Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Faithful Demons

Matthew 8:28-34 (ESV) reads:

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, "What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?" Now a herd of pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, "If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs." And he said to them, "Go!" So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they say him, they begged him to leave their region. 

This account is interesting in many ways, especially when compared with both accounts of Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39.  But for the sake of simplicity and brevity, and because Luke's account is identical with Mark's account in almost every single detail, I will only be comparing Matthew's account with Mark's account throughout the rest of this post. Now let's take a look at what Mark had to say about this same incident. Mark 5:1-20 (ESV) reads:

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”  And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.   Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea.  The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

When both stories are compared side-by-side, a lot of details stand out. In Matthew's account, two "demon-possessed men" are mentioned, whereas in Mark's account there is clearly only one demon-possessed man. Also, in Matthew's story, just the presence of Jesus is enough to torment the demons, whereas in Mark's gospel, the man begs Jesus not to torment him because Jesus was repeatedly saying to him, “Come out of the man you unclean spirit!” 

In Matthew's account the demons beg Jesus to cast them into the herd of pigs, whereas in Mark's account two things occur: the man (possessed by demons) speaks his mind and the demons (who currently possess the man, i.e. "Legion") speak their mind. Notice carefully that in Mark's account, the man is first to do the begging. He begs Jesus not to send the demons out of the country. Perhaps that was because he understood the dangerous and volatile influence of "Legion" and he wanted to protect the people out in the country. But also notice carefully that immediately after the man speaks his mind, Legion speaks to Jesus, begging him to send them into the herd of pigs.  This is a startling difference between Mark and Matthew, and it's an important factor for understanding the main point of Matthew's story.

Also, in Mark's story, there is a surprisingly large amount of dialog between Jesus and the man, including dialog before and after Jesus casts the demons out of him. But in Matthew's story, Jesus only says one word. There is no further dialog from Jesus in Matthew's account. In Matthew's account, not only is the presence of Jesus enough to torment demons, but only one word is enough to cause them to flee from his presence. This uniquely short amount of dialog, I believe, is another important factor of Matthew's story, and is also crucial for understanding his main point. In fact, it is this uniquely short amount of dialog which helps distinguish between those who engage in dialog with Jesus and those who don't, which may, in fact, be the most important factor of this story.

Upon a careful examination of Matthew's story, there is, in fact, no distinction between the men speaking and the demons speaking. The confrontation and conversation with Jesus is always plural. "They" cry out to Jesus. What have you to do with "us," they say, and so forth. At first glance, our English translations even accommodate this plural dialog by giving the reader a very clear impression that there are two "men" who confront Jesus. But actually, upon further examination of the text, this may very well be an editorial faux pas.  The Greek text actually does not explicitly state that there are two "men," but rather that Jesus confronted two daimonizomenoi (δαιμονιζόμενοι), which is simply the plural form of a masculine word that can be translated in a variety of ways, including "demon-oppressed men," "men-oppressed-by-demons," or simply "demonic-oppressors." Demonic-oppressors is the translation that I prefer for this particular passage.1 

Further evidence points to Matthew's emphasis upon the demons and not the man (or men). Not only is there no distinction between those who speak as men and those who speak as demonic-oppressors, but this seems to harmonize well with Mark and Luke, who only mention the man (singular) possessed with many demons (plural). Moreover, when compared side-by-side with Mark and Luke, Matthew's story is clearly focused upon something other than the individual man. For example, in Luke's account, there are twenty six references to the individual man possessed with demons, and in Mark's account there are thirty four references to the individual man. But in Matthew's account, there are zero references to the individual man or even "men." All of this information leads me to believe that here, in this passage, Matthew's emphasis is upon Jesus' confrontation with demons, not a man (or men). This might be why the NRSV translates  Matthew 8:28-34 with the word "demoniacs" instead of "demon-possessed men." Matthew is describing an encounter between Jesus and demons.  

But there is more which can be gleaned from a side-by-side comparison of Matthew and Mark. In Mark’s account, this story is bound together in six distinctive sections, whereas in Matthew's account this story is bound together with three distinctive sections paralleling two emphatic “begging’s."

Notice the literary structure of Mark 5:1-20:

A)  Jesus goes to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes, and finds a man is under the control of an unclean spirit. (vv. 1-2)
B)  The man is uncontrollable & moving around, his clothing & body are cut up, and he’s not in his right mind. This man & his demons come to Jesus and beg Him for permission to flee.  (vv. 3-12)
C)   Demons flee (v. 13)
C’)  Local people flee (v. 14)
B’)  The city-people come to Jesus and they find the man sitting down, calm, clothed, and in his right mind. First they beg Jesus to flee, and then the cleansed man begs Jesus for permission to travel with him.  (vv. 15-19)
A’)  The man becomes a disciple of Jesus, and proclaims throughout the Decapolis (the country of the Gerasenes) what the Lord has done to him, and how he had been shown mercy. (v. 20)

Now compare this information with the structure of Matthew 8:28-34:

A)  "Behold!"  Son of God! Why have you come to torment us before the time?
   B)  Then the demons beg him to cast them into the herd of pigs

Center:  Jesus says “Go!” and then "Behold!" The whole herd is rushing down into the lake to drown!

A’)  "Behold!" The whole city comes to Jesus
   B’)  Then the people beg him to leave their town

After Jesus descends the Mount in chapter seven of Matthew's gospel, we find a series of wondrous stories -- true stories -- about Jesus healing and restoring his creation (e.g. the leper, the centurion's servant, Peter's mother-in-law, the stormy sea), all of which portray two common themes: 1) the authority of Jesus, testified by miracles and 2) the faith of all creation, testified by obedience to his word. Here in the midst of those wondrous stories, we learn another important lesson about authority and faith

In Matthew's story, Jesus reaches the destination to which his Heavenly Father has called him. He reaches "the other side" of the Sea of Galilee, a Gentile city filled with herds of unclean pigs and fierce demonic-oppressors who lurk in unclean tombs. But all it takes is the presence of Jesus to get them flustered. They believe that Jesus is the "Son of God" and they also believe a time of judgment awaits them, which is why they poke and prod Jesus with questions. Matthew's story is not about the faith of a man (or men) at all. Matthew's story is about the faith of demons who believe in God and tremble. They believe Jesus has authority over them, which is why they beg him, saying "If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs."  They beg Jesus for permission to flee from his presence because they have faith in his authority over them. 

But that's not all. By the end of this story, the faith of the people in this unclean Gentile city is analogous with the faith of these unclean demons (note the parallels of Matthew's literary structure: A, B, Center, A', B'). The demons don’t want Jesus to meddle with them, and the people don’t want Jesus to meddle with them. The demons don’t want to be anywhere near Jesus and neither do the people of the city. But Jesus has not come to meddle. Jesus has come to confront the demonic-oppressed faith of an unclean city. Jesus has come before the time of final judgment to show them what their final destination will be like if their faith is shaken by his mere presence. When the people beg Jesus to flee, their unclean city is sure to become the destiny of the demonic-oppressors. All who maintain that kind of faith -- a faith which rejects the Son of God -- will be cast out as unclean, and will rush headlong into destruction.

1.  This is clearly distinguishable from Matthew's use of the same word later in 9:32, which explicitly describes a "demon-oppressed man" (anthropon daimonizomenon). However, in the text before us, there is no word for "men" (anthropous) to be found anywhere. The emphasis rests entirely upon the demonic influence which is possessing, not the possessed.

Monday, January 28, 2013

William Lane on Hebrews 9:16-17

Shortly after the new year (2013) I found a copy of William L. Lane's shorter commentary, Hebrews: A Call To Commitment in a used-book store.  (His longer, world famous two-volume commentary on Hebrews can be found here and here.)  I was happily surprised to find that this world-renowned Biblical scholar offers a translation of Hebrews 9:16-17 which is extremely similar to the argument I proposed in earlier posts.  I am by no means a Hebrew scholar.  And I am very happy to have come across this book.  It's filled with all sorts of insights which I had not thought of before as I was teaching through the book of Hebrews years ago.  It makes me want to brush up and teach Hebrews again, actually!

Anyway, I was so surprised by the similarities between his commentary and my own thoughts on the subject that I couldn't resist posting on it once I had the chance.  Below is a brief selection of what he says in his shorter commentary:
The reference to Christ's death in verse 15 is followed by a long parenthesis (9:16-22) which explains why it was necessary for Christ to die.  The explanation of the death is rooted in covenant practice.  The preacher clarifies this matter in verses 16-17: 
For where there is a covenant, it is necessary for the death of the one who ratifies it to be brought forward, for a covenant is made legally secure on the basis of the sacrificial victims; it is never valid while the ratifier lives.  
These verses explain why Christ had to die in order to become the priestly mediator of the new covenant.  In the Old Testament, ratification of a covenant based on sacrifice frequently called for a procedure which clarifies the detail of verses of 16-17.  The ratifying party invoked a curse upon himself when he wrote to comply with the terms of the covenant.  In the transaction the ratifying party was represented by animals designated for sacrifice.  
...The preacher is familiar with covenant procedure, and he appeals to it to demonstrate that the ratification of the new covenant required the presentation of sacrificial blood.  He declares that if a covenant is to be made legally secure, the death of the ratifier must be "brought forward" in a representative sense.  Under the old covenant that death was "brought forward" in terms of sacrificial animals.  In the case of the new covenant, it was "brought forward" through the death of Christ.  Christ became "the cursed one," who in a representative way offered himself on behalf of those who had activated the curse sanction of the old covenant by the transgressions they had committed (see v. 15).  He took the curse upon himself.  Christ's death was the means of providing the sacrificial blood of the new covenant.1

1.  William L. Lane, Hebrews: A Call To Commitment [Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2004] pp. 124-125

Friday, January 25, 2013

Disrespectful Jesus

Matthew 8:23-27 says:
And when [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him.  And behold, there arose a great quake in the sea, so that the boat was covered with waves; and [Jesus] was sleeping.  And they went and woke him, saying, "Lord! Save us! We're perishing!"  And [Jesus] said to them, "Why are you being cowards? Littlefaiths!"  Then [Jesus] got up and rebuked the winds and the Sea, and there was a great calm.  And the men marveled, saying, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea are obeying him?

"Jesus said what?  He called his disciples what?  I don't believe Jesus would say something like that.  Some thing isn't right here.  This must not be translated properly."  

This is the kind of reaction I can imagine Christians having, especially if they're sensitive to the idea that saying anything disrespectful could ever possibly be "godly."  Well, even though some people think that kind of sensitivity has it's place in the kingdom of God, it certainly could not have it's place under all circumstances, otherwise the Lord himself wouldn't have said it. 

The fact of the matter is that most translations smooth over what Jesus actually said, and they also smooth over the emphasis of his disciples too.  His disciples did freak out, and Jesus really did interpret their behavior as cowardly.  He really did engage them directly with name-calling, and he wasn't insulting their intelligence or reacting in a sinfully censorious manner either.  What he said is a lesson for us to live godly in Christ Jesus.  Simply put, it's a lesson for disciples. But simply saying so still doesn't explain why Jesus treated them this way.  Many legitimate questions could be asked.  A few questions come to mind: 

What did they do to deserve the description of "cowards" and "littlefaiths"?   Wouldn't it have been foolish to let their boat sink and to let Jesus sleep through it all?  And what is there not to admire about fleeing to Jesus in times of trouble?

It seems to me that there are multiple methods which could be employed to misinterpret this story. We could blame Jesus. We shouldn't, but we could. Maybe he was cranky because he didn't get enough sleep or his blood-sugar was too low, and this is merely an example that being cranky isn't necessarily a bad attitude. Or maybe, Jesus is acting this way because his disciples didn't pray to their Heavenly Father first. Maybe, Jesus is criticizing them for waiting too long to wake them up. Maybe. Well, on second thought. No, none of those options are viable. 

What Jesus is really criticizing is their despairing fear and fits of anxiety. In fact, if you look closely at the text, it's as though Matthew is recording the three words that Jesus remembers hearing in the midst of his deep sleep. It was as though everything Jesus heard was fuzzy sounding, and the main gist of what he heard were three shouts of sheer panic: "Lord! Save us! We're perishing!" At least the disciples got it right by addressing him as "Lord," and not "teacher" like the scribe did in the last narrative (8:19). Admittedly, it seems natural for human beings to panic in circumstances like these. One minute they're hanging out on deck looking up at the clear blue sky. The next minute a great earthquake nearby makes waves so high that the boat is covered with water. I would be shaken a bit too (pardon the pun).

But didn't Jesus just finish teaching his disciples about how to behave in circumstances like these?  Perhaps many of these disciples weren't there on the Mount with Jesus, but at least Matthew's readers should recognize a parallel between this catastrophe and something mentioned in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount only one chapter earlier. It was there that Jesus taught his disciples about fits of anxiety. In Matthew 6:25-33, Jesus said: not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?  And why are you anxious about clothing?  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you all, you littlefaiths?  Therefore do no be anxious... But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

This direct address as "littlefaiths" is not a curse word, but it is name calling. And I bet it wasn't until Jesus called his disciples "littlefaiths" again that they made the connection and recognized that God had brought about the sudden earthquake to test their faith in Him. But Jesus was ready. Jesus was apparently always ready for each test that our Heavenly Father gave him. Surely Jesus was fully God and fully man, but this doesn't diminish the reality of the testing he still needed to endure throughout his human life. And this is a healthy reminder for us today too. 

When we are faced with real tests in life, what will our responses be?  Will we cower under pressure?  Will we panic? It seems that the most common reaction to severe testing is that most of our thoughts and emotions are consumed with tension, angst, worrying, and general uneasiness because of anxiety. Will any of those be your reactions too? Should any of those be your reaction? Jesus shows us that we should not be anxious. And the reason why we ought not to be anxious is because all fits of anxiety are an expression of little faith. Jesus knows that our tendency is to strive for as little faith as possible. We want to walk the comfortable road, coddled all the way to eternal life.  But Jesus wants big faith in all of his disciples because he knows that big faith is always willing to conquer through the uncomfortable roads of real life.  He knows there are a lot of littlefaiths out there in the world. But he wants bigfaiths. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to find out in heaven that one of Jesus' greatest joys in life is namecalling, especially with names like "Bigfaith." Jesus wants disciples who seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, which is another way of describing those whom he loves to call "Bigfaiths." 

There is also one more thing we learn from this story. We learn that Jesus accepts even a little faith. He does not admire littlefaiths, but he loves and cares for littlefaiths. Notice that as his disciples were trying to wake him up by screaming at him, Jesus didn't pull the blankets back over his face and tell his disciples to go away. And he didn't wake up and walk on water to get away from them either, as though the sinking ship was their unique problem for being littlefaiths. Instead, Jesus gets up and calms the wind and the Sea for the sake of his disciples. First he rebukes them for their cowardice, but then he helps calm them.

So when you are faced with God's providential tests, and you realize you're caving in to the temptation of anxiety and fits of despair, keep in mind that Jesus is able and willing to calm everything down for you. And he's willing to calm things down for you because he's the one you're coming to with even a little faith. He could ignore you. He is sovereign. But if you are his, you know his holy character which cares for you through every storm of life. And because you know He cares for you, you should cast all your cares upon him. But keep in mind that we are not really casting all our cares upon him if we are not willing to receive his rebuke about our faith being cowardly and little. And we are not really seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness if our primary focus is upon the Lord's help to calm the storm's of life. Instead we ought to be asking him for help to make our faith bigger. When we feel like a particular burden is going to become too big to carry, we should be willing to ask first that God would give us stronger backs.  We ought to be seeking first the kind of life which deserves better name calling from God. We should be asking God to help us conquer through the uncomfortable paths of life according to His word and Spirit to become worthy of the name "Bigfaiths."  If we are really interested in seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, our feelings of anxiety must be replaced with the wisdom of our Lord's rebuke.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Two disciples, one boat, no "where"

As noted in a previous post, Matthew 8:18-22 is the first narrative interlude sandwiched between the surrounding ten miracles of chapters 8 & 9.  In this brief interlude we find Jesus getting ready to get on a boat and travel to the other side of the Sea of Galilee to go preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  But before Jesus gets on the boat, he is confronted by two of his disciples.
A scribe came up and said to him, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Another of the disciples said to him, "Lord, let me first go bury my father." And Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead."
This is a great example of quick, clear-cut, straight forward narration.  The first disciple speaks his mind and Jesus responds with one sentence.  A second disciple speaks his mind and Jesus responds again with only one sentence.  Then, in the very next verse, Jesus gets on the boat and sails to the other side of the Sea.  This interlude is not part of the three miracles which occurred immediately beforehand, nor is it an essential part of the following three miracles.  It just connects the two groups of miracles, and it leaves the reader with a lingering aftertaste of how serious the calling of discipleship was in the Lord's eyes.

In the immediate story preceding this narrative interlude, we find group of three miracles in which Jesus is approached by a believing leper and a believing Gentile Centurion;  and they both address Jesus directly as "Lord," which, for all practical purposes, illustrates their actual faith that Jesus was the Lord.  The leper says, "Lord, if you will it to be so, you can make me clean."  The Centurion even addresses Jesus twice as "Lord."  But here in this narrative interlude, Matthew goes out of his way to describe the first disciple as one who doesn't care to address Jesus as "Lord."  In fact, Matthew doesn't even describe him as a disciple.  Instead Matthew describes him according to his profession, a "scribe."  And instead of illustrating his faith in Jesus as Lord, he addresses Jesus as his "Teacher."  So far, the picture which Matthew has painted doesn't look too pretty. But it actually gets uglier.  If the scribe would have addressed Jesus as "Lord," we probably wouldn't have noticed the fact that he was a scribe so much.  But because this scribe addresses Jesus as "Teacher," the fact that he's a scribe stands out even more.  It's as though this oh-so-humble scribe is placing himself in the position of an oh-so-humble student.  Jesus is not so much the Lord in this man's eyes as he is a powerful, wonder-working teacher that this student can learn from and follow. 

Before Jesus reaches the boat, this scribe proclaims abruptly, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go!"  And apparently this didn't flatter Jesus very much.  One can almost sense what Jesus was thinking in response.  But Matthew doesn't record everything that he was thinking.  Instead, all we are given is a glimpse of what Jesus was thinking and what mattered most to him.  In Jesus' response we find a word that he intentionally picked up on and emphasized in his response to this self-proclaimed "student" of his.  The scribe said he was willing to follow Jesus "wherever."  That single word is actually comprised of two words in the original Greek, που  ἐὰν  ("where" and "ever") and Jesus responds by saying that he has no "where" (οὐκ  που) to rest his head.  If this self-proclaimed student is really willing to  follow his Teacher every "where," he needs to realize first that there actually is no "where" to rest if Jesus has no "where" to rest either.  And it's only reasonable that a teacher would let his student know this in advance.  After all, that's what a Rabbi expected from his most devoted student.  The student followed him.  After a Rabbi left his home in the morning, the devoted student was nearby to serve him;  and when the Rabbi rested, the student had some time to go home and rest as well.  But not so with Rabbi Jesus.  "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few," as Jesus will be saying a few paragraphs later.  And because the laborers are few, and Jesus is on a mission to fulfill the work which his father has given him, there will be no rest until his work on earth is finished.  After Jesus proclaims the coming kingdom and accomplishes redemption, he enters into his sabbath rest.  In the mean time, there is too much work to do in the kingdom.

This is when the second disciple enters the story.  And as one might expect, the second disciple is set in contrast with the first one.  If the first disciple is portrayed as one who exaggerates and embellishes his commitment to discipleship, the second disciple is portrayed as one who isn't committed enough.  But there is at least hope for the second disciple.  The first disciple is rejected by Jesus.  But with the second disciple, Jesus responds by saying "follow me."  I am fully aware that throughout the various hard-hitting, repentance-calling, sin-exposing, emotionalistic preaching of modern Christendom, this second disciple is often portrayed as an un-believer or at best a half-hearted Christian.  Preachers mooch off this passage as though this disciple wasn't willing to place Jesus as numero uno in his life, and therefore the ending of his life must have become a sad sob-story of regret and sin-saturated shame.  Sad, sad face. 

But I don't actually think that was Matthew's point in this portion of the narrative.  As far as we know, this second disciple really did not attend his father's funeral.  For all we know, Jesus' words cut right to his heart and the second disciple followed Jesus onto the boat and to the other side of the Sea.  We don't know, and no other synoptic gospel alludes to the contrary.  If this second disciple is set in contrast with the first disciple -- the scribe who was rejected by Jesus -- then it's at least possible that this second disciple is an illustration of one who did count the cost and actually followed Jesus.  Certainly there is the lesson of priorities to be gleaned from this narrative.  The second disciple is concerned about burying his father "first."  But an equally obvious lesson to be gleaned from this story is that those who actually commit to following Jesus "wherever" he goes, even though they won't have a place to rest, are actually gaining life.  "Follow me," Jesus said, "and let those who are dead bury their own dead."  In other words, Jesus is saying: "Where I am going, there is life." 

Jesus was already called by his Heavenly Father to go the other side of the Sea.  That was the first thing mentioned in this narrative interlude, and it sets the tone for those characters in this narrative who actually hear Jesus' call to follow him.  Let's keep in mind that Jesus was not speaking literally when he said he didn't have any place to rest his head.  In fact, his response to the scribe was just as exaggerated and non-literal as the scribe's promise to him.  And for those who wish to argue otherwise in order to extract some "eternal truths" that sound good to audiences enthused by emotionalism, it is in the very next story -- only two verses later -- that we find Jesus in a deep sleep on a boat!  And so, we know from this that his response to the scribe was never intended to teach us an eternal truth about his sleeping habits.  Rather, Jesus was simply testing his willingness to commit as a disciple.  Likewise, the response of Jesus to the second disciple about skipping his dad's funeral first was never intended to be a paradigm for all circumstances in life.  In other words, we ought not to extract "eternal truths" about following Jesus which were never conveyed by the actual narrative.  Sensationalized preaching is loaded with "eternal truths" that actually are not taught in God's Word.  And this is but one of those examples.  Matthew is not teaching that Jesus needs to be first before we brush our teeth, first before we turn on the radio, and first before we squirt ketchup on our hot dog at lunchtime.  Jesus is supposed to be first in everything we do, not before everything we do.  He is ultimate in authority, which makes him ultimate in every priority.  And this principle is illustrated no differently with this second disciple.  The imagery of what Matthew wrote is very clear.  Jesus was on his way to the other side of the Sea.  He needed to get on a boat to do that.  He wasn't going to wait around another day or two for a dead man's funeral to finish.  There was work in the Kingdom that needed to be done on the other side of the Sea. 

And so, in this very real historical setting, Jesus is not rejecting the second disciple.  He's actually giving him a chance that he didn't give to the first disciple.  Jesus says "Follow me" to this second disciple, and we, like him, are supposed to place ourselves in his shoes and make a decision in our own life.   Do we cross the Sea with Jesus and preach the Kingdom along with him, or do we follow the traditions of men and go home to bury our father?  Will we go where Jesus has promised life, or will we go where Jesus has promised death?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Thinking like Atom

In chapters 8 & 9 of Matthew's gospel, we find a series of ten miracles in a row which, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, frames in a type of "wilderness wandering" motif in the life of Jesus as it once was played out through the life of Israel.  But instead of coming to judge Israel for her ten rebellions, the Lord has come as promised to heal and restore Israel (Matt. 8:17).  Years ago, R. T. France noted carefully that these ten miracles were presented as one "collection," and that there also appears to be a unique placement of each miracle into three distinctive groups when compared with the other two synoptic gospels.  He writes:
The collection consists of nine separate miracle stories comprising ten individual miracles (since one of the stories, 9:18-26, contains two intertwined miracles of healing), which are arranged in three groups of three (8:1-17; 8:23-9:8; 9:18-34).  Between these three groups are two narrative interludes (8:18-22; 9:9-17) each of which focuses on the call to discipleship and the response of a variety of individuals to that call."1

Below is a simple outline of what R.T. France just described:

Miracle #1 - Leper  (8:1-5)

Miracle #2 - Centurion's servant  (8:5-13)
Miracle #3 - Peter's mother-in-law  (8:14-17)
  • Narrative interlude: Two types of disciples  (8:18-22)
Miracle #4 - Miracle on the sea with disciples -- calms the sea  (8:23-27)
Miracle #5 - Miracle across the sea in another city -- casts demons out of two men  (8:28-34)
Miracle #6 - Miracle back across the sea in his own city -- comforts & heals paralytic  (9:1-8)
  • Narrative interlude: Two types of disciples  (9:9-17)
Miracles #7 & #8 - Dead daughter & Bleeding woman  (9:18-26)
Miracles #9 - Two blind men  (9:27-31)
Miracle #10 - Demon-possessed mute man  (9:32-34)

This information is helpful for us in a few ways.  First, it helps modern readers of Matthew's gospel gain an appreciation for the artistic side of biblical narrative.  The average modern-day reader has no clue that there even is an art of biblical narrative!  Secondarily, it clarifies many misunderstandings surrounding the accusations of "random" or "contradictory" events in Matthew's gospel when compared with the other synoptic gospels.  If Matthew is highlighting true historical events, but he is also writing with different and more ancient literary conventions than what are commonly used today, such accusations and allegations become exposed for what they truly are: false.

Last of all, the details of literary structure help the student of Holy Scripture to focus upon the way in which individual narratives were intentionally knit together by Matthew.  Consider closely the example above.  Instead of merely focusing upon each miracle atomistically (which is probably how many students approach each story in the Bible), each group of three miracles can be viewed atomistically.  What might at first glance appear to be an isolated, atomized miracle can instead be viewed like a proton within an atom.  The remaining two miracles are like the neutron and electron knit together with the proton, thereby comprising one atomic particle.  But this is only one of the building blocks of the larger story.  Each sub-atomic story works harmoniously with other sub-atomic stories, comprising one atomic story, which is only one part of one unit of mass within the larger living story of the Gospel.

1.  R.T. France, NICNT: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), p. 300

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

McDurmon on "Markets"

Joel McDurmon, author of The Bible and War in America and Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice, has recently released another comprehensive, easy-to-digest strategy for implementing a Biblical worldview. The title and purpose of this unique book is self-explanatory, and is called Restoring America One County at a Time. Here McDurmon presents a thorough and thoughtful treatise which, as the back cover reveals, focuses "on practical steps, local solutions, personal sacrifice, and a multi-generational vision." So far I have devoured 244 pages of this 400-plus page book, and when I finally finished his chapter on "Markets" I couldn't help but quote a lengthy excerpt from it because I found it to be somewhat of a missing link among arguments presented by critics and advocates of modern-day "Capitalism."

McDurmon is one of those authors that you either love or hate. He's either loved or hated because he writes in such a logical, biblical manner that the reader knows his overall argument is either absolutely right or dead wrong. There isn't much wiggle room for neutrality. He will challenge your presuppositions about education, welfare, local government, state government, taxation, money and banking, "free" markets, court systems, foreign and domestic war, the military, and executive power. And yet, he doesn't do so like a bull in a china shop, leaving you with an overwhelming mess of worldview-pieces to pick up on your own. In this book he actually provides a step-by-step program for reform that can and will work if implemented with thoughtfulness and consideration of what's really going on in the world around us.

This brings me to the lengthy quote I mentioned before, which I would like to post below. The post below is stripped from 232 pages of previous context, and so I don't expect the entirety of it to sink in to every reader. But it is explicit enough to demonstrate a fascinating misunderstanding among "liberals" and "conservatives" today who have some opinion about the "free" market. When discussing the history of big "conservative" business at the turn of the 19th-20th century, McDurmon notes:
    The Big financiers -- J. P. Morgan & Co., etc. -- would not give up their quests for total domination simply because they could not win fairly in a free marketplace. They had no qualms at all about turning to government intervention and regulation. Thus, in the period immediately following the failed merger movement -- the beginning of the twentieth century -- we saw a rise in Progressive government domination. Indeed, "The dominant fact of American Political life at the beginning of this century [20th] was that big business led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy."1 So we return to our earlier statement about covetousness and greed armed with the guns of government. Big business interests simply have used the government coercion as a means of gaining a market advantage forcing out smaller competitors.
    And the big business was not shy about admitting their agenda clearly. For example, J. P. Morgan owned the agricultural machine company International Harvester. After Teddy Roosevelt established the Bureau of Corporations -- designed allegedly to investigate and expose any monopolistic powers on the part of big corporations -- IH came under suspicion and an investigation was ordered. The matter was a joke, for IH already had a back-room deal with the administration that an informal warning would give time to correct any "illegal" activity in the meantime. Indeed, IH's lawyer told the administration that the company welcomed exposure showing actual losses on the Company's behalf, "for then they would have just ground for raising American prices."2  The Company was quite serious, and it raised prices with sanction from the Federal Bureau's reports "to prevent attacks from less friendly parties, and as a general shield."3
     Noticeable also in this respect were the massive railroad companies. Not only had they used "federal and local governments for subsidies and land grants" from early on, but "railroads themselves had been the leading advocates of extended federal legislation after 1887."4 Indeed, the railroads wanted to use Federal authority to guarantee their pooling agreements and thus free them from the disruptive pressures and temptations of the market.5
    What has been said so far is a large part of the reason it is such a joke when modern leftists rail against free market principles as the historical cause of inequality, class warfare, and all our economic woes. There has been very little "free market" to begin with; this country hasn't had free markets very often at all, historically speaking. And the "capitalism" of the big bank-government collusion that we have today is hardly free-market capitalism. It's rigged state capitalism, which is to say it's socialistic to a large degree.

And then, a few paragraphs later, McDurmon begins a ten-page long explanation of how to put "free" back into free markets. I really admire his pastoral candidness in the opening words of this section. He writes:
If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to freedom is rocky, uphill, and lined with thieves lying in wait. The path to restore freedom in markets and even to arrive at a totally free marketplace is the straight and narrow way indeed. Traveling it to its end will require personal integrity, fortitude, sacrifice, patience, and endurance. It will require these qualities in society -- not just a few scattered individuals.
In simple terms, the road to free markets requires a personal and society-wide return to the principles that headed up this chapter: non-violence to a person's life or private property and enforcement of contracts. We must personally embrace these principles, and structure our lives, work, and businesses accordingly. More importantly, we have to maintain this discipline: we must absolutely refuse to depart from God's laws even when it is more profitable, more convenient, and more socially acceptable to do so. We won't have a moral leg to stand on until we practice fiscal integrity ourselves. We can't demand of society what we are unwilling to abide by ourselves. The model here is the Messiah, of whom David said in Psalm 15: 
                              O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
                              Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
                              He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
                              and speaks truth in his heart;
                              who does not slander with his tongue
                              and does no evil to his neighbor,
                              nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
                              in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
                              but who honors those who fear the Lord;
                              who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
                              who does not put out his money at interest
                              and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
                              He who does these things shall never be moved.6

1  Cited from Kolko, Triumph of Conservatism, 57-58
2.  Ibid., 119-120
3.  Ibid., 120
4.  Ibid. 59
5.  Cited from Stephen Skowronek, Building a new American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 129.
6. Joel McDurmon, Restoring America One County at a Time: How Our Freedom Was Lost And How We Get It Back (Powder Springs, GA: The American Vision Inc.,  2012), pp. 232-235

Friday, January 18, 2013

Jesus Marvels

As I was preparing for a bible study this past week, I noticed a handful of differences between Matthew's account of the Centurion and Luke's account (cf. Matthew 8:5-13 & Luke 7:1-10).  Below is a list of five things that stood out to me, one of which deserves some extra special attention (as you will see below):

1)  If both gospels are compared chronologically, Matthew’s story takes place before Luke’s account does. Matthew places the two miracles of healing a leper and a centurion’s servant after the Sermon on the Mount. Luke, however, places the healing of the leper before Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and the healing of the centurion’s servant after the Sermon. Many faithful scholars attempt to distinguish Luke's "sermon" as being "on a Plain" and not on a "Mount," as in Matthew, and as though they were two separate "sermons." But because the content and environment of each sermon account remains remarkably similar (as though it were the exact same sermon), I am comfortable assuming that they are the same. And I just think that makes many scholars uncomfortable. It may be the case that many Christians don't want to accept the viewpoint that Matthew's gospel was written with different literary conventions than modern ones, because that may lead some people to consider it as historical fiction, instead of true historical accounts. Anyway, sorry for the digression. My point is that the chronology is noticeably different, and I don't think that is enough evidence to conclude that both accounts are contradictory or fictitious. Rather, I believe that this is another very clear indicator that Matthew is writing his gospel to a very specific audience which understood and used different literary conventions than Luke's audience, and therefore none of the history recorded in each gospel ought to be viewed as fictitious or contradictory if interpreted from each perspective (as shown below). 

2)  Another thing which stands out is that Matthew’s gospel describes a beloved servant-child1 who is "paralyzed" and "suffering terribly," whereas Luke’s gospel describes a valuable slave (doulos) who is "sick" and "at the point of death." These two descriptions are not contradictory, but the differences do appear to be striking at first glance. It is evident that each author wants his audience to focus upon certain details and not others. In this instance, the focus of Matthew's version is upon a specific illness (paralyzation) which needs healing, and nothing more. Luke's account, however, is more general in it's description. Matthew's account describes a condition in which one can anticipate a life of agony for the servant-son and his loving master, the Centurion; whereas Luke's account get's right to the point: there is a Centurion whose highly valued slave is at the point of death. And this particular Centurion also happens to be highly valued by the Jews because he helped build their local synagogue (Luke 7:5). 

3)  Matthew's account is also written in such a way that it appears as though the Centurion himself is talking with Jesus.  But in Luke’s account, the centurion sends leaders from the Jewish community to represent him, and to talk with Jesus, and there is also no indication that Jesus ever meets the Centurion face-to-face. It's as though the Centurion sends2 his own "apostles" to represent him before Jesus. This again, is another indicator that Matthew is writing his gospel with a different literary convention than Luke.  Matthew records this historical account with a heavy emphasis upon Jesus' communication with the Centurion, and nothing more. The communication between Jesus and the Centurion is the most important factor of Matthew's account, because if the reader can sense what the Centurion is feeling for his servant, the reader can also sense Jesus' feelings for his servant (the Centurion).

4) This brings us to the most striking aspect of Matthew's account (in my opinion). Only Matthew's account records the first and last words which Jesus uses to address the Centurion. Luke's account shows more about Jesus' actions, but doesn't tell us what Jesus actually said to the Centurion. Just look briefly at a red-letter bible. Matthew's account shows what Jesus actually said. And when the Centurion provides a question for Jesus to answer, Jesus doesn't respond immediately with an affirmative "yes" (contrary to modern translations). Instead, Jesus responds with a question: "Am I to come and heal him?"3 Another way of looking at this scenario is through the more subtle lens of Luke's account, which says that after "pleading with Jesus earnestly," Jesus went to visit the Centurion's suffering servant (Luke 7:4). In Matthew's account, the reader is supposed to feel and empathize with the agony of the paralyzed servant-son and his compassionate lord (the Gentile Centurion). But after finally reaching Jesus, he is not immediately received with compassion, as he probably was among the other Jews who knew that he loved Israel and built them a synagogue. Instead, Matthew's account shows that Jesus is the cautious one. And it appears as though Jesus is cautious because he is being solicited by a Gentile from afar. This sets the stage for the reader to imagine what Jesus' reaction might be if other faithful Gentiles in the future came to him from afar. The response of the Centurion is what really seals this feeling of distance between Jew (Jesus) and Gentile (the Centurion), which, as we'll see in a few moments, leads us into understanding why Jesus' spoke even more shocking words to his surrounding Jewish audience.  

After receiving Jesus' sharp response, the Centurion responds as one whose faith was unshakable. Not only does he respond by addressing Jesus directly as his "Lord," but he argues further that he is not even worthy to have the Lord under his roof. Moreover, his faith is so great that he truly believes Jesus only has to say "a word" and his servant would be healed. (Modern translations have "but only say the word," when actually the Greek is much more casual than that: "but say only a word, and my servant will be healed.") The faith of this centurion is marvelous indeed! But this is not all! Not only has the centurion endured a blockade of caution from Jesus, but he presses onward and over that apparent obstacle with a testimony of faith which trusts God so much that even though his servant is far away, all his Lord would have to do is say one word -- any word -- and His will would be done. 

At this point in the story, we might want to take a breath and pause for a moment or two just to reflect upon how great this man's faith was. This Centurion is not acting in mere desperation, believing blindly in anyone who claims they can help him. No! This Gentile has true faith in the Lord of all creation!  And just when we might think the Centurion has shown us how great his faith is, Matthew provides us with one more illustration of his faith, straight from the centurion's own mouth.  It's always great to see a man whose faith is unshaken by obstacles and disappointments in life. It's even more encouraging to see such a man confess a faith so great that he doesn't need to see the miracle in order to know that its power is standing before his very own eyes. But this man has such a marvelous faith that, after all this, he is willing to admit publicly that he is a man under authority like Jesus. He says, "for I also am a man under authority." This Gentile Centurion knows what it's like to tell one of his servants, "Go!" and his will is accomplished. He says "Come!" to another, and his will is obeyed with only a word. And he believes that Jesus is Lord over all creatures, and because He is the Lord, He only has to say a word. This Gentile has an extra-ordinary faith! It has not even dawned across this Gentile's mind that Jesus is merely a prophetic leader like John the Baptizer, or simply another self-proclaimed leader, like Judas Maccabaeus, who has come to restore pure worship and begin a revolution in Israel again. Instead, this Centurion sees Jesus as someone under authority, as well as someone with authority over life itself. And it is to this compound expression of faith which Jesus "marvels" (Matt. 8:10).

The fact that Jesus "marvels" is really fascinating. “Marveling” is the typical response of the people who see Jesus’ miraculous works (cf. 8:27; 9:33; 15:31). But Jesus is the one who marvels this time! And then Jesus turns to the crowds that followed him, saying "with no one in Israel have I found such faith!" (v. 10)  And it is to that faith which Jesus finally responds directly to the Centurion. And he does so with only a word. He says "Go." No long drawn-out explanation of what to do next, and no protracted conditions. Further assurance is simply granted by the closing statements of Jesus and Matthew: "It shall be done for you as you have believed.' And the servant was healed at that very moment."

5)  It's no wonder that Matthew's account includes the somewhat cryptic statement of Jesus about Gentiles traveling from all over the world -- from east and west -- coming to feast with the patriarchs in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 8:11-12). The Jews considered themselves to be the "children of the kingdom" who, of course, thought they had inherent legal rights to recline and feast with the saints of God in heaven. But Jesus does not mince words with the crowds who followed him. He's explicit about a promised flood of faithful saints from east and west -- saints with faith like the Gentile centurion standing before him -- who would inherit a place at the Lord's Table. Interestingly, Jesus describes the kind of place where the "children of the kingdom" (who are wise and righteous in their own eyes) will be while the kingdom of heaven is ushering in faithful saints from east and west. The place is described as a location where there will be "gnashing of teeth" and "weeping" in complete "darkness" (8:12). Now, it doesn't take much imagination to realize that when teeth are being gnashed together, it's probably not because they are trying to express great comfort. And weeping isn't supposed to conjure up expressions of joy either. In other words, this place of "darkness" is probably not a place where the patriarchs spend a whole lot of time when they're not feasting with the rest of God's saints. And that's Matthew's point. That's why he highlights the fact that Jesus "marveled." Jesus wasn't marveling at mere faith, but a faith that stood out as being so contrary to the faith proposed by "children of the kingdom." The self-righteous "children of the kingdom" who remain completely befuddled by the faith of this Gentile are not going to be feasting at the Lord's Table with all His saints.

1.  The Greek word παῖς used here can mean both "servant","child", and "son."
2.  The Greek verb for "sent" used here in Luke 7:3 is apesteilen, from which the noun, "apostle," is derived. The Centurion "sent [apesteilen] to him elders of the Jews."
3.  Most modern translations have Jesus saying: "I will come and heal him." But in order to get that particular translation from the Greek, the pronoun Ἐγὼ ("I myself") has to be overlooked. And that pronoun is not only grammatically unnecessary to form a declarative sentence in Greek, but, according to R.T. France, it "is also given added emphasis" for forming an interrogative sentence "by being placed first in the sentence." [NICNT: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007) p. 313]. The Nestle-Aland Greek text and United Bible Society Greek text both give the interrogative punctuation in the margin.