Matthew 5-7 is known as the Sermon on the Mount. In the Gospel according to the Apostle Matthew, it is the first of five sustained discourses by Jesus. (Matthew 10, 13, 18, 23-25 are the other four discourses.)
The number five is no accident. From the beginning of Matthew, Jesus is shown to be the “prophet like Moses.” Deuteronomy 18:15-22 foretold that there would be seers to come, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to speak for God, and of that company one would stand above all others like Moses. Moses was not just a prophet. He led the people and stood before God directly as a mediator.
Matthew shows Jesus like Moses, threatened as an infant, coming out of Egypt (Mt 2:13-18). As Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, “he went up on the mountain,” like Moses (Mt 5:1). Then, as the sermon concludes, we hear, “when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one with authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt 7:28-29).
Five discourses, then, match the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy. This is not just Matthew’s perspective. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that He is taking up this prophesied mantle. “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” not only sets Jesus’ words besides Moses’ as equals, but casts Jesus’ teaching as the fulfillment and crown of God’s revelation.
Later, in Matthew 12, Jesus announces that one greater than the Temple (Mt 12:6), greater than Jonah (Mt 12:41), and greater than Solomon (12:42) has arrived. Keep an eye out, then, for how Jesus takes up the images and themes of the Old Testament and fulfills them.
There's a new three-year reading guide to complete the entire Bible. Let's plan on taking it up this January!
We are halfway through the Gospel according to John. In chapter nine, Jesus heals a man born blind. When this man refuses to reject Jesus, he is kicked out of his synagogue. Many readers of John have concluded that this chapter not only records an experience of Jesus but also reflects the experience of John’s first readers. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, word of the Messiah spread around the world. Many Jews who were drawn to Jesus and His church found their synagogues intolerant of any talk of Jesus.
John 9:16 says, “There was a division among them.” Indeed, the book of Acts describes this as well. Christian missionaries would go first to synagogues, and often the synagogue would divide between those who believed in Jesus and those who refused. Acts 14:1-2 says, “Now at Iconium they entered into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.”
We see “poisoning” tactics in John 9. Verse 16 shows that even while investigation is going on, there is a pre-judgment. If Jesus healed on the Sabbath, He must be a sinner. In verse 17, the man born blind only calls Jesus a “prophet.” The man born blind is not yet a Christian in the sense of believing Jesus to be Lord. But even the first investigations of a budding faith receive a harsh response from the synagogue leaders. In verse 18, the leaders of the synagogue question whether the man was even born blind. So they drag in his parents. His parents are clearly afraid (verse 22).
The synagogue leaders bring the man born blind back again. In verses 24-34, their unreasonable opposition pushes the man born blind towards greater understanding of who Jesus must be. He cannot just be a prophet (see verses 35-36).
When the man is cast out of the synagogue, Jesus finds him. John 10 explains what we see in John 9. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He seeks out and cares for the lost sheep. “All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them” (10:8). In order to save the flock, the good shepherd gives up His life (10:11,15).
In this way, the Gospel according to John explains both the rejection of Jesus by the Jews and the experience of His disciples as we grow in faith. Jesus is still rejected by many. As we grow in faith, we often find their intolerance turns upon us, too. But the good shepherd does not fear the wolves. He has faced them, and He will protect His flock. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (10:27-28). Drawing nearer to the Good Shepherd, our eyes are opened, both to know Him and know ourselves in Him.
This week, we are reading the book of Hebrews. We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews. In some ways, it seems like something Paul might have written, and it includes a reference to Paul’s associate Timothy (13:23). On the other hand, the author speaks of receiving the Gospel second-hand (Hebrews 2:3); Paul, on the other hand, insisted that no one needed to teach him the Gospel because he received it first-hand (Galatians 1:11-12).
So, from the beginning of church history, people suggested it was one of Paul’s associates who wrote the book. The author calls his letter a “word of encouragement” (Hebrews 13:22), which inspired Tertullian (c. 150 – c. 240) to suggest Barnabas, whose name means “son of encouragement.” Luther thought it might have been Apollos, whom the book of Acts says was eloquent and powerful in showing Jesus from the Old Testament (Acts 18-19).
I think one of the most likely suggestions was also one of the first suggestions made. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 210) thought the book was edited by Luke using his own Greek translations of Paul’s Hebrew writings. Since Hebrews appears to be written after the death of Paul and Peter in 67 (Hebrews 13:7) but before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 (Hebrews 10:1), if Paul was dead and Luke was making use of his material, it would make sense that no name would be affixed to the writing. It would also make sense of why so many people in the early church claimed Hebrews as Paul’s work despite the fact that the author does not insist, like Paul, that he received the Gospel first hand.
We’re also not sure to whom the epistle was written, but a plausible scenario can be pieced together from the epistle. Hebrews 13:24 says that those from Italy greet the recipients of the letter. That means that either the letter was written in Italy or going to Italy. The latter seems more likely. Acts 18:2 describes Emperor Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome around the year 50. Eventually, Jews were able to go back to Rome, but not everyone did.
The book of Hebrews appears to be written to a congregation of Jews who had at one time believed in Jesus, but now were considering leaving off their faith in Jesus and being just Jews. This congregation had some connection to other congregations of Christians in their city who were suffering harsher persecution than they were (Hebrews 12:4; 13:3). If there was a synagogue in Rome that had once converted to Jesus but remained separate from Gentile congregations of Christians, this would make sense of what we read in Hebrews. After the great fire in Rome in 64, Nero blamed the Christians and began to persecute them fiercely. It seems likely that Nero’s persecutions took the lives of both Sts. Peter and Paul. A synagogue of believers in Jesus, however, might have been able to fly under Nero’s radar, appearing to be Jews and not Jewish Christians. The growing persecution also might have been just the pressure to make the recipients of Hebrews consider giving up their Christian identity altogether.
What does this mean for us, then, as modern readers of Hebrews? With significant exceptions, most of us American readers do not face violent persecution. However, we can be tempted to neglect our faith in similar ways to the first-century Jewish Christian. The threat of societal disapproval is enough for some of us to give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25) or to downplay our discipleship. The book of Hebrews, then, is valuable in trying to get us to see how great a privilege it is to be counted among Jesus’ people (Hebrews 12:12-29).
Hebrews is also a magnificent manual in seeing how the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus. For many of us, the rites of Judaism remain mysterious and impenetrable. Jews for centuries had regularly participated in the sacrifices and feasts led by the sons of Levi. When Jesus offered His life as “the Lamb of God,” they had a ritual referent embedded deeply in their minds. Hebrews spells all that out for us.
So, whoever wrote it and whoever first read it, Hebrews still blesses us today by opening up our understanding of the Old Testament and encouraging us to follow Jesus boldly.
Beginning last week and through this week, we read the personal letters of Paul. He wrote two to Timothy, one to Titus, and one to Philemon. Of course, there may have been other private, personal epistles, but these four were meant for the churches. Timothy and Titus were pastors. Philemon was the host of a congregation (Philemon 1:2).
There are many matters addressed briefly in these letters. One issue that often raises questions for readers is slavery. We know that a major Old Testament theme was God’s opposition to and overcoming of the enslavement of the Jews. How, then, could Paul seem to accept slavery, saying, for example, “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled” (1 Timothy 6:1)?
Paul taught individual slaves to show honor to their non-Christian masters so that Jesus’ name would not be cursed by unbelievers. Modern ears prize a gospel of self-actualization above all, but Jesus had taught His disciples to carry crosses (Lk 14:27).
The situation was different, however, when the slave-owner was a Christian. In one of his earliest epistles, Paul set down the marker saying, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In Philemon, we read Paul’s reaction to the situation where a Christian slave-owner sought the return of a runaway slave. That slave, Onesimus, came into contact with Paul and became a Christian. Paul urges and expects Philemon to set him free, “that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:15-16).
When Christians of previous ages argued about slavery in the Bible, they pointed out that Paul didn’t command Philemon to set Onesimus free. But this is not really an argument in favor of slavery. Indeed, Paul’s refusal to command a brother in Christ reflected what Paul wanted, for Philemon to no longer command Onesimus as a slave. Paul wanted Philemon to release Onesimus freely precisely because the Gospel brings love through freedom.
This, too, is something for us to remember. Sometimes we see what is right and when someone else does not, we want to accomplish that good through a command or through political enforcement. Certainly there are times when laws and force are necessary to protect the innocent. But every time we go that route, we lose the ability for people to give freely in love.
“For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Ephesians 2:14-15). Paul practiced what he preached. Onesimus and Philemon were restored as brothers, not by the law of command, but through the grace of the Gospel.