Voice of an under-shepherd (Psalm 23)

You have people in your care? See yourself as an under-shepherd.

Open Psalm 23.

If you like mysteries, how about the clue above verse 1 in Psalm 23? The compilers who arranged the Psalms after the exile added some clues about how the Psalm was used or understood. Some of these headings are musical instructions. Some provide a historical setting. Almost half the Psalms are labelled “Of David.” What does that mean?

Continue reading “Voice of an under-shepherd (Psalm 23)”

Why wasn’t Jesus demanding obedience? (Matthew 5:17-20)

As king, Jesus could lay down the law for his people. What he does is to lay down his life for his people.

Open Matthew 5:17-20.

“Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” Jesus said (5:17). Why did he need to say that? Who would have heard his message as doing away with God’s commands? Why would the crowd on the hillside have had such a thought?

They’d never heard anything like Jesus’ kingdom announcement. Good news: heaven’s reign is being restored to earth (4:17-25). Joy to all the people who would benefit under his reign (5:3-12)! With God’s presence among them, they were as flavour-intense as salt, so brilliantly endowed with the glory of their sovereign that they couldn’t hide (5:13-16).

That’s not how Jesus’ contemporaries taught. The Pharisees expounded Torah commands, calling people to be more obedient. Over the centuries, Jewish rabbis have identified a total of 613 mitzvot (commandments). For each command, they have defined who should obey (males? females? children? foreigners?), how often (constantly? weekly? yearly? once-off), and where (e.g. the festivals are in Jerusalem). They analysed how commands about sacrifices could be obeyed after the temple had been destroyed. Their intense focus on commands is perfectly logical if you believe that God would only restore his kingdom once his people were more obedient.

But that was not Jesus’ message. His approach was so free and joyful that he needed to explain himself to those who thought he should have been calling for obedience. By announcing the blessing of YHWH’s restored reign after six centuries under foreign rule, was Jesus saying that Torah obedience didn’t matter after all? Was he saying that God had changed his mind about disciplining Israel for their disobedience, that Torah obedience didn’t matter and God would give them the kingdom anyway?

Jesus’ answer to that question is categorical:

Matthew 5:18 (ESV)
Truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

God was Israel’s political sovereign as much as he was their religious deity. They were called to be a kingdom under God’s kingship. The Torah was their national law. If Jesus was Israel’s king, the son of David who represented the heavenly king on earth, he would undermine his own authority if he taught people to ignore their heavenly sovereign’s laws. He would not their great king, but the person of least significance in the whole kingdom:

Matthew 5:19 (ESV)
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

His opponents relax. Jesus is, after all, calling people to obey Torah. Then, just as they let down their guard, Jesus throws the final punch: “These Pharisees and Torah interpreters who constantly point out how you don’t measure up? You’ll all have to do better than that mob or Israel will never have God’s reign!” (5:20 paraphrased. Note: you in this verse is plural).

Jesus was using irony to make a serious point. Why was he so antagonistic to the Pharisees and Torah teachers? Matthew provides further detail as his Gospel account unfolds, but one reason was that they only added to the people’s burdens, making life under God even harder to bear. They weighed people down without lifting a finger to help the people carry these loads (Matthew 23:4). The Exodus story was about God releasing his people from slavery to live as his royal kingdom, but these Torah teachers turned his kingdom law into a form of slavery. They misrepresented their heavenly sovereign — not as the saviour of his people but as their enslaver.

Jesus planned to do more than lift a finger. Instead of weighing the people down with failure, Jesus planned to take their failures on his own shoulders and bear it for them, as only their king could. Torah mattered, and Jesus planned to fulfil for his people what the heavenly sovereign required:

Matthew 5:17 (ESV)
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.

Jesus never taught that obedience to the heavenly sovereign was unimportant. Their suffering under Roman rule was indeed because of their disobedience. But what Jesus planned to do was astounding: instead of pointing to their failures and commanding them to do better, Jesus planned to take their disobedience on himself, to face the oppressive powers for them, to be the obedient one who fulfilled Torah for them, to free his people from their oppression.

The crowd on the mountainside could not have known how Jesus would do this, nor how much it would cost him. All they knew was that he had a plan to reinstate God’s reign for them. The king would act on his people’s behalf. Instead of demanding they serve him, he would serve them. That’s good news.

 

What others are saying

Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 41:

Jesus wasn’t intending to abandon the law and the prophets. Israel’s whole story, commands, promises and all, was going to come true in him. But, now that he was here, a way was opening up for Israel—and, through that, all the world—to make God’s covenant a reality in their own selves, changing behaviour not just by teaching but by a change of heart and mind itself.

This was truly revolutionary, and at the same time deeply in tune with the ancient stories and promises of the Bible. And the remarkable thing is that Jesus brought it all into reality in his own person. He was the salt of the earth. He was the light of the world: set up on a hill-top, crucified for all the world to see, becoming a beacon of hope and new life for everybody, drawing people to worship his father, embodying the way of self-giving love which is the deepest fulfilment of the law and the prophets.

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 183:

We might then paraphrase Jesus’ words here as follows: “Far from wanting to set aside the law and the prophets, it is my role to bring into being that to which they have pointed forward, to carry them on into a new era of fulfillment.”

[previous: Who is the light of the world?]

[next: Do the Ten Commandments apply to Christians?]

Instruction from the king (aka Sermon on the Mount)

The Sermon on the Mount is actually the Law given by the king for life in his kingdom.

Open Matthew 5–7.

John the Baptist was “the voice” announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom (3:1-3), introducing heaven’s anointed king (3:11-12). A voice from heaven confirmed his message: Jesus was indeed the chosen Son, the ruler heaven was pleased to appoint (3:17).

The anointed king had faced Israel’s enemy and driven him back: “Be gone, Satan: you have no authority here! Our Law honours YHWH our ruler. We serve no other” (4:10 paraphrased).

The king then withdrew to the northern reaches of his realm to live with the most oppressed, to bring light to the darkest place (4:12-16). There he announced the re-establishment of God’s kingdom, enacting the kingdom by releasing people from oppression by sickness and evil (4:22-25).

The king leads his followers to “a mountain” to give instruction on life in God’s kingdom. It was somewhere on the northern slopes of the Sea of Galilee, traditionally near Tabgha (Google maps). As you can see (photo above), it’s more of a hillock than a mountain. So why does Matthew call it a mountain? He’s thinking of something more than geography.

Continue reading “Instruction from the king (aka Sermon on the Mount)”

Matthew 1–5 reveals Jesus fulfilling Torah

Matthew’s opening chapters show Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s Torah.

deadseascroll_4q41_deut
Deuteronomy (Dead Sea Scroll 4Q41)

Open Matthew 1–5.

Here’s an intriguing possibility.

Matthew keeps focusing on Jesus fulfilling Scripture. He’s told us that six times already (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23, 3:15; 4:14). Does this motif define the way Matthew tells Jesus’ story? Continue reading “Matthew 1–5 reveals Jesus fulfilling Torah”

Celebrating the arrival of the King (Psalm 72)

Tom Wright’s message, “Entering the Advent Season Celebrating the Arrival of the King”

Open Psalm 72.

Tom Wright recently delivered a message describing this season as “celebrating the arrival of the king.” Great perspective!

Here it is, reblogged: Continue reading “Celebrating the arrival of the King (Psalm 72)”

Esau’s ordinary kingdom (Genesis 36)

Esau’s kingdom story is such a contrast to the kingdom God is establishing through Jacob.

petra
Petra (in ancient Edom)

If you miss the kingdom perspective, you may wonder why Genesis 36 is in the Bible. It’s a repetitive jumble of names associated with Esau. Sure, Esau was Abraham and Sarah’s grandson; God promised them nations; and Esau has a nation. But there’s too much detail to just say that. Something else is going on. Continue reading “Esau’s ordinary kingdom (Genesis 36)”

Jacob’s life in God’s house (Genesis 35)

Jacob is invited to live in God’s house (Bethel). How well do they do?

Bethel—literally God’s House—is where Jacob is invited to live. But if they are to live in the house of their heavenly sovereign, they must purify themselves. After the skirmish with the Shechemites, the smell of death is on them and their clothes. Among the spoils are idols and talismans. When these impediments are gone, they enter Bethel. The surrounding cities are too terrified to seek vengeance on these servants of the heavenly king (35:1-5). Continue reading “Jacob’s life in God’s house (Genesis 35)”

Were Simeon and Levi justified? (Genesis 34:30-31)

Dinah’s brothers defended her honour by killing the Shechemites. Were they justified in making a stand for righteousness?

justicescales

Were Simeon and Levi justified in standing up for righteousness by killing the Canaanite prince who raped their sister, along with all his people? We’re examining how later Jews judged their actions. Continue reading “Were Simeon and Levi justified? (Genesis 34:30-31)”

How do we fight injustice? (Genesis 34:3-31)

Should God’s kingdom people enforce justice on the nations? Or should we just suck up the injustice? How do you respond to evil?

The unanswered question of Genesis 34 is how to respond to evil. Jacob’s family will be the agents of the kingdom of God in years to come, but how should they respond right now when a Canaanite prince rapes Dinah? Injustice remains a relevant question. Continue reading “How do we fight injustice? (Genesis 34:3-31)”

When you get hurt (Genesis 34:1-2)

If God doesn’t prevent bad things happening, how do we cope?

respondingtoabuse

Now that Israel is in the land with the sons who will form the tribes of Israel, how will they represent the heavenly king in the presence of people who do not submit to him? The nations do not submit to God’s laws. Driven by their own passions, they take whatever they want by force.

We’ve seen this picture ever since Nimrod the warrior of Genesis 10. It’s devastating:

Genesis 34:1–2 (ESV)
1
Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. 2 And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her.

Are you tempted to stop reading, to skip to something more pleasant? You really need this text if you think, “God’s running the world, so he’ll never let anything bad happen to me.” That belief will fail you. Neither can you blame Dinah, as if she must have been doing something wrong or it wouldn’t have happened to her. Verse 1 explicitly sets up the story by saying she was behaving well in her culture. Don’t blame the victim. Continue reading “When you get hurt (Genesis 34:1-2)”