From Word to Worship to Witness

Today, we are looking at Luke 24:36-53. There is a mystical quality to all life transforming experiences. They are not ordinary. We should not, therefore, expect that our experience of the Risen Christ would be on the level of our experience of a Diet Coke. It is deeper, more central to who we are and will be. It is mysterious and sacred–and in being so such an experience is transformative.

What's Next Logo I would like to begin by sharing a story about a young man named, “Frank.” Frank was born into a prosperous, business family. His father dreamed that Frank would be a businessman and take over the family business. As Frank grew up, there was reason to believe that his father’s dreams would come true. Frank was a natural businessman. He was also extremely likable. Frank was kind and gentle with people. There were stories of him chasing down some of his father’s customers just to treat them fairly or give them a gift. Frank’s father did not particularly like the part of Frank he regarded as overly generous; however, he did like Frank’s business skills.

Friends and neighbors used to say that Frank could get away with almost anything because he was so likable. He was also handsome and attractive to the girls. In the end, Frank became something of a party boy. He drank too much, he partied too much, and he spent too much time chasing girls. Along the way, Frank began to dream of glory and decided to be a military person. It’s at this point that Frank’s life began to go astray.

He participated in a small battle, and ended up a prisoner for a year or so. He decided to make the military his career. Along the way to rejoin the army, he had a dream. In his dream, Christ appeared to tell him that he was going in the wrong direction. He returned home feeling foolish. Later, he heard God’s voice tell him to build his church; however, mistakenly he felt it was to rebuild a particular church, and to fund his enterprise he used his father’s money. His angry father disinherited him. Most of the people of his hometown loved him, but they had come to see him as a bit unstable.

At this point Frank began to truly and from the heart seek God’s will for his life.  Eventually, St. Francis of Assisi found his destiny to renew the church. [1] Giving up everything for Christ, he spent the rest of his life sharing the gospel in building the Roman Catholic order called the “Franciscans.”

From the Word to Worship

Luke contains a complete account of the resurrection of Jesus and of the events of the first Easter. Early in the morning, Mary Magdalene and the other women went to the tomb. They found the tomb empty, and an angel told them that Jesus was alive. The angel went on to tell them that Moses, the author of the Torah, the Prophets, and other writers of Scripture had foreseen the events of his death and resurrection. Later that day, Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus, and began to explain to two disciples the meaning of the events they had witnessed in Jerusalem. Once again, Jesus explained that his death and resurrection were a part of God’s plan. The two disciples ran to tell the Twelve, who did not believe their testimony. Then, Jesus appeared among them.

This is how Luke tells the rest of the story:

imgres-2While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.  He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:36-53).

Prayer: Come Spirit of the Risen Christ that we too may see you and hear you speaking to us from your Bible. In Your Name we pray, Amen.

The Personal Word.

imagesThe story of St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most precious stories in Christian history. Scholars point out that St. Francis was never studious. Of course, growing up in a Catholic country, he went to church. As the son of a well-to-do businessman, he went to school and he learned to read and write. However, Francis never demonstrates a desire for abstract knowledge. He was fundamentally a social and practical person. He wanted to make things happen and enjoy being with people. Francis was what we would call, “a people person.”

I suspect that Peter and the apostles were pretty much like Francis. In fact, I’ll bet they were more like St. Francis than like your pastor. These were fishermen, tax collectors, and small businessmen. Yes, they went to their little synagogue in Capernaum or wherever. Yes, they could read and write. Yes, if they were required to, they could read a bit of a scroll during a worship service, but, they were not scholars.

Their conviction that Christ had risen from the dead was not based upon something they read; t was based upon something they experienced. The Gospels are unanimous that when Jesus was arrested the disciples deserted him. In addition, they were afraid they would be arrested too. When the women came to announce that the tomb was empty, they had a hard time believing it. Peter had a hard time believing it even after seeing the empty tomb (Luke 24:12). The first Easter evening, they gathered together to discuss the day’s events. While they were there, they were confronted by the Living Word of God, the risen Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. Even then, they didn’t believe right away. He had to speak with them, show them his wounds, and even eat a little bit of food before they could see that he was indeed risen from the dead.

At the end of Luke, Jesus has ascended to heaven. There is no seeing the physical Jesus anymore. However, we can and do experience the living Christ in our hearts, minds, and spirits. As I mentioned last week, Mark ends by telling us that the disciples went into the entire world and Jesus went with them (Mark 16:20). In other words, Christians have always experienced the presence of the risen Christ. I’m not going to give you my testimony this morning; however, I believed in the risen Christ on the basis of my experience as and before I learned all the Bible and theology I know today. The experience of God is as important today as on the first Easter Sunday. [2]

The Written Word.

imgres-3This does not mean that the Bible is not important, nor does it mean that we do not need to read our Bible in order to be the disciples God wants us to be. Notice that, immediately after Jesus proves that he is risen, he teaches the disciples from Scripture. In Luke 24:44-45 we read: He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. This is the exact same experience the women had and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus had earlier in the day (Luke 24:6-8; 25-27). Their experience needed to be supplemented with knowledge.

As Protestants, we believe that anyone can read Holy Scriptures on their own and grasp its meaning. We live in a country in which there are almost as many Bibles as there are people. However, most people rarely if ever read the Bible. Even fewer actually study the Bible. When Jesus taught the disciples from Moses, the Prophets, and Psalms, he was leading them into the deepest mysteries of Scripture. As Jews, they believed that God would send them a Messiah. However, they did not understand that the Messiah would suffer and die, that he would be a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, that he would be crucified as a criminal and outcast, and that his kingdom would be a kingdom of the Spirit and not an earthly kingdom. Many people have the same misunderstanding today.

There are similarities between contemporary Americans and the ancient Jews. We are an optimistic society. Most of us, even secular people, believe that hard work, healthy habits, and self-sacrifice will lead to a better life. Some people believe that government will create this better life, and some people believe it will be created by private industry, but almost everyone believes in a kind of earthly  kingdom that meets our human expectations and desires. [3]

Just as the Jews were wrong, when we reduce the gospel to a political, social, or personal agenda we are always wrong. In a culture like ours, we need to be prepared to show people the error of expecting God’s kingdom to be just like our kingdom only wealthier, politically stronger, and more defensible. His kingdom is the kind of kingdom only God could create. it is a kingdom that can only created by love.

The Kingdom of God is not just like the best earthly kingdom we can imagine only better. When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, and was accused of opposing Caesar, he replied that his kingdom was not of this world. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to bring his kingdom into this world; it just means there’s more to God’s kingdom in this world will ever know or experience. The Kingdom Jesus began is a kingdom that can only be built on the foundation of the Gospel and a group of people (us) who are trying to live on the basis of the love and wisdom of God, empowered by the Grace of God shown in Christ.

The Disciples Witness.

After Jesus explained from the Scriptures that God’s Messiah was going to look a lot more like Isaiah’s suffering servant then King David, he told them something else. He told them that they are going to be his witnesses. In other words, they are going to tell the world what they have seen and heard over the past three years. They are going to testify to his teachings, his miracles, his healings, his sufferings, his death, and his resurrection. They are, however, not going to do this right away. Instead, they are to go back into the city of Jerusalem and wait for God’s power, the Holy Spirit, to come upon them. In other words, they are going to wait for what comes next.

imgres-4In Christian circles, when we use the word “witness,” we often think that we are to tell people about what the Bible says about Jesus. This is only partially true. In trials there are two kinds of witnesses. First, there are “fact witnesses.” These are witnesses that have some direct information about what happened. They may have seen the car wreck or witnessed the robbery. Fact witnesses tell the jury what they saw and heard. Second, there are “expert witnesses.” Expert witnesses  explain something complicated to the jury. For example, a black powder may have been found at the scene of the crime. An expert witness who is a chemist will testify that it was gunpowder. Or, perhaps the defendant claims he or she was insane at the time of the crime. Expert witnesses who are psychologists or psychiatrists will testify concerning whether the person was sane or insane.

When it comes to testifying about Christ, we need to be both kinds of witnesses. We need to be able to say what it is Christ has done in our own lives. On the other hand, all of us some of the time, and some of us even more of the time, need to be expert witnesses. That is to say we need to study our Bibles and know just a little bit, or even a lot, about what the Bible says.

When lawyers choose witnesses, they always ask whether the witness is believable (or credible) and compelling. Believable means that the story the witnesses telling could be true. Compelling is different. Compelling means that there’s something about this person that will persuade the jury. When Jesus says, “Go into the city and wait to be clothed with power,” he’s really saying to them, “You won’t be compelling unless you have the power of my spirit. Therefore, wait for me to come.” When it comes to the Gospel, no one is compelling without the Holy Spirit.

Worship and Waiting.

3e4ef97Our text ends with Jesus ascending into heaven. Then, we are told, Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.  And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God” (Luke 24:52-53). What began with a personal encounter with the living God, and was strengthened by studying the word, ends in wonder and in worship. We are told that, while the disciples waited for the power of God to come, they were continually in worship. Worship is not a duty. It is a response to the love, grace, and power of God. When we capture a vision of the Risen Christ, we are empowered, even compelled to worship.

The spirit comes to those who worship God as they wait. Those who fail to be captured by the wonder of Christ will not worship the Risen Lord. Yet, those who do not worship often slowly lose contact with the Risen Lord. This is a mystery.

What's-NextAs we wait for what’s next in our lives, the lives of our families, the life of our church, and the life of our nation, we should think about today’s text. We should wonder at the risen Christ. We should ponder all that he is done for us personally. We should study our Bibles. And perhaps most importantly, we should worship God daily, sometimes here at our church, and sometimes at home. We should wait expectantly for the compelling power of the Holy Spirit to come into our lives.


Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This basic story of Francis of Assisi is based upon materials that can easily be found on the Internet and in several biographies of the saint. I’ve changed certain minor details to hide the punch line.

[2] I’ve told many people the following story. Years after I became a Christian I spent a good deal of time with people who did not necessarily believe most of what orthodox Christians believe. It was not my knowledge that enabled me to sustain my faith during that time; it was the experience of answered prayer and fellowship with Christ in the Christian community that sustained my faith. Others have had similar experiences.

[3] This point is made powerfully in lay language in W. T. Wright’s new book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good (New York, NY: Harper One, 2015), 109ff. In the modern world, we are all subject to a culturally reinforced worldview that considers progress to be an automatic result of human striving. Recent history casts doubt on this view. What is needed is a new kingdom not the result of human striving and schemes.

What is Next? Healing and Wholeness

As anyone who reads the footnotes to this blog can see, rarely have I struggled and researched a text as diligently as Mark 16:9-20. This is a hard text and controversial in the history of the Church. I could have avoided it in this series on the Great Commission as it appears in the Gospels and in Acts, but I did not want to do this. I think it has something to teach us. Before I begin, I want to repeat a point made in the sermon: The Bible is the Word of God and can be relied upon to teach us about God and about how we should live and worship. God bless. Chris What's Next Logo

Today, we are in the third blog taken from a sermon series concerning the Great Commission as it appears in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts. Cindy began the Preaching series with a sermon called, “Breathe,” taken from John 20, where Jesus breathes on the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit, and says: “As the Father has sent me so I send you” (John 20:21). Last week, I preached a sermon from Matthew 28:16-20, where we find the Great Commission in its most common form:

“Therefore, go into all the world making disciples from all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and the son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you, even to the ends of the age (Matthew 28:16-20).

Last week, we focused on 2016 as a year in which, like the disciples after the resurrection, we are waiting for what God has for us in the future. We also talked about the importance of worship, discipleship training, and service to others as we wait.

Today, we are talking about healing and wholeness. Let’s face it, we can’t move in to a new, better future unless we change; and to change, we need to experience the power of God. images-2 Scripture promises that, as we go into the future, we will experience the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the lives of others. God promises to be with us, empower us, and protect us on the journey of discipleship and disciple making.

The Great Commission and a Prayer.

Bible Scholar John MacArthur preached through every verse in Holy Scripture. He saved today’s lesson for last, because of its difficulty! [i] If you open your Bible to Mark 16:9 – 20 will probably find it set apart from the rest of the gospel. You may also find a note that says something like, “These verses are not found in the most ancient manuscripts.” Many pastors never teach on this text. When we decided to do a series on the Great Commission, I might have skipped these verses from Mark; however, as I thought about the verses and read them, I felt there was a message for us to hear. Therefore, hear the word of God as it comes to us this morning from Mark 16:9-20:

When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either. Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.  He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it (Mark 16:9-20).

Prayer: Lord God of Scripture, who sent us your Son, Jesus, the Word of God in human form, as we think about this ending of Mark, especially today, please let all that is said and heard be according you to your will. In Jesus name, Amen.

Understanding a Hard Text.

Mark is almost certainly the oldest of our Gospels. [ii] It may even be a translation or transcription of the teachings of St. Peter by John Mark. Much of Mark is incorporated almost verbatim in Matthew and Luke. After Matthew and Luke were written, because of their superior literary qualities, many people preferred them to Mark. [iii] Therefore, Mark fell into disuse. This was before anything like our modern Bible existed. There were various books and letters being passed around in scrolls and codexes. As a result, it is possible that the original ending of Mark was lost. It’s also possible that the ending of Mark was originally just as it ends in Mark 16:8, with the women trembling in fear, astonished by what they had seen, but afraid to tell the apostles. Finally, it is possible that, after Peter was martyred, Mark had to flee and never completed his manuscript. No one knows.

Although Mark 16:9-20 is found in the King James Version and in most older translations, these verses are not found in most of the oldest Greek manuscripts. [iv] This allows me to talk a little bit about the Bible and how it was put together. The earliest Western translation of the Bible is a Roman Catholic translation made by Jerome about the year 382 A.D. Western translations of the Bible from Jerome until modern times were based on this text. Jerome’s text, as revised over the years, is often called the “Received Text.” [v] That text included Mark 16:9-20, although Eusebius (265-340 A.D.) and other ancient writers had their misgivings about its inclusion in the Bible.

When King James of England had the Bible translated into English, the Received Text was the basis for his translation. In modern times, however, many older Greek texts of the Bible have been found. Neither Jerome nor other older translations had access to these texts. Today, most translations, including the NIV and NRSV, are based on the corrected text. In particular, there are two codexes dating from between the year 325 to 350 A.D. called the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus that do not contain the long ending of Mark. Therefore, today, most translations are based upon a corrected text that does not include Mark 16:9-20 except in footnotes or with qualification. [vi]

In all probability, at some point after Mark was written in the first century A.D., an early transcriber felt the book needed a more complete ending. If you go through Mark 16:9-20 verse by verse what you find is that Mark 9:16-20 summarizes Mary Magdalene telling the apostles of the resurrection, Jesus’s appearance on the walk to Emmaus, his later appearance to the disciples, and his giving of the Great Commission. All of these are found somewhere in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Most of what the author has done is to simply summarize what is found elsewhere in Scripture.

The hardest part of the text has to do with the so-called, “signs and wonders,” especially the handling of serpents and drinking of poison. Many of you know that at the end of Acts, Paul is bitten by a snake and protected by God from the consequences of its poison (Acts 28:1-6). I believe this is the incident being referred to in the handling of serpents. In addition, in the early church, there were stories of Christians drinking poison without harm. [vii] These stories, which date from an early period, are the source of the comment about drinking poison. At this point, I want to conclude by saying that these verses are not telling us what Christians should do or experience in the future as much as they are telling us what in fact Christians experienced in the early church: the protection of God in difficult circumstances.

In summary, we have at the end of Mark is a description of the appearances of Jesus to the disciples, his commission to go into all the world, and an assurance that, if we are faithful to Christ, we will experience the power of the Holy Spirit and God’s protection along the way.

Finally, whenever I teach on a hard text like this, I think it’s important to assure our congregation and readers that these kinds of issues do not impair the authority of Scripture in our lives or church. [viii] The Bible cannot be read without reading any passage in the context of all of the passages that deal with the same subject matter. You have seen how this text is more or less a restatement of teachings found elsewhere in Scripture, or in one case, in early Christian literature. The Bible is without error in all that it teaches us about faith and about how we should believe. [ix] Minor textual problems, and that’s all they are, do not impact our assurance the by the Holy Spirit we know that God is a God of love, that God sent his son to die for our sins, that we have a way of reconnecting with God by the power of the cross, and about the power of the Holy Spirit we can live a new life. The Bible continues to be our inspired guide for faith and for living.

Learning from a Hard Text.

What can we learn from this hard passage of Scripture? This text is not a direction for disciples to handle snakes or drink poison as some sects have done. It is a promise that those who spread the gospel will be protected and their testimony will be confirmed by the power of God. 3e4ef97As such, it is an encouragement for the church in every age to experience the power of the Gospel and the protection of God by bolding proclaiming and living out the promise of the resurrection in the power of the Spirit. What this passage asks of us can be summarized as follows:

  1. Believers should proclaim the Good News of the risen Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world accompanied by a call to repentance and new life.
  2. Signs of the truth of our message and protection will accompany our faithfulness to the Great Commission from evil.

We know from Acts that the early church experienced the presence and the power of God in the lives of Christians and in the life of the Church (See, Acts 2:42-48). I have been a pastor long enough to have seen the power of God to heal people, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Some of you have experienced the ability of God to perform miracles in your own lives. Perhaps more importantly, we have seen the power of God to protect our church, our families and our friends.

Are the Signs and Wonders Today?

On Wednesday evenings, we have a Bible study that examines the text of the next week’s sermon. This past Wednesday night, I told the group the following story: when I was a relatively new pastor in Brownsville, Tennessee, morning I received a call to go to the local hospital. One of my members, an elderly lady in her late 90s, was dying. Her family lived in Dyersburg. They been notified, but it would be sometime before they arrived in the hospital. The staff wanted me to come and pray for her, because they did not think she would live long enough to see her children and grandchildren.

I went over to the hospital and sat for a while, I think until the family came. Before I left, I said a simple prayer thanking God for her life and asking that God would heal her. I happened to know that her goal was to live to be 100 years old, and I ask God to hear that desire of this elderly lady. Then, I went back to the office. That evening, on my way home, I decided to go to the hospital to see if she was still alive because no one had contacted me to tell me that she had died. When I walked in the room, she was sitting up in bed talking to the family. She lived another few months and died just a few days short of her 100th birthday. I can think of a lot of explanations for why this lady recovered, and I imagine antibiotics had something to do with it, however, I believed then and believe now that God answered this prayer. It was a sign to me and to her family of the goodness and love of God.

What is Next?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to our staff, Bible studies, disciple groups, and leadership groups about our hopes and dreams for the year 2016. Each time, I’ve expressed my hope that at the end of 2016 every member of Advent, our visitors, and others will sense that the Holy Spirit is present among us in a new and special way. It would be a wonderful thing if at the end of this year we can all look back and see healings in our minds, our spirits, our emotions, and even our bodies. It would be a wonderful thing if we all could all look back on 2016 as a year during which we made contact in a new and special way with the living God.images-1

I have been a pastor of Advent for over sixteen years. That’s a long time. It’s long enough to know people pretty well. It’s long enough to know something about their struggles, hopes, and dreams. It’s long enough to know about secret sorrows and unspoken sins. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could arrive at December 31, 2016, or the Christmas Eve service a few days earlier, and look back on this year as the year in which we overcame some problems that had been plaguing us for a long time? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could sense that our families were more whole, our neighborhoods more stable, our community more hopeful, our lives more permeated by the love of God?

I would like to repeat for all of us what I have said often recently: What I would really like to see and pray to see in our church is a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit in 2016. Experiencing the power of the Spirit is more important right now than any program we could begin or any ministry or mission we could undertake. We don’t need new programs; we need  new outpouring of the Spirit of Christ.


Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved


[i] John McArthur, “The Fitting End to Mark’s Gospel: Mark 16:9-20” (June 5, 2011). You can find this sermon or teaching moment on the Internet. It is well worth listening to whether you agree with McArthur or not. I frequently do not, but he is a great Bible student and teacher. He makes a very impressive defense of Scripture though he does not believe Mark 16:9-20 is in the original text.

[ii] The Gospel of Mark has an interesting history. For many years, most people thought that Matthew was the oldest of the gospels. Then, scholars noticed that vast amounts of Mark were included in Matthew and Luke. Therefore, they concluded Mark must be a primary source for Matthew and Luke. There are other reasons to believe this is true, one of which is that Matthew and Luke appear to edit Mark to clean up tis grammar and often simplify, leaving out details they felt unnecessary to their Gospel presentation. The Greek of Matthew and Luke is much better than the Greek of Mark. In the history of the church, Matthew and Luke have been more often used and often the preferred gospels over Mark, which meant that Mark was not used as often, and may have fallen into disuse once Matthew and Luke were available. Nevertheless, Mark is important because it is most probably the oldest Gospel, and seems to have been John Mark’s transcripts of the teachings of the Apostle Peter. Papias, an early church father (70-163 AD), reports that John Mark wrote the gospel from Peter’s teaching and preaching. This might explain its relatively simple Greek: A fisherman from the Galilee may not ever have learned to speak or write Greek in a classical style, even after many years living in the Gentile world. William Barclay, “The Gospel of Mark” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 1-9, 369-371. The Greek of Mark may be the Greek of a Jewish fisherman who was never completely fluent in Greek.

[iii] Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the so-called, “Synoptic” (or “See Together” Gospels). They are similar and portray the story of Jesus as a journey from his birth to death in Jerusalem. John is very different and relies on a different literary structure. Because much of Mark is repeated in Matthew and Luke, it is not surprising that they eclipsed Mark once they were written.

[iv] The undisputed portion of Mark ends with these words: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 18:8). This verse is followed by two different endings, which are not found in the most ancient manuscripts. Mark 16:9-20 is one. The shorter ending reads, “But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after these things Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” There are basically three possible reasons for the way Mark ends (Mark 16:8). First, the original ending may have been lost as the Gospel was used less often and copied less often in the early church. Second, Peter may have died, and/or Mark been forced to stop writing after verse 8, so that the Gospel never had another ending. There is no way to know which of these is true. Finally, it is possible that Mark deliberately ended his Gospel with the women fearful and silent. Having described the resurrection and the instruction of the angels to go and tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, he may have simply stopped. There is no way to know; however, I do not find the last explanation convincing. What is known is that the current ending, which occurs in the Latin Text and in the Authorized Version in English (King James), is not in the most ancient manuscripts. Neither the Codex Sinaiticus (circa 350 AD) nor the Codex Vaticanus (circa 325 AD) contain the disputed ending. Without going into too much detail, Mark 16:9-20 are also in a different style and voice and omit words and stylistic preferences that characterize all the rest of Mark. It also contains words and phrases not common in the rest of Mark. It seems to reintroduce Mary Magdalene, as if we have not already heard of her part in the story in 16:1. William Hendrickson, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Hendrickson, 1975), 682-693.

[v] Received Text” or Textus Receptus” is the name given to Greek New Testament texts from which the translation of the New Testament into English by William Tyndale and the King James Version were made. Desiderius Erasmus, who we know as “Erasmus,” a Renaissance scholar, created a then new Greek New Testament text in 1516. It was based on the Latin Vulgate and then current Greek texts. It is not precisely the same as the texts primarily used today, though it was the text from which the New King James Version was created. It is my view that the differences among various texts are incidental and do not in any way impact any core Christian belief or practice. I could as easily serve a church that used the New King James Version as one using the New International Version or other modern translation.

[vi] Modern translations are based upon the Nestle Aland corrected Greek translation, Novum Testamentum Graece. The Nestle-Aland text is also the standard for academic work in New Testament studies. This text is periodically updated, and translators normally use the most current update of the corrected text. It is important to note that both conservative and liberal scholars support the Nestle Aland text. It is also important to note that there are scholars who defend the inclusion of Mark 16:9-20 in translations. As I mention above, in my view this academic dispute is immaterial for Christian faith and morals. Finally, it is important to note that it is conservative scholars that place the most impetus in revising the Greek text, since the belief in the literal inerrancy of Scripture is always phrased, “in the original autograph,” in other words, “As originally written in the first Greek text.” Thus, the search for text most like the original is basic to this theory of the authority of Scripture.

[vii] There are old stories in non-Biblical literature alleging that John and others were forced to drink poison, but not harmed. Eusebius recounts that “[Papias] also mentions another miracle relating to Justus, surnamed Barsabas, how he swallowed a deadly poison, and received no harm, on account of the grace of the Lord.” James E. Snapp, Jr. “The Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20” (Unpublished, 2007) found at (January 21, 2016) says, “Something similar is related in the career of Moses (Exodus 15:23-25) and in the career of Elisha (Second Kings 4:38-41) which may be significant since, just as Elisha succeeded Elijah who ascended, the believers succeed Jesus who ascended. An overlapping idea is also present in Numbers 5:16-28. But the closest parallel is in the story about Justus (who is mentioned in Acts as taking part in events in the first half of the first century) which was related by Papias.”

[viii] In looking at passages like Mark 16:9-20 believers have an opportunity to think more deeply about what we mean by the “Authority of Scripture.” When the Authorized Version was created, we did not have access to the number of manuscripts of the New Testament we possess today. As archeology began to uncover ancient copies of the Bible, what is called “Lower Textual Criticism” began to develop. The idea was to examine the various texts available and discern the best possible translation from them. Both conservative and liberal scholars practice Lower Textual Criticism. As indicated, the oldest manuscripts do not contain Mark 16:9-20 Therefore, in most modern translations, they are either omitted or placed in brackets. As such, most Biblical scholars to not regard them as authoritative as is the remainder of Mark. As seen above, however, these verses are not contrary to the teachings of Scripture and in fact draw upon Scripture for their teachings. The Gospel of Christ, the reality of the resurrection of Christ, and the commission of the church to share the Gospel, as well as the promise of presence and protection along the way are all contained in these verses. There is nothing contrary to the teachings of Scripture contained in them, provided they are properly understood in the context of the remainder of the Biblical witness. As with many things, it is best not to concentrate on details, but on the great themes of God’s wisdom and love for the world, the salvation offered by Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit in thinking about hard passages. Scripture is designed to teach us about the nature of God, of humans, and about how we humans ought to behave. Mark 16:9-20 contains nothing contrary to the call to share God’s love with the world in the power of the Spirit and expect God’s presence and protection along the way. While it would be a mistake to base any crucial teaching or activity of the church on Mark 16:9-20, such as mandating the drinking of poison or handling of snakes, it can be used to confirm what we already believe based upon the testimony of Scripture as a whole, such as teaching the power of the Gospel and the protection of God’s people.

[ix] The official statement of the faith of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, to which our congregation belongs, upholds the Westminster Confession of Faith, which reads in part: “The whole purpose of God about everything pertaining to his own glory and to man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either explicitly stated in the Bible or may be deduced as inevitably and logically following from it. Nothing is at any time to be added to the Bible, either from new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we do recognize that the inward illumination of the Spirit of God is necessary for a saving understanding of the things which are revealed in the word.” The Westminster Confession goes on to teach: “The meanings of all the passages in the Bible are not equally obvious, nor is any individual passage equally clear to everyone.15 However, everything which we have to know, believe, and observe in order to be saved is so clearly presented and revealed somewhere in the Bible that the uneducated as well as the educated can sufficiently understand it by the proper use of the ordinary means of grace.” What we have done today is to see how God has worked and how to properly understand a difficult text. To properly understand Holy Scripture, we must allow the Holy Spirit to illumine our understanding, reading the text in context with other relevant passages of Scripture. This is especially true of hard texts. See, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Governing Documents: Constitution: Volume 2: Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms in Modern English (Livonia, MI: Evangelical Presbyterian Church, 2014), Chapter 1: Holy Scripture.



What Comes Next?

Dear Reader. This post was supposed to be the post for last week. Unfortunately a minor health issue delayed it one week. I don’t suppose it is too late to make good New Year’s resolutions!!

What's Next LogoThere are times in life when we wonder, “What’s next?” Do, you remember times in high school or college, when you wondered what your life would be like in a few months. Would you go to college? Graduate school? The military? Work? Many young men and women, when their tour of duty in the military is over, wonder if they will reenlist or go back to civilian life. There are times in anyone’s career when you wonder, What’s next? Will I get a promotion? Stay in my current job? Find a new job? At times human beings wonder, We will I get married? Have a family? Achieve my life goals? One way or another we all ask the question, “What comes next?”

As mentioned above, New Year’s is a time when Americans ask the question, “What comes next?” The notion of New Year’s resolutions is that each year we should try to make our lives better. In order to change, we have to ask, “What comes next?” or perhaps more importantly, “What do I want to come next?” Positive change does not happen automatically. We have to think about how we should change and how we are going to make that change happen.

Over and over again this year, I will return to the theme, “What Comes Next?” 2016 will be a year of change. Election years are always times of potential change, and 2016 is no different. This year, we will all ask the question, “What comes next for our government?” and “Who do I think can best lead us in the right direction?” This Lent, we are going to ask the question, “What do I need to be delivered from in order to receive the blessings Christ has for me?” There will be other posts during the year that focus on some aspect of the theme, “What’s Next?”

All of these posts have in common a theological theme we will touch on today: All positive change begins by asking the Living God to enter our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, and then trusting God’s Spirit to guide us into the future.

The Great Commission

If our senior year in High School leaves us uncertain about the future, we can only imagine how uncertain the disciples felt about their future as the Gospels reach their conclusion. For three years, the disciples had followed Jesus. Then, in rapid succession, Jesus was arrested, tried, crucified, died, and rose from the dead. We can imagine that the disciples were in a state of shock! Things had happened so quickly. They were trying to acclimate themselves to a new reality.

They now knew that, in some mysterious way, Jesus had conquered death. In addition, they now knew that Jesus’ ministry was not over. He had been appearing to them and teaching them. Then, Jesus told them to meet him in Galilee (28:10).imgres As Matthew tells the story, they met him there and were given a clear understanding of what they were to do next. Not all the disciples completely understood or believed. Some doubted (Matthew 28:17).

Here is how Matthew puts it in his Gospel:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:16-20).

Prayer: God of Change: As we enter a new year and a new time, we do pray that you would please be with us by the power of your Holy Spirit. Give us the wisdom to discern where you want us to go next and who you want us to be. Perhaps more importantly, give us the power of your Spirit so that we can be the people you call us to be. In Jesus Name, Amen.

How in the World Did I Get Here?

how-did-i-get-here-dorothy-wizrd-of-ozI suppose that most of us remember Judy Garland in her most famous role as Dorothy, a little girl blow by a tornado over the rainbow to the Land of Oz where she meets a wicked witch and a strange and silly wizard. As the movie opens, Dorothy is having problems with her family and with a mean neighbor. She dreams of a better world, and Judy Garland sings the most famous song of her career, Over the Rainbow, which goes in part like this:

Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There’s a land that you dreamed of once in a lullaby

Somewhere over the rainbow Blue birds fly
And the dreams that you dreamed of really do come true.

Someday I’ll wish upon a star, and wake up where the clouds are far behind me

Where trouble melts like lemon drops
Away above the chimney top—that’s where you’ll find me

Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly
Oh why, oh why can’t I? [1]

Dorothy runs away from home, gets caught in a tornado, and ends up in Oz. After her adventures with the Wicked Witch, she decides she wants to be home in Kansas. We are sometimes like Dorothy. We dream of a new world, a better family life, a different career, basically a life without troubles. We think we get our wish or we begin to, but then, when trouble comes, we wonder how we ended up where we are. We need to be sure we choose wisely when we choose what is coming next. We need God’s wisdom to choose wisely.

Cultural analysts tell us that we are in a period of rapid cultural change. Those of us born before about 1960 can often look around at the world we inhabit and wonder, “How did we get here?” imagesThe disciples probably felt like this. After the resurrection they had entered a new and scary world. Their world would never be the same.

Life is Full of Changes

Most people, most of the time, want stability. We all know that history involves changes, that progress involves changes, but we want that change to occur during someone else’s lifetime and at someone else’s expense. I happen to be one of those people. I like stability: old pathways, old homes, old clothes, and old ways of doing things. Change does not come easily for me, but I have learned that we all must be willing to change and follow God into the future.

The disciples could not be faulted for wanting things to stay the same. Now that Jesus had been raised from the dead, why couldn’t he just stay with them, continue doing the teaching, the healing, the dealing with demons, the confronting authorities while they watched and cheered him along? However, the death and resurrection marked a new era in the lives of the disciples (and us). Jesus was (and is) going to be present, but now by the power of the Holy Spirit. From now on, the disciples were going to conduct the mission and ministry of the Jesus. They were going to teach, preach, confront authorities, cast out demons, and make new disciples. Jesus was going to give them the wisdom, love, and power to do this work, but they were going to be on the front lines.

When Jesus met his disciples on the mountain, a new era began. Now the disciples would make disciples. Now the disciples will baptize new believers. Now, the disciples will teach new believers how to behave as Christians. Jesus will be with them as they go, but in a new way. He promises to be with them (and us) always—even to the end of the age. There is a lot in that promise! The promise is not to be with the disciples for a few years while the church gets started. The promise is not to be with the church during good times or bad times. The promise is to be with us always by the power of the Spirit.

Embracing Positive Change

Jesus began his ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He proclaimed that the kingdom of God is near, is present with him, and is coming in the future (Mark 1:13-14; Luke 17:20-21; Matt. 25:31-34; Rev. 22:1-5). The kingdom of God is like a thief in the night (I Thess. 5:2), like a bridegroom delayed to come to find his bride (Matt. 25:1) like a pearl of great price (13:45-46), like a mustard seed (13:31). The Kingdom of God is the place where God rules and where the peace, wholeness, happiness, blessedness and joy that God wants for the entire world and everyone in it is perfectly realized. The kingdom of God is both inside of us and coming into the world around us, because God intends to share his wisdom, love, and peace with everyone.

I don’t know about you, but a good amount of the time it is not clear to me that the kingdom of God is present inside of me. It is easy to see that if the kingdom of God is going to come into the world, I need to change. I need to become more like God the Father, more like Jesus, more filled with the Spirit, more loving, more merciful, more concerned about others, more willing to sacrifice, less self-centered—you get the idea. The kingdom of God involves change; and, we should embrace that change, not fight it.

This does not mean that we Christians should embrace change for change’s sake or changes that are not according to God’s will.  Christians should not just be blown along the path of cultural change following every fad and hoping for the best. There is good and bad change. We still must be wise. We should resist bad change and we should facilitate good change. There is a proverb that says that one of the characteristics of the righteous person is that they resist evil (Prov. 28:4). When change is negative, we don’t need to change.

However, when healthy, moral, and wise change breaks into history, we Christians should be a part of accepting and facilitating positive change. In a new era, in a new time, in a new kind of culture, Christians should be bold in the face of evil and bold in working for the coming of Kingdom of God. This means that we need to equip ourselves to face a new would and to share God’s wisdom and love in that new world.

What Comes Next?

Late in November, we had a staff retreat and discussed what we ought to have as a theme for our church in 2016. After talking about several ideas, the group settled on “What Comes Next?” We are in changing times. We are in a changing city. We are in a changing nation. We are in a changing world, and we must decide how we will live and what we will do in the face of all that change.

There are some constants. We should love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and all of our souls, and all of our minds, and all of our strength. We should love our neighbor as ourselves—the Great Commandment (Matt. 23:36-40). We should go into the entire world and make disciples—the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20). However, we need some additional guidance if we are to actually accomplish these things. We have to have a way to practically reach our goals.

UntitledTherefore, we have a subtheme for the year, which is a theme we have had for several years. We call it, “Worship Plus Two” or “Worship + Grow + Serve” or “Worship + Grow + Serve = Blessing.” The idea is to focus our energy on being regular in worship, being in one activity that helps us grow as Christians, and serving the Lord in some capacity inside or outside of the local church. For all of us, the answer to the question, “What’s Next?” is that our lives would be a lot better if we worship regularly, grow, and serve in 2016. Worship, growth, and service are a very good answer to the question, “What should I concentrate on in 2016?”

Since the beginning of Christian history, Christians have gathered together on the first day of the week to worship God. Worship is the fundamental act of the Christian community. A Christian who does not attend worship is like a football player who never attends team meetings. There is no way to be a good player and not attend team meetings.

If we are to make disciples, we have to be disciples. None of us, not event the pastors, know all we need to know about the Christian life. All of us need to be formed by discipling opportunities. Therefore, the second thing we should all do is find one way to grow as a disciple, and do it. Join a Bible study. Make a retreat. Attend Sunday School. There are a lot of ways to grow.

Finally, the words of the Great Commission were to “Go” and share the Gospel. Going means serving others in word and deed. It can be within the local church, in a mission, or in community service. The point is to put our faith to work in serving others and sharing God’s love with others.

We do not have to do this alone or under our own power. Jesus is coming along on the journey. He promised to be with us, and he will be. Jesus has promised to be with us to the end of the age. He has promised to be with us whenever two or more of us are together. He has promised to be with us in easy and hard times. He will be with us, an it is his presence that gives us the courage to go into the future in faith and with courage whatever comes next.

[1] There are several versions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Most recently, the Ukulele player, Israel Kamakawaitoole, did a version that has become famous. The lyrics I quoted are basically those Judy Garland made famous, with a few changes. Harold Arien, Composer, E. Y. Harburg, Lyricist, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (1939).

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Disciples Like the Wise Men

This week is the last of the “A Disciple Like…”  posts from Matthew 2:1-12. Beginning next week I will be expanding on a theme introduced this week, “What’s Next?” As the wise man says at the end of the post this week, if we come to Christmas, remember and recall the birth of the Babe, and then return to our daily lives unchanged, it is too bad.

It may be a good thing that I have come to visit you just after your Christmas holidays. In my day and time, most people never took a vacation. From the day you were old enough to work until the day you died, you worked. During a substantial part of your American history, it was true of your nation as well. People who are born on farms, and consume almost all of what they grow, work all their lives.

imagesOne reason I think you are such lucky people is that you have the freedom to travel. Many of you traveled during the Christmas holidays. You went to the beach or went on a cruise or went to New York City, or went to visit relatives. Hopefully, you had a good time. One reason people travel is to relax.

Some people travel because it’s their business to travel. Such people travel because they have to in order to make a living. This kind of travel is not relaxing. It’s also not very likely to make a big difference in your life. Your pastor, when he was in business, liked to tell his wife that conference rooms in Houston or Dallas, Texas, or New York all look exactly the same. The ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch taste exactly the same.

Finally, there are those who travel to broaden their horizons. In my day, very few people could travel just to learn something new. Fortunately, I was one of those people. My name is “Casper,” and I was one of the Wise Men. I’ve come to tell you about the most amazing journey of my life; and, I’ve had a number of amazing journeys.

In my day, we traveled by foot or by camel. This means that we saw from the ground every foot of ground and every city along our journey’s path. I sometimes think it’s too bad that you modern people can get up in the morning and fly in a day to someplace like the Grand Bahamas. We would have walked down to the Gulf Coast, traveled across the Gulf Coast to Florida, and then taken a boat to the Bahamas. My trip would have taken months or a year. By the time I had returned to Memphis, I would’ve seen and heard a lot more than you ever see or hear on a trip. We had more time to think than you do.

The Biblical Story

Here is my story the way it appears in your Bible:

searchAfter Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for out of you will come a ruler

    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route (Matt. 2:1-12).

Prayer: God of Wisdom, Come to us with your Holy Spirit so that we may become wise in the ways of Jesus, what Paul called “Wise unto salvation.” In. In Jesus name, Amen

 The Story of the Wise Men

As I mentioned a moment ago, my name is “Casper,” and I was one of the Wise Men. [1] Most people think we Wise Men came from the East, somewhere near modern Babylon or Persia. Many scholars believe we were Medes (what have become the modern “Kurds”), because the Medes were a warlike people who, after the Persians defeated them, became scholars and counselors to the Persian kings. They studied the stars just as we Wise Men did. The Greek term is “Magoi” or “Magi,” which has become “magic” in your language. We however were completely opposed to magic. We were mystics, scientists and mathematicians, we studied the stars, and we counseled kings and rulers in the ancient Middle East.

imgresYour tradition holds that there were three of us, Melchior, our leader, who was Persian, Balthazar, who came from Babylon, and myself, Casper, who came from India.  [2] So you see, I came the greatest distance of all to see Jesus. I traveled from India, through what you call “Pakistan” and “Afghanistan,” into Iran (what we called “Persia”), on to Babylon (in what you know as “Iraq”), and then all the way to Jerusalem in Judea. Along the way, Melchior and Balthazar joined me in the journey, for they too had seen the unusual star in the East. [3] Our journey took a long, long time.

When we began our journey, we assumed it would end in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the capital city of Palestine, the seat of the Jewish King Herod, and the city founded by Israel’s greatest king, David. When we arrived in Jerusalem, we made inquiries concerning the birth of a prince to King Herod (Matt. 2:1). It turned out, however, that Herod had no new child.

When Herod heard that we were asking about a child king of the Jews, he summoned us! I can tell you we were very scared when this happened. Herod had a bad reputation for killing anyone who threatened him. We were afraid that he might even kill us. Nevertheless, he welcomed us as if he were glad to see us. He called a conference to which we were invited. His chief priests, the teachers of the Jewish law, who were expert Bible students, Herod, and the three of us all sat down to discuss our story and its meaning.

You might think everyone knew that the Messiah was going to be born in Bethlehem. Just ask yourself just how much knowledge do most of your presidents have about your Bible? Herod was a king not a scholar. In addition, in our day we didn’t have search engines on computers or libraries full of books indexed by chapter and verse. It took a while, but eventually Herod’s advisors determined that your Old Testament says that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem in Judea (Matt. 2:3-6; Micah 5:2).

That very evening, we received another request to come and see the King. He asked us when the star appeared, and then requested that we  go to Bethlehem and see if there was a child there meeting the requirements to be a Messiah (Matt. 2:7-8). Finally, he asked that we might report back to him if we found such a child, so that he could come and worship him as well (Matt. 2:8) Quite frankly, we didn’t believe that King Herod had any intention of worshiping anyone but himself.

After meeting with the king, we began our journey towards Bethlehem. The star seemed to move and guide us until it came to rest over a place where we found a woman and a small child (Matt. 2:9). [4] We met the child’s mother, Mary, and bent over looking at the child sitting in her lap. I cannot explain to you what we felt in that instant. We immediately bowed down and worshiped the child.imgres-1 Then, we gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

You Christians believe that these gifts were prophetic. Gold is a symbol of wealth and power, for the Messiah was to be a king. Incense is burned in some of your churches even today as a symbol of God. The Messiah was to be the Son of God. Finally, myrrh was a spice used in the ancient world for embalming. It is often a symbol of suffering and affliction. It turned out that the Messiah was a “man of sorrows, acquainted with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). It’s funny, we might have brought the first two gifts as a part of some kind of a plan; however, that final gift was such that we had no idea what we were doing. It was only years later, after Jesus died on the Cross, that people understood the significance of the myrrh. [5] Jesus we learned was the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

We stayed in the little town for a few days. One night, we had a dream that we should not go back to Herod and tell him where the child was (Matt. 2:11). I’ve already told you that Herod had a bad reputation and we were afraid for the child. [6] We didn’t believe that a carpenter, his young wife, and a newborn baby were a big threat to Herod, but Herod might. Finally, our business was not to change the future but to observe, discern, and report. We had no interest in whether Herod the Great or Jesus bar Joseph was the king of Judah, though we hoped that this Jesus would be the long awaited Messiah and the Great King for whom many others and we longed. [7]

Therefore, when the time came for us to leave, we sent no message to Herod and returned home by a way that avoided Jerusalem (Matt. 2:12). I have sometimes regretted this, because Herod became worried about our failure to notify him of the whereabouts of the baby.  Therefore, Herod, because he did not know who the child was, ordered every young male child under two years old in the city of Bethlehem killed (vv. 13-18). [8] If we had just sent a message that the child was not in Bethlehem, we might have saved a few young lives.

What’s Next?

What's-NextWell, that’s my story, or at least the part of the story that appears in your Bible. There are lots of traditions about we three wise men. One tradition holds that we became Christians, and our bones were eventually taken by Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great, to Constantinople and from there our bones were taken to Milan, Italy, and then to a church in Cologne, Germany, where you can see them today. Another tradition reported by Marco Polo holds that we were buried in Persia. My favorite tradition, about me, is that I returned to India and became a king. I was visited there by Doubting Thomas, who founded the church of India. I was baptized and became a Christian. The question behind all of these legends is a question you need to ask yourselves: were we changed by our visit to see the baby Jesus? [9]

If you’ve traveled, I’m sure you know this: it is easy to go on a trip, see a strange and unusual site, feel that your life ought to be changed, but return home unchanged until the feeling is only a memory. I traveled throughout the ancient world. I saw great poverty and human suffering. But, when I got home, other business was pressing, and I did nothing. I’ve seen great palaces and temples like the palace of Herod and the Temple he built in Jerusalem. They were magnificent. But my life was not changed.

The journeys that really matter in life are not vacations. A week at the beach, a week in the mountains, or week in a cabin doing nothing, rarely fundamentally changes anyone’s life. When vacation is over, we go back to our daily life, doing what we normally do, and occasionally wish we were back at the beach, or in the mountains, or in our little cabin. But we do not really change. The journeys that matter are those that change our lives.

You’ve just finished your Christmas season. In your country, Christmas comes just before New Year’s, when you ponder resolutions about the year to come. I am sure that many of you have already made New Year’s resolutions. (Since ten days have past, I’m sure you’ve already broken some of them!) Your pastors told me that your theme for 2016 is “What is Next?” I can’t tell you what to do because of Christmas and your annual trip to the manger in Bethlehem, but if I were you I think I’d ask myself, “Should I really leave the manger in Bethlehem for another year and not be changed?” and “If I am going to change, how?”

[1] The Greek text uses the term “Magoi.” Historically, the Greek word “Magoi” referred to Median wise men. Although Magi became associated with Zorastrianism, they emerged before that religion was founded. In Latin, the word is “Magus,” from which the English word “Magic” comes. The wise men were not, however, astrologers. I am partially reliant upon William Barclay, “The Gospel of Matthew” in The Daily Bible Study Series, Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1932, 1975) for this and other of the information contained herein.

[2] There is no assurance there were three wise men. The tradition that there were three relates to the three gifts (Matt. 2:11). In Eastern Orthodoxy, the number is twelve, and art has rendered three, four, eight and twelve. The Bible does not say. The names of the three are also not scriptural. There are variants of these names mentioned in ancient writings—and from the variants some have discerned nationalities. I have arbitrarily chosen a tradition that holds they came from Persia, India, and Babylon. However, because of the connection with the cult of the Magoi, it is likely that they were all Median (Kurds).

[3] The exact explanation for the star is impossible to determine. The best explanation may be that this was not a natural but a supernatural star. Some hold it was a comet, perhaps Halley’s comet. Others hold that it was a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Finally, around 5-2 B.C. “Mesori,” Sirius, the Dog Star, rose with unusual brilliance. “Mesori” means, “Birth of a Prince.” In my view it is interesting to speculate concerning the identity of the star, but we can never really know for sure.

[4] The Bible does not say that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem when the Wise Men found the child. It is inferred from the rest of the story. Other suggestions have been made as to where they may have been, but the story indicates Bethlehem, which makes the most sense.

[5] The Biblical text records that the gifts were gold and frankincense and myrrh (Matt 2:11). The three gifts had a spiritual meaning: gold (a symbol of wealth and kingship), frankincense (a symbol of the divine), and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death. and %20n myrrh&esth=1 (downloaded January 7, 2016)

[6] My use of the word “might” is probably an understatement. Herod was notoriously cruel and paranoid. He murdered even members of his own family out of the fear that they would supplant him. Although the “Murder of the Innocents” is not mentioned outside of Matthew, it is consistent with all that is known about Herod.

[7] In the ancient would at the time Jesus was born, there were many people who believed in the coming of a great king would bring a Kingdom of Peace in which war and other curses of the Roman world would disappear. It is likely that the Wise Men would have had such hopes. This explains their motivation to make the long trip. It was about more than a Jewish king, but about a universal, King of Kings, which Jesus was.

[8] See note 6 above. This is the slaying of the Innocents recorded in Matthew 2:13-18. Because of the small size of Bethlehem, and the fact that Herod only killed males two and under, it is no surprise that there is no secular record of this event. That Herod had already decided to kill the children of Bethlehem is indicated by his question concerning when the star appeared. He was trying to fix the approximate time of the child’s birth.

[9] Neither the Bible nor secular history contains any clear answer to the question of what happened to the Magi. We have only tradition to go by. One tradition holds that St. Thomas met, converted and baptized them and that they are buried in what is now Iran. I have adapted the ending to give a bit of this information to the congregation and reader.

“When Quirinius was Governor of Syria”

As we begin a new year, I am publishing a poem I began in 1991 and only completed this last year. A friend who is a poet inspired me to finish what I began long ago. Next week, the subject will be the wise men, so I thought that this post might introduce the subject matter.

Not two weeks ago, we all read these words,

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while imgresQuirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.  So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son” (Luke 2:1-7).

The poem is a meditation on what might Quirinius have thought if the Wise Men had stopped and visited him first. Happy New Year to all of you!! 

When Quirinius Was Governor of Syria

A bright day for traveling, but foreboding warns—

The transit of Magi may be a vile omen.

I sent them on to Herod, confident his fear and paranoia

Will unravel the mystery of a messianic child-king.


Octavian: Friendship did not send me here

To oversee an unpopular tax at your empire’s edge,

With Varus barely competent, and Herod “the Great,”

Your lap dog perched upon his throne by a razor’s edge.


With no legitimate claim to rule, only convenient friendship,

Force of arms, and a conniving mind, devious and twisted,

A man lacking any genuine principles or honor,

Herod rules because he flatters Rome and enlisted our aid.


We can trust Herod no further than our leash extends:

The Arabian revolt, and his actions then, shows

He will honor us, then another, then us again

If it serves his dark purpose or strategy.


Nicholas of Alexandria defended his most recent

Scheme—and if death does not interfere,

There will be another duplicity, another scheme,

Intrigue upon intrigue, until he lives no more.


Worse, his “people” loath and hate him, for his blood

Is only half Jewish, and that half open to question.

Therefore, this visit of Wise Men sparks my fear

That to overthrow this usurper may be Heaven’s plan.


(Not that this would be too cruel a fate—

That this Idumean upstart, a vassal king

Who treats his pigs better than wives or children

Should be replaced is not too terrible a thing.)


I warned our “friend” and “king” by a secret message,

Sent with the Star Followers from Chaldea far to the east,

Knowing full well Herod’s mad cruelty

Will cause the death of at least one small child.


These Median wanderers and their speculation

Concerning a Jewish King born in the Palestine, the home

Of Rome’s most stiff-necked subjects, easily moved to insurrection

Assures some child will die when Herod hears their reading of the stars.


Someday, I fear, Herod’s “friendship” notwithstanding,

We will raze their temple, disbursing Jews among the nations–

These Jews with their One God, making of them and example

Of our powers of domination and willingness to subdue revolt.


Octavian: I watch these Wise Men fade into the autumn sun

As I watch my life fade into that autumn which leads

All men to another world, deep beneath earth where Hades

Rules, and we are but slaves and shadows of the night.


My heart is desperate within me, and wishes it were not so,

But I see no place for light beyond this darkness we inhabit.

How could any light of Olympus follow this life of maintaining

An empire doomed to fall, only when we cannot know.


My career, our friendship, even this empire Rome created

And I serve, is founded on power, deceit, and force of arms.

I am honored for my defeat of the Homonadenses—

A victory no one will recall within a generation of my death.


I have served as commander, governor, tutor, counselor,

Friend of Caesar and loyal servant of Rome,

All this is but a cloud, a spider’s web of fate

My glory and honor will last no longer than my life.


All this for you, Octavian, Augustus, Son of Caesar (that

Child of ambition that broke our Republic and left

Us with this “empire,” vast, unstable, and expensive,

Certain to doom our ancient character though endless war).


Old friend, we are not the powers we think we are,

Only servants, I think, of silent powers of the air,

Powers we believe we control, but which in fact

Control us, and our destinies, and wish us death in the end.


No, I cannot write this to you old friend;

It would be my certain death now and not tomorrow.

Yet, how I wish I might write to you this word of my heart

That together we might find our way out of history’s trap.


Now, they are gone, these pilgrims, gone to seek a God/Man,

This anointed Messiah for which the Jews so anxiously wait.

Would it be, I wonder, such a bad thing if this King of Kings

Came in fact, and we all gave up our pride and bowed down?


Gone our wars, gone intrigue, gone the lies of diplomacy—

All that I have spent my life doing and achieving

Swallowed up in a victory of a King of Peace:

Foolishness, of course, but if true, then what?

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved


  1. I suppose this poem may have been inspired by some memory of T. S. Eliot’s poem, “Journey of the Magi.” It began in a November day of 1991 as I sat in the Union Theological Seminary library studying for final exams. It was cold and the leaves were swirling outside. Suddenly, I was overcome with the transience of empires. The first lines were written that day. About six or so years later, in Brownsville, Tennessee I worked on it again, recognizing that it needed much work. Recently, inspired by a friend, I began again. That day in Richmond, I did some research on the figure Quirinius, who Luke says was governor of Syria, when Jesus was born (Luke 2:1).
  2. Pubilius Sulpicius Quirinius (51 B.C.- 21 A.D.) was a friend of Caesar Augustus. Born of an aristocratic family, he was a good administrator and daring military leader. 0cb88fad3af86f7c2155168e176c2ec7Luke has been questioned as to the veracity of his account because Quirinius did not actually become governor until 6 A.D. However, he held official posts in the region from 10 B.C. until about 7 B.C., which puts him in the region at or about the time of Jesus’ birth. He was an excellent soldier, capable administrator, and friend of Caesar. Census’ were taken about every fourteen years, and scholars believe that one might have been taken in the year 8 B.C.—a time when Quirinius was present. His role during this period was probably that of an extraordinary legetate with Quinctilius Varus as the Governor, who was not as capable as Quirinius. Varus appears in the poem as a figure Quirinius does not think capable. Quirinius ended his political career during the reign of Tiberius and died a trusted advisor and friend to Caesar. I have completely made up the notion that the Wise Men met him in Syria, though the trade routes might have taken them in that way. I have also made up the notion that by this time, Quirinius was a world-weary servant who knows only too well the vagaries of history.
  3. Herod the Great (74 B.C.-4 B.C.) was a friend of Octavian and the Roman government, to whom he owed his power.Roman-King-Herod-the-Great He was capable, brilliant, ambitious, and over time, cruel and mad. The title “Great” comes from his great building projects, which included the Second Temple, Caesarea Maritima, Masada, and Herodium, where he died. Herod was of both Jewish and Idumean descent. Because of this, he had no real claim to the Jewish throne and was hated by the Jews. He was viewed as a half-breed. His cruelty and murder of his wife, mother-in-law, and three sons caused Augustus to famously say, “It is better to be a pig in Herod’s household than a son.” Although Herod was a client king of Rome and generally loyal, he was not above minor challenges to Rome’s authority. One of these minor disloyalties is referenced in the poem.
  4. The Magi were probably historically of Median origin. Babylon and the region of Chaldea were famous for its wise men. The Medes were a warlike people, but after their conquest by the Persians, the ceased to have military power, they turned to scholarship and wisdom. Thus, the term “Wise Men” is not entirely without foundation. These Magi studied the stars and believed in the powers of their astrology. They were sought after as
  5. As Rome grew, it became increasingly unstable militarily and economically. The empire founded by Julius Caesar and solidified by Augustus Caesar ended the Roman Republic and the virtues of the early Roman State. It’s stable years did not last for long, and by 64 A.D. when Nero allowed the burning of Rome, it was on a long slide towards is fall, which is ordinarily placed around 410 A.D. The idea of the poem is that Quirinius could already see the problem with the Empire and its likely fall. Historically, this is probably not accurate, but poetically, it is sound. In any case, if he could have seen this future, he would have been correct.