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Sunday, March 27, 2011

How to Apply the Law of Moses Properly—Matthew 5:15-48


General Principles

Matt 5:15-48, which we will study today, contains five examples given by Jesus to his disciples of how they should apply God's laws in the Old Testament properly to their own lives. 
Remember Jesus’ words in Mt 5:17-20. He does not intend to abolish the law but fulfill it. His words in what follows must never be read in a way that devalues or loosens the moral demands of the Old Testament. Nothing in these words or elsewhere in the gospels suggests that Jesus regarded anything commanded in the Old Testament as morally “primitive.” And only the sacrificial and dietary laws were fulfilled by his death and resurrection, so as to be no longer binding.


Jesus warns here that any disciple who nullifies (this is the true meaning of the word "breaks" here) one of the "least" of those commandments and teaches others to do so also, will be "least" in the kingdom of heaven (5:19).What do you think he means by "least"? And how does he illustrate such commands in what follows? It appears that he does not mean commands that God himself considers least important, nor does he mean the easiest ones to obey. Controlling lustful thoughts and even momentary anger are not trivial tasks! Instead, Jesus probably has in mind offenses that we might be inclined to view as less serious. For example, anger and insults are thought by most people to be less serious offenses than murder. Jesus does not claim that they are more serious, just equally important for disciples to avoid.


Elsewhere Jesus does attack the Pharisees and scribes. But here that matter is not in the forefront. The focus is more positive than negative. He acknowledges that there is a certain degree of real "righteousness" advocated and taught—but not always practiced (Mt 23:2-3)—by the Pharisees. That which was good in what they advocated was ultimately derived from scripture. Jesus here challenges all of us who claim to be his disciples to live lives that exceed the pharisaic standards, and he proceeds to give us illustrations of what he has in mind.
The term “antithesis” used by many to describe these five statements is somewhat misleading. The word translated “but” here (Greek de) is not the usual strong word for opposition (Greek alla), and some think it means “and,” indicating Jesus approval of the first proposition, but calling attention to how it must be amplified. The idea is more like “Yes, that’s right; but also …”
Do not be misled by the words “it was said” instead of “it is written.” In the speech of Jesus’ time, the scripture was often quoted in this way, as “it is/was said.” Jesus did not use that phrase in a demeaning or critical way.
That something was said “to those of ancient times” might be used today in the sense of something outmoded. In the culture and time of Jesus, the older something was, the more authoritative it was.
Jesus is speaking here of the ethical demands expected of his own disciples. Although much of the law of Moses in Jesus’ time was enforceable law that could come before courts, Jesus is here talking about God’s demands upon those committed to him, and which God will enforce himself: not in a human court but in the divine one. Again, Matthew will defer until later in a totally different context, the issue of when local bodies of believers must exercise discipline on public flaunting of these commands of Jesus by individual members (Mt 18:15-20). Both Matthew and Paul (1 Cor 5) have things to say about that subject. But it is not the focus here. 

Concerning Anger, 5:21-26

There are two references in Jesus’ quote in v 21. The first is to  Ex 20:13 and Deut 5:17.  The second is to a later interpretation, which added a jurisdiction (or court) to which the murderer was subject.  Jews in Jesus’ day were at liberty to challenge statements of the second type, just as you or I might politely argue with each other about the meaning of a passage of scripture. But one could not contest the first part—the scripture—without ceasing to be a Jew, a worshiper of the God of Israel. Jesus, therefore does three things in vv 22-26. (1) He expands the type of behavior described by “you shall not murder” to hateful speech, (2) he re-assesses the degree of punishment and makes God the court in all cases, and (3) he recommends alternative positive behavior in cases where one might be tempted to break this law: "Go, be reconciled to your brother."
Who is the “brother” here? Matthew uses this term only for fellow disciples.  Then who will enforce or judge this kind of case? A church court? The three levels in v 22 finish with the fiery hell, which is certainly beyond any human court to determine or apply, unless some sort of excommunication is in view.
(1) Jesus expands the category “murder” to include harmful actions resulting from anger, including speech acts. Three degrees are described: (a) simple anger, no matter how manifested, (b) verbal abuse (insults), and (c) drastic verbal abuse (“you fool”). Jesus doesn’t allow for exceptions in the case of “provoked” anger. 


This may be another example of Matthew's subtle allusions to events in the life of David, since Jesus is the better son of David. You recall how in 1 Sam 25 David overreacted to an insult from a man whose name (Nabal) means "fool" in Hebrew, and in a fit of anger swore to massacre every male in Nabal's family. It was only the calm and wise intervention of Nabal's wife Abigail that kept him from doing this hideous act of revenge for a mere insult. You might say that David was "provoked," but obviously God was not pleased with his initial intention, which he swore to do in the name of Yahweh (God)!


Jesus allows no excuse to justify anger or verbal abuse. This is in keeping with his teaching elsewhere about turning the other cheek. This, of course, raises questions for many of us about the legitimacy of anger at seeing someone abuse another person. But neither Jesus nor Matthew want to complicate the issue here with such “exceptions.” Once you start bringing in “exceptions,” you start looking for ways to circumvent Jesus’ demand for consistent love and forgiveness.
We live in an age when it is not only acceptable, but actually encouraged on all sides, to be easily irritated by the words and behavior of others. Often this is done by means of TV comedies, where we are supposed to laugh and be entertained by clever “put-downs.” I’m not suggesting that we never watch TV comedies. But I do suggest—quite seriously—that enjoying such behavior in others is the first step towards allowing it in ourselves. And such “clever” put-downs need not be real confrontations with the party we are ridiculing: it is enough to make fun of someone else behind his or her back to entertain and impress others. This is a favorite game we all are tempted at times to play. We do it in order to show how superior we are, and how clever in our choice of words of ridicule. But notice that:
(2) Jesus re-assesses the degree of punishment and makes God the court in all cases. We should think soberly about Jesus’ words here about our accountability to God. Even to the final one called “the fiery Hell.” It is implied that both the source of such behavior and the final destination of those who practice it is the same: a fiery hell! Being easily angered by others is literally “playing with fire.”  
(3) As in some of the other five examples, here Jesus recommends behavior to mend the damage caused by anger and insult: "go, be reconciled to your brother."  In contrast to the spirit of our age, which glorifies being super-sensitive to every slight or irritation in the actions of others, Jesus requires of his disciples that they become super-un-sensitive. Disciples of Jesus must develop a kind of callous that makes them shrug off and ignore words and actions that could offend them. This is not easy. Nor am I suggesting for a moment that I am able to do this all the time. I struggle with this sin. But neither I nor you must ever accept the easy status quo in my life and say to myself, "Well, I guess this is just Harry being Harry." My job is not just "being Harry": it is being Jesus.

Concerning Lust, 5:27-30
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30 NIV)
We shall see in the following verses a number of places where Matthew pursues his practice of comparing Jesus to David by selecting from Jesus' teachings particular parts that exemplify how Jesus' own life and teachings mirror aspects of David's life—either David's consistent obedience or places where David failed God. We saw above that God through the intervention of Abigail barely kept David from murdering innocent men in the family of Nabal (1 Sam 25), and we also know that David ordered Joab to murder Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam 11). Here we encounter the second area where David failed God. He lusted for Uriah's wife Bathsheba and committed adultery with her, which became the reason for his subsequent murder to Uriah. These were two of very few instances where David did not serve as a model for consistent godly behavior.

It is difficult to teach this subject to an audience of men and women. Often men have trouble understanding the kinds of temptations that women may experience in the area of sex, and likewise women understanding the peculiar susceptibilities of men. As a man, therefore, let me apologize at the beginning to you women if I miss the mark with you. I sincerely want us as a family of disciples to understand and help each other to meet Jesus’ expectations for each of us. I think that we need each other’s help and—sometimes—advice, as awkward as that may be. Men who wish to remain pure must not be forced to only socialize with other men, nor should women be confined to the society of women. We are all fellow-heirs and equal in the family of God and should be able to socialize freely without putting any obstacle or stumbling block in the way of another.

When God created the first woman, he said he was going to make for the man a "helper that would complement him" (that is the meaning of "helper fit for" in Gen 2:18). Women complement men, and men women. This is the genius of God's design. We need each other. We should not be competing, but helping each other.

Non-Christians who are inclined to criticize Christians sometimes charge us with putting too much emphasis on sexual purity and not enough on social and economic “justice.” I don’t want to get sidetracked into political and economic philosophy here. The point of their criticism, if we really want to hear it fairly, is to ask us “How serious in comparison to neglecting the poor and oppressed is sexual immorality?”

This is a fair question and deserves a fair answer. Jesus certainly commanded that his disciples look after the poor in their number, including poor widows and orphans. But here we are in the very heart of his ethical teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, and what do we find? Teaching on anger, on lust, on marriage, and on truthfulness. To me that says something about the importance of such matters in the lives of disciples.

The starting point in Jesus’ teaching here—as with his preceding subject—is one of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not commit adultery.” As the other clauses in the Ten Commandments, this law is expressed negatively: not something you should do, but what you should not do. Yet just as the preceding command about murder was intended to protect innocent life, so this one was intended to protect family life. Adultery destroys marriages. And since God ordained marriage in the Garden of Eden, real disciples of Jesus must resist all attempts to “redefine” marriage today in such a way as to destroy the form in which God gave it—one man and one woman in a faithful and enduring relationship. Eve was created to be both an equal complement to Adam and a help to him. Of course, Adam was supposed also to help Eve. And I don’t think this just meant taking out the garbage! We help each other spiritually by praying for each other and by never doing anything that might cause the other to sin against God. Ultimately both Eve and Adam failed in that test in Gen 3. But this is God’s ideal. God wants strong, healthy, godly families, which grow out of strong, healthy and godly marriages.

As in the preceding sections, here too Jesus “builds a fence around the Torah,” expanding the narrower subject of adultery to include all forms of sexual behavior that could lead to overt sexual relations with someone not your spouse. That is what I believe Jesus means in verses 29-30, although he uses hyperbole in order to emphasize his point. That point is that we should deny ourselves anything that would lead us into sexual sins, just as we would into other sins. The hyperbole is that one would be willing to gouge out one’s eye, if it took that.

Here it appears that the men are addressed, not the women disciples. The men must take the initiative in keeping their eyes from straying and lingering, generating thoughts that are wrong.

Earlier generations of Christians spoke of the “custody of the eyes”—meaning guarding what you look at—and of the need not to look lingeringly at members of the opposite sex if you know that this triggers wrong thoughts. Job seems to allude to this when he said, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a young woman?” (Job 31:1). It may be that this is not a needed area for you. But my philosophy is that, if something works for you, use it.

Another word from my own experience: don’t be discouraged if you don’t always triumph over momentary wrong thoughts of this type. I think God wants us to keep our sights very high, but to rejoice positively in each small triumph. Each time you succeed in short-circuiting such thoughts you have taken one step closer to Jesus.

I once attended a Sunday Bible class in another church in which men and women were discussing this subject in a very helpful way. One man told how he at first tried to think of women in terms of being his daughters, but then felt that was too demeaning to them, putting them in an inferior position to himself, so he switched to thinking of them as his real sisters. This kept him thinking of them as other than sex objects and as social equals. This helped him.

A mental frame that I find helpful throughout the day is thinking of women whom I see or meet in casual social situations as Jesus himself sees them: either as either fellow disciples, trying to please Christ and needing my help to do so, or as needy lost individuals crying out for the gospel. This keeps me from thinking of them as objects to satisfy me.

Another principle that underlies this commandment is the true purpose of gender complementing. Why did God create humans in two genders? The first reason is obvious: for marriage and children. But there were other reasons as well. Although these words were originally spoken of for marital partners, the fact that Eve was created to be “a helper to complement him” (Gen 2:18) is certainly significant also in non-marital interrelations. Neither men nor women are complete in themselves without the essential complement supplied by the opposite sex. Men can help women in certain ways, and women can help men in others. And I am not referring to a stereotyping view of one gender or the other, such as “the woman’s place is in the home” philosophy. As much as feminists and male chauvinists may say differently, there are helpful ways in which women view situations differently from men and vice versa. This is a positive thing. And we should try to mine this gender variety in wholesome ways in order to enrich the spiritual experience of all of Christ’s disciples. If each of us approached our relationships with disciples of the other sex with the attitude “what can you teach me that will help me to be a better disciple of my Lord?” we would not only have fewer cases of promiscuous sex: we would also have a dynamic Christian fellowship.

Women disciples must guard against flirting. Most of the time, a Christian woman will not do this in an obvious way, at least not in public. But you all know how it can be done in subtle ways. Dress also is important, although I am not saying that a Christian woman must dress dowdily. But she should not do so in a way as to encourage wrong thoughts about her sexuality. It isn’t for me to go further than these general suggestions. You Christian women know much better than I do what things you might be tempted to do, if you wanted to attract a man’s attention sexually without being too obvious. You know these things: I do not. So please use your own wisdom and experience to help your brothers in Christ, as they in turn will try to treat you with all honor and respect, and not as their own personal sex object.

Concerning Divorce, 5:31-32
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for unchastity, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31–32)

Jesus’ words on adultery, which is a prime cause of destroying families, leads naturally to the subject of divorce, which sometimes results from the discovery of adultery and which also contributes to the destruction of families.

Jesus’ statement on this subject is not only recorded here and in the parallel passage in Mk 10:2-12, but also in another part of Matthew (Mt 19:3-9). In order to draw any conclusion as to his view on that subject you have to study all three passages and deal with the apparent discrepancies between them, which may even be due to the context in which each was given. Jesus was probably asked his view on this subject several times during his ministry. And although he would not have “fudged,” it would have been quite legitimate, and indeed imperative, for him to tailor his answer to the situation.

It is no coincidence that broken marriages not only fragment families, but even have a destructive effect on the spiritual lives of individual members of those families. To say with the Bible that divorce is an evil to be avoided at all costs, is not to say that divorced Christians should be penalized or shunned by their fellow believers. Many divorced persons know better than any of the rest of us just how much they and their children have lost by the experience.

Instead of majoring on the negative side by penalizing the victims of divorce, we should focus on the positive side by encouraging a healthy view of courtship and marriage that will lead to healthy and happy Christian marriages, ones that will last.

The law that Jesus cited here is from Deut 24:1, a part of a longer case law, which reads—
Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2 and goes off to become another man’s wife. 3 Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); 4 her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4 NRSV)
Divorce among Jews in Jesus’ time could be initiated by either spouse, although mostly it was initiated by the husband. Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day were of two minds regarding divorce. Some like Shammai were strict constructionists and insisted that a man’s “finding something objectionable” in the spouse had to be evidence of her premarital promiscuity, that is, no bleeding from a broken hymen on the wedding night. Others like Hillel claimed that any incompatibility (even burning his breakfast) was grounds for divorce. Hillel argued that God gave this law to give relief to bad marriages; Shammai wanted to prevent frivolous abandoning of the responsibility to correct incompatibilities and build a good relationship. Both sides could be seen as having a case.

Jesus appears to have come down on the side of Shammai’s view, allowing only one reason. That reason is expressed by a term (Greek porneia), which can mean any kind of sexual promiscuity (hence, best translated as "unchastity" with the NRSV, and not necessarily on "marital unfaithfulness" as the NIV translation renders it), but also in a Jewish context sex or marriage between close relatives (what we call "incest"), such as was prohibited in the laws of Moses (see Lev 18:6-1920:11-21Deut 23:1; 27:20, 22-23). So it may be that by this clause—which is not found in Luke’s version of Jesus’ words—refers to an unpermitted close degree of family relationship which made it an invalid marriage, and not that it gives either partner justification to dissolve a valid marriage simply on the basis of a single act of infidelity by the spouse.

It is outside our purview today to discuss the prickly issue of whether or not divorced persons are qualified to serve as elders or deacons in churches.

But whether Jesus was granting right of divorce in cases of marital infidelity or only in the case of an invalid marriage between close relatives, it was the positive lesson that he really wanted to convey. Jesus intended his words to be taken by his disciples not as an excuse to allow a marriage to fail, but as a mandate to preserve and strengthen the bonds of family love. He wanted them to apply his standards of love and forgiveness not only in broader social situations outside their families, but also in the most intimate circle of personal and family life, the husband-wife relationship. If we are to turn the other cheek outside of our marriages, should we not also do so inside them? But here I think we have to issue a strong caveat. Unlike the situations outside marriage, where Jesus urged unlimited forgiveness, the sacred bond of fidelity between spouses is too vital and fragile to allow an easy-going attitude. After the first instance of infidelity the other spouse must confront and issue a warning. No recurrences will be tolerated. The stakes are too high, including the detrimental effect on their children.

Concerning Oaths and Truthfulness, 5:33-37
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37 NIV)
Jesus uses this law from Lev 19:12 and Num 30:2 to reinforce the basic principle of keeping one’s promises whether or not a social situation requires a guarantee.

Here, once again, Jesus' example and teaching mirror aspects of the life of David. David repeatedly took oaths in the name of God to assure others to guarantee his future behavior or to his statements of fact. And in all cases he kept his word. David kept his promises, even though in accord with the custom of his day he did so by taking oaths. 

I remember a few years back reading about a company in Pine Castle, Florida, where my parents and I lived during the summers when I was a boy. It was a company that made speedboats. In some situation not its own fault it became liable for a huge payment that it could have avoided by declaring bankruptcy. The owner was a conscientious Christian who would not default on those to whom his company owed the payments. So they arranged to pay it all off over a very long period of time, at great financial sacrifice to the company owners. Unfortunately, this kind of integrity is all too rare. Today we all want to avail ourselves of every legal loophole, instead of thinking about the other parties whom our saving ourselves may hurt. I often think of these when I see those sleazy commercials on TV urging viewers to declare bankruptcy and leave their creditors without any compensation for their losses.

Here Jesus’ teaching does not exceed that of the Old Testament itself, which says in Psalm 15:
LORD, who may be welcome in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? 2 He whose conduct is blameless and who does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart 3 and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on others, 4 who doesn’t emulate a dishonest person but honors those who fear the LORD, who keeps his oath even when it hurts, 5 who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken. (Psalms 15:1-5)
Perhaps you know a fellow Christian, who—although he or she means well—tends to make easy promises and rarely can keep them. In time you simply no longer ask him or her to do anything, because you know they are undependable. That is a sad situation within the family of God. In view of the words of James, the Lord Jesus' brother, in James 4:13-15, I always think it wise to make promises conditioned by the words "if the Lord wills," since "you do not even know what tomorrow will bring." But I assure the other person that, barring some major surprise—an accident, a death in the family, I will not fail to keep my promises. 

Do you want to enjoy constant fellowship with your Lord, be welcome always in his presence? Then you must conduct yourself like the person described in Psalm 15. If you commit to doing something, as long as there is no conflicting obligation that must be kept to another, so long as keeping the promise will only hurt you, then keep it. You honor Jesus by doing so.

Besides, if your non-Christian acquaintances see that you don’t keep your promises, how will they think that Jesus will keep his promises to them?

Concerning Retaliation, 5:38-42
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42 NIV)
Verse 38 has a long history of misinterpretation by Western Christians. Today when we see TV clips of videoed scenes of Middle Eastern terrorists beheading someone, we immediately conclude that this sort of grisly “justice” was in the minds of the ancient Israelites when they wrote, read or repeated this verse. But there is good evidence—both from the Bible and from ancient Babylonian, Hittite and Egyptian legal texts—that this famous lex talionis was never intended to be applied literally, and that the rank and file ancient Middle Easterner understood that. There were fixed monetary penalties in law codes for injuries ot eye, tooth, nose and other vital body parts. The point of the biblical law, as with other texts that used this language was that penalties must always accord with the appropriate legal compensations.

Jesus too certainly knew that what the OT law referred to was legal action in court, seeking appropriate damages, not vigilante actions or “private justice”, and his comments on this law take the ancient intention into account, but transforms it from a civil law into a rule for behavior between disciples. It is important to assume that in at least the first two examples given by Jesus, the opponent is another believer. He is called an “evildoer” in verse 39 only from the standpoint of how the disciple being instructed here would see him. That is, from my viewpoint the fellow believer who insults me with a backhand slap on the right cheek, was totally unprovoked and wrong: he is therefore legally an evildoer. In other words, the primary relevance of this teaching is not how we must behave when confronted by a mugger on the street at night—although there too it might be wiser not to resist—but how we should behavior within the community of believers.

We have seen how many of Jesus' ethical standards for his disciples subtly invite comparison with David. How about this one? Did David retaliate against those who sought him harm. The prime example is King Saul, who pursued him to death. David twice had Saul at his mercy, and both times refused to lift a hand against him. And late in David's life, when his son drove him from the throne and sought to hunt him down and kill him, he gave instructions to his generals not to harm Absalom, if they captured him.

5:39 The first example Jesus gives is when you are insulted. The fact that the blow on the right cheek was merely a backhanded slap, delivered as an insult, not in order to seriously injure, means that we are being warned against getting even for an insult. The Greek word translated “do not resist” is a legal term that really means “do not take the matter to court.” Such a slap injures only our pride and doesn’t adversely affect others who might depend upon us. Jesus calls upon us not to take offense at the first chance, but always to seek to win back the person who has insulted us. Whether that is literally by inviting him to insult you again or rather by kind words, inquiring how we have made that person angry, our obligation is to seek to heal the relationship, not to vindicate our pride.

This requirement does not exclude the possibility appealing to our legal rights in some cases, and of asking an insulter why he has done this, and even to call in question his right to do it. The best examples are from Paul’s behavior in Acts 16:37; 22:25; and 25:8-12. But note that in all these cases Paul's rebukes were to non-believers and to persons who might be assumed to know that they had violated the law by their treatment of him.

This is a concrete example of what Jesus meant in the beatitudes by “peacemakers.” Whenever we perceive we have been wronged, we have a choice of responses: (1) hatred and getting even, or (2) love and healing the relationship. And since, as I believe, the beatitudes weren’t intended to describe only individual Christians who have different capacities, each with its own reward, but all of us who profess to be disciples, we can’t brush this task aside, saying, “That’s all very nice for some Christians, but I can’t do that.” We all must work toward being “peacemakers,” on the individual level without our own churches and circle of friends. It is not an option not to do this.

5:40 The second example (verse 40) concerns one disciple taking another to court and demanding a pledge against the anticipated ruling for compensation of losses. The OT law excluded going so fas as to demand the outer garment (“cloak”) which for a poor man might be his only source of warmth in cold nights. Jesus asks his disciples, if a fellow believer takes you to court and demands the long inner garment worn next to the skin, and which was not absolutely necessary since it was always covered by the outer garment, you should offer your outer robe, that which is essential both for modesty and for warmth.

What Jesus is getting at here is not per se how much you should part with, even if not required to by law to do so, but how—by making such a gesture—you might dissuade your brother or sister in Christ from continuing with a court suit, as opposed to simply talking it over with you and finding out how you can help him or her and avoid further confrontation in front of unbelievers. This is the same principle that Paul invoked in 1 Cor 6:7.

If the world sees that Christians cannot get along with each other, how will they be interested in becoming part of that family?

5:41 Jesus’ third example describes something that a Roman solider in the occupation forces in Galilee might do to a Galilean peasant. That soldier might have the legal right, given him by the Roman emperor or his commander, to force a civilian to carry some of his load for one mile, not more. A Jewish resistance fighter might refuse to comply and fighting might ensue, together with loss of life. But Jesus commands that instead, the peasant should go the mile and then offer to go a second mile. The offer is voluntary, so far as the soldier knows, but it is obedience to Jesus’ command. Note too that the offer can have a limit: one more mile, or maybe two. But it is at the discretion of the peasant disciple. He is to do it out of kindness—what some today call “random acts of kindness”—but also as a testimony to the disciple’s master, whom he might mention to the soldier as his reason for offering the second mile.

5:42 In verse 42 Jesus commands his followers not to turn away from cases of genuine need, whether it be from those who need loans or from those who need gifts. But these must be genuine needs, not convenience loans. As St. Augustine observed, “Give to every brother who asks,” but not “Give everything to every brother who asks.” See Jesus’ own example in Lk 12:13-15, where the petitioner wanted a better share of his parents’ inheritance, and Jesus warned him against greed instead of interceding for him with his brothers.

Concerning Love for enemies, 5:43-48
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48 NIV) 
5:43 This is the first of the cases where Jesus enlarges and ethical demands of an Old Testament passage, in which the quotation given goes beyond what the scripture itself requires. “Love your neighbor as you would yourself” comes from Lev 19:18. But “hate your enemy” is found nowhere in scripture. It might have been deduced (falsely!) from the preceding verse, where it says “Do not hate a fellow Israelite [literally, ‘your brother’] in your heart,” but that verse does not imply that it was fine to hate a non-Israelite! The motivation of whomever added the second clause was probably to tighten the reference of the word “neighbor” in Leviticus to members of the faith community of Israel. When at another time Jesus was asked about the meaning of this verse with precisely this motive (“Who then is my neighbor?”), his reply was the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan being as much a faith outsider as a pagan Roman might be. It might be a correct assumption that in Moses’ original formulation he had in view relationships within Israel, because it was envisioned that this would be the entire social world for Israelites living in a conquered Promised Land, from which the pagan inhabitants were either exterminated or driven out. But that would not have led Moses or any OT prophet to require of believing Israelites that they “hate” all outsiders. This was not the attitude of Naomi or Boaz towards Ruth, although admittedly she was at that time a convert. But in Jesus’ day his disciples lived cheek-to-jowl with pagans in Capernaum and all around “Galilee of the Gentiles”, as Matthew called the region. They needed to be salt and light, but not haters of everything and everyone non-Jewish, or even their fellow Jews who chose not to believe in Jesus.

5:44 The demands of Jesus are a love that knows no limits. That “love” always is defined in terms of the ultimate benefit of the loved one, not simply his or her indulgence, is made clear by how Jesus limits it in the second phrase “pray for” them. This doesn’t mean that love of enemies is limited to prayer, but it does show that all forms that love takes should have the same rationale as prayer: “Does this that I do help this person to God, or not?” Giving an alcoholic a glass of wine or a teenager permission to hang out late at night on the mall—is not an act of love.

5:45 The goal for the disciple is to mirror the character of God himself, and so to be salt and light in the world. In nature God’s gifts make no distinction between good and bad people. Sometimes, in fact, bad things happen to good people and vice versa. Jesus’ disciples should imitate God to the extent that their kind actions should not be restricted to fellow disciples. “By this others will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus once said, “that you love each other” (John 13:35). But even more so in that you love those also outside the family of believers.

5:46-47 If the upshot of these commands is that Jesus’ disciples must be like God, their heavenly Father, it is also so that they will not be like those who have no commitment to God through Jesus, or even any commitment to Israel’s historic faith. Jesus gives as examples the Jews who betrayed their kinsmen by hiring out to the Romans to collect Roman taxes from their countrymen, and the pagan Gentiles all around them in Galilee. Jews who had no love for the outsiders were no better. But Jesus’ own must be different: they must show the same love that God himself had for the entire world (see John 3:16).

5:48 Jesus’ disciples must be “perfect,” as their heavenly Father is “perfect.” Wow! That is impossible! The only sinless human who ever lived was Jesus. How can I be “perfect”? The answer is that a better translation of this Greek word is “mature,” that is, complete in commitment to the teachings of Jesus that he has just been giving, not holding back in any area. It is the equivalent of the term "blameless" that is used in the Old Testament. Noah was blameless (Gen 6:9); God commanded Abraham to live blamelessly in his sight (Gen 17:1), and later also Israel (Deut 18:13); God called Job a "blameless" man (Hebrew tām; Job 1:1, 8). David claimed to have remained blameless before God (2 Sam 22:24), and indicates that he knows of others who also were blameless (2 Sam 22:26).  Perhaps the best and fullest treatment of the person who is blameless (Hebrew tāmîm) is found in Psalm 15.
O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? 2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; 3 who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; 4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the LORD; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; 5 who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved. (Psalms 15:1-5 NRSV)

This psalm would describe David in the Old Testament. He was definitely not "perfect" in the sense of without sin, as his notorious sins with Bathsheba and Uriah show, but he was "blameless" in the sense that the Old Testament uses that word, completely committed to obedience to God's word, even though he sometimes fell short.

Having considered all of the five antitheses and the summary command to love our enemies, that is, those outside the fold of the faith as well as those inside, we need to go back and ponder our Lord's warning about disciples who break the "least " of these commands and teach other disciples to do so (5:19). What is meant by the "least" commandments? Not the least important ones, for they are all important in the eyes of God. But rather those that seem to us least important. To the average person avoiding murder is much more important than avoiding a cutting remark to another person. To us it is much more serious a sin to commit adultery than to let you eye linger on a sexy woman. So it is those sins which we tend to discount as not so serious that we must guard most rigorously against in ourselves. For the result of not doing this is to be "least in the kingdom," that is, they do not keep us out of God's family, but will surely put us last in hearing "well done, good and faithful servant" from the lips of our Savior at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10).


Jesus wanted his disciples to be "perfect" (or "blameless") in the same sense that David was, in the sense that they don't opt out of any of Jesus' demands. To do so makes one "incomplete" or "imperfect." The explanation "perfect … as your Father in heaven is" might mislead us, for of course God is perfect in every possible way.  The word "blameless" (Hebrew tāmîm) is also used of God in the OT (Deut 32:4; 2 Sam 22:26, 31= Psa 18). Yet no OT believer would claim that their being "blameless" was the same thing as God's. Jesus was not asking his disciples to be "blameless" or "perfect" in the very same sense that God is.  Rather, what he means is that just as God loves all his human family, so are we to do. In that sense of God's perfection, we too must seek to be "perfect", that is completely in accord with God's own will for us.  Believers model the attitudes and wishes of the One whom they worship.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Beatitudes, Salt and Light — Matthew 5:1-14

The Beatitudes, 5:1-12 

In view of the widespread (and misleading) translation (“blessed …”) of the opening words of each of the Beatitudes, it is important for us to make clear what a “beatitude” is and is not in its biblical usage. One of several good explanations that I know of is this one from an article by Benedict Viviano:

A beatitude is a literary form common in both the Old Testament (especially in wisdom books and the psalms) and the New Testament, which begins with a short cry of joy like, "You happy person," and then includes a reason for the person's good fortune. The English word "beatitude" derives from the Latin beatus that is, in tum, the equivalent of the Hebrew ʾashrê and the Greek makarios.—These terms should be distinguished from the passive form "blessed" that has often been used in English translations of the Bible. This usage can lead to some confusion between a blessing and a beatitude. The Bible uses the passive form ("blessed") [Hebrew barukh, Greek eulogētos] only of God. What follows it is an invocation or a wish: "Blessed are you and praiseworthy, O Lord, the God of our ancestors" (Dan 3:26). — The adjective "happy" [Hebrew ashrê, Greek makarios] is used to speak of human beings, … recognizes an existing state of happiness, represents an approving proclamation of fact, and contains an evaluative judgment: "Happy are they who follow not the counsel of the wicked" (Ps 1:1). The latter form is a proclamation of happiness, not merely a promise of happiness, although in the Beatitudes of Jesus a promise is joined to it: "Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:3). The beatitude is a formula of congratulation or felicitation. 

Old Testament “beatitudes” often give a reason for the person’s happy state, analogous to the “for …” clauses in Jesus’ beatitudes. Here are a few examples:

Psalm 84:5-6    Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. 6 As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. 
Psalm 112:1-2  Happy are those who fear the LORD, who greatly delight in his commandments. 2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed. 
Isaiah 56:1    Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.  

From these examples you can see that the reason they are happy is not that they are promised a reward, but because being the way they are is its own reward and brings deep inner joy.

As to the form of Old Testament beatitudes, they are not presented in long lists, as the beatitudes of Jesus are here. Never do more than two occur together.

"Pre-NT beatitudes are only rarely in the second person (i.e., “How fortunate you are,“ e.g., 1 Enoch 58:2) and … occur with woes only in the Greek text of Ecclesiasticus 10:16-17; so on formal grounds there is no reason to see Matthew's beatitudes [as opposed to the form they have in Luke] as late adaptations" [Carson].

Sixteen years ago a text was first published that had been recovered from the "library" of the Dead Sea community and that dates to the era of our Lord. It contains a list of beatitudes, incomplete because the text is broken right before the quoted part, making it likely that other beatitudes preceded it. It is enlightening to compare the form and content of this list with both Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of Jesus’ beatitudes.

Happy (is) he who speaks the truth with a pure heart
and does not slander with his tongue. 
Happy (are) those who uphold his statutes
and do not take to her paths of perversity. 
Happy (are) they who rejoice in (her) [= Lady Wisdom]
and do not spread themselves in the ways of folly. 
Happy those who seek her with purity of hands
and do not strive after her with a deceitful heart [=mind]. 
Happy the man who has attained
and who walks in the Law(s) of the Most High
and applies his heart [=mind] to her paths, 
who cleaves to her instructions [=admonitions]
and in her strikes [=corrections] delights always,
and does not forsake her in the afflictions of (his) troubles. 
And in time of oppression [=distress] he does not abandon her,
and does not forget her (in the days of) terror,
and in the humility of his soul does not reject her. 

Like some OT beatitudes (Psalms 1 and 24:3), but unlike these of Jesus, the Qumran list describes the behavior of the happy man mostly by what he does, not by what is done to him against his will. He is “happy/blessed/fortunate” not because he is a passive victim, but because of his choices. Furthermore, in many cases there is either a positive statement followed immediately by a negative expression of the same virtue (so in the Qumran example above) or vice versa (as in Psalm 1). Compare the famous beatitude of Psalm 1.

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; 2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they do meditate day and night. 3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalms 1:1-3 NRSV) 

In both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of Jesus’ beatitudes there are what look like “rewards”: statements of benefits to those who are like this. This is in line with Psalm 1:3 and following, which likewise describes the fruitfulness and success (“prosper”) of the individual described. Furthermore, as in both Psalm 1 and several of Matthew’s examples (e.g., “for theirs is [not will be] the kingdom of heaven”), the benefit is not in an after-death existence, but in the present.

The Qumran beatitudes—unlike Luke’s text, in which the present state of the righteous person in which he suffers is contrasted with his happy rewarded state—merely state the present happiness of the one who does or does not a number of things, all having to do with the pursuit of Wisdom, the latter conceived of in the Old Testament sense of “wisdom”, which is almost equivalent to righteousness. This is what Luke’s version says:

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
 
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 
21 
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. 

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 

22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 
23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 


24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 

25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
 
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 

26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you [now], for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26 NRSV) 

Matthew’s version lacks this strong contrast between and present and future state, and gives more of the impression that the happiness is not just in the hope of a different future but in God’s presence in the now. Thus Matthew’s version comes closer to the Qumran list. We should not, as many liberal scholars do, blithely assume that Luke’s version is “closer” to what Jesus “really said.” Even if these are not literal reports of what Jesus may have said on different occasions—which is certainly possible—who is to say that Luke has not tailored Jesus’ words in order to stress the contrast between present and future, and Matthew actually retained more of the original form?

Although in the Qumran list the entire emphasis is upon pursuing “wisdom,” while the gospel beatitudes focus on pursuing God, we shouldn’t press the distinction, since in the Old Testament and even in other parables of Jesus, “wisdom” is often a synonym for obedience to God’s will: “The fear of God is the beginning (i.e., best part) of wisdom.”

Nevertheless, there are some significant differences between the Qumran text and Jesus’ beatitudes. There is in the Qumran list no sense of the paradoxical: that someone poor, meek, mourning or persecuted can at the same time be happy.

Still another striking difference is that while the Qumran text addresses sometimes individuals (“he”, “the man”) and at other times a group (“they”), the gospel beatitudes are all in the plural. One suggestion is that this indicates the essentially social setting of Christian virtues. You might be a Pharisee or a Qumran monk in isolation, but not a disciple of Jesus (so Carson). But there is another possibility that is often overlooked.

The beatitude of Psalm 1 describes the various activities and characteristics of the same individual: what he doesn’t do, what he dies do, and how his life affects others. But it isn’t several beatitudes: it is just one. Likewise here, although we have a number of different descriptions of the class of persons who are pronounced “fortunate”, they do not represent different types, for which different special blessings are promised. Rather they are different aspects of one and the same class: believers in Jesus; disciples. And the so-called “reward” in each case, although expressed slightly differently, is actually the same. For this reason it makes little sense to describe the recipient as a single person. It makes much better sense to use the plural, because what is being described here is a class. That class is not united by economics (“poor” in the literal sense), but by a truly repentant attitude. As Jesus’ recorded message in Galilee is phrased in the preceding chapter, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.” The message of the beatitudes is not different. The “blessings” of these beatitudes all amount to the first and last one “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” And all the descriptions (“poor in spirit,” etc.) are the same as Jesus’ words in chapter 4: “repent.” Repentance entails confessing once poverty before God; it entails mourning for one’s sins; it entails having a hunger for personal righteousness.

If, on the other hand, you follow the view—rather popular even among some evangelicals—that those who are “poor in spirit” or who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” are those who are oppressed and victimized and that what they hunger for is “justice” for themselves and other oppressed people, then no longer can Jesus’ words “repent” be addressed to them, but to their “oppressors.” This turns the entire passage on its head. Those who would be Jesus’ disciples cannot have their focus on the wickedness of others, and blame all that is wrong in life on others. Jesus’ disciples must see themselves as God sees them: sinners who need his mercy and grace, but who—once they have received that mercy—must become the ones to dispense it to others.

In summary, we must conclude that two things are definitely not true about the surface differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s record of Jesus’ beatitudes:

(1) Matthew has not “corrupted” Jesus’ originally more socially conscious and economics-based wording, which is preserved in Luke, and

(2) Neither are the two accounts irreconcilable with each other.

Both accounts are in the plural (Luke’s “all of you”, Matthew’s “they” and “theirs”), because both understand these characteristics to be shared by all true disciples of Jesus. Luke stresses the consolation offered by our future state (“poor” now, “rich” then; “hungry” now, “filled” then), while Matthew stresses the need for character formation in our present lives (“mourning” over our present failures, and “hungering” for closer walk with Christ, “thirsting” for God as David says he did in his psalms). We should not press Matthew’s account into “harmony” with Luke’s, nor Luke’s into Matthew’s, but preserve and learn from both.

Our future state should always fill us with joy and encouragement in our present service, but we must also never lose our passionate desire to draw closer to Christ and to eliminate our failures.

Matthew’s vision is the same as Paul’s who wrote to the Philippian church:

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you (Philippians 3:12-15 NRSV)

Salt and Light, 5:13-16 

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16 NRSV)

Salt without taste? Is that possible? I am told that chemically there is no way that salt can lose its “saltiness.” The Greek verb μωραινω mōrainō translated “lose its taste” means literally “becomes ‘foolish’”! Commentators and experts on salt and its uses in the ancient world claim that the only thing that would cause ancient farmers to throw salt out would be if it became mixed with undesirable elements that could not be separated or filtered out. It may be that St. Paul has this idea in mind in Romans 1:22, where—speaking of the human race’s descent into idolatry after losing the undiluted knowledge of the One True God—he writes that although they now claimed to be “wise,” they “became foolish” (same verb). That is, the true salt of the knowledge of the One True God lost its value, because it was mixed or diluted with the false ideas about many gods.

Jesus here affirms that his true disciples will by their distinctive and biblical words and actions stand out from all around them who have diluted or exchanged God’s truth for lies. If they become diluted by compromising either doctrine or ethics, their salt “becomes foolish/useless”—the meaning of that Greek verb mōrainō.

Salt is Jesus’ first word picture of the distinctive witness of his disciples. His second one is light. We have just seen this imagery in the preceding chapter, where Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1-2, that when the Messiah comes—he who in Isaiah 9:6-7 is called “wonderful Counselor, almighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of peace”—the Jewish people who are dwelling/sitting in the spiritual darkness of Galilee will “see a Great Light.” That light was the Messiah Jesus, shining brightly through his teachings and his many miracles. But here Jesus declares that his disciples too will be “the light of the world.” The word ὐμεις humeis “you” in verse 14 is plural in the Greek, which means that collectively Jesus’ disciples are that light—not that each one of us is a separate light. Now, Paul in Philippians 2:15 does write that as “children of God” believers who live as they should “shine like stars [note the plural of individual witness] in the world.” But we are concerned with what Matthew has to say here. He is focusing on the collective witness of the Church. With a collective witness goes a collective sense of responsibility, which is why we pray for each other. My failures dim your light as well as my own.

Does Jesus contradict himself when he asks his Church here to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”? Elsewhere he warns against doing your good works to be seen by others (Matt 6:1, 4). But there he is referring to individuals seeking to stand out from their brothers and sisters, who out of pride seek the glory for themselves, not for God. Their motives are not to help maintain the collective mission of the Church. The Church of Jesus must let its collective witness be seen. If one believer fails, others will not. But if the Church as a whole fails to make it clear what we believe and what God’s will is for the human race, where else will that message come from? So we must encourage each other by our example and undergird each other with our prayers. And those concerns must not stop at the walls of College Church. Our prayer list should include named individuals who are believers in other local churches, people we know from our neighborhoods, or job sites, our PTA meetings, our grocery stores, our auto repair shops—and people we know from missionary prayer letters who live in other continents.

Are we salty in our undiluted biblical doctrine and our undiluted biblical ethics? Are we as the body of Christ also conspicuous in our witness? If not, then Jesus’ words here about his Church are not true of us. And that simply cannot remain the case.

----
1 {Viviano, 2007, #71382@ 64-65}. 2 {Viviano, 2007, #71382@ 66}.  3  Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. (Psalms 24:3-4 NRSV)

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Jesus Begins Ministry in Galilee - Matt. 4:12-25

Jesus Moves to Galilee, 4:12-17

12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
  the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
  Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
  have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
  a light has dawned.”
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

If we were to use all four gospels and reconstruct their total picture of the geographical progression of Jesus’ ministry, we would see a pattern familiar from the commission given to the apostles in Acts 1:10—Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and uttermost parts of the earth. We see the data most clearly in John, where after his baptism, Jesus ministers in Judea for some time, and even authorized his disciples to baptize. Then in John ch. 4 he moved northwards to Samaria. Then in Chapters 5 and following his ministry broadened out to a universal audience.  And although, as I have explained, Matthew has his own symbolic geography, and Galilee represents Jews living in the darkness of gentile paganism, there are even hints in his narrative that Jesus had an earlier ministry in Judea. There certainly were several years between Jesus’ baptism by John and John’s imprisonment by Herod Antipas, which was the occasion for Jesus going north to Galilee.

As Matthew presents it, Jesus’ ministry parallels that of John the Baptizer. In fact, Matthew uses references to the Baptizer to structure (or “punctuate”) his narrative of Jesus’ ministry.

First Matthew introduces John (Mt 3) and records what he considers the most important emphasis of his message, which includes both an announcement of the Coming One who will introduce the kingdom of God, baptizing the repentant with the Holy Spirit and the unrepentant with the fire of judgment. This introduces the preparation of Jesus for his work by the baptism and the testing in the wilderness.  So long as John is at large and free to minister, Matthew is silent about any ministry of Jesus: he is still in the preparation stage. John, on the contrary, tells us a fair amount about Jesus’ early ministry in Judea (Jn 1-3).

As soon as John is imprisoned (Mt 4:12), Matthew begins his report of Jesus’ own ministry in Galilee, the land where God’s people live amid the gentiles and spiritual darkness. It is estimated that in Jesus’ days more than fifty percent of the population of Galilee was non-Jewish.

Matthew implies a contrast here with Judea and Jerusalem, which has a much smaller gentile population and enjoys greater light from the presence of Torah teaching and temple ministry. This doesn’t mean that for Matthew spiritual darkness doesn’t exist in Jerusalem: only that a “head-knowledge” of the scriptures is less in the Galilean north. Jesus goes first to where less is known, but hypocrisy and stubborn resistance to the truth is less widespread.

Then, when word comes that John has been martyred (Mt 14:1-12; 16:21), Matthew reports Jesus’ message as turning more and more to preparation of his disciples for his own death.

So it is clear that for Matthew, John is a forerunner in more than simply announcing Jesus as the messiah before the beginning of Jesus’ activity. He was also a forerunner in the sense that his ministry, rejection and murder anticipated the experiences of our Lord at each stage.

4:12 When Jesus, who was at the time in Judea, heard of John’s arrest, he withdrew from Judea into Galilee. Scholars disagree as to whether the clause, “when Jesus heard …” is merely an incidental temporal note or provides the reason for Jesus move from Judea to Galilee. Since Herod Antipas, who was responsible for John’s arrest, had no authority in Judea, which was under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate at this time, but only in Galilee, John must have been arrested there. This means that Jesus was not fleeing Antipas now, but moving into his jurisdiction, as if he were determined to take John’s place. Why does he do so?  

In two previous occasions in Matthew's gospel Jesus’ location was changed: from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape Herod (2:13-15), and from Egypt to Nazareth (2:19-23). In both cases Matthew mentions the move and then announces it as a fulfillment of OT scripture. And so in verse 15 Matthew cites a scripture (Isa 9:1-2) which this act of our lord filled full of new and ultimate meaning. It describes Jesus as a “great light” that will shine on the region of Galilee, described in terms that fit this situation: in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, near the road that connects the north end of the Sea of Galilee with the Mediterranean, a region where the gentile element in the population was much greater than in Judea to the south.

Matthew’s quote diverges in one significant detail from the wording of both the Hebrew and the Greek of Isaiah 9:1-2. Instead of the people “walking” in a land of spiritual darkness, as Isaiah has it, Matthew’s quote describes them as “sitting” there. The Greek word can also have the meaning “dwelling”, but is more literally and accurately translated as “sitting.” The implication is that instead of being a witness to God’s revelation where they live among the pagans (“walking” is a favorite metaphor for behavior: see Psalm 1, where the sequence of verbs in v. 1 is walking, standing, and sitting—encompassing every physical posture but lying down), these Galilean Jews were merely co-existing, and perhaps assimilating pagan ways. The Galileans to whom Jesus went were Jews, but imbibing some of the darkness which surrounded them.

Isaiah’s prophecy indicated that the “great light” from God to his people sitting among gentile darkness would “dawn”—i.e., shine for the first time— in Galilee, not in Judea. Although Jesus had an earlier ministry in Judea, which Matthew chose not to describe, it was in Galilee that his light truly burst forth in a blinding manner. Here for the first time he healed, cast out demons, and performed other spectacular miracles that identified him as the Messiah, the Son of God. This spectacular display of God-given "light" was intended primarily for the Jews of that region. But, of course, some gentiles would see that light as well, as we shall see in later chapters. And at the end of Matthew's gospel, in Jesus' commission to his apostles the nations of the world are the targets of their mission.

4:13-16 Once in Galilee again, Jesus changed his base of operations from his parents’ home in Nazareth to Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. Why did Jesus move to Capernaum? Luke tells us that the people of his home town of Nazareth rejected his message. that might explain why he would leave there, but why Capernaum? Probably because it was in the area from which he would draw his closest associates (Peter, Andrew, James and John) and where he saw the need as well as the opportunities to be the greatest. Matthew’s scripture (Isa 9:1-2) describes Galilee’s darkness as “the shadow of death,” which certainly suggests a dire need. In Jesus’ days the Jews of Galilee were considered by the Pharisees of Jerusalem and Judea less observant of the law of Moses than the Jews of their region. But evidence suggests that what differences that existed were only due to different interpretations of what the law said, not to deliberate leniency. Still, Matthew’s text describes the region as in spiritual darkness, and the stories of Jesus’ ministry there bear out that fact. Wherever Jesus went, he encountered signs of the Devil’s influence: demon possession, and unbelief.

It is significant that he didn't move to the largest city of Galilee, Tiberias on the western side of the Lake of Galilee, where Herod and the ruling classes lived, but to a fishing village on the north end of that lake. He sought proximity and access to the populous centers, but not identification with the ruling powers.

4:17 Matthew uses the phrase “from that time on” as a major marker of decisive turning points in Jesus’ ministry. Here the “that time” may refer to the incarceration of John, which coincided with the move to Galilee and from Nazareth to Capernaum, to begin a new phase of the public ministry.  

In verse 17 Jesus’ message is described here in terms that mirror exactly what John preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” His use of John’s wording signals to those who had heard John that he (Jesus) is the “Greater One” that John referred to, who would inaugurate the kingdom.

But as we will see in coming weeks, Jesus fills out the meaning of the term “kingdom of heaven/God” in ways that John’s simple message could not. John announced the arrival of the Messiah who would separate the wheat from the chaff and judge the wicked. In a real sense Jesus did do that, but in a way that John himself could not discern. For that reason, he later sent from prison to ask Jesus if perhaps he wasn’t the one John had predicted. The separation of wheat from chaff was described by Jesus in several of his parables as manifesting itself in the different ways in which the word that he preached was received. Remember the parable of the sower and his seed, or the wheat and the weeds/tares.  The true wheat would become known by how his audiences reacted to him: whether they would become disciples or not. As for the judgment, that would be delayed until his return to earth in glory.  In coming weeks we will explore just how Matthew and the other gospel writers explain Jesus’ own concept of the “kingdom of God/heaven.”

Jesus calls his first disciples, 4:18-22

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Historically, it was necessary for Jesus to train a core group of disciples to form the nucleus of the post-resurrection messianic community, what we would call the “Church.” But literarily, the situation again allows Matthew to hint at similarities between Jesus and David. For after David’s anointing (= Jesus’ baptism) and his victory over Goliath (= Jesus’ victory over the Tempter), David served as a commander of men in the army of Saul. And once Saul began to hunt him down, some of these men became part of the small group of his companions fleeing Saul and simultaneously defending Israelite communities against Philistine attacks. In a way, David trained loyal disciples while fleeing from Saul.  During the period when, although persecuted and falsely accused of treason by Saul, David was “going about doing good” he was also teaching his core group. This can be seen in those episodes where his men urged him to kill Saul, and David explained why he could not.

The master-disciple relationship between Jesus and his disciples that is portrayed in Matthew is markedly different from that relationship as it is reflected, for example, in Rabbinic literature. In Rabbinic literature, a disciple was to choose his own master (Mishna 'Abot 1:6); and his first commitment was to the law [i.e., the tôrâ]. Consequently, he could transfer from one master to another to acquire more knowledge of the law. By contrast, Jesus does not wait for volunteers but selects his own disciples and confronts them with an unconditional demand. He requires absolute allegiance to himself, not merely respectful service. He does not call them to be his apprentices in the intellectual probing of Torah or to rehearse venerable religious traditions. He calls fishermen to a new kind of fishing: they are "to fish for people."

Since many of the Twelve were not fishermen by trade, it is unlikely that Jesus used this metaphor as a kind of methodological template for the mission of the Twelve. They were not expected to use methods that mirrored in some way the techniques of fishing. Rather, Jesus seems to allude to a mission prophesied in the Old Testament.

The idea that God would send  agents to “fish” for his wandering and sinful people is expressed in one of Jeremiah’s prophecies:

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,” 15 but “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.” For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors. 16 I am now sending for many fishermen, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. 17 For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight. 18 And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations. (Jeremiah 16:14-18 NRSV)

In this respect, the parallel with David’s men breaks down, since while David was on the run, men who were debtors and had to be on the run joined themselves to him on their own initiative. He did not go in search of the men that he particularly wanted as Jesus did. Still, the fact that David welcomed to his band the “sinners”, those not in good standing with the powers that be, is similar to the tax-collectors, prostitutes and other “sinners” whom the Pharisees rejected, but Jesus received.

Matthew 4:18-22 and 4:23-25 illustrate two ways a rabbi or a philosopher acquired disciples. And if in this section Jesus models the ways in which the Great Commission of ch. 28 is to be carried out by his followers, then we see here two ways: (1) by a direct and personal invitation (18-22) and (2) by fame (i.e., reputation) arising from good deeds performed on others (23-25). Although contemporary Greek philosophers used both methods, it was only the second method that was common among Jewish rabbis of Palestine in Jesus’ day.

Matthew’s version of the first method—personal invitation—follows Mark quite closely, so that we do not need to stress Matthew’s distinctives when  examining the details of the call. Jesus called two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, and James and John. Three of these—Peter, James and John—will form the innermost circle of the Twelve apostles. The names of these four always begin the list of the Twelve (Mt 10:2).  

All four men were in the fishing business, which was a family business. Both Mark and Matthew stress the complete leap of faith taken by the four young men, since Jesus appears to be a total stranger to them, and all that he promises them if they follow him is that he will make them “fishers of men.” And yet, they “immediately” leave their boats and fishing equipment and follow Jesus.

Luke lets us know that in fact there was more to the encounter, but we must again remind ourselves that, if Mark and Matthew had wanted to include the rest of the story, they could have, but chose not to. So the force of their presentation was that those who will be Jesus’ disciples and fish for men with his help must be willing to do so without being given all the details at the outset.

This is the picture of faith that Matthew draws also in the story of the Roman centurion, who doesn’t need to have Jesus come all the way to his house or explain how he will heal his servant. “Just give the command,” he tells Jesus (Mt 8:8-13).  Another incident also explains Jesus’ view of the requirements of accepting a call to discipleship:
  1. Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21 Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:18-22 NRSV)


The phrase “first let me go and bury my father” does not mean that the man’s father has just died. It was a set phrase meaning,” let me wait until my father dies and I have discharged all my duties to him.” This could have taken years. The fact that in Matthew 4 James and John left their father Zebedee in the boat (4:22) shows that they did not let family obligations block the prior calling of Jesus to discipleship. It is of course possible that, although Matthew deliberately omits to tell us, Zebedee told his sons to accept Jesus’ call. From a story that Matthew tells later (Mt 20:20-28) we know that their mother had high hopes for them, once Jesus’ kingdom was established. Perhaps Zebedee himself already shared these ambitions for his two sons.

Jesus ministers to the crowds, 4:23-25

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

Matthew 4:23 is a summary verse, including in a single verse Jesus’ activities over the three year period after his baptism by John.

He taught in their synagogues, in the sense that he was asked to comment on the weekly readings from the Torah and the prophetic commentaries (haftarôt) on the Torah. As he did in Nazareth, he probably used these occasions to explain how scripture anticipated his coming.

Proclaiming the good news of the kingdom was slightly different from his teaching. The teaching consisted of a good deal of what is in the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of chapter 13, whereas the good news of the kingdom was demonstrated by his actions more than by mere verbalization.

Healing all kinds of diseases and maladies among the people is self-explanatory. The healings were not something divorced from the kingdom message.  They were an essential part of an acted out message. Illnesses were part of the consequences of the fall of man. When his disciples once asked him about a man born blind whether this disability was due to a sin of the man or of his parents, Jesus replied that it was in order for God’s works to be shown in the restoration of his sight (John 9:2-3). That was true in that one case. And certainly the specific disability of this one man was not due to some special sinfulness of his family. But that all disease and death itself is a consequence of mankind’s rebellion against God is a clear teaching of scripture. For Jesus to eliminate diseases and disabilities case by case, expel demon after demon, and even raise the dead on more than one occasion, was a sign that the “kingdom of God has overtaken you,” as Jesus told his Pharisee critics (Matt 12:27-28). When the Baptizer later had doubts about Jesus, the Lord sent word to him, saying, “Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me’” (Matthew 11:4-6 NRSV).

The healing of the demon-possessed, the moon-struck (epileptics), and the paralyzed are highlighted in Matthew 4:24 because they were widespread, not helped by medical therapy, and associated with demonic powers. They represent the desperate human situation that can be overcome by God alone.

Why is it that we have more sympathy for victims of cancer or heart disease than we do for drug addition? We think, “these people brought their problems on themselves,” not realizing that for that very reason they are more needy.

These same crowds whose sick are healed comprise the audience from Israel that Jesus challenges in what follows ([Mt] 7:28-29). … The summary of their healing is therefore vital as the prelude to the Sermon on the Mount. Before the people can obey his radical demands, they must be healed. One can easily get the impression that this Gospel emphasizes works almost to the exclusion of grace (see 7:21; 16:27; 21:28-32), but the narrative sequence conveys a doctrine of grace that lies behind these moral demands.