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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.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Part I) (Review Thursday #3)

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Paul and the Faithfulness of God (hereafter, PFG) is N. T. Wright’s 2-book fourth volume in his series, Christian Origins and the Question of God. I thus think it is appropriate to give an honest caveat at the beginning of this series of reviews of this book (a 1600+ page tome deserves extensive interaction): I am a newcomer both to this series and to its author. I have not read the first three volumes in this series (though I hope to read them in the future), and I have only before read (and this past winter, at that!) Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision out of Wright’s seemingly endless body of work. Wright, of course, is (in)famous for being the public face of “the New Perspective(s) on Paul.” Why read this book then? I am reading this book (I have just begun reading Part III) for two reasons:

  1. This book is the fruit of Dr. Wright’s 30+ years of researching and writing on various aspects of Pauline theology. Since I hope to research and write on Pauline theology in-depth during my time in seminary and since Paul’s letters will be a significant part of my preaching ministry as a church pastor, Lord willing, this book will be an important one for me to have read so that I can interact with its arguments.
  2. To quote Dr. James Hamilton, who himself is following the advice of Dr. Thomas Schreiner (both pastors in Louisville, KY, and professors at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary): “even when I expect to disagree … I’ve learned that sometimes you learn most from folks like N. T. Wright.”

In other words, this book’s value is (or at least can be) high both academically and pastorally. Having read Parts I and II, I can attest that PFG is a worthwhile read, both intellectually and spiritually. Because each Part of PFG is long enough to be its own separately bound book, I will review each Part individually. Below is my review of “Part I: Paul and His World.”

The first Part of the four-Part PFG gives us the background and contexts to Paul’s theology, which is treated fully in Part III. Part I alone is over 300 pages long—justifiably so, to Wright: a “reasonably detailed … description of Paul’s multiple contexts—Jewish, Greek, Roman—” is “essential” (xv). Perhaps. Certainly the Jewish background to Paul is helpful because Paul’s theology intersects with that of Second Temple Jews, most notably Jews who were “zealous” as Paul was prior to his conversion. Chapter 2 is rightly the longest chapter of this section. However, nearly 200 pages deal with Paul’s Greco-Roman context. Of these chapters, the fourth on Roman religion and culture seems most superfluous (perhaps in part because Wright himself admits that Peter Rodgers “nudged” him into writing this chapter [xxii]), although I feel like sections 2-3 of chapter five, which are a narrative of Roman history to AD 70, are also overkill. Despite feeling the need to skim read these sections of Part I, on the whole this section of PFG is not only an enjoyable but also edifying read.

Chapter One is Wright’s introduction to the whole book. Wright’s reading of Philemon, Paul’s shortest letter, was on the whole persuasive. Especially beneficial to my own understanding of Philemon was Wright’s contrast of it to a contemporary Roman official’s letter on the same subject (a runaway slave returning to his master). Wright highlighted how Paul turned Roman social custom on its head because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this exposition of Philemon motivates me to see even “worldly” aspects of my life (such as college) more clearly and more fully in light of the gospel. For that I am grateful. However, Wright’s passing interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 as referring to reconciliation of people to people rather than of people to God is way off the mark. I am looking forward to reading his full treatment of this verse in Part III so that I can engage his arguments more fully.

Chapter Two is a comprehensive treatment of Paul’s Jewish background and context. Most helpful were Wright’s historical and sociological overview of Second Temple Judaism. Once again, however, I encounter an unhelpful quirk of Wright’s overall argument. One of Wright’s foundational arguments is that God meant the Jews to be the solution to the problem of sin but because of their own sinfulness Jesus then had to come and serve as the True Israel to rescue the world from sin. I cannot but disagree with this specific argument. As early as Gen. 3:15, we read of God’s plan to save the world (hundreds of years before he even called Abraham to be the first Jew!) through the singular “seed” of the woman, and this hope for a singular Savior is repeated throughout the Old Testament, famously in Isaiah 53. This argument emerges again in Part II and even more extensively in Part III, so I will interact with this theological flaw of the book more fully in reviews of those Parts. On the whole, chapter two was my favorite of Part I, perhaps in part because of the wealth of information I learned about Second Temple Judaism, which is the first century background with which I am most unfamiliar.

Chapter Three is a necessary but thankfully shorter chapter on Paul’s Greek philosophical context. In Wright’s own words, “this chapter is important” because Tarsus—Paul’s hometown—was known for “export[ing]” Stoic philosophers, in particular (199). As a historian, Wright is top-notch. Throughout these chapters on Jewish beliefs, Greek philosophy, and Roman imperialism, I could find nothing wrong with Wright historically. Chapter Three is thus excellent, and Chapters Four and Five, though way too long in my opinion, were also factually sound and will be helpful, I’m sure, in the future, for cultural and historical background to the New Testament.

Wright identifies Part I as the structural foundation of PFG. In the Preface, he depicts PFG as a chiastic staircase, with Parts II and III on the top floor (Part III being the ultimate climax). Chapters One through Five are thus important first steps for understanding Wright’s understanding of Paul (and Paul’s understanding of “the faithfulness of God”). These chapters build a historically sound foundation for the chapters to come. Theological errors, though present, are neither numerous nor threatening to the historical foundation of Wright’s book. I can only wish that this opening section was not so long so that I could get to what I consider the heart of the matter, Paul’s theology, faster. But before Paul’s theology, for Wright, comes not only Paul’s contexts but also Paul’s own worldview, which is the subject of Part II and will thus be the subject of the next post in my review of Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

Genesis 3:15 Throughout the Bible (Review Thursday #1)

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James Hamilton. “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman: Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Genesis 3:15.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10.2 (2006): 30-54.

Having read two of Dr. Hamilton’s books (God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment and God’s Indwelling Presence), I can testify that this article is as profitable a read as his books and even more accessible. (The link at the top of this page is to a free copy of Dr. Hamilton’s article on his own website.) I highly encourage everyone to read this article for its tracing of the gospel through the first to last books of the Bible.

Dr. Hamilton’s reading of Genesis 3:15 has influenced my own ministry since I first read it in God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment in 2011. In “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman,” Dr. Hamilton demonstrates how the whole Bible bears out not only his interpretation of Genesis 3:15 specifically but also of the Old Testament as a whole. To Dr. Hamilton, “the OT is a messianic document, written from a messianic perspective, to sustain a messianic hope” (30). Genesis 3:15 is an excellent text for testing this interpretation of the Old Testament because it gives the first hope of the Christian gospel.

The LORD God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen. 3:14-15)

The bulk of Dr. Hamilton’s article argues that in addition to being the Messiah specifically, the “offspring” of the woman is the people of God generally. Satan “shall bruise his heel,” but his “offspring” will be at “enmity” with the plural “offspring” of the woman (32-41). The children of the devil will oppose children of God. As Dr. Hamilton notes, Jesus himself admits this conflict in John 8 (33). Of course, the seed of the woman who will defeat not only Satan’s children but Satan himself is Jesus the Messiah. In “an unexpected development,” God’s Servant himself will be crushed as he crushes Satan’s head:

Twice in Isa 53 we read that the servant was crushed: first in verse 5, “he was crushed (daka’ in the pual) for our sins;” and then in verse 10, “Yahweh was pleased to crush (daka’ in the piel) him.” Here again the crushing judgment first announced in Gen 3:15 seems to be due to Israel because of its sin, but the servant takes their sin upon himself and is crushed for their iniquity, with the result that Yahweh is satisfied (cf. 53:4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12). (42)

Praise God that the “crushing” we deserve as natural born offspring of the serpent was taken by Jesus, the perfect offspring of the woman, in our place on the cross! Jesus’ crushed heel crushed Satan’s head and set us free from Satan! By Jesus’ death we go by faith from being the bondage children of Satan to being the adopted children of God! Praise the Lord for his mercy and grace!

Herein lies this article’s devotional value for all of us Christians: in Christ, we can overcome the temptations of Satan as believers. We can fight sin in our lives and overcome it by God’s grace. Luke 10:18-19, Romans 16:20, and Revelation 12 all point to believers’ struggle against Satan in which we will ultimately be victorious because Jesus was victorious at the cross and is returning one day to cast Satan forever into the eternal lake of fire (42-43).

The article, of course, was not perfect. Formatting is a minor issue. SBJT article notes are endnotes rather than footnotes, which makes reading them more cumbersome and more distracting from the main flow of the article’s main text (if you care to read them). In the case of this article, this format was particularly frustrating because many of Dr. Hamilton’s endnotes were quite interesting. For example, Dr. Hamilton’s note on the translation of Hebrews 11:11 is outstanding:

The emphasis on the important line of descent is also attested to in Heb 11:11, though translations usually obscure it. … [T]he text “woodenly” reads, “barren Sarah received power for the foundation of the seed.” In view of the Bible’s interest in the “holy seed,” the statement that “Sarah received power for the foundation of the seed” carries more freight than “Sarah received ability to conceive.” This common rendering of the text obscures all connection to the Bible’s “seed” theme. (48 n. 33)

Having taught Hebrews to the youth Sunday School class two years ago, I can attest that no commentator I used advocated this understanding of Hebrews 11. (David L. Allen came closest to agreeing with Hamilton’s translation because he was the only commentator to whom I had access who maintained the traditional reading of Sarah being the subject of this verse rather than Abraham, but he explicitly disavowed Hamilton’s reading. Nevertheless, an unspecified “some”  do side with Hamilton, Allen notes [551].) Despite Dr. Hamilton’s minority reading of Hebrews 11:11, in the context of biblical theology, in which a single theme is traced throughout Scripture (in this article “the skull-crushing seed of the woman”), his understanding is preferable to others’ translations. (Dr. Hamilton himself notes, however, that the KJV, NKJV, and HCSB translations also concur with his understanding.)

More significantly, the allusions to Genesis 3:15 cited by Dr. Hamilton are unequally persuasive. Many of them serve his argument well, but a few allusions seem stretched. Many of these unlikely allusions appear in the “Broken Enemies” section of his article in which he admits to “loosening … the image of the crushed head of the seed of the serpent in Gen 3:15, but it still remains related” (38-39). Nevertheless, this section does include a compelling argument about 1-2 Samuel being bookended by allusions to Genesis 3:15 (38). Although individual examples Dr. Hamilton gives do not seem, in my opinion, to support his argument that Genesis 3:15 is a foundational messianic text that is alluded to throughout Scripture, most of his examples do, so his argument stands. I highly recommend this article to every Christian to help them gain a better grasp on the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was promised–however faintly–all the way back in Genesis 3:15.

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