Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #785 ------- October 15, 2019
Middle age is when work is a lot less fun
and fun is a lot more work; when it
takes longer to rest than to get tired.

Laurence J. Peter [1919-1990]

Message of a Middle-Aged Messiah
The "About Thirty" - "Not Yet Fifty" Dilemma

Lord Byron (1788-1824), an English Baron, poet and politician, wrote a satiric poem titled "Don Juan" (first published in 1819) in which he described "middle age" as being that awkward time in the lives of humans during which "we hover between fool and sage." One foot is stepping tentatively toward wisdom; the other foot still woefully entrenched in folly. For many humans it is a time when our emotions are dangerously unsettled, and far too many of us wander onto dangerous paths that quickly lead to that dreaded and dreadful "midlife crisis." Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), in his 14th century epic poem "Divine Comedy," began "Inferno" with these words: "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood." Many of us, sadly, can relate only too well. Perhaps with this state of middle-aged folly firmly in mind, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) opined: "To live longer than forty years is bad manners; it is vulgar, immoral." George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) wasted no words: "Every man over forty is a scoundrel." Back during my university days I recall hearing one of my professors saying, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I'm sure, "Perhaps this is why God, in His infinite wisdom, determined that Jesus, the eternal Word indwelling human flesh, would not only begin, but also complete, His messianic mission prior to the onset of middle age."

As for that period in our Lord's earthly life when He chose to enter into His public ministry, Luke does indeed affirm, "Jesus, when He began His ministry, was about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23a). I'm the kind of person who likes to have historical events nailed down a bit more precisely. I want names, dates, times, locations, etc. I want specifics. That's just me. So, when Luke informs us that Jesus began His public ministry when He was "about thirty" years old, I immediately sigh and think, "Luke, Luke: you're a man of science, a physician, one who has undoubtedly done research; you are likely well-read; surely you can be a bit more precise!" And yet, for whatever reason, Luke wasn't, and, as one might well imagine, this has led to centuries of speculation and theorizing on the part of biblical scholars and historians. The renowned Greek scholar Dr. A.T. Robertson observes, "Luke does not commit himself definitely to precisely thirty years as the age of Christ" [Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword], which, of course, leaves open the possibility that Jesus could have been either younger or older at the time He entered His public ministry. "It is very common for Luke to use the word 'about' with a specification of time" [H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke, p. 87]. Several examples of this usage (where Luke merely approximates a time or number) can be seen in his writings: Luke 1:56; 9:28; 22:59; 23:44; Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:36; 10:3; 19:7. Thus, by the use of "about," Luke is "implying that the date is only approximate, and that it cannot be used as a fixed datum for chronological purposes" [The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 782]. "The age of Jesus is given in very approximate terms. He might have been in His mid-thirties" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 861]. One thing we can rather safely say is: "The age of our blessed Lord has never been properly determined" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 582]. There are reputable biblical scholars who "think that our Lord was at this time (when He began His ministry) about thirty-four years and ten months old, and that He was crucified about the middle of His thirty-sixth year. Some of the primitive fathers, on the other hand, believed that He was fifty years old when He was crucified. Many opinions on this subject, which are scarcely worthy of being copied, may be found" [ibid]. It should also be pointed out, just as an aside, that Luke mentions the age of Jesus at the beginning of his genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38), and most likely as a part of it in some way. For a fuller discussion of this, see my study: "The Genealogy of Jesus: Focusing on His Family Tree from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke" (Reflections #231).

Although Luke merely approximates the age of Jesus ("about thirty"), which certainly grammatically permits the addition or subtraction from that number of several years, there is, nevertheless, some spiritual significance associated with the age of thirty, especially within Judaism, which would strongly suggest that Jesus was at the very least thirty years of age when He began His ministry. Joseph, the son of Jacob, "was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt" (Genesis 41:46), and it was at this time he entered into his time of leadership over Egypt. "Now David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years" (2 Samuel 5:4). Those who served the Lord from among the tribe of Levi were to be a minimum of thirty years of age. God told Moses to take a census of these people "from thirty years and upward, even to fifty years old; all who enter the service to do the work in the tent of meeting" (Numbers 4:1-3). Notice the two ages given in this text: "thirty years and upward, even to fifty years." Keep those two numbers in mind. This was the window of opportunity for service in the House of God for those called to that service. "All the numbered men of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron and the leaders of Israel numbered, by their families and by their fathers' households, from thirty years and upward, even to fifty years old, everyone who could enter to do the work of service and the work of carrying in the tent of meeting" (Numbers 4:46-47; cf. 1 Chronicles 23:3). That phrase (from 30 and upward, even to 50) is repeated several times in this chapter (vs. 23, 30, 35, 39, 43, 47). This was the specified window of opportunity for service to God within the tabernacle/temple. The Jews during the time of Christ, and especially their religious leaders, would have been aware of this 30-to-50 years old period, and thus it would have meant something to them to discover that this man Jesus, who was entering into His service to God and God's people, was clearly within that two decade spread. We should also note that in the perception of the Jews at that time, thirty years of age was the time when a man transitioned from being a "youth" to becoming a "man/adult." "The people would not have been disposed to recognize the authority of a teacher who had not attained that age. Thus, it was God's purpose that the Messiah should not enter upon His public duties until He had arrived at the age of thirty" [H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke, p. 88].

We jump from the beginning of our Lord's public ministry to a time when it was coming to its preordained completion. It was this latter period to which the aged apostle John devotes much of his gospel narrative. In John 8 we find the Pharisees confronting Jesus once again (something they regularly did throughout His ministry). They were insisting that they were "Abraham's offspring," and Jesus used that conversation with them to point out that if indeed they were the offspring of Abraham, then they should be rejoicing like Abraham over the coming of the Messiah. "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). This puzzled the Jews: how could this man standing before them have seen Abraham, who had died some two thousand years before?! It was here that Jesus uttered that phrase that attested to His divinity: "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM" (vs. 58). The Jews then tried to kill Him, but Jesus was able to get away (vs. 59). The passage that concerns us in this present study is John 8:57, where the Jews said to Jesus, "You are not yet fifty years old, and You have seen Abraham?!" Fifty years old -- where did that come from? Yes, we can understand that they were puzzled as to how Jesus could have seen Abraham (although we should note that Jesus never said that; rather, He said Abraham had seen His day; these critics couldn't even quote Him correctly). They were confused and conflicted; so we can perhaps graciously grant them that bit of befuddlement in the context of this confrontation with Jesus. But, their reference to Jesus being "not yet fifty years old" seems strange in light of the common perception of most Christians today that Jesus would have been in His early thirties at this time.

There have been a few ancient Greek manuscripts found that have changed this verse to read "forty" instead of "fifty" years old, which most scholars believe was a later scribal "attempt to harmonize the statement more closely with Luke 3:23" [Dr. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 226]. "Fifty years old" is almost certainly the correct reading. This, along with Luke's use of the word "about," led several of the Early Church Fathers to assert that Jesus lived much longer than traditionally taught. Irenaeus (130-202 A.D.) testified in his own writings that some of those presbyters who had known the apostle John personally were of the view (perhaps from John himself) that Jesus "taught 'til He was forty or fifty" [The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 782]. Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.), the Archbishop of Constantinople and an important Early Church Father, was also of this view, believing Jesus to be close to fifty years old at the time of His crucifixion [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 457]. As we noted from the census Moses took of the Levites, the years of service of those within this priestly tribe was from 30 to 50 years of age. Fifty was the age when the workers in the House of God would retire. Just as "youth" ended at 30, and one entered into "manhood" or "adulthood," so did middle age end at 50, at which time one was considered to have entered "old age." BOTH of these passages (Luke 3:23 and John 8:57), therefore, place Jesus within this two decade spread, which would have been significant to the ancient Jews. Although it would be impossible for us today to assert the precise age of Jesus at His entrance to His public ministry as well as His departure from it, we CAN confidently assert that it fell nicely within the parameters of priestly active service.

As a final observance, some scholars, who are not willing to suggest Jesus may have been older than traditionally taught at His death, have suggested that He was only in His early thirties at His death, but His life had been filled with so much emotional anguish that He probably looked much older than His actual age. "His countenance was so altered, with grief and watching, that, together with the gravity of His aspect, it made Him look like a man of fifty years old" [Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. After all, they reason, did not the prophet foretell this? - "His appearance was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men" (Isaiah 52:14). Could this perhaps have caused some to regard Jesus as older than He was? This was suggested by the English cleric John Wesley (1703-1791), "Perhaps the gravity of our Lord's countenance, together with His afflictions and labors, might make Him appear older than He really was" [Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. Dr. John Gill (1690-1771) felt the same: "The reason of their fixing on this age of fifty might be because Christ might look like such a one, being a man of sorrows and acquainted with griefs" [Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword]. "Perhaps the tensions of His life had aged Him prematurely, yet He was obviously less than fifty years of age" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 99]. Some things, I suppose, we will never know (just as we will likely never know for sure when Jesus was born, although we can be reasonably sure it was not December 25th). Though it would certainly satisfy our curiosity to know with greater preciseness such dates and times, our God has rightly determined that there are far greater truths and realities for us to ponder and embrace. May we always be a people who are curious and questioning, but may we never become so distracted by such shadows that we fail to perceive the Substance right before our eyes!


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Readers' Reflections

From a New Reader in Pennsylvania:

Al, I just read your posts dealing with the "law of silence" on one of the "Church of Christ" Facebook groups, and I also read the article you had previously written, and for which you provided that group a link: "Silence Before the Bench: The Failure of Legalists to Discern the Significance of Specificity vs. Silence" (Reflections #456). I found this article very interesting! Would you please add my email address to your Reflections mailing list?! Thank you!

From a New Reader in Texas:

Al, ----- (one of your previous associate ministers) told me about you and your Reflections recently. I have only read a few of them from your Reflections Archives, but I am hooked. Would you please add me to your distribution list? Thank you, and thanks for the blessings of your writings!!

From a New Reader in New York:

Shalom, Al. I found your treatment of the account of Yephthah's daughter very insightful ("Jephthah's Reckless Vow: A Reflective Analysis of Judges 11" - Reflections #224), and I am interested in being considered for your mailing list. May the blessings of Elohim be with you!

From a Reader in Texas:

AMEN, Al, to your article "Evidencing a Spirit of Ecumenism: Being Ecumenical in a Denominational World" (Reflections #784). It always makes my day to open my email and see that you have mailed out another issue of your Reflections. I have been a member of the ------ Church of Christ here in ---------, TX for 40 years. I continue to have faith that one day they will finally see the light and understand that all believers are part of that One Body. Strangely, I seem to have more in common with my wife's cousin, who is a Catholic priest, than some of my fellow Church of Christ members! I often share your views with many of our members here, as well as with my wife's cousin, and have learned that there are more here than I had thought who see things the same way you do! I thought you might want to know that, and that you also might want to know that I will be using one of your related Reflections as a concordance for the sermon being preached. Thanks so much for what you do! And thanks for being a brother-in-Christ who serves souls, as well as a brother-in-arms who served our country in combat in Vietnam.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, congratulations on another great and profound article ("Evidencing a Spirit of Ecumenism"). Our lack of evidencing this ecumenical spirit is definitely a problem within the Churches of Christ. I fear we have securely taken the place of the Pharisees in many respects, although I suspect we are not the only ones (but, we can't change others; we can only change ourselves). One of the strange phenomena I have seen is where we will accept a Baptist into our church building, but we will not step a foot inside of their building, not even a Berean Baptist church, despite the fact that they might be preaching a sermon we agree with and are singing from a songbook that includes all of "our" songs. I sometimes think we might be more offended by the similarities between us than the differences. God bless you, Al!

From a Minister in Texas:

Al, I always look forward to your Reflections articles, as they challenge us to go beyond our previous views and opinions in many cases. I was interested in one of the reader responses in your last Reflections: it was from a reader who challenged you on baptism. I understand and agree with your perspective on the why of baptism, but I have never heard you call your opinions "Truth," with an upper case "T," which that reader did. This, I believe, is the biggest problem with our anti-ecumenical crowd. They feel they must always possess absolute "Truth," and they cannot live with the idea that they just might be wrong! I have mentioned Kathryn Schultz's book "Being Wrong" before, but I believe her insights help us all understand the dynamics of human psychology that relate to truth and being wrong. Perhaps the people who think they have to have absolute "Truth" in their every opinion are really afraid, deep down, that they are wrong! Thus, they pounce on anyone who dares disagree with them, and they do so without even considering that they may be the ones mistaken in their views. As you know, there are many "sacred cows" we deal with in the Churches of Christ. While there are no written creeds, we DO have many unwritten ones. I believe this desire for "Truth," mixed with a fear of being wrong, is the driving force of people attacking things they either disagree with or do not understand. Some within Churches of Christ are absolutely unwilling to allow any other view than their own. Why? Because if it were to be shown that I was right, then it would mean that they were wrong, and that is something their egos can not tolerate. I thank God He has taught me this lesson in many different ways through life experiences. Perhaps that is the biggest takeaway from these thoughts. We need to be able to accept others no matter their opinions of faith. I remind myself of what Paul told the Galatians (in Gal. 5:6): "What is important is faith expressing itself in love." Perhaps that is where our "Truth" (upper case) should lie. Thanks for listening to my ruminations. It was cathartic for at least one of us (LOL).

From a Reader in Barbados:

AMEN and Amen again to your article on the spirit of ecumenism. Stick to your guns, Al. The reason our light to the world is so dim is that too many are lighting their own candles rather than allowing the floodlight of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ to shine through unhindered by our silly, petty differences! No wonder the world remarks that Christians don't know what they are about. We are guilty of replacing TRUTH with our own tradition. I thank God for those of our predecessors who blazed a path toward Jesus, but these people themselves were not Jesus, nor were they or their thoughts the "be all and end all" of eternal Truth. Thanks again my brother for your work! Blessings to you!

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, I really enjoyed this history lesson in your article "Evidencing a Spirit of Ecumenism." I, too, was part of that "WE are the ONLY ones going to heaven" crowd. I grew up in Nashville where "WE" did not fellowship anyone: hardly even other Churches of Christ. So sad! What a twisted view! You mentioned preaching in Hawaii. I'm wondering when you were there? I was at Ft. Shafter in Honolulu in the early 1960's. My fiancÚ came over and we got married at the Pearl Harbor Church of Christ. I attended the downtown congregation on Keeaumoku Street for a few months before our wedding. I don't remember who the preacher was.

From an Author in California:

Bro. Maxey, Thank you for your article "Evidencing a Spirit of Ecumenism." Unfortunately, to our shame as a denomination, many in the Churches of Christ do not feel or recognize "the scandal of our divisions." To some they are actually a source of pride!!

From a Reader in Canada:

Hello Brother. You make my spirit shake at times, especially when I think back to my actions as a young member/preacher in the Churches of Christ. I was so sure of myself and our faith group; so sure we alone had ALL truth. It was years before I even understood the difference between flock and fold. Brother Edward Fudge opened my eyes to many new thoughts, and also to the real GIFT of salvation. I love you, Al, and how you make me think and rethink even the things I often felt were solid Bible beliefs. Jesus is definitely "the Way," but you should be called "the door" to understanding! Keep preaching to me, brother -- I need the instruction!

From a Minister in Wyoming:

Thank you, Al. The blessing I receive from your Reflections, which you share with us, is two-fold: the prompting challenge of searching deeper into Scripture in spite of disagreement, and the affirmation of one's own conviction that has come to fruition through personal study. Too many of us, as long time ministers of the Gospel from the Stone-Campbell Movement (I am fourth generation), have been held in check as located preachers (either from fear of being stereotyped as a "change agent" or "false teacher," or by loss of income needed to support our families). Keep up the great work, Al. Christ-likeness is liberating when shared in love, for "love casts out fear." Prayer is offered from here on your behalf.

From a Reader in Georgia:

"Evidencing a Spirit of Ecumenism" - Good stuff right here, Al. Interestingly enough, Jesus addresses this very issue in the ninth chapters of both Mark and Luke. When the disciples were confronted with people living out the Good News, but in a different "group" than they were in, they worriedly approached Jesus to stop them! How dare they do the work of the church if they weren't a part of "OUR church"?! Jesus responded that "whoever is not against us, is for us." He didn't dig into the other group's motivations, practices, nuances, etc. He simply disallowed the disciples interfering with their activities. He, in all fairness, didn't "require" them to associate with them either. But, wouldn't it be great if all of the people of faith could find some common ground on which to associate and impact the world?! Yes, truth is truth, but we don't get to heaven based on our theological accuracy or our own ability to work it all out, but rather by the grace of God extended to us through Jesus Christ. That seems to be a good thing for all of the faithful who are less than perfect ... and that includes me!

From a Reader in California:

Brother, I used to think I knew the Bible pretty well; that is, until I started reading your Reflections articles. It was then that I was humbled (maybe even rightfully humiliated) and made to realize that I didn't, and still don't, know much about the Bible at all. Your studies are very scholarly, indeed, very erudite, yet still very understandable. When I first read your articles years ago, one of the first things I said to myself was, "I know very little about the Bible by comparison," and "Man, this guy can write." Though I'm a writer myself (two books published and five Hollywood scripts), I know that I'll never write as well as you do. This keeps me humble, however, and it keeps me hungry to continue to evolve in my beliefs through reflective study. Thank you very much for all the great articles you have provided through the years!

From an Author in Unknown:

Al, I wanted to write to ask for your consent to use pretty much most of your article "The Nicolaitans: A Case Study in Compromise" (Reflections #73) as one of the chapters in a book called "The Notorious Nicolaitans." This is not something I normally like doing, but your study sits well as a good summary in explaining why the disciples in that period of time sought only half measures in walking whole heartedly before the Lord. Thanks for your consideration. God bless.

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