Why doesn’t Luke tell about Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to Egypt?

Q. Why doesn’t the book of Luke mention anything about Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to Egypt?

None of the gospel writers are attempting to present a comprehensive account of Jesus’ life, like a modern biography. Rather, they are all selecting and arranging episodes from his life in order to accomplish particular purposes of their own.

Matthew, for example, wants to give particular emphasis to the way that the good news about Jesus is for people of every nation. And so, for example, he includes the account of the Magi coming from “the East” to worship Jesus, while the other writers do not. It makes sense that he would also include a description of how Jesus actually lived in another nation for a time.

Luke, for his part, is writing for educated Greeks within the Roman Empire, and so he includes a long account of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem during which one person after another comes up to Jesus to ask a question or pose a problem, and Jesus responds with divine wisdom. Most of the material that is unique to Luke is found within this journey section, and most of the material within the section is unique to Luke. So we can tell that he has included it with a particular purpose in mind, that of introducing Jesus to wisdom-seeking Greeks.

Luke may well have known about the journey to Egypt. Some of his material seems as if it could only have come from Mary, or at least from people who knew her and passed along her recollections. Those would of course have included the time in Egypt. But as I said, Luke is selecting and arranging his material for a particular purpose, and apparently he did not feel that it was  necessary for him to tell the story of the journey to Egypt to achieve that purpose.

Why did Jesus talk so much about the kingdom of God?

Q. Jesus seemed to talk a lot about the kingdom of God. Most biblical teachers seem to talk more about salvation and redemption. What is the difference and why does it matter?

You’re right that the kingdom of God was the centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching. When the gospel writers summarize his teaching, they say that Jesus went about “proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'” Jesus typically began his parables by saying, “This is what the kingdom of God is like,” or, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like?” He described choosing to follow him as “entering the kingdom.” And so forth.

So what exactly is the kingdom of God? I believe that Jesus gave us a definition of it in the Lord’s Prayer when he taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is, God’s kingdom is present on earth whenever and wherever God’s will is done as it is in heaven—without resistance. What I like to call “circles of warmth and light” emerge at various places and times as the followers of Jesus commit together to do God’s will eagerly and freely. This applies primarily to relationships: There is a shared commitment to treat others with the compassion, generosity, mercy, and love that Jesus taught us to have. This strengthens the bonds within the circle and draws others in.

Note, then, that in our day, the kingdom of God is primarily a community. Gordon Fee has described it as “the community that lives the life of the future in the present.” Followers of Jesus are called to live now in the way that one day everyone will live when Jesus’ reign is extended over the whole earth. Note as well how this contrasts with the emphases you mentioned, on “salvation” and “redemption.” Those things are typically envisioned in individual terms: You will go and live forever in God’s presence when you die; your sins have been forgiven; you can be set free from old patterns of life.

So how do these two approaches relate to one another? I’d say that Jesus is envisioning and teaching that people receive all of those individual benefits as a result of their participation in the new community. It welcomes and accepts them as an expression of how God has forgiven them. Together the followers of Jesus grow into maturity, stirring one another up to love and good works. Life in God’s presence begins within that “circle of warmth and light,” and it continues from there into all eternity.

We see, then, that Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God is larger than the emphases on individual salvation and redemption and that it encompasses them. So it should really be our starting point. The individual benefits are wonderful, but we don’t want to miss out on a recognition and appreciation of the larger community within which we actually receive those benefits and they become real in our lives.

What is God’s perfect will about choosing a life partner?

Q. What is God’s standard and perfect will about choosing a life partner?

Thank you for your question. It is one that I was asked many times, in one form or another, during my 25 years as a pastor. Let me share some of the insights that crystallized over those years.

First, we cannot automatically assume that God has a life partner for us. The New Testament is clear that for followers of Jesus, advancing the kingdom of God is primary, and everything else, including marriage, is secondary. So God will have a life partner for you if you will be able advance the kingdom better if married, but not if you can advance the kingdom better if single.

As Paul put it to the Corinthians after describing how being single gave him advantages for his own work for the kingdom, “I wish everyone were single, just as I am. Yet each person has a special gift from God, of one kind or another” (meaning either singleness or marriage). In other words, marriage is not the default, and singleness the exception, as some communities implicitly suggest, nor is singleness (celibacy) a higher state that more spiritual people should aspire to, as other communities seem to believe. Rather, both marriage and singleness are “special gifts” that God gives to each person as He sovereignly chooses.

The Greek word is actually charisma, “spiritual gift.” So our first task in seeking God’s perfect will is to become yielded and willing to live either as married or as single, as God should decide. God promises blessings to people in both states: “Whoever finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord”; “I want you to be free from worry; a man who is not married is busy with the Lord’s work, he is trying to please the Lord.”

Now it may be that, all things considered, you feel that God would want you to be married. As far as you can tell, you would be able to advance the kingdom of God better that way. In that case, I would still advise you not to go looking for someone to marry. Instead, work on becoming the kind of person that the kind of person you would want to marry would want to marry. And then trust God to bring the right life partner along in His own time and in His own way. It’s not up to you to find them. It’s up to you to be ready when God brings them into your life. You want them to be able to recognize you as the right life partner for them!

I have heard of cases where people felt they had spent sufficient time “becoming” like this and it was now time for God to bring a partner into their life. These people felt led into extraordinary seasons of prayer, sometimes with fasting. And in unexpected ways, many of them were connected with people who did become excellent life partners. So if you eventually feel that you have reached this point, then rely on prayer (perhaps with fasting) as your essential means of seeking God in the matter.

But another thing I’d say is that we need to be open to the unexpected. I’ve known people who very much wanted to be married, but no partner ever came into their lives, and over time they accepted the disappointment and bravely began to explore how they could serve God effectively as a single person. On the other hand, I have known people who were quite content being single and who felt that they had an effective ministry for God that way. But unexpectedly God brought someone into their life who they recognized would be an excellent life partner and give them an even greater ministry, in ways they couldn’t have thought of themselves. We have to leave it up to God to decide, and we need to trust that God knows best.

One clear standard in the New Testament is, “Only in the Lord.” (While these words are spoken specifically to widows about the question of remarriage, in the wider context of the New Testament they certainly apply to all believers.) In other words, anyone a follower of Jesus marries must also be a committed follower of Jesus. No one who is not a follower of Jesus can help you have a greater ministry for the kingdom of God than you would have without them.

In trying to recognize whether a person who has come into our lives is indeed the life partner God intends, we can rely, for one thing, on what is often described as “ordinary guidance.” That means the convergence of factors such as the teaching of Scripture, the advice of trusted counselors, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, what the circumstances permit, the God-given desires of our hearts, etc. I personally have found that our parents (if they are still living, or otherwise people who have become like parents to us in their stead) are given special insight into whether a given person would be a good life partner for us. My late wife and I had each resolved, before we became serious about one another, that we would not marry anyone without our parents’ blessing. I feel that this resolution served us very well. (Obviously we did receive the blessing of both sets of parents, or we wouldn’t have gotten married!) I also have to say that unfortunately I have seen people marry against their parents’ wishes and suffer greatly for it afterwards.

But beyond this “ordinary” guidance, I have noticed over the years that very many times people receive “extraordinary” guidance about who to marry. That form of guidance is a direct communication from God, so that you just know, perhaps without knowing how you know. I have seen this happen so frequently, in fact, that I have come to believe that God will often give such guidance precisely because the decision about who to marry is so important and has such a great impact on our entire life and future.

I hope these reflections are helpful to you. And may God direct you into His perfect will in this matter for your life.

Was the apostle Paul executed by being boiled in hot oil?

Q. Is there any historical evidence that Apostle Paul was boiled in hot oil?

The Bible doesn’t tell us about the means or circumstances of Paul’s death. But it does preserve this statement in his second letter to Timothy: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.” Most interpreters understand this to mean that Paul expected to be executed for his faith at the conclusion of his trial in Rome under emperor Nero in the AD 60s.

Some traditional accounts provide further details. The Acts of Paul, an apocryphal work written around the middle of the second century, says that Nero condemned him to death by beheading. A lively legend makes this detail seem accurate: One ancient story about why a certain location in Rome is called the “Three Fountains” is that when Paul was beheaded, his head bounced on the ground three times and a fountain sprang up from each spot. Though the story is fanciful, it would probably never have gotten into circulation if it were known that Paul had been executed some other way, and so it suggests that Paul indeed was beheaded. We can have greater confidence in the work of Eusebius, a very careful researcher, who wrote early in the fourth century in his Ecclesiastical History, “It is … recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself … during Nero’s reign.”

There is a tradition that associates a different apostle with boiling in oil, however. Likely around the end of the second century, Tertullian wrote in The Prescription of Heretics that the apostle John was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil in the Colosseum, but he suffered no ill effects from what would otherwise have been a gruesome method of execution, and so his sentence was commuted to banishment. We cannot corroborate Tertullian’s report. But it does show, along with the accounts of the sufferings and executions of the other apostles, that the first followers of Jesus stayed loyal to him right to the death, even if this meant enduring the worst tortures that the Romans might inflict.

The Gospel of Matthew as a graphic novel

Simon Amadeus Pillario, the artist who’s creating the Word for Word Bible Comic series of graphic novels, has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to help him complete the next volume in the series, the Gospel of Matthew. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am a biblical-theological consultant to this project (unpaid), and so I get an inside view of its workings and an advance glimpse of its progress. I must say that I’m just as excited about this next book as I have been about all the others, right from the start: Judges, Ruth, Mark, Joshua, and Esther. Let me give you a little peek into how this next volume is shaping up, and I think you’ll be excited too.

First, as always, biblical scenes are depicted in the comic based on painstaking historical research, so that the customs, clothing, buildings, means of transportation, etc. are all shown accurately and faithfully to the actual events. As I said in my very first post about this series, “One might argue that this is actually a more authentic presentation of the Bible than our bare printed texts, which invite us to fill a visual vacuum by supplying pictures in our own imagination of people and events. We tend to do this as if they happened in our own time and place, or else in a generic ‘Bible world’ where nothing really changes culturally from Abraham to Paul. This series instead brings the reader very authentically back into the specific cultural world in which each story originated, through careful archaeological research.” Here, for example, is a detail from the scene in which the forthcoming Matthew comic shows Joseph “taking Mary home” to be his wife:

But because of this concern for historical authenticity, in some cases the comic has to make reasonable judgements about the likely historical background to certain episodes. For example, all Matthew tells us is that Joseph and Mary went to “Egypt” with Jesus when they fled from Herod. However, one short episode in the gospel takes place during their time of flight, and it has to be set somewhere. Where should that be? The comic places the family in Alexandria. Readers of this blog will know that that’s exactly where I think they stayed (see my post, “Where did Jesus live in Egypt?“), so naturally I think that is fair enough. Here’s the panel showing the location, with the famous lighthouse in the background:

Also in this next volume, the artist continues to demonstrate delightful and amazing creativity in presenting the text of Scripture visually. For example, consider what he does with Jesus’ genealogy—just a list of names, right? No, each figure in the genealogy is accompanied by a little picture that captures a key moment in his life. I have to admit that I had a lot of fun trying to determine what was going on in each picture, based on how the person’s story is told in the Old Testament. Isaac, for example (the second from the left in the top row in the panel just below), with eyesight failing him in old age, is trying to figure out whether Esau or Jacob stands before him asking for his blessing. The three sections of this genealogy are shown on three separate panels of the comic, so that the visual presentation also respects the literary structure.

One more thing to add about the Gospel of Matthew in the Word for Word Bible Comic is that it will use the New International Version (NIV). Previous volumes used the World English Bible, which is in the public domain, but the artist has gone to great lengths to address the concerns of the people who license the NIV so that the comic can now feature a translation that is itself acknowledged and trusted for its accuracy and reliability. I recognize that the licensors are expressing a real vote of confidence in this project by allowing the NIV to be used with necessary alterations such as the removal of quotation marks and formatting required for the printed page, as well as adaptations for the graphic novel format such as adding emphasis by using bold type or all caps, and replacing commas with ellipses that connect speech bubbles.

At this point I’m sure you’d love to see more, and you can—you can download a PDF sampler of the Gospel of Matthew in the Word for Word Bible Comic here. And you can see everything that’s happening in the Kickstarter campaign at this link. I invite you to support the campaign and become a part of this project!

Why did Jesus tell Mary not to hug him after his resurrection?

Q. Why did Jesus tell Mary not to hug him after his resurrection because he hadn’t yet returned to the Father? Why would Jesus object to Mary clinging to him … that is really puzzling. You would think he would have reciprocated with a bear hug for about an hour, if only for her sake. What’s the connection between the return to the Father and not clinging to him?

Fra Angelico, ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (c. 1438–50)

This is indeed a puzzling matter, and interpreters have offered many different explanations for it. Personally I like the way that Raymond Brown explains it in his commentary on the Gospel of John.

Brown suggests, first of all, that when Jesus tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father,” we should not think he is speaking of the ascension that Luke describes as taking place forty days after the resurrection. Brown feels that that particular event, in which Jesus was seen ascending on the clouds into heaven, was intended to indicate evocatively that the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus had come to an end. Brown believes that Jesus also went to be with the Father in less visible ways in between his appearances to the disciples. The first of those times would have been right after the resurrection, and Mary would have seen him, in effect, on his way there.

As Brown understands it, this timing is actually crucial to the point John is making. At the Last Supper, Jesus had said, “I will come back to you. In a little while the world will see me no longer, but you will see me.” Brown says that when Mary sees Jesus, “she thinks that he has returned as he promised and now he will stay with her and his other followers, resuming former relationships.” Jesus had also said, “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Brown says that Mary is “trying to hold on to the source of her joy, since she mistakes an appearance of the risen Jesus for his permanent presence with his disciples.” But instead, by “telling her not to hold on to him, Jesus indicates that his permanent presence is not by way of appearances but by way of the gift of the Spirit that can only come after he has ascended to the Father.” (Jesus had also told his followers at the Last Supper, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”)

So Jesus is basically saying to Mary, “I’m not on my way back from the Father” (this is not what my continuing presence with you will be like), “I’m on my way to the Father” (so that I can send the Spirit, who will be my continuing presence with you). So this would be yet another place in the Gospel of John where a person mistakes a physical reality for a spiritual one and Jesus needs to explain otherwise (as in the case of Nicodemus misunderstanding what it means to be “born again,” for example, or the woman at the well misunderstanding what Jesus meant by “living water,” and so forth).

Brown argues convincingly that the present imperative used here means “don’t cling to me” or “don’t hold on to me” rather than “don’t touch me.” So this isn’t an issue of what Jesus’ post-resurrection, pre-ascension body was like and how it could or couldn’t interact with earthly bodies. Rather, the issue is that Jesus’ followers are not to “cling to” him as they knew him on this earth, but rather experience his continuing presence through the Spirit he has sent from the Father.

Why does Jesus sometimes seem to give certain disciples special treatment?

Q. Jesus has Peter, James, and John join Him to observe the Transfiguration. Why only these three? And, elsewhere Jesus seems to choose only certain disciples to reveal truth to and not others. So, how can we understand this? Obviously, it’s not favoritism, but maybe cliques are not all bad?

You’re right that Jesus allowed Peter, James, and John to see some parts of his ministry firsthand that the other disciples didn’t get to see. According to Mark, for example, Jesus brought only the three of them with him not just to the mountain of the Transfiguration, but also to the home of Jairus, whose daughter he raised from the dead, and apart with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark also specifies that it was Peter, James, and John who asked Jesus what he meant about the temple being destroyed, prompting what is known as the Olivet Discourse (Jesus’ long teaching about the signs of the end).

You’re also right that different disciples seems to be singled out at other times for teaching and attention. According to John, for example, before Jesus fed the five thousand, he asked Philip where they could get bread to feed the large crowd. John explains that Jesus “asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.” We should understand the word “test” in the sense of “challenge”; it wasn’t the case that Philip had to give a good answer or he couldn’t be a disciple any more! Rather, Jesus saw a “teachable moment” and made use of it for Philip’s advantage.

I also agree with you that this isn’t favoritism. Rather, Jesus chose to make an effective and strategic investment in specific disciples at specific times for their development as his followers and as future leaders. It’s generally accepted that someone can only have a deep influence on two or three other people at a given time. But they can have a strong influence on about a further dozen people. We see this illustrated and perhaps modeled for us in the example of Jesus.

I’m not sure I’d use the word clique, since that word tends to have a negative connotation. People in a clique are more opposed to including others than they should be. Let’s just say that Jesus shows us how to be intentional in our discipleship of others by recognizing where and how we can invest most effectively.