Saturday, October 25, 2014

Matthew 1-4

The Inspiration of St. Matthew by Caravaggio

Providing an adequate introduction to the Gospel of Matthew in a single blog post is an impossible task. However, I do want to give you some idea of where I think Matthew fits with the other Gospels, who the author is, and so on.

In order to accomplish this as succinctly and hopefully as accurately as possible, I turn to Michael Green’s commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible Speaks Today series published by InterVarsity Press. Here are some excerpts from Green’s introduction….

We do not know who wrote the Gospel. Like all the others, it is anonymous. The coming of Jesus sparked off an entirely new literary form, the ‘Gospel’. It is not biography, though it contains it. It is not history, though it reflects it. A Gospel is the proclamation of good news: the good news of salvation which had long been looked for in Judaism, and which Christians were persuaded had burst upon the world in Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels are utterly captivated by him, and none of them mentions the name of its author.

Second-century writers sought to remedy this situation. They do tell us who wrote them, and they may or may not have been right. In the case of Matthew, it is not at all easy to know whether they were right, because there is a major contradiction in the evidence. The external evidence points uniformly in one direction, the internal in another.

The external evidence is coherent and clear. Indeed, it is unanimous. It makes three main points. First, the Gospel according to Matthew is the earliest of the Gospels. Secondly, it was written in ‘Hebrew’. This may mean Hebrew or Aramaic: at all events, it means that the early Christians were confident that it had not originally been penned in the Greek we have before us today. Most of the second-century writers were also persuaded that it was written for those who were converts from Judaism, which is a very likely assumption. The links between the Gospel and the Old Testament are many and obvious. The third conviction of the second-century church was that the Gospel was written by Matthew, one of the twelve apostles….

However, the internal evidence is strongly against this. Indeed, the careful study of the text of the Gospels over the last 250 years has, until recently, yielded virtual unanimity on the three points cited above. First, Matthew does not seem to be the earliest Gospel. Secondly, it does not seem to have been written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Thirdly, it does not seem to have been written by an apostle, let alone Matthew….

Irrespective of denomination, irrespective of theological position, those who have looked carefully into this matter are broadly convinced that the earliest documents about Jesus which have come down to us are the Gospel of Mark and the sayings of Jesus common to Luke and Matthew, usually known by the symbol Q. The order of events in Mark is clearly the basis for the order in Matthew and Luke, for Matthew and Luke never combine in order against Mark. Mark’s order is primary. Moreover, if Matthew’s Gospel had been written first, with its clear beginning, teaching, Lord’s Prayer, and post-resurrection appearances, it would have been almost incredible for Mark to come and truncate the beginning and end, and leave out marvelous teaching like the Sermon on the Mount.

Several years ago, I, in my simple way, and with the help of a computer, laid the Gospels side by side in parallel fashion and came to the same conclusion that countless scholars have come to over the past few hundred years. Mark’s Gospel must have been first. Matthew and Luke have shared material that is not in Mark; this shared material is often called “Q” for the German word “quelle” or source. Matthew and Luke also have some material that is not in Mark and is unique to each of their Gospels. These sources are often simply referred to as “M” and “L”.

So, we do not know who wrote the Gospel of Matthew, or more properly, who edited it and brought these various sources together, but it seems clear that it was edited by a first century Jew, writing sometime between 70 and 100 CE (AD) for a Jewish Christian community somewhere in the Middle East.

Matthew’s Gospel is structured, in a way, to mirror the first five books of the Bible known as the Torah in that Matthew has five great blocks of teaching material. The basic outline works out like this in the words of Michael Green….

Chs. 1-4 Introduction: genealogy, infancy (chs 1-2); baptism and beginnings of the ministry (chs. 3-4)
Chs. 5-7 Teaching 1: the Sermon on the Mount
Chs. 8-9 Jesus’ miracles of healing (three groups of them)
Ch. 10 Teaching 2: the mission charge
Chs. 11-12 The rejection of John and Jesus by the Jews
Ch. 13 Teaching 3: the parables of the kingdom
Chs. 14-17 Miracles, controversies with Pharisees, Peter’s confession, and the transfiguration
Ch. 18 Teaching 4: the church
Chs. 19-22 Jesus goes up to Jerusalem and teaches
Chs. 23-25 Teaching 5: judgment and the end of the world
Chs. 26-28 The last days, death and resurrection of Jesus

Whoever wrote this Gospel, he had a very ordered mind, bordering on perfectionism. He wanted everything arranged just so.

The thing that struck me in today’s reading, after reading through the major and minor prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, is how long it has been since we had story, narrative, in our Scripture reading. Certainly, most readers relate more to narrative than they do to any other type of literature, and we have a lot of it in Matthew. Here we have in the first four chapters, some of the most famous stories of the Bible, just as we have many of these famous stories in Genesis. Another similarity to Genesis is the use of genealogy. All of this would have been very appealing and very familiar to “Matthew’s” first Jewish audience.

Friday, October 24, 2014


Today we come to the end of our study of the Old Testament before continuing with the New. Lawrence Boadt’s Reading the Old Testament has been our companion for much of this journey. Therefore, we will listen to some final words from him before moving on….

The prophet Malachi is the last book in the canon of the Old Testament. It is not dated, and the author is unknown. Its present title comes from the opening words of chapter 3, “My messenger” (in Hebrew, malachi). It is certainly post-exilic and may come from almost any period between the rebuilding of the temple in 516 B.C. and the end of the Persian period about 330 B.C. From its contents, it can probably be best placed just about the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Malachi roundly condemns many abuses in Israel that Ezra worked to reform. The priests perform imperfect and careless service in this temple. The people are marrying pagans with ease and taking divorce lightly. They fail to pay the tithes and offerings which they owe to God. He warns them sternly that God will bring swift punishment on them if they do not change….

Malachi is a book of passion. The author obviously loves the temple and its worship, demands much of the priests in their office, and values religious instruction. He speaks of the covenant with deep respect. He fears that the sin of Israel is terribly serious because it breaks the covenant made with Yahweh. He goes behind the laws of the Pentateuch to ground God’s will in the creation stories of Genesis (Mal 2:10). He roots his view of the enduring love of marriage in the covenant and even goes so far as to say “I have divorce” and repeats twice the warning, “So take heed for yourselves and do not be unfaithful” (Mal 2:15-16). He even talks of a covenant made with Levi that demands fidelity of all priests to their ministry (Mal 2:4-6). He ends his book, as do all the later prophets, with a vision of the day of the Lord that will bring fire and punishment on the wicked but a glorious revival to the just.

Perhaps his most famous lines are the last in his book. They are both a powerful summary of Israel’s foundations of faith and a firm statement of hope….

Because Malachi foresees the return of the prophet Elijah, this book was placed last in the canon of the Old Testament by the Greek translators of the Bible so that the whole of Scripture would look ahead to God’s further action in the world.

Malachi is deeply in debt to Ezekiel and his vision of the future community of Israel. He also uses many of Ezekiel’s methods of instruction. Where Ezekiel often begins an oracle with a proverb or quotation or colorful image, Malachi uses questions. Indeed, his whole style is question-and-answer, as though it were a child’s catechism. There are six oracles in all, and each involves a question addressed to Israel or to God, and is answered by the prophet in God’s name. In the answers we discover a mini-catechism of the covenant. Yahweh loves Jacob, is a father to Israel, is faithful to his word, and wants honesty in Israel’s words, true worship, fidelity and trust in God’s justice.

It seems clear that the full force of the Priestly law codes of the Pentateuch were not yet fully in force. Therefore Malachi probably lived and spoke sometime before Ezra and Nehemiah were able to overcome the indifference and loss of faith that had affected the people and their leaders alike.

In studying Ezra, we saw how he led the Jews who had married foreign wives to commit mass divorce. Therefore, it seems unlikely to me that Malachi was prophesying, or that the book was written, at the exact same time as Ezra’s reforms, since the book so strongly condemns divorce of any kind for any reason. Once again, this simple fact reminds us that the Bible is one book with many voices saying different things at different times in an attempt to guide God’s people.

It is no wonder, from a Christian perspective, that Malachi was placed last in the canon of Old Testament Scripture, for Malachi’s mention of Elijah who is to come prepares us rather perfectly to receive the ministry of John the Baptist in the Gospels. However, before we move on to our study of the Gospels, perhaps we need to consider a few questions….

1.     What has struck you with most force in our study of the Hebrew Scriptures throughout this year?
2.     What book did you like best? Why?
3.     What book did you like least? Why?
4.     What are you most looking forward to in our study of the New Testament?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Zechariah 9-14

Here is what Lawrence Boadt has to say about these chapters….

Second Zechariah in chapters 9-14 reveals an entirely different spirit. There are no visions, no concern for the temple, no further hopes for Zerubbabel, and no Davidic restoration dreams. It is poetry instead of prose, and stresses God as a divine warrior who will fight to deliver Jerusalem from the power of foreign nations. It especially develops several themes found in Ezekiel, especially those of God as the true shepherd of his people, and the coming day of the Lord.

Second Zechariah treats the theme of the shepherd in Zechariah 9:16-17, 11:1-17, and 13:7-9. In the final passage he proclaims that God will shepherd Israel….

Compare this with the great climax of Ezekiel’s oracle on God as the good shepherd… in Ezekiel 34:30-31.

He also intensifies the hopes of a great day of the Lord. God will not only restore Israel but transform the people and the land into a new paradise…. (Zec 14:6-7)

There is a sense of a delayed coming of God in this passage. The hope that God will transform the whole world represents a new state of thought that developed in the centuries after Haggai and Zechariah. In the development of Israelite thought, they fall somewhere between the sixth century and the time of the Book of Daniel in the second century B.C.

Second Zechariah also continues many of the themes found in the original Zechariah, including the coming of a new age, the cleansing of all impurities from the holy land, the outpouring of the Spirit of Yahweh, and the place of Jerusalem as the center of God’s restored land. (Reading the Old Testament, pp. 441-443)

As the first Christians read Second Zechariah, they saw prophecies that were fulfilled in Jesus. Zechariah 9:9 is often read on Palm Sunday and Zechariah 12:10 found its fulfillment when the first disciples of Jesus mourned his piercing and death upon the cross. See these places where Zechariah is quoted in the New Testament: Matthew 21:5; 26:15, 31; 27:9-10; Mark 14:27; John 12:15; 19:37; Jude 1:9; Revelation 1:7.

What has stood out most to you in your reading of Zechariah?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Zechariah 5-8

The verses that “spoke” to me today were from chapter 8….

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the Lord of hosts? Thus says the Lord of hosts: I will save my people from the east country and from the west country; and I will bring them to live in Jerusalem. They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness….

Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you and you shall be a blessing. Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong. (Zechariah 8:6-8, 13)

When the Jews lived in exile it must have seemed impossible to them that any of them would ever return to their hometown of Jerusalem, and yet the Lord restored them to their homeland. Our God is one who specializes in performing the impossible. This is what the angel said to the Blessed Virgin Mary when he told her that she would become pregnant with the baby Jesus, even though she had never known a man: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)

The God who brought the Jews out of exile and caused a virgin to conceive our Savior will also through that same Savior bring us out of exile and enable us to overcome the seemingly impossible obstacles in our lives. As my father used to say, “The impossible just takes a little longer.” And that is true with God. Seeing his deliverance may take a little while, but it will happen.

I also like the emphasis on dual agency in these verses. God is working to achieve the impossible in our lives, but he also wants us to work. “Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.” My father also had another saying, “Work like everything depends upon you and pray as if everything depends upon God.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Zechariah 1-4

Zechariah preached in the same period as did Haggai. But the present Book of Zechariah combines Zechariah’s own words in chapters 1-8 with a series of later oracles in chapters 9-14 which were delivered by an unknown prophet against the Greeks about one hundred and fifty years later. Just as most scholars now refer to a First Isaiah as well as a Second and Third Isaiah, they often speak of First Zechariah and Second Zechariah to describe these two parts.

Zechariah delivered his prophetic words between November 520 and November or December 518 B.C. These include at least three sets of oracles (Zec 1:1-6, 7:1-14, 8:1-23) and eight visions (Zec 1:7-6:15). He shares Haggai’s concerns for rebuilding the temple, creating a purified community, and predicting the coming of a new messianic age centered on Zerubbabel. One of the differences between the two prophets is the greater attention to priestly matters in Zechariah. He is himself the son of a priest (Ezr 5:1), and he makes a special point of emphasizing the role of the high priest Joshua beside that of Zerubbabel as prince. In chapter 4 he has a vision of a gold lampstand with two olive trees beside it. Zechariah asks what the two olive trees represent. An angel replies: “These are the two anointed who stand beside the Lord of the entire world” (Zec 4:14).

A second difference between Haggai and Zechariah is seen in the use of visions. Zechariah uses highly symbolic figures of horses of different colors (Zec 1:7-17), four horns (Zec 1:18-21), angels who explain the visions (chapters 3-5), a flying scroll (Zec 5:1-11), and flying chariots (Zec 6:1-8). Earlier prophets had also depended on visions in their preaching. Amos 7-8 contains a series of visions, and Ezekiel had a number of visions during his years of preaching, including the chariot of Yahweh (Ez 1), a scroll full of writing (Ez 2:8-10), and a valley full of dead bones (Ez 37:1-14) But Zechariah uses visions as the major point of his prophetic work, and his visions are much more mystical and symbolic than the rather clear metaphors of Ezekiel or Amos. Instead of making the message clearer, these colorful descriptions mask its real meaning to all except those who know what the prophet is talking about. Thus was born a prophetic code known to believers but hidden from pagans and outsiders. This use of an almost-secret language becomes more and more common in the last centuries of the Old Testament era, and reaches its fullest use in apocalyptic books such as Daniel or Revelation in the New Testament….

Despite this new way of expression, Zechariah stands within the tradition of Israel’s prophets. He clearly follows the lead of Ezekiel in combining purification, moral uprightness and the divine blessings upon the people. He follows Ezekiel in hoping for a day of restoration when the land will have prosperity and peace. He matches the finest thought of the prophets who came before the exile when he says:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Do true justice, show compassion and mercy to your brother, do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner or the poor; and do not plan evil against one another in your hearts (Zec 7:9-10).

Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament, pp. 440-441

Several verses stood out to me today in reading Zechariah 1-4. First, Zechariah 1:3, “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you.” It occurs to me that this is something we need to do every day.

Second, Zechariah 2:8 talks about the Jews being the apple of God’s eye. The apple of the eye is the pupil. The expression suggests that the people whom God has his eye on are reflected in his eye. The phrase also suggests that we see who we really are when we look at our reflection in God’s eye.

On one occasion, I attended a Sunday evening service at St. Mark’s Dundela in Belfast, C. S. Lewis’ childhood parish. Communion was served followed by prayers for healing. I went forward and knelt at the altar railing seeking emotional healing for a certain heartbreaking situation in which I was involved as well as others. I will never forget the priest referring to me as “the apple of God’s eye” as he prayed over me, not knowing that was the word I most needed to hear at that moment.

You too are the apple of God’s eye. He has his eye on you. He loves and cares for you more than you can possibly imagine.

The third thing that stood out to me in this reading was the picture of the high priest Joshua being accused by Satan, then having his filthy clothes removed and festal apparel put on him. I believe that is a picture of each of our positions before the host of heaven. Satan seeks to accuse us of all manner of things, but the Lord will have none of it. Rather than accuse us, he removes from us that which is offensive and unclean, and he replaces it with a party frock, so to speak. What a beautiful image!

And how does God do this? Zechariah refers to the guilt of this land being removed in a single day (Zechariah 3:9). Certainly that is a prophetic picture of what God did through Jesus on the cross—he removed our guilt in a single day. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

Monday, October 20, 2014


Here is Boadt’s introduction to Haggai….

The major event of the first years after the return was the attempt to rebuild the temple. The effort had never gotten beyond laying the foundations when Haggai and Zechariah took up the cause with a series of oracles urging the people to renew their efforts. Haggai is one of the shortest books among the Old Testament prophets—only two chapters, containing four oracles, all dated between August and December of 520 B.C. He addressed his oracles to Zerubbabel, the governor, and to Joshua, the high priest. His message was simple. The land is suffering from drought and hunger, poverty and failure, because the people think only of their own houses and fortunes, and have neglected the house of Yahweh. The land has been defiled and needs to be purified and consecrated by the presence of God in his temple. Until this is done, there would be no blessing in the new community. In this message Hagggai stands in the tradition of Ezekiel, who foresaw a day coming when the land would be purified, a new temple would rise up and all the tribes would live in peace and order under the leadership of a prince and high priest (Ez 40-48).

The prophet combines a political program of rebuilding the temple with the demand for a people who will strive for holiness in their personal actions. For Haggai, as for Ezekiel and the entire line of prophetic voices back to Amos, a temple without individual fidelity will have no power to bring God’s blessing on Israel. His prophecy had an effect:

And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua, the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people. And they began to work on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month (Hg 1:14-15).

But this first energy was not enough. The work slowed down and Haggai delivered three more warnings in the coming months. He encouraged the people’s morale by pointing to Zerubbabel as God’s appointed ruler and the one who would restore the family of David to the throne of Israel. After all, Zerubbabel was a grandson of Jehoiachin, the last of the Davidic kings (2 Kgs 24:8-17; 1 Chr 3:17), and the rightful successor to the throne of Judah. Besides, the Persian empire had been in turmoil for some years now, ever since Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, had committed suicide after a palace revolt had broken out. A Persian general, Darius, gradually gained power, but it took years of war against other hopeful leaders. Haggai’s enthusiastic nationalism and hope for independence led him to extol Zerubbabel as the person God would use to bring blessing to the land:

On that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will take you, Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, my servant, and wear you like a signet ring on my finger, says the Lord; for I have chosen you, says the Lord (Hg 2:23).

This kind of language was as good as treason in the eyes of a Persian king, and may have led to the removal of Zerubbabel from office. In any case, nothing ever came of the hopes of Haggai, and instead of a new Davidic Messiah, the high priest was given more and more authority by the Persian authorities in the years ahead. But if Haggai was wrong on that point, he did see the temple finished and dedicated within four years.

While the book of Haggai reminds us that not all our dreams and goals in this life will be fulfilled, the prophet also reminds us that we are chosen by God and special to him, just as we are reminded of this by other Scriptures. (See Ephesians 1:3 ff. and 1 Peter 2:9.) Being loved by God is worth more than all the accomplishments in the world.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


I am back from a wonderful trip to California and ready to jump back into blogging through the Bible. While on my trip, someone asked me, “So what have you learned while blogging through the Bible this year?”

My answer was, “That the Bible is one book with many voices.” I would add to that the fact that if the Bible is one book with many voices, perhaps then there is room in the Church of Jesus Christ for many different voices—including my voice, and your voice.

The book of Zephaniah reminds us of the diversity represented in the books of the Bible no less than the other 65 books contained therein. Here is Lawrence Boadt’s introduction to this prophetic book….

About the time of Josiah’s crowning, the Book of Zephaniah records for us the voice of reaction against the false worship idolatry of Manasseh’s years. Zephaniah was a fiery preacher whose wrath against pagan practices and hatred of Assyria were matched only by his devotion to Yahweh. The book under his name contains a number of oracles delivered at unknown times and places but which fit best the period of Josiah’s early years from 640 to 625. Quite possibly, Zephaniah thundered his words all in a short period of a few weeks or months. In any case, the complete collection is only three chapters long and may not represent everything that he had to say. Many experts think that Zephaniah was a prophet who spoke during the temple liturgy on some spcial occasion. Unlike Amos or Hosea or Isaiah in the earlier times, who were remarkably free from the interests of temple or priesthood, Zephaniah, together with the slightly later Nahum and Habakkuk, may well represent cultic prophets who were in some way attached to the temple and its liturgical rites, especially on feast days.

The Book of Zephaniah can be divided into three sections…

All of these sections revolve around a single major theme: the coming day of the Lord. As Amos had first proclaimed (Am 5:18-20) and Isaiah had repeated (Is 2:6-22), the day of divine judgment against sinners would come in destruction if the people did not repent. Zephaniah has a worldwide vision. He opens chapter 1 by stressing that the good order of God’s creation recounted in Genesis has been reversed and that instead chaos rules. But Yahweh will sweep away all who have perverted his goodness, especially the worshipers of false gods wherever they live. So Zephaniah warns the people of Judah first…

God will “search Jerusalem with lamps” (Zep 1:12) to find the guilty and punish them drastically, “their blood poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung” (Zep 1:17).

But the prophet preaches just as boldly against foreign nations, predicting that the same terror and destruction shall fall upon them. Zephaniah names the traditional enemies of Judah—Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites and Egyptians—and ends with a dramatic announcement of the destruction of the superpower itself, Assyria…

Assyria takes the place of honor—or, better, infamy—at the end of the list because its pride and arrogance against Yahweh far exceeds any other nation’s. With great irony, Zephaniah quotes Nineveh’s claim: “This is the exultant city that sits in safety and says to herself, ‘I am and there is no other!’” (Zep 2:15)

He returns in chapter 3 to list all the corruption at every level of society, and declares that the whole earth shall be consumed by fire for its evil (Zep 3:8). But immediately, he includes a promise of hope that God will purify Israel, restore all who have been sent into exile, and give peace to the land. It will be a time of rejoicing and not fear…

The entire message of the prophet ends as it had begun, with praise for God who rules the entire universe. Perhaps the whole series of oracles were delivered during a week of celebration of the kingship of Yahweh, a feast for which we have no exact information but many hints in the Old Testament. It would have taken place in the fall, connected to the New Year’s festival, and would be a fitting occasion for proclaiming both God’s punishment of all sin everywhere in the world and his victory over Assyria sometime ahead.

Zephaniah’s message has the power of a great orator speaking with passion. Most of his themes are very traditional, and the crowds of Israelites who heard him would have applauded his thought as one with their own. His central concern with the day of the Lord borrows heavily from Isaiah, some eighty years earlier….

Zephaniah represents the best of Israel’s values brought together in a time of great difficulty. He has sensitivity to evil among his own people, trust in Yahweh to protect the nation, and a conviction that necessary as punishment may be, there will always be a new time of God’s favor for the people of the covenant.