Saturday, September 8, 2012

Israel's Expectation

As was noted in an earlier post (cf. Alpha & Omega), the opening words of Matthew's gospel begin with a familiar echo from the beginning of the Old Testament Scriptures. He begins with the biblos geneseos of Jesus, just like the account of the heavens and the earth (Gen. 2:4 LXX) and the Adamic race (Gen. 5:1 LXX) are recorded as their own biblos geneseos, their own "book of beginnings".  But after those opening verses, Matthew doesn't stop echoing the early history of Israel. He moves forward with a genealogy that begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus.

Just as Adam's descendants are listed in the biblos geneseos of Genesis 5:1, Matthew records a genealogy for Jesus' descendants. One major difference between Adam's list in Gen. 5:1 and Matthew's list is that Matthew is concerned about one issue, and one issue alone: the rightful heir to the throne according to God's promise. The imagery of Matthew's genealogy is drawn from God's promise to Abraham that "nations would rise out of" his "seed" and how that promise unfolded with the Kingdom of Israel, the throne of David, and the eventual eclipse of that reign for centuries because of Israel's spiritual harlotry. Matthew's genealogy also seems to operate on the assumption that his audience is expecting the Christ (i.e. the Messiah) to sit on the throne of Israel. This is expressed in a few ways.

First, Matthew goes out of his way immediately after the opening genealogy (1:17) to express that:
"...all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah fourteen generations." 

Many readers look at this list of fourteen generations and overlook something very important. And it doesn't take much time or effort to notice something odd about the emphasis of fourteen generations. If the reader were to look at the opening genealogy and count the names in Matthew's list one by one, it should become apparent that there are definitely not three sets of fourteen generations listed. In fact, there has to be some overlap in order for Matthew to give a strict chronology. Therefore, as various reputable scholars have contended,1 something more was likely intended by Matthew's opening emphasis about three sets of "fourteen generations". The solution to this enigma is settled quickly once the reader understands that a particular literary style of identification used throughout ancient cultures (such as 1st century Israelites) is being used in this opening genealogy.

Notice carefully Matthew's own emphasis after he provides the genealogy: there are three sets of fourteen generations. In ancient cultures, the names or titles of important historical figures were often marked with something called a Gematria. Gematria is basically the assignment of numbers to a name. This was possible because many ancient languages used their consonants as numbers (which the English language does not do). Roman numerals are a good example of this. The letter "I"  stands for the number one and the number "V" stands for five, etc... But in the Hebrew language, DWD are the three letters of King David's name, and those three equal the number fourteen.2 Matthew was apparently less interested in highlighting an exact numerical order of kings, and more interested in using the true historical and legal line of heirs to the throne of Israel to highlight that it was David's throne (not Saul's) which was promised for the Messiah. Matthew's genealogy is not a strict record of natural lineage from Abraham to Jesus. Matthew's genealogy is, as John Calvin noted, a "legal genealogy" about "the right to the throne... passed in a lawful manner".3

Secondarily, there seems to be a central emphasis upon the throne of Israel because "David the King" is the focal point of the first and second sets of "generations" (verse 6). His name is listed as the last name of the first set and the first name of the second set.

Thirdly, there seems to be an expectation for a promised King to sit on David's throne because of the way the second set ends and the third set begins. The second set ends with an event, not a person, and the third set also begins with an event, not a person. Notice carefully that the second list of fourteen descendants to the throne ends with "the deportation to Babylon" and the third list begins with "the deportation to Babylon" (much like the way the first list ends with "David the King" and the second section begins with David again). This repeated emphasis of "the deportation to Babylon" is designed to highlight the fact that from that time forward the reign of a king on the throne of David in Israel remained in a total eclipse until the promised King came. That King, according to Matthew's genealogy, is Joseph's legally adopted son Jesus

1.  To name only a few, N. T. Wright, William Hendrickson, D. A. Carson, R.T. France, Craig KeenerDale Allison, and Stanley Hauerwas all acknowledge this.   N. T. Wright and Stanley Hauerwas both introduce a fresh perspective on this subject.   Hauerwas suggests that the three divisions of 14 generations were mentioned intentionally, even though the last division only contains 13 names. And so he concludes that "the last group has only thirteen generations because the church that Jesus calls into existence constitutes the fourteenth generation." -- Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006] p. 31.   N. T. Wright suggests that Matthew's "three periods of fourteen generations may well be intended to hint at six periods of seven generations, so that Jesus starts the seventh seven, the climactic moment of the series." -- N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992] p. 385.   I don't agree with the conjectures of both Wright and Hauerwas, particularly because there are no contextual indicators within Matthew's gospel; but nonetheless, I do consider their insights to be very interesting and helpful compared with the myriads of mainstream evangelical commentaries which gloss over this obvious literary emphasis by Matthew.
2.  The English translation of the name David consists of three letters of the original Hebrew alphabet: D (dalet), W (waw), and D (dalet). The letter "D" in Hebrew is also the number 4 in Hebrew. Likewise the letter "W" in Hebrew is also the number 6 in Hebrew. When the three letters are added (4 + 6 + 4) it equals the number fourteen.
3.  John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book house, 1989] p. 85; This book is available to view for free online at:

Friday, September 7, 2012

Between Babel and Beast: A Brief Review

In his latest book, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective, Peter Leithart provides a strong theological and historical case against the idolatry of what he calls Americanism, an "inherently expansionist faith" and ideology which "often sounds like Christianity, but does not."1 From beginning to end, Leithart defends his case that through the faith of Americanism, "the American nation takes the place of the church as the sacred community". One of the consequences of that faith, Leithart argues, is that they "read the Bible looking for types and shadows of America, and view the constitutional order as the novus ordo saeclorum, an eschatological form of social and political order."2

Leithart's views also prove to not be simplistic, but yet not overly complex either, which is a healthy balance for people new to this subject or new to Leithart's writing style. He makes numerous statements which will raise eyebrows among both fans and critics, but Leithart demonstrates that behind every raised eyebrow is a calculated attempt towards clarity, not ambiguity or exaggeration. Throughout the book, Leithart says things like "Insofar as we [the United States of America] want to make the world into our image, we are a Babel. We are not a beast, but we freely consort with beasts if it will serve our political ends. I wonder how long we can stay in the cage without taking on bestial habits ourselves."3 Leithart doesn't mince words, and so any reader should know what they're in for when statements like that are made. For those who are interested in the typological emphasis which is characteristic of Leithart's polemics, they certainly won't be disappointed either. One whopper of an example that raised my eyebrows the first time, is his contention that "Americanism is the monstrous Nephilim that people the earth when the sons of God intermarry the daughters of men. Americanist Christians are Joktanites who uncritically join Nimrod in building Babel."4 Them's fightin words.

Leithart is also very engaging in his presentation of both American history and world history. He discusses Egyptian, Israelite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian and Roman history. He provides detailed records of men and events in early American history as well, from Benjamin Franklin's "defensive imperialism" to the "expansionist republicanism" of James K. Polk's war against Mexico in 1846. And when discussing current events, the reader is left with a much more honest and transparent representation than the major media likes to present on the ten o'clock nightly news. How many Christians today take notice of publications such as the 1922 inaugural issue of Foreign Affairs (the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations), or the cooperation of Americanism with the IMF and World Bank? I don't know of many, and so, in my mind, Leithart presents a uniquely insightful angle from which to view current events.  

Leithart also discusses the relationship of Americanism with current events in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, Yemen, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. By no means would it be credible to charge Leithart as not knowing his history well. And it's because he knows his history very well that he can sort through all the clutter of liberal theology and media, but still contend for the optimistic eschatological form of social and political order taught in Holy Scripture. For instance, he is not shy about presenting an argument in favor of historic biblical patterns of social order and justice, particularly patterns pertaining to Christian leaders. Leithart calls Christian leaders to grow in maturity and influence to the degree that they hold public officials accountable to the "officers of God's imperium".5  He asks such bold questions as "When was the last time an American politician was excommunicated? When was the last time an excommunication had any effect on American politics?" St. Ambrose would be proud of Leithart's faithfulness.

But in order to avoid misunderstanding Leithart's case, it's important to recognize that before presenting those kinds of ecclesiastically-charged questions, he first establishes a strong theological argument about the primacy of God's imperium over the American imperium. According to Leithart, God's imperium consists of communing Christians around the world. And because it is God's imperium, and no one else's, Christians have an effect upon American politics whether they like it or not. But their effect will only be a blessing upon American politics if they are faithful witnesses of God's truth. Sadly enough, I believe his assessment is accurate in that "Christians do not try to check American power because American Christians are usually devotees of Americanism."6 "American Churches", Leithart contends, "cannot critique and confront American power because promotion of Americanism is what American churches stand for. Individual Christians do not have the virtues necessary to function as citizens of God's imperium because American churches have discipled them to function as citizens of the American imperium instead."7

Between Babel and Beast is, in my opinion, one of Leithart's most polemical contributions (and he has written quite a few, to be sure). But in the end, Leithart accomplishes with great precision what he set out to explain in the introduction:
Between Babel and Beast is written for Christians, and my main practical message is a simple one: Remember who you are, and to whom you belong. Remember that you belong to Jesus first and last; remember that the church, not America, is the body of Christ and the political hope of the future; remember that no matter how much it may have served the city of God, America is in itself part of the city of man; remember that the Eucharist is our sacrificial feast. It is good for Christians to be salted throughout our polity--in the White House and bureaucracies, in the military, in international institutions. But Christians in those positions are called to be salt. American churches have too long discipled Christians in Americanism, and that makes Christian involvement in the American polity far smoother than it ought to be. Churches must repent of our Americanism and begin to cultivate martyrs--believers who are martyrs in the original sense of "witness" and in the later sense of men and women ready to follow the Lamb all the way to an imperial cross.8

1.  Peter J. Leithart, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective [Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012] p. xii 
2.  Ibid.
3.  Ibid. p. xiii
4.  Ibid. pp. 82-83
5.  Ibid. p. 110
6.  Ibid.
7.  Ibid. p. 111
8.  Ibid. p. xiii

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How well do you know the Gospels?

About two years ago, I had the privilege of teaching the book of Hebrews to a fine group of Christians from the Milwaukee area, but after that study was complete, we needed to start something new. At that time I wasn't sure what book to teach next, particularly because I still had much to learn about the people in our small group. I wasn't quite sure which other books of the Bible were too theologically "heavy" for the group. I definitely wanted to offer something less heavy than Hebrews. And so my wife came up with the great idea of having a Bible trivia night to mellow things out a bit and provide room for discussing what book of the Bible we all wanted to study next. And as an extra bonus, the winner of the Bible trivia would get a prize! (The gift was a card to Half-price Books, the perfect gift idea for our small group because we all like to read books. And that was the idea of our great friend, Jenny Provost. Thank you Jenny!)

A bunch of people were interested in studying the gospels, and so I decided to narrow our trivia & discussion to the Gospels, and other general information relating to them. It was a very fun night, a night which I'll never forget, because I got to learn the perspectives of each and every person in our small group and just how much they learned (and didn't learn) from their Pastors or teachers in Sunday School.

Below are the 40 trivia questions I asked that night. (Fun fact: 40 is a biblical number for "testing".)

How well do you know the gospels? 
The person with the most correct answers wins.

  1. Which of the following is not a synoptic gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John?
  2. How many "gospel" books are there and who wrote the longest one?
  3. How many books of the New Testament were written by Gentile (non-Jewish) authors?
  4. Which gospel emphasizes Christ as a "king" the most, both in it's frequent use of that word, and in its literary structure?
  5. Which gospel frequently says that the words or actions of Jesus have taken place "to fulfill" the Scriptures?
  6. In which gospel does Jesus speak of "the days of vengeance"; and what city was Jesus preaching in when he spoke of those soon-coming "days"?
  7. Which author of the gospel mentions the last words of Jesus on the cross as saying, "It is finished."?
  8. Which gospel focuses the geographical scope of Jesus's life and ministry within Jerusalem?
  9. Which gospel does not mention the institution of the Lord's supper (i.e. "This is my body," "take, eat,...", "This is my blood of the covenant...", etc...)?
  10. Which gospel does not mention Jesus' Olivet Discourse?
  11. Which synoptic gospel does not mention the Lord's Prayer at all?
  12. Which gospel frequently emphasizes the "knowledge" of God and the way in which his readers "know" that Jesus' words are true?
  13. What is the only gospel that does not mention the veil of the temple being "torn apart" during the crucifixion of Jesus?
  14. What is the only gospel that mentions the graves of dead people opening and many dead bodies rising out of their graves?
  15. Which synoptic gospel contains more references and illustrations of the Holy Spirit's work than the other two synoptic gospels combined?
  16. What is the only gospel that records the words of the thief who was crucified with Christ?
  17. In which gospel are "the times of the Gentiles" mentioned by Jesus?
  18. When did "the times of the Gentiles" begin in history (i.e. what era of biblical history)?
  19. In which gospel do we find four, and only four, consecutive beatitudes?
  20. Which of the synoptic gospels gives us no information about Jesus' birth or his early childhood?
  21. Which author mentions Peter in his gospel more than any other disciple?
  22. Which author wrote his gospel with what scholars consider to be "elegant" and "proper" Greek?
  23. Which author wrote his gospel in the most grammatically poor and "common" style of Greek?
  24. Which author incorporates both Aramaic and Latin phrases in his (Greek) gospel?
  25. Which author incorporates the most Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic) styles and phrases in his (Greek) gospel?
  26. Which gospel-author had the surname of Levi?
  27. Which gospel-author was the nephew of Barnabas?
  28. Which gospel is structured around five main discourses (i.e. topical speeches)?
  29. What is the repeated phrase that author (just mentioned) uses to indicate that his gospel is structured around five main discourses?
  30. Which gospel author emphasizes the "power" and actions of Jesus rather than his discourses (i.e. which author shows Jesus doing a lot of things, instead of saying a lot of things)?
  31. Which gospel mentions the "Kingdom of Heaven" the most (instead of "Kingdom of God")?
  32. What are the first words of Jesus recorded in the gospels?
  33. What is the first miracle of Jesus recorded in the gospels?
  34. What is the second miracle of Jesus recorded in the gospels?
  35. Which gospel contains the most quotations from the Old Testament (i.e. Genesis through Malachi)?
  36. Which gospel was written first, and why?
  37. Which gospel was written last, and why?
  38. To whom was John's gospel written: Palestinian Jews, Hellenistic Jews of the Dispersion, Gentiles, or all of the above?
  39. To whom was Matthew's gospel written?
  40. To whom was Luke's gospel written?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Imagine for a moment....

While Jesus is living and teaching among the Jews, everyone in that region becomes aware of his teaching, and his claims of deity as the Son of God and promised "Anointed One". But during the period of three days after Jesus' death, rumors spread about his death. Every faithful Jew, hoping for the consolation of Israel and the coming of the Kingdom of heaven, is somewhat disappointed that their promised Messiah is dead.

Shortly thereafter, some disappointed Jews are traveling on a road about seven miles outside Jerusalem, and there they encounter a stranger; and they have a conversation with him about their doubts in this promised Messiah, Jesus. After a while, the stranger decides to assert his opinion about the present circumstances and all of their doubts, saying "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Anointed One should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" This intrigued them very much, and so they invited the stranger to sit down and share a meal with them to talk more. The stranger thought them to be very considerate, so they all found a place to eat and discuss the Scriptures together.

Not too long after discussing these and other important issues concerning the consolation of Israel, a startling circumstance occurred. After everything important had been being said, the stranger broke some bread -- literally -- and vanished. But that's not all! Not only did the stranger vanish; their eyes were then opened to understand who he was and what he was teaching them about the relationship between the God, Israel, and the world which Jesus saved. And so, as anyone as excited as them would do, the men who witnessed this amazing revelation rushed back to Jerusalem that night to tell Jesus' disciples their story and all they had learned.

Much to everyone's surprise that evening, while the eleven disciples were learning what happened earlier in that day, Jesus appears before all of them, even the men before whom he vanished, and startles them. His words were not many, but what was spoken was received well because it was to the point. And one of the most important things Jesus said to them that night was this:
These are my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled

Imagine further, that shortly after Christ's resurrection, one of Jesus' disciples who was well educated and highly literate (and probably very organized and detail oriented because he was a tax collector around Palestine for many years) was also commissioned to write a story about Jesus to his brethren in Palestine; and the purpose of that story was to declare that everything written about Jesus in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled, just as Jesus had told them before.

And so, seeing the immense importance of this commission, and his qualifications for accomplishing his task, he compiles all of his notes. He then sets out to learn from many other eye-witnesses some further testimonies of what Jesus did. Before long, he realizes that he is confronted with a huge dilemma: If he were to write a story about all the things that Jesus did, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. And so he prays about his task at hand and he seeks wise counsel from the other apostles and elders. Their advise for him was to narrow the focus of his epistle in a way which is clearly intended for his brethren in Israel (as commissioned) and clearly not addressed to everyone in the world, as though every single thing Jesus said in context had to be addressing people on continents not yet discipled and knew nothing about Israel's expectations; but rather, they advised, because his commission was to minister to the lost sheep of the House of Israel within the promised land, he should tell the story of Jesus' life to them in a way which they will vividly understand, in a way which is first and foremost relevant to them and their history, not to gentiles ten-thousand miles away.  And so he though about their advise for a long time and eventually went home to pray and think about ways to implement their wise insights.

It didn't take long after prayer before he received the revelation he longed for. He recalled that the whole history of Israel was more than just a story about a chosen people in need of a Savior. They were a type of firstborn son, whose genealogy begins with a call out of Egypt into God's rest. They were a royal priesthood, a holy nation who received the revelation from their Heavenly Father at Mount Sinai, who wandered in a wilderness for forty years before entering the inheritance He had promised them as His "son". They were a people who crossed the river Jordan and eventually conquered the land which God promised for them, only to learn the hard way, as years went by, that their own foolishness and spiritual harlotry displeased their Father and earned their disinheritance for a time. But their Father was indeed merciful, especially as they pleaded to Him for wisdom. He gave them wisdom and He gave them a King after His own heart to rule over them. But that didn't last forever either. Only after three kings sat on the throne of Israel, the kingdom was divided and their inheritance was seeing a steady decline as well. Eventually Judah, the land of God's dwelling place in their midst, and the House of Israel would reach a definitive end, being transported into Babylonian captivity. The story of God's House in Jerusalem being destroyed and His people going into captivity was the point of Israel's death.

But according to the everlasting Covenant of God, and His enduring mercies every day, the Father provided a resurrection for his "son", Israel. Israel's resurrection came within the greater Egypt, the land of Babylon, after the influence of Daniel but before the great decree of Cyrus, king of Persia, who eventually ruled over the land of Babylon. Cyrus, the Lord's anointed, recognized that the Lord who raised up Israel under his reign and given them life once again, had given him the responsibility to send them out into the world and rebuild His House. And so, Cyrus gave Israel this great commission:
Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, "The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up!

Then it clicked in Matthew's mind: he should tell the story of Jesus-as-Israel; then the people of Israel would understand that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the one-of-a-kind Son of God that fulfilled everything written about him in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Not Ever

"...He hath said, 'I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.'"
(Hebrews 13:5; Deuteronomy 31:8)

God hath not promised
Skies always blue
Flower-strewn pathways
All our life through
God hath not promised 
Sun without rain
Joy without sorrow
Peace without pain

But God hath promised 
Strength for the day
Rest for the labor
Light for the way
Grace for the trials
Help from above
Unfailing sympathy
Undying love

                      -- Annie Johnson Flint
                    "What God Has Promised"

Saturday, September 1, 2012

O Love That Will Not Let Me Go

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Light that followest all my way
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that sleekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

O cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
                                             -- George Matheson, 1882
                                            “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Thankful for many versions

From time to time I like to look at the variety of Bible translations in my library, and every once in a while, when I pick up a really old English version, I remember how much more thankful I should be to have a variety of modern Bible translations. In order to illustrate what I mean, I have posted a sampling of the exact english type-set used for John chapter one, verses one through five, from five different English Bible versions.

Which version do you prefer to study?

In the bigynnyng was the word, and the word was at God, and God was the word. This was in the bigynnyng at God. Alle thingis weren maad bi hym, and withouten hym was maad no thing, that think that was maad. In hym was lijf, and the lijf was the liyt of men; and the liyt schyneth in derknessis, and derknessis comprehendiden not it.
Joon (1:1-5)
John Wycliffe Version, New Testament, 1388

In the begynnynge was that worde, and that worde was with god; and god was thatt word. The same was in the begynnynge wyth god. All thynges were made by it, and without it, was made noo thinge, that made was. In it was life. And lyfe was the light of men, And the light shyneth in darkens, and darcknes comprehended it not.
The Gospell off Sancte Jhon (1:1-5)
Tyndale Version, New Testament, 1526

1.  In the beginning was the Worde, and the Worde was with God and that Worde was   God.
2.  The fame was in the beginning w God.
3.  All things were made by it, & without it was made nothing that was made.
4.  In it was life, and the life was the light of men.
5.  And the light fhineth in y darkenes, & the darkenes comprehended it not.
The Holy Gospel of Iefus Chrift, according to Iohn  1:1-5
Geneva Version, First Edition, First Printing, 1560

1.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2.  The same was in the beginning with God.
3.  All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made.
4.  In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
5.  And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not.
According to John 1:1-5
American Standard Version, 1901

1.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2.  He was in the beginning with God.
3.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:1-5
English Standard Version, 2010