Review: The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing

Jonathan Pennington, Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation and the Director of Research Doctoral Studies at SBTS, author of Reading the Gospels Wisely and Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew, has written “a historical, literary, and theological exposition of the Sermon on the Mount” (1). He situates the Sermon “in the dual context of Jewish wisdom literature and the Greco-Roman virtue tradition, both of which are concerned with the great theological and existential question of human flourishing” (1). It is laid out in three parts with his own translation and an introduction providing an overall reading strategy for the Sermon.

No section of Scripture has been written about more than the Sermon, and in the introduction Pennington summarizes how the Sermon has been interpreted throughout the patristic, medieval, reformational, modern periods, and he helpfully includes non-western and non-caucasian readings. Although not everyone would be interested in reading the history of interpretation, Pennington says, “We cannot simply identify one of these readings as right and others as all wrong. Each has a contribution to make to our understanding” (13).

Jesus, the true king and embodiment of God’s Law, “is the epitome of wisdom and virtue” (15). Pennington defines what he means by flourishing:

True human flourishing is only available through communion with the Father God through his revealed Son, Jesus, as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. This flourishing is only experienced through faithful, heart-deep, whole-person discipleship, following Jesus’ teachings and life, which situate the disciple into God’s community or kingdom. This flourishing will only be experienced fully in the eschaton, when God finally establishes his reign upon the earth. as followers of Jesus journey through their lives, they will experience suffering in this world, which in God’s providence is in fact a means to true flourishing even now. (14-15)

Summary

It isn’t enough to translate the sermon and think that words mean to us what it means to Jesus’ audience. What does it mean to be “blessed”? In chapter one Pennington provides and “encyclopedic context of the sermon” by examines Israel’s story, the setting of Second Temple Judaism wisdom literature, and the Greco-Roman virtue tradition and how their worldviews around certain terms Jesus uses. Peace (shalom) was established in God’s original creation. Wisdom and, later, apocalyptic literature came about because the fear of the Lord, faithfully living under the kingship of Yahweh, brought true life, and Israel looked to the end when sin would be vanquished. For the Greco-Romans, true flourishing came with virtuous living. Jesus’ Sermon brings these two ideas together, which can be seen in his use of specific words like “blessing/flourishing,” “perfect/whole,” “wise,” “fool,” “righteous,” and “reward.”

In chapters two and three, Pennington performs a word study on the words makarios (“blessed”) and teleios (perfect)two major concepts within the Sermon. When Jesus says, “Blessed is the one…” he means that in this certain state of being, this one is flourishing. The one who is meek, humble, and looked down upon in society, but who is in covenant with the Lord, is experiencing true flourishing. The idea of teleios (“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” 5.48) is one of wholeness“the teleios person in the Old Testament… is the one in total submission to God, who has an unimpeded relationship with Yahweh” (75). To be whole is to follow the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, and mind—to follow him with one’s whole self—and not to be a double-minded hypocrit.

In chapter four Pennington concisely examines seven more key terms that recur throughout the Sermon:

  • righteousness
  • hypocrisy
  • heart
  • Gentile//pagans
  • the Father in heaven
  • the kingdom of God/heaven
  • Reward/recompense/treasure

In chapter five Pennington lays out the structure of the Sermon and it’s setting in Matthew, noting that “Matthew’s literary skill is all about structure” (106). He “appears to be less concerned with the individual narratives per se than with how these stories fit together in conjunction with major teaching blocks to tell a larger story” (106). Pennington lays out the broad structure og Matthew and of the Sermon and says that the Lord’s Prayer is located at the center of the Sermon (132-33).

Part two consists of six chapters of commentary on the Sermon—Matthew 5.1–16; 5.17–48; 6.1–21; 6.19–34; 7.1–12; and 7.13–8.1. Part two is filled in with the information from part one, as the structures and word studies give shape and fill the commentary portion.

It is under persecution and slander (5.10–11) that God’s people paradoxically flourish (5.1–9). “Jesus’ macarisms [5.1–11] are grace-based, wisdom invitations to human flourishing in God’s coming kingdom” (161).

For Pennington, the Sermon’s theme is that of “greater righteousness.” Unlike the hypocritical Pharisees who do the right things but have selfish hearts not seeking to honor God, Jesus’ followers are to be fully devoted to God. Rather than following the external instructions of the Torah, they are to follow it with the heart by watching their teacher live it out. In this they will be “whole” like their heavenly Father.

The false prophets of 7.15–23 are not necessarily devious false teachers, but hypocrites (i.e., the Pharisees) who have evil hearts. Pennington sees many parallels with the rest of Matthew (healthy or decaying trees: 3.10 and 12.33–37; lawlessness: 23.28 and 24.12; 7.21–23, cf. 18.6 and 24.4–11).

Part three gives a theology of the Sermon and human flourishing in six theses. The Bible is about (1) human flourishing with (2) God in the center where his disciples live under (3) divinely revealed (4) virtue (5) under his grace. (6) God saves us to know him and to serve and love one another in his creation.

Recommended?

No section of Scripture has been written about more than Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “The Sermon, standing as it does as the first teaching of the new-covenant documents, likewise reveals much about how one understands several issues of theology and Christian practice” (3). Jesus teaches his new-covenant members—then and now—how to flourish and live virtuously in a covenantal relationship with their Father, the God of the universe.

Anyone studying the Sermon on the Mount would be at a loss without Pennington’s book. This isn’t the end-all-be-all of comments on the Sermon, but Pennington has spent fifteen years in Matthew, and one sees the depth of his research in his insights, explanations, and footnotes. Pennington has an eye for Matthew’s literary techniques such as structuring, inclusios, and word plays. If you’re going to study or teach on the Sermon, or if you simply want to know more about the Sermon, Pennington’s book is a must.

Lagniappe

  • Author: Jonathan T. Pennington
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (January 17, 2018)

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Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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The Center of the Center of the Center of the…

In his new book The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, Jonathan Pennington says that in the Gospel of Matthew, “Matthew’s literary skill is all about structure” (106). When comparing Matthew’s stories of Jesus’ healings and miracles with the two other Synoptic Gospels, Matthew generally gives shorter retellings. Throughout the Bible, structure is often just as important as what is said.

The biblical authors didn’t use chapter headings, (parentheses), italics, bold, or different colors to frame different sections. They often used words and themes in a literary technique called an inclusio. Why does this fancy word matter?

Imagine holding a dark, rustic 5×7 picture frame. You intend to hang your annual family Christmas photo (the serious one) in your living room. You are not going to put a 3×5 picture in a 5×7 frame—that would look silly. Neither will you try to cram a 5×7 picture into a 3×5 frame; that would destroy the picture and tell people that you don’t care for your property (and that you have bad taste!) Because you appreciate aesthetics, you place your 5×7 annual family photo into that dark, rustic, 5×7 picture frame. The smooth frame matches the pleasant picture. It fits (while your silly Christmas picture will go into the neon frame).

Matthew’s skill isn’t seen in telling elaborate stories. Pennington says he “appears to be less concerned with the individual narratives per se than with how these stories fit together in conjunction with major teaching blocks to tell a larger story” (106). Matthew presents the message of his Gospel through the shape of his Gospel. He frames texts with intentionality. Beginning with the whole Gospel of Matthew:

Abraham

1.1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

[Matthew’s Gospel]

28.18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In Genesis 12.1–3, Yahweh commissioned Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. Although Matthew doesn’t cite Abraham’s name at the end of his book, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the true King, the new “David,” his disciples receive the commission to proclaim his kingship to every nation that they would be converted and would follow him, continuing his line (or “genealogy”).

The Presence of Christ

1.23 Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

18.20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

28.20 …And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Three times Matthew states that Jesus (or God) will be with his people. The presence of Christ frames the text, and it is the proclamation of his present-and-coming kingdom which brings a separation among humanity seen throughout Matthew’s Gospel (110).

The Gospel of the Kingdom (of God)

Narrowing our search down, it is well known that there are five major blocks of teaching in Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7) is located within a larger block of narrative (4.17–9.38).

4.17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

4.23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

[Sermon on the Mount; 5–7]

[Healing and Calling Disciples, 8–9]

9.35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

This block of narrative (4.17–9.38) is framed by a call to repentance, a prayer for more laborers (disciples), and the phrase “the gospel of the kingdom.” Pennington says this whole section is “to be read as one unit, the theme of which is the call to discipleship (through repentance) that comes from the coming of the kingdom of heaven” (114).

The Sermon is meant to be read as the explanation of what it means to live according to God’s coming kingdom” (114). The Sermon is the perfect example of an “exposition of what repentance toward God and his Fatherly reign looks like (4:17), of what the life of discipleship looks like” (114).

The “New Law” of the Sermon

5.1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

[The Sermon on the Mount] 

7.28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, 29 for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. 8.1 When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.

The Sermon itself is framed by Jesus ascending up the mountain (5.1–2) and descending down the mountain (7.28–8.1). Jesus, the greater Moses, taught the people what it should look like to live in God’s kingdom. He spoke with authority, unlike the scribes who pretend to have Moses’ authority (23.2).1

The Law and the Prophets

Pennington provides a three-fold outline to the Sermon:

  1. Introduction: The Call to God’s People (5.3–16)
  2. The Body: The Greater Righteousness for God’s People (5.17–7.12)
  3. Conclusion: Three Warnings Regarding the Prospect of Eschatological Judgment (7.13–27)

The Body of the sermon is framed by the phrase “the Law and/or the Prophets.”

5.17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

[Greater righteousness for God’s people]

7.12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Pennington says that the theme of the sermon is “greater righteousness.” To be a repentant and forgiven disciple in God’s kingdom, and to be in covenant with God and to know his word (Ps 1.1; 2.12), is to live life as it was meant to be lived. It is a “whole” life; it is a flourishing life (cf. the blossoming, fruitful tree by the rivers of water in Ps 1.3, which resonates Garden of Eden imagery). The Pharisees were hypocrites who performed the right actions but with evil hearts. To have “greater righteousness” is to be whole and complete like the Father in heaven (5.48). It is to be “pure in heart” (5.8). It is to follow God’s instructions both outwardly and inwardly. Christ fulfilled the law, and we live under the law of Christ (1 Cor 9.21; Gal 6.2).

Rewards from the Father in Heaven

  1. The Body: The Greater Righteousness (GR) for God’s People (5.17–7.12)
    1. GR in Relation to God’s Laws (5.17–48)
    2. GR in Relation to Piety Toward God (6.1–21)
    3. GR in Relation to the World (6.19–7.12)2

6.1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

[Greater righteousness in one’s piety toward God]

6.19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Here, point two of the Body is framed by a few words/ideas. Both sides speak about rewards/treasures either from God in heaven or with the treasure being in heaven. Good deeds are not to be done to impress people (on earth), but to honor God who is in heaven. The Pharisees, who do not have pure hearts, want to receive all of the honor (as do the scribes, for they sit in the “seat of Moses,” 23.2), yet they give none to God. They will obtain no reward from the Father (vv. 4b, 6b, 18b) for they perform their pious acts in public to gain honor from others who see them (vv. 1, 2, 5, 17).

The Lord’s Prayer

Finally, at “the center of the center of the center of the Sermon” lies the Lord’s Prayer (125).3

6.7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do [cf 5.48], for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:

[The Lord’s Prayer]

6.14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Being the center of the center of the center of the Sermon, Pennington says, “We should expect that the Lord’s Prayer has much to teach us about the whole, and such is the case,” for it “is a model of what kind of petitions and God-orientation should mark the Christian life. It is the scaffolding around the tower of prayer or the guiding handrails along which the disciple walks in forming his or her own prayers” (222).

In the first half of the prayer (vv. 9–10) oriented toward God the Father, Jesus tells his disciples to ask “our Father” to “give us this day our daily bread” (6.11). Bread is an item that is repeated throughout Matthew’s Gospel. In Jesus’ temptation, he refused to turn stones into bread but obeyed God instead (4.3). Later in Matthew 14 and 15, Jesus feeds thousands of people with bread and fish. At the Last Supper, the bread that was broken represented Jesus’ soon-to-be broken flesh (27.17–30, see v. 28). Within the Sermon, God the Father always knows our needs and provides for us (6.10, 25–34; 7.7–11). Our Father “gives good gifts to those who ask him” (7.11).

The second half of the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 11–13) is the “human-oriented part of the Prayer [which] focuses on interpersonal sin and relational conflict” (226). This is “reiterated in the conclusion to the Prayer” (6.14–15) and is seen throughout Matthew, such as in 5.7, 9.1–8, 12.31–32, 18.15–20, 21–35, and 26.28 (226).

Without giving away too many details about the Lord’s Prayer, Pennington says, “The introduction to the Prayer is an exhortation to focus on heart-driven, simplicity of prayer. The conclusion likewise focuses on the heart and inner disposition” (228). The conclusion seems to come from out of left field, especially as the conclusion to the frame. It doesn’t seem to match the introduction (6.7–8). Pennington adds that this concluding remark “is a commentary on the Prayer that is meant to drive home the weightiness of interpersonal relationships among God’s people” (229). The one who seeks forgiveness is ready to forgive from the heart (18.35).

.

Knowing the ways Matthew frames his whole Gospel and sections of his Gospel helps us to interpret what occurs in the middle. Keeping the larger picture in view, Pennington gives the reader an avenue for even the most difficult parts of the Sermon on the Mount.

Buy The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing from Amazon

SotM&HF


1 Pennington also says that the “flourishing” statements that make up the Beatitudes (in the Sermon—Jesus’ first discourse) are contrasted with the “woes” to the Pharisees in Matthew 23—the beginning of Jesus’ fifth and final discourse in Matthew.

2 I won’t get into how points two and three overlap (they both use 6.19–21) only to say that those three verses serve as a bridge between the two sections.

3 Amongst all of the inclusios I’ve shown, this is not to say that the Lord’s Prayer is the center of Matthew. That should be obvious (it’s the first of five discourses). Rather, it’s more likely that Matthew 13 (the third discourse) is the center (if Matthew is written as a chiasm, p. 110).

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Review: The Bible Unfiltered

Heiser is slowly becoming a household name. Heiser has 6,000 subscribers on YouTube, His podcast (Naked Bible Podcast) has 3,000 followers (on Facebook), and as of November 2016 it was ranked in iTunes’ Top Thirty most listened to Christian podcasts. I’ve reviewed I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible, The Unseen Realm, and his popular-level version Supernatural.

Heiser’s newest book, The Bible Unfiltered, similar to I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible, is made up of some of his contributions to Faithlife’s Bible Study Magazine. It consists of three parts: (1) Interpreting the Bible Responsibly and interpretations on (2) the Old Testament and (3) the New Testament.

Being Responsible

I’ve been listening to Heiser’s podcast for a few years now, and the bass line to all of his songs is understanding the Bible through the lens of the people who wrote it, especially those in the Old Testament (which is Heiser’s academic focus). He says God “prepared and chose men to accomplish that task [that of revealing and clarifying God’s thoughts, character, and purposes], not to insert obstacles to that task. This means that those of us living thousands of years after the words of Scripture were written face a predicament. We come from a different world. We did not share life with them. We are not of one mind in a multitude of ways” (2).

We are blessed to have Bible translations in many of our languages. We have the opportunity to read and understand the Word every day. But communication requires more than knowing the same language. It requires knowing the concepts, wordplays, and word connotations. The Bible is perplexing; in order to understand it we must know the biblical worldview.

The Bible isn’t here to give us a spiritual buzz. There’s more to know then just the four Gospels and Paul’s letters. “Knowing what all its [the Bible’s] parts mean will give us a deeper appreciation for the salvation history of God’s people, and the character of God” (9). We all have flawed thinking. We ought to request help from the Spirit “to expose flawed thinking” and get to work to understand God’s word so that we may know him (10). The Bible is not set in the modern world. There is a lot of supernatural elements that modern readers think are too weird (see my posts on The Unseen Realm). The biblical authors believed the world was flat and covered by a solid dome (a “firmament”). Heiser plainly says that God did not set forth men to write his Word to teach us science. That was not his intention, and to read the Bible as a science textbook is to misread the Bible.

Can’t we just read the Bible literally? To use an analogy similar to Heiser’s, if I said, “My nose is running,” what am I saying? Is my nose physically running? Did it hit a home run? How does my wife’s stocking have a run? If my car is running on empty, where are its legs? In all of these statements, the meaning is plain… if you are a part of the culture. If you are not, these idioms make little sense. In Heiser’s analogy with water, he says, “‘Water’ can be used metaphorically for a life source, purification, transformation, motion, or danger. The metaphors work because of the physical properties of water—and still describe real things. Non-literal doesn’t mean ‘not real’” (31).

Heiser emphasizes actual Bible study, not just biblical memorization (though he doesn’t downplay that either—for an example, see my post on James 2.19). He gives an example on how not to misinterpret prophecy with the difficult text from James’ use of Amos 9.11–12 in Acts 15.16–18.

The Old and New Testaments

In the Old Testament section, Heiser looks at the possible meaning of Yahweh’s name (though, unfortunately, the Hebrew is transliterated and no Hebrew text is given, which makes it more difficult to follow the argument). He looks at why the slave is brought before “elohim” in Exodus 21.1–6 but not Deuteronomy 15.12–18; the Angel of the Lord, his literary ambiguity with Yahweh, and Jesus who has “the name.” The secret things that belong to the Lord of Deuteronomy 29.29 are often misunderstood. God knows all things, and never tells us not to study the Bible to know deep things.

For many readers biblical readers, events that happen at trees don’t seem significant; Heiser unveils the importance of the ancient notion of sacred trees. He looks at some texts in Job to show that angels aren’t perfect, and that wasn’t a hidden fact to humans.

In the New Testament, Heiser examines Mark’s story of the demon-possessed swine and how the cultural notion of cosmic geography tells tells us a lot about this event. In Markan studies, everyone has to deal with the last section of Mark—is it original? Heiser bypasses this question and asks if exorcism is for everyone? There are different spiritual gifts, and we shouldn’t assume that all the gifts mentioned here will be handed out to all Christians. Heiser looks at another angle on what John may have been thinking when he said that “the Word was God,” what cosmological ideas James had in mind when he wrote that God was the Father of lights, and what demons believe about God? Of course, there is much more that I could say, but the book is short so I shouldn’t say too much, but Heiser’s many years of study come out again in this book to make the word become fresh again.

Recommended?

I like Heiser’s works because he not only knows the primary OT and ANE literature, but he’s up to date on much of current scholarship, while still remaining clever and not following trends because they’re popular (he takes a lot of minority views, e.g., rebellious divine beings in Psalm 82, and a rebellious divine being—and not Adam—in the background of Ezekiel 28). Although he has admitted he’s less of an innovator and more one who collects others’ ideas and brings them to the popular level, he still brings plenty to the table. Listeners of Heiser’s podcast will be familiar with a good portion of Part One, and at least some of the ideas in Parts Two and Three. The chapters are short and usually leave me wanting more, but it gives me just enough of a taste that it creates a desire in me to study more. If the Bible actually is this interesting (and it is), then I want to study it even more than I already do. If it creates that same desire in you, then it is well worth it.

Lagniappe

  • Author: Michael S. Heiser
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Lexham Press (October 4, 2017)

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Disclosure: I received this book free from Lexham Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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What Do Demons Believe about God? (James 2.19)

James 2:19: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” In his new book The Bible Unfiltered, Michael Heiser says this “verse doesn’t say what many readers presume it says” (214). Is James merely saying that “the demons believe in God, and that doesn’t get them to heaven” (214)? Yes, they believe in God, but James’ point is that just as his reader believe God is one, so do the demons believe that too. “The demons believe something specific about God—and that specific belief is what makes them shudder” (215). “God is one” echoes the Shema of Deuteronomy 6.4, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” [shema’ is a transliteration of the Hebrew command () which means “Hear!”]. But why would this be scary?

God offered redemption to Israel who came from Israel. Abraham was chosen out of the nations (Gen 10) who were dispersed at the Tower of Babel (11.1-9). Deuteronomy 32:8–9 gives us another perspective on what happened at the Tower of Babel, saying, “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” God called Abraham, “established his ‘portion’—the nation of Israel—[and] he set aside all other nations” and allotted them to divine beings, sons of God (Job 38.7), which are referred to in Deuteronomy (4.19; 17.3) as the “host of heaven” (216). They are also referred to as gods (elohim) and demons (shedim) in Deuteronomy (4:19–20; 17:3; 29:24–26; 32:17). Heiser says that At some point “these sons of God… became corrupt and abused their authority (Ps 82) by seducing the Israelites to worship them instead of the true God (Deut 29:24–26; 32:17)” (216).

The demons (32.17; Jam 2.19) know “God is one.” Salvation was not, is not, and will not be extended to them. God chose to save Israel, and he will never save the demons. “Only the Israelites had the truth about the Most High God: God had become incarnate in Christ. By embracing Jesus, James’ audience was embracing the ultimate outcome of their ancient covenant faith” (217).

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The Father of Lights (James 1.17)

James 1.17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.“ What does James then mean when he says “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change”? In his new book The Bible Unfiltered, Michael Heiser says, “‘Father of lights’ points to God’s role as creator of the stars and other celestial objects” as seen in the original creation account and in the Psalms (Gen 1:14–18; Pss 136:7–9; 148:1–5—(p. 211)). In Genesis 1.14-18, the sun, moon, and stars were to “be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.” They marked the changing of the seasons. Heiser remarks that the Greek word (tropē) for the word “change” in James 1.17 is used in Greek literature “to describe the movement and positioning of stars, seasonal changes and their effect on the land, and the two annual solstices” (212). James’ use of “change” and “shadow” connotes an eclipse. So whereas the sun, moon, and stars change positions, the Father does not change.

But God is more than Creator. Ancient Near Eastern cultures, including the OT biblical authors, believed that the stars were heavenly beings.

Deuteronomy 4.19 says, “And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.

Deuteronomy 17.3 says, “and [if someone] has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden….

Job 38.7 says, “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

James, referring to God as the creator of all heavenly beings, is “emphasizing that they are created and are therefore inferior. God alone is uncreated” (212). There is no darkness in God at all (cf. 1 John 1.5). Though some of his creation fell (see ch. 28 of The Bible Unfiltered, along with Ps 82; Gen 3 and 6), God does not change. He does not fail.

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Review: God’s Wisdom For Navigating Life

Many Christians use New Years resolutions to revamp their Bible reading. Tim and Kathy Keller have provided a daily devotional in the book of Proverbs (with some readings in other biblical texts). Proverbs requires a year (and more!) of daily consideration. It’s full of so much thought, and it is a book that reminds us that “you’ve never really thought enough about anything” (ix). Having just come out with a year devotional on Psalms, Keller says, “Psalms is about how to throw ourselves fully upon God in faith. Proverbs is about how, having trusted God, we should then live that faith out” (ix).

Proverbs are not truths that are true at all times. It is a “poetic art form that instills wisdom in you as you wrestle with it” (ix). Two ideas, sentences, or phrases are brought together to hit at a truth from different angles. They require you to wrestle with their meaning to know how to live. Keller gives an example. Proverbs 12.15 says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice,” whereas Proverbs 16.25 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.“ The fool thinks a way is correct, but it leads to death and ruin. Yet, at the same time, ruin can happen to anyone. There is order in the world, but there is sin and chaos which come about from fallen sinners.

The reader is encouraged to read the book with someone else or with others. Most of the devotions end with a question to consider and a concluding prayer. Keller provides two other questions in the Introduction for the reader to consider each day:

  1. Where in your life or the life of someone else have you seen this observation illustrated?
  2. How can you put this observation into practice—in thought, attitude, word, or deed?

Instead of going straight through Proverbs, Keller organizes Proverbs into seven different sections.

  1. Knowing Wisdom
  2. Knowing God
  3. Knowing the Heart
  4. Knowing Others
  5. Knowing the Times and Seasons
  6. Knowing the Spheres (e.g., marriage, sex, parenting, money and work, power, justice)
  7. Knowing Jesus, the True Wisdom of God

Keller doesn’t stop with Proverbs, but looks to Jesus. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and Jesus is the fulfillment of all wisdom. He is the “greater Solomon” (Lk 11.31).

Keller is insightful and convicting. In section six, when it comes to justice, Keller pinpoints talking about righteousness and justice when it comes to the poor, asking questions such as:

  • “How are you building your character and relationship to God now, so that you will be able to do the sacrificial thing when the time comes?” (332)
  • Unjust social systems are set up which prey on the poor and helpless: low wages, excessive interest loans, prejudice against minorities and immigrants, and legal battles where the rich often get away scot-free. “Compared with those who are truly poor, most of us are wealthy in the eyes of the world. How are we being judged as believers for our use of the resources God has given us?” (334)
  • There are multitudes of ways that poverty can come upon someone. Fire. Divorce. Hurricanes. A bad loan choice. sometimes the people circumstances come upon made a rash, unwise decision. Sometimes it just sprung upon them. “How does compassion for the poor express itself in your life?” (335). “Do you need to confess any ways in which you have believed that the poor have brought their poverty on themselves by their agency alone? What have you deserved at the hands of God for your sins? What have you received?” (336). “What possessions of yours belong to others? How will you get them to those people? “(337).

Recommended?

If you’re looking for a new devotional book, I would recommend Keller’s God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life. Each chapter is short and only takes 1-2 minutes to read yet sometimes can take all day to consider. Keller helps us to consider the Bible each day more as God’s people. Have been made righteous in Christ, we should be living righteously before God and to others—our spouses, children, coworkers, and the poor among us. Having the wisdom of God available to us, we should work to gain more of his wisdom—to live well, to flourish in the new covenant, to serve, to work hard, to relax, to offer help, to be a good friend, to know what to do when difficult situations arise—to God’s glory. 

Lagniappe

  • Author: Timothy Keller
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Viking (November 7, 2017)

Buy from Amazon or Penguin Random House/Viking

Disclosure: I received this book free from Penguin Books. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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Review: Mark (TNTC)

The first commentary on the Gospel of Mark was written in the sixth century, and between “AD 650 and 1000, thirteen major commentaries were written on Matthew, but only four on Mark” (Strauss, 20). Despite the long neglect, much study has been done over Mark’s short Gospel for more than the last century.

Eckhard Schnabel, Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell and author of Acts (ZECNT), Early Christian Mission (2 volumes), and 40 Questions on the End Times, replaces Alan Cole’s Mark volume in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary (TNTC) series with a Christmas meal—441 pages of commentary on the shortest Gospel. While adding to the growing list of commentaries, Schnabel (who is also the TNTC’s series editor) did not write a commentary of commentaries on Mark. Instead, writing for pastors, students, and laypeople, he comments on the meaning of Mark through theological reflection, historical points of reference, the meanings of words, and the literary development of the characters.

Summary

Schnabel gives very little attention to Markan priority (whether Mark’s Gospel was written first), saying that Markan priority “continues to be plausible,” but that “these questions are more significant for commentaries on the Gospels of Matthew and Luke” (4). Thankfully, Schnabel examines the text and not a possible Markan community behind the text, though he does acknowledge future Mark’s clarifications for Gentile readers (14, 162).

He takes Mark to be the actual author (12), probably writing from Rome for various churches (14) anywhere between 50–64 AD. We don’t know what Mark’s sources are, but if Papias is correct, Mark’s “most significant — and perhaps the only — source” was Peter (18). Mark ends his Gospel at 16.8. Abrupt endings are attested in antiquity, and within the Bible Jonah ends abruptly and Acts ends with Paul still alive and his legal case unresolved. To paraphrase Demetrius (whom Schnabel quotes), some points need to be worked out be the hearers themselves (22-23).

Schnabel disregards William Wrede’s hypothesis of Mark’s “Messianic secret.” If there is nothing messianic about Jesus or his ministry, then there is no explanation for his death, nor is there any explanation as to how his disciples transformed their “unmessianic master into the Messiah after Easter” (25).

Mark does not have a “vendetta” against the disciples (29), but merely gives an “unvarnished” (aka, authentic) look at their pre-resurrection responses to Jesus (30). Nobody imagined a Messiah who would die, and though on occasion Jesus does rebuke the disciples, he often explains himself to them.

Schnabel divines Mark into four pairs of three’s:

  1. The Beginning of the Gospel (1.1–13)
    1. Heading (1.1)
    2. Jesus and John the Baptist (1.2–8)
    3. Jesus declared Son of God and conflict with Satan (1.9–13)
  2. Jesus’ Messianic Authority (1.14–8.21)
    1. The kingdom of God and Jesus’ authority (1.14–3.6)
    2. The Twelve and the kingdom of God (3.7–6.6)
    3. The Mission of Jesus Messiah and the Twelve (6.6–8.21)
  3. Jesus’ Messianic Suffering (8.22–15.47)
    1. The revelation of the Messiah’s suffering (8.22–10.52)
    2. The confrontation in Jerusalem (11.1–13.37)
    3. The suffering and death of Jesus Messiah (14.1–15.47)
  4. Jesus’ Resurrection Announced (16.1–8)
    1. The women at Jesus’ tomb (16.1–5)
    2. The announcement of Jesus’ resurrection (16.6–7)
    3. The reaction of the women (16.8)

Interpretations

4:10–12: Jesus tells parables to conceal the kingdom of God from outsiders. They are intentionally veiled. Many cannot see or hear the kingdom of God in Jesus’ miracles, exorcisms, and through his teachings. Judgement will come because they do not want to truly listen to God (13.1–37). Schnabel interprets through the lens of the kingdom of God that has come in Jesus (1.14–15).

6:49–50: Jesus’ “I am” statement (see also 14.62) is not a declaration of divinity.

7:24–30: Having just taught his disciples about what is clean and unclean (vv. 14–23), Jesus enters “unclean” Gentile territory. Jesus doesn’t “change his mind” when the Syro-Phoenician woman gives the right answer; rather, she passes his test. She (a Gentile “dog”) can eat the crumbs under the table simultaneously while the children (Israel) are eating. Though Jews generally saw dogs as unclean, “dog” (kynarion) here is a pet “present at a meal in the house” (173). This Gentile woman has more spiritual discernment than the Jewish leaders.

8:1–10: Mark is not repeating himself here; this is not the same event as in 6.30–44. Jesus is in Gentile territory (Isa 25.6; 49.6; Acts 1.8; 2.39).

13:24–27: Jesus’ second coming is at a separate, indeterminate time from 13.1–23. Jesus no longer focuses on the city of Jerusalem, the local councils, or even the seasons (winter, v. 18), but on “the sun, the moon, the stars, the clouds, the ends of the earth and the ends of heavens” (330).

14:35–36: Jesus “does not have inner doubts about the value of his death. Jesus’ prayer to be spared death conveys the excruciating anguish that senses the terrible reality of suffering the judgment of God, dying as a ransom for the many (10:45), shedding his blood to seal the new covenant (14:24), dying as a sin offering (Rom 8:3), becoming the place of God’s atoning presence (Rom 3:25), becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13) ” (364).

14:51–52: Whoever this young man is, he shows that all have forsaken Jesus. In terror, the young lad would prefer to be shamefully naked and save his own skin than to be caught being with Jesus.

Schnabel provides much good historical and factual information on various people (Pilate, p. 394-95; the Sanhedrin, p. 373), places (Jerusalem, p. 261), and the timing of the Passover (350-51). Some of these details seem a bit much, such as the possible “House of Peter (1.29–31), heights of various mountains in Israel, and how a clay lamp was made in Galilean workshops (4.21). It can make the text seem too busy, and I personally think some of these details would work better as footnotes. Still, his points on why people go “up” to Jerusalem (247), just how the friends could dig their way through the roof of a house (65), or who Barabbas was (400), help make sense of the text. Schnabel is a careful exegete and historian. 

Unfortunately, there are no indices in this volume (or in any of the Old and New Testament series).

Recommended?

I’ve read (chunks of) quite a few Markan commentaries. Schnabel’s volume isn’t going to break new ground, but he is trustworthy when it comes to biblical exegesis and exposition. He keeps the Gospel’s context in view in his theology sections, making sure that he doesn’t interpret something apart from anything else Mark has said, and points to Christ as our one and true Savior whose death ransomed sinners and inaugurated the new covenant. The pastor, student, Bible college teacher, and layperson would be filled with this huge 441 page meal.

Lagniappe

  • Author: Eckhard J. Schnabel
  • Series: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Book 2)
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (June 6, 2017)

But it on Amazon or IVP Academic!

Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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