[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given to the United Church of God congregation in Portland, Oregon on April 7, 2018.]
On July 14, 2012, Mr. Scott Ashley gave the first of at least three sermons that he has given to-date on the subject of remez to the congregation of Denver, Colorado. Although remez may be an unfamiliar word to us , it is a word game that Jesus Christ Himself played on numerous occasions, and it is a game that we can play too if we know how to. Remez, spelled r-e-m-e-z, is a word that means hint or clue in Hebrew, and it is one of the four levels of scriptural reading that would be familiar to anyone in antiquity who was raised with a deep familiarity with the Bible. Although the full subject of biblical hints and clues is far beyond the scope of a short message, in the time that is available to me today I would like to look at two times that Jesus Christ played the game of remez during His ministry, and from those experiences I will provide some hints and clues as to how we can successfully play the game of remez ourselves as people with a hopefully deep familiarity with the Bible.
Before we look at two of Jesus’ efforts at playing the game of remez during His ministry, I would like us to look at the text that he played with on both occasions. Let us turn in our Bibles today to Isaiah 61:1-3. These verses are among the more important specific purpose statements of Jesus Christ relating to His own ministry and as such they are verses we ought to be very familiar with. Isaiah 61:1-3 reads: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.” These are amazingly beautiful verses that point to aspects of both the first coming and the second coming of Jesus Christ, some of which will be fulfilled only in the coming of the new heavens and the new earth when there will be no more crying or pain any longer. When we read these verses, we may often be reminded of our own poverty, of our own brokenheartedness, of our own captivity, of the ways in which we are bound, the ways that we mourn, and the spirit of heaviness that is our lot to deal with from time to time as human beings who have been called by God in a world full of darkness and evil.
And yet this text was used at least twice to play the game of remez by Jesus Christ in the course of His ministry. I would first like us to turn to the successful game of remez that this passage was used in, and we find that in Matthew 11:1-10. Matthew 11:1-10 reads: “Now it came to pass, when Jesus finished commanding His twelve disciples, that He departed from there to teach and to preach in their cities. And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.'”
What makes this a successful game of remez? In this case, what we find is that both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ knew the rules of the game. Without quoting the verse in question, namely Isaiah 61:1, Jesus Christ sent the messengers back with a riddle for John the Baptist to untangle for himself. While Jesus Christ said that the blind were seeing and the lame were walking and the lepers were being cleansed and the deaf were hearing and the dead were being raised up and the poor were having the Gospels preached to them, there was one vitally important aspect of Isaiah 61:1 that would not be fulfilled for John the Baptist. Sometimes it is important to notice what is not said just as much as we notice what is said, and this is one of those examples. Let us note that Jesus Christ did not say that those who were in prison–like John the Baptist–would be freed. And it is that silence that was the unspoken question from John the Baptist to Jesus Christ and the unspoken answer to that question from Jesus Christ back to John the Baptist. John the Baptist was not freed from prison by Jesus Christ. Instead his head was cut off by an executioner thanks to the flirtatious dancing of Salome, the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, who had imprisoned John the Baptist for lese majeste because John had criticized his ungodly marriage to a woman who had left her previous husband, who happened to be one of Herod Antipas’ close relatives. This was a successful game of remez in that the two people playing the game knew the texts and knew how to play the game, but that did not make the message any happier.
Let us now look at the second game of remez that Jesus played with using this scripture and let us note that it was an unsuccessful game because the people Jesus was playing this game with did not understand this text and did not want to deal with the implications of it when Jesus Christ spelled them out. We find this story in Luke 4:16-30, the first sermon message of Jesus’ recorded after enduring the temptation in the wilderness. Luke 4:16-30 reads: “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” So all bore witness to Him, and marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in Your country.’” Then He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country. But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way.”
This was such an unsuccessful game of remez that Jesus’ playing of this game nearly got him stoned to death by an angry lynch mob of his childhood neighbors in Nazereth. When we read Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 61, we note that it stopped in the middle of what is verse two to us. Jesus Christ was telling His audience what was being fulfilled that day in their hearing, but by implication He was telling them that the remainder of this passage awaited a future fulfillment. In the future it will be the day of vengeance and the day that God will comfort those who mourn and make the righteous to be trees of righteousness that will be rooted and fixed for all time. Yet it was not this aspect of the game of remez that Jesus Christ was playing that his audience was immediately upset about. Instead, what angered Jesus’ audience was the way in which Jesus pointed to Gentiles being among those who would share in the blessings brought by the first coming of Jesus Christ, which the patriotic if not racist audience of Jesus viewed with such horror that they wished to kill Jesus Christ for pointing out that showing grace and divine favor to Gentiles had always been part of God’s dealings with Israel.
What can we learn from these games of remez that Jesus played with Isaiah 61? For one, let us note that in order to play the game of remez we have to note what is being said and what is not being said in Scripture. To pick up on the hints and clues of the Bible, we have to know the text that is being referred to well enough to note what is being quoted and what is not being quoted. What is not said by a speaker or not written by a writer is as important as what is said and what is written. Next, let us note as well that the implications of a biblical text may not always be pleasant. Knowing what is hinted and implied provides us deeper knowledge about God’s Word and its application to our lives, but that knowledge can often be painful and unpleasant, as it was to both John the Baptist and to Jesus’ old neighbors in Nazareth. Be that as it may, the Bible is rich in hints and clues, and if we wish to play the game of remez with the scriptures or with each other, there are many opportunities for us to do so, if we are willing to dust off the pages of our Bibles and study God’s Word in depth and if we seek to play the game of remez with others who are committed to following God’s ways and as knowledgeable about God’s Word as we ourselves are.
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