Category Archives: Matthew

What Are You Studying?

Pastors, teachers, and other students of God’s Word, you might enjoy supplementing your studies with some unique and accessible commentary.  My Bible Journal posts have followed the haphazard course of my own studies recently, largely focused on the New Testament.  Here’s an attempt to organize my offerings for you.  Please pass these links on to others if you think they would be helpful!

Remember, you can follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo, or sign up for email notifications (see the button below).

Bible Journal entries are listed below under the relevant books or sections of the Bible.  Find a match with what you are studying, and read along!

**GENERAL BIBLE STUDY TOOLKIT**

Bible Study Strategies (Audio)

Genre Judgment Calls

Pickup Theology

Redemptive-Historical Reading

Self-Evaluation Tool

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology

 

** OLD TESTAMENT COMMENTARY**

Christ in the OT

The Messiah in the OT

**GENERAL NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY**

Christ in the NT

Christ Jesus Our Lord

Invitational Imperatives (various Epistles)

Providing Perspective (various Epistles)

**GOSPELS**

General Gospels

Eyewitnesses to a Transfiguration

Mapping the Parables

On the Unforgivable Sin

Prompted Parables

Prophetic Puzzle Pieces

Samaritan Stories

“Shhh – don’t tell!”

Mark

Mark is Longer

Luke

Death Meets Life at the Gates of Nain

“Follow, Fast!”

The Cost of Salt

John

Curious Questions (Woman at the Well)

Naming Names

**ACTS**

Paul the Governed (see also Romans)

Prison Diary (Acts 16)

Greek Gods in the NT (Acts 16-19)

Take-Aways from Philippi (Acts 16)

Rome Meets Paul

Before Speaking, Listen (Acts 17)

 **PAUL’S EPISTLES**

Mutual Autobiography

What Paul Said About Jesus (Comprehensive Chart)

Paul on Jesus, Part 1 (The Lord of Time)

Paul on Jesus, Part 2 (History, Salvation, Obedience)

Paul on Jesus, Part 3 (Benefits & Realities)

Romans

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Galatians)

Paul the Governed (see also Acts)

The Metaphysical Situation (see also 1-2 Corinthians)

1-2 Corinthians

Fortune Cookies

Pickup Theology

Riff on 1 Cor. 13

The Metaphysical Situation (see also Romans)

Theo-logic

Examining Ourselves

 Galatians

A Tale of Two Jerusalems

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Romans)

In Step with the Spirit

Ephesians

Military Mnemonics

Philippians

Providing Perspective

Philemon

The Mouse that Roared

**NON-PAULINE EPISTLES**

James

Chronology and Meaning (see also Galatians & Romans)

A Topical Concordance of James (includes link to pdf resource)

1 Peter

Providing Perspective

123 John

Euphemistic Faith

**REVELATION**

Hang On ‘Cause Jesus Wins

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, 123 John, Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Christ, Ephesians, Epistles, Galatians, Gospel of John, Hebrews, Instructing the Body, James, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Old Testament, Parables, Paul, Peter, Philemon, Philippians, Redemptive History, Romans, Synoptic Gospels, The Revelation

Bible Journal Recap (1)

Here’s what I’ve been writing about, this spring and summer — this is a topical index for those of you who’d like to read something you missed from my earlier posts, or something related to whatever you are studying.  I’ll pause to create lists like this one every few months to remind you what’s here.

If you’re interested in guides for your own personal Bible study, you’ll find some suggestions on the “Short Takes” shelf.

****Bible Journal Posts on the Epistles:

Mutual Autobiography1 Cor., Gal., Phil., Thess. (5.18.2015)

Invitational ImperativesVarious Epistles (5.27.2015)

Pickup Theology1 Cor. (6.3.2015)

Fortune Cookies1 Cor. 10:31 (6.18.2015)

Riff on 1 Cor. 13 (6.8.2015)

Theo-logic1&2 Cor. (6.25.2015)

Christ Jesus our LordSurvey of Epistles (7.4.2015)

The Metaphysical SituationRom. 6 (7.13.2015)

 

****Bible Journal Posts on the Gospels:

Prophetic Puzzle PiecesSynoptic Gospels (3.30.2015)

Mapping the ParablesSynoptic Gospels (3.16.2015)

Samaritan StoriesMatt., Luke, John (3.23.2015)

“Follow, Fast!”Matt., Luke (2.23.2015)

Eyewitnesses to a TransfigurationMatt., Mark, Luke (2.17.2015)

On the Unforgivable SinMatt., Mark, Luke (2.15.2015)

Mark is LongerMark in comparison (4.29.2015)

“Shhh! Don’t Tell!”Mark (3.1.2015)

Prompted ParablesLuke (3.9.2015)

Death Meets Life at the Gates of NainLuke 7  (2.18.2015)

The Cost of SaltLuke 14 (5.12.2015)

Curious QuestionsJohn 4 (4.7.2015)

Naming NamesJohn 12 (4.22.2015)

 

****Bible Journal Posts on Acts:

Prison Diary: A Brief Play in Three ActsActs 16 (5.5.2015)

 

****Bible Journal Posts on Bible Study:

Genre Judgment Calls (4.13.2015)

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Acts, Biblical Genres, Epistles, Gospel of John, Hard Sayings of Jesus, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Parables, Paul, Romans, Synoptic Gospels

Christ Jesus Our Lord

[Texts:  The New Testament Epistles]

You probably already realize that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name.  You may even be aware that it’s the Greek version of the Hebrew word for “Messiah,” naming that Davidic, anointed-king figure who was eagerly expected to come one day and set the whole world to rights again. But you may not have ever sorted out for yourself the multiple uses and appearances of this title in the New Testament, both in combination with Jesus’ name and alone, or noticed the significance of each variation for the NT writers’ purposes.  In this forest of occurrences of “Christ” (480+!), it’s easy to assume there’s only one kind of tree.

Here’s the fruit of some research that I’ve been doing in preparation for a talk I’ll be giving this fall. I don’t want to steal my own thunder, so these are some details that will mostly not be included in that little lecture on the Christ.  They’re just the results of a basic tallying of the frequency of the different uses of the word “Christ” – but I find them fascinating, and maybe you will, too.  I’ve included some further notes at the end for those of you who are interested in knowing the research steps I followed to these intriguing observations.*

Just considering the Epistles, it turns out that there are three main uses of the Greek title Christos with reference to Jesus, with a couple other rare ones making a cameo now and then.  Each conveys a different aspect of Jesus’ identity, corresponding to the writer’s purposes in a passage.  The different letter writers show individual preferences for particular uses of “Christ,” with Paul taking the lead for variety and also uniqueness in his usage of the word.  My findings are sketched for you below.

Jesus Christ:  Whether combined with “our Lord” or alone, this straightforward title has the most formal feel to it, emphasizing Jesus’ Lordly authority; so I’ll call it the Kingly Title.  This is especially apparent in Paul’s usage, where we find it most often in the formal opening and closing sections of his letters.  It almost never appears in the Gospels, except at the very start of Matthew, Mark, and John – the points at which the author is most transparently present in his text, explaining Who it’s going to be about.  The Kingly Title is preferred by Peter, John, and Jude, who use it almost exclusively.  Atypically for Paul, he refers to Jesus almost solely by this title in his second letter to the Thessalonians.

Christ:  In our English translations, Jesus is simply called “Christ” 220 times in the Epistles (compared to about 112 for “Jesus Christ” and 78 for “Christ Jesus”).* Paul, Peter, and the writer to the Hebrews are most likely to adopt this usage.  In Paul’s case especially, the single word “Christ” tends to occur in the thick of his most energetic communication, leading me to call it the Shorthand Name-Title.  Where it occurs without the article (see second note below), it is most clearly being used as another name for Jesus, not so much as a formal title – as we might call our minister “Pastor,” intending only to refer to the man, not his job, even though the name could only result from his having that position.  (But put “the” in front of “Pastor” or “Christ,” and the emphasis changes!  See it?)

Christ Jesus:  This is really my favorite discovery.  You think it’s just “Jesus Christ” backwards, right, thrown in here and there to add a little variety?  That might be the case if everybody occasionally used it, but in fact this one is exclusive to Paul.  The one occurrence outside Paul’s letters is when Luke tells what Paul was up to in Caesarea: “After some days Felix came . . . and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus,” Acts 24:24 – which is exactly how Felix would have heard it come out of Paul’s mouth.  There is a tenderness to Paul’s choice of name-title here, as if he were speaking of someone very precious to him:  not only the lofty King of kings, not only the God-man who fulfilled the Jewish Messiah’s role, but also Paul’s own personal Friend and Savior.  And it’s when Paul is feeling especially tender towards his readers, when he urgently wants them to know the heart of God for them, that this name for his Friend and Savior spills out of him.  Though it occurs in almost all of his letters, it comes especially thick and fast when he writes to Timothy, as if he especially wants to pass on knowledge of the gracious Lord, Christ Jesus, to his dearest child in the faith.  Pay special attention to this one when it occurs in Paul’s writing, recalling that Christ Jesus is our tender Shepherd, too.

 

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*My research steps to discovering the use of “Christ” in the NT went like this (so far):

  • I did a word search for the use of “Christ” in the ESV through https://www.biblegateway.com/, turning up 534 results.
  • I created a table to record the reference & the text of the verses, copying and pasting the texts from the search results (dismissing those that were counted because “Christ” was mentioned in the heading!).
  • I color-coded (using highlighter & font color) to show the different usages.
  • I double-checked the Greek text wherever “Christ” appeared in the ESV without the article (“the”), discovering that sometimes the word “Christ” was not in the original text at all (the editors just thought we needed it, I guess!), and sometimes the word actually DID have an article attached in the Greek. (See second note, below.)
  • I tallied usage according to the different arrangements of the title, keeping separate tallies of the preferences of different NT authors & Paul’s usage by book.

*Our English translations hide a couple details, though.  For one, as I mentioned already, sometimes the translators add “Christ” to make sure we know who the writer is talking about (where the Greek just says “he” and leaves the identity ambiguous).  Also, there is sometimes a subtle distinction between “the Christ” and just plain “Christ.”  Although it’s not uncommon in Greek to add a definite article (the) before a proper noun (“the Jesus,” “the John,” etc.) without affecting the meaning, in the case of “the Christ” one of two things may be happening:  either the writer is merely referring to the Savior Jesus by name-title, or he is referring to – or especially  emphasizing Jesus’ fulfillment of – the specific Jewish Messiah figure.  Evidently the translators voted in favor of the first option more often than the second in the Epistles (83 times vs. 7 times!).  But I think quite a few occurrences of “the Christ” in Greek, translated merely as “Christ,” could arguably have possessed that specific Messianic emphasis in the original.  Maybe I’ll write you a paper on this someday.

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Acts, Christ, Epistles, Gospel of John, Hebrews, Instructing the Body, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Messiah, Paul, Synoptic Gospels

Mark is Longer

[Texts:  Mark 5:21ff. (cf. Matt. 9:18ff.; Luke 8:41ff.); Mark 6:14ff. (cf. Matt. 14:1ff.; Luke 9:7-9); Mark 9:14ff. (cf. Matt. 17:14ff.; Luke 9:37ff.); Mark 10:46ff. (cf. Matt. 20:29ff.; Luke 18:35ff.); Mark 12:28ff. (cf. Matt. 22:34ff.)]

Mark seems to be the Speedy Gonzales of the Gospels, always in a rush to tell his story.  Short on chapters and frequently punctuated by actions that happen “immediately” (even when, technically speaking, they probably didn’t), his narrative leaves us with the impression that this headlong history is abridged, a preface merely to the later accounts by his colleagues.  But all of this slap and dash distracts from the surprising reality that, once in a while, Mark is longer.

Whenever any two (or all three) of the seeing-together Synoptics relate an event in the life of their hero Jesus, it’s rare that the retellings share the exact same phrasing.  Each compiler has his unique emphases and wording, even when telling the same tale; and on occasion the later writers, Matthew and Luke, apparently just compressed a story that was original to Mark.  If you know where to look, then, the shortest Gospel becomes a gold mine of details that the others left out.

Most of these details are characterized by the slow revelation of character or situation through dialogue or narrative commentary. An interesting example occurs in chapter 6, where Mark, uniquely, shares some of the back story relating to John the Baptizer’s death at the hands of Herod.  This is where we learn that John had boldly confronted Herod about his immoral marriage, earning the undying resentment of his wife Herodias.  Herod, on the other hand, though “greatly perplexed” by John, “heard him gladly.”  The subsequent intrigues of his wife and daughter are set against this almost hopeful glimpse of the Tetrarch’s attitude.

In chapter 5, Mark combines dialogue and narrative to present a particularly intimate picture of the stories of two daughters of Israel, one who had bled for twelve years and another who at twelve years old was now dying.  Jairus’ tender lament begins the scene:  “My little daughter is at the point of death!” and Jesus’ homely command, preserved by Mark in the Aramaic, ends it:  “Talitha cumi – little girl, get up!”  In between these speech acts a woman quietly reasons, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.”  Mark alone tells us of her suffering much “under many physicians,” and only he lets us know that when she achieved her goal “she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.”

The scene that follows the Transfiguration, as told by Mark in chapter 9, contains so many personal and conversational details that we may strongly suspect the eyewitness influence of Peter here.  The boy’s falling fit and the ensuing dialogue between Jesus and the father reveal the intense suffering of both child and family, leading to the familiar and desperate prayer, “I believe – help my unbelief!” And Mark alone finishes the scene with a resurrection flourish: after the exorcism the boy seemed “like a corpse” to the onlookers, but Jesus took him by his hand and he arose!

Mark’s tolerance for the slow development of dialogue allows us to know the heart of the scribe who (as we learn from Matthew) asked a question to test Jesus’ orthodoxy (see Matt. 22 and Mark 12).  Apparently this man, though associated with the disgruntled Pharisees, was open to the possibility that Jesus was the genuine article.  Instead of dismissing the evidence that this controversial rabbi knew what he was talking about, he responds with the overflow of his own heart concerning the Scriptures:  “You are right, Teacher.  You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him.  And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  …It is Mark who lets us know, too, that Jesus commends this wise answer.

Finally, my favorite example of Mark’s narrative thoroughness is his account in chapter 10 of blind Bartimaeus, whom Jesus encountered outside of Jericho as he traveled southward to the final showdown in Jerusalem.  We know the man’s name because of Mark, who actually gives us his father’s name, too (you’ll never guess what that is!).  While Matthew and Luke only allot enough space to tell the bare bones of the story, Mark takes the time to humanize it:  “Take heart!” say the messengers, “get up, he is calling you!”  And with an alacrity that probably appealed to the Evangelist of Immediacy, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, springs up, and comes to Jesus.  It’s proof that even a lively, fast-paced narrative is made all the richer by slowing down for the details.  ¡Ándale!

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Filed under Luke, Mark, Matthew, Synoptic Gospels

Naming Names

[Texts:  Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8]

The Gospel of John is different.  Writing much later than the seeing-together Synoptic authors, John decided not to cover the same territory – quite literally, since he concentrates most of his vision on Jesus’ several trips to Jerusalem, rather than on his itinerant ministry in the Galilee.  And one significantly different thing that John does from his location far down the timeline is name names.

For example:  you remember the time when Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane, and one of his disciples lops off the ear of the high priest’s servant?  John is the one who informs us that this hot-headed disciple was Peter, and he even names the servant, Malchus.  This suggests that the other Gospel writers were being careful when they wrote, perhaps protecting the culprit while angry leaders were still in power.  It also helps us see that Peter had some very personal reasons to switch into denial mode before the cock crowed!  He himself was now wanted for a crime:  even though the deed itself had been patched up by Jesus, he was still a wanted man.  No wonder he wanted to deflect attention from his association with the Master.

It’s John who also sheds some valuable light on the identity of the players at a certain dinner party, where a woman anoints Jesus with a costly perfume.  As told by Matthew and Mark,* this anonymous prodigal is publicly shamed by the guests (“This perfume should have been sold, and the proceeds given to the poor!”) and then publicly commended by Jesus:  “She has done a beautiful thing.  The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have ME.”  In fact, where others see a wasteful mismanagement of resources, Jesus identifies a perceptive confirmation of his mission:  “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.”  It’s a perspective that even his closest disciples seem to have missed.

John’s freedom to name names enables us to connect some surprising dots between this narrative and others.  First off, when John recounts this scene, he gives it a setting and context that the others pass over, perhaps, again, in order to protect people.  This dinner party is in the neighborhood of Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus, who has just been raised from the dead.  At the time of the party Lazarus was, in fact, very much on the hit list of the Important People in Jerusalem – they wanted to kill him again, and do away with the evidence that pointed to Jesus’ power – so his name and his sisters’ names and even that miracle are suppressed at this point in the Synoptics.

But from John we learn that this woman is Lazarus’ sister Mary.  And you may remember another story about this family, in which Martha has something to complain about; and you may recall another good choice that Mary made, for which Jesus also publicly commended her.   It was at another, less formal dinner, when Mary sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha did the dishes.  In that setting, too, Mary made the best choice.

Now, normally it’s not a good idea to sit around doing Bible study while your sister handles the hostessing – just as normally it’s probably not good form to spend extravagantly rather than caring for the poor.  But in both settings the timing made ordinarily good choices the wrong ones.  Jesus even says to Martha, in effect, “Martha, Martha, you will always have dirty dishes to wash – but you won’t always have ME.”

What Mary doubtless heard, sitting there at Jesus’ feet, was something like what he conveyed later to the sorrowful disciples on the road to Emmaus, where “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).  Jesus was always trying to get people to see from those texts that the role of the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, had both a triumphant, kingly aspect and a suffering servant expectation to it.  And Mary took him seriously.

She doesn’t say a word in either scene, but at the dinner party her silent actions reveal what she has learned at his feet, as she imitates the anointing of a king – and prefigures the anointing of a corpse for burial.  She’s done the math, put two and two together, from what she has heard directly from Jesus; and now she demonstrates her profound understanding that the King must die for his people.  And in striking contrast to the conventional practice of dismissing a woman’s testimony as invalid, Jesus so validates Mary’s wordless witness that he ties it for all time to the proclamation of the gospel.

And John makes sure we know her name.

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*Luke also contains an account of an anointing (see Luke 7:36-50), but as the timing, setting, and object lesson differ from those in this scene as told by Matthew, Mark, & John, I vote that it’s a separate incident.

Credit to Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, for the insight about Peter, Lazarus, and the Gospel Witness Protection Program.

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Filed under Gospel of John, Mark, Matthew, Synoptic Gospels

Prophetic Puzzle Pieces

[NT Texts:  Matthew 24; Luke 21; Mark 13…OT Texts: Isaiah 13 & 24; Haggai 2; Jeremiah 4; Ezekiel 32; Joel 2 & 3 ]

Some of what Jesus had to say seems more cryptic than clear, like a jumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces minus their box-lid.  And it sometimes happens that, in trying to make sense of the mystery, one group of Bible readers will declare right-side-up what others insist is upside-down.

One such puzzling set of passages occurs in all three Synoptic Gospels, right as Jesus begins his final week of life in Jerusalem.  Perhaps in an attempt to make conversation, some of his disciples remark on the grandeur of the Temple, “how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings” (Luke 21:5).  Their offhand comment becomes the opening for a chapter-long discourse in which Jesus warns and instructs his followers regarding the alarming future facing both Temple and people.  The question for those of us reading these prophetic words today is – WHEN was he talking about?  Sometime historically imminent to that particular moment, or a time that is yet to come?

One way of arranging the prophetic puzzle pieces – probably very familiar to most of us – leaves us with a picture of the Ultimate End, a time characterized by unusual violence against Christian believers under a darkened sun, a blood-red moon, and  a shower of stars.  The understanding here is that Jesus was letting his disciples in on signs that would occur two millennia or more beyond their own day; in fact, he was not really talking to them, he was talking past them to the believers who would read his words far, far in the future.  Fitting the pieces together like this binds us to the dicey task of identifying  which current events are indications of The End, and what instructions like “let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” mean for, say, Protestants in the Midwest.

Others object that this eschatological view involves a good number of forced puzzle pieces.  Why, for example, does Jesus keep insisting that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32)?  Does “this generation” mean something other than what’s conveyed by its plain sense?  And why would he give detailed, apparently comprehensible instructions to people standing right there in front of him, if he were really speaking beyond them to people who would have to perform some exegetical contortions before the picture made any sense to their situation?  Why not focus on events closer in history to that conversation, and see in the Romans’ razing of Jerusalem in 70 AD the fulfillment of Jesus’ frightening prophecies?

Neither view seems to do adequate justice to the pieces of the puzzle that we’re given – at least not at first blush.  After all, the Roman destruction of the Temple and City didn’t involve those apocalyptic signs in the heavens that Jesus described.  Even if the 70-AD explanation accommodates the strong “right-here-and-very-soon” emphasis of Jesus’ words, it has nothing to do with cosmic cataclysms, right?  Those puzzle pieces have to be forcibly made to fit, just as much as the “this generation” bits must be wrangled into the End-Times view.

But as a matter of fact, a big-picture canonical perspective suggests that those cosmic catastrophes may indeed have a proper place in a 70-AD puzzle.  Though we might be vaguely aware that such imagery is also used by the Old Testament prophets, we may not realize that, in context, nearly every prophetic mention of apocalyptic heavenly signs accompanies a description of a specific major political upheaval in the ancient world.  It would have been far less puzzling to Jesus’ disciples to hear words that called to mind passages from Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel than for them to get the sense that Jesus wasn’t actually telling them how to prepare to face something that would happen in their lifetime.  Perhaps some digging into the words of the Writing Prophets would help us to turn right-side-up some of the puzzle pieces we’ve long held upside-down.

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(For your convenience, I have listed below every reference that I could find to OT apocalyptic language – characterized by those heavenly signs and portents – and, where applicable, the earthly political turmoil that the prophet was attempting to depict with his universe-shaking imagery.  I’ll leave it to you to look up these passages and read them in context, as you consider how best to fit together Jesus’ prophetic puzzle pieces.)

Isaiah 13:10, 13

Cosmic Signs:  Stars, sun & moon darkened; trembling heavens and earth

Political Events:  Invasion of Israel by Babylon

 Isaiah 24:15b-20, 23

Cosmic Signs:  Foundations of the earth (land) tremble; earth (land) is violently split apart; moon confounded, sun ashamed.

Political Events:  Depending on the editors’ translation choice here, either the “whole earth” or the “whole land” (i.e., the land of Israel) is the subject of the prophecy.  (“Earth” is the usual choice in the main text, but the ESV includes a footnote indicating that “land” is a fair translation, too.)  If “land,” then this is a prophecy about the impending destruction of Israel for unfaithfulness.  I think this is a reasonable conclusion, given details in this chapter; see what you think.

 Joel 2:10

Cosmic Signs:  Earth quakes and trembles; sun, moon & stars darkened.

Political Events: Invaders from the North are poised to swoop down on Israel.

 Joel 2:30 (also Acts 2)

Cosmic Signs:  wonders in heaven & on earth; sun turned to darkness, moon to blood.

Political Events:  The restoration of Israel’s fortunes.

 Joel 3:15-16

Cosmic Signs:  Sun, moon, and stars darkened; heavens and earth quake

Political Events:  With the restoration of Israel, the nations that enslaved them will in turn be conquered and enslaved.

 Haggai 2:6-7 (also Hebrews 12)

Cosmic Signs:  Shaking of earth, sea, dry land

Political Events:  Restoration of Temple

 Ezekiel 32:7-8

Cosmic Signs:  Heavens covered; sun, moon and stars darkened

Political Events:  Invasion and defeat of Egypt by Babylon

 Jeremiah 4:23-24, 28

Cosmic Signs:  Earth w/o form and void; no light in  heavens; mountains quaking; heavens dark

Political Events:  God’s intention to punish Israel via Babylon

 

(I searched for heavens, earth, shaking, stars, sun, and moon.  I may have missed some, so let me know if you discover others.)

 

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Filed under Biblical Theology, Eschatology, Hard Sayings of Jesus, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Prophets, Synoptic Gospels

Samaritan Stories

[Texts:  Matthew 10:5-6; Luke 9:51-56; 10:25-37; 17:11-19; John 4; 8:48]

It’s rather odd that we always refer to her as “the Woman at the Well,” as if, like the Oracle at Delphi, this was where she could regularly be found, just in case an itinerant rabbi cared to drop by for a chat.  Same goes for the fictional “Good Samaritan,” whose traditional handle implies that he is the sole exception to the racist rule that “nothing good can come out of Samaria.”  These are the two most familiar Samaritan figures from the Gospel writers’ stories, but there’s more to the intersection of this people group with Jesus’ path and his imagination than this memorable pair.  Taken collectively, the Samaritan stories hint at the role God’s Messiah would have in reconciling ancient enemies, and fixing what had been broken.

The first-century Samaritans had no doubts about who their neighbors were.  Bordered on the north by the Jewish region of Galilee and on the south by Judea, they occupied what had been the allotments of Manasseh and Ephraim in ancient days.  To the Jews, who alternately avoided and insulted them, the Samaritans were like so much ethnic debris from Assyria’s resettling of the neighborhood.  They had their own mount of worship, Gerizim, although it no longer held a temple; and while their religion was rooted in the Pentateuch, they were considered by the Jews to be an unclean people.  Neighbors, perhaps, but not good ones.

Jesus used this inevitable antipathy to his advantage as a storyteller, riveting his audience’s attention to his point with the unpredictable identity of the hero in his exemplary tale of bad and good neighbors.  It seems that the Pharisees also harnessed this common attitude in order to more deliberately insult the rabbi from Nazareth:  “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48).

All of this may explain why, of the ten lepers, only one returned to give thanks – “and he was a Samaritan” (Lk. 17:16).  Whatever solidarity there had been in sickness, with health it vanished; only the nine healed Jews would have been accepted in the Temple to make sacrifices for their cleansing.  Significant, then, that Jesus faults the nine for not turning back as well.  Had they recognized him, nine Jews and one Samaritan would have been united in worshiping him, in gratitude and health.

It was early days yet for such unity, though.  That the breach between these peoples would eventually be healed through the Christ is an unspoken possibility suggested by his conversation at the well in Sychar – “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you (pl.) worship,” but rather “in spirit and truth” (John 4:21, 23).  But the time was not yet, as indicated by Jesus’ instructions when sending out the Twelve:  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 10:5-6).  Perhaps it was this consciousness of the proper order of events that led him to rebuke the Sons of Thunder for their drastic response to an inhospitable Samaritan town along their road (Lk. 9:51ff.); at the time, they needed to know that it was the Jewish towns who would bear the fires of judgment for their rejection of him (Matt. 10:15).

Meanwhile, no harm in keeping an appointment at a well, and leaving living water behind for everybody in the neighborhood.

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Filed under Gospel of John, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Parables, Redemptive History, Synoptic Gospels

Mapping the Parables

Detail PalestineMaps matter, when reading the Gospels.

After his baptism and temptation in the Judean wilderness, Jesus moved northward again to his home territory and begin a long and rambling ministry in and around the Galilee.  While John’s account suggests that he kept the feasts at Jerusalem during this time along with the other able-bodied Jewish men, most of the teachings and miracles that we learned about as kids in Sunday School happened in those northern towns and villages and the wide spaces in between.  It was only in the final weeks of his life, perhaps motivated by news of a friend’s dire illness, that he set his face one last time for Jerusalem, and things began to get really intense.  So knowing where we are on the map as we read often means knowing where we are in Jesus’ life.

It turns out that maps matter when reading the parables, too.  If you’re like me, you can recall a fair handful from Bible lessons as a child — the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep and Son, the Two Houses, something about a farmer scattering seeds.  But could you locate them geographically, identify where they were told? Answering the “where” of the parables frequently helps us understand the “why” of them.

When he was in the hinterlands of the Galilee or cities like Capernaum by the Sea, areas equally home to farmers, fishermen, and zealous would-be Messiahs, his subject matter and tone matched the landscape and labors of his listeners.  Seeds and soil, the foundations of houses, yeast in dough, the kindness of strangers, and fish caught in nets painted verbal pictures of Word and response, Kingdom and treasure.  There’s a riddle-like nature to these narrated images, something to be savored later through seed-time and harvest till somebody got it.

But once he is on the road to Jerusalem with a known end in view, Jesus’ parables become more complex, cautionary — and even confrontational.  The majority of these transitional tales are recorded in Luke, where searching for lost sheep, coins and sons is an obvious foil for the complaining Pharisees who object to Jesus’ table companions, and where Jesus points out that those who didn’t heed Moses’ words in the first place are unlikely to listen to somebody back from the dead (“Yes, I’m talking about you, scribes!”).  Even those parables that seem addressed to his disciples have an edge to them, as he doubts that faithful prayer as persistent as a widow’s legal petitions would be easy to find in the days ahead, and a shrewd manager’s unscrupulousness is held up as a model for the bumbling sons of light.

Then as the showdown approaches in Jerusalem, the city that killed the prophets, Jesus’ parables begin to communicate even weightier things than before.  Themes of differentiation between the faithful and the unfaithful, of judgment and of readiness for the sudden return of the King begin to emerge.  Don’t miss that as he anticipates the final, fatal blow from the tenants of the vineyard, he is narrating the last chapter of the city he is standing in.  Whoever has ears, let him hear.

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(See also these visual organizers:  The Geography of Jesus in his life and ministry across all four Gospels…and another showing the distribution of parables across the three phases of his ministry.)

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Filed under Biblical Theology, Gospel of John, Instructing the Body, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Parables, Redemptive History, Synoptic Gospels

Prompted Parables

[Texts:  Luke 10:25-37; 12:13-21, 35-48; 13:23-30; 14:7-11, 12-14, 16-24; Chapter 15; 18:1-8, 9-14; 19:12-27; 20:1-19]

Of the Gospels, it is the seeing-together Synoptics that give us Jesus’ parables.  John, writing much later, did not choose to rehearse the material already covered so well by his brothers; and though his account is still colorful with vines and branches and shepherds and sheep, we do not read in his pages those brief stories that give a familiar once-upon-a-time feel to Jesus’ illustrations.

Of the three Synoptic Evangelists, everybody handles the parables a little differently.  Fast-paced Mark is more concerned with action scenes, so he gets parables out of the way in a happily compressed group as of chapter 4 – except for one confrontational one that completes the picture of Jesus’ entrée into Jerusalem’s highly charged atmosphere in chapter 12.  Matthew lobs parables right and left throughout his account, piling them on in the Galilee narratives, the journey to Jerusalem, and then at the eleventh hour to make sure we get the “get ready” message loud and clear.

Luke does something else entirely.  Twelve of the 21 parables that he records are unique to his account.  Although he distributes them at least as thickly as Matthew does through all three geographical phases of Jesus’ ministry – Galilee, transitional journey, Jerusalem – Luke frames these parables with a deliberateness that is often tied to the particular sandals-on-the-ground moment.  You get the sense that Matthew has arranged his collection with an eye to their common subject matter, while Luke has chosen to remain sensitive to the particular context that prompted each one, letting us in on what motivated the storytelling.

This decision turns out to have been a very enlightening one for Luke’s readers.  For one thing, it gives us a sense of Jesus’ intellectual flexibility, as well as his acute perception of the needs of his listeners at any given moment.  It also allows us a window into the character and concerns of the people who chose to follow this astonishing man: what was on their mind, those first-century Jews from every walk of life?

So it is uniquely from Luke that we learn that parables were sometimes prompted by questions or requests made by someone within earshot of Jesus:  “Who is my neighbor?”“Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!”“Lord, will those who are saved be few?” – “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?”  And sometimes it’s Jesus’ own assessment of the listeners that prompts his story, when he notices how they scramble for the best seats at a banquet, grumble over his typical table mates, trust in their own righteousness and despise others, or grow weary and discouraged in prayer.

In fact it is Luke’s habit of including the “parable prompt” that can correct our habit of assuming the parables are always stories told about US.  Sometimes they had a target audience specific to that turbulent time, sometimes even bound to a particular spot on the map.  One of the last of Jesus’ parables in Luke, that of the “ten minas” (or “ten talents,” as Matthew records it), might be released from service to the familiar “steward your gifts” message if we registered Luke’s opening lines:  “He proceeded to tell them a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately…”

There’s our interpretive key.  Thanks, Dr. Luke!

(You might be interested in these original charts:   Luke’s Parable Prompts (.pdf), and a survey of Parables in the Synoptics (.pdf), 1p. each.)

 

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Filed under Biblical Theology, Gospel of John, Instructing the Body, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Redemptive History, Synoptic Gospels

Eyewitnesses to a Transfiguration

[Texts:  Matt. 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36]

The Synoptic Gospels are so-called because they often “see together” (Greek opticsyn) — that is, they retell many of the same events.  John’s Gospel, written much later, does not typically trace the same ground.  When two (or all three) of the Synoptics relate a tale, it’s intriguing to keep track of the differences.  Sometimes the diversity is minimal, and sometimes it’s significant in one way or another.

Here’s some significant diversity at the start of the account of the Transfiguration.  There are other differences in the story, too, but this one struck me right off.  Here are the lines that tell of Jesus’ transformation:

“His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”  (Matthew 17:2 ESV)

“His clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no cloth refiner on earth could bleach them.”  (Mark 9:3 ESV)

“The appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.”  (Luke 9:29 ESV)

All three accounts tell of a change, of brightness, of whiteness — but each has his own way of putting it.  None of these writers were with Jesus on the mountain, so they are reporting what they learned from others.  Even if they all interviewed the same person — say, Peter, who was likely Mark’s source, at least — either the eyewitness reached for different words to say the same thing more than once, or the Evangelists took what they heard and found different ways to convey the sense.  (Because of the variety, I am presuming that this particular report came in each case from a person who was there, rather than from a common written source; one would expect more stability of wording if the source was written — which in fact we usually find with two of the three Synoptics in other places where their narratives overlap.)

In any case, precisely because of their unity of idea and diversity of language, these three simple statements read with all the authenticity of eyewitness testimony to a startling but true event, rather than mere rehearsals of a traditional formula about some details of a folk hero’s life.  There is no set way of communicating Jesus’ transformation; and even the same source might have naturally altered his words at different times to report the event to different people.  The essential details are intact, but their packaging — vocabulary and even figurative language — retain the natural variety inherent to repeated retellings of a true story.  (Next time any of you have to sit through two services back-to-back, note how this sort of natural variety plays out in the unwritten speeches of the worship leaders and even the preacher!  It’s always a different script the second time, even though the essential details remain the same.)

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Filed under Luke, Mark, Matthew, Synoptic Gospels