkuk could have never imagined; He is going to send a ruthless, atheistic and dreaded people to conquer Judah.  After this clear response, I can only imagine God gently nodding his head in satisfaction that the question has been answered and the issue satisfactorily addressed.

Habakkuk was less impressed.  He brought a problem to God and the solution provided was appalling.  This was not a theoretical, theological or philosophical issue for Habakkuk.  This was a practical disaster with life-altering consequences.  People would die.  Families would be torn apart as captives were taken.  Homes and cities would be destroyed.  This was God’s response to Habakkuk’s plea for help: life in Judah would be forever changed – and certainly not in a good way.  Habakkuk did his best to characterize the cure as worse than the disease, but it was to no avail.  God’s mind was made up and the only variable remaining was how Habakkuk would respond.

The root of the issue was, and is, a foundational difference in perspective.  As God told Isaiah “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55).  Yet we constantly try to fit God into our plans and timetable.  God’s plan for our salvation was not dependent on which nation ruled Jerusalem at any point in time.  The eventual consequences to the Babylonians would assuredly come, but not in time to make any difference for Habakkuk. 

In a similar way, we must acknowledge that God’s plans may or may not include what we could consider an acceptable answer to our grievances or pleas at any point in time.  If we trust God, then we must trust His plan.  We must acknowledge the long-term benefit of submitting to a plan we do not understand administered by an omnipotent God who loves us.  It is inconceivable that we could ever compare our short-term thinking, fixes and schemes favorably against a plan designed by the Creator of all things.  And yet Habakkuk did – and I do.

So how does one respond to this dilemma?  Fortunately, God provides that answer in Habakkuk 2: “the righteous will live by faith.”  But this is not a faith that our problem will be resolved tomorrow, or we will be healed next week or that justice will prevail soon.  It is a faith in the ultimate righteousness of a loving God and a realization that our individual lives are a single short thread in a tapestry stretching across time eternal.  My faith must be in God alone – not swayed by what God will or will not do for me in some finite time and space.

Habakkuk understands this message clearly.  He chooses to look beyond the coming destruction and instead focuses on waiting patiently for God’s judgment against the invaders.  A judgment that he has no expectation of seeing in his lifetime.  He responds with a prayer of praise and a recognition of God’s power and authority; leading to a commitment to rejoice in God regardless of his present or future circumstances.  He fixes his eyes faithfully on the ultimate plan of God despite the short-term calamity it will bring.

I am not suggesting that this is easy or pleasant.  The hardships that some people must endure can be overwhelming and the evil that we inflict upon each other can be staggering.  Our mortal paths are often littered with obstacles no human mind can explain.  Therefore, we must constantly remind ourselves that the righteous live by faith.  This is not a paper faith.  This is an active, well used faith that allows us to overcome the challenges of our current earthly situation with a clear focus on an eternal spiritual purpose designed by a loving God.

It was a necessity for Habakkuk as he closes his prayer toward the end of Habakkuk chapter 3:

“Though the fig tree does not bud

And there are no grapes on the vines,

Though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,

Though there are no sheep in the pen

And no cattle in the stalls,

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

 

He recognizes that the disconnect between how God responds to a situation and how we feel He should respond to a situation does not represent a failure on God’s part.  It simply illustrates the gaping chasm between God’s thinking and ours; the difference in perspective between the eternal Almighty God and a person like me whose life is like “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes”. (James 4)

The first step in being useful to God on the path He has laid out for us is to accept that path.


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Margins of Miraculous – Jethro the Father-in-Law by Shawn Blythe

As the father of a married daughter, I understand the challenges of the father-in-law to son-in-law relationship. There is a constant fear of over-stepping boundaries, figuring out how to show support even when you disagree with a decision, and a myriad of other issues that arise as two men find themselves in completely new roles – both in connection to the woman they love (daughter/wife) and to each other. And this is where we meet Jethro the Midianite—my favorite father-in-law of the Bible.

Jethro first met his future son-in-law after Moses helped Jethro’s daughters water their flocks (Exodus 2). Moses, having fled from Egypt, was offered a home. He settled down, married Jethro’s daughter, Zipporah, raised children and overall spent forty years living with Jethro while laboring alongside the family in Midian. Think about that – forty years side by side, facing good times and bad as they celebrated and mourned, prospered and struggled, and made their way through life.

Then one day, after coming home from tending the flocks, Moses asked for permission to go back to Egypt to visit family and friends (Exodus 4). It is not difficult to imagine that after forty years of presumably contented existence, Jethro may have been shocked at this request. He must have pondered the risks of such a long journey for his daughter. He may even have questioned whether Moses was making wise decisions or considering the full range of implications. Moses’ appeal and Jethro’s response are included in the same verse in the Bible (Exodus 4:18) – but I often wonder how much time/thought/discussion may have elapsed during their exchange. In the end, if Jethro had any misgivings, he kept them to himself, wished Moses well, and subsequently watched as his daughter, grandsons, and son-in-law prepared for their trip to Egypt.

Of course, today we know what Jethro did not: something momentous had happened to Moses between the time he left to tend the flocks (Exodus 3:1) and when he returned to ask Jethro’s consent to leave (Exodus 4:18). Moses had been in the physical presence of almighty God, witnessed miracles, and was about to embark on a task that was impossible in human terms. He had been inexorably changed and was no longer the same person Jethro had come to know. There is no record to show that Jethro was aware of any of this. It is probable that Jethro spent the days of Moses’ absence uneventfully, under the assumption that things would continue as they had before. But Moses had begun operating under a very different paradigm. For him, nothing would ever be the same again. 

Imagine Jethro’s anxiety as his daughter and grandsons departed for Egypt on a donkey (Exodus 4:20). Lack of reliable communication meant that Jethro was unlikely to hear the outcome of their journey for many months – if at all. One envisions Jethro and, perhaps, his wife, expressing a fond farewell with no real expectation of being reunited. 

As a result, it must have been quite a surprise to Jethro when his daughter and grandsons reappeared – without Moses. It should be noted that we have no way of knowing exactly when this occurred; it could have been shortly after their departure (perhaps related to the encounter with God at a resting place along the way), before the plagues (upon recognizing the difficulties ahead), or even later, before the battle with the Amalekites. Biblical scholars argue for and against these options, with no definitive evidence to prove or disprove any of them.

As a matter of personal preference, I lean towards the theory of an early return. In that scenario, Jethro’s happiness and relief would surely have been counterbalanced by concern over the increasingly erratic behavior of a son-in-law who was now proceeding to Egypt to free the Israelites from bondage.   I can only imagine the double-take as Jethro hears the story and says, “Wait a minute – Moses said he’s doing WHAT??!!” Zipporah’s description of the encounter with God along the road (Exodus 4:24-26) would have done little to ease Jethro’s mind.

We do not know much about life in Jethro’s household over the following year. Chapters 5 through 17 of Exodus focus on activities in Egypt, rather than back at the homestead in Midian. But throughout this period, life went on for Jethro, Zipporah, and the family.  Meals were cooked, flocks tended, sons raised – all with the uncertainty of when, or if, Zipporah’s husband would return. Zipporah may have felt a spectrum of emotions during this time, from relief at being safely home, to fear for her husband’s wellbeing, to anger that Moses had left her and the children behind.

But it’s clear that Jethro did not bear any permanent grudge against Moses. When he learned what God had done for Moses in Egypt, Jethro sent word that he and Moses’ family were coming. When Jethro met with Moses, he rejoiced with him, offered burnt offerings to God, and broke bread with the elders. It was at this celebration that Scripture first mentions contact between Jethro and God – as Jethro, Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel ate bread in the presence of God (Exodus 18:12).

Note that, prior to this event, there was no record that Jethro had any revelation or guidance from God. He was referred to as a priest of Midian, but it is unknown whether his priesthood was related to the God of Abraham or some other local deity. Jethro, at least during this time period, was limited to seeing God work through someone else. Not only that, but God’s plan actually had an adverse effect on Jethro, as his daughter was abandoned—at least temporarily—when Moses went off to do God’s bidding.

Despite this, Jethro never closed his heart to the possibility that there was more to his son-in-law’s activities than might appear on the surface. There is no documentation of complaint, no sign of distrust, no evidence that Jethro tried to leverage circumstances to his own advantage, and certainly never any jealousy as to why God chose to work through Moses, and not Jethro. Instead, Jethro maintained a trust relationship with Moses to the point that, upon their reunion, his son-in-law implemented all of Jethro’s practical administrative suggestions. 

Jethro experienced the miracles of God secondhand – and not only believed but rejoiced in the work that God was doing through Moses. Jethro found himself in a situation that is familiar to many of us: he watched God perform miracles for somebody else. Jethro heard the stories of how God had delivered the Israelites from their oppressor, how God had afflicted the Egyptians and destroyed the pursuing army. He heard how God had provided drinking water by sweetening the waters at Marah and causing water to burst from a rock. He heard how God had provided food in the form of manna. Jethro heard these things and rejoiced.

When we watch God work for others, there can be a natural inclination to ask why God isn’t doing similar things for us. Someone else is healed and we are not. Someone else gets a job and we do not.  Somebody else’s problems are resolved and ours remain unaddressed. As a tribal leader, Jethro undoubtedly had a list of issues that would have benefited from God’s direct intervention. But Jethro did not go down that path. Jethro was “delighted to hear about all of the good things the Lord had done for Israel.” He praised God for rescuing not only Moses but the Israelites. He brought offerings. He rejoiced actively and enthusiastically in the work that God was doing through Moses. He acknowledged the sovereignty of God and celebrated – not because God had done great things for Jethro, but simply because God had done great things.

The Bible is full of people praising God for the great things He has done for them, and equally full of people praising God despite dire circumstances – albeit often in anticipation of the great things that God will do for them in future. But we have few examples of a person like Jethro, who praises God explicitly for what He has done for others.

In a world that certainly has its share of trouble and heartache, it seems like a missed opportunity not to occasionally brighten our days with the delight and rejoicing associated with celebrating the blessings of others. Jethro was able to set aside his day-to-day issues to praise God for the blessings that others had received. We would be well served to follow this example. Are our days so full that we would not benefit from a bit more joyful celebration?


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Margins of Miraculous – Simon of Cyrene by Shawn Blythe

There may be no more poignant reminder of the ways by which we cross paths with our Savior than the story of Simon of Cyrene.  His intersection with Christ was unlikely and under the most unimaginable circumstances. Cyrene was approximately 800 miles from Jerusalem – a journey that would take approximately one month to complete by land.  It was a pilgrimage that was likely only undertaken a handful of times over the course of a lifetime.  But in order to understand Simon, we need to understand why he may have come to Jerusalem that weekend.

Cyrene is located along the coast of Northern Africa in the eastern part of what is currently Libya.  Over time, the city changed hands between the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans.  It was during an Egyptian rule that Jewish roots take firm hold when Ptolemy Soter established a Jewish garrison there in roughly 300 B.C.  Strabo the historian records a significant Jewish presence in Cyrene with the following quote recorded by Josephus: “There were four classes of men among those of Cyrene; that of citizens, that of husbandmen, the third of strangers, and the fourth of Jews.”  By the time of the early church there may have been as many as 100,000 Jews living in and around Cyrene.

These Jews were not living independently from their Jewish homeland and were in regular contact with their counterparts back in Israel.  They were present at Pentecost (Acts 2).  Jews from Cyrene were regular attenders of the Synagogue of Freedmen (Acts 6) and they are recorded as having helped spread the word in the church of Antioch (Acts 11).  The Jews of Cyrene regularly sent their offerings back to the temple treasury.  Josephus records interventions from both Caesar Augustus and Marcus Agrippa in protecting the transfer of money from Jews in Cyrene back to Jerusalem.

Whether Simon of Cyrene was part of the Jewish Diaspora or a native convert from Northern Africa, he was probably not a simple tourist taking a holiday in Jerusalem that weekend.  He was much more likely a devoted Jew making his pilgrimage for the Passover festival.  He is mentioned by three of the gospel writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke) with Mark including the additional detail regarding Simon being the father of Alexander and Rufus.  There are many theories as to why Mark may have included this detail while the others omitted it.  One potential rationale is that Mark’s readers would have known who Alexander and Rufus were and therefore the reference to his children would have provided an explicit link to the Simon that Mark was referencing.  Although there are many depictions of Simon with his children when he was compelled to carry the cross, there is no record as to whether Alexander and Rufus were present – or even born yet.  But whether young or not yet conceived, given that Mark was written approximately 30 years after the crucifixion, Alexander and Rufus would have been old enough to have made a name for themselves within the community by the time that Mark was written if that was their desire.

There are theories and traditions that identify both Simon and his child Rufus as leaders in the early church.  However, there is no definitive record of Simon once he deposited the cross on the hill of Golgotha.  There is nothing to prove that the Rufus referenced by Paul (Romans 16) was in fact the son of Simon of Cyrene.  There is no evidence to support that the “Alexander Son of Simon” written in Greek on an ossuary found in the Kidron valley in 1941 belonged to the son of Simon of Cyrene.  But, of course, there is nothing to say that they aren’t related either!

It is possible that Simon of Cyrene completed his required task, wiped the blood from his clothes as best as he could, and hurried away in an attempt to put the distasteful experience out of his mind as quickly as possible.  It is also possible that the Via Dolorosa changed him forever.  It is an interesting to consider that Simon carried a burden that was unwanted, uncomfortable and clearly deviated from his plans for the day.  It is not dissimilar from the countless days when things don’t go as we have planned.  We are forced to do things we don’t wish to do, and go to places we don’t wish to go.  We are stained from the experience and no matter how hard we try; we find it difficult to wash the unfairness of it all out of our minds.

But of course, while we and Simon are carrying our temporary burdens, Christ was carrying the sin of the world – past, present and future.  It is one thing to forgive somebody for what they have done to you in the past.  It is something quite different to forgive somebody for what they are doing to you in the present.  But it is surely a sign of a love that we cannot understand to forgive us for the stripes we will apply in the future.  Simon may have been wondering about these thing as he walked next to Christ.  Or he may have been wondering if he was going to be reimbursed for his ruined clothing.  I can only speak for myself in confirming that both perspectives are well known to me.

Regardless of his motivations, Simon’s actions on that Friday have triggered a variety of ministries over the years.  The Cyrenians, based in the UK, focus on helping the homeless with a core concept of “sharing the burden”.  The Cyrene Movement focuses on healing racial trauma and references a commonly held view (and certainly possible) that Simon was a man of color.  Like Simon, they encourage us to help lift each other’s burdens. 

There is no record that any of the apostles accompanied Jesus in any physical sense on his tortuous walk to Calvary.  It seems that only a stranger from Cyrene would accompany him – and then only under duress.  But while Jesus may have been a stranger to Simon, we know for certain that Simon would not have been a stranger to Jesus.  If Simon did not at least look at the man who was walking to his death alongside him and wonder, it was surely a missed opportunity.  We should pay careful attention when we are grudgingly carrying our daily burdens that we do not forget that our Savior is walking right next to us – having already carried a far greater burden for us than we will ever know.


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Margins of Miraculous – Judas by Shawn Blythe

Judas is one of the most abhorred people in all of scripture and yet we know very little about him.  His background is vague, his motives are unclear, and his decision-making is questionable.   In other words, apart from the unknown background – he was likely not that different from you and me.  It is worth perhaps just a few minutes to think about how he went from a called apostle to a man who, per Jesus, would have been better off not being born.

His first name was quite common for the day and was perhaps even more popular in honor of the local hero Judas Maccabeus.  Even amongst the apostles there appear to be two men named Judas as Luke 6 refers to a ‘Judas, son of James’ (an apostle that the other gospel writers refer to as Thaddeus).  The name is honorable enough likely meaning “God is Thanked”.

John provides us with his last name when he is referred to as the son of Simon Iscariot (John 6).  There are many theories regarding the meaning of this last name – the most accepted of which is that it references a hometown of Kerioth.  Kerioth is a small town south of Jerusalem and west of the Dead See.  It is on the edge of the Judean wilderness where according to John 3, Jesus spent part of his early ministry.  Assuming Judas was from Kerioth, it is quite likely this is where he encountered Jesus for the first time and would have made him the only Judean apostle (the rest being from Galilee).

Another less popular theory regarding his last name is a reference to “dagger man”, which could potentially link Judas with a Jewish extremist group called the Sicarii.  They are best known for terrorist acts starting much later in the AD 40s and 50s which involved assassinating political rivals (i.e., those aligned with Rome) by stealthily stabbing them with knives held under the cloaks in public places.  This revolt later played a part in the temporary liberation of Jerusalem around AD 66-67 – but eventually led to retribution by the Romans that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.   Although not as widely accepted as the “from Kerioth” interpretation, it is an interesting historical perspective that the Sicarii were largely based in Judea and were violently opposed to Roman rule.  They would have been anxiously awaiting a Messiah they believed would liberate them from their oppression.

Regardless of which theory you subscribe to regarding the meaning of his last name, it is important to remember that Judas was far more than his last week on earth portrays.  He was a selected member of the twelve and was likely with Jesus for the vast majority of his three-year ministry.  He clearly upended his previous life to follow Jesus, at times went hungry with him, at other times ate with him, and generally suffered the normal hardships of travel with him.  He inevitably talked with Jesus and prayed with Jesus.  He witnessed the miracles of Jesus repeatedly.

Despite this, John clearly believes Judas was a thief and a liar.  On the other hand, Jesus permitted him to oversee the money.  And if Judas was in fact a thief whose primary motivation in following Christ was the money, it is equally unclear why he would participate in an act that would literally kill the golden goose.  Further, thirty pieces of silver was not a huge amount of money and would certainly not substantially change Judas’ long-term financial status.  For those who would simply wish to blame Satan for the entirety of Judas’ betrayal, it is important to note that Satan did not enter Judas until he was actually at the Last Supper (John 13), which was after he had already approached the chief priests with the suggested plan (Matthew 26).  As noted, Judas was clearly a man of unclear motivations. 

This lack of clarity was temporarily brought into focus on that fateful Thursday.  He left the disciples near the end of the Last Supper and scurried away to find the chief priests to let them know that the time was right.  Perhaps he knew that Jesus would be going to the garden after dinner – or perhaps he rushed back to the Upper Room with the soldiers in tow only to find it empty.  One can imagine a momentary panic in having led Roman soldiers on a wild goose change until he was told by a servant where the group had headed.  Regardless, at this point Judas had already given himself over to the plan and the wheels were in motion.

I suspect that Judas was not very different from you and me in that we often have a very clear view as to what we think God SHOULD do.   It is at least plausible that Judas was frustrated with Jesus’ failure to step into the Messiah role that Judas (and many others) likely believed was his destiny.  It is possible that Judas was trying to force Jesus to declare his kingship and trigger the revolt many Jews were eagerly awaiting.  But Judas, probably like us on many occasions, missed the point.  His eyes were on the wrong prize.  His passion for what he felt God should be doing obscured what God was actually doing.

He experienced the miraculous but misunderstood the reason for the miracle.  Despite being AROUND God, he hadn’t given himself TO God.  Despite being shown first-hand the path of Christ, he still felt that perhaps his way was just slightly better.  Who among us can say that we haven’t done the same thing?

Judas’ spirits may have soared when Jesus’ declared “I am He” in response to the mob’s statement that they were looking for Jesus of Nazareth.  A declaration that caused those searching for him with torches, lanterns and weapons to draw back and fall to the ground (John 18).  Judas may have felt that this was it – this was the moment.  But this exhilaration would have been short-lived as Jesus rebuked the violence and allowed himself to be taken away.  It must have been a torturous realization that his life had in fact been destroyed by the great deceiver.  By morning he was trying to return the silver, and by the end of the day had taken his own life.

Perhaps, frequently like us, he only saw what he wanted to see.  Or perhaps, frequently like us, he was so blinded by his own plans and ambition that he didn’t see anything at all.  But in either case he experienced the grace of God but mistook it for failure.  He experienced the miracles of Christ but tried to contain them within a time and geography that was simply not relevant to what God was accomplishing that week.

How many times have we done the same?  We are not so far away from Judas.  Our motives are often misaligned with God and our decision-making is often made without the benefit of spiritual guidance.  We need to ensure that we not only bear testimony to the miracles of God, but that we acknowledge that the purpose and ultimate objective of God’s acts on this earth are solely within the sovereignty of God.   Otherwise, like Judas, we run the risk of trying to force fit God’s plan into our plan; a task that can range from frustrating to disastrous. 

It is easy to despise Judas.  His actions in that final week of his life ultimately define him.  But in order to learn from him, we must first acknowledge that the differences between the motivations of Judas and our own may be uncomfortably difficult to distinguish.  In both cases, personal ambitions, plans and desires become more important than subjecting ourselves to God’s will.  When reflecting on the life of Judas, perhaps we should recall the paraphrased words of the martyr John Bradford: “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.

 


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Margins of Miraculous: Pilate by Shawn Blythe

How will people remember you?  It’s a question that many of us ask ourselves as we seek to live our lives in accordance with God’s will, but keenly aware of our abundant shortcomings.

Pontius Pilate is a classic example of a man for whom a single incident over-shadowed a lifetime of service to the Roman Empire.  Decisions made over the course of only a couple of hours would ultimately define him.  When somebody mentions the name of Pontius Pilate, nobody mentions his standing in the Roman equestrian order, nobody remembers his likely notable family roots back in Italy and nobody references his relatively long tenure as the governor of Judea. We all remember him as the man who (at least in earthly terms) condemned Jesus to the cross.

Pilate, like any prefect or governor, was a politician.  His ability to maintain his role as governor required a careful balance between the forces of Rome and the local Jewish population.  If he leans too heavily towards Rome, the people revolt, and he fails.  If he leans too heavily towards the local Jewish population, Rome sees him as a traitor, and he fails.

Pilate was the 5th Roman prefect of Judea to attempt this balance – following Coponius, Marcus Ambibulus (or my favorite alternative spelling for a politician: Ambivulus), Annius Rufus and Valerius Gratus.  The first three served roughly three years each, while Valerius Gratus and Pilate each served approximately eleven years.  Each of them worked with, but kept a tight reign over, the local leadership (Sanhedrin).  In fact, it was the Roman governor who appointed the high priest who led the Sanhedrin.

This relationship led to the potential for ‘conflicts of interest’ for the high priest as they sought to balance their responsibility to the Jewish people as both an administrative and religious leader, while at the same time keeping the Roman governor satisfied enough to maintain them in the position of high priest.  The high priests under Pilate’s predecessor were unable to maintain that balance.  Valerius Gratus went through several high priests before settling on Joseph Caiaphas in AD 18.  Caiaphas apparently learned from his predecessors mis-steps and managed to keep this role as high priest through the remainder of Valerius Gratus’ rule – and throughout the entirety of Pilate’s reign as prefect.  This is a significant length of time to serve as high priest and suggests a reasonably congenial relationship with the Roman government.

In fact, Caiaphas was only replaced after Pilate was recalled to Rome by Tiberius, likely due to Pilate’s mishandling of a revolt in Samaria.  Vitellius (Governor of Syria – under whom the rule of Judea fell) appointed his colleague Marcellus as a replacement for Pilate.  Marcellus in turn immediately replaced Caiaphas with Jonathan ben Ananus as high priest in order to wipe the slate clean.  The death of Tiberius ends the written record of Pilate as there is no indication of the disposition of his hearing, nor any further reliable record of his life.

Pilate was not known for running a clean administration and is often accused of collusion with Caiaphas to spend Temple treasury funds for projects outside their intended purpose.  He likely significantly mis-handled the sensitivities of the local population on at least three occasions, the last of which led to his recall to Rome.  His apparently cozy relationship with Caiaphas was ultimately not seen as a positive factor for either one of them.

But it is less than an hour or two of interaction with Jesus for which he is best known.  He came face to face with the human incarnation of God – but somehow managed the situation as just another task in a long list of tasks requiring his daily decisions.  He met Jesus for the first time early on Friday morning and by 9:00 a.m. Jesus was already being crucified (Mark 15).  Pilate likely went about his normal daily business for the rest of the day but was aware enough of the crucifixion timing to be surprised that Jesus was already dead when Joseph of Arimathea requested his body later that afternoon (Mark 15).  Pilate’s agreement to allow Joseph to take Christ’s body is the last Biblical record we have of Pilate.

All four gospel writers record Pilate’s role that day.  The Believer’s Prayer (Acts 4) also references Pilate’s actions.  Paul does the same in his sermon at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13).  More contemporarily, Pilate’s deeds were incorporated as early as the eighth century into the version of the Apostle’s Creed that we know today.

Pilate was a man who believed that he had the power and authority to make decisions on his own accord (John 19).  I fear that he is very much like us in that regard.  We go about our lives pleading with God about the jobs we need, the healing we desire or the relationships we want created, ended or mended.  But we do so without the humility of Jesus’ addendum to his own pleadings “Yet, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26).  We proceed without recalling the answer Paul received to his own supplications “My grace is sufficient for you” (II Corinthians 12).  Don’t get me wrong – God wishes to hear our prayers, but His answer will be within the context of God’s plan based on infinite love for us. 

Pilate’s interaction with the Savior of the world was limited in his view to the confines of his duties as Prefect of Judea.  He never allowed it to get any bigger than that.  He never permitted Jesus to become personal for him.

The final historical verdict for Pilate is somewhat mixed.  Some believe that he was convicted of crimes by Caligula (Tiberius’ successor) – perhaps even exiled or executed.  While others believe he may have taken his own life in remorse, or simply moved on to his next assignment, or just retired.  Some even treat him as a saint (e.g., Ethiopian Orthodox) and believe he and his wife eventually become Christians.

As we consider how we might be remembered, we should strive to leave no such ambiguity.  Our interactions with God should not be treated as distractions from the life we ARE leading.  They should be a continual reminder to repent of the life we WERE leading.  We should not try to place our exposure to the miraculous within the tidy box of our plans for the day.  It is an opportunity to unpack the box, examine each of the contents, and consider what should be kept and what should be thrown away. 

We should not make the same mistake that Pilate did in assuming that our interactions with Jesus fit within the confines of our world; rather we need to constantly remind ourselves that Jesus’ interaction with us has no such boundaries.


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Margins of Miraculous: Midwives to the Hebrews by Shawn Blythe

We often encounter Biblical characters at a crossroads, brought to our attention at a pivotal moment in which they either rise to God’s calling or fall to their own misgivings and fears.  These crossroads raise questions regarding the “right” decision or why we are in this situation at all.  I am often reminded of Mordecai’s advice to Queen Esther (Esther 4) when she struggled to handle a difficult situation (paraphrased) “Perhaps you have been placed in this position for such a time as this?”  Midwives Shiprah and Puah find themselves in just such a time when they are introduced in Exodus 1.

The profession of midwives is mentioned or indirectly referenced a few times throughout the Bible, with no explanation of its origin or how one came to be a midwife. The position is first mentioned in Genesis 35, describing the comfort that the midwife provided during Rachel’s difficult delivery of Benjamin.  It is mentioned again in Genesis 38 as the midwife tried to manage the identification of the first-born during Tamar’s delivery of twins.  These passing references suggest the midwife’s role was common and well-understood, with no need for further explanation. 

In contrast to these midwives whose decision-making was focused on a single pregnancy, Shiphrah and Puah, midwives to the Hebrews during the time of captivity in Egypt, were faced with a much greater decision. In fear of the growing Hebrew population within his borders, the King of Egypt ordered these midwives to kill all the male children upon birth.

Many have questioned the origins of these women (Hebrew or Egyptian?), their specific roles (were they actual midwives or supervisors of all the other midwives?), and even the depth of their theological understanding.  But what we can’t question is their resulting action.  Forced to choose between obedience to a direct order from the King and their desire to do what was right in the eyes of God, Shiphrah and Puah followed God’s leading.

Scripture does not dwell on the decision-making process, but one can imagine fervent discussions as Shiphrah and Puah weighed the potential consequences of disobeying the King—not only to themselves, but to their families, and to the other midwives and their families.

After making the decision and acting upon it, additional stress must have arisen from the subsequent summons to the king for some explanation as to their failure. The desperate search for a strategy that would placate the king sufficiently to spare their lives must have been a critical concern.  The King’s question “Why did you let the boys live?” was direct and confrontational.

Unlike other Biblical episodes in which bold proclamations of God’s guidance were used as a defense, Shiphrah and Puah settled on a less dramatic, but apparently equally effective, route. They simply blamed the continued survival of Hebrew male children on the vitality of their mothers.  In other words, it cannot be the midwives’ fault if Hebrew women give birth before the midwife can get there!

The impact of the midwives’ decision to let the male children live was extraordinary. Based upon Genesis 46, it is well understood that approximately 70 people (“Jacob and his descendants”) originally entered Egypt. Exodus 12 tells us that 430 years later 600,000 men left Egypt on foot when Moses led them out of bondage. The total number of men, women, and children is estimated to range from two to four million. What percentage owed their lives—either directly or indirectly—to the decision made by Shiphrah and Puah? Given that their actions occurred at least 80 years prior to the departure from Egypt, it is likely that each surviving male was responsible in part for three or four generations of Israelites marching through the Red Sea.

It is a pleasure to read this feel-good story and joyfully acknowledge how God saved a generation or even a nation—a nation that would ultimately become the source of our own salvation. The midwives and the Israelites received a happy ending.  Exodus tells us that the midwives’ decision was rewarded with an even greater increase in Hebrew population and, more specifically, the blessing of families of their own.

But not all prayers are answered this way. In fact, the King of Egypt later took a different tack, ordering all newborn Hebrew males to be thrown into the Nile River. This time there would be no reprieve. Moses was spared  (Exodus 2), but it is likely that most of the Hebrew male babies were not so fortunate. Were the prayers of their mothers any less passionate than those of Moses’ mother, or of the Hebrew mothers during the time of Shiphrah and Puah? Unlikely, yet there was a very different result. 

This is a reminder that we are simply called to live our lives by faith, following God’s leading. Although we may never be in a position to make life and death decisions, daily we address the ramifications of living a life subject to God’s will, rather than our own. The results are outside of our control, with potentially far-reaching consequences. Perhaps they won’t affect a nation—but they may affect our families, co-workers, neighbors, or friends. In some cases, our choices may be rewarded, confirming our decision to do the right thing. Other times, they lead to outcomes far from our liking; when this occurs, we must also stand firm in our decision to do what is right.

Shiphrah and Puah had to make a difficult decision, and they rose to the occasion. Faced with our own dilemmas, we should be reminded, like Queen Esther (paraphrased from Esther 4): “Perhaps we have been placed in this position for such a time as this.”

 

Want to hear more about Shiphrah and Puah? The Christian Missionary Alliance has included these two midwives in the CMA Core Values video series, as an example of taking a “faith-filled risk.”  Watch Faith Filled Risks now


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Margins of Miraculous – New Testament Mailman

Mentioned only five times in the Biblical record, Tychicus is indirectly responsible for the availability of at least two—and likely three—books of the New Testament. Unlike Paul, whose exploits are well chronicled, and Luke, who assured his renown by authoring some of the most documented accounts of the early church, Tychicus has no such name recognition—although he accompanied these well-known figures on all or most of Paul’s last two missionary journeys.

Tychicus never met Jesus. His knowledge of Christ came the same way ours does: someone shared it with him. His contributions to God’s plan were directed second-hand.  He had what we would call a “supporting role” in Paul’s ministry, but this did not prevent Tychicus from providing significant contributions to something much larger than he could have ever imagined.

We first encounter Tychicus as one of Paul’s companions on the third missionary journey, from Ephesus back to Jerusalem via Macedonia (Acts 20). Tychicus—and fellow traveler Trophimus—were initially described as coming from a province of Asia (Asia Minor). Trophimus was later identified more specifically as being from Ephesus (Acts 21), lending some credence to the theory that Tychicus was also from that city. If so, he may have been one of the original disciples greeted by Paul upon his arrival (Acts 19). Most certainly, Tychicus would have spent significant time with Paul, a firsthand witness to his ministry and the resulting successes—and near disasters—that marked Paul’s multi-year stay in Ephesus.

Whether he returned with Paul all the way to Jerusalem is not explicitly stated, but Tychicus was definitely with him at Crete and Rome towards the end of Paul’s ministry and life, a partner in the ministry. Describing Tychicus, Paul uses terms such as “dear brother,” “faithful servant,” and “faithful minister,” and he was one of two people considered as a replacement for Titus at Crete, so that Titus could rejoin Paul at Nicopolis (Titus 3).

Most interesting to me is the near certainty that Tychicus was responsible for delivering Paul’s letters to the churches at Ephesus and Colosse. He was most likely the courier for the letter to Philemon as well, accompanying Onesimus on the journey back to his former master at Colosse.

In the Biblical account, these journeys are mentioned almost in passing. Paul writes that he is sending Tychicus to them, a brief notation in each book, with little fanfare, about a journey from Rome to two cities in what is now Turkey. It is effectively a postscript, an administrative update. But the journey this suggests was in no way an insignificant undertaking.

The trip would have been nearly 1,100 miles, requiring one or two sailings and approximately 500 miles of walking. Gordon Franz, in his article Tychicus: On the Road Again, provided this contemporary U.S. example:

“This trip would be like getting on a sailboat at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and sailing down to New York Harbor, and then walking from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio. In other words, go to the George Washington Bridge; get on Route 80 and head west on foot! (It would probably take about a month to do the hike.)”

This was, of course, in addition to the journeys Tychicus had already taken with Paul, which probably encompassed another one to two thousand miles of travel. We can only imagine the bond that must have grown between them, traveling together over such long distances on foot and by boat, particularly at a time when travel was risky, accommodations uncertain, and safe return home more hoped for than expected.

Although not a perfect analogy, this brings to mind the 1,500-mile drive that I undertook in the immediate aftermath of 9/11—from Dallas, Texas, back home to New Jersey. During this period of uncertainty, I traveled with two colleagues from my company, relative strangers to me. Yet, over the course of that 24-hour drive, a bond was forged that has connected the three of us over the past twenty years. I suspect Tychicus had something much stronger with Paul and Onesimus.

I wonder if Tychicus had any idea of the importance of the letters he carried? They were, after all, relatively short communications from Paul to some small churches. I picture a rolled-up parchment stuffed in a bag, arriving at Ephesus significantly crumpled, torn at the edges, and slightly stained from the journey. Did Tychicus envision the impact of these letters over the following 2,000 years?

If we just consider the letter to the Ephesians, it was a document of only about 3,000 words.  However, an Amazon.com search today reveals over 1,000 books written about those words. Commentaries comprising hundreds of pages scrutinize a letter that, in my Bible, fills just over five pages. There are also sermons, study series, and PhD dissertations, all focused on this single letter.

It was a letter that needed to be delivered, not only for the Ephesians, but for the countless millions who have read its words down through the ages. It was God’s message, communicated through Paul’s writing—but it was Tychicus who delivered the goods.

Willingness to hold the ministry of Christ first in his life put Tychicus in position to be of service to God in ways he could not possibly have imagined. He was a companion, not the main event. He carried the letter, but did not compose its message. He did not receive top billing; instead, his name is buried in the credits. Despite this, the contributions of Tychicus were critical to the existence of the New Testament as we know it. 

Tychicus may have operated on the margins of our world, but he was a central figure in God’s plan, creating an impact that far surpassed what could have been reasonably expected from the simple delivery of a letter. This is a great reminder not to underestimate the importance of the tasks set before us.  Our life is a journey of uncertain length and unknown destinations that fits within the context of a heavenly itinerary far beyond our understanding.  Like Tychicus, we are unlikely to know the ultimate impact of each step of our journey.   


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Margins of Miraculous

MARGINS OF MIRACULOUS – Bethlehem by: Shawn Blythe

Had we lived in Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, it is quite likely we would have missed the entire event—or at least its significance. The ongoing census made Bethlehem a busy place, with travelers trying to meet basic needs for food and shelter. The birth—or death—of any single individual would not have distracted most people from more immediate concerns related to hungry children, tired spouses, and a place to spend the night.

Mary and Joseph were two weary travelers lost in a crowd of weary travelers. We envision them approaching an inn—only to be turned away—after which Mary immediately gives birth in a stable around back; yet the scriptures provide no such clarity. We only know for sure that the couple traveled to Bethlehem for the census, arrived safely, and “while they were there,” Mary gave birth.

Traveling alone would have been unwise, and certainly unsafe, so we might surmise they must have been accompanied to Bethlehem by fellow travelers. Perhaps they had made arrangements to stay with distant relatives, or with a friend’s family. Jesus’ birth could have occurred minutes, hours, or even days after their arrival. We really don’t know.

What we do know is that it was unlikely Mary and Joseph were turned away from an “inn”—as we understand the concept today. Childhood visions of an innkeeper closing the door to them fade quickly when we discover no such person exists in the scriptural record. In fact, one could argue that there was hardly an inn.

The term in Luke 2 that is translated as “inn” is the word “kataluma.” Its actual meaning is closer to “a place to stay” or “guestroom.” Inns, as we know them, likely did exist, for Luke used a very different word in his explanation of the place where the Samaritan left the injured man for recovery. In Luke 10, that place is described as “pandocheion,” which means something closer to “all received.”

So, it is much more likely that the accommodation referenced in the story of Jesus’ birth is best described as a guest house or room, which simply had no space to hold additional travelers; however, the manger would have been nearby. Animals—valuable commodities—were kept very close to the house, in a common area immediately outside the sheltered living quarters. The fact that there was no space in the residence suggests that it was full of people; therefore, the couple would not have been alone, and Mary probably had some assistance during her labor.

I often think of these first neighbors of the Savior. They could have been fellow travelers from the Nazareth area.  Alternatively, they could have come from other regions, perhaps connected to Mary and Joseph only by a common need to reach their ancestral home for the census. Regardless, a crying baby was likely not anyone’s first choice for a night of peace and quiet. It would not have made matters any better when the shepherds trudged in later that night, babbling on about angelic beings and a message from God. Whether or not the shepherds’ story was believable, surely it could wait until a more acceptable hour!

But of course, we are judging them because we know the outcome. We know the identity of the Child. We know the shepherds told the truth. We know the magi were coming. We know Simeon waited in Jerusalem to greet the Lord’s Christ.

The neighbors didn’t know any of this. They were oblivious—just like us, as we make our way through another day. We encounter circumstances or people, and we position them in our lives as facilitators or roadblocks to our objectives. We categorize and fit them into nice boxes that complement our childlike understanding of our world. What wonders have we missed? What glories have we overlooked because we were so busy surviving and thriving in this world that we have forgotten we are not of this world?

That there was no space in the guesthouse for Christ on the day of his birth is poignant enough. But it is even more sobering to think of the neighbors who were so close to the Savior—but never knew it, and perhaps never crossed paths with Him again.

It is interesting to note that the Greek word “kataluma” is only used twice in the entire New Testament.  Once to describe the place in which there was no space for Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:7) and the second time to describe the upper room (Mark 14:14, Luke 22:11). It seems somewhat fitting to me that the beginning and end of Jesus’ life would be associated with guest accommodations. He was, as we should be, transient in this world. We are temporary sojourners, visitors in a place that should not define us. 

Like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, we are just passing through. But as we are passing, we should take notice of our fellow travelers, take care of our neighbors, take time to consider the stories of God’s message, and observe the miracles around us—whether we have made room for them or not.
 
 

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