(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
The Humanity of Jesus
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
Luke 1:1-4, 26-38
This week we’ll read several of the Bible’s key stories about Jesus’ birth. We just read them during Advent, so we’ll focus on their historical, theological meanings, not what we might call their “Christmas card” images. Remembering Luke’s careful research with eyewitnesses, we realize that the only eyewitness to Gabriel’s private meeting with Mary would have been Mary. Luke must have learned the story from her, or someone who knew her.
Matthew told the story of Jesus’ conception and birth from Joseph’s point of view rather than Mary’s. Despite that, his account and Luke’s emphasized certain key theological points. Both reported that the prospective parents at first reacted to the news of what God was doing with shock, and struggled to believe it. In both accounts, the baby was given a name that pointed to his saving mission. This was no ordinary child—this was a Savior sent by God.
Luke was a physician and companion of the Apostle Paul. He was also a careful historian, who knew exactly what he wanted to share with his readers. It was no accident that he began this story by mentioning Caesar. When Rome crowned an emperor, they gave him the title “Savior” (among others) and choirs sang. People even worshipped the emperor as divine. Luke said Jesus, not Caesar, was the true Savior, King and God.
The Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus both wrote that in the period when Jesus was born, an ancient prophecy led many, especially in the East, to believe a world ruler would rise in Judea. For Matthew, the story did make a theological point about Jesus’ worldwide significance, but that doesn’t mean he invented it. (Surely priests and Herod’s former officials would have denied it if it were fiction.)
Luke’s research found and recorded the most detailed story of Jesus’ birth and the events before it. He also preserved the only story from Jesus’ childhood, when he went at age 12 with his parents to Jerusalem for Passover. A day into their journey home, Mary and Joseph realized Jesus was missing. The wealth of human detail points to the story’s authenticity. But for Luke it also showed that very early Jesus sensed his identity as God’s son, and had a deep inner sense of mission out of that identity.
Those who knew Jesus and wrote his story in the first century saw him as focused and driven by his saving mission. They had heard Jesus talk about the mission often, in a variety of ways. In his hometown synagogue, he quoted Isaiah 61 to define his liberating, freedom-giving mission (cf. Luke 4:16-21). In Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28 he said he came “to give his life to liberate many people.” And, after calling the short, curious tax collector Zacchaeus out of the tree he had climbed, he told townspeople who grumbled about his welcome of such a clear-cut sinner that he had come “to seek and save the lost.”
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from http://www.cor.org/guide.
Lord Jesus, when we wander, you continue to seek and save us. Through you, we wish to be different, better people—your people. You embraced your mission here on Earth early—help us to see and fulfill our own mission. Help us to make our lives and actions demonstrate our commitment to you. Amen.
CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)
What brought you here today? What made it important to you to be here? What almost prevented you from coming and how did you overcome that obstacle?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
Read Luke 1:1-4, 26-38. Luke was not an eyewitness to the events described here. So how do you think Luke went about getting this story? Mary was an unknown, unwed, teenage girl from a poor family in a tiny, backwater town. Is this the kind of background you would have selected if this story of a coming Messiah had been made up? Do you think God was involved in the writing of the Bible? If so, how? How does your view of how the Bible was written affect your view of the Bible’s credibility? Does it strengthen or weaken your faith?
Read Matthew 1:18-25. These verses describe the conception of Christ from Joseph’s point of view rather than Mary’s. Christ was referred to in two ways: as Jesus, meaning “God saves” and Immanuel meaning “God with us.” Why do you think both these names were used? Does it provide you with clarity or any sense of certainty regarding who Matthew believed Jesus was? Which description is most meaningful to you right now and why? Our faith’s central claim is that Jesus was not just a great teacher. He was Emmanuel—God with us. How does this claim shape your faith and your life?
Read Luke 2:1-20. The fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem fulfilled Old Testament prophesies (cf. Micah 5:2, 4) that the Messiah would be born there. Who caused this to happen? Does God bring about his plan even through despotic rulers like Caesar? Do you believe that God works through you to bring about his plan? When and how have you seen this happen? Why would God have chosen, of all people, a group of poor shepherds as an audience to hear about the birth of the Christ? Why did Luke choose to mention this? Is it possible that Luke interviewed these shepherds? Do you believe that Jesus is God, Lord and Savior, or do you find this difficult to believe?
Read Matthew 2:1-12. Does the text say how many wise men came in search of the Christ child? Scholars believe that they spent 18-24 months following the star, which would indicate that Jesus was a toddler, not a newborn, when they arrived. What possible inaccuracies might there be in many manger scenes you’ve seen? Does this really matter? Has your vision of the story of Christ’s birth changed over the years? The Magi bowed and worshipped this child of a poor, young, peasant girl. Do you think they might have hesitated to worship a toddler?
Read Luke 2:39-52. What does this story tell you about the kind of person Jesus was, even at the age of 12? Who would you think might have been Luke’s source for these stories? Do you consider yourself one of God’s children? What might prevent some people from fully embracing that concept? Once that concept is accepted, how might it affect the way we live our lives? Mary cherished all her memories of Jesus’ upbringing. Do you have memories of the growth of your faith that you will never forget?
Read Luke 19:1-10. Jesus said he came to “seek and save the lost”. Who are “the lost”? You are gathered here to learn more about and grow in the faith. You’re not lost, are you? Why would you need a Christ, a Messiah? The Pharisees were well-versed in the scriptures. They wouldn’t have needed a Messiah, would they? What has helped you recognize your need for a Savior? What do you think made Zacchaeus so quick to accept Jesus as a Savior?
From last week: Did you prayerfully consider to what extent you believe that Jesus lived, died, was resurrected bodily and is God? Did you make a list of how these beliefs have shaped your life? Did you also ask yourself how your belief has affected others? Please share with the group whatever you discovered.
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon, January 12, 2014:
When someone tells me they struggle with believing in the Virgin Birth my answer is, “Joseph did too!” When Mary told him the story that the messenger of God had said she was to have a child, though she had not been with a man, how did Joseph respond? He was going to break off the engagement. If Joseph struggled to believe Mary when she told him this story, of course many of us will struggle when we read the story in Matthew and Luke. As our understanding of biology and genetics increased, the story became increasingly problematic for some people….How was Jesus conceived apart from the supply of a sperm cell?
I don’t get too hung up on this. To me, what is it for the God who wrote the masterful piece of code that is human DNA to provide a piece of DNA so small the eye cannot see it in order to form the human flesh of Jesus? I’m not too terribly troubled by the idea that Jesus was born of a Virgin.
But the Virgin Birth was not primarily about explaining biology, genetics and conception. It was a way of asserting something far more profound….The Virgin Birth is about God becoming like us, walking among us in the mess we make of things, being near us, with us, in order to help, comfort and save us. It is meant to tell us that when we look at Jesus we’re seeing the heart and character of God. You may not need the Virgin Birth to get this—to understand that in Jesus God came near to us, to save and redeem us and reveal himself to us. But I think that is what the Virgin Birth is meant to help us see. It is why the story was told….If I never heard about the Virgin Birth, I would still be a follower of Jesus. But personally, I love the story of the Virgin Birth….
Was Jesus really married; a marriage the gospel writers chose to keep a secret? No one has done more to popularize this idea than Dan Brown in his multi-million best selling work of fiction, The DaVinci Code. The book was a fun read, and what made it so believable was that Brown drew upon bits and pieces of historical documents and told the story in actual places.
Girls married around the time that they had their first period, but no younger than 12 (according to the Talmud). Boys were no younger than 13 but typically between 14 and 18. The key for the boy was his ability to support a wife and children by his work. Brown and others suggest that it would have been inappropriate for Jesus not to have married. But not all Jewish men married. The Essene sect, for instance, a sect of Jews with whom Jesus shared a great deal in common, did not marry. They were very religious Jews who believed that marriage would inhibit their pursuit of God. They were admired by others, according to the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, for their choice of celibacy.
Nothing in the gospels from the first century suggests Jesus was married. Had he been, there would have been no reason for the first century writers to hide it. It was normal, expected, and it was a bit odd if you didn’t marry.
The gospels do mention Mary Magdalene four or five times. She clearly was an important person in Jesus’ life. She was said to have been delivered from demons by Jesus. She and a group of other women provided funds for Jesus and the disciples in their ministry. She stood by as Jesus was crucified, was there when he was buried, wept at his tomb, and was the first to see the resurrected Christ. While the gospels don’t mention any romantic interest, it is easy imagine that Mary Magdalene was in love with Jesus. I love that song from Jesus Christ Superstar, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” that captures so well what we imagine Mary’s feelings for Jesus might have been. What we don’t find in the gospels is even a hint that he returned this love.
In the second through fourth centuries there was a sect of Christians (using philosophical ideas that spread beyond Christianity) called Gnostics. Hundreds of their writings have been found in Egypt. This group gave Mary Magdalene a larger role. They suggested that Jesus passed on secret teachings to her, and attributed some of their own beliefs to this secret knowledge. In one of these Gnostic gospels, dated 150 to 200 years after the time of Jesus, there is a suggestion that Mary and Jesus were romantically involved. Several years ago a fragment of another document was translated by a Harvard professor. It too was one of these Gnostic gospels, and in it Jesus refers to Mary as his wife.
I’ve tried to think whether Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene would change my faith, the gospel or the message of Jesus in any way. I don’t think so. And I rather believe that Jesus, as a man, would have longed for this kind of companionship and no doubt knew the struggles we have with temptation in the area of sexuality. If he were a man, he would know the hunger we feel, and the confused relationships, and how things in this area of our lives sometimes lead to sin.
But having said that, the gospel picture of Jesus choosing not to marry, being single-mindedly focused on the Kingdom of God and his mission, knowing he would die, is not only compelling. It also reflects the traditions of the first century, which I value much more highly than those found among esoteric sects of the second, third and fourth century. So while the story of Jesus’ marriage helped Dan Brown sell a lot of books, I don’t think it likely has much validity to it….
I want to say a word about what Jesus looked like. The gospels don’t describe him. People began to draw, paint and describe him in the second and third century. I thought this was interesting in the light of a bit of a stir made by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly who noted in a kind of offhand remark that Jesus was white. Was Jesus white? I suppose it depends on what you mean by white. My friend Wassim was our guide on my most recent trip to the Holy Land. In skin color I imagine he looks something like Jesus did. But I am grateful we don’t have a description of Jesus from the time, because we’re each meant to see him as one of us.…
The point is that Jesus was not white or black or brown—he was human. There’s a term that Jesus uses for himself more often than any other in the gospels. He doesn’t call himself the Son of God—others do that. He doesn’t call himself Savior that I recall. He’s hesitant to let people announce that he is the Messiah—that is, the King—a revolutionary title one would be arrested and killed for claiming. But over 60 times he refers to himself in the gospels as the “Son of Man.” There’s been a lot of debate about what that title meant. The Contemporary English Version of the Bible translates it as “the Human One.” He came to represent humanity, to experience humanity, to save humanity. He’s white and brown and black and yellow and red. He’s God with us.
That leads me to one last thing you should know about Jesus in his humanity. He had a heart for people, particularly people who had been pushed down, pushed around, made to feel small. Jesus got angry only a very few times in the gospels. He had compassion for most sinners. But the sin that really got him mad was religious hypocrisy. It was the way the most religious people tended to judge, and by their judgment pushed people away from God rather than drawing people to God….
Jesus was always stopping to help people. His life was one continuous interruption. Every time he turned around he was demonstrating compassion. He sought to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to forgive the sinner all in the name of God. That’s what he’s looking for from us today. Churches are meant to be the physical incarnation—the presence of Christ in the world today. Paul says that we are the “Body of Christ.” Each of us individually, all of us together. Jesus came to be the presence of God for us, and as his followers we seek to do that for others.
“The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
What and who were the Magi?
From the dictionary:
1. the wise men who paid homage to the infant Jesus.
2. the class of Zoroastrian priests in ancient Media and Persia, reputed to possess supernatural powers.
From the Holman Bible Dictionary:
These were Eastern wise men, priests, and astrologers expert in interpreting dreams and other “magic arts.”
They were men whose interpretation of the stars led them to Palestine to find and honor Jesus, the newborn King (Matthew 2:1 ). The term has a Persian background. The earliest Greek translation of Daniel 2:2 ,Daniel 2:2,2:10 uses “magi” to translate the Hebrew term for astrologer (compare Daniel 4:7 ; Daniel 5:7 ). The magi who greeted Jesus’ birth may have been from Babylon, Persia, or the Arabian desert. Matthew gives no number, names, or royal positions to the magi. Before A.D. 225 Tertullian called them kings. From the three gifts, the deduction was made that they were three in number. Shortly before A.D. 600 the Armenian Infancy Gospel named them: Melkon (later Melchior), Balthasar, and Gaspar. The visit of the magi affirms international recognition by leaders of other religions of Jesus’ place as the expected King.
This week prayerfully consider to what extent you believe that Jesus’s humanity affected his attitude toward us. How might God’s attitude toward us have been different if he had not made himself incarnate? Next week, share with the group whatever you discovered.