Things That Are Above

Gospel Thinking for Gospel Living

God Is Good, Just, and Sovereign in Our Suffering (Part 2)

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When we suffer, we’re often tempted to echo Job’s accusation of God from Job 9:24, “The earth is given into the hand of the wicked” because God “covers the faces of its judges.” But does this accusation hold water? Did Job have to indict God for injustice in order to uphold his own divinely declared blamelessness (cf. 1:1, 8; 2:3; 42:7)? God’s first speech makes clear that Job should not have condemned God while rightly maintaining that he did not directly deserve his intense sufferings. Human suffering is not always (often?) the direct result of God’s judgment on sin. According to God’s first speech to Job (38:1–40:2), we can have our cake and eat it, too, when it comes to God’s righteousness and blameless suffering. To teach Job this lesson, God forcefully defends himself against Job’s accusations and humbles Job under the irrefutable evidence of his good justice in all the natural world.

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” God asks thunderously from the whirlwind (38:2). Job had hoped to try God; now God has appeared and will try Job. God invalidates Job’s accusations against him as “words without knowledge” (38:2) and proceeds in his first speech to Job to explain how Job’s words were so ignorant. God’s sovereignty over the world is both good and just, contrary to Job’s accusations from the depths of his despair.

God makes this argument by forcefully using rhetorical questions, the first series of which discuss the act of creation itself in order to impress upon Job God’s goodness in creating the world (38:4–11). When God “laid the foundation of the earth,” “determined its measurements,” and “laid its cornerstone,” the “sons of God shouted for joy” (vv. 4–7). In other words, when God created the natural world, the heavenly host of angels rejoiced. They rejoiced because God had made a good creation, which is the implicit point of vv. 8–11. These vv. describe God “shut[ting] in the sea with doors” and “prescrib[ing] limits for it.” These sovereign acts occurred literally at creation, but they signify that God creates order out of chaos. This act is good, even to the chaotic sea itself. God “made clouds its garment” and swaddled it in “thick darkness” (v. 9). These metaphors use language reminiscent of a mother lovingly swaddling a newborn baby. God’s creation of a good natural world resulted in supernatural joy and demonstrates God’s good, just love for this creation.

God then asks Job about the daily sunrise in 38:12–15 in order to impress upon Job God’s good justice. Based on his personal experiences and observation of the world, Job had asked, “Why are not times of judgment kept by the Almighty” (24:1)? Job has seen the wicked gain wealth at the expense of the poor, who consequently lack food and clothing (24:2–11). Taking what he has seen at face value, Job had concluded, “God charges no one with wrong” (24:12). God now responds to this accusation by revealing to Job a purpose for the dawning of each new day: to “take hold of the skirts of the earth” so that “the wicked be shaken out of it” (38:13). God reminds Job that the world is much vaster than Job’s observation allows. Contrary to Job’s observed knowledge, God does, in fact, visit justice on the wicked every day so that the “light” of the morning dawn “is withheld” from them, “and their uplifted arm is broken” (38:15). God justly punishes the wicked, even though he does not do so according to Job’s timeline. Such is his prerogative as the sovereign Creator of the universe.

Most of the remainder of this first barrage of Job concerns God’s sovereign control over the natural world, both heavenly phenomena (38:22–38) and animals (38:39–39:30). Even where no people live to cultivate the land, God cultivates the land himself (38:26–27). In Job 38:26–27 God reminds Job about how he provides rain so that the ground sprouts grass in order to inspire Job to renewed faith in God’s goodness even though Job has not been experiencing God’s goodness as fully in the context of the story as he had throughout his life. God also demonstrates his goodness by giving freedom to wild donkeys (39:6). God even ensures the survival of foolish ostriches, which “leave their eggs to the earth … forgetting that a foot may crush them / and that the wild beast may trample them” (39:14–15). As Michael Fox has noted, “God is for abandoned animals what he is for human orphans” (“God’s Answer and Job’s Response,” Biblica 94, no. 1 [2013]: 8 n. 24).

Since Job had denied that God’s sovereignty over the natural world is just and good, God rightly concludes his first speech, in which he declares what Job had denied, with a challenge to Job. “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” God asks. “He who argues with God, let him answer it” (40:2). God has presented his case, and he challenges Job to answer it. God’s aim has been both to humble Job into submission to God’s powerful authority and to produce faith in Job in God’s just goodness. He invites us to do the same in the midst of our sufferings. Will we trust his goodness and justice toward us based on his goodness and justice in all the natural world?

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Written by Jordan Atkinson

June 29, 2015 at 12:13 PM

Posted in General Posts

“Joyful Confidence” in the face of the Supreme Court’s Ruling on Gay Marriage

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Dr. Russell Moore’s video response to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in favor of legislating gay marriage nationwide is the best I’ve seen:

Something that has struck me each time I’ve watched the video is Dr. Moore’s call to us Christians to be “people of joyful confidence,” in part because the non-Christian supporters of the Supreme Court’s decision can be heard in the background shouting for joy.

As Dr. Moore urges us in his response to the ruling, we Christians must hold fast to the true source of eternally lasting joy, the gospel of Jesus Christ, who “can’t be put back into the grave.”

Our responsibility as Christians moving forward in this drastically changed and changing culture is to share the gospel with all sinners in love and out of hope of bringing them to him who will truly satisfy them: Jesus Christ.

God is Good, Just, and Sovereign in Our Suffering (Part 1)

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How should we think about God’s sovereignty in relation to our suffering? Do our sufferings disprove God’s goodness, if not his sovereignty and even existence, as well? Such rebellious unbelief is the default human response to God in the midst of suffering, but this response is an unbiblical, un-Christian response to suffering. James upholds Job as an example of one “who remained steadfast” and through whom later readers of the Bible can see “the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (Jas 5:11). Even in the midst of our suffering, God is sovereign, and God in his sovereignty, even over our sufferings, is good. This point is the main point of Job 38:1–42:6, where God confronts Job’s wavering faith in the preceding chapters in order to strengthen Job’s faith so that it is truly steadfast.

As we work our way through Job 38:1–42:6 over the next month, we will see how God’s good sovereignty shines through each section. In Job 38:1–40:2, God establishes his just goodness in the natural world, which prompts Job to respond in 40:3–5 with an initial response of humility and faith. However, Job’s reply to God’s first speech is explicitly a humble promise of silence, so God renews his rhetorical assault in 40:6 and continues through 41:34. God’s second speech emphasizes his good sovereignty over the supernatural world, particularly over the enigmatic figures of Behemoth (40:15–24) and Leviathan (41:1–34). At this point Job finally responds with mature humility and faith by repenting of his previous ignorance and admitting that God has been in the right all along (42:1–6).

Job 38:1–42:6 is a foundational text for thinking biblically about God’s sovereignty in relation to human suffering. As we will see in more detail, this text teaches that God is good and just in his exercise of sovereignty over our suffering. This truth should prompt us to respond to God in humble faith even when we suffer. As James says, Job teaches us that God’s purpose is to be “compassionate and merciful.” If Job believed this fully at the end of God’s two speeches, how much more should we believe this truth today, when we have the whole counsel of God in the Bible? How much more should we trust God to be compassionate and merciful even when we suffer, since God has supremely revealed his compassion and mercy in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, the Savior and Lord? I pray that this study of Job 38:1–42:6 in the coming weeks will help us to set our minds on things that are above, where Christ is, because he is the ultimate reason we can think and feel biblically about suffering as taught in this text.

Written by Jordan Atkinson

June 22, 2015 at 12:04 PM

A Call to Repentance

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Last month it was my privilege to preach at Eastside Baptist Church in Winfield, AL, on Genesis 6:5-8. This text functions as a call to repentance, as it gives four reasons why people should repent and turn to God in faith that he will save them by Jesus’ death and resurrection:

  1. Repent because God sees your wickedness (v. 5).
  2. Repent because God grieves over your wickedness (v. 6).
  3. Repent because God will judge your wickedness (v. 7).
  4. Repent because God offers you salvation from your wickedness (v. 8).

My sermon can be listened to here.

Finding True Happiness

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Having set the Sermon on the Mount (hereafter, “SM”) in its context in Matthew 4:23–5:2, we now turn to Jesus’ introduction to the SM:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:3–12, ESV, as are all subsequent Bible quotations)

In this introduction to the SM, which we collectively call “the Beatitudes,” Jesus blesses those who are seemingly cursed.1 Jesus proclaims eternal happiness to people who temporally could very easily (and understandably) be sad. As John MacArthur has put it, “Jesus is in the business of providing people with happiness. … The word [‘blessed’] simply means happiness or happy and we may read these that way.”2 The world says that these people Jesus is blessing can’t be happy, but Jesus says that they’re precisely the ones who will be eternally happy and can thus draw on that happiness in the here and now. According to Jesus, true and everlasting happiness comes to those who look for holy happiness (vv. 3–6), to those who live in happy holiness (vv. 7–9), and to those who suffer hardships for being holy (vv. 10–12).

Look for happy holiness (vv. 3–6)

In the first four Beatitudes, Jesus teaches us the way to find true happiness is to look for true holiness, as opposed to false holiness. False holiness is hypocritical. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees are the prime example of people who live falsely holy lives (see Matt. 6:1–18 for a thinly veiled criticism of Pharasaical hypocrisy and Matt. 23:1–36 for an explicit denunciation). Holy behavior without holy belief is actually unholy. True holiness is both holy belief and holy behavior. Jesus begins the Beatitudes by explaining what holy belief looks like (Matt. 5:3–6). As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones argues at length in his sermons on the Beatitudes, each one builds upon the last.3 Their order is intentional; rearranging the Beatitudes would negate their actual meaning: right actions come only after right emotional thoughts.

In Matthew 5:3–6, Jesus tells us how to find happiness: find holiness. Holiness comes to those who first are “poor in spirit” (v. 3). The poor in spirit enjoy happiness because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”; the joy of the hope of eternal life in a new heavens and new earth gives them joy even in this life now. As we saw from the context to the SM, Isaiah 61 is one of its primary background texts. As prophesied by Isaiah, Jesus has come “to bring good news to the poor” and “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Isa. 61:1, 2). In the broader context of Isaiah, these poor captives are the exiled Jews (see Isa. 40:1), who by Jesus’ day—though released from physical exile—were still in a spiritual exile. (Diverse Bible scholars make and develop this point. See, e.g., James M. Hamilton’s Exalting Jesus in Ezra-Nehemiah and N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God.) “The poor in spirit” whom Jesus blesses are thus people who recognize their spiritual poverty.

A truly holy recognition of spiritual poverty leads to sorrow over sin, so Jesus next blesses those who “mourn,” specifically over their sin (Matt. 5:4). Again, the echo of Isaiah 61 is helpful. According to Isaiah, Jesus comes “to grant to those who mourn in Zion”

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
_____the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
_____the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (Isa. 61:2, 3)

To go from praising your sinful self to praising God, you must mourn over your sin. The first step to holiness is recognizing your spiritual poverty. Once you recognize your spiritual poverty, you mourn your sinfulness. God in his grace then gives you “the garment of praise” and makes you an “oak of righteousness.”

But wait—there’s more! Those who mourn over their sin immediately are meek toward God; such people “shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). Jesus here alludes to Psalm 37:11b, “the meek shall inherit the land.”4 In Psalm 37, the meek are specifically meek toward God.5 Those who are seeking holy happiness recognize their sin, mourn over their sin, and meekly humble themselves before God.

Consequently, these people “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). Jesus says that those who do so “shall be satisfied.” This promise anticipates his later promise in the SM: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). This hunger and thirst for righteousness is first and foremost a great desire for God’s own righteousness credited to us through faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross for our sins (Rom. 3:21–25). It is second and derivatively a great desire for becoming more righteous, more like Jesus (Matt. 5:20; Heb. 12:14).

Live in holy happiness (vv. 7–9)

This secondary meaning of “hunger and thirst for righteousness” brings us to the next three Beatitudes, in which Jesus proclaims eternally and truly happy those who live holy lives in accordance with their holy beliefs. Jesus teaches that truly and eternally happy people are “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” and “the peacemakers.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). This verse gives us pause, not least because Jesus even more explicitly says later in the SM, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14–15). Is Jesus teaching a works-based salvation, a salvation dependent upon our forgiveness of others? Hardly. Such a teaching would contradict the grace-based salvation that we see in the first four Beatitudes. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s point about each Beatitude building upon the last is particularly helpful at this juncture:

It is a solemn, serious and, in a sense, terrible thing to say that you cannot be truly forgiven unless there is a forgiving spirit in you. For the operation of the grace of God is such, that when it comes into our hearts with forgiveness it makes us merciful. We proclaim, therefore, whether we have received forgiveness or not by whether we forgive or not. If I am forgiven, I shall forgive.6

And Jesus says that merciful people are happy. Eternally “they shall receive mercy.” But even in the here and now, such people are happy. Holding a grudge doesn’t hurt the person you’re mad at (even if you’re justifiably mad at him or her); holding a grudge hurts only you. As Matthew West puts it in his song, “Forgiveness,” “the prisoner that [forgiveness] really frees is you.” And don’t forget: Jesus in fulfillment of Isaiah 61 came to set prisoners free, and we enjoy the happiness of that freedom in forgiving others.

Jesus reinforces the importance of a holy heart as well as holy hands in the sixth Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (v. 8). This theme gets further explication later on in the SM when Jesus applies it specifically to sexuality (Matt. 5:27–28). Later in Matthew, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for being a “brood of vipers”; he explains to them that they can’t “speak good, when [they] are evil” because “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (12:34). Only the pure in heart are truly pure. As the first four Beatitudes emphasize, it’s not just actions that Jesus is concerned about, it’s about the attitude of our hearts, as well. The pure in heart are happy “for they shall see God.” Isaiah’s blessed promise holds true for them: “Your eyes will behold the king [God in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ] in his beauty” (33:17).7

Just as the merciful are blessed, so are the peacemakers (v. 9). Peacemakers are those who strive to reconcile estranged parties. In the context of the SM, Jesus is referring specifically to those who make peace between two estranged people (Matt. 5:23–24; cf. Jas. 3:18), although Paul refers to evangelization as an attempt at making peace between a person and God (2 Cor. 5:16–6:2). Peacemakers are happy because they “shall be called the sons of God.” Whether the peacemaking attempt goes well or turns sour, peacemakers can take heart that God will vindicate them as his children when Jesus comes again.

Find Happiness in Hardships on Account of Holiness (vv. 10–12)

This final vindication is vital for Christ’s followers because they will be persecuted for their holiness, as the final two Beatitudes explain.8 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”; furthermore,

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:10–12)

Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted for being holy. Jesus’ disciples “are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Persecutors “revile … and utter all kinds of evil against [the disciples] falsely on [Jesus’] account.” Persecution comes to those who put their “faith in action.”9 Just as all the prophets were holy, not only believing the right things about God and loving him but also living in light of that loving faith, and were persecuted for their holiness, so will Jesus’ disciples be persecuted for their holiness.

In the midst of the hardship of persecution for being holy, Jesus’ disciples can be happy. They can be happy because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” the charges brought against them are false, and their “reward is great in heaven.” Charles Quarles explains the reward of the kingdom of heaven well: “Those who have been oppressed and persecuted will be exalted to a place of authority and privilege when the kingdom comes in all its fullness.”10 For the faithful, knowing the falsity of the charges against you can impart an inner peace; Peter echoes the truth of Jesus’ words when he tells persecuted Christians to “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Pet. 4:13). And the reward for Christian martyrs is unsurpassable, as the book of Revelation bears out (e.g., 2:10; 3:10–11). Such future hope for eternal happiness undergirds present hope despite temporary hardship.

Conclusion

Jesus turns conventional wisdom on its head. In contrast to the world, which says that happiness comes from a loose lifestyle that selfishly pursues physical pleasure, Jesus teaches that true happiness comes from finding holiness through faith in him and then growing in holiness thereafter. Temporal happiness for Jesus’ holy disciples can even stand strong in the midst of hardships such as persecution because of the eternal happiness he promises believers by his grace and mercy. Who do we believe, Jesus or the world? Who do we trust, the God who created a perfect universe and has always set forth the way to live a fully happy life by living a fully holy life (see Gen. 1–2); or people who are under the power of the “prince of the power of the air,” Satan, who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (Eph. 2:2 and John 10:10)? Context is always king. Don’t forget that Jesus is the One greater than Moses because he is not only the Son of God but also God the Son (Matt. 5:1–2). True happiness only comes from finding holiness through faith in Christ and living a holy life in dependence upon his empowering Holy Spirit. The only happiness that can withstand hardship is a holy happiness that roots itself in the promise of future eternal happiness, which itself is grounded in the glorious promise of Isaiah 33:17, “Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty.”

Notes

1 According to the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, “Beatitude” means “blessedness; felicity of the highest kind; consummate bliss; used of the joys of heaven” and “the declaration of blessedness made by our Savior to particular virtues.

2 John MacArthur, “Happiness Is…” (sermon, Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA, September 3, 1978), http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/2197/happiness-is (accessed September 2, 2014).

3 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976 [1959–1960]), chs. 3–13.

4 The New Testament was originally written in Greek, and first-century Jews read the Old Testament in Greek, as well. The Greek word translated “earth” in Matt. 5:5 is the same Greek word translated “land” in Ps. 37:11.

5 Charles Quarles puts this well: “Psalm [37] describes the meek as those who ‘trust in the LORD’ (vv. 3, 5), ‘take delight in the LORD’ (v. 4), ‘wait expectantly for’ the Lord (v. 7), and ‘put their hope in the LORD’ (v. 9)” (Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NACSBT 11 [Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011], 55).

6 Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 88.

7 The promise of Isaiah 33:17 is the verse that undergirds the main argument (and is the source of the title) of Thomas R. Schreiner’s recent whole-Bible biblical theology, The King in His Beauty (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).

8 NT scholars debate the number of Beatitudes Jesus spoke. Since “Beatitude” is the Anglicization of the Latin translation for the Greek word that the ESV translates “blessed,” the fact that Jesus says “blessed” nine times indicates that there are nine Beatitudes. Admittedly, the ninth Beatitude is an extension of the eighth Beatitude, but its longer form and direct address do not necessitate subsuming it under the eighth Beatitude. Nevertheless, I will treat the two Beatitudes together and interpret each in light of the other. For a more thorough defense of reading Matthew 5:11–12 as a ninth Beatitude, see Dale C. Allison Jr., “The Structure of the Sermon on the Mount,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106.3 (1987), 429 n. 17.

9 Gregory C. Cochran, “Christian Persecution as Explained by Jesus (Matthew 5:10–12),” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 18.1 (2014), 13.

10 Sermon on the Mount, 75.

Written by Jordan Atkinson

September 2, 2014 at 9:06 PM

Posted in New Testament, Sermon on the Mount

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The Sermon on the Mount in Context

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Tonight I’m starting a new Bible study with my youth group on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (hereafter SM) in Matthew 5–7. My lessons with the youth will closely (but not exactly) follow Dale C. Allison, Jr.’s outline for the SM.1 Following Allison’s outline of the SM, tonight’s lesson focuses on the context of the SM in Matthew 4:23–5:2, where we read:

And he [Jesus] 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. 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, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

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: (ESV)

In Matthew 4:23–5:2, we see Jesus ministering in Galilee (4:23), famous in Syria (4:24–25), and seated on the mountain to teach (5:1–2).

According to Matthew 4:23, Jesus’ ministry in Galilee consisted of teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every affliction. Luke 4:16–21 fills out the content of Jesus’ teaching in synagogues: Jesus taught that he is the Servant of the Lord prophesied about in Isaiah 61:1–2.2 That Jesus taught in synagogues also reinforces that in his humanity, Jesus was a first–century itinerant Jewish rabbi.3 Furthermore, while Jesus taught in the synagogues, he was simultaneously preaching the gospel of the kingdom, which demands repentance in response (Matt. 4:17). Finally, to teaching and preaching Jesus added miraculous healing, which “pointed to the validity of his message.”4

Jesus’ miracles earned him a wide following early in his public ministry, as we read in Matthew 4:24–25. Jesus’ followers, broadly speaking, included both Jews and Gentiles: Jews from Galilee, Jerusalem, and Judea; and Gentiles from Syria and the Decapolis. Melvin Tinker rightly notes that the presence of Gentiles in the crowds following Jesus points to the fact that Jesus is a light for salvation not only to Jews but also to Gentiles.5

Jesus “went up on the mountain” because he saw these large crowds following him, and he took this opportunity to teach them what has come to be called the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1–2). Matthew 5:1–2 tells us three important things about Jesus:

  1. Jesus is a new Moses.
  2. Jesus is his disciples’ authoritative rabbi.
  3. Jesus speaks with the authority of God himself.6

First, Jesus is a new Moses. Jesus “went up on the mountain” (Matt. 5:1). As Charles Quarles notes, this phrase from Matt. 5:1 is “an exact verbal parallel” to Moses’ ascension of Mt. Sinai as recorded in Exodus 19:3.7 Jesus is “a new Moses who leads a new exodus for a new Israel replete with a new Sinai, all pointing forward to the new covenant.”8

Simultaneously to being a new Moses, Jesus is his disciples’ authoritative rabbi. His seated position on the mountain was “customary” for Jewish rabbis at the time.9 Furthermore, Jesus refers to himself as a rabbi in Matthew 23:8, and he accepts this ascription both from Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene in John’s Gospel (3:1–2 and 20:16).

Of course, Jesus is more than a new Moses, more than a new rabbi, and this fact brings us to our final point: Jesus speaks with the authority of God himself. Following the SM, we read that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28–29). Jesus’ authority exceeded that of the highest human religious authority for first–century Jews. Whose authority is higher than the highest human authority but God’s? Unlike Quarles, I do believe that Matt. 5:2, with its emphasis on Jesus not only teaching and “saying” but also “open[ing] his mouth,” echoes Matt. 4:4 in which authoritative words are “from the mouth of God.”10 According to Matthew 5:2, when considered in its context within Matthew as a whole and indeed of the Bible as a whole, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—as are all Jesus’ teachings—is a sermon directly from God himself.

Matthew 4:23–5:2 thus sets the SM into its context, without which we cannot appreciate the SM in all its fulness. Matthew 4:23–5:2 presents Jesus as the herald of the gospel of the kingdom, which calls on everyone to repent in light of Jesus’ life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection. This text also presents Jesus as a new Moses with an authority greater than his fellow rabbis because Jesus is not only fully human but also fully God. As we begin to look at the Sermon on the Mount, before we even get to Jesus’ actual words there, may we submit ourselves to him as the rightful King of God’s kingdom, which covers the whole universe of his creation, through repentant faith that he died to save us from our sins, “to enable us to live the Sermon on the Mount,” to use the phrase of D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones.11

Notes

1 Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Structure of the Sermon on the Mount.” Journal of Biblical Literature 106.3 (1987): 423–445.

2 Melvin Tinker notes that Isaiah 61:1–2 also “lies behind the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry in Matthew as represented by the Sermon on the Mount” (“The Servant Solution: The Co-ordination of Evangelism and Social Action,” Themelios 32.2 [2007], 12).

3 At the conclusion of his article, Allison argues that the SM, particularly in Matthew 5:13–7:12, “addresses the three things upon which, according to Simeon the Just, the world stands [the Law—Matt. 5:21–48; Temple service—Matt. 6:1–18; and godly social behavior—Matt. 6:19–7:12], and it addresses them in precisely the same order” (“Structure,” 443).

4 Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary 33A (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 81.

5 “The Servant Solution,” 11.

6 These three observations were inspired by three observations Hagner makes about Matthew 5:1–2 (Matthew 1–13, 85). My three points, however, are more explicit than Hagner’s.

7 Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NACSBT 11 (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), 22.

8 James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 369.

9 Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 86.

10 Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, 38 n. 8, citing Robert Gundry for this position.

11 D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976 [1959–1960]), 12.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Part II) (Review Thursday #4)

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[For my review of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) Part I, click here.]

Having placed Paul within his Jewish, Greek, and Roman contexts in Part I of PFG, N. T. Wright discusses Paul’s worldview in Part II before moving onto Paul’s Theology in Part III. To Wright, four basic components comprise Paul’s worldview: praxis, symbol, story, and question. Since these worldview elements are the subject of PFG Part II, Wright’s treatment of them is the subject of this review.

In chapter 6, Wright discusses praxis and symbol together because “in Paul’s day praxis was symbol, and symbol praxis” (353). What does Wright mean, then, by the combined term, “symbolic praxis”? “The point about symbols [and thus about symbolic praxis],” Wright writes in the next paragraph, “is that they are everyday things that carry more than everyday meanings.” The first part of chapter 6 after its introduction focuses on the symbolic praxes of Judaism, Greek culture, and the Roman empire. This discussion was helpful, especially its discussion of Judaism. Interestingly, Wright argues that Paul like his fellow Jews expanded the land promise God made to Abraham to encompass the entire cosmos (366-367). Fair enough. But as the speakers at Chosen People Ministries’ 2013 conference, The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, maintained in their presentations, enlarging the original promise does not make the original promise null and void. Ethnic Israel still has a special place within God’s plan for the world, as Paul himself (contrary to Wright) upholds. As for Paul’s uniquely Christian symbolic praxis, Wright rightfully emphasizes the two ordinances (though he calls them “sacraments”), baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Wright’s lengthy discussion of baptism (417-427) is helpful for its emphasis on baptism as

community-marking symbol, which the individual then receives, not first and foremost as a statement about him- or herself, but as a statement which says, “This is who we are.” (421, italics in original)

Nevertheless, Wright wrongly affirms that while baptism’s “primary point … is not so much ‘that it does something to the individual,’ … it does” (426). Wright, along with other sacramentalists (pro-infant baptizers), misunderstands baptism to have a grace-imparting effect, when really it functions as a symbolic re-enactment of the new birth. Although Wright discusses Col. 2:12, which teaches this reality about baptism, he allows his prior convictions about baptism to trump the plain reading of the text. I do not, however, want to end my discussion of chapter 6 negatively. Wright’s brief discussion on suffering (431-436) is excellent; he even refers to suffering as “the final main category of [Paul’s] praxis” (431). Most edifying is Wright’s statement concerning 2 Cor. 12:7-10 — “Exactly in line with the redefinition of power and authority in Mark 10.25-45, Paul believes that apostolic life consists not only in telling people about the dying and rising of the Messiah, but also in going through the process oneself” (433). This is a truth of which I constantly need reminding. I hope quoting it here will help you, as well. This chapter on Paul’s symbolic praxis was thus largely helpful.

Chapter 7 is devoted to the story behind Paul’s worldview. “Story” seems to be one of Wright’s favorite subjects, and he tries to set himself apart by making the debate over Old and New Perspectives on Paul about “whether the underlying narrative which we have seen to be so powerful for so many (not all) Jews in Paul’s day was taken over, modified or simply abandoned” (460). Wright here seems to be setting up a straw man. Although he accuses Old Perspective scholars of making Paul “ditch everything about his previous worldview, theology and culture,” I can think of two Old Perspective (if I must use labels) scholars whom I deeply respect who are guilty of no such crime. Dr. Thomas R. Schreiner’s recent biblical theology, The King in His Beauty, is unapologetically narratival, and Schreiner argues that Paul and the other New Testament writers viewed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament narrative. Similarly, Dr. James Hamilton in “The Skull-Crushing Seed of the Woman,” which I have reviewed, argues that the Old Testament as a whole is a messianic document whose hope Jesus fulfills. The main argument of chapter 7 is Wright’s construal of Paul’s underlying worldview narrative. From the largest perspective, Paul’s narrative is about God and creation (475-485) — no quibbles there. The more Wright zoomed in, however, the more I found with which to disagree. Zooming into humanity (485-494), Wright sets up his too-heavily-depended-on reconstruction of the story of Israel (495-505). The main problem with Wright’s Israel narrative is his repeated assertion that the story of Israel is “the story of God’s people, of Abraham’s people, as the people through whom the creator was intending to rescue his creation” (495, italics in original). This, as I mentioned in my review of Part I, overreaches the biblical evidence. Biblically, God always intended to rescue his creation (and his people – who in Adam were already sinful!) through the Messiah Jesus, who, yes, admittedly sprang from Israel, from Abraham. But God’s plan was never for corporate Israel to rescue creation but for Israel’s representative (himself by human birth an Israelite), Jesus, to rescue creation. Zooming in even closer to the core of the narrative is Wright’s discussion of Torah (505-516). This helped temper some of Wright’s more extreme statements regarding Israel, but he seemed to confuse (as Denny Burk has argued elsewhere in another context) the meaning with the implication of “righteousness.” Wright consistently renders “righteousness” in Paul’s writings as “covenant membership.” Membership in the people of God, however, is not what righteousness means but what righteousness results in. This chapter’s story concludes with a discussion of Jesus, which I was glad to see included a paragraph (but only a paragraph!?) on the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection frees us from our imprisonment to sin (518-519). Thus, while there are significant flaws with Wright’s retelling of Paul’s worldview story (I agree more with Schreiner’s and Hamilton’s interpretations), it was nevertheless edifying.

In chapter 8, Wright discusses how Paul’s worldview addresses five of the six worldview analysis questions (because the sixth, “why?” “will take [Paul], and us, from worldview to theology” [538]).

  1. Who are we? Wright’s understanding of Paul’s answer to this question is rather good: “We are the Messiah’s people, defied by our membership ‘in’ him, marked out by our sharing of his pistis, celebrating our status as having died and been raised ‘with’ him, living in the ‘age to come’ which he has inaugurated” (544). Of course, there is the troubling notion of what “sharing Jesus’ faith” means (which will come out fully in Part III), as well as a continued emphasis on the Israel story, Wright’s understanding of which I have already critiqued above.
  2. Where are we? Wright’s answer is the standard Christian answer: We live in the time when Jesus has already inaugurated God’s kingdom without yet consummating God’s kingdom. (Wright already answered this question in short form by saying that we are “living in the ‘age to come’ which he has inaugurated” above.)
  3. What’s wrong? Death — which is a right answer but not the best answer. Death is the result of sin. Sin is the ultimate problem. Here I (and Paul!) disagree with Wright.
  4. What’s the solution? The resurrection from the dead, which Jesus will accomplish at his second coming on the basis of his own resurrection from the dead in his first coming. Again, this right solution points beyond the problem of death to the larger problem of sin. The reason we won’t die in our resurrection bodies is because death itself will be destroyed by virtue of the new heavens and the new earth being free from the very presence of sin.
  5. What time is it? We live now in “messianic time, a new sort of time” (558, italics in original). What does Wright mean? “Maturity lies in the celebration of messianic time within the muddle and mystery of the present age” (562). To use Paul’s clearer language: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:4-5). We have spiritually died and spiritually been raised with Christ, which our baptism declares, and until he returns to resurrect our bodies we strive to live in the newness of life his resurrection has given us by faith.

To conclude, I reiterate a point from my review of Part I: as a historian, Wright is flawless, and flaws his appear only as we move from history to theology (and in this section, in worldview analysis). Almost halfway through Part III, I can say that the mixed bag of good and bad theological points only grows from here, but Wright’s book is proving to be a profitable read, as Schreiner and Hamilton have found to be the case with his earlier works, which I myself haven’t read. The most helpful takeaway from Part II, I believe, is this: Wright rightly emphasizes the importance of Paul’s (Christian) worldview, and it is important for all of us Christians to have a worldview based on the Bible that interacts with the worldviews around us in our broader culture. I hope to use Wright’s discussion of Paul’s worldview in Part II of Paul and the Faithfulness of God to help me refine and articulate better my own worldview, which I pray is as close to Paul’s as possible.

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