A few days ago, I chatted with a person who described himself as a “former believer”. Eventually, he got around to asking why God didn’t heal amputees. And in doing so, he quoted Matthew 17:20:
“20 He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
Then asked, “Why shouldn’t we expect an arm to grow back after an amputation? If you have enough faith . . .”
In response, I asked, “When you were a believer, is this how you interpreted this verse? And he said, “Yes. And the way my family and friends do too. If we pray for a miracle and it doesn’t happen, I am told it is because I lack faith.”
Ouch. Is this what we believe? No, I don’t think so. I hope not.
Friends, this is a problem. This verse by itself, from Jesus’ own mouth, seems to inform readers that they can perform actual miracles if only they have enough faith. Worse yet, any miracles unperformed serve to drag down the faithful, implying their faith is just not good enough. How would you deal with this reading of the text?
Context, Context, Context
The former believer, as many former believers do, took the Matthew verse out of context. The quote was said by Jesus to the disciples after they descended the mountain of the Transfiguration. They happened upon a possessed boy that the disciples tried to heal but could not. Jesus immediately healed the boy and then rebuked the disciples for either their substandard faith or as a lesson about the value of faith. Three times earlier in Matthew, Jesus mentions the disciples’ “little” faith. In 6:30, regarding the topic of worry. When Jesus calms the storm in 8:26, He calls attention to this faith issue. And in 14:31, Peter tries to walk on water and fails. It is clear from these examples that Jesus wants His disciples to be men of great faith. So He calls them out when they miss the mark.
So should we expect to literally “move mountains” with great faith? I won’t say that it won’t happen if God wants it too, but here Matthew 17:20 is not telling us that we will perform the miraculous, even though, in isolation from the rest of scripture, it seems to do just that. “Moving mountains” in this context (there’s that word again) means doing difficult things. It means doing the improbable. With the smallest faith we can do things God has equipped us to do that we could not do without Him.
How do we know that Jesus didn’t mean for us to be able to move literal mountains? Well, we can find support for this idea in Isaiah 54:10:
“‘Though the mountains be shaken
and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
nor my covenant of peace be removed,’
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.“
And in 1 Corinthians 13:2:
“2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
These word pictures were used by Jesus and the Apostle Paul metaphorically because Jewish people (like the disciples) who know their scripture would find the connection compelling or meaningful. And Jesus also may have used the image situationally, because He and the disciples just descended a mountain. Also, note that the Apostle Matthew is exclusively writing to a Jewish audience in his gospel. In neither of these instances are there any literal moving mountains.
Furthermore, in Matthew 10, Jesus gave the disciples authority to drive out evil spirits and heal every disease and sickness. So His rebuke stems from His equipping them to do a particular thing but their little faith causes them to fail.
So Matthew 17:20 doesn’t tell us that any amount of faith at all will heal amputees, in this instance, but we are able to do difficult things that God has equipped us to do with even the smallest (mustard seed-sized) faith. The miraculous only happens when the power of God is combined with the will of God. No amount of faith apart from this is sufficient.
We need to look at the whole of Scripture, gather more information, put the text in context, and avoid this cycle we see of people becoming frustrated or run down by incorrect expectations and leaving the faith.
A reason many people choose to disregard the Bible is that they believe that it was written by man, not inspired by God and assembled by man, not discovered by the Church. This short article will confront the second charge.
The accusation is not new; it has existed long before Dan Brown popularized it in his novel, “The DaVinci Code”. The belief follows that the books of the Bible were chosen by attendees of the Council of Nicea in 325 AD under the insidious direction of emperor Constantine. Officials allegedly picked and discarded writings based on their own judgment with authority given to them by membership on the council. But this isn’t what happened at all.
There is absolutely no evidence that canonicity of the New Testament was decided in THIS council or ANY council or in THIS way, PERIOD. The agenda of the Council is well-documented and dealt with issues like: on what day to celebrate Easter and construction of the Nicene Creed, and debate over the Divinity of Christ (The Arian Controversy).
The benefit for the skeptic in using this false narrative is that a man-made Holy Book would bear the limitations of all things man-made. The content of Scripture could have been decided by prejudice or chosen advantageously by those seeking control of the populace. The latter is a common atheist charge to this day. Given credibility, a vast inventory of human foibles lay open for modern day deniers of God from which to pick their favorite.
However, there are answers.
No, the process of gathering our biblical texts was not a simple popularity contest for ancient writings, driven by personal whim and politics. Instead, the Canon, a word coming from the Greek, meaning “rule” or “measuring stick”, is a list of affirmed books that had served as foundational to our faith up to that point. In fact, any participation by any council was only involved to the extent that it merely declared the way things had been and not the way they wanted them to be. This was done using the specific criteria provided below.
Geisler and Nix, in their book “From God To Us”, list five basic criteria for discovering the canonicity of the New Testament books:
Is the book authoritative—does it claim to be of God?
Is it prophetic—was it written by a servant of God?
Is it authentic—does it tell the truth about God, man, etc.?
Is the book dynamic—does it possess the life-transforming power of God?
Is this book received or accepted by the people of God for whom it was originally written—is it recognized as being from God?
Bible scholar Michael Kruger encourages every Christian to memorize this basic fact (and nine others, linked below) about the forming of the New Testament canon. To battle these false ideas of skeptics and keep Holy scripture in its proper place, the Church must understand that the New Testament canon was “the result of many years of God’s people reading, using, and responding to these books”.
Geisler and Nix. “From God To Us: How We Got Our Bible”. Page 67.
The Bible is a book written over the course of fifteen hundred years by more than forty authors. Christian apologist, Josh McDowell writes that these authors were kings, military leaders, peasants, philosophers, fishermen, tax collectors, poets, musicians, statesmen, scholars, and shepherds. The Bible was written in many different places, like out in the wilderness, dungeons, prison, while traveling, and while in exile. It was written during wars and times of peace and by scribes on three different continents and in three different languages. Different literary styles. Yet, it manages to tell ONE cohesive story throughout the history of the canon. And still, people will question how do we know it is the word of God.
Well, if what said above doesn’t convince someone, is there another way to demonstrate this uniqueness of scripture? Can we show somehow that these authors and their works are connected in some way? Yes. The answer is by fulfilled prophecy.
However, in most instances, we don’t have the time or the memory to run through the many examples of the successful fulfillment of prophecy. But maybe we can memorize one example. An especially strong one. Let’s try a method that I learned from a friend on Facebook. Below, I posted a short sample dialogue to guide a potential conversation:
Unbeliever: “How do you know the Bible is the word of God?”
Believer: “Great question! Before I answer you though, can I ask you a question?”
Unbeliever: “Okay. I guess.”
Believer: “If I described a situation by saying ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ or ‘they pierced my hands and feet’ or ‘they divided my clothes and gambled for my garments’, if I said those things to you, what do you think I would be describing?
Unbeliever: “Well, sounds like you are describing The Crucifixion. So what?”
Believer: “Very good. I am. But I am not quoting Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John where the story of The Crucifixion is usually told. I am quoting Psalm 22. A Psalm dated about one thousand years before the event of The Crucifixion. How would you explain that?”
Unbeliever: “Right. But the Bible writers knew about this Psalm ahead of time, right? They could just add these details in to make their story sound convincing. Couldn’t they?”
Believer: “Well, not really in this instance.”
Unbeliever: “Why not?”
Believer: “These details are unlikely additions because crucifixion, as a method of execution, did not exist one thousand years before Christ. Crucifixion was invented by the Persians in 300-400BC and developed, during Roman times, into a punishment for the most serious of criminals. The Israelites executed people by stoning them, not nailing them to a cross. King David, the psalmist, further describes one being able to ‘count all my bones’ (v.17) and being ‘poured out like water’ (v.14) and their bones being ‘out of joint’ (v14). These references to The Cross would have made zero sense to a first century Jew until The Messiah was crucified. Apart from the work of an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal God, how would you account for this?”
I am honestly not sure what the unbeliever would say to that. But this is one step, maybe just a small one, we can take as a body of believers to move the skeptic toward the truth of the Gospel. Maybe this explanation removes a barrier or stumbling block that kept this person from coming to faith in Jesus Christ.
May we lovingly engage these people whenever we find them. God Bless.
Over the past few weeks, the Coronavirus pandemic has caused, among other things, worry over job situations, stress of a small business’ viability, and concern for older loved ones locked down in their rooms at care facilities, not to mention fear of self or loved ones fatally succumbing to the virus. Because of this, many suffer.
And because of this, historically, many question God’s role as an all-loving God. It is a question that has been asked for centuries. Why does God allow suffering?
To better answer this question, another question should be asked first. Can’t God step in and create a world where suffering does not exist? First of all, He did. But the Fall of Man happened and changed the course of history. Can God stop suffering now? Answer: Not without affecting our ability to freely make choices.
Wait a minute! God can do anything!
Many may have heard that God can do anything! He makes the impossible possible! This, however, is not accurate. Can He create the universe? Absolutely. Can He heal the sick? Yes. Can He rise again from physical death? Yes. Can he suspend the laws of nature to part the Red Sea? You bet. However, God can do only things that are logically possible. For example, God cannot create a married bachelor or a square circle or a one-ended stick. These are things that are logically incoherent. So when dealing with a free-minded, free-feeling people in a fallen world, the stoppage of all suffering is akin to a one-ended stick.
Let me explain: If God stopped all murders, all disasters, diseases, and physical infirmities, there would still exist poverty, racism, traffic jams, and stubbed toes. Suffering would still exist in every next less than pleasurable life experience. On and on, these things could divinely be eliminated only to be replaced by the next benign, but ultimately horrible ordeal.
But this is not to say that this is a hopeless situation. That suffering will never cease. The Resurrection of Jesus has ended all suffering for His disciples. This is a promise to be realized upon His return to judge the living and the dead and the creation of a new heaven and new Earth. Romans 8:20-25 tells us:
“20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[a] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”
See also Revelation 21: 1-4:
21 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
How Do We Answer The Sufferer?
What should we say to the sufferer who wants to know why God won’t fix something or cure a loved one or alleviate some sort of pain? I recommend paraphrasing an answer from Pastor and author Tim Keller:
“I don’t know why God doesn’t end your suffering. But I know it’s not because He doesn’t love you. After all, He sent His only son to die for you.”
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.
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.
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.
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 whichannounces 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?
I started blogging Matthew at the beginning of the year to coincide with my pledge to engage in in depth study of the Gospel over the next calendar year. This means reading commentaries, articles, textual criticism, and anything I can get my hands on about the Gospel of Matthew. Sometimes, my reflections will be pastoral or a discussion of Bible difficulties or simply thinking out loud in an attempt to get to the heart of what our Good Good Father wants us to know about Him.
Chapter four starts as Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. It’s interesting to note that the devil does not initiate this event. The “Spirit” led Jesus there. This was a period of testing approved and incited by God. Scholar and commentator RT France calls it an examination of Jesus’ newly revealed relationship with God.
A Hungry God?
When it comes to this testing, there is a likely comparison to be made between Jesus, Son of God, and John The Baptist, maker of a way. To start, God secluded John into the wilderness. He sent Jesus into the desert (v.1). John found sustenance in bugs and honey. Jesus, He made fast for 40 days and 40 nights. Scripture confirms that He was hungry (v.2). Jesus clearly upped the ante in terms of sacrificial obedience. God tested both men. But the human state of His Son, He weakened and then matched Him against the devil, Satan, the Adversary.
How well do you hold up to temptation? If I am being honest, for myself, not very well. A couple weeks ago, I participated in a 21-day period of fasting and prayer. The fasting part is not what it sounds like. I gave up caffeine. I didn’t even give up coffee; I drank decaf. I had the opportunity to buy caffeinated joe every morning. No one would know what is in my insulated mug and surely nobody at work knew about my pledge. But the temptation was definitely there. Admittedly, this might be a starkly, unremarkable comparison, but Jesus, recently empowered by the Holy Spirit (3:16), had the power to end his own hunger and the devil, as true to form, uses this fact to his advantage as we see in his first attempt to corrupt the Son of God. He says, “If you are the Son of God, tell those stones to become bread.” (v.3) To this Jesus responds from Deut. 8:3, “It is written: Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (v.4)
RT France says of the tempting of Jesus to provide food for himself miraculously:
“The act was thus not in itself wrong. But Jesus recognized in His hunger an experience designed by God to teach Him the lesson of Deuteronomy 8:3. His mission was to be one of continual privation, for the sake of His ministry of the word of God; a concern for His own material comfort could only jeopardize it. As Son of God, He must learn, as Israel failed to learn, to put first things first. And that must mean an unquestioning obedience to God’s plan.” (France, “Matthew”. Pp 98.)
Jesus, as 100% God and 100% man, lived a life of continual privation, denying himself comforts that were at His fingertips every second of His life.
Jesus’ response to the devil using Deuteronomy 8:3 should also show that He understood why this time of testing was necessary. The previous verse in Deuteronomy tells us:
“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. (v.2)”
I find it hard to fathom that the humility of Jesus was in question, but God, clearly, has Jesus set up to demonstrate perfect obedience in the way His chosen people did not. These connections are inescapable. Our Saviour was battle-tested from the start.
A Leap Of Faith?
Next, the Evil One took Jesus to the highest point in the temple of the holy city. He continued challenging Jesus to prove his relationship with God The Father. This time though, having been scalded by scripture in his previous attempt, he tried this tactic himself. Surely, Jesus could not argue with the word of God, right? He said:
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. (Psa. 91:11,12)
Jesus answered him. “It is written: “Do not put the Lord to the test.” (Deut 6:16)
So now we are in the middle of a Bible quote-off between Jesus and the devil. Both know their scripture but only one has the goal of obedience to God. We know this because, well, one of these persons is the devil and he misuses God’s word nine times before breakfast. Here, by Satan’s reasoning, Jesus should throw himself down because the angels of the Lord will certainly protect the Son of God. And this will prove who you are. Easy Peazy. But the Adversary gets the context of the passage in Psalm 91 purposely backwards. The first two verses in the Psalm read:
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” (v.1,2)
But if Jesus were to throw himself down, whom or what would He be trusting in? Certainly not God’s plan, right? He would be forcing God’s hand. Testing His word when the Son should be trusting it. By understanding the scriptural landscape and trusting the Father’s plan, Jesus is succeeding in the way the Israelites failed. In fact, Matthew draws these parallels between the failures of the early followers of God and the sufficiency of Jesus as a fulfillment of perfect obedience. For this reason, Jesus references in his answer Deuteronomy 6:16 which itself looks back to Exodus 17 where the Israelite community quarreled with Moses for him to get God to give them water. God finally instructed Moses to strike a rock to miraculously produce water. The ancient people of God TESTED the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17:7)
The Evil One demonstrates how he wants the Son to not act in service to the Father, but act as if the Father serves the Son. We, as children of God, repeat this type of theology when we obligate God to answer our questions about His plans for us or attempt to shame Him for His past undesirable (to our eye) deeds. Satan seeks to confuse us by tampering with the order of things.
If our God is the God of Abraham, then He resides as the ultimate authority and necessarily becomes the focus of our lives. However, many people are tragically looking for a god that, first,agrees with them and, second, serves them.
The Kingdom Without The Cross
The devil, undeterred, now took him to the very high mountains and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. These were kingdoms that over which Satan held dominion and contesting his dominion was the reason Jesus came to Earth. So the devil wasn’t usurping any authority when he offered, “All this I will give to you, if you will bow down and worship me.” (v.9)
So here we have Jesus, with full knowledge of God’s plan, the trials, the humiliation, the extreme pain of crucifixion, with a way to avoid it all. All He has to do is bow down before the Deceiver and worship him and He can have the kingdom without the pain and anguish of the Cross. This is how Jesus responded:
“Away from me Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.” (v.10)
Similarly, Jesus responded to Peter’s denial of Jesus’ teaching His mission of the Cross in Matthew 16:22. He said:
“Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but things of men.”
The obvious connection here is that The Cross is Jesus’ unavoidable mission. And if we are followers of Christ, It is our unavoidable mission as well. We mustn’t fall for these shortcuts introduced by our culture that seemingly get us there without the struggle, pain, or trials that are part of God’s plan. If there is a reason that God tests us, it is so that we can be prepared ahead of time for the devil’s gambit. But this preparation first requires our obedience.
Eve of Destruction
Another connection with the Old Testament can be found in Genesis 3 where the Serpent tempts Eve. Clearly, the Devil has employed the same ‘ol tricks from the very beginning. Below, I list Satan’s Genesis temptation with the Matthew 4 test.
The Serpent tempted Eve with food. Although Scripture does not allude to hunger as motivation for Eve’s fall, it does describe the fruit as good (Gen. 3:6). The Devil tempted a hungry Jesus with food.
The Serpent told Eve she would not die from eating the food. The Devil told Jesus that angels would save Him if He threw Himself down.
The Serpent told Eve that eating from the tree would make her like God. Eve wanted knowledge. The Devil told Jesus that if He bowed down and worshiped him, he would give Jesus the kingdom. The very thing He came to earth to gain.
Well, we shall stop there for now. Quite enough to think about if you ask me. We will finish the chapter next time. May God bless you and keep you.
France, RT. “Matthew”. Page 98.
Bruce, FF. “Understanding the New Testament: Matthew”. Pages 13-14.
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.