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.
Q. Is there any truth in saying that Joseph took Mary and the young child to Egypt, since Herod was searching for him, because they would have been able to fit in there without being detected, based on the color of their skin? Some people think so.
I think the main reason that Joseph and Mary went to Egypt as a place where Jesus would be safe from Herod is that there was already a large Jewish community there, particularly in the city of Alexandria, and so they would have been able to find housing and work within that community, or at least with its help, for as long as they needed to stay. (Please see my fuller comments in this post: Where did Jesus live in Egypt?)
In terms of skin color, really anyone who went to Egypt at this time would have “fit in,” because people had long been coming there from Sub-Saharan Africa, farther west in northern Africa, and the Middle East, and so it was a place where people of many different skin colors lived together and interacted. The Egyptians, really like all ethnic groups, had a variety of skin tones themselves. So Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, whatever their own skin color was, would have blended in not because they looked like everybody else, but because nobody looked quite like anybody else, and so nobody stood out.
(As for what skin tone Joseph, Mary, and Jesus might actually have had, for one possibility, please see the icon I use as an illustration for this post: How long did Jesus live in Egypt? But of course no one knows for certain. First-century Jews themselves had a variety of skin tones. But I think this is good; we can all imagine Jesus looking a lot like us, and this helps us understand that he came to this world and became human like us in order to be our Savior.)
Q. One month before my 90-year-old aunt passed away, she asked me a question, “Why did Jesus have to die in such a torturous manner? The harshest way to die during his time was crucifixion. This has bothered me since I was a young girl.” I have the same question myself. Please share your thoughts, thank you.
I can understand your aunt’s concern and yours. Crucifixion was not just the harshest way to die during the time of Jesus; it was one of the cruelest and most protracted and painful forms of execution ever invented. It was first introduced by the Persians and then developed in other cultures. The Romans had turned it into a process that could involve days of unspeakable suffering before death finally came.
I don’t feel that I can answer your question in terms of purpose, that is, why God would have wanted Jesus to die that way. I can’t imagine that this was something that God wanted, intended, or made happen, even though God did send Jesus into the world at a time when crucifixion was practiced, knowing that he would be “delivered into the hands of men.” From such questions I think we can only step back in mystery.
But I believe there is an answer to your question in terms of result. After Jesus had suffered some of the worst things human beings have ever conceived of doing to one another, he still said, “Father, forgive them.” Such a statement would certainly have been meaningful if he had said it just before being executed in a way that, while nevertheless horrible, did not involve protracted torture, such as by a firing squad. But it is deeply meaningful in the context of crucifixion. There can be no doubt about the love of God that came to earth in Christ Jesus if, after suffering on the cross to the point of death, Jesus still forgave and asked the Father to forgive. So while we may always wonder why Jesus had to die that way, we can worship and adore him as the Savior who endured such things and still never ceased to love the people of this world who had done those things to him.
Meditating on the sufferings of Jesus is a time-honored spiritual practice. Reflecting on all that he suffered for us, and the love that this demonstrated, increases our devotion to him and helps us forsake the sins for which he died. It ultimately enables us to rejoice, even as we empathize tearfully with his sufferings, at the greatness of our salvation and of our Savior.
The great hymn writers give us exemplary models of this practice. An unknown German writer offered us this reflection, which has been translated into English as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”:
What thou, my Lord, has suffered was all for sinners’ gain;
mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ‘Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace.
Another hymn by an unknown writer, translated into English as “The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done,” shares a similar reflection:
The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions has dispersed.
Let shouts of holy joy outburst.
I believe your aunt was meditating on the sufferings of Jesus in the last days of her life. While she may not have gotten an answer to her specific question, it seems she certainly got a deeper and deeper appreciation for all that Jesus had done for her on the cross. And not long after she shared her question with you, she met him face to face, risen from the dead and alive forever, and she saw in his eyes the same love for her that he had demonstrated in his death on earth.
Q. In Nancy Pearcey’s new book Love Thy Body, she states that though many English translations say that Jesus was “deeply moved and troubled” at the tomb of Lazarus, the original Greek actually means that he expressed “furious indignation.” Pearcey then quotes Os Guinness as saying that Jesus was outraged because “evil is not normal” and that the death of Lazarus was contrary to the good and beautiful world God had originally created. What are your thoughts on this?
I have not yet read Love Thy Body, and I also have not yet read The Dust of Death, which is the book by Os Guiness that she is quoting from, so nothing I say here should be taken as an informed comment on the overall argument of either of those books. I can, however, offer my thoughts about the translation of the Greek expression that’s used to describe Jesus’ reaction at the tomb of Lazarus.
First let me quote Pearcey more fully, relying on a citation I have found online: “Why did Jesus weep at the tomb of Lazarus even though he knew he was about to raise him from the dead? Because ‘the beautiful body was split apart.’ The text says twice that Jesus was ‘deeply moved in spirit and troubled’ (John 11:33, 38). In the original Greek, this phrase actually means furious indignation. It was used, for example, of war horses rearing up just before charging into battle. Os Guinness, formerly at L’Abri, explains that standing before the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus ‘is outraged. Why? Evil is not normal.’ The world was created good and beautiful, but now ‘he’d entered his Father’s world that had become ruined and broken. And his reaction? He was furious.’ Jesus wept at the pain and sorrow caused by the enemy invasion that had devastated his beautiful creation. Christians are never admonished to accept death as a natural part of creation.”
To assess these claims, let us explore the use of the Greek verb embrimáomai, which is the term that Pearcey says indicates “furious indignation.” It is true that it has a literal meaning of “snort”; it’s used in plays by Aeschylus and Lucian to describe the snorting of horses. However, we need to recognize that words have figurative as well as literal meanings. In linguistics it’s known as the “root fallacy” to hold that words carry their original, literal meanings with them everywhere they go. They don’t.
For example, this same verb is used in the two following accounts:
Two blind men call out to Jesus, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” He touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”;and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” (Matthew 9:29–30)
A leper comes to Jesus and asks to be made clean. He reached out his hand and touched the man. … Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning:“See that you don’t tell this to anyone. (Mark 1:41–44)
Clearly the meaning in these two passages is not that Jesus was feeling furious indignation. Rather, he was “admonishing urgently,” which Lidell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon lists as another, figurative meaning of embrimáomai.
Another use of the verb in the gospels, however, does come closer to the meaning of anger:
A woman anoints Jesus with a jar of expensive perfume. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. (Mark 14:4–5)
So we see that the term can have the meaning of anger and indignation, but that this has to be determined from the context. So what about the context at the tomb of Lazarus? Two things there indicate that Jesus probably was not “furious,” but “deeply moved” (as many English versions put it; Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament lists this as a further meaning of the word). First, Jesus wept. And second, the text says that the strong emotion being reported was internal, “in his spirit.” One would expect “furious indignation” to have primarily an external expression instead.
So I think we need to conclude that embrimáomai is used figuratively in the gospels to indicate strong emotion, but that we need to determine from the context whether this is anger, urgency, or grief. One further observation is that even if Jesus actually was “furious” at the tomb of Lazarus (and the context suggests otherwise), the text itself would not be telling us why this was the case. Pearcey and Guiness would be supplying their own theological rationale for this, but many other explanations could also be offered. Nothing in the account intrinsically rules out death having a place in how God works in the world.
Personally I find that the following quotation, taken from a longer meditation that has been making the rounds recently on social media, captures very well what Jesus was actually doing at the tomb of Lazarus:
”He cried. He knew Lazarus was dead before he got the news, but still, he cried. He knew Lazarus would be alive again in moments, but still, he cried. … He wept because knowing the end of the story doesn’t mean you can’t cry at the sad parts.”
Q. What became of Mary Magdalene and Mary the Virgin Mother of God? I hear some people say that Jesus married Magdalene. And did Jesus take them into heaven?
Let me start with Mary Magdalene. We learn some important things about her in the gospels. Luke tells us that during the Galilean part of Jesus’ ministry, he “traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him,and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out;Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
This shows us that, for one thing, Mary must have been wealthy; she may have been a member of the upper class, like the highly-placed Joanna. Her name suggests that she was from Magdala, which in biblical times was a prosperous and influential city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Clearly Jesus delivered her from severe spiritual oppression. The fact that she traveled with him afterwards means that she would have gotten to know him well and heard much of his teaching. The gospels also record that she traveled to Jerusalem with Jesus and the disciples, that she witnessed his crucifixion, and that she was the first person to see him after he rose from the dead and proclaim his resurrection.
We get no further information about Mary Magdalene from the Bible after the end of the gospels, but early traditions suggest that she was able to use her social position to share the gospel in the highest circles of Roman society, including with the emperor himself. Some traditions also suggest that she went to live in Ephesus for the last part of her life, in one version of the story as a companion to the Virgin Mary. But we can’t be certain about these details.
There is no evidence from the Bible or from history that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ever married. Rather, it’s quite possible that Mary had a wealthy husband back in Magdala who supported her ministry to Jesus, the way Chuza seems to have been supportive of Joanna.
By the way, there is also no evidence that Mary Magdalene was ever a prostitute, even though that is another a popular belief about her. The belief seems to come from a confusion between her and Mary of Bethany, and between that other Mary and the unnamed “sinful woman” whom Luke describes as anointing Jesus. But the biblical text does not even identify this “sinful woman” specifically as a prostitute. The first recorded reference to this notion about Mary Magdalene is in a sermon given by Pope Gregory I towards the end of the sixth century. So we should acknowledge that this is a late and unreliable tradition.
Rather, Mary is honored in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions as “the apostle to the apostles” because she brought the news of Jesus’ resurrection to them. The Eastern churches also refer to her by a title that means “equal to the apostles.” So she should be seen as someone who had a transforming and liberating encounter with Jesus and who consecrated her wealth and position afterwards to advance his cause.
As for Mary the mother of Jesus, we do hear a little bit more about her in the Bible after the gospels. We learn in the gospels themselves that she was from Nazareth in Galilee and that God sent the angel Gabriel to tell her that even though she was a virgin, she was going to become the mother of the Messiah. Some Christians believe that she and Joseph then had other children after Jesus, while other Christians believe that Mary always remained a virgin. I discuss those different perspectives in this post.
Luke tells us that Mary reflected carefully on what the angel told her and on the early events of Jesus’ life, but that during his Galilean ministry, she and his other relatives actually tried to restrain his work because at that time they didn’t understand it. However, Mary must have come to understand better soon afterwards, because she traveled to Jerusalem with Jesus, and she stood at the cross to offer support and sympathy as he was giving his life for the world.
After the end of the gospels, we learn from the book of Acts that Mary was among the followers of Jesus who remained in Jerusalem after his death, resurrection, and ascension and who were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. There are many traditions about her life after that, but most of them come from centuries later and we can’t depend on them. Perhaps one of the most probable ones is the early tradition that she and Mary Magdalene later went to live in Ephesus. This makes sense because at the cross, Jesus entrusted his mother to the care of the apostle John, and we know that John later went to live in Ephesus.
But at least some biblical interpreters would say that we see Mary one more time in the Bible. In the book of Revelation there’s a vision of “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” The woman goes into labor and gives birth to a son. The images in Revelation typically have multiple resonances, and in this case the woman seems to represent both Israel, the source of the Messiah (the image is reminiscent of Joseph’s dream in Genesis about Jacob and the twelve tribes), and the church, since the woman’s “other children” are “those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.” But just as biblical typology often begins with Israel, compresses into Jesus, and then expands into the church (for example, the idea that Israel is God’s “firstborn,” then that in Jesus God brought his “firstborn” into the world, and finally that Jesus’ followers are the “church of the firstborn”), so this mother image may begin with Israel, compress into Mary as the mother of Jesus, and then expand into the church.
In that case—to address the final part of your question—when we also hear in Revelation that the woman and her child were “snatched up to God and to his throne,” we may see in this a reference to Mary being taken up into heaven. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that Mary was actually taken up into heaven bodily, without experiencing physical death. But I think that all Christians would agree that, one way or another, after her life on earth she joined Jesus there, and that Mary Magdalene did as well. And they would have both heard as they arrived, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.”
Q. Why was God pleased with Jesus at his baptism? What had Jesus done at that point? Jesus had only been baptized, he had not started his ministry, but the heavens opened and God said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
I don’t think we should completely rule out the possibility that God the Father was saying that He was pleased with who Jesus had become to that point in his earthly life. Luke tells us that in Jesus’ youth and young adulthood, he “grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people.” So the Father could have been expressing His pleasure in Jesus’ godly character and spiritual maturity; Jesus had prepared well for the ministry he was just about to begin.
However, it’s important to realize that the language of being “pleased with” someone is actually the language of choice or selection in the Greek of the New Testament and the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament that was widely used in the time of Jesus and the apostles). For example, there’s actually an extra psalm in the Septuagint. It’s considered Psalm 151 and it’s attributed to David, although its authorship is actually uncertain. But in it, the character of David describes how he became king. He says that the Lord’s messenger (that is, Samuel) “took me from my father’s sheep and anointed me with his anointing oil.” He adds, “My brothers were handsome and tall, but the Lord was not pleased with them.” This doesn’t mean that that the Lord didn’t like them. Rather, David is saying, “The Lord didn’t choose them instead of me.”
And so we should understand that when the Father says He is “well pleased” with Jesus at his baptism, He means in the same way, “This is the one I have chosen to be my Messiah.” As Gottlob Schrenk writes in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, “What is meant is God’s decree of election, namely, the election of the Son, which includes his mission and His appointment to the kingly office of Messiah.”
We find confirmation of this understanding later in the gospel of Matthew when the Father’s declaration at Jesus’ baptism is echoed in a quotation from the book of Isaiah:
Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
Here the idea of being delighted in (i.e. having someone pleased with you) is used in exact parallel with the idea of being “chosen.” We also see again that the use of this phrase is accompanied by the gift of the Spirit for mission, just as in the case of Jesus’ baptism.
So while the Father was no doubt pleased by the way Jesus had matured into godly character in preparation for his ministry, the phrase “with him I am well pleased” actually indicates how God has chosen Jesus to be the Messiah.
Q. How old was Jesus when his parents brought him back from Egypt?
In my post entitled “How long did Jesus live in Egypt?” I suggest that his family went to that country “no more than two years after Jesus was born” and that all told “the journey to Egypt lasted no more than two years, and perhaps as little as a few weeks or months.” So Jesus would have been between two and four years old when his parents brought him back from Egypt.