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Why skipping church messes us up.

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Whenever I share Jesus with people, most of the time I discover they’re Christian. Or at least they imagine they’re Christian. In the United States, most folks have had some exposure to Christianity. Some of us grew up churchgoers. Others said some version of a sinner’s prayer at one point in our lives. Others had Christian parents, or were baptized, or attend Easter and Christmas services and figure that’ll do. People figure they believe in Jesus and that’s all it takes to make ’em Christian. Confess, believe, and we’re saved. Ro 10.9 Right? So by this metric they figure they’re Christian. They believe in Jesus. Following him is a whole other deal. They’re not religious. They’re “spiritual,” as they define spiritual, which usually means imaginary —’cause like I said, they imagine they’re Christian. Their Christianity wholly exists in their heads. You’d be hard-pressed to find it elsewhere in their lives, but it’s in their heads at least—and somebody’s assured them it c

Three focal points of church services.

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Obviously not all churches are alike. Practices vary. Even within the same denomination: Y’might have one church which is known for its Christian education, bible studies, Sunday school program, and teaching pastors… with a sister church known for its musicians. Talk to any Christian about what they like best in their church, and they’ll usually emphasize a few things they particularly like: The friendliness. The informality. The kids’ program. The decor. The amiability of the head pastor. The many outreach programs. The coffee—for once it’s not Folger’s! (’Cause Folger’s is crap. But when the person in charge of the church’s coffee doesn’t even drink coffee, guess what they always buy? Right—the cheapest stuff on the shelf. Kirkland or Folger’s, or some other awful blend which tastes like Juan Valdez’s burro rolled around in it. Churches, don’t do that to your people. But I digress.) These things aside, y’might notice churches structure their entire Sunday morning service (

When and where the church meets.

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Years ago I got an email asking about what day of the week we oughta attend our church services. My church has a Saturday night service, and I started going to that instead of Sunday mornings. My sister says Saturday nights don’t count; we’re supposed to go to church on Sundays. I told her God doesn’t care when we go to church, so long that we do. Which of us is right? Which of you is right? The weaker believer. Always. Romans 14.5-6 NLT 5 In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable. 6 A Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him.   Romans 15.1-2 NLT 1 We who are strong must be considerate of those who are sensitive about things like this. We must not just please ourselves. 2 We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. If our Christian sister or brother has a hangup, we might

The church is people.

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Church. tʃərtʃ noun. A Christian group which gathers for the purpose of following and worshiping God. 2. God’s kingdom: Every Christian, everywhere on earth, throughout all of history. 3. A denomination: One such distinct Christian organization, namely one with its own groups, clergy, teachings, and buildings. 4. A Christian group’s building or campus. If you compare the definition of church I gave, with that of an average English-language dictionary, you’ll notice a few differences. The average dictionary tends to first refer to buildings—because that’s what your average English-speaker means when they say church. “I’m going to church” means “I’m going to a church building.” Or “We’re gonna be late for church” means “We’re gonna be late for the services at the building.” But when Jesus used the word ἐκκλησία / ekklisía he didn’t mean a building. He meant a group of people. That’s what Jesus’s church is to him: His people. Mt 18.17 The church is to Christianity

Go to church!

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Church. tʃərtʃ noun. A Christian group which gathers for the purpose of following and worshiping God. 2. God’s kingdom: Every Christian, everywhere on earth, throughout all of history. 3. A denomination: One such distinct Christian organization, namely one with its own groups, clergy, teachings, and buildings. 4. A Christian group’s building or campus. Ἐκκλησία / ekklisía , the Greek word we translate “church,” properly means “group.” Yeah, you might’ve heard some preacher claim it means “a specially-called-out people.” It’s ’cause ekklisía ’s word-root καλέω / kaléo means “call.” So those who like to dabble in language assume “call” must be part of ekklisía ’s meaning. But words evolve, y’know. Our word congress used to mean “group” too… and nowadays it means “our do-nothing national legislature.” Ancient Greeks also used ekklisía to refer to their legislatures. But regardless of what it used to mean, hundreds of years before Jesus used it to refer to his grou

The limitations of legalists.

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Back in college I had some classmates who had honest questions about Christianity. They were pagans who were raised by totally irreligious parents, so all they knew about Christians were stereotypes. Yet here I was, a real live Christian, who didn’t fit those stereotypes, who knew enough to give ’em facts and background, and not be a jerk about it. So they picked my brain. What do you guys do in church? What’s the program? What’s the bible about? What’s in it? What’s the dress code? (They heard rumors about sacred undergarments, so I had to inform ’em that’s only a Mormon thing. ) What political views must Christians have? And so forth. But as I was trying to answer the questions, another classmate decided he just had to get in on this, and pitch his two cents. He was a fellow Christian, who went to another church than I did—a much more legalistic one. He continually felt he had to “correct” my answers whenever they got too gracious for his taste. It got annoying

Burdens which were put on one’s heart.

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HEART hɑrt noun. Hollow muscular organ which pumps blood through the circulatory system. 2. [ in popular culture ] Center of a person’s thoughts and emotions; one’s mood, feeling, enthusiasm, mood, or courage. 3. [ in popular Christian culture ] Center of a person’s lifeforce; one’s innermost being; the true self, particularly one’s true thoughts and feelings. 4. A conventional heart shape, as found on a deck of cards. [Hearted 'hɑrt.ɛd adjective. ] I’ve already written on the heart —the blood-pumping muscle in our chests, how popular culture uses it as a metaphor for emotion, and how the ancients believed it did what we now know the brain does. And of course how Christians mix up the biblical idea with the pop culture idea, and therefore misinterpret the bible like crazy: To the ancients, you didn’t feel with your heart; you felt with your guts . You thought with your heart. Or, when your “heart was hard,” you didn’t: Your mind was made up. Today I’m gonna di

Jesus’s resurrection: If he wasn’t raised, we’re boned.

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Of Christianity’s two biggest holidays, Christmas is the easier one for pagans to swallow. ’Cause Jesus the Nazarene was born. That, they won’t debate. There are a few cranks who think Jesus’s life is entirely mythological, start to finish; but for the most part everyone agrees he was born. May not believe he was miraculously born, but certainly they agree he was born. Easter’s way harder. ’Cause Jesus the Nazarene rose from the dead. And no, he didn’t just wake up in a tomb after a two-day coma following a brutal flogging and crucifixion. Wasn’t a spectral event either, where his ghost went visiting his loved ones to tell them everything’s all right; he’s on a higher plane now; in time they’ll join him. Nor was it a “spiritual” event, where people had visions or mass hallucinations of him, or missed him so hard they psyched themselves into believing they saw him. Christians state Jesus is alive. In a body. A human body. An extraordinary body; apparently his new body can

Our dead won’t stay dead.

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1 Thessalonians 4.13-18. The Greeks claimed when you died, you went to the netherworld. Specifically, you went to the god of the netherworld, Ἅ́δης / Ádis (or as the Romans called him, Pluto; or as well call him, Hades; no, he’s not a bad guy like the movies make him out to be, although he did kidnap Persephone) and he determined where you went. Good people went to Ἠλύσιον / Ilýsion , a continent or island in the far west (you know, like where the Elves went in The Lord of the Rings ), full of green fields. Bad people went to Τάρταρος / Tártaros , a place as deep below Ádis as he was below earth, to be imprisoned with the Titans whom Zeus defeated when he took over the world. Special cases, like Dionýsios and Iraklís (whom the Romans called Hercules) were turned into gods, and lived with them on Ὀλυμπος / Ólympos —a literal mountain near Thessaloniki, where the Greeks imagined the gods lived when they weren’t busy on adventures. The rest stayed with Ádis as he deter

Easter.

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On 5 April 33, before the sun rose at 5:23 a.m. in Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Executed only two days before, he became the first human on earth to be resurrected. Jesus died the day before Passover. This was deliberate. This way his death would fulfill many of the Passover rituals. Because of this relationship to Passover, many Christians actually call this day some variation of the Hebrew פֶּסַח / Pesákh , “Passover.” In Greek and Latin (and Russian), it’s Pascha ; in Danish Påske , Dutch Pasen , French Pâques , Italian Pasqua , Spanish Pascua , Swedish Påsk . But in many Germanic-speaking countries, including English, we use the ancient pagan word for April, Eostur . In German this becomes Ostern ; in English Easter . Because of the pagan origins of the word, certain Christians avoid it and just call the day “Resurrection Sunday.” (Which is fine, but confuses non-Christians.) Easter is our most important holiday. Christmas tends to get the world’s

Simon Peter denounces Jesus.

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Mark 14.66-72, Matthew 26.69-75, Luke 22.54-62, John 18.15-18, 25-27. After dinner earlier that night, Jesus told his students they weren’t gonna follow him much longer; they’d scatter. At this point Jesus’s best student, Simon Peter, got up and foolhardily claimed this prediction didn’t apply to him. Mark 14.29-31 KWL 29 Simon Peter told him, “If everyone else will get tripped up, it wo n’t include me.” 30 Jesus told him, “Amen, I promise you today , this night, before the rooster crows twice, you’ll renounce me thrice.” 31 Peter said emphatically, “Even if I have to die for you, I will never renounce you.” Everyone else said likewise. And y’know, Peter wasn’t kidding. I’ve heard way too many sermons which mock Peter for this, who claim he was all talk. Thing is, he really wasn’t. When Jesus was arrested, Peter was packing a machete, and used it. Slashed a guy’s ear clean off. You don’t start swinging a work knife at a mob unless you’re willing to risk life

The legality of Jesus’s trial.

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When you read the gospel of John , but skip the other three gospels, y’might get the idea Jesus never even had a trial. In that book: Jesus gets arrested. He’s taken right to the former head priest Annas’s house for an unofficial trial. From there, to Joseph Caiaphas’s house. Then to Pontius Pilate’s fortress. Then to Golgotha. No conviction, no sentence; just interviews followed by execution. Same as would be done in any country with no formal judicial system: They catch you, they interrogate you, they free or shoot you. But both Judea and Rome did have a formal system; John doesn’t show it because the other gospels do, and John was written to fill in the gaps in their stories. They have the story of Jesus’s formal trials. There were two: The one before the Judean senate, and the other before the Roman prefect. The senate, presided over by head priest Caiaphas, found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and sedition. In contrast Pontius publicly stated he didn’t f

On violently resisting Jesus’s arrest.

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Mark 14.47, Matthew 26.51-54, Luke 22.49-51, John 18.10-11. After sundown Thursday, Jesus and his students had a Passover meal, which Christians call “the Last Supper.” After it, Jesus had some things to tell them, and in that discussion there’s this: Luke 22.35-38 KWL 35 Jesus told them, “When I sent you out without a wallet, bag, or extra sandals, you didn’t lack anything, did you ? They told him, “Nothing.” 36 Jesus told them, “But now those who have a wallet: Take it. Your bag too. Those who don’t have one: Sell your coat and buy a machete. 37 For I tell you this scripture has to be fulfilled in me: ‘He was counted among the lawless.’ Is 53.12 For the scriptures about me have an endpoint.” 38 The students said, “Master, look!—two machetes here.” Jesus told them, “That’s plenty.” This passage confuses people—usually because of the way it’s typically translated. Luke 22.36, 38 NIV 36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and

Jesus’s arrest, and his abuse begins.

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Mark 14.45-52, Matthew 26.50-56, Luke 22.49-54, John 18.4-12. The second station, in John Paul’s list of stations of the cross, is where Judas betrayed Jesus and Jesus was arrested. Same station for both. But different forms of suffering: Judas was about when your friends or confidants turn on you, and the rest was about the pain and dread people feel when their enemies have ’em right where they want ’em. Let’s go to the gospels. Mark 14.45-52 KWL 45 Immediately going to Jesus , he told him, “Rabbi!” and kissed him hello. 46 So they grabbed and arrested him. 47 One of the bystanders, pulling out a machete, struck the head priest’s slave, and cut off his ear. 48 In reply, Jesus told them, “You come out with machetes and sticks to snatch me away, like I’m an insurgent. 49 Daytime, I was with you in the temple, teaching. You didn’t arrest me then . But this —it’ll fulfill the scriptures.” 50 Abandoning Jesus , everyone fled. 51 There was some teenager follo

Holy Week: When Jesus died.

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Sunday is Palm Sunday, the start of what we Christians call Holy Week . It’s also called Great Week, Greater Week, Holy and Great Week, Passion Week, Easter Week (by those people who consider Easter the end of the week), and various other titles. It remembers the week Jesus died. It took place 9–17 Nisan 3793 in the Hebrew calendar; and in the Julian calendar that’d be 29 March to 4 April of the year 33. DAY DATE JESUS’S ACTIVITY PALM SUNDAY. 9 Nisan 3793 29 March 33 Jesus entered Jerusalem; the crowds said Hosanna. Mk 11.1-11, Mt 21.1-11, Lk 19.28-44, Jn 12.12-19 HOLY MONDAY. 10 Nisan 3793 30 March 33 Cleansing the temple of the merchants; cursing the fig tree. Mk 11.12-18, Mt 21.12-19, Lk 19.45-46, Jn 2.13-17 HOLY TUESDAY. 11 Nisan 3793 31 March 33 Jesus taught in temple. Lk 19.47-48, 21.37 HOLY WEDNESDAY. 12 Nisan 3793 1 April 33 Still teaching in temple. MAUNDY THURSDAY. 13 Nisan 3793 2 April 33 The last supper; Jesus was

What became of Judas Iscariot.

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Matthew 27.3-10, Acts 1.15-26. Technically Judas bar Simon of Kerioth, the renegade follower of Jesus whom we know as Judas Iscariot, isn’t part of the stations of the cross. Whether we’re using St. Francis or St. John Paul’s list, neither of ’em figured his situation is specifically worthy of meditation. Although we should study Judas some, ’cause he’s an example of an apostle gone wrong—an example we really don’t wanna follow. Nor repeat. But Jesus was too busy going through his own suffering to really focus on what was happening with Judas. Judas came up when he handed Jesus over to the authorities… and in three of the gospels, that’s the last we ever hear of him. The exceptions are Matthew —and since the author of Luke also wrote Acts , it’s kinda in another gospel, ’cause Acts is about how the Holy Spirit and apostles started Jesus’s church. But that’s a whole other discussion. Here’s the problem: For the most part, the Matthew and Acts stories contradict one

Some people don’t wanna argue. And they’re entirely right not to.

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Back in 2017 an acquaintance of mine started an “apologetics ministry.” It’s kinda defunct now. Initially it consisted of his blog, his Twitter account, and a whole bunch of his spare time. (You know, like TXAB —except I don’t do apologetics.) Except he also created a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, got some friends to be his board members, and solicited donations. He was hoping to turn it into a full-time job… and got really irritated at me for calling it “getting paid to sit in his pajamas all day and argue with strangers on the internet.” But that is what he was doing. In his mind, he was doing it for Jesus. He figured apologetics is a vital, necessary ministry, and there simply aren’t enough Christians out there… arguing with strangers on the internet, whether they spend all day in their jammies or not. Like I said, his “ministry” is defunct now. He’s taken to arguing politics. Political organizations aren’t allowed under the 501(c)3 tax code, so I’m pretty sure he’s ei

Judas Iscariot sells Jesus out to the authorities.

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Mark 14.41-46, Matthew 26.45-50, Luke 22.47-48, John 18.1-3. In St. John Paul’s list of stations of the cross, the second station combines Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and Jesus of Nazareth’s arrest. ’Cause they happened simultaneously—they, and Simon Peter slashing one of the head priest’s slaves. There’s a lot to unpack there, which is why I want to look at them separately. Getting betrayed and getting arrested, fr’instance: That’s two different kinds of suffering. Psychological and physical. So right after Jesus prayed in Gethsemane (the first station), this happened: Mark 14.41-46 KWL 41 Jesus came back a third time and told his students , “Now you’re sleeping, and resting— and that’s enough. The hour’s come. Look, the Son of Man is getting handed over to sinful hands. 42 Get up so we can go: Here comes the one who sold me out.” 43 Next, while Jesus was yet speaking, Judas Iscariot approached the Twelve. With him was a crowd carrying machetes and sticks,

Encouragement to a persecuted church.

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1 Thessalonians 4.9-12. Though the Thessalonians appeared to be doing just fine, behaving themselves and living a holy lifestyle, Paul, Silas, and Timothy just wanted to reiterate a few things for their encouragement. It needed repeating. Likewise we need to be reminded of such things, from time to time. Even though we may not suffering to any persecution remotely like that of the Thessalonians—and therefore have even less of a justification for not loving one another, loving our neighbors, and not living uprightly towards outsiders. (Not that suffering is any justification anyway.) 1 Thessalonians 4.9-12 KWL 9 As for loving one’s Christian family, we needn’t write you: You yourselves are taught by God himself to love one another, 10 and you do it throughout the Christian family, throughout the whole of Macedon. We wish to help you, fellow Christians , so you can abound more— 11 to love the value of rest, to do your own work with your own hands, just as w

Stations of the cross: Remembering Christ’s suffering.

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In Jerusalem, Israel, Christians remember Jesus’s death by actually going down the route he traveled the day he died. It’s called the Way of Jesus, the Way of Sorrows (Latin, Via Dolorosa ), or the Way of the Cross ( Via Cručis ). When I visited Jerusalem, it’s part of the tour package: Loads of us Christians go this route every single day, observing all the places Jesus is said to have suffered. Really solemn, moving stuff. But most of us Christians don’t live in or near Jerusalem, and some of us can’t possibly go there. For this reason St. Francis of Assisi invented “the stations of the cross.” In his church building, he set up seven different dioramas. Each represented an event which happened as Jesus was led to his death. The people of his church would go to each diorama—each station— and meditate on what Jesus did for us all. Yeah, this is a Catholic thing, ’cause Francis was Roman Catholic. But it’s not exclusively Catholic: Many Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists use

“The spirit of…”

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SPIRIT OF… 'spɪ.rɪt əv noun, genitive . A quality considered the defining or typical element in the character of a person, people, or institution. 2. A supernatural being creating or facilitating that element. Pagans don’t know what spirit is, and their best guess is emotion: Spirit is the feeling you get when a speaker talks about stuff you care about—or stuff that terrifies you. Spirit is the emotions stirred up by a great piece of music or a great work of art. Spirit is the mood in the room when you enter it, and it’ll either make you want to stick around or flee. Spirit is the vibes you feel from a really positive or really negative person. Spirit is the feels. No surprise, this false definition is all over Christianity. So much so, people think the way you detect the Holy Spirit, or some other evil spirit, is by our feelings . If the spirit of a room is all dark and creepy, it means there’s an evil spirit in there, trying to tempt or mislead you; your feelings

Can God’s word “return void”?

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Isaiah 55.11. So one night I and my friend Jason ( not his real name, and you’ll soon see why) were walking from the car to the coffeehouse. Enroute some vagrant asked us for spare change. Jason got it into his head this was a “divine opportunity”: It’s time to proclaim the gospel to this person! It’s time to get him saved. That’s how we wasted the next 15 minutes. Yep, wasted . Because the vagrant was. Either he was drunk, or off his meds, or had recently suffered a head injury, or otherwise had some condition which made him incoherent. Jason asked him questions to determine whether he understood the gospel… and the guy would start rambling about how he believed men and women should be together. In which context I don’t know. (Hey, this article is about context, so I had to bring it up at some point.) Jason kinda had this poor guy cornered in a doorway, pressuring him for some sorta confession of faith. Finally, after he extracted something he considered satisfactory, we

Redeemer: Somebody like Jesus who bails us out. Or not.

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REDEEM rə'dim verb . Compensate for the flaws, deficiencies, or evil of something or someone. 2. Save someone from sin, error, or evil. 3. Gain or regain something, in exchange for payment; repay, or clear a debt. 4. Fulfill a promise. [Redemption rə'dɛm(p).ʃən noun , redeemer rə'dim.ər noun , redeemable rə'di.mə.bəl adjective .] When people talk about redeeming or redemption, if they’re not Christian they’re usually talking about recycling cans and bottles. In California when you buy something in a recyclable container, you’re charged an extra fee (the California redemption value, or CRV ) which we’re meant to get back when we take the container to a recycling center. Although not everybody bothers to get their CRV back; they toss it in a recycling bin. Or even the trash—and then someone else will go digging through the trash looking for recyclables, hoping for that sweet, sweet CRV money. Christian redemption isn’t quite like that… although I h

Now called to a holy lifestyle.

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1 Thessalonians 4.1-8. Since Paul, Silas, and Timothy now know the Thessalonians haven’t fallen away from Christ Jesus, they wanted to encourage them: Good job. Keep it up. And do more . Remember, God’s called us Christians to be uniquely holy. That’s more than just being good, ’cause just about anybody can be good, with effort… plus a fear of bad karma. God isn’t interested in that. He doesn’t just want us to be pagans saved by grace who happen to hold better beliefs than average. He wants us to stand out from the rest of the world. Like Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 4.1-8 KWL 1 So from now on fellow Christians , we ask you— we wish to help, in Master Jesus ’s name so, same as you received from us information on how one has to walk and please God, same as you already do walk—so you can abound more : 2 You know which mandates we gave you through Master Jesus: 3 This is God’s will: Your holiness. To keep you rselves away from porn. 4 For each of you to know your o

Can’t see; pretty sure they can.

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Matthew 15.12-14, Luke 6.39-40, John 9.39-41. Jesus’s saying about “the blind leading the blind” is pretty famous. So much so, people don’t remember who originally said it. I once had someone tell me it comes from the Upanishads. And it is actually in there; Yama the death god compares the foolish to the blind leading the blind. Katha Upanishad 2.6 But ancient, medieval, and modern westerners didn’t read the Upanishads! They read the gospels. They got it from Jesus. Jesus actually doesn’t use the idea only once, in only one context. We see it thrice in the gospels. It appears in Matthew after Jesus critiqued Pharisees for their loopholes; it appears in Luke as part of Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain; and in John it appropriately comes after the story where Jesus cures a blind man. So let’s deal with the context of each instance. Matthew first. Matthew 15.12-14 KWL 12 Coming to Jesus , his students then told him, “You know the Pharisees who heard the word are outrage