Who Do You Think You Are?

outstretchedarms_image2Jesus constantly did and said things that nobody else ever had the nerve to do or say. Pretty much everyone who spent five minutes or more with Jesus wound up wondering, “Who do you think you are?” One time, in a conversation recorded in John 8, folks actually asked Jesus that question out loud.

“Conversation” is probably too gentle of a word; the exchange included more name-calling than an argument on an elementary school playground. The religious leaders called Jesus an illegitimate child (v.41), and he replied that at least he wasn’t the devil’s kid like they were (v.44). Then they called him a demon-possessed Samaritan, which was a pretty sick burn in first century Jerusalem (v.48). Jesus retorted that they were liars who didn’t know God (v.55).

Jesus filled the conversation with audacious claims about himself – claims that he was the light of the world, and the Son of God, and the source of freedom. When he added that people who did what he said would avoid death, the religious leaders finally got fed up and said,

“Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”  – John 8:53

Though meant to be rhetorical, the question on the lips of Jesus’ verbal sparring partners was an excellent one. Who did Jesus think he was? What was his self-understanding? If he had had to go inside from his playground argument and write a paper for his teacher describing himself, what would he have said?

We will come back to John 8 in a moment to see the audacious answer he gave in that instance. But first, let’s take a detour through Matthew 12 and look at a couple of other times when he told people who he thought he was.

“I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.”  – Matthew 12:6

For first century Jews, nothing was greater than the temple. The temple was the very center of their faith. It was the place they offered sacrifices to stay on God’s good side. It was God’s HQ, his address on earth, the location of his throne. It was the great cosmic belly button – the place where the umbilical cord of heaven connected with earth. But Jesus said he was greater than the temple. He said he was a new and better connection point between God and people.

“Something greater than Jonah is here… something greater than Solomon is here.”  – Matthew 12:41-42

Jonah was a prophet who endured a close encounter with fish intestines and then saw a 100% response rate from a very hostile congregation, but Jesus claimed to be greater than him. Jesus said that if folks thought it was impressive to emerge alive from a fish after three days, they should wait and see what he was going to pull off. And Solomon was a world-renowned source of wisdom, but Jesus claimed to be greater than him, too. To put it mildly, Joseph and Mary’s boy had a rather high opinion of himself.

Now let’s head back to the playground squabble in John 8. When the religious leaders asked Jesus if he was a bigger deal than Abraham, and just who he thought he was, here is how he responded:

“‘Very truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am.'”  – John 8:58

Jesus used some seriously weird grammar to make an audacious claim. “Born” is a translation of the Greek word genesthai. It means that Abraham was made – that he came into existence. The word “am,” which Jesus used of himself, is the Greek eimi. It points to essential existence, to timeless being. Jesus didn’t say, “before Abraham came into existence, I came into existence.” He said, “before Abraham came into existence, I AM.” Abraham was a created being – there was a time that he wasn’t around, and then a time that he was. But Jesus said that he himself has always been around. He just IS.

Of course, Jesus didn’t just make up the phrase, “I am.” He plagiarized it from God Almighty. God had used the phrase as an introduction when Moses asked him who he was. At the burning bush, God pointed to the sticker on his chest that said, “Hello, my name is I AM.” And in the scene recorded in John 8, Jesus peeled the nametag from God’s lapel and placed it on his own.

As soon as the words left Jesus’ lips, the religious leaders started reaching for stones to chunk at the blasphemer before them.

It turns out that when Jesus’ opponents asked him if he was greater than Abraham, they were setting the bar way too low. Of course he was greater than Abraham. And Solomon. And Jonah. And the temple. The real question was not who he was greater than, but to Whom was he equal.

We hear the audacious things Jesus said and did, and we ask, “Who do you think you are!?”

And Jesus answers, “I AM.”

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Want to explore further?

  1. Read John 8:12-59 and underline all the things Jesus said that strike you as audacious.
  2. Read each of the 23 verses in John in which Jesus used the phrase “I AM” (4:26; 6:20, 35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12, 18, 24, 28, 58; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 13:19; 14:6; 15:1, 5; 18:5, 6, 8)
  3. Who do you think Jesus is? Ponder your answer to that vital question.

 

Fixing the Sabbath

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Here is the Cliffs Notes version of the story from Jesus’ life that we will explore today: Jesus’ disciples had a snack, then Jesus healed a guy with a disability, so the religious leaders started making plans to kill Jesus.

I certainly understand if you think murder is a bit of an over-reaction to the offense of munchies and a miracle. But things will make a little more sense if you pay attention to what Jesus said while those things were happening, as well as noticing what the calendar said while those things were happening.

The story is found in Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, and Luke 6:1-11. The three writers agree on the basics of the day’s events, but each highlights different parts of the story.

Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grainfield. Some of his disciples were hungry, so they plucked some heads of grain to enjoy as they walked along. Some Pharisees, key religious leaders of the day, saw what the disciples were doing. They got themselves good and offended and said, “JESUS! YOUR DISCIPLES ARE BREAKING THE RULES! THEY ARE DOING WHAT IS UNLAWFUL!” (I’m pretty sure the Pharisees would be the kind of people who would type their comments in all caps). The disciples’ actions might offend some of us because of their reckless disregard for the gluten contained in their choice of snack. Or maybe we would be bothered by the fact that they are eating grain that does not belong to them (though actually it was an expected act of generosity and care for the poor to allow people to do what the disciples did – see Deuteronomy 23:25, which basically says it is ok to grab a handful of your neighbor’s grain as long as you don’t drive your John Deere onto his land and start harvesting). But what bothered the Pharisees was the day on which the disciples were doing their nibbling. It was the Sabbath.

God had commanded his people not to work on the Sabbath. It was part of the original Top Ten list. First century religious leaders then spilled countless gallons of ink making lists of things not to do on that day, and then spent lots of time saying “gotcha” to people they caught doing those things. They were appalled by the fact that Jesus was letting his disciples get away with their Sabbath snacking, so they took it upon themselves to lecture him.

Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ lecture with a series of audacious statements.

First, he blasted their legalism. He reminded them that David broke the rules by entering the tabernacle and eating consecrated bread, and that priests in the temple broke the rules by working on the Sabbath. He implied that the Pharisees were more obsessed with “the rules” than God was, and that they needed to get over themselves and quit trying to out-holy the Holy One. Jesus told the Pharisees that they had it upside down when they valued rules more than they valued people.

Second, Jesus told them that their interpretation of the Sabbath was backwards. He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). God knew that we would be unable to live the life he wanted us to live if we were frantic and frazzled and worn out and wiped out from whirling around 24/7. So he gave us a gift: he told us to take a day off every week. The Pharisees had taken a day God intended for burdens to be released and made it into a day of carrying the huge burden of obsessing over how many steps we could take or how many ounces we could carry without making God mad. God’s vision for Sabbath was not that if we disobediently did yardwork that day, fire would fall from heaven and consume us and our mulch. God’s vision for Sabbath was that he loved us enough to give us the opportunity to rest. The Sabbath was a comfortable recliner given to us by God; the Pharisees insisted that people carry it on their backs. Jesus informed them that by their attempts to transform a lavish blessing into a legalistic burden, they were the ones who had actually broken the Sabbath.

Third, Jesus declared that he was Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28). Wow! He had the nerve to claim that on the heavenly organizational chart, he was higher than God’s law (in the same conversation he also announced that he was higher on the org chart than the temple – see Matthew 12:6). So if he wanted his disciples to have a bite to eat on the Sabbath, that was his prerogative to allow them to do so, no matter how badly it offended the Pharisees.

Just in case the Pharisees weren’t furious enough, Jesus walked straight from the grainfield to their synagogue. He spotted a man with a shriveled hand that needed healing. He could have just whispered to the guy and asked him to clandestinely touch his cloak and receive a cure, but he wanted to keep provoking the religious leaders, so he had the guy stand up in front of God and everybody. Jesus again challenged the backwards value system of the religious leaders, reminding them that though they were appalled by the thought of healing the man on the Sabbath, they wouldn’t hesitate to pull their sheep out of a pit if it fell in on the Sabbath. Then Jesus did the “work” of healing the man and making him as good as new. By then the Pharisees had had enough of Jesus’ audacity, and they went out and started plotting his execution.

Those Sabbath adventures help us to keep our priorities in line with reality:

People > sheep.

People > Sabbath.

People > rules.

Jesus > everything.

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Want to explore further?

  1. Read the three different Gospel accounts of the Sabbath controversy (Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, and Luke 6:1-11). What is unique about each account?
  2. Search for the word “Sabbath” in the Gospels on biblegateway.com. Read some of the other passages that describe Jesus breaking the rules of the religious leaders.
  3. What would it look like for you to prioritize people over rules today?