When King Jesus Reigns: “They will pick up snakes”

This second Sunday of Advent, one of the readings was Isaiah 11.1-10 (and the one from which I preached):

11 “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.” (NIV 2011, emphasis added)

In the reign of King Jesus, the promised “shoot” from the “stump of Jesse” and the “root of Jesse”, there would be a full undoing of the present order of existence: injustice and violence as normal parts of life.

The Spirit endowed King would cause even the animal kingdom to align with his reign of life and righteousness over the whole earth. The serpents become not even an enemy whose head would be crushed (see Gen. 3.15) and who would bruise the heel of the ‘seed’ of woman. Instead, the serpent and child live as friends. Seeming eternal enemies playing together. What a strange world indeed! The very image of the toddler with serpent strikes fear into my heart!

snake-and-baby

And the fear I felt sent my thoughts rushing to Mark 16.18* which reports the words of Jesus concerning those whom he was sending out into the world as witnesses of the good news of his reign: “they will pick of up snakes with their hands” without being harmed.

The Messianic Age imagined by the prophet Isaiah appears to be taken up by Mark as the reality of the apostolic witnesses! The King enthroned signaled the end of injustice and violence (even that which was considered “normal” to the order of life as experienced)…the end of the dangers of this age. It was the dawning of a new day…indeed a new creation order! The end was not yet, but was already witnessed in the undoing of injustice and violence at the hands of the apostles, in the undoing of the animosity of serpent and ‘seed’.

King Jesus ascended. His reign commenced. His servants gathered to his banner. He would come again and all of creation would be set to rights. Until that day, the citizens of his kingdom would go out and “pick up snakes with their hands”** as testimony to his soon coming.

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* Despite the later addition of the long ending of Mark this text still offers an intriguing literary and theological intersection with the Isaiah 11 passage.

** I am not here advocating for “snake-handling” as certain within the Pentecostal traditions. In other words, DON’T PICK UP SNAKES! Those who have made this a practice are regularly harmed (and many have died, including the founder of this movement: George Hensley) by doing such. Their experiences actually reveal that the kingdom is not witnessed among them, but offers a deeper understanding of the remaking of creation. I am advocating for the working in light of the reigning King as those who live between worlds and testify to a new heavens and new earth even as we bear the cruciform marks of our Lord Jesus in this world of sin and sorrow.

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"Fourteen" Generations?

This week I preached from Matthew 1:1-17 on the genealogy of Jesus.  Talk about a fun text!  Needless to say, one of the elements of this text that is troubling (at a certain level) is the emphasis by Matthew on “fourteen generations” from Abraham to David, then David to the exile in Babylon, then the exile to the Christ.  When one counts the names in each list it becomes readily apparent that there are not fourteen in all three.  The first is fine, but the other two are not. 

There have been a number of proposals for resolving this and I’ll just mention them briefly followed by my own proposal.
1) At least one of the names should be counted in both lists.  For instance, David or Jeconiah.
2) The three groups of fourteen are meant to refer to six groups of seven (which is considered a number of completion).
3) Fourteen should be understood as gematria (where the letters of the alphabet represent numbers) and David in the Hebrew (דָּוִד dawid – only the consonants have numeric value) is 4+6+4 which equals 14.  Thus, David and Jesus connection to him as the Christ is the central point.

The first should be rejected because there is actually no clear indication of adding only one name twice.  It fails to work out intelligibly in any counting.  The second proposal fails because Matthew emphatically notes “fourteen” and not seven.  This would also place Jesus within the groups and fails to actually count the names.  The third (being the leading preference for interpreting this passage) falls short (in my opinion) because it requires a Hebrew gematria reading of a Greek text, which seems overly complex.  The use of a name being equal to the number is also not noted (as elsewhere in Scripture – cf. Rev.13:18).

My own proposal is simply to consider the “fourteen” generations for each of the groups as referring to the fulness of time.  This is then taken to point to Jesus as the Christ coming in the line of the promise to Abraham to bless all the nations, and to king David to have a son who would sit on the throne forever.  Thus, making this text a wonderful fit for Advent season (on which also see the post by Dan Thompson concerning “hope”).  To be certain, the number “fourteen” in this context is ambiguous at best.  One can only guess that Matthew’s original audience understood what was meant.  So what are your thoughts?