Bring It to Jesus

But Jesus said unto them, “They have no need to go away; give ye them to eat” (Matthew 14:16).

Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand is one of His best documented and compelling miracles. The event is attested in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-15). It becomes the springboard for Jesus to speak of Himself as the bread of life which proceeded from the mouth of God (John 6:16-71); it demonstrated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the power of God present in Jesus, providing food out of nothing, just as God had sent manna to Israel in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 16:1-36).

Yet it is worth exploring how Jesus set up the situation. Jesus had withdrawn to the mountains; the crowds had followed Him, and He healed many (Matthew 14:13-14). They had come out in faith to Him and were not disappointed. As it became late the disciples, as seemed to be the custom, encouraged Jesus to dismiss the crowds to the neighboring villages to find food (Matthew 14:15). But this day would not take place according to usual custom; nevertheless, Jesus told the disciples to give the people something to eat.

The reaction of the disciples is telling. In Matthew 14:17, they saw that they have but five loaves and two fishes; in Mark 6:37, they asked if they themselves should go into town and buy two hundred denarii (1 denarius was the average day’s wage for a laborer) of bread; Luke combined these themes in Luke 9:13. We can share their astonishment. Five loaves and two fishes could not feed so many people; they would need a lot of money to buy a lot of bread to satisfy such a group!

We know the rest of the story: Jesus has them bring the five loaves and two fish to Him; He blesses and breaks the bread; the people eat and are satisfied; twelve baskets of bread remnants, no doubt more than the original mass of bread, was taken up afterward (cf. Matthew 14:18-21, etc.).

Jesus has accomplished a powerful miracle; we often speak of how all would have seen the “original” five loaves and two fish, and then would have seen the greater amount taken up in the end; it is a very public, and manifest, miracle. For many this narrative has great apologetic potential.

Yet, as Matthew tells the story, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people (Matthew 14:16). He does this knowing quite well how they have but five loaves and two fish. He does this knowing they are not able to do this by their own strength or through their own efforts.

And yet He tells them to do it anyway.

As we have seen, the disciples react as you or I would react. First they assess the situation: they have five loaves and two fish. They would need to buy 200 denarii of bread to feed the multitude. They should get going if they are going to buy that much food.

But no, Jesus says. Feed them with what you have.

How can they do that? They must first give the loaves and fishes to Jesus. Jesus could then bless what they had and distribute it so that everyone’s needs were satisfied.

Matthew (as well as Mark and Luke) could have told the story in the way John does, speaking of it as a collaborative effort (John 6:5-9). But they did not; perhaps they had a reason to do so. Maybe they have a lesson they want to teach us.

What happened in this story? Jesus asked the disciples to do something which was impossible for them to do. They assessed the situation, recognized what would need to be done, and saw that it was beyond their present resources. They had to give Jesus the resources they had, and then and only then could Jesus make sufficient the resources they had given Him.

What would happen throughout the rest of the Gospel story as told in Acts? Jesus told the disciples to go and bear witness around the world (Acts 1:8). They assessed the situation, recognized what needed to be done, and saw that it was beyond their present resources. They gave themselves over to Jesus, and then and only then did Jesus make sufficient the resources they had given Him, and the Gospel message spread powerfully throughout the known world (cf. Colossians 1:6).

This proves to be the pattern for all followers of Jesus, for what is impossible with man is possible with God (Matthew 19:26). Jesus has called on all of us to do impossible things: be perfect as the Father is perfect; take up our cross and follow after Him; suffer loss for the Kingdom’s sake; refuse all the works of the flesh and manifest the fruit of the Spirit; proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation (Matthew 5:43-48, 16:24, 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Galatians 5:17-24). We hear Jesus’ commands; we assess our situation; we recognize what needs to be done; we see it goes beyond our present resources.

At this stage we might despair; we might try to fight through using our own strength; yet in all these ways we are doomed to fail. It is only when we offer up to Jesus the few resources we have that He can take them and make them sufficient in us to accomplish His purposes (2 Corinthians 3:5-6, 9:8, 12:9-10, Philippians 2:12-13). We can then look back and see how the power of God worked through us to accomplish His good pleasure.

In this way the means by which Jesus fed the five thousand is instructive. He fed them through the work of His disciples even though He was right there the whole time; this was not by necessity but by means of instruction. The day would come when Jesus would no longer be physically present with the disciples, and yet the pattern would remain the same. That pattern remains to this day. We must bring to Jesus what God has given us so that He can make it sufficient to accomplish God’s purposes. We will not succeed through our own strength alone; may we learn to depend on the strength of God in Christ, fulfill His purposes, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Prayer

“And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites: for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee. And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him” (Matthew 6:5-8).

It should be evident what prayer is all about. Unfortunately, all too often, its primary purpose gets missed.

In the midst of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus addressed the three primary religious practices of righteousness in Second Temple Judaism: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18). He does so in light of the theme set forth in Matthew 5:17-20: one’s righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and scribes if they desire to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, while Jesus is directly addressing His disciples in view of the crowd (cf. Matthew 5:3), He continues to critique the standard of righteousness professed by scribes and Pharisees, elsewhere considered rather hypocritical (Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 11:37-54). Righteousness is not a thing done to be seen by others; if that is one’s motivation, then one gains nothing from his or her heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1).

Jesus began His discussion of prayer by again pointing out the motivation of the “hypocrites”: they stand and pray publicly so as to be seen in both religious venues (the synagogue) and “secular” space (street corners) in order to be seen by men (Matthew 6:5). As with almsgiving, so with prayer: they have their reward; people see them and think they are holy and righteous (Matthew 6:2, 5). Instead Jesus commended going into an “inner chamber,” an inner room, and pray in secret, and the Father who sees in secret would reward them (Matthew 6:6).

Jesus then turned to a concerned rooted in the practices of the pagan nations: the belief that they would be heard by divinity for their battalogesete, literally “stammering,” but here referring to constant repetition of phrases (Matthew 6:7). Jesus assured His disciples and His Jewish audience that God already knows what they would need before they asked (Matthew 6:8).

What are we to conclude from Jesus’ instruction? We do well to note how Jesus brings us back to the original point of prayer: communication with God. When we pray we are making petitions of God; it is not about impressing other people. If in regular conversation with people we prattled on with ceaseless repetition of phrases, those with whom we converse might think us mad. God wants to hear our prayers; God wants to bless us; but God wants us to speak with Him in prayer; God is not some mystic force which requires a certain mantra repeated over and over in order to be summoned.

Is it wrong to pray in public? Jesus does not condemn prayer in the synagogue; prayer will become an important feature of Christian assemblies in the new covenant (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:15-19). Jesus Himself prayed in public at times (John 11:41-42, 12:28). Jesus’ concern is less about location and more about motivation: are we praying so as to impress others or to humbly pour out our souls before God? Granted, much prayer, especially intimate prayer, is best done in the inner chamber; plenty of prayer subjects have no place in the assembly or in the public square. If we pray in the assembly, we do well to focus on how we can build up each other by making thanksgiving, petitions for protection, strength, and need, keeping the focus on God (1 Corinthians 14:15-19, 26). If we pray in public, we do well to pray for the needs of the moment, keeping the focus on God. We easily delude ourselves into justifying praying in such a way as to impress men as opposed to really speaking to God. We must stand firm.

Is it wrong to use the thoughts of others, or to repeat ourselves in prayer? Jesus will go on to provide the Lord’s prayer as a model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13); God gave us the Psalms to this end; the Psalms themselves sometimes feature a repeated phrase (e.g. Psalm 136:1-26). Jesus condemned a pagan practice which did not respect God as god; we must resist any such pagan practices, vainly imagining that if we repeat a phrase over and over again, however substantive, God will listen to us or give us an ecstatic experience because of it. Jesus exhorts us to maintain prayer as a form of effective and meaningful communication with God. God knows what we need; prayer is for our benefit more than His. We can use the words of others, appropriating them for ourselves, and pray in a way that glorifies God; we can pray halfheartedly and absentmindedly with our own thoughts and thus dishonor God. In life we tend to need the same things; our prayers will most likely seem repetitive since life is rather repetitive. We must not sacrifice meaning in repetition; God is not a genie or force we conjure up through some kind of ritual incantation; He is our Creator and the ultimate Power of the universe, and we do well to speak with Him accordingly.

Humans, then and now, are easily tempted to forget about the purpose and meaning of prayer. It is easy to turn prayer into a ritual incantation or a pretense given to manifest holiness; neither practice honors God. Prayer, first and foremost, is communication with our God, the God of the universe, who already knows what we need. We do well to pray in thankfulness and sincerity, meaning what we say, focused on God in prayer, to His glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Story in Jesus’ Genealogy

So all the generations from Abraham unto David are fourteen generations; and from David unto the carrying away to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon unto the Christ fourteen generations (Matthew 1:17).

Matthew began his Gospel with the “book of the generation of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 1:1). For the modern reader this proves to be a burdensome decision; before they learn much of anything about Jesus they are confronted with a host of foreign names. Who are all of these people, and why does Matthew tell us about them before he tells us about Jesus?

One other book in the Bible begins with a genealogy: 1 Chronicles. The Chronicler begins his narrative proper with the death of Saul and the elevation of David as king; nevertheless, by beginning with an extensive genealogy, he associates and connects his narrative with the greater story of God’s people from Adam through Abraham and the twelve sons of Israel (1 Chronicles 1:1-9:44).

The choice of tracing the genealogy also tells us much about Matthew’s purposes. Matthew does not go all the way back to God and Adam, as Luke does; he begins with Abraham, recipient of the promise (Matthew 1:2, Luke 3:38; cf. Genesis 12:1-22:18). Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage through the kings of Judah to David, unlike Luke (Matthew 1:6-11, Luke 3:27-31). For that matter, while Luke begins with Jesus and goes back through time to Adam and God, Matthew ends with Jesus (Matthew 1:2-16, Luke 3:23-38). Thus Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is an Israelite; he highlights Abraham and David and the kings to show how Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all which was promised to Abraham about the people and David about the kingship; he manifests confidence in Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of David, the culmination of the story of Israel. All of this can be seen in Jesus’ genealogy!

Matthew concludes his “book of the generation of Jesus Christ” by tying it together nicely: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the Exile, and fourteen generations from the Exile to the Christ (Matthew 1:17). It all seems to fit a nice pattern; we might find that impressive and then move on to the rest of the story.

Yet Matthew’s conclusion proves highly suspect to the attuned Western reader. The best evidence would suggest Abraham lived ca. 2000 BCE; David is dated around 1000 BCE; the exile took place in 586 BCE; Jesus was born around 5 BCE. The first set of fourteen generations spread across 1000 years, the second for a bit over 400 years, and the third 500 years? That seems a bit too convenient.

The major challenge, however, is in the midst of the genealogy of the kings. Matthew lists Joram as the father of Uzziah in Matthew 1:8, and yet J(eh)oram is the father of Ahaziah, the father of J(eh)oash, the father of Amaziah, who is the father of Uzziah (also spelled Azariah) in 1 Chronicles 3:11-12! Thus, in reality, it would seem that there are at least seventeen generations between David and the Exile.

How could this be? Are our copies of Matthew inaccurate? Some later manuscripts record the three “missing” kings; in light of Matthew 1:18 it is best to recognize that some later copyist is trying to solve the dilemma we have discovered as opposed to believing that Matthew’s original was distorted. We have every reason to believe that Matthew 1:8, 18 are as Matthew wrote them. Was Matthew’s source inaccurate? It is not inconceivable for Matthew’s copy of 1 Chronicles or whatever other resource he might have used for the king list to have omitted some names, but neither he nor we are dependent on genealogical lists to know about these kings of Judah: their story is told in 2 Kings 8:25-14:22 and 2 Chronicles 22:1-25:28. By all accounts Matthew proved to be a faithful Jew; he would have known about these kings. People might begin to think that Matthew is attempting to suppress some history or just made a mistake. Neither claim would honor the good confidence we have in Matthew’s inspiration.

How could it be that Matthew speaks of fourteen generations when he even knows that there are actually seventeen generations? In all of this we have assumed that Matthew intends for us to take his final numbers literally. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider that assumption.

Throughout Scripture numbers often mean things. They are often given or alluded to in order to convey some sort of spiritual truth. Three is a number which often evokes completeness; the Godhead has three Persons, and thus it makes sense for the history of Israel to be portrayed in a triune format. Each element of the triad points to Jesus in its own way: from Abraham to David features the development of Israel, looking forward to Jesus as the descendant of Abraham; from David to the Exile manifests the failure of Israel to uphold the covenant, looking forward to Jesus as the obedient Son of David; from the Exile to Jesus represents an attempt at faithfulness and survival in the midst of oppressive kingdoms, looking forward to Jesus as the eternal King and Christ. Abraham, David, and the Exile are prominent themes in the rest of Matthew’s Gospel; Jesus embodies and fulfills all such things.

“Fourteen” on its own does not mean much, and yet we have three sets of fourteen; we can re-imagine three sets of fourteen as six times seven. Seven is the number of perfection; God’s full work of creation was seven days (Genesis 1:1-2:3). Israelites worked for six days and rested on the seventh; in the same way they were to cultivate their fields for six years and let it enjoy a Sabbath rest in the seventh (Leviticus 25:1-7). If Jesus’ heritage features six sets of seven, such means that Jesus is the beginning of the seventh seven.

Both seven and the seventh seven are, each in their own way, manifestations of fullness, allowing something new to begin. As the seventh seven, Jesus is bringing the story of Israel to its fullness; everything which has taken place beforehand finds its embodiment and satisfaction in Him (Matthew 5:17-18). As Matthew himself will establish, Jesus will go through His own Egyptian sojourn, temptation in the wilderness, life in the land of Israel, exile in death, and return in resurrection (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23, 4:1-17, 27:32-50, 28:1-20).

In the end, in fulfilling His role as the seventh seven, Jesus facilitates what can take place afterward. After the seventh seven the Jubilee is proclaimed in Israel (Leviticus 25:8-46): all the people of God are redeemed and freed from their debt. In this way Jesus died and was raised in power to redeem and free all those who come to God from their debt of sin (1 Peter 2:18-25). After the seventh day is the eighth day, the first day of the week, providing an opportunity for new creation. In this way Jesus arose from the dead on the first day of the week in the resurrection body, and through whom we can now become a new creation in God, and yearn for the resurrection of life (Matthew 28:1, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21).

Matthew is no fool; Matthew knows his Israelite history; Matthew did not make a mistake in Matthew 1:18. Matthew is telling a story in his genealogy of Jesus, forecasting all we will see in his Gospel. We will see Jesus bear the shame and yet fulfill God’s purposes. We will see Jesus fulfilling the promises given to Abraham. We will see Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of David, obtaining all authority in heaven and on earth. We will see the proclamation of freedom from sin and death through Jesus’ death. We will be able to become the new creation in Christ through His resurrection. Jesus is the embodiment of Israel, the climax of the history of the people of God. May we serve Jesus the Son of David, the Son of God, receive remission of sin in Him, and through Him obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus With Us

“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).

The good news according to Matthew ends with truly great news.

Matthew has set forth Jesus’ resurrection from the dead: the women have come to find the tomb empty, for an angel had rolled the stone away, sat upon it, proclaimed the good news of the resurrection to them, and declared how He went before them to Galilee (Matthew 28:1-8). Jesus then appeared the women and instructed them to tell the rest of the disciples to go to Galilee to see Him there (Matthew 28:9-10). The disciples went to Galilee and saw the Lord Jesus; many believed, but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17). In His final words in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus gives the “Great Commission”: all authority has been given to Him in heaven and on earth, and so they are to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them (Matthew 28:18-20a). The Great Commission ends with a promise: Jesus is with them always, unto the end of the αιωνος, “age” or “forever,” and thus “world” (Matthew 28:20b).

We can imagine how the disciples would have found this promise very comforting. And yet, within forty days, Jesus would ascend to heaven (Acts 1:1-11); He will only again walk the earth on the day of judgment (Matthew 25:31-46, Acts 1:11). So if Jesus no longer walked with them, or, for that matter, with us, how could He say that He would be “with” us until the end of the world?

Throughout the book of Acts the Apostles seem to interact frequently in some way with the Lord Jesus. Peter declares that Jesus is the one who, on the basis of the Father’s promise, poured out the Holy Spirit on them (Acts 2:33); Peter affirms that faith in Jesus provided the power which healed the lame man in the Temple (Acts 3:16). The Lord Jesus would give Peter a vision and speak with him in it (Acts 10:9-17). Stephen saw Jesus as the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand (Acts 7:55-56). Paul saw the Lord Jesus in the resurrection and heard Him speak (Acts 9:1-8, 22:6-10, 26:12-18), as would Ananias, whom the Lord called to minister to Paul (Acts 9:10-16). Paul would receive further messages from the Lord Jesus, both direct and spoken as well as through circumstance and hindrance (Acts 16:6-9, 18:9-10, 23:11). We do well to remember how Luke begins the book of Acts, speaking of the previous Gospel as “all that Jesus began to do and teach,” implying that the whole book of Acts continues Jesus’ work (Acts 1:1): Jesus is with the Apostles throughout, strengthening them, empowering them, reassuring them. He may not have been present in the way He had been during His ministry, but He was still there, reigning as Lord, sustaining His people to do His work.

Is Jesus still there since the days of the Apostles? Some have suggested that Jesus’ promise extended only to the destruction of Jerusalem, and such “ended the age.” Such is inconsistent with the promises of Jesus and His Apostles and the reality of the faith ever since. It is true that Jesus made Himself known to the Apostles in ways which He no longer does so; they saw Him in life, fully experienced Him, and bore personal eyewitness testimony to His resurrection, and no one since the first century can do so (1 John 1:1-4). There is nothing further to be made known about the good news of Jesus Christ than has already been made known through the Apostles and their associates. And yet Jesus’ promises remain. The universe continues to exist through Him and for Him and is upheld and sustained by Him (Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:3). Jesus still reigns as Lord (Hebrews 13:8). Where two or three of His people are gathered, He is in their midst (Matthew 18:20). In Revelation 4:1-5:14 John is able to see what goes on in heaven beyond the veil: God is on the throne, and the Lamb with Him, and they reign in glory and honor. We may not be able to see past that veil, yet such makes it no less true and no less real. Furthermore, if we are in Christ, we have His Spirit, the Spirit of God (Romans 8:9-11); by means of the Spirit He maintains His presence in and among His people individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, 2 Corinthians 5:5, Ephesians 1:13-14). Jesus, therefore, remains with us.

The end of the Gospel of Matthew is as its beginning. When narrating Jesus’ birth Matthew directs our minds to the prophecy of Isaiah, that the child born of the virgin would be Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:22-25; Isaiah 7:14); Matthew ends the Gospel with Jesus’ own promise that He will remain Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 28:20).

Thus it cannot be said that Jesus merely was Immanuel, human and in the midst of mankind for a short time, only to depart and abandon humanity. Jesus is Immanuel; He still is “God with us.” Is He with us in the exact same form and way He was with the disciples in Galilee and Judea? Not at all; instead, He is with us in more profound and compelling ways, ruling heaven and earth from the right hand of the throne of God, actively sustaining the creation, and strengthening His people through the Spirit. And so we can have the great confidence, as John declares, that He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4); we have hope that as Jesus now is we will be in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

We will experience difficult times and wonder if God has abandoned us. At those times we do well to remember Jesus’ final promise in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is Immanuel; He is with us until we will be with Him in eternity in the resurrection. We may not see Him with our eyes of flesh but we can discern Him through eyes of faith and spirit. We can know that He is there, for in God we live and move and have our being, and Jesus sustains our life (Acts 17:27-28, Hebrews 1:3). It may seem that the forces of darkness are prevailing, but we know that the Lord Jesus truly reigns and will gain the victory over them, having already sealed those who are His (Ephesians 6:12, 1 John 4:4, Revelation 12:1-20:10). May we entrust ourselves to the Lord Jesus and make disciples of all nations as He commanded us, reliant on His strength!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Almsgiving

“Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. When therefore thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee” (Matthew 6:1-4).

What motivates our righteousness? Love for God? Love for our fellow man? To be seen as righteous?

Jesus addressed motivation for practicing righteousness as He continues His discourse in what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Whereas Jesus introduced a new subject, and a new chapter has begun according to modern versification, His theme remained unchanged. Ever since Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus has been comparing what had been said in the Law, the standard of righteousness for the scribes and Pharisees with what He had to say, the standard of true righteousness, what would truly be necessary to enter the Kingdom (Matthew 5:21-48). The Pharisees and scribes are no less in view in Matthew 6:1-24 than they were in Matthew 5:21-48; we are to understand that they are these hypocrites who want to seem righteous (cf. Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 16:13-31).

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

Jesus begun by establishing the principle: do not act righteously to be seen by people (Matthew 6:1). Such is a strong tendency of humanity; one need not travel very far to find some kind of building, park, or other facility emblazoned with the name or names of the people who contributed to it. People love to contribute to causes as long as they get some benefit, normally some publicity, so as to look good and to be seen as a positive asset for the community. It works, at least in terms of humanity; but what about before God?

Jesus applied the principle to the three main realms of what may be considered religious behavior: almsgiving (Matthew 6:2-4), prayer (Matthew 6:3-15), and fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). These three realms cover the whole of one’s service to God: righteous actions for others (almsgiving), development of relationship with God (prayer), and personal acts of devotion and spirituality (fasting). In this way it is evident that Jesus’ principle of Matthew 6:1 applies to Christianity in full. Our motivation must always be to glorify and honor God in all we do, not to be seen by others as holy and righteous.

Almsgiving was expected to be a common practice in Israel; if you had something to give, you gave it to the ill, the infirm, the disabled, the widow, and the orphan (e.g. Job 31:16-20, Isaiah 58:7-12). Such is why Jesus assumes the practice (“when you give”). The scribes and Pharisees gave as well, but when they did so, they had a trumpet blast given, either in the synagogue or on the street (Matthew 6:2).

Such seems too ridiculous to even contemplate; some believe Jesus is exaggerating, but the concept is so clear and compelling that we now speak of someone proclaiming their deeds as “trumpeting” them. These hypocrites, most likely the scribes and Pharisees, are doing their best “acting.” Their standing in society is based upon the commonly held view that they were more studious, righteous, and learned. To maintain that standing they must be seen as performing righteous acts like almsgiving.

Notice that Jesus did not say that these hypocrites internally and consciously intended to do these things to be seen by men; they no doubt justified their behavior by saying that they were doing good and doing what God commanded. No doubt God and benevolence did play into their motivations. But would they have still given those alms if no one was there to notice? Most likely not, and in this way their real intention is made known. It is more important in their minds to keep up appearances than to actually perform righteousness and care for those less fortunate.

Jesus did establish that they did receive their reward: the people continued to think of them as holy and righteous (Matthew 6:2). Yet they have no credit from God. Instead, one is to give so that their left hand does not know what their right hand is doing, and God who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:3-4).

We are again confronted with what seems to be a ludicrous situation: both the left and right hands are controlled by the brain, so how can one do anything so that one hand does not know what the other is doing? Perhaps Jesus intended for us to understand that giving should become so reflexive that we do it without having to think twice about it; then again, His whole concern has been regarding intentions with giving, and to give reflexively does not automatically mean one is giving thoughtfully and benevolently. Jesus is most likely using a potent image so that we understand His main point: our giving is to be in secret (Matthew 6:4).

Does Jesus thus condemn all public forms of giving? No more so than He condemns people seeing Christians giving to others. We do well to remember that Jesus’ primary concern is motivation: why are we doing what we are doing? Are we trying to glorify God or look pious before men? If we prove willing to give in secret, we demonstrate that our righteousness is not a show, but sincerely reflects our love for God and for our fellow man. If we only give when we will get some kind of reward or credit on earth, then our motivations are less than sincere.

We do well to stop and reflect about our motivations. Jesus makes it very clear that two people can do the exact same thing but have two very different outcomes solely on account of their motivations. What we intend informs the purpose and thus value of the act.

Needs for benevolence are no less today than then (Matthew 26:11). We do well to help those in need, especially those in the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). We must remember that we will receive our reward no matter what. If we give to be seen of men, then we will be seen of men, receive their commendation, but gain no standing before God. If we give to glorify God, then God will see what we do, and He who sees in secret will reward us appropriately. May we give abundantly to others so God receives all the glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Denying the Resurrection

So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying was spread abroad among the Jews, and continueth until this day (Matthew 28:15).

Stories attempting to deny the truth often take much more faith to believe in than the truth itself.

As Jesus arose from the dead, the Roman guard had trembled and became as dead men (Matthew 28:4); they later report to the Temple authorities the things which had taken place (Matthew 28:11). The chief priests had no desire to believe them; their power and influence were centered on the Temple, and as good Sadducees, they denied even the potential of the dead to be raised (Matthew 22:23). They did not disbelieve the Roman guard, but instead attempted to suppress the evidence, giving them financial incentives to claim that the disciples came and stole the body while the guard slept (Matthew 28:12-14). Thus they did so; Matthew inserts himself into the narrative to declare that this story had circulated among the Jews for years after, even unto the time he was writing his Gospel (Matthew 28:15).

Giotto di Bondone - No. 37 Scenes from the Life of Christ - 21. Resurrection (detail) - WGA09225

Such is the way it has gone ever since among those who would deny Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For generations many maintain great disincentives from maintaining confidence in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. If Jesus is risen, as Peter would make it clear in Acts 2:14-36, then Jesus is Lord and Christ, the King. If Jesus is King, then Caesar is not as powerful as he would imagine himself to be. If Jesus is King, and His people represent the temple of the living God (1 Corinthians 3:16-18, 6:19-20), then the Temple in Jerusalem has but a short time left, and its authorities are soon to be obsolete. If Jesus is the Christ, the hope of Israel, then His teachings must be true, and all must submit to Him, and not heed the Pharisees, scribes, and other professed teachers of the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). If Jesus is the risen Lord, the one like a Son of Man who received an eternal Kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14, Revelation 1:12-18), then He will bring to nothing the kingdoms of this world, and He is the true and full revelation of the One True God, a light in the darkness to those who persist in idolatry (Colossians 2:9, Hebrews 1:1-3). Those who benefit from the philosophies of men, idolatry, who exercise authority in governments, and who receive honor and respect as teachers, religious or otherwise, have much to lose and little to gain from the truth of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Throughout time some have maintained their integrity, have conceded their error, and submitted themselves to Jesus as the Risen Lord. We praise God for such good and honest hearts. Unfortunately, far too many have responded to the good news of the resurrection of Jesus like the chief priests did. They have found it easier to make up stories which deny the resurrection, no matter how fanciful or incredible, so that they can persist in living as they had formerly.

Some have claimed that Jesus did not truly die, but only fainted on the cross. They would have us believe that the Romans were not as effective as we might have imagined they were at executing people; that He was pierced in His side but made no movement or provided no indication of life (John 19:33-37); that He was wrapped in linen with many pounds of spices and aloes and remained merely unconscious (John 19:38-40); and then, after all that, to “awake” on the third day in full strength, roll the rock away, and fend off or cause great fear to come upon a whole Roman guard (Matthew 28:1-4). A truly incredible story! It takes far more faith to believe this than to accept the resurrection of the dead.

Some have claimed that the Apostles and others suffered from a mass hallucination. It strains credibility to suggest that more than five hundred people would suffer the same hallucination at the same time (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Beyond this, those who claim to see things in hallucinations persist in them, and yet the Apostles and their associates claimed to see Jesus in the resurrection only over a forty day period, and then no longer (Acts 1:3). Claims of hallucinations cannot make sense of the story as written.

Yet perhaps the most commonly held view is the story circulated by the Roman guards and among the Jews in Matthew 28:13-15: the disciples stole the body of Jesus away while the Roman guard slept. First of all, the Roman army was nothing if not disciplined. Far less serious infractions than sleeping on the job led to decimation; if it were not for the chief priests’ intervention, this entire guard would have no doubt been executed (cf. Acts 12:18-19). The Roman guard would not have been sleeping, and they certainly would not have stayed awake had the disciples come, rolled the rock away, and took the body of Jesus!

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let us carry out this “story” to its end. Why would the disciples have taken the body? They would have wanted to do so in order to claim that Jesus was risen from the dead. According to the modern point of view, the death of Jesus would have led these disciples to some kind of religious experience or enlightenment so as to begin to claim that Jesus is actually Lord in heaven, that through their own study and observations they were able to re-tell the story of Israel and its hope in the Messiah along the lines of Jesus the crucified but risen Messiah, and this all on their own.

Such is a fabulous tale, and again takes far more faith than to accept the Gospels as written! Who among the disciples expected Jesus to rise again? They did not understand what Jesus meant when He had told them so beforehand (Matthew 16:21-23, 20:17-28). Simon Peter claimed to be ready to die with and for Jesus, ready to establish the Kingdom on earth, and struck a slave to that end (Matthew 26:30-35, 51-54). The disciples scattered when Jesus was arrested (Matthew 26:56); they even doubted when they saw Jesus in the resurrection (Matthew 28:17). Beyond all this it was apparent to everyone that the Apostles, particularly Peter and John, were “unlearned” and “ignorant” men from Galilee (Acts 2:7, 4:13): are these the men who on their own will devise a most compelling and novel re-imagination of God’s purposes of His Messiah?

The greatest testimony to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is His disciples. Before the resurrection they are everything you would expect from proud but uneducated Galilean Jews, fervent in zeal, expecting the Christ to come, defeat the enemies of Israel, and ultimately usher in the day of resurrection, and ready to rule with him in that Kingdom. As Jesus is tried, executed, and raised from the dead, the disciples accept the truth of what is going on, yet still do not understand what it is or what it represents (e.g. Acts 1:6). Yet, after the Holy Spirit falls upon them in Acts 2:1-4, they are transformed into proclaimers of the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, boldly indicting those who crucified Him, standing firm where they had once shrunk back, declaring that God raised this Jesus whom they had crucified from the dead, that He was the Servant of whom Isaiah spoke, He is begotten of God in the resurrection, He has all power and authority and will return one day to judge the living and the dead (Acts 2:17-10:41). The Gospel they preach, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Jesus of Nazareth, is something no human would imagine from the pastiche of messages given in the Law and the Prophets and yet does embody and fulfill them; so it is that Paul can say that God has revealed the mystery of the Gospel in his time (Ephesians 3:1-6).

The Apostles and the Kingdom of Jesus they worked so hard to affirm only make sense in light of Jesus’ resurrection. Denying the resurrection leads only to stories more fabulous and more incredible than the sober testimony preserved in the New Testament. Ultimately no disincentive against belief in Jesus the Risen Lord is worth condemnation and eternal separation from God (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). We do well to trust the testimony of the Apostles, trust in Jesus the Risen Lord, and seek to live according to His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Love Your Enemies

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy’:
But I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

Jesus had already said many difficult, challenging things. He had only been warming up!

Matthew 5:1-48 recounts the beginning of what is popularly called Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” in which Jesus set forth a protracted discussion of the ethics of the Kingdom. After overthrowing commonly held expectations about who was fortunate, or blessed (Matthew 5:3-12), Jesus established that He came to fulfill, and not abolish the Law, but to enter the Kingdom one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20). In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus further explicated the point with a series of contrasting statements, first establishing “what had been said” in the Law, both in terms of what was explicitly written and how it was understood and practiced in terms of righteousness, but then turning by establishing what “I say unto you,” ultimately a more exacting and rigorous standard. The Law said to not murder; Jesus exhorted His followers to not even hate, pursuing reconciliation (Matthew 5:21-26). The Law said to not commit adultery; Jesus expected people to not even lust in their heart, turning from temptation (Matthew 5:27-30). The Law granted reasons for divorce; Jesus limited them to sexually deviant behavior on the part of the spouse being put away (Matthew 5:31-33). The Law made provision for oaths; Jesus told His followers to not swear at all (Matthew 5:33-37). The Law enshrined the lex talionis as a means of exacting appropriate recompense for injury; Jesus then said to not resist the one who is evil, suffer the loss and indignity, and prove willing to go further (Matthew 5:38-42). This leads to the final contrast as expressed in Matthew 5:43-48.

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

The Law explicitly declared for the Israelites to love their neighbor as themselves in Leviticus 19:18. The Law nowhere explicitly states that Israelites were to “hate their enemy”; this has led many expositors to suggest that this is a Pharisaical addition condemned by Jesus and without merit. So far everything Jesus declared “had been said of old” came directly from the Law or paraphrased an idea that was assuredly in the Law; to turn to a Pharisaical invention without mentioning it would seem strange at this point. “You shall hate your enemy,” especially in terms of loving one’s enemy less, is not an unreasonable interpretation of many elements of the Law of Moses. YHWH explicitly excluded the Ammonites and Moabites from His assembly (Deuteronomy 23:2-3); the Israelites were to entirely eliminate and destroy the seven nations in Canaan (Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 5). After at least four hundred years after the original offense YHWH made sure that Saul struck Amalek for what they had done to the Israelites during their time in the Wilderness (1 Samuel 15:1-7; cf. Exodus 17:8-16). An exploration into the prophetic judgment oracles against neighboring nations, seen in Isaiah 13-24, Jeremiah 46-51, Amos 1-2, Obadiah, and Nahum, among others, makes plain how little love was lost among the Israelites and their neighbors, and how YHWH was going to judge those who had sought evil against Israel. We can also see what the Israelites do when they get a chance to overcome their enemies in Esther 8-9, and it leads to many, many deaths.

We can see “hate your enemy” at work throughout the Gospels in terms of how the Jewish people viewed and treated those of other nations. The lawyer’s attempt to justify himself in Luke 10:29 was not entirely out of turn; Israelites had no problem loving (at least most of) their fellow Israelites but had very little love for those of the nations, particularly Romans. John’s aside in John 4:9 is understated: Jews not only had no dealings with Samaritans but also despised them, and that gives the Parable of the Good Samaritan its power (Luke 10:26-37). Peter reminded Cornelius that it is unlawful for Jews to associate with Gentiles (Acts 10:28), and that was the accusation made against him the moment he returned to Jerusalem (Acts 11:2-3). Jews despised those of the nations, the Gentiles; the Gentiles returned the favor. And, as Peter’s declaration makes clear, Jews found plenty of justification for their position towards the Gentiles in the Law of Moses.

Jesus very deliberately overthrows the whole paradigm in His response in Matthew 5:44. He told His disciples to love and do good to their enemies and pray for their persecutors. Few concepts prove as counterintuitive and contrary to all natural inclination as this; we want to harm those who want to harm us, or at least keep them away. We want nothing good to come upon those who want to do evil to us. It can be physically challenging to even turn the tide so as to do what Jesus says, to do good to those who stand against you and everything you are.

Jesus is aware of that; such is why He appeals to the ultimate Authority. Why should Christians love their enemies, do good to them, and pray for their persecutors? So they can manifest how they are children of their Father in heaven (Matthew 5:45). God sends the sun to shine upon the evil and the good; rain falls on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Not only that, but loving those who love you and greeting only those who are your fellow people is not really that extraordinary, for tax collectors (universally hated and reviled as agents of the oppressors) and (those nasty) Gentiles do the same things. Thus, if you really want to be truly righteous, to have a form of righteousness greater than the average person, you need to be more like your heavenly Father and love even those who do not love you and greet those who would have nothing to do with you.

Jesus then concludes this series of contrasting statements, exemplifying the true nature of righteousness in the Kingdom, by declaring that His followers should be perfect as the Father is perfect. “Perfect” is the Greek teleios, “complete, perfect, brought to its end, mature.” If one exemplifies all these forms of righteousness he would prove mature and brought to the complete end of holiness, just as God is.

So much could be said about Jesus’ exposition in Matthew 5:43-48. Through what Jesus says we can see a level of common grace which God provides to all, something Paul will consider as well in Acts 14:16-17, 17:25-30. Jesus’ appeal to the “natural” love and greeting among even sinners is hard to square with any suggestion that humans, in their sinful depravity, are incapable of any good. There are no end to the arguments about Matthew 5:48 and the attainability of perfection, or whether that is even what Jesus is imagining or expecting, or perhaps is showing that all of this is what would be demanded in its exactitude if one attempts to depend on fulfillment of righteousness as the ground upon which one is able to stand before God (cf. Matthew 5:20).

The most important thing is how Jesus lived what He said in Matthew 5:43-48. Jesus came as the one sinless human in a sinful world; all people had turned aside to their own way; all were weak, ungodly, and sinful to some degree or another, and yet Jesus loved them and died for them (Romans 5:6-11). He prayed for Jerusalem while knowing He would be killed there (Matthew 23:37-39); He prayed for those who executed Him while in the very act (Luke 23:34). He visited Saul of Tarsus while he remained a persecutor, and Saul never forgot the greatness of Jesus’ mercy nor the depth of his own sinfulness (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Paul would become a most forceful expositor of the great power of what Jesus accomplished on the cross: He bore the enmity, He killed the hostility, and now Jew and Gentile were to be brought together into one body (Ephesians 2:11-18).

Jesus had no quarrel with loving one’s neighbor. The difficulty, of course, is that we humans see some people as our neighbor, but not everyone. Jesus points out that to God we are all neighbors; we all receive the beneficence of His abundant provision of the earth. God loves despite our unworthiness; we must love despite others’ unworthiness. God even loved those who actively worked against His purposes; what excuse do we have to do otherwise?

As Christians we are to be continually reminded that the only reason we stand before God is because while we were yet weak, ungodly, and enemies, God reconciled us to Himself through the death of Jesus of Nazareth (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-8). Thus we must love our enemy, just as God did, so that our enemy may become our brother. We must pray for those who persecute us so they may turn from the forces of darkness to which they are subject and join with us in serving the living God (Ephesians 6:12). God loves everyone and wants them to be saved (1 Timothy 4:1-4). If we would be called sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, should we not want the same, and live according to the pattern of our elder Brother Jesus who established the way (1 John 2:3-6)? May we love our enemies and do good to them, pray for those who persecute us, and demonstrate ourselves to be children of our heavenly Father to His glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Do Not Resist the Evil Person

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:’
But I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matthew 5:38-42).

It is not surprising that many in history considered Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount as virtually impossible to observe.

Jesus has been contrasting what was written in the Law of Moses, and how it was customarily understood and explained by the Pharisees and others, with what He says (Matthew 5:20-48). Many of Jesus’ exhortations demanded His followers to go beyond concern about behavior and show just as much concern about their thoughts and feelings: they were not only not to murder or commit adultery but should not hate their brother in their heart or lust for a woman in their heart (Matthew 5:21-30). Most recently Jesus has encouraged His followers to maintain a personal standard of godliness and righteousness beyond that demanded by the Law: the Law might allow a person to divorce his wife or to swear oaths, but Jesus’ followers should recognize God’s original intentions, allowing divorce only for the sexually deviant behavior of the spouse, and not swearing, allowing one’s “yes” and “no” to stand (Matthew 5:31-37).

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

Jesus continued in the same strain in terms of the lex talionis set forth in Exodus 21:22-27, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:19-21. The lex talionis (Latin for law of talion) enshrined the right of retaliation but only in terms of the severity of the original injury; it is also known in terms of the first example given in the lex talionis, the principle of “an eye for an eye.” In the Law of Moses the lex talionis maintained a restrictive and restraining function: it is not difficult to imagine an aggrieved party, having suffered the loss of an eye or limb or some such thing, retaliating and causing far more significant damage to the person who inflicted the original wound. Such was reckoned (and is still reckoned) as unjust and unfair; therefore, the Law of Moses restricted retaliation or the expectation of the payment for damages to be commensurate to the original offense. Even though we no longer, in general, demand the loss of an eye for having taken an eye, limb for having taken a limb (with the exception of capital punishment, the loss of life for taking a life), the legal idea at the root of the lex talionis remains important to this day: we feel a punishment should fit the crime.

Jesus recognized all of this; His quibble was not with what the Law allows. The Law might have allowed for retaliation, to resist the one who did evil to another; Jesus exhorted His followers to not demand an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, etc., but should not resist (anthistemi, “stand against”) the one who does evil (Matthew 5:39). Jesus then illustrated the principle with four contemporary and relevant applications: if struck on the right cheek, turn the other also; if any sue and take your coat, give him your cloak also; if compelled to go one mile, go two; give to those who ask and do not turn away borrowers (Matthew 5:39-42).

These four situations would have been very familiar to Jesus’ followers and Jewish audience, yet Jesus’ exhortation would have seemed extremely radical. Striking (rhapisei, sometimes with the palm, often with an object) would normally begin with the left cheek; the right cheek (lit. jaw) is of greater prominence, and thus such striking would have been considered not just violent but also an insult. It is bad enough to be sued and to be deprived of one’s chiton (a tunic; the inner layer of clothing); giving up the himation (the outer garment) would be an even more expensive loss, which normally would take place at the hands of robbers. Compulsion to go one mile features the Greek aggareuse; the word derives from Persian and the Persian public messengers. They were stationed at fixed positions, and any official could demand for any subject passing by the post station to deliver the message to the next post-station a mile away, whether the traveler was going that way or that far or not (Herodotus, Histories 8.98, Xenophon, Cyropedia 8.6.17; cf. also Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross in Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21). The Jewish people of Jesus’ day were quite acquainted with forced service; Roman soldiers on the march would frequently compel any passing-by subject of the Empire to carry their baggage for one mile, an especially odious burden on Jewish people who already resented and despised what they saw as the oppressive rule of the Romans. Then, as now, plenty of people begged for resources and asked for loans to be given; then, as now, while some such supplicants might be “worthy” of assistance, having fallen into temporary misfortune, and would pay back whatever was borrowed, most would have been considered “unworthy” and most would not pay back. Yet, in all four situations, Jesus exhorted His followers to absorb the loss, suffering, pain, humiliation, or material loss. Injured and insulted with a strike to the right cheek? Do not hit back, but turn the other cheek. Someone sues you for your tunic? Give it, and your more expensive outer garment as well. An agent of an oppressive overlord demands one mile of service? Go two. People want you to give them your money or want to borrow it? Do not turn them away.

Jesus knew well what He was asking; it is not the only time He instructed His followers in this way (Luke 6:27-36, 14:12-14), and He ultimately exemplified the principles in His conduct (John 18:22-23, 1 Peter 2:20-23). This instruction is not unique to Jesus; His Apostles exhorted Christians to do the same (Romans 12:17-21, 1 Corinthians 6:7, 1 Peter 3:9, 1 John 3:16-18). The challenge and radical nature of Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:38-42 is most apparent in how many times and ways those who would claim to be His followers have attempted to countermand or resist it. Some have just written off these demands as impossible to attain ideals; others would like to suggest they only apply to a millennial Kingdom. Even among those who claim to take the Bible seriously as the Word of God attempt to deflect the import of what Jesus exhorted by suggesting He meant it only in terms of “spiritual” and not “secular” or “worldly” opponents, despite the fact that such categories are foreign to Jesus and His context, and the examples all involve very “secular” situations. Resistance is understandable; Jesus is asking us to go against every natural impulse and reaction we have in the face of insult, degradation, and deprivation!

We should not resist Jesus’ exhortation against resisting the evil person. Jesus does not suggest we acquiesce to evil in order to justify it or commend it; as Paul explains, we suffer the indignity because we maintain confidence that God will right all wrongs, and we are called to suffer evil and do good in return (Romans 12:17-21; cf. 1 Peter 2:20-25). Overcoming evil with evil just means evil wins; to truly overcome evil one must suffer it and do good regardless, exemplified by Jesus’ suffering on the cross (Colossians 2:13-15). Thus Christians are not to resist the evil one, whether “spiritual” or “secular”; we must instead suffer the indignity or deprivation. When insulted, we should not insult in return; when pressed into service we should go above and beyond in our service. We should give to those who would deprive us, and be generous, even to those less than “worthy,” and even if we will not be paid back. No one, not even Jesus, said it would be easy; nevertheless, it is part of the difficult road that leads to life, and we can understand why few are those who find it.

We do well to follow Jesus’ example and exhortation and not resist the one who is evil. God will judge the evil in the end; it is for us, in the pattern of our Savior, to suffer the wrong and do good. Such is one of the most difficult things to do; it goes against every natural impulse, and we are constantly tempted to find some reason to justify resisting the evil. When thus tempted, consider ourselves before God. When we insulted God by our words and deeds, did He insult us in turn? When we deprived God of the glory and honor due Him when we selfishly glorified ourselves and our deeds, did He deprive us of life? How many times have we asked of God and He has given freely despite our manifest unworthiness? If we expect God to love us and provide for us despite our own failings and participation in evil, who are we to deny our fellow man the same mercy? May we take the Lord Jesus’ exhortations seriously, cease resisting the one who does evil to us, and glorify God through our suffering for Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Pharisees and Scribes

Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not. Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:1-4).

The Evangelists consistently speak of mutual antagonism between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. From their presentation alone one might imagine that Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are miles apart in their understanding of God and Judaism. And yet, of all the various sects of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus has the most in common with the Pharisees. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah as legitimate ground of authority and denied the existence of angels, the soul, and the resurrection (Matthew 22:23, Acts 23:8). The Herodians, by virtue of supporting Herod and his government, would have no love for a rival King of the Jews (Matthew 22:16). One might think that Jesus and the Essenes would have much in common; while they shared an apocalyptic worldview and some “ascetic” practices, the Essenes rejected the present Temple and its authorities as illegitimate and looked forward to the day when the Sons of Light would restore the Temple and its proper service and who withdrew from life in the greater Jewish community. Jesus did not look forward to establishment of a restored Temple in Jerusalem, nor did He withdraw from life among the people of God (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed about the inspiration and authority of the prophets and the writings, angels, the soul, the resurrection, and the hope of Israel in the Messiah. This leaves us with a major challenge: if Jesus and the Pharisees share so many similarities in outlook, why are the Pharisees and the scribes singled out for such strong condemnation by the Evangelists? If Jesus and the Pharisees agree on so much, why are the Pharisees portrayed in such consistently negative ways in the Gospels?

Few places express Jesus’ difficulties with the scribes and Pharisees with as much rhetorical force and denunciation as in the series of woes Jesus sets forth in Matthew 23:1-35. Jesus begins His litany of invective against the scribes and Pharisees by denouncing a form of their hypocrisy in Matthew 23:1-4.

Brooklyn Museum - Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) - James Tissot

Jesus begins with the recognition that the scribes and Pharisees maintain a pride of place in Second Temple Judaism: they “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). No actual chair is envisioned; Jesus gives recognition to their claims of serving as the interpreters of the Law of Moses on behalf of the people. For this reason Jesus tells the people to do what the scribes and Pharisees bid them to do (Matthew 23:3a). Some interpreters of this passage suggest that Jesus is being sarcastic and does not actually expect His audience to live according to what the Pharisees teach; such an interpretation is possible but not necessarily warranted. We do well to remember that even though Jewish people put great emphasis on literacy and would have maintained higher literacy rates than seen among the Gentiles, plenty of Jewish people could still not read or write, and even then, scrolls of the Law, Prophets, and Writings were copied by hand on expensive papyrus and parchment and would have been reserved for use in the synagogues and those like the scribes and Pharisees who were trained in the Law (Luke 4:17-20). Previously Ezra and his associates had read the Law and gave an understanding of its meaning (Nehemiah 8:1-8); many Jewish people in the first century looked to the scribes and Pharisees for the same reason, and for the time being, Jesus recognizes their role.

In Matthew 23:1-4 the problem is less with the specific interpretations and explanations given by the scribes and Pharisees and much more their unwillingness to do them (Matthew 23:3b-4)! They say the things faithful Jewish people should do, but they themselves do not do them. They expect Jewish people to adhere to all sorts of laws according to what is written and the traditions of the fathers, denounce as sinners those unwilling to bear them (John 9:16, 24), but provide no assistance to others, show no mercy, and themselves frequently (and flagrantly) violate them. In short, it may be good to do what they say, but do not do as they do.

To say one thing but do another is the essence of hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees were respected for their knowledge; no doubt many “average” Israelites looked up to them as holy people because of it. Yet, in practice, they were not very holy. They were just as guilty of violating the Law as other Israelites (Acts 13:39, Romans 3:13-21). Yet such totality begs the question: were not all the Israelites, save the Lord Jesus, hypocrites to some degree? Why are the scribes and Pharisees being singled out for this condemnation?

It is one thing to try and fall short; it is quite another to not even try. It is one thing to teach a given path, try to live it, and stumble at times; we humans are imperfect. It is quite another to act as if one is all holy and righteous, presume to be holier and more righteous than others, and yet substantively are little better than those whom they denounce. Such were the scribes and Pharisees: they acted as if knowing and teaching the Law brought forth its own special kind of holiness. Jesus makes it clear that it does not.

We do well to remember that the scribes and Pharisees were part of the people of God, and of all the people of God at the time, were considered to be the most holy and righteous. Their denunciation by all the Evangelists is, in its own way, a warning for believers: do not be like the Pharisees. The way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisees are quite divergent, yet throughout time Christians, however well-meaning, have fallen prey to the ways of the Pharisees!

The Apostle Paul declares that knowledge puffs up while love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1); it is very easy to obtain knowledge of God and His ways and thus presume one’s holiness based upon one’s superior knowledge. That is the way of the Pharisee and the Gnostic; it is not the way of Jesus or those who truly follow Him (1 Timothy 6:20-21)! We are not made holy by our knowledge; we are not better than others simply because we have come to a better understanding of the will of God than they have. Such is why the first and foremost aspect of the Gospel is our own sinfulness and our inability to solve our sin problem through our own efforts (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). We are entirely dependent upon God in Christ for the hope of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9); our obedient response in faith, while necessary, does not earn us or merit our salvation!

Every Christian, to some degree or another, is a hypocrite; we proclaim the way of God in Christ but fall short at times (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). But we must walk the walk of Christ; we must do the commandments (1 John 2:3-6). In seeking to do them we will learn humility, faith, and obedience. We would never imagine to lay heavy burdens on others and let ourselves go free; quite the contrary (Galatians 6:2)!

In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus begins to set forth the contrast between the condemned ways of the scribes and Pharisees and the righteous way of God in Christ. The way of the Pharisees is always tempting for the people of God; we must resist it, remaining humble and dependent upon God in Christ, seeking to do the will of the Lord in all respects, bearing one another’s burdens and not attempting to make them heavier! Let us serve the Lord Jesus in humble faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Oaths

“Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths’:
But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be, ‘Yea, yea; Nay, nay’: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).

When in the middle of disputes it is easy to miss the forest for the trees, focusing only on the details of the issue at hand. Jesus resolutely maintained focus on the forest!

Jesus declares Matthew 5:33-37 in the midst of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount”; it is also the fourth of six declarations whereby Jesus contrasts what the disciples and Israel had heard from what “I say unto you,” and in all six Jesus is contrasting the standard of righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with that of God’s full purpose in His Kingdom (Matthew 5:17-48). Previous declarations involved murder, adultery, and divorce; in each circumstance Jesus also condemns giving expression to the desires that lead to those sins and returns to God’s purposes for marriage from the beginning (Matthew 5:21-32).

In Matthew 5:33-37 Jesus turns to the matter of oaths and vows. What Israel “had heard” as cited in Matthew 5:33 does not come from one specific passage but represents the substantive message of Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2-16, and Deuteronomy 5:11, 23:23: God commanded for Israel to not swear falsely but to pay what they vow.

In days of old many in Israel took this commandment very seriously. Even though the covenant made between Israel and the Gibeonites was made under false pretenses, Israel decided to honor that covenant because they had sworn to the Gibeonites by the name of YHWH (Joshua 9:1-27). Jephthah made a foolish and rash vow, yet the text makes it abundantly clear that he did exactly what he vowed, even though it meant sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30-39). While we might question why such vows should be honored, the Israelites did not. The vows should not have been made; they were rash and foolish; but once made they were obligated to follow through. The Law provided only a narrow provision for a vow to be repealed, and it only involved a vow of a woman in certain circumstances (Numbers 30:1-16).

Yet things had changed by Jesus’ day. We can see from Matthew 23:16-22 that the Pharisees had worked out an elaborate system on account of which some were obligated to keep their vows but not others: those who swore on the Temple or the altar were not obliged, but those who swore on the gold of the Temple or the offering on the altar were obliged. Jesus devastates that logic, asking which is greater, the gold or the Temple that sanctifies the gold, the altar or the One who sanctifies the altar, and making it quite clear that even in the first century, regardless of whether you swore on the Temple, its gold, the altar, its offering, or heaven in reality swears in the name of the One who accepts the gift on the altar, who dwells in the Temple, and who sits on the throne in Heaven. God was not confused nor was He amused: if Israelites swore on anything they were still obligated to pay their vows!

Nevertheless, in Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus goes even further. Throughout He never denies that if you swear you are obligated to pay your vow; He does not say otherwise here, and in Matthew 23:16-22 He makes His feelings about paying vows actually made quite well known. In Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus goes a large step further: do not swear at all!

Humans have a propensity toward swearing; yes, we could include the “cursing” kind as well, but we speak specifically of the impulse to make a vow. When we are doubted or challenged we impulsively swear to be telling the truth; not a few in our midst greatly desire for us to vow, or commit, to various projects. Humans show almost equal propensity to break vows as much as to make them; how many times will people swear to be telling the truth precisely when they are trying to pass off a lie? How many have given their word but do not follow through? Such is why God commanded Israel to not take His name in vain, concerned less about cursing and far more about swearing the truth in the name of YHWH flippantly (Exodus 20:7). Such is why God put such strong emphasis on Israelites paying whatever they vowed (Numbers 30:1-16). And this is why so many first century Israelites were trying to find an “escape route” out of their vows!

What good does swearing do, anyway? Is something we say or promise more valid if we swear by heaven? As Jesus says, it is God’s throne, His seat of power, not ours (Matthew 5:34; cf. Isaiah 66:1). What if we swear by the earth? It is not ours; it is the footstool of God’s feet (Matthew 5:34; cf. Isaiah 66:1). Jerusalem? The city of the great King (Matthew 5:34; cf. Psalm 48:2). Well, what about on our own heads? Jesus reminds us that we cannot make one hair white or black (and the premise is not contradicted by current hair coloring products; we are still not nearly in as much control of our existence as we would like to imagine but subject to all sorts of forces, Matthew 5:36). Swearing by our own righteousness would prove counter-productive (Romans 3:20, 23). Thus, in the end, we humans really do not have any basis upon which to swear; there is no external force that grounds our words as true.

Instead, as Jesus suggests, we ought to say yes and no; our integrity should be inherent in our words (Matthew 5:37). If we are trustworthy, our yes or our no should be sufficient. As Jesus says, anything beyond “yes” and “no” is of the Evil One, since it comes from a place of doubt, fear, mistrust, and sin (Matthew 5:37). For good measure James repeats the same command in James 5:12.

Whenever Jesus’ command to not swear is discussed many questions multiply about being sworn in as a witness in a trial, making contract commitments in general, and things of that nature. Is the prohibition absolute? The text does not say. Being sworn in as a witness in a trial is a way to observe the civil laws, a commendable thing in Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-15, and not the issue regarding which Jesus is discussing. Jesus’ concern is about our propensity to want to invoke other people, places, or authorities to somehow invest our words with greater veracity or authority. Yet, in reality, all we have is our “yes” and “no.” Our words are no more or less true if we swear on God’s name, heaven and earth, the grave of our mother, or anything else. Furthermore, when we make vows, we obligate ourselves to fulfill them, and is that a wise course of action? We do better to live with such integrity that those around us know that our yes or no can be trusted. Living with such integrity is how we may exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and thus enter the Kingdom of God! Let us be true to our word, avoid swearing and vowing whenever possible, allow our yes to be yes and no, no, and speak and live in integrity before God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry