Category Archives: The Gospel

Bartimaeus, Part I

Cursed.

Whether by the misdeeds of his parents or by some infantile sin of his own, the despite of Yahweh rested upon the beggar’s life. His very presence in the city gates of Jericho was a daily reminder to every passerby of God’s relentless displeasure with sin. So that others would not stray, Elohim had created Bartimaeus blind.

Or so he had always been told.

The son of Thimaeus was under the wrath of God, the rabbis said, and was therefore undeserving of their pity, much less the simple dignity afforded to any bearer of the imago dei. In the view of the sighted, Bartimaeus was the curse of Eden made flesh – a filthy, sightless corpse living out his cosmic death sentence in view of the world.

Because of this false perception, a passer-by was more likely to leave spittle in the beggar’s sightless eye than a farthing in his rusted coffer. Both practically and theologically, no employer would ever see fit to furnish him with a job. After all, what task could he do that a sighted man could not do better? And even if a kind-hearted soul would be so moved with compassion as to help the beggar at the gates, why would he risk bringing the curse of God upon himself, his family, and his livelihood? It was better to ignore Bartimaeus, and in so doing, reap the favor of God by abusing the one He seemed to despise.

Bartimaeus had been made to understand the uncleanness of his spiritual estate, but because his eyes had been dimmed since birth, he possessed no inclination that he was so visibly repulsive to all who looked upon him. His hunger he understood, but satisfaction was a concept that he could not even begin to comprehend. Abject humiliation he knew, but not compassion or friendship. To be certain, Bartimaeus realized the wretchedness of his existence, but with nothing good with which to compare it, his devastating handicap had left him broken and destroyed, filled with an unarticulated longing for the most basic human needs.

And so it was, into the never-ending midnight of a desperate man, Jesus came. Without human invitation, the Nazarene marched steadfastly toward Golgotha, and His journey took him through the streets of Jericho. But on the way to His destiny, there was one final stop to be made. This stop would serve a grand purpose – not only in the life of the beggar whose life He would change forever, but on the cosmic scale of God’s eternal glory. So that the world might know who Jesus was, His Father would orchestrate an encounter with a man born blind…

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The Scandalous Lineage of the Son of God

Kings. Scholars. Prophets. Warriors. Patriarchs.

When it comes to the family tree of Jesus Christ, these illustrious branches are the ones that most observers would expect to find. After all, He is the only begotten Son of God. That Jesus would come from an earthly line of royalty, leadership, and divine calling only makes sense. Yet while the lineage of Christ includes both political luminaries and spiritual giants, it also contains a few seemingly degenerate limbs as well.

Consider this collection of unsavory characters:

Fools. Liars. Charlatans. Fornicators. Murderers.

While most people would try to hide the more embarrassing details of their family history, Jesus displayed them openly. Scripture records that even the most revered members of Christ’s ancestry were guilty of unspeakable crimes: Jacob was a thief, Solomon an idolater, and David a killer.

But perhaps the most amazing thing about the genealogy of Christ (Matt. 1) is not the sins of the men who are listed. After all, there are 56 generations of them; one would certainly expect to find a skeleton or two. What is most interesting are the few women that are mentioned – five of them, to be exact:

Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah who tricked him into sharing her bed as an act of revenge.

Rahab, a formerly idolatrous harlot whose great act of faith was telling a lie.

Ruth, a foreigner from Moab whose entire race was a lasting reminder of the incest committed between Lot and his oldest daughter.

Bath-Sheba, an adulteress whose dutiful husband was murdered by the king to cover up their sin.

Mary, a teen-aged girl whose “unplanned” (yet divinely ordained) pregnancy certainly raised more than a few eyebrows.

There are 56 generations of men in Jesus’ family tree, yet He chose to highlight a mere handful of women – and they are possibly the most sordid of them all. It’s as if He wants us to pause as we read the list of names and think about their lives. And when we do, it is impossible to ignore the grace of God.

God’s grace is always remarkable, no matter the recipient. But when we consider the lives of women like Tamar, Rahab, and Bath-Sheba; it is impossible to ignore that His grace is freely bestowed on the undeserving, the undesirable, and the unlikely. Their stories, once marred by scandal and sin, are really not much different from my own. I was once an idolater, an adulterer, and an outcast – but God saw fit to save me and graft me into His Family Tree. I was totally undeserving of His favor, but He adopted me as His own and drew me by His love into the lineage of Christ.

So, the next time you come to that list of names, don’t skip ahead to chapter two. Read it all, and as you read, remember this: the message of the Gospel is as evident in Matthew Chapter One as it is at Calvary. For, at its heart, the message of the Gospel has always been that God lavishes His grace on the unlikeliest of sinners – even the most scandalous of us all.

ice|berg theory & Acts 17

If there is one thing that I can learn from the preachers of the New Testament, it is the art of brevity.

I am often surprised by how short most of the apostles’ sermons were, especially when I compare them to the long-winded homilies of my own. Take, for instance, the famous Mars Hill Discourse in Acts 17:22-31. In approximately 400 words, the Apostle Paul engages the Athenian thinkers with a missing piece of their own history and then proceeds to build a logical argument for the sovereignty of God, all while debunking their carnal philosophies and rampant polytheism. It truly is an apologetic masterpiece. But one of the most astounding things about the Mars Hill Discourse is not what Paul said. It’s what he chose not say.

In his opening statement, Paul commends the religious diligence of his listeners (Acts 17:22). Next, he connects with his audience on a cultural level, using an altar to the Unknown God as the starting point for the rest of his sermon (17:23). From there, he introduces the Athenian philosophers to their unequaled Creator (17:24) and the Giver of All Life (17:29), a solitary God Who moves in opposition of both Stoical Fate and Epicurean Chance (17:26). As he speaks, the apostle Paul holds the minds of his listeners captive, and everything appears to be going surprisingly well. But then, Paul makes a sudden philosophical leap: having established the supremacy of God, the he chooses to abandon his rhetoric and jumps forward in his progression to the claim that Jesus had resurrected from the grave (17:31).

In an instant, Paul’s logical progression falls apart and the philosophers pounce on his message (17:32). The trained thinkers of Athens identify the gap in Paul’s narrative, and begin to mock the seemingly whimsical notion that he is proposing (17:32). From the mythology of Homer to the disciplines of Plato, the Greek tradition had unequivocally denied any sort of resurrection doctrine. But now, Paul proposes that centuries of religious philosophy were wrong – and he doesn’t even give a logical reason why. In the mind of almost every person assembled, Paul has claimed the downright preposterous.

To the evangelistically-minded believer, the Mars Hill Discourse may seem like a pretty lame sermon. After all, it omits the majority of the Gospel. There is no mention of the Crucifixion, no mention of sinful man in need of a Savior, and no mention of the name of Jesus. It’s almost as if we don’t get to read the second half of Paul’s presentation. But the truth of the matter is that the Apostle Paul (or rather, the Holy Spirit) knew something incredibly valuable about human communication: less is more.

Almost 1900 years after Paul stood up in the Areios Pagos to speak, Ernest Hemingway postulated his own “less is more” principle as it applied to storytelling. He called it the “iceberg theory,” an economical style of writing in which he omitted essential elements of the story that he felt the reader could deduce on his own. Instead, Hemingway relayed his narratives in skeletal sentences that were bereft of flowery prose, communicating the hard facts of the story while the significance of the events remained beneath the surface.

In a way, Ernest Hemingway was only mimicking a method of communication that the Apostle Paul had already achieved. The philosophers that gathered to hear Paul speak were notoriously curious (Acts 17:21), and Paul knew it. He gained their attention with a full-fledged assault on reason, and quickly abandoned it so that the Holy Spirit could work. His message was brief, but it was enough for God to stir the hearts of men like Dionysius (17:34). In other words, the apostle removed his own convincing logic from the equation, so that God alone could have all the glory.

Sometimes, my own verbosity stands in the way of an effective sermon. Rather than allowing God to work through a clear and concise presentation of truth, I feel the need to embellish the Word of God with my own homiletic ability. While I have been commanded to preach God’s Word efficiently, I have not been commanded to do it in my own power. The Lord does not need my winsome speech to reach the hearts of my listeners. He can do that all on His own.

So, the next time I am tempted to wax eloquent when simplicity would suffice, I would do well to remember a humbling truth: my homiletics could use a little more Hemingway.

© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts, with thanks to Dan DeWitt for inspiring the title