Notes on Matthew 4:12-25: Questions, Chronology, and Fishers Of Men

Welcome to the GGFApologetics Notes on Matthew blog.  I am determined to work my way through a deep dive in The Gospel of Matthew this year.  Observations may range from pastoral to simple questions or a survey of Bible difficulties.  I will be drawing information from many different commentaries, articles and scholars. Sources noted below.

Let’s continue.

The second half of the fourth chapter in The Gospel of Matthew moves from Satan’s temptation narratives to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Verse eleven left Him in the company of angels with the devil departing as Jesus ordered him away, overcoming the evil one will become a recurring theme throughout the gospel narrative. 

Reading The Bible Like A Novel

We notice when the story picks up again in verse twelve that the Evangelist is concerned with Jesus’ movements.  He lists several geographical locations in a short block of text. Matthew opens with a curious statement: “When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee” (v. 12).  

Why?  Why does this prompt Jesus to move His ministry?  

Issues like these remind me of something I remember hearing from Bible scholar Michael Heiser.  He says we should read the Bible like it’s a novel. That is not to say that we assume it’s fiction or that it’s a lower form of writing somehow.  No. The statement acknowledges that we read novels with curiosity. With novels, we are looking to make connections to information given earlier or making note of present material to see if it pops up again later.  Reading novels, we are acutely aware of the work of the author and where he wants to lead the reader.  So, according to Heiser, when we read that Jesus returned to Galilee once He heard about John’s imprisonment, if the answer isn’t obvious, we should ask “Why?”  Why would Matthew include this information? Is it something his audience would understand without explanation?  

In this case, there were a few practical advantages for Jesus moving His ministry along the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, a lakeside fishing village.  Capernaum was a busier, more populated place than Nazareth. There would be more resources, supplies for His ministry. And more people. A more populated mission field.  However, an increasingly dire reason may have been to get beyond the reach of Herod Antipas, who famously imprisoned John.

But Why? 

In my research, I uncovered a couple ways to look at the Why questions.  First, this passage represents another example of “Fulfillment Prophecy”.  Second, it may also offer commentary to Christ followers about recent events happening near the time of the Gospel’s writing in 80-85 AD.

 Fulfillment Prophecy

Matthew’s motivation for mentioning these locations, like Nazareth, Capernaum, and Zebulun and Naphtali, beyond historical detail may have more to do with his habit of reaching back into the Old Testament to bolster the prophetic street credentials of Jesus.  This time, it involves verse 13 of the Gospel:  

“Leaving Nazareth, he went and live in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali– to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:  ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people living in the darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’” ( Matthew 12-16 referring to Isaiah 9:1,2)

Yes.  Matthew reports another fulfillment of prophecy, this time from Isa. 9:1,2.  It’s interesting that the apostle condenses the passage from Isaiah seemingly just to highlight the presence of those city names and make the connection between those locations and the “dawning light” (Jesus).  The full text from Isaiah read:

“[a]Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

2   The people walking in darkness

    have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

    a light has dawned.”

Topical, not Chronological

Here is a good place to make note that Matthew often arranged information topically, not chronologically.  So we must not think that John was locked up immediately after Jesus’ final temptation. So if this historical event is not to be understood as listed chronologically, why include it here?  Again, we should ask why. Scholar Warren Carter believes the text served as a cultural commentary on Post-Resurrection life:

“This Isaiah text functions in Matthew 4:12-16 as an analogy for Rome’s empire. “Galilee owned by or under the Gentiles” now belongs to and is ruled by another Gentile empire. Roman control had been freshly asserted over Galilee in destroying Jerusalem and its temple in 70CE. Matthew’s Gospel, written in the 80s, cites Isaiah 9:1-2 to describe Roman rule as ‘darkness” and ‘death.’ It positions Jesus, at the beginning of his public ministry, as the light or saving presence that shines in the darkness of Rome’s imperial domination. Jesus asserts God’s light or saving rule in Roman Galilee.” (Carter)

So, while not listed in this chapter to represent strict historical record, Matthew references recent tragic events, the Temple destruction ten years or so earlier, to convey to his Jewish audience Jesus’ place in history.  He offers the real hope of Christ to a defeated people.

The Kingdom Of Heaven

“From that time on Jesus began to preach . . .” (v.17) There are a couple times where Matthew uses a phrase like this to mark our entrance into a different section of the Matthew’s Gospel. The other similar verse is Matthew 16:21 which announces that: 

“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

So verse 17 separates this proclaiming of the kingdom from the first part of the gospel, the introduction (Matt 1-4), and Matthew 16 begins Jesus’ journey to the Cross (Matt 16-28).  These markers divide the book, again, by topic. Four chapters within the Introduction. Twelve chapters in each of the final two sections.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (v.17 continued)  This may sound familiar to those following along in this Matthew study because it is the identical message of John The Baptist.  Or is it? Scholar and commentator FF Bruce explains these words have different meaning when said by Jesus:

“Jesus’ message is summed up in the same words as John’s preaching but ‘the kingdom of heaven’ on his lips had not the same connotation as it did on John’s.  Jesus’ call to repentance was a call to men to re-access all personal and social values in the light of the approach of the divine kingdom in His ministry. . .” (Bruce, “UTNT”. P 15.)

Interestingly, because Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, we have this much repeated phrase “Kingdom of Heaven”.  In Warren Wiersbe’s “Be Loyal” commentary on Matthew, he explains that, out of reverence for our Good Good Father, the Jewish people would not use the phrase “Kingdom of God”.  So they would use the word Heaven in its place. Kingdom of Heaven is mentioned thirty-two times in Matthew’s Gospel, while mentioning Kingdom of God only five times.  In parallel stories, in Mark and Luke, Kingdom of God has the majority of use.  Both those gospels were written to a non-Jewish audience, the Romans.

Wiersbe goes on to explain that:

“In the New Testament, the word kingdom means ‘rule, reign, authority’ rather than a place or a specific realm.  The phrase “kingdom of heaven” refers to the rule of God. The Jewish leaders wanted a political leader who would deliver them from Rome, but Jesus came to bring spiritual rule to the hearts of people.” (p42,43)

When Wiersbe mentions that Jewish leaders expected, in Jesus, a political leader, not a spiritual one, it makes me think about how we often observe uninformed criticism from skeptics.  These unbelievers scoff at examples of prophecy fulfillment inferring that New Testament writers simply invented the actions of Jesus in order to coincide with what was reported or prophesied in the Old Testament. But this accusation, in many cases, ignores the fact that the ancient Jewish people misunderstood so much about the coming of Jesus, who He would be, and how God’s Will would be accomplished.  The true events of the New Testament, in effect, would represent poorly told lies, in that the truth would be more difficult to believe because it so violently diverted from common Jewish thought.  

Fishers of Men

If one were to have The Gospel of Matthew as their only source for knowledge of the story of Jesus, they would have to believe that, seemingly out of the blue, Jesus commanded Peter and Andrew to “follow” Him in verse 19.  And they immediately dropped their nets and left their father Zebedee to follow this stranger. Remember, that before this, though, the events of John 1:19-3:36 had already unfolded. Jesus wasn’t a stranger at all. Jesus had spent a day with Peter, Andrew, James, and an unnamed disciple (possibly John) before calling them into service.  

The fishermen knew Him as the “Messiah” and John The Baptist had testified to them about Jesus before they were called into service.  The men did not follow Him blindly or as entranced sheep.

Note, this section of scripture also features the famous “fishers of men” line, for me, remembered so well from a children’s church song from Sunday school.  Well, interestingly, a similar phrase can be found in Jeremiah 16:16. But there, it’s fishers for men, meaning men catching people in judgment.  Jesus, on the other hand, ordained men to save people from judgement.  Another example of how Jesus turned the Jewish world on its head when he came here to be with us.

In closing, did Jesus turn your world on its head?  How differently would you be living if not for Jesus?  How has hope in Him changed you? Changed your relationships?  How would you describe this experience to an unbeliever?

God helping us, may we be true “Fishers of Men”.

Sources:

Carter, Warren. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3138

Bruce, FF.  “Understanding the New Testament:  Matthew”. Page 15.

Wiersbe, Warren.  “Be Loyal: Following The King Of Kings”. Pages 42,43.

Notes on Matthew 3

Each new year many believers vow to read the Bible cover to cover within the next 12 months. I have tried and failed this objective many times.  This year I want to try something different. I will study just a few books (starting with the Gospel of Matthew) of the Word instead of the whole book.  And I will STUDY instead just monotonously churn through words as I have done in years past. I will read commentaries, blog posts, opinions, histories, and textual criticism.  Pretty much anything about Matthew that I can get my hands on. So suggestions for study material would be appreciated.

I hope to periodically post notes and things I have learned from this endeavor.  I imagine some of it will be apologetics, some may be pastoral, and some maybe just asking questions for further study.  My hope in sharing is that someone else may be inspired to dig deeper into our Good Good Father’s Word. I have already benefited even in this short time.

So let’s begin.

In Those Days . . .

Thirty years goes by between Matthew Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.  If a modern day biographer did something like that, many the eyebrows would indeed raise.  But doubtful that ancient readers of the ancients texts cried, “What happened to adolescent Jesus?  The teenage Jesus? You missed stuff about young adult Jesus!” No Matthew skipped over a lot of ground to get us to the meat of the story.  It’s interesting that nine of Matthew’s 28 chapters are spent on the events of Jesus’ last days. So one third of the gospel. Writings of antiquity,unlike, say, modern biographies, often take this sort of lop-sided form.  

So, it’s clear, dilly dallying isn’t on the menu.  Matthew desperately wants to get his readers, the Jews, to the point where they learn who Jesus is and what He has done for them and how they should live with this knowledge.  So doesn’t it seem odd that we open chapter three by introducing another man? Not putting Jesus front and center? This new character is John The Baptist. (JTB going forward)

The Historical John

As someone very interested in arguments for the Historical Jesus, that is, arguments that make the case for Him as an actual historical figure, I am thrilled to see John come preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  Why? Well, because JTB is an undisputed, to my knowledge, historical person. From Luke 1, he is also a distant relative of Jesus. His ministry was even mentioned by noted ancient Jewish historian Josephus. So people who are mentioned in genealogies and who have relationships with multiply-attested real historic persons are widely understood to also be ones of history as well, not myth.

Here’s what Josephus wrote about The Baptist in his work of ancient history, “Antiquities” (xviii. 116-119):

“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the baptist  [the dipper]. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For  immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt — for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise — believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.

And so John, out of Herod’s suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.”

The Poorly Told Lie

In current Jesus conversations with skeptics these days, all you need to do in mention Josephus to hear someone shout “Interpolation! The writings of Josephus were corrupted by Christian copyists or translators!” And yes, there is a very real possibility that one of the sections mentioning Jesus was tampered with (by whom, nobody knows).  So some skeptics might reflexively imagine that the passage on John the Baptist was interpolated at the same time as the passage on Jesus. Yet, as John P. Meier states (“John the Baptist in Josephus,” p. 227):

“The account Josephus gives of the Baptist is literarily and theologically unconnected with the account of Jesus, which occurs earlier in book 18 and correspondingly lacks any reference to the Baptist. The passage about the Baptist, which is more than twice as long as the passage about Jesus, is also notably more laudatory. It also differs from (but does not formally contradict) the four Gospels in its presentation both of John’s ministry and of his death. Hence it is hard to imagine a Christian scribe inserting into book 18 of the Antiquities two passages about Jesus and the Baptist in which the Baptist appears on the scene after Jesus died, has no connection with Jesus, receives more extensive treatment than Jesus, and is praised more highly than Jesus.”

So as Meier believes, the injection of new Christian material into the JTB passage in Josephus in this way would amount to the telling of a poorly told lie.  There would be many other bits of information more beneficially added to the passage that would further a Christian agenda or promote Christianity more fully.  One of which would be to directly mention Jesus and form a strong connection between the two. As written, it is too well disguised as an independent report to have any purposeful evangelistic use due to those nefarious Christian interpolators!

Now! Introducing . . .

I think the best way to describe the function of JTB in the Gospels is that his job is that of a herald.  Historically, a herald was an officer in medieval Europe who carried messages to and from different military commands.  We also often think of heralds as announcers who inform us that an important person is about to enter the room. So to respond to my own comment above about it being odd that Matthew starts chapter three by shifting the focus to another character,  he really isn’t doing that at all. John only points us and his audience TO Jesus Christ. He is the prophesied “voice of one calling in the desert.  ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:3).

The first chapter of the Gospel of John describes JTB this way:  

“6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”

“Great in the Sight of the Lord”

The Gospel of Luke describes JTB’s early family history.  The book describes the miracle of his birth to a barren woman, Elizabeth.  His father Zechariah, a Jewish priest who served in the Temple, received a message from the angel Gabriel about his son’s future arrival.

First of all, I wonder what it was like to know from a young age that you will be “great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:15).  If not for the next detail of being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (same verse), I imagine one could abuse such a situation. And many of us are told by our parents that God has a plan for us, but I imagine few of them have this knowledge corroborated by an angel.

The detail of Zechariah’s position as one in a division of temple priests also helps to shed some light onto JTB’s pre-Gospel history.  John Meier, a scholar who has issues with the Infancy Narratives in Luke, makes this observation:

“. . . I think that if anything can be salvaged from Luke’s narrative, it is the idea that John was the only son of a priest who functioned in the Jerusalem temple.  This would be a most significant nugget of information, for the only son of a Jerusalem priest would have the solemn duty to follow his father in his function and to make sure that the priestly line was continued by marriage and children.  If this was in fact the historical situation, John at some point must have consciously turned his back on and—in Jewish eyes—scandalously rejected his obligation to be a priest in his father’s footsteps and to supply priestly descendents after him.  Forsaking family duty as well as his priestly duty to the Jerusalem temple—therefore, forsaking all that was the most sacred to Judaism—he went into the wilderness of Judea to announce imminent judgment and the dire need for moral cleansing on the part of all the Jews.” (AMJV2 pp24.)

So John may have turned away from the norms and obligations of his culture in order to wait on his calling from the Lord.  Dressed similarly to the prophet Elijah, coming out of the desert, possibly in a Qumran settlement, John did not seek to exchange niceties with approaching Pharisees and Sadducees.  “Brood of vipers!” served as his opening greeting to the religious elites of the time.  Then he flatly informed them that their reliance on their heritage as being people in the line of Abraham will not save them from the impending “unquenchable fire” (3:12).  They must “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” to avoid the “coming wrath” (3:8).  Gangster.

Fulfilling All Righteousness

So we now see how John’s story simply sets the stage for Jesus to re-enter to story.  After establishing the workings of John’s introductory movement, Matthew set up the meeting between the “herald” and the most important person in history.

First, however, JTB needed to make clear that his baptism is different from that of the One coming.  After all, he was sent to preach a message of repentance and deeds, clearing a path for the Savior from sin.  John says in Matthew 3:11:

“11 “I baptize you with[a] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire.”

New Testament scholar Oscar Cullman explains that:  

“This is then the new element in Christian Baptism according to the preaching of the Baptist.  This new baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit is imparted neither by Jewish proselyte baptism nor by Johannine baptism.  It is bound up with the person and the work of Christ.” (BINTNT p.10)

In chapter 3, verse 13, it is told that “then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  Maybe it’s a small detail, but one might read this as all occurring in one scene: John chastising religious leaders and preaching his message of repentance, then Jesus shows up.  It very well could have happened this way I suppose, but I see this more as a compressed narrative where Matthew is stacking separate stories one on top of the other. Apart from careful reading, these connections almost appear seamless. However, the idea that the sinless Messiah needed to receive John’s baptism of repentance when he had nothing for which to repent is a difficult one to fathom.  I am not embarrassed to say that I struggled with this one. Even John seemed shocked by the idea and suggested that it was he who needed the Messiah’s baptism, not the other way around.  To this Jesus said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”(v.15)

Let’s look closer at this response. One thing to note, this is the first time Jesus speaks in the entire New Testament, considering the traditional book order of the Gospels in your bible and excluding instances chronologically earlier.  Next, when I read “Let it be so now. . . “ I read the now with emphasis, as if it is a command.  Jesus here takes the role of someone lesser while simultaneously possessing the role of King.  So when He says, “it is proper for us to do this . . .” he means this is okay, acceptable, the right thing to do.  It is not that this needs to happen. And he convinces John that there’s no problem with doing this.  This is what Jesus wants to do in order to “fulfill all righteousness”.  I believe His baptism became a symbol of his joining fallen humanity because by joining us, he is fulfilling all righteousness by sharing our baptism of repentance.

The following is what happened next:

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

It is unclear who heard the voice from heaven or saw the Spirit of God descend, but anyone who witnessed this happen could only be awe-struck. Were they surrounded by disciples of John or was this a more personal and private meeting? The text isn’t clear. What we do know is that this event kicked off Jesus’ ministry and started His journey to the Cross. Him be praised!

Here are some words taken from the Matthew Henry Commentary on Matthew that may sort this out a little more:

“At Christ’s baptism there was a manifestation of the three Persons in the sacred Trinity. The Father confirming the Son to be Mediator; the Son solemnly entering upon the work; the Holy Spirit descending on him, to be through his mediation communicated to his people. . . Out of Christ, God is a consuming fire, but in Christ, a reconciled Father. This is the sum of the gospel, which we must by faith cheerfully embrace.” (Henry)

May we all continue to cheerfully embrace faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Thank you for reading this installment. May God bless you and keep you.

Sources:

http://peterkirby.com/john-the-baptist-authentic.html quoting “John The Baptist in Josephus” by John P. Meier. Pp 227.

Meier, John P. “A Marginal Jew Volume Two:  Mentor, Message, and Miracles”. P.24.

Cullman, Oscar.  “Baptism in the New Testament”. P.10.

Henry, Matthew. “Commentary on Matthew”.

All Scripture from NIV.

Notes on Matthew – Chapters 1 & 2

Each new year many believers vow to read the Bible cover to cover within the next 12 months. I have tried and failed this objective many times.  This year I want to try something different. I will study just a few books (starting with the Gospel of Matthew) of the Word instead of the whole book.  And I will STUDY instead just monotonously churn through words as I have done in years past. I will read commentaries, blog posts, opinions, histories, and textual criticism.  Pretty much anything about Matthew that I can get my hands on. So suggestions for study material would be appreciated.

I hope to periodically post notes and things I have learned from this endeavor.  I imagine some of it will be apologetics, some may be pastoral, and some maybe just asking questions for further study.  My hope in sharing is that someone else may be inspired to dig deeper into God’s Word. I have already benefited even in this short time.

So let’s begin.

Apologetics for the Jewish People

From the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, it is clear that the writer is forming a work of apologetics for the Jewish people, beginning with a genealogy that connects Abraham to Jesus Christ and then consistently noting where the happenings of Christ’s life reveal fulfillment of prophecy in the Jewish Scriptures.  

In just the first two chapters alone, we have five references to Jesus’ movements and presence fulfilling the words of the prophets.  In Matt 1:22-23, we have noted the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 with the instance of the virgin birth. Then Matt 2:5-6 shows that a ruler will come out of Judah, a reference to Micah 5:2.  Then in the span of the last eight verses of chapter two, we have three examples of completed prophecy with mentions of Hosea 11:1, Jeremiah 31:15, and a prophecy that is strangely unrecorded by the Old Testament Scriptures but listed internally as prophecy fulfillment in Matt 2:23.

There are many critics of Matthew’s habit of citing often vague and seemingly unrelated Old Testament scripture as fulfillment of prophecy.  The references do not come across as obvious or convincing in many instances. I invite you to Google the discussions for more detail. Scholar R.T. France, in his commentary “Matthew”, says the apostle applies these texts in subtle, seemingly forced and artificial ways.  But then he goes on to explain C. F. D. Moule’s observation that argues that “this ‘vehicular’ use of Scripture ‘is a symptom of discovery that, in a deeply organic way, Jesus was indeed a fulfiller of something which is basic in the whole of Scripture.’” France then goes on to say that:

 “what may seem to us an embarrassingly obscure and even irresponsible way of handling Scripture is in fact the outworking of a careful tracing of scriptural themes, which in different ways point to Jesus as the fulfiller not only of specific predictions, but also of the broader pattern of God’s Old Testament revelation.” (pp39-40)

So this topic is heading way beyond the scope of one of my blog posts.  A good item to shelve for further in depth study. There is tons more there.  I invite you to dig in.

Joseph’s POV?

More interesting to me is that much of the story here in the first two chapters seems to be from Jesus’ adopted father Joseph’s point of view.  Some scholars believe that Joseph may be an actual source for Matthew. But this just leads to more questions for me. When would Matthew have gotten Joseph’s testimony?  Would it have been from another source who knew him or is this direct testimony? The reason I ask is that it is my opinion that Joseph is no longer living by the time of the Crucifixion because of John’s Gospel observing mother Mary at the Cross in chapter 19, verse 25-27:

25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,[a] here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (NIV)

So, in John, Mary is there with her sister, another Mary, wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdelene.  No Joseph. Now, we might think it is possible that Joseph was there but not mentioned until we see how the passage unfolds.  In the passage, Jesus notices his mother and arranges for the beloved disciple, John, to become her new son and she would be his new mother!  John is then to take her into his home “from that time on” (v.27). So many believe, including me, Joseph may have passed on by then. Nonetheless, it would seem odd if Jesus were to give his mother to the beloved disciple if His father, her husband, were still in the picture.

“Family” Matters

Note that Mary’s children are not by her side either in the passage from John.  Many believe that could be due to the family’s skepticism as reported in Mark 3:21-22: 

21 When his family[a] heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (NIV)

It’s interesting that in a parallel story later in Matthew (12:46-50) the writer doesn’t mention any worries by Jesus’ family of mental illness as it does in Mark.  This may be inline with Matthew’s attempt to minister to the Jews about fulfilled prophecy and the deity of Christ so this doesn’t fit neatly into his apologetic purposes.

It should be noted however that the word “family” there in Mark 3 probably does not include Mary and Joseph and his brothers.  We think this, in part, because later in verse 31 it describes these family members (Mary and Jesus’ brothers) arriving onto the scene and calling for him. In the NASB translation, the word “family” (from the NIV) is replaced with “his own people” and the RSV called them “friends”.  

Other explanations for the source of Joseph’s testimony, if not him directly, could be that this came to Matthew secondhand, maybe from James or Jude as told to them by Joseph or maybe from other brothers and sisters or family members post-Resurrection. My guess is it would have to be from someone with a personal familial connection to protect this information for so long.

“How long?” you may ask.  Well, the common dating of Matthew is around AD 80 (I personally think it’s earlier). If that were true, and Joseph died before AD 30 (to keep the numbers round), and it was true that Matthew 1-2 records his testimony of parts of the nativity story, Joseph’s side of things could have been kept by this relative or relatives for 50 years or more.  

Herod The Great?

Bible skeptics often bring up Matthew 2:13-18, “The Slaughter of the Innocents”, as a narrative invention of the Apostle Matthew, mostly due to the fact that contemporary historians, like Flavius Josephus, do not corroborate the story of the murder of all infant boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas.  To answer this challenge, I found an interview with ancient history expert Dr. Paul Maier, Russell Seibert Professor at Western Michigan University. Below, Dr. Maier first provides some insight into the notorious character of Herod The “Great” and then he answers the difficulty.

Interviewer:  Explain the paranoid side of Herod that begins to emerge later in his life.

Maier:  “Josephus gives us just a hideous tale of what was going on in the family, attempted poisonings, one brother against another. It so rattled Herod that he actually put to death three of his own sons on suspicion of treason. He put to death his favorite wife out of 10 of them. Mariamne was his favorite. She was a Hasmonean Macabean princess and he put her to death and then he killed his mother-in-law — I should say, one of his many mothers-in-law. He invited the high priest down to Jericho for a swim. They played a very rough game of water polo and they drowned him. He killed several uncles and a couple of cousins. Some have said he is a real family man, you know, in that negative respect.”

 (Continuing to document the cruel exploits of Herod . . .)

Maier:  “Well, Josephus has a very grisly thing to report about Herod in his last months. He was paranoid, though he did have some grasp of reality. For instance, he was worried that nobody would mourn his own death. Of course that shows how deadly accurate he was. They were preparing a general celebration. And nobody likes to die knowing that they are going to dance on your grave. And so he was going to give the people something to cry about.

In 4 BC he is in his winter palace in Jericho. It’s the only place in the holy land that doesn’t snow or get cold in the winter. It’s 1,200 feet below sea level. And Herod is dying. He tries every remedy in the world to stop the gang of diseases that were creeping up on him. He went to the hot springs on the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea. And that didn’t cure him.

So he goes back to his winter palace and he invites his sister Salome in and he says, “I want you to arrest all the Jewish leaders in the land and imprison them in the hippodrome just below the palace here.” And the hippodrome has been discovered archaeologically, by the way. And so she does so and then she says, “Brother, why am I doing this?” And Herod says, “Well, I know that when I die the Jews are going to rejoice. So I want to give them something to cry about.” And so he wants these leaders all executed in that hippodrome so that there will be thousands of households weeping at the time Herod the Great dies.”

Interviewer:  Speaking of Matthew 2, the Bible records this scene from Herod’s paranoia late in his life. The wise men alert him to the birth of a new king in Bethlehem. He wants to know where, so he can eradicate this new rival. The wise men wisely don’t return. Herod then responds by slaughtering all boys two-years-old and under in Bethlehem and in “all the region.” For all that Josephus writes about Herod, he makes no mention of this — in fact, there’s no extra-biblical evidence that this slaughter ever happened. How do you respond?

Maier:  “No, it is interesting. Josephus does not mention it. And therefore a lot of biblical critics will pounce on that aspect of the nativity account and say therefore it didn’t happen. Now please understand this is an argument from silence and that is the weakest form of argumentation you can use. As we say in the profession, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

In this case one or two things could have happened. Josephus may have heard about it and not used it because you don’t have hundreds of babies killed or you have only about 12, as a matter of fact, 12 or 15. The infant mortality in the ancient world was so huge anyway that this is really not going to impress the reader too much, believe it or not. And I think if Josephus is choosing between the two stories about how Herod died right before his death, I think I would take the one where he is going to slaughter hundreds of Jewish leaders.

Or he may not have heard about it. Again, simply because in little Bethlehem it doesn’t amount to much — a village of about 1,500 residents. In my actuarial study, Bethlehem at the time wouldn’t have had more than about two dozen babies two years old and under — half of them female. And so this is not a big deal, and I think that is why Josephus either never heard about it or didn’t feel it important enough to record. So this does not militate against Matthew’s version by any means.”

This concludes are my study so far. Continuing to chapters 3 & 4 next time.  God Bless.

Sources:

https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/truth-or-fiction-did-herod-really-slaughter-baby-boys-in-bethlehem

“Matthew”.  R.T. France.  TTNTC. pp39-40, 81-85.

Comforting The Sufferers

 

window church crucifixion church window
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2 Corinthians 1:3-7 New International Version (NIV):

3 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”

 

Does the Bible verse above describe how you usually respond to suffering?  I bet not. At best, my response to suffering results in my pulling away quietly from reality, hedging myself in with sports or books or movies, so I don’t have to deal.  Denial. At worst, I lash out at people who are not the cause of my trial.

The verse above probably best describes how I respond to other people’s suffering.  “Don’t worry about it.  It’ll pass. You’ll be stronger for this.”  As I type I notice that what I say isn’t false, it’s true, but most often I tend to refer to truth when I don’t need to be the one to live it.

Opportunity for Unbelievers

So often we hear atheists snicker about the existence of a loving God who has a suffering people.  To them, this is incoherent. If God is all-powerful and He loves you, why do you suffer, they ask.  They use these instances to play on our propensity to avoid the problem. That we may act on the call of our hearts to lash out, instead of reach out.

But when you consider atheism, you should know that this is, in fact, the incoherent worldview.  Atheism does not provide answers to the problem of evil; it just eliminates it as a problem.

If this is a God-less existence, what is suffering?  See, suffering can only be seen as bad or wrong or something that ought not happen if we have an understanding of what ought to be.  Atheism, if true, eliminates oughts.  

An ought-less world is one in which what happens just happens.  It’s a world of chocolate or vanilla choices and chocolate or vanilla results.  Nothing is good or bad. Things are just different, but equal in value, like the choice between chocolate or vanilla ice cream.  After all, who’s to say that one flavor is better than the other? What proof can we submit to decide? (Hint: It’s chocolate. Or is it?)  An existence without a standard of what ought to happen reduces life to these kind of choices.

Thus, every complaint or displeasure can only describe the condition of the complainer and says nothing truthful of the deed done or object of the complaint.  So, as such, the unbeliever lacks the ability to describe or explain reality. Truth exists within only their personal whims and not as something that exists apart from them.  For example, displeasure of being punched in the nose only describes the way the punched individual feels about the event and not the potential wrongness of the act itself against them.  But nobody really lives this way. That’s the incoherence of atheism.

So when unbelievers try to play us against God because of our sufferings, they entirely miss the point.

God’s Plan for Suffering

The point of suffering according to the text above is to establish God as the “Father of compassion” and the “God of comfort”.  Notice 2 Corinthians 1: 3-7 doesn’t tell us that troubles won’t occur. People of God were never promised a trouble-free life. These are the heretical rantings of false prophets and prosperity gospel preachers.  It says we will be comforted in our troubles. (v.4) This comfort is found in the Cross.

When reading this verse, it is important to understand that this letter is written by Paul on behalf of himself and his traveling companion Timothy to the church in Corinth.  So when he uses the words “we” and “our”, in some cases, he is referring to himself and Timothy. “You” and “your” is referencing the church in Corinth. In other cases, these words refer to Paul, Timothy, and the church all together as believers.

So not only does God comfort us (everyone) in our troubles through the saving work of Christ, we are to use this truth to comfort others.  Paul achieves this by acknowledgement God’s well-known sustaining acts within Paul’s life. The afflictions of persecution, imprisonment, threats of death, anxieties and impoverishment, for those, God has provided a peace for Paul and in turn, he passes on comfort to those also in trouble.  “If we (Paul and Timothy) are distressed, it is for your (Corinth) comfort and salvation; if we (Paul and Timothy) are comforted, it is for your (Corinth) comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we (Paul and Timothy) suffer.” (v.6)

So it is easy enough to understand the afflictions for which Paul has received comfort.  But what form did this comfort take for Paul? Bible commentator Colin G. Kruse describes Paul’s deliverance from his affliction, like deadly peril, as one of the ways that God provided comfort for him.  He also details relief from anxieties that Paul experienced when Titus joined him in Macedonia. It, however, is clear that he was never exempt from persecution and trial because of God providing comfort.  Kruse also offers that “up to the time of writing God has delivered Paul out of all his afflictions in the sense that none of them had proved fatal” (p.61, TTNTC)

Now, why should troubles occur in the first place?  Again, what is the point?

The answer has much to do with our sin.  Clay Jones, in his terrific book “Why Does God Allow Evil”, gives a short answer:

“God could not simply excuse Adam and Eve’s sin because the lesson to free beings would then be ‘Sin is okay, God will overlook it.’ But to demonstrate His love for us and to atone for the grave seriousness of sin, God sent His only Son, Jesus, to die for rebellious humans.  Now, we humans who trust God and accept Jesus’ death on the cross of our sins learn the horror of rebellion through experiencing rebellion’s devastating results. We are also learning to overcome evil with good. This knowledge prepares us to be fit inheritors of God’s kingdom, where– because we are learning the horror and stupidity of sin here on earth– we will be able to use our free will rightly as we reign with Jesus forever and ever.” (p.208)

Know that much of the quote above deserves further explanation and that is what Jones’ informative book provides.

So according to Jones, God has a reason for our suffering.  He has a plan the eventually leads us to being in His presence “forever and ever”.  We play a part in this as believers. We comfort those who suffer because we have found comfort in the finished work of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

May you personally find this kind of comfort in your life.

God Bless.

 

Source:  The Tyndale New Testament Commentary of 2 Corinthians by Colin G. Kruse (p. 61, TTNTC)

Contradiction or Undesigned Coincidence?

undesigned coincidence
As we move closer to Easter, as with most religious holidays, we will often experience a cultural backlash against our Christian faith. We see billboards, bought by atheist groups, denoting a lack of need for a Savior. At Christmas, we may see mythicism promoted by unbelieving “friends” on our facebook feeds. And claims alleging that the Bible is nothing but a book of fairy tales. It is for this reason I would like to share this bit of Bible teaching, to, both, strengthen our own confidence in scripture and help us further provide an answer to “everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope you have . . . with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

To do this, I will be referring heavily to Lydia McGrew’s marvelous book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts”. McGrew’s book, itself, is an unearthing of evidence for the historical reliability of the gospels written in the 18th and 19th centuries by apologists William Paley and Jame Blunt, respectively.

From the synopsis of her book, the term “undesigned coincidences” refers to:

“ . . . an apparently casual, yet puzzle-like “fit” between two or more texts, and its best explanation is that the authors knew the truth about the events they describe or allude to. Connections of this kind among passages in the Gospels, as well as between Acts and the Pauline epistles, give us reason to believe that these documents came from honest eyewitness sources, people “in the know” about the events they relate.”

For this article, I want to simply paraphrase one of my favorite instances of this inter-locking of events within the gospels, though there are many more illustrated in McGrew’s book. Please, by all means, check out this book for the rest.

We start in John 18:10 when Jesus and His companions are waiting in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus waited there for Judas to arrive with a detachment of soldiers to arrest Him. Verse 10 explains the reaction of Jesus’ followers to His detainment at the hands of the officials sent by the chief priests and Pharisees.

“Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus)” (verse 10). So after introducing the name Malchus to us, the Book of John doesn’t mention him again. We can only assume that the high priest’s servant left the scene holding the right side of his head, less an ear.

The story then leads us to the trial of Jesus and this exchange between Pilate and Jesus as He was questioned out of earshot of the Jewish council whose goal is to have Jesus executed. John 18:33-36:

“Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

Do you see a contradiction here between these two passages in the same chapter of John? When Jesus claims that His kingdom is not of this world, He supports His claim by saying that if it were not so, His followers would fight to save Him. Well, evidenced in John 18:10, Peter did fight. He lopped off Malchus’s ear with his sword.

So when Pilate hears these claims of being peaceful from Jesus, he goes to the Jews and says that he finds “no basis for a charge against him” (v. 38). Now because it was the aim of the Jews to present Jesus as opposition to Caesar, they could have shown a conflict in Jesus’s own words, opposed to the actions of his disciples (Peter), by simply showing Pilate Malchus’s wounded head. They could have attempted to show that Jesus and His disciples have a violent revolution in mind for the kingdom of Rome which would be a capital offense.

Why didn’t they do this? If our only source of information is John’s Gospel, it doesn’t make sense that the Jews wouldn’t use the attack on Malchus to make their case, right?

However, the question is answered in Luke 22:47-53. Describing the scene in the garden, Luke says:

“While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22.47–53)”

In an excerpt from “Hidden in Plain Sight”:

‘Only Luke says that Jesus healed the servant’s ear, though Matthew and Mark also recount that the ear was cut off. Here again, Luke supplies a unique detail within a passage that is in some respects similar to the other Synoptic Gospels. And here, too, this detail is confirmed by an undesigned coincidence. If it is true that Jesus healed the servant’s ear, it explains Jesus’ words to Pilate, though those words are given only in John. Jesus could confidently declare that his kingdom is not of this world and even say that his servants would be fighting if his kingdom were not peaceful. If anyone tried to say that Peter cut off a servant’s ear, the wounded servant himself could not be produced to show this, and an admission that Jesus healed the ear would be further evidence of Jesus’ non-violent intentions, not to mention evidence of his miraculous abilities.”

This is one of my favorite undesigned coincidences because, embedded within, it, in a way, confirms an actual miracle. Because if not for the soldier’s healed ear, the Jews could have produced actual evidence, though circumstantial and dishonest, to build their case against our Good Good Father. Instead, the happening of the crucifixion of Jesus depended entirely on the political manipulation of Pilate and making him worry that he appeared to be “no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12).

In this way and among other ways, detailed in Lydia McGrew’s book, John and Luke fit together like a puzzle, Luke explaining a difficulty in John. The writer of John’s Gospel undoubtedly knew about the soldier’s ear but, for some reason, left out this detail, all the while, continuing the narrative as if it did happen. In a completely unforced way, John’s story only makes sense in light of Luke’s version. Not to mention, that in a separate coincidence, Jesus’s testimony in John 18:36 explains why Pilate cannot find reason to charge Jesus in Luke’s gospel. So the authors of both gospels end up supporting the historical reliability of the other in a subtle, undesigned way.

What should be made of all this? The best explanation is that the authors knew the truth about the events they described.

God bless.