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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Margins of Miraculous

MARGINS OF MIRACULOUS – Last Supper  by: Shawn Blythe
 
Most of us live on the margins of the miraculous. Although undeniably possible, certainly a matter of Biblical record and, of course, dependent on how one defines miraculous – few of us personally experience the miraculous on a regular basis. We are, more likely than not, observers or witnesses to the miraculous, rather than direct participants.
 
When Jesus healed the man who was blind from birth (John 9), that individual was unlikely to be the only blind person in Jerusalem. It is likely that others heard about this miracle but never experienced first-hand the healing that Jesus bestowed upon that particular man on that day.  Many people waited to be healed at the pool at Bethesda (John 5), but we have record of Jesus healing just one man that day—an invalid of 38 years. The others were witnesses to, rather than recipients of Christ’s healing power.  On the night when Jesus and his disciples celebrated their last Passover meal together, one of the most momentous events in all of history was going to happen but, apart from Jesus, no one—not even those directly involved—had a clear understanding of the implications.
 
First, there was a man carrying water. There is no indication that this man had any understanding of the role he would play in leading the disciples to a specific house. He was unlikely to have been a successful man, as carrying water was often a woman’s role at that time. (For example, in Joshua 9, Joshua punished the Gibeonites by forcing them to chop wood and carry water, so it is unlikely to have been a glamorous or respected task.) There is no reason to believe that this man realized he was being followed—or that he would have cared, even if he did know. He was likely a servant of some sort, simply going about his daily business and unaware of the historical events unfolding around him.
 
Next, there was the owner of the house. Although there are many Jewish traditions about who this man may have been, the Scriptures shed no light on his identify. It is unclear what his expectations may have been, as he prepared the room that day for guests yet unknown. The owner was likely a reasonably wealthy man, since he had available a large, furnished guest room. I often wonder if anyone else inquired about the availability of the room—perhaps even offered money for use of the premises—before Jesus’ disciples came calling. I think about the owner’s family: did they question what the room was being saved for, or have an opinion about how the room should be used that night? The owner may or may not have known who the disciples meant when they referred to “the Teacher” but, given events in Jerusalem during the previous week, he may at least have wondered if this group was related to the rumors about a Messiah.
 
Finally, no review of that evening’s events could be complete without mentioning the Sanhedrin, local leaders with rights granted by the Romans to make certain governance decisions in Jerusalem. Although a subject of much debate, it is at least plausible that the Sanhedrin of this time was a mixture of Pharisees and Sadducees. Pharisees were largely religious scribes and, in theory, followers of the rabbinical traditions and their application to everyday life. Sadducees, on the other hand, represented the Jewish aristocracy. They had generally aligned themselves with Rome and possessed significant societal power and wealth. The designated leader of the Sanhedrin was the High Priest, a position typically filled by a Sadducee.
 
The Sanhedrin had a vested interest in maintaining the peace, neither doing anything that would cause the Romans to replace them with some other governing body, nor allowing a situation that the Romans would consider rebellion, which would lead to direct intervention by force. In fairness to the Sanhedrin, this was not the first time they had been faced with potential unrest, as Acts 5 clearly indicates that they had earlier grappled with this issue with both Theudas and Joseph the Galilean. As a group, they had a lot to lose if they allowed this situation to get out of control.
 
As a result, the Sanhedrin was less interested in the veracity of Jesus’ claims than in ensuring that Jesus’ popularity did not rise to a level that threatened their position or, to put it more charitably, the relative independence of their country. In John 11, Caiaphas (the High Priest) famously chastised the Sanhedrin with the equivalent of “You know nothing! It’s better for this man to die than for us to allow him to jeopardize our position and country.” As individuals, Jesus may have given pause to the members of the Sanhedrin regarding exactly who He was (for example, Nicodemus the Pharisee, in John 3 and 7) but, as a group, that evening their interests were largely political and/or national, rather than spiritual.
 
And so, we see a mixture of people going about their daily lives. Some, like the man carrying water, were simply doing their jobs and possibly more concerned with sore feet or an aching back, and perhaps calculating how many additional trips to the well before the day was over. Others may have been more aware of the somewhat mysterious nature of unfolding events but focused on various administrative duties, such as the owner of the house, who readied his guest room. Still others, like the Sanhedrin who had significant “skin in the game,” were more concerned with mitigating the potential risks associated with this latest “Messiah” than with considering spiritual salvation.
 
Life is a continuum of events and, despite the line we Christians have drawn between the sorrow of Friday evening and the joy of Sunday morning, life in Jerusalem carried on.  The water carrier likely continued his daily work, not knowing or caring about the events of the weekend which, at that point, probably had no personal impact on him. The homeowner may have been somewhat concerned if he put two and two together, connecting the group who used his upper room with the events in the Garden of Gethsemane and the subsequent trial and execution. After all, the last thing a businessperson needs is to be associated with a treasonous criminal convicted of capital crimes.  The Sanhedrin had their own problems: there was an unfortunate scene at the execution (including an earthquake, darkness, and some apparent issues with the temple curtain), along with reports of trouble at the gravesite that included the fact that the body was missing. Ahh, politics.
 
They all lived on the margins of the miraculous. With the possible exception of Nicodemus, none of them appear to have been personally impacted by the events of that weekend. They were just like us, with jobs, money concerns, status concerns, and egos. If successful, they had gripes with those who threatened the status quo; if unsuccessful, they had gripes with those who failed to resolve their grievances.
In Jerusalem that weekend, a person was much more likely to be on the margins of events than directly involved. It is no different for us today. We need to get comfortable operating in the margins, ever aware and always ready for our Savior to call upon us, always prepared for the God of all creation to call our name. But in the meantime, we must remain actively engaged as witnesses to the extraordinary interventions of our Father. No matter the circumstances, understand that the miracle is always for the glory of God, and the glory of God must be recognized.
 
Whether direct recipients or observing from the margins, we are witnesses. And witnesses have an obligation to tell their story.
 

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LOVE, THE OPPOSITE OF SELFISHNESS

LOVE, THE OPPOSITE OF SELFISHNESS    by: Pastor Raphael Giglio

As the Valentine’s Day flowers begin to fade, the cards and love notes sink underneath stacks of bills and junk mail, and the mushy “love posts” on our social media feeds get swallowed back up by the usual political rants and selfie madness, we have to ask ourselves “what do we really believe about Love?”
 
Love is probably one of the most overused and misunderstood words in the English language. It’s a beautiful word, with many common applications, but the essence of true love is often lost due to the word’s familiarity. We can use the word “love” to describe our feelings about anything we like. We can say we love chocolate cake in one breath and tell our children we love them in the next.
 
When we try to define love, we usually come across the usual descriptions; · an intense feeling of deep affection. · a great interest and pleasure in something. · sentiment of deep romantic or sexual attachment These are good functional definitions and can apply to most situations, but what about true love? What could describe the sense of deep devotional love and selfless commitment that you have for someone you would do anything for, even sacrifice your own interests, possessions or life for without hesitation. The unwavering willingness to lay your life down for a child, parent, spouse or even friend is more than what could be described simply as; an intense feeling, great interest, or some kind of sentiment. It is best described as true love, real love, divine love or what the Bible calls agape (sacrificial love).
 
The Bible is not short on defining and declaring the true meaning of love, so it’s worth looking at what it has to say, considering that the one who inspired every word in the Bible (God) is himself the embodiment of Love. (1 John 4:8 “God is love.”). Paul describes agape love in his famous “Love Chapter” using a list of what love “is” and what love “is not”.
 
In 1st Corinthians 13 he writes: • Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. • It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. • Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. • It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
 
This is a beautiful description of selfless, others-oriented love, but seems so different than the me-centered love we often encounter in our world. So often the message we get in media, songs, and even some of the most romantic love notes is; “I love you because of how YOU make ME feel”. This message, as well-intended as it might be, is actually the opposite of the love Jesus taught about.
 
In John 15 Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is the love He loves us with, and tells us to love others with as well. To do this we need to be God-inspired and others-oriented, not selfish or self-seeking. That’s why when I’m asked to define love, I often respond with a definition of what it “is not”, to allow the truth about what it “is” to be easily understood. Love, (in its truest form), is “the opposite of selfishness”.
 

Time and Purpose – Pastor Raphael

The passing of time is one of the most mysterious sensations we experience. Have you ever said or felt: “I can’t believe so many years have passed since … ” or “It seems like only yesterday when … ?”

It should feel ordinary and natural that time passes as it does because we’ve been on the same time clock our whole lives. Certain events and experiences, however, surprise us when significant amounts of time have passed.

As I write the date “2018,” just the appearance of the numbers looks daunting. Then when we consider that next year’s New Year’s Eve celebration will be welcoming in the third decade of the century, “The ’20s,” it’s crazy!

Watching the Winter Olympics with our 10-year-old twins is one of the reminders of how quickly time passes. They are now intelligent young people who have been waiting for the games to begin and are intrigued by every event.

Last time, however, it was all new to them, and we had to explain it in language they could understand. The time before that they were babies, and the next time they’ll be teenagers.

These types of markers are reminders that we are temporal, and the passing of time is constant and inevitable. So why is that so hard to fathom and accept? 
 

Here’s why: “We were made for eternity.” Not our bodies, of course, but our “hearts,” the spiritual essence of who we are. Solomon the Wise tells us in Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” 

Since God set eternity in our hearts, things that are temporal seem unusual or peculiar and sometimes hard with which to get comfortable. Ultimately, God desires for us to spend eternity with Him, but here in this life, we live under the “Tyranny of Chronology.”

The good news is that this is not a mistake. God has intentionally given us a limited amount of time to achieve a designated number of purposes. How do we know this? We look again to Solomon: “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

“A time for every purpose” means that each of the dots in the timeline of our lives has a specific purpose to be fulfilled. It makes it exciting to live out our days knowing that for each moment we live, God has plans for us to fulfill and purposes for us to achieve.

So, although I am still a bit uncomfortable with the rapid passing of time from year to year and decade to decade, I am also excited to discover God’s purposes for those times as each day begins.

My hope is to fulfill each one of them the best I can and to enjoy every passing moment along the way.


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