Sunday, December 14, 2014

Proclaiming Liberty to Captives (A homily for Gaudete Sunday, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24)



Advent  (Third Sunday, Year B)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28


Rejoice. Pray. Give-thanks. Do not quench. Do not despise. Test. Hold-firmly. Hold-back. Try repeating those verbs out loud a few times. (No, seriously, try it.)
 
Rejoice. Pray. Give-thanks.

Do not quench. Do not despise.

Test. Hold-firmly. Hold-back.

Perhaps, as you spoke those words out loud, you noticed that Paul gives three positive commands, followed by two negative commands, followed by another set of three positive commands. Each set of commands fits together as one unit, and each of those units fit into each other, forming a neat symmetrical structure.1 This structure is a neat little way to illustrate that Paul knew exactly what he was saying. His closing thoughts were well thought through, organized, and intentional. He said things in such a way that there really should not be room for doubt or debate as to what he meant. But of course, we do anyway. We doubt at least a little bit because Paul didn’t simply say “Rejoice.” He said rejoice always. He said give thanks in all circumstances. He said test all things, and hold-back from every sight of evil. Once we hear such penetrating and seemingly unqualified instructions for the Church, we want to ask questions like, ‘Did Paul really mean to rejoice always?’ ‘Am I really supposed to be praying constantly, or to be giving thanks in everything?' As I am going to contend in this message, I think the answer is “yes.” I think that set of commands was meant to be understood exactly as we find it today; and that set of commands were not just the will of God for the Christians in Thessalonica, to whom Paul wrote (1 Thess. 5:18), but they also remain valid commands for the Christians today.

But I’m willing to bet that doesn’t clarify things for us very much. Such unqualified terms do not, in fact, help us understand why Paul would gave such broad, sweeping commands and actually expected people to honor them. 

Fortunately the lectionary readings assigned for today help us make sense of this. In our old testament reading, Isaiah preached about the gospel of God coming to visit His people and to deliver them from exile. It begins with a familiar poetic proclamation, something Jesus used to describe his own ministry as he read from the lectionary in a synagogue in galilee (Luke 4:16-20):
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

Isaiah, of course, is the one who spoke those words originally; and if you were living in Isaiah’s generation, and listening to him say those words, you might have thought he was referring to himself. But he wasn’t. He was referring to someone else, someone coming after him, whose sandal he was not worthy to untie.

There is something else peculiar about this message from Isaiah, which Jesus quoted with regard to Himself. Isaiah’s prophecies of salvation are always accompanied by messages of judgment. They are, in fact, messages of salvation through judgment; and Jesus stops his quotation of this passage at the very end of the salvation portion. Jesus stops right before the Isaiah passage talks about God’s judgment—about the Day of vengeance, a day not at the end of human history, but at a time when God would come down to judge Israel for her sins, sending them into exile and destroying Jerusalem for the empire of idolatry it would eventually become. Such messages of salvation proclaimed through the mouth of Isaiah could hardly be taken as “good news” if his own generation and the city of Jerusalem would first have to endure God's judgment. So God’s promise in the days of Isaiah was not simply that God would come and save Israel. God’s message to Isaiah's generation was primarily one of judgment for everyone who would not repent and turn to God, and be saved through it. Yet, somewhat enigmatically, this means that the salvation promised by God would have to come at a later time, to the people of God sent into exile after Jerusalem was destroyed. This means that if you happened to be living in Isaiah’s time, you would not have lived to experience the glorious deliverance that God had promised. That generation could not have experienced the salvation Isaiah described because it didn’t occur in Isaiah’s time. It occurred much later.

It doesn’t take much to realize that such a message does not appear to be good news, at either the first, second, or fifth glance. But it was, in fact, good news. It was good news to the people who trusted in God’s faithfulness, those who prepared their hearts to endure through God's judgment upon Israel; and it was also good news to the generation who lived through Israel’s second exodus—their return from Babylonian captivity. If you study the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, God’s promises through Isaiah were most certainly promises of good news. At the time of Ezra and Nehemiah—roughly 500 years before Christ was born—God had done far more than simply proclaim liberty to his people held captive in Babylon; He had actually given them liberty to return to Jerusalem and re-build the House of the Lord, i.e. His Temple. He released His people who had been held prisoners in a foreign land so that they could proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor back in Jerusalem.

From our Psalm reading today (Psa. 126), we learned a little about how the people of God felt at that time, when they returned from Babylonian captivity:
When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter

And our tongue with joyful shouting;
Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
We are glad.
Restore our captivity, O Lord,
As the streams in the South.
Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting.
He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed,
Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

With all of Israel’s future talk (in these Psalms) about the greatness of God in restoring them from captivity, the people probably expected the prophecies of Isaiah to have reached their fulfillment. In other words, if you were an Israelite in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, you probably would have thought that God’s ultimate promises for His kingdom had now come to fruition. You might have thought that the end was near and it was only a matter of time before God would make all things new again. However, there would have been one significant dilemma for those who held that belief. No matter how close one looks at that period in Israel’s history (i.e. Ezra, Nehemiah, etc.), what will not be found is a record of the Lord returning to His House, the Temple. The people returned, but the glory of the Lord did not.

You see, when God gave Israel plans to construct His House in the wilderness, at Sinai, He showed up and made His glorious presence known. He didn’t just give His people instructions to build a House for Himself and then sneak into His throne-room quietly in the middle of the night. To the contrary, the Lord descended in a glorious cloud onto the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34-35) just as He did onto Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:18-20). There, in the presence of everyone, YHWH shook the earth and sat down on His throne in the Most Holy Place, seated on the Cherubim above the ark of the covenant (I Sam. 4:4; Psa. 80:1; 99:1; Isa. 37:16; Ezek. 1). The Lord also showed up when Solomon finished building the Temple in Jerusalem. The shekinah glory descended upon the Temple and the arrival of His glorious presence is given extra special attention in those passages of Scripture (II Chron 7:1-3). But the glorious appearance of the Lord did not occur in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah after Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity; and the glory of the Lord would not appear again until a man name John started baptizing Israelites in the wilderness.

We read a little about that in our lectionary assignments for today. It’s interesting that we are only given a very small amount of information about who John the Baptist was, and perhaps even more interestingly, John’s gospel makes a special point to tell us emphatically who John was not (1:6-8). John was not the light of the world. But he was a lamp with just enough brightness to be noticed; and because the world of Jesus' day was so dark and gloomy, when the Jewish authorities saw John’s light the first thing they wanted to know was if he was the promised Messiah. This confirms what I have already said: the Jews themselves understood that God’s promises in Isaiah and other prophets were not yet fulfilled, and that the glory of the Lord had not yet returned to His Temple to rule and restore all things as promised.

Now fast forward to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church. In 1st Thessalonians, Paul was writing to Gentiles who had received the Spirit of God because the glory of God had finally returned. God had returned, in the flesh, to restore not just Israel, but the whole world from its bondage. Paul spoke as one who believed that kingdom-building project throughout the whole world was well underway—that God had come down in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth and was now, after his resurrection, working powerfully by His Spirit to build a new and glorious Temple not just in the earth, but of the earth, of the whole earth. Jesus came to make all things new, not just some things new. The scope of His salvation was cosmic. He came to build up all the ancient ruins, raise up all the former devastations of many generations, and to plant oaks of righteousness across the globe (Isa. 61:3-4). Paul saw a forest of God’s righteousness and praise springing up before all nations as Isaiah and the other prophets had spoken. That is the background of Paul’s commands at the end of 1st Thessalonians. Paul understood that God was up to something He had never done before—something far more powerful, and influential, and lasting than the kingdom-building projects of Israel’s early days.

Now, as you read through the commands of Paul at the end of 1st Thessalonians, allow that vision to permeate the way you view what has been said. Paul said, rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in everything, for this is the will of God for you all who are in Jesus the Messiah. Do not quench the flame of the Spirit working throughout the world. Do not despise the words of prophets who confirm this glorious temple-building project of God; but rather, test all things, hold-firmly to what is beautiful, and hold-back from every sight of evil; and may the God of peace, Himself, sanctify you all completely; and may the complete spirit, soul, and body of you all be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.

Paul knew that the glorious faithfulness of God had been manifest for the whole world to see. Paul had seen it with his own eyes, and heard about it from distant lands far beyond what he had ever traveled, and that is why Paul could confidently say to the Thessalonians, “Faithful is He who calls you, and He will bring it to pass” (I Thess. 5:24).

The Spirit’s powerful work in Paul’s day is something we too should be encouraged by and hopeful for as we wait upon the Lord this Advent season. That same Spirit which spoke through prophets and spread the gospel through Paul’s world was the same exact Spirit who empowered men, women, and children all over the globe to rejoice always, to pray constantly, and to give thanks in every circumstance; and it is that same exact Spirit of rejoicing, thanking, testing, and self-control which continues the kingdom-building project of the Messiah today. Christ Jesus is still making His name known among all the nations today by the work of that same Spirit in Paul’s day, and all who see the Spirit’s work in us—watching us test all things carefully, holding firmly to what is beautiful, and holding back from what is evil—they see the God of peace sanctifying the world through us. As Isaiah prophesied, they see that we are a people whom the Lord has blessed (61:9). It is because we are truly blessed by the Spirit of God that we can always rejoice and in every circumstance give thanks.

One important way in which the Church has always rejoiced and continuously gives thanks is by celebrating the Eucharist. Even the word “Eucharist” means “to give thanks.” It is also the word Paul used in our reading today where he told the Thessalonians to “give thanks.” It is here, in the Eucharist, where the Church learns to rejoice, where our tongues are trained for thanksgiving. Here we gather together in “Eucharist”—in thanksgiving—for the gifts of bread and wine, for the gifts of Jesus’ body and blood. Here we hold firmly onto the beautiful gospel made food. So come to the Lord’s Table today and rejoice! Taste and see that the Lord is good.


* * * * * *


O Heavenly Father, who has filled the world with beauty. Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in the cosmic scope of renewal which you have begun through Christ in his first advent, we would learn to serve you with gladness always, holding firmly to what is beautiful, and holding back from every sight of evil; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.








1.  The structure looks like this:
A)  Rejoice always
  B)  Pray constantly
    C)  Give thanks in everything,
      D)  for this is the will of God for you all who are in Jesus the Messiah. 

E)   Do not quench the Spirit
E')  Do not despise the words of prophets

A')  Test all things
  B')  Hold-firmly to what is beautiful
    C')  Hold-back from every sight of evil, 
      D')  and may the God of peaceHimselfsanctify you all completely; and may the complete spiritsoul and bodyof you all be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.




Friday, December 12, 2014

Book Review: For the Healing of the Nations, by W. Bradford Littlejohn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good introduction by Escalante. The first two essays by Bratt were very insightful, using Kuyper as a principled model of christian activism. The third essay by Hutchinson was tediously arranged with copious amounts of Latin, but insightful. Perhaps it's best to summarize Escalante's introduction as witty, Bratt's essays as ennobling, and Hutchinson's essay as brain candy for christian literature nerds and ethicists.

Moving on to other contributors in the book, Dr. Tuininga wrote a good, but somewhat "soft" essay about John Calvin's eschatology. Fulford's essay about Calvin's views pertaining to resistance against tyrants was outstanding.

O'Donnell's essay about Scott Oliphant's critique of Bavinck--particularly Bavinck's cognitive foundation for philosophy--was really disappointing, actually. I was particularly bothered by some cheap shots at Van Til's epistemology (Oliphant being a defender of Van Til) because even if Oliphant's semantics are not as precisely delineated as O'Donnell prefers them to be, Van Til did, in fact, address O'Donnell's concerns. See Van Til's Apologetic (by Greg Bahnsen) for further clarification about the way in which Van Til intentionally did not adopt classical epistemological distinctions to limit what he believed to be a better and more Scripturally justified epistemology. (That is not to say that Van Til didn't utilize classical philosophical distinctions at all either; he just didn't limit his own explanation of scriptural language and concepts by those classical distinctions.) So O'Donnell makes some simple mistakes concerning charges against Van Til, especially as he (O'Donnell) claims Van Til related the principle of "Sola Scriptura" with epistemology [e.g. O'Donnell, p. 151, implies this about Van Til's apologetic: that "Sola Scriptura is ...the principium unicum for all knowledge theological or otherwise." However, Van Til's apologetic was that Scripture alone is sufficient in and of itself to justify--at a foundational level--any and all necessary pre-existing conditions for rational human thought and discourse. That is to say, without the rational God of history revealed in Scripture, apologetics would not be possible epistemologically. Sola Scripura--not SOLO Scriptura--is, according to Van Til, the principium unicum for all foundations of knowledge, not "knowledge" generally, "theological or otherwise."] All of this made me suspicious about what O'Donnell overlooked or presumed concerning Oliphant's point.

In the end by beef with O'Donnell was this: He attributes to Oliphant's allegedly poor epistemology a problem of "Van Tilian hypochondria" which seemed to me to be a misunderstanding of Van Til (even if O'Donnell's assessment of Oliphant is correct).

On a more positive note, Miller's essay about the exegetical roots of VanDrunen's R2k project is absolutely outstanding. I actually consider that essay to be immensely helpful, both for its christological arguments against R2k, but also for its exegetical refutation of Kline's contribution to the R2k problem.

Auten's essay about the Rushdooney's influence upon American Christian Reconstructionist movements (in religion and politics) is also very well done. And finally, Minich's essay on infant baptism in relation to a "nature and grace" scheme was also helpful. I was not entirely convinced of Minich's arguments, myself holding a very different perspective of sacramental efficacy than him. However, considering that his Reformed-Calvinist distinctions regarding the "visible and invisible" church are very clear and minutely detailed, I'm sure they will be considered immensely valuable to future generations within that school of thought.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

What Shall I Cry? (A homily for Advent, Isaiah 40:1-11)

Advent  (Second Sunday, Year B)
Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a, 18
Mark 1:1-8



In the 14th year of Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib the king of Assyria waged war against the cities of Judah—including Jerusalem. But Hezekiah, king of Judah, was not willing to surrender to the Assyrians. So Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, sent his ambassador—the Rabshakeh—along with a huge army to Jerusalem to intimidate Hezekiah, and to persuade the people of God to think differently about their situation.

Once the Rabshakeh arrived outside the gates of Jerusalem, Isaiah tells us that he addressed the people Israel with a loud voice, informing them that their surrounding cities had been laid to waste, and that their city was next, unless, of course, they surrendered peacefully. And if they were to surrender peacefully, not only would they not be destroyed, but the King of Assyria would give each of them their own fig tree and vine from which to eat and their own cistern from which to drink. By making an agreement with the King of Assyria, they would no longer need to worry about their warfare, for they would receive care by the hand of a good shepherd who leads his sheep to a new land of promise, “a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards” much like their own (36:10-17).

King Hezekiah had a decision to make. He and his people could surrender to the Assyrians, or they could repent before the Lord, ask for His help, and hope that the Lord would answer favorably according to their prayers.

Hezekiah made the wise decision and he went into the Temple and prayed. That night the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, and Isaiah let King Hezekiah know that the Lord heard His prayer and was pleased with it. And in response to his prayer, the Lord promised to end the war of the Assyrians against them. That night the angel of the Lord would pass over Jerusalem and plague the Assyrian armies, causing many to die and the rest to flee away from the city.

Jerusalem was then spared. Her warfare had ended. The Lord delivered His people once more from their enemies. Now it was time to celebrate the Lord’s victory.

All of these events I just described are recorded in the book of Isaiah, chapter 36-37, only a few chapters prior to our reading in Isaiah 40. And if you were to gloss over chapters 38 and 39, at first glance the message of Isaiah 40 seems to be describing that victorious event (i.e. that event of Jerusalem’s deliverance from Assyria). Consider how Isaiah 40 begins:
Comfort, comfort my people! says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her in iniquity is pardoned… (vv. 1-2)

Here the Lord declares that His people ought to be comforted by His good news, and His good news is this: her warfare has ended, and the Lord has pardoned her iniquity. That sounds like a reference to the warfare which ended in the previous story about the King of Assyria attacking Jerusalem.

Then Isaiah hears another voice crying out:
Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness!
Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God!
…Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together;
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.  (vv. 3-5)
Get yourself up on a high mountain, O Zion, bearer of good news!
Lift up your voice mightily, O Jerusalem, bearer of good news! Lift it up, do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”  (v. 9)

Because Israel’s warfare is over, now the time has come to prepare a path for a procession of the Lord to His throne. The imagery of paving a highway for God through the wilderness is reminiscent of Israel’s exodus from bondage in Egypt, when God first claimed Himself as Israel’s King and carried them into the promised land. In chapters 36 & 37, we found a “Passover” theme: The people were in bondage and the angel of the Lord passed over His people, striking down all of Israel's enemies. Here in chapter 40, we find a clear “Exodus” theme. Here we see God leading His people in a victorious procession through the wilderness and into the promised land.

However, as I said a few moments ago, if you were to read Isaiah 36-37 and then gloss over chapters 38-39, Isaiah 40 seems to be describing that victorious event mentioned in 36-37. But Isaiah is not actually talking about Israel’s deliverance from the King of Assyria. And we know this because of chapters 38-39. In those chapters, Isaiah tells us a strange little story that doesn’t appear to be very important until we connect it with the message of chapter 40.

In chapters 38-39 Isaiah tells us that King Hezekiah became very sick and when the king of Babylon heard he was sick, he visited him and brought him lots of gifts; and Hezekiah not only accepted his gifts, he expressed his gratitude to the King of Babylon by giving him a tour through all of Jerusalem and even inside the Lord’s Temple, showing him all his treasures (Isa. 39). That action of Hezekiah provoked the Lord, and so the Lord sent Isaiah to give an important message to Hezekiah:

Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon. (39:5-7)

And take special notice of Hezekiah’s following response as well (39:8). Then Hezekiah responded to Isaiah saying,

“The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” (For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days.’)

This rise and fall of King Hezekiah, and God’s promise to send his people into exile in Babylon, is the background of our reading today from Isaiah (40:1-11). If we were to skip over Isaiah’s brief mention of Hezekiah’s sickness (Isa. 39), we would be missing out on the fact that this great promise of comfort was not supposed to be fulfilled in the days of Hezekiah, even though many people of Israel probably thought it was. Isaiah's proclamation of God's promise was for a future generation, long after the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel's exile to Babylon.

Even Isaiah seems to have believed God’s word of comfort was too good to be true. He hears a voice telling him to cry out God’s good news, but he doesn’t know if God’s message really is good news for his generation. “What shall I cry out?” Isaiah asks, for “all flesh is grass and all of its loyalty is like a flower of the field.” Isaiah knows that the people of Israel in his generation were not loyal to God. “Surely the people are grass,” Isaiah says. And just as surely as the people are grass who will fade away by the breath of the Lord,  so shall the word of the Lord stand firm. The days were coming when Jerusalem and the glories of its Temple would be carried away to Babylon, and nothing would be left; all would be destroyed, and the people of Israel would be taken captive to Babylon too.

Now, at this point you might be wondering what all of this has to do with Advent.

Advent is a season when we—people of God—are called to wait upon the Lord to enter our lives again. And as we wait up Him we’re supposed to be preparing ourselves for His coming by repenting of our sins and by meditating upon His promises.

But what has God promised for us? What has God promised that we need to be preparing ourselves to receive?

Perhaps it’s best to answer those questions by imagining ourselves as the people of God in Isaiah’s day. Are we that much different than them? Are the people of God today much different than the flowers of the field in Isaiah’s day? When the Lord speaks to us—His people—addressing our foolishness directly, just as He did with His people in Isaiah's day, what is our response? Even when Hezekiah received a warning from the Lord directly, all he seemed to care about was peace and security while he was alive. Are our ways of thinking much different than Hezekiah's? Are we willing to sacrifice our time, energy,  and petty inconveniences to ensure greater peace and security for the next generation, or do we care more about having peace and security in our own lifetime at the expense of future generations?

When we want God to come to our rescue, of course then we pray fervently to Him, and we teach our children to pray too. When we need rescuing, then we wait attentively for Him to respond favorably to our prayers; but let's be honest: when God graciously delivers us from our sins, our tendency is to go right back to where we were before, to our old foolish ways. And to make matters worse, sometimes we don’t even seem to care much about what happens to the next generation because of our foolish sins. We care far more about what happens to us. We care far more about having peace and security in our lives, even if that means a future generation of God’s people would suffer from our foolish decisions today.

So what message should we be crying out? What message should we be crying out in a generation like ours, whose loyalty is like a flower of the field that fades away with every gust of wind?

The answer to that question comes from our Gospel reading today (Mark 1:1-8). John the Baptist referred to this prophecy of Isaiah as confirming his ministry of baptism, which means that Isaiah’s message of hope was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus and in John’s baptism of Jesus. Jesus was the one of Isaiah’s prophecy for whom a highway was to be cleared, and John’s baptism was the way that highway to Jesus was paved. Jesus was the one for whom even the mountains of Johns world were to make room. Jesus was the one whom the people of Israel needed to repent before and receive forgiveness. Jesus was the Word of comfort for Israel.

But Jesus wasn’t simply the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Jesus was and is the glory of God revealed for all “flesh” to see (Isa. 40:5), therefore Jesus is the one for whom even the mountains of our world need to make room. Our world has mountains of pride, valleys of despair, crooked places of perversion, rough places of bitterness, but Jesus comes as our Word of comfort and paves a highway for us. He is the one who pays the penalty for our iniquity and delivers us from exile. His body, into which we have been baptized, is the Temple he destroyed and raised to life again. Jesus is the name above all names that we lift up without fear before the world, saying “Behold your God!”

Jesus is also the one who makes good on his promises as the King of kings. Jesus is the one who rules over all nations and subdues our enemies under His feet, declaring and end to our warfare. Jesus is the one who calls us to lay down our carnal weapons of warfare and surrender to His rule; and by surrendering to Him, he promises to fulfill His word as our good Shepherd, leading us to rest in his good land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards.

And as we learned in our Epistle reading for today (2 Peter. 3:8-15a, 18), Jesus is not slow to fulfill this promise to us either. Rather, he is patient toward us, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. 


Therefore, this is the message we ought to be proclaiming: Come to Jesus for your warfare to end and your iniquity to be pardoned. Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. Confess your sins and surrender yourself unto God, then accept His invitation to feast on the grain and vineyards of His good land. Feast on the bread and wine which your King has prepared for you this day at His Table, so that you may grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

* * * * * *


Heavenly Father, stir up your power, and with great might come among us; and, because we are greatly hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.







Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Pregnant with the Extraordinary (Matt. 1:3, 5-6)




"...and Judah...by Tamar ...and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah."   (Matt. 1:3, 5-6)

A long time ago I wrote a post called "Israel's Expectation," and it was about the opening genealogy of Matthew's gospel. In that post I noted how Matthew's central focus seems to be about shedding light upon Jesus as the promised King after a long eclipse of rightful heirs who had not been seated on the throne of David. But after reviewing that post again I noticed that I did not mention something which most commentators do. I did not mention the peculiar oddity of inserting female names into the genealogy, which, at first glance, appears to be added by Matthew without any rhyme or reason. And to be quite honest, the rhyme and reason for these female names only recently dawned on me. I suppose I just held a long-time assumption that the listing of women was of tertiary importance.

Pastors and teachers often preach about the female names of Matthew's genealogy by merely focusing upon God's grace in saving sinners. Bathsheba, after all is mentioned, and as we all know she was a sinner too; so Matthew's point in listing her within the genealogy must be to teach that God saves sinners. (Really?

Others preach about the text in such a way that portrays Matthew's genealogy as promoting a break-down of the social-barriers between Jew and Gentile. After all, Ruth was a Moabite, and Matthew's point in listing her name must be to emphasize the breakdown of Jew/Gentile hostility. (Again, really? Is that really obvious from the text itself?) Commenting on Matthew 1:5 (which mentions Rahab and Ruth) the famous evangelist Charles Spurgeon wrote:
We note that two women are mentioned in this fifth verse: a Canaanite and a Moabitess. The Gentile blood mingled with the Hebrews strain. Our King has come to break down the partition wall. As Gentiles we rejoice in this.1
While it is true that both Jews and Gentiles have much to rejoice in now that our King has come, I don't think that was Matthew's point. Instead of focusing upon the Jew/Gentile distinction, as Spurgeon did, the popular evangelical theologian, John MacArthur, prefers to emphasize that Matthew's purpose for including four scandalous women was to magnify God's grace. He writes:
Matthew's genealogy also shows the work of God's grace in His choosing to include four former outcasts in Messiah's pedigree. In a genealogy otherwise dominated by men, these women are exceptional illustrations of God's grace. ... [T]he genealogy of Jesus Christ is immeasurably more than a list of ancient names; it is even more than a list of Jesus' human forbears. It is a beautiful testimony of God's grace.2
This focus of interpretation is nothing new to the history of Christian commentators. Severus of Antioch, a fifth century founder of the Syriac Orthodox Church, took a similar route, only he emphasized Matthew's message as that of graciously cleansing and healing sinners. Commenting on Matthew's insertion of Tamar and Bathsheba, Severus wrote:
It is for this reason that in this genealogy the Evangelist mentioned in his list even those who had shocking carnal relations that were in appropriate and outside the law. For Matthew wrote with due deliberation. ...These were women with whom they became united by fornication and adultery. By this means the genealogy revealed that it is our very sinful nature that Christ himself came to heal. ...Christ therefore took upon himself a blood relationship to that nature which fornicated, in order to purify it. He took on that very nature that was sick, in order to heal it. He took on that nature which fell, in order to lift it up. All this occurred in a charitable, beneficial manner wholly appropriate to God.3
Most notable in its details is the lengthy commentary offered by D.A. Carson:
Inclusion of these four women in the messiah's genealogy instead of an all-male listing (which was customary) -- or at least the names of such great matriarchs as Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah -- shows that Matthew is conveying more than merely genealogical data. Tamar enticed her father-in-law into an incestuous relationship (Gen. 38). The prostitute Rahab saved the spies and joined the Israelites (Josh 2, 5); ...Ruth, Tamar, and Rahab were aliens. Bathsheba was taken in to an adulterous union with David, who committed murder to cover it up. Matthew's peculiar way of referring to her, "Uriah's wife," may be an attempt to focus on the fact that Uriah was not an Israelite but a Hittite (2 Sam. 11:3; 23:39)... 
Several reasons have been suggested to explain the inclusion of these women. Some have pointed out that three were Gentiles and the fourth probably regarded as such. ...Others have noted that three of the four were involved in gross sexual sin; but it is highly doubtful that this charge can be legitimately applied to Ruth. As a Moabitess, however she had her origins in incest (Gen. 19:30-37)... 
A third interpretation holds that all four reveal something of the strange and unexpected workings of Providence in preparation for the Messiah and that as such they point to Mary's unexpected but providential conception of Jesus.4
R.T. France seems to provide the most concise summary of Matthew's inclusion of the four women. He notes that:
But the four mothers selected for mention form a striking group. Probably all four were non-Jews (Tamar was a local girl, so presumably a Canaanite, Gen. 38:11, 13-14; Bathsheba was the wife of a Hittite), indicating Matthew's interest in the universal relevance of Jesus' coming; and in each case there were at least suspicions of some form of marital irregularity, though all four form an impressive precedent for Jesus' birth of an unmarried mother from an obscure background.5


When preachers like Spurgeon and MacArthur emphasize the grace of God in saving sinners and breaking down the partition wall between Jew and Gentile, that's all fine and dandy, but it's probably not Matthew's reason for including the four women in the narrative. And in actuality Matthew's genealogy does not list four women anyway. It lists five women. Mary is the fifth woman listed at the very end of the genealogy, and presumably Mary is mentioned for the same reason as the other four women. 'What is that reason?,' one might ask. Simply put, all five female names prepare Matthew's Palestinian-Jewish audience for a shockingly scandalous event governed by the very hand of God. Surely many Jews in Judea were not familiar with Mary and her personally scandalous story prior to receiving Matthew's gospel, but they would have been familiar with the scandalous speculations and traditions surrounding Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Matthew was ready to tell the truth about Jesus' birth from a virgin woman named Mary, as well as his miraculous conception "from the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 1:20), but in order to prepare his audience for a magnificently true story such as this, some echoes of invaluable information from Israel's history were in order.

Tamar is the first name listed in passing, and her story is undoubtedly sad and disturbing because of Judah's sinful refusal to give his son to her in marriage that she may bear the promised seed of Abraham (Gen. 38:26). Nevertheless the promised seed was passed through the line of Judah as promised regardless of her deception of Judah and taking advantage of one of his known lusts by pretending to be a prostitute. Likewise, Rahab the prostitute has always been associated with a scandalous lifestyle because of her previous "career" in the land of Canaan. But she repented and eventually married into the house of Judah. Ruth, a widow sojourning in the land of Moab who was also scandalized because of her loss of a husband, lack of children, and complete economic poverty, had no part of the seed of David until Boaz, of the house of Judah, married Ruth and redeemed her by purchasing all the debt and inheritance of her Israelite step-family. The fourth on the list is Bathsheba. But she, of course, was originally the wife of Uriah the Hittite, as Matthew points out. King David, who owed every aspect of his life and kingdom to the Lord, stole Uriah's wife and murdered her husband, and was judged by the Lord for it. Nevertheless, such an enormous scandal among men did not hinder God's promise or providence.

Finally, the list ends with an obscure woman named Mary. Who is she? And why is she listed among the other four women?


Well, apparently Mary is mentioned because she too has a story which can be viewed as providentially scandalous in the eyes of Israel. Mary, after all was a virgin (1:23), and Joseph knew that he was not the father of her child (1:18-19). But nevertheless, instead of making up a story to deceive the public -- like a claim that Joseph was Jesus' biological father, or that Mary really had an affair with another man -- Matthew simply highlights Mary's story with the shocking truth that Jesus, the promised King and Messiah, was anticipated as being providentially scandalous in the eyes of the public too. But just as the other four women are only mentioned in passing to highlight this general notion of scandalized providence, so Mary is mentioned only briefly for the same reason. In fact, the focus of the genealogy and birth narrative in Matthew's gospel has more to do with Joseph and his legal adoption of Jesus, the son of Mary, than it has to do with Mary herself. The mention of all five women in the genealogy is to intentionally associate them all together with regard to the promised Kingly seed that God began fulfilling with Abraham and then afterward through the line of Judah.

Surely God's sovereignty and God's grace in saving sinners is in the background of Matthew's mind when recording this historical narrative. But that's in the background of all Scripture, and it's not something explicitly emphasized by Matthew, so I recommend using caution with that kind of exclusive emphasis while interpreting the genealogy. The most natural interpretation of selecting five scandalously providential women together, and placing them within the grand opening of Matthew's gospel, is to prepare Matthew's Palestinian-Jewish audience for a story that is pregnant with the extraordinary.









1.  Charles Spurgeon, The King Has Come [New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1987] p. 16

2.  John MacArthur, The Genealogy of Grace, Notes from a sermon preached on Oct. 14, 2009. http://www.gty.org/resources/articles/A287/the-genealogy-of-grace
3.  Thomas Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 1-13 [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press 2001] p. 6
4.  D.A. Carson, The Expositor's Bible Commentary: Matthew [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984] p. 66
5.  R.T. France, Tyndale Commentary Series: Matthew [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1985] pp. 73-74