“All shall be well”… Really??

This is the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 21:5-19 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.

There are few things in life that we want to believe more than this:

All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.

Those lines come from Julian of Norwich in the 14th-century. It’s not her talking: it’s Jesus, as he has appeared to her in a vision.

Her vision is not cheap hope that crumbles at the first sign of pain or difficulty. It’s in the context of acknowledging the pain and sin in the world that Jesus says to Julian:

All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.

But do you know what her response was to these powerful words of comfort?

Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?

“HOW could all things be well?”

The disciples were about to ask that question.

What about the disciples?

But first… they couldn’t help but admire this beautiful temple they worshiped in. They gawked at “the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts,” Luke says (The Message).

The lectionary will circle back eventually to the story just before this passage—the poor widow with her two copper coins. She takes the standard of tithing 10% and multiplies that by 10, giving everything she has.

And somehow all the disciples want to talk about is who’s in the temple’s Platinum Donor’s Club. Hey, I know that guy! I talked to that family once! They’re a big deal around here!

They’re spiraling, and Jesus disrupts it: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

It’s all going down, Jesus says, every… last… stone.

The disciples must get scared, because they snap out of their donor admiring, and ask, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

Jesus gives four:

ONE. Fake Jesuses. Verse 8: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them.”

TWO. Wars and revolutions. Verse 9: “When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

THREE. Natural disasters. Verse 11: “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

The FOURTH sign is personal: being persecuted by others and betrayed by your own family. Verses 12, 16-17, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

But then Jesus says, “… not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (18-19).

And, remarkably, Jesus says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (v. 13, NRSV). “This will result in your being witnesses to them” (NIV).

The disciples, apart from being scared, must have also been confused.

One commentary quite helpfully says, “The lack of chronological order in Jesus’ statements helps to discourage any attempts to work out in advance a timetable of events.”

The disciples couldn’t work out a timetable. They couldn’t know when their end was near; they could only know that God would be present with them no matter what happened and when.

What about us?

And that’s true for disciples of Jesus today, too.

Some scholars think this passage had both immediate fulfillment—the destruction of the temple, the persecution of the disciples, and a fulfillment that is yet to come—the so-called end times.

But just as the disciples couldn’t figure a timeline from Jesus’s words, neither can we. God doesn’t promise us we’ll know when the end is near. Elsewhere Jesus talks about the second coming as unexpected, so watch and wait for it. We’ll practice this watching and waiting in Advent.

So we hear this foretelling of wars and natural disasters, and we ask, “Surely it couldn’t get any worse than it is now? Surely this is it?”

It can get worse. Probably will.

It’s comical how many people have been so certain that the world would end on such-and-such a date.

And then, inevitably, when it doesn’t end, “Ah! I found an error in my calculations. It’ll be six months from now.”

This reality is perhaps best presented—and skewered—by the TV show Parks and Recreation. There’s a group in that show called “The Reasonabilists,” who are anything but what their name suggests. The Reasonabilists are an end-time cult that is waiting for Zorp the Surveyor to destroy the world.

Who is Zorp, you ask? A Parks & Rec fansite describes him as a “28-foot-tall lizard-god savior.” But the salvation he brought was a little different—he was to come to earth and melt everyone’s faces off with his “volcano mouth.”

Well, Zorp’s predicted time comes and goes, and the cult leader has to re-figure the numbers, only to stay up all night for the next time Zorp will come melt their faces off and thereby save the world.

Our temptation is more subtle… with every new war and every massive natural disaster, with every self-proclaimed Savior and persecution of Christians, we could begin to live in the same kind of fear the disciples surely feel.

But Jesus’s point is exactly the opposite.

No matter when such a time is, and no matter what it looks like, and now matter how bad it gets, the same God who accompanied the disciples—even to their deaths—promises to accompany us—even to our deaths.

Even in the scenario that verses 16 and 17 describe… even should your own family come to hate you, “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” They can take your body, but not your soul. No one can take God’s love away from you. So make up your minds, Jesus says, not to worry beforehand! (v. 14)

Paul picked up on this in Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

————————-

Here’s a question to consider. You might give it some thought and prayer this week. When you walk into a difficult situation, what do you carry with you?

When you initiate a hard conversation, what do you have? When you face into a challenge you’d rather ignore, what resources do you have to face it? Maybe your family wouldn’t betray you to the death, but maybe you have to face some family dysfunction this Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What do you carry with you into all that?

However you answer that, we all have the promise of at least this resource: the words and wisdom of God. The words and wisdom of God.

Verse 15, spoken first to the disciples and surely extended to us in our time of need, has Jesus saying, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Those words, that wisdom… they come from the Holy Spirit, whom God has sent to dwell in the hearts of all who follow Jesus.

Well, indeed

I said that Julian of Norwich had replied to God, “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?”

That question feels right at home with this passage. It’s the kind of question the disciples would ask Jesus. It’s the kind of question WE want to ask Jesus when we hear something like this. Or when we just go about living our lives and watching the world around us. “How could all things be well,” O Lord?

Even after a vision of Jesus saying, “All shall be well,” that was what Julian asked—and a bunch of other questions like it.

And then, she got a response. She writes:

And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly in this fashion: I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you will see that yourself, that all things will be well.

This is the same emphasis the Isaiah passage (65:17-18) gives us.

Behold, I will create / new heavens and a new earth. / The former things will not be remembered, / nor will they come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever / in what I will create, / for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight / and its people a joy.

I will create and all things shall be made new, God says. Not just because of some vague optimism that things just have to get better. “All shall be well” because our living and powerful God makes it so.

The 19th century poet Oscar Wilde is said to have taken Julian of Norwich’s lines—“All shall be well / And all shall be well / And all manner of thing shall be well”—he is said to have taken these lines and added to them:

And if it isn’t well, then it’s still not the end.

What God(s) Were the Pharisee and Tax Collector Praying to?

This post is the concluding portion of the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 18:9-14 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.

Did you notice the Pharisee and the tax collector both start their prayer the same way? “God….”

They use the same word, the same way of addressing God, but you get the impression they are praying to two very different Gods.

We wonder: who must the Pharisee think God is, to be praying his way? And what does the tax collector think about the God to whom he prays?

Also, how does our own image of God shape our prayers?

For the Pharisee, there’s very little introspection. He’s critical of others and not himself. He mentions God, but it’s really only a quick appetizer before he can get to the main dish that is his own righteousness.

Maybe it’s as simple as: he’s just arrogant. His religiosity has gotten the best of him.

But imagine for a moment that the Pharisee is being sincere in his prayer. Sincerely wrong, yes, but what if he really means what he’s praying?

What kind of God would he have to have in mind to be praying like this?

It would be a God who just can’t stand all the ways we terrible humans mess everything up all the time.

It would be a God who LOVES when we get it right, and loves us more when we get it right more often.

It would be a God who doesn’t need a relational connection with us—just for us to check certain things off the list, and that’s enough.

It would be a God who wants us to jockey for position—who wants us to outdo each other in religious practices and spiritual disciplines, in fasting and giving and serving.

Then when we pray, if this is who God is, we’re just reporting back to our judge on all that we’ve done, desperately trying to find our place in God’s system of punishment and rewards.

The God of this Pharisee also seems to be a God who wants people to do it on their own. Because as the Pharisee is contrasting himself with others and listing his achievements, not once does he say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Not once does he ask, “God please help me as I fast… increase my generosity so I can give cheerfully.” Never does he invite God into his faith practice.

What kind of God is that?

Maybe one we’ve believed in, from time to time. Maybe that’s a God we’ve prayed to.

Who we believe God is will shape how we pray. And that means that we can listen to our own prayers, dig a little deeper, and ask ourselves, “Who do I really believe God is?”

The French thinker Montaigne was right on the money when he said, “Oh senseless man, who cannot possibly make a worm or a flea and yet will create Gods by the dozen!”

By contrast, who is the God the tax collector believes in?

It’s a God who listens.

It’s a God you can approach—even from far off—no matter what evil you’ve done.

A God you can confess to, and who will hear you, and will forgive you.

The tax collector believes first and foremost in a God who is merciful.

This is a God to whom you can tell the blunt truth about yourself. You can talk to God about your sin, bring it right into God’s presence.

1 John 1 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

The tax collector believes in a God who receives us when we confess, arms open, just as the father did the prodigal son.

We don’t have to read our spiritual résumé to God. We don’t have to put other people down when we pray, to elevate ourselves. In fact, God’s presence calls for our humility. Prayer is not first about us, after all. Prayer is first about God.

God is so full of mercy, so ready to forgive—as the tax collector knew—that we simply can enter in, as we are, and say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The tax collector is a model for us, not only in how to pray, but in how to think about God.

Of course, if we overheard the Pharisee’s prayer in real time, we’d be faced with a particularly cruel irony. We’d have to be careful not to say, “Lord, thank you that I am not like THAT arrogant Pharisee. Thank you, God, that I know who you are.”

Thomas Merton wrote:

There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious [people]. As soon as they have done something which they know to be good in the eyes of God, they tend to take its reality to themselves and to make it their own. They tend to destroy their virtues by claiming them for themselves and clothing their own private illusion of themselves with values that belong to God.

New Seeds of Contemplation

In the end, the Pharisee’s idea of God and idea of himself were really not that different. He was so good, so giving, so upright, he didn’t even need God! He was basically his own God.

The tax collector knew he couldn’t survive another day without God’s mercy.

And whether we realize it or not—insulated as our lives can be—none of us can truly live another day without God’s mercy.

We need it, we crave it, we have to have it now, Lord Jesus, because we are sinners in need of Christ’s mercy.

Pentecost: RSVP

The Story Luke TellsPentecost is near, which means many churches will turn their attention to the book of Acts.

A couple of Pentecosts ago I recommended Justo L. González’s excellent The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel.

González notes that Luke’s story in Luke-Acts doesn’t really end per se: “Paul has suffered countless vicissitudes. He has been shipwrecked. He has finally made it to Rome. He is awaiting trial before Caesar. And then—nothing!”

(If you can never remember how Acts ends, rest assured! This may be why.)

Gonzalez goes on:

In telling his story and leaving it unfinished, Luke is inviting his readers to be part of it, to join the throng. ….But since the story is unfinished, it is more appropriate to conclude it with “RSVP,” like an invitation that awaits a response. This is what Luke demand from us: not satisfied curiosity about the past, but a response here and now. RSVP!

It’s neat to think about the church today as being a new sequel to Luke-Acts. Or, more accurately, the threequel to those two stories: Luke, Acts, the Church Today.

May God continue to empower with his Holy Spirit those of us who would RSVP faithfully to his invitation!

 

 

(Adapted from an earlier post on this blog.)

 

The Winner Is…

Mark ZECNT

 

Congrats to Brian Davidson, the winner of Mark in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the NT! Enjoy the book, Brian!

I used Random Number Generator to pick the winner–tried and true. If you’d like to read my book note on the Mark commentary, it’s here.

Thanks for all who entered the giveaway! Subscribe via the right sidebar to get updated every time I post here.

Free Copy of Mark (ZECNT) in Print, and 80% Off Ebook Gospel Commentaries from Zondervan

Zondervan Matthew Collection

 

Starting August 8 and going until 11:59 (EST) on August 11, Zondervan is offering a host of commentaries on the Gospels at a steep discount. Almost all of them are ones I use regularly in preaching preparation.

Some highlights:

  • Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the NT, $7.99 (reviewed here)
  • Scot McKnight’s Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary, reviewed here)
  • Mark, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the NT, $7.99 (book note here)
  • NIVAC volumes, including Gary Burge’s volume on John
  • Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the NT, $7.99 (reviewed here, and I think the first commentary I reviewed for Words on the Word)

Find all the books on sale here.

Mark ZECNT
Up for grabs!

As part of the promotion, Zondervan has given me a print copy of Mark Strauss’s Mark commentary (ZECNT) to give away. It retails at $44.99.

If you’d like to enter for a chance to win the Mark commentary, leave a comment saying which Gospel you find yourself most drawn to and why. If you share a link to this post on Facebook and/or Twitter, you get a second entry. (Make sure you let me know you shared, and leave the link in the comments.)

I’ll announce the winner Friday evening. Check out the whole sale here.

After Luke and Acts: Part 3 of Luke’s Trilogy

As I’ve been working on the Book of Acts for my last few sermons, Acts has been working right back on me. I’m still thinking about my encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. This last week, as the lectionary moved from Acts 8 and Acts 10 back to Acts 1 (for the Sunday after Ascension Day), I found myself thinking in terms of Acts 1:8 as a prequel for what had been happening so far.

Just before he ascends, Jesus tells the disciples to wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

He says:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

They had wanted to know when the kingdom would be restored, but Jesus points them to a different when: the when of the Holy Spirit.

One implication of Jesus’ response, I think, is that we don’t have to know when or have life’s tensions resolved to be a witness right now to what we have seen in Jesus.

We don’t have to understand all the ins and outs of the kingdom of God–we may even think of its consummation as being a loooong ways away–to be able to make a contribution to it today, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

There’s an African proverb that says, “That which is good is never finished.”

The Book of Acts is like this. It’s not finished. If Acts 1 serves as a prequel for the whole narrative, Acts’s sequel is being written by men, women, boys, and girls who make up the church today.

The Story Luke TellsJusto Gonzalez comes at this another way in his excellent new book,The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel (Eerdmans, 2015).

He points out that Luke’s story in Luke-Acts doesn’t really end: “Paul has suffered countless vicissitudes. He has been shipwrecked. He has finally made it to Rome. He is awaiting trial before Caesar. And then—nothing!”

(This helps explain why after a recent read-through of Acts, I was at a loss to remember what happened to Paul at the end!)

Gonzalez goes on:

In telling his story and leaving it unfinished, Luke is inviting his readers to be part of it, to join the throng. ….But since the story is unfinished, it is more appropriate to conclude it with “RSVP,” like an invitation that awaits a response. This is what Luke demand from us: not satisfied curiosity about the past, but a response here and now. RSVP!

Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

We are the sequel to the two-part combo of Luke and Acts–the threequel, if you like. The story of the church in the world now becomes the third part in Luke’s trilogy. Luke-Acts-Us.

Do Not Our Hearts Burn Within Us?

Supper at Emmaus, by Dr. He Qi, 2001
Supper at Emmaus, by Dr. He Qi, 2001

N.T. Wright compares the two disciples on the road to Emmaus to people who have gotten up early to watch the sunrise, but were looking westward, rather than eastward.

They were like people on a hillside, watching eagerly for the sunrise. …Disoriented, they are facing the wrong way. The expected moment comes and goes, and nothing happens. Then they become aware that, though the sky they are scanning remains dark, light seems to be shining anyway. With a strange excitement they turn around, to see the sun shining in full strength in the very place they least expected it.

The day Luke describes in Luke 24:13 is the day of Jesus’ resurrection, although it was decidedly not Easter to these two travelers. This is why Wright says “they least expected it.”

The women had seen the empty tomb, and these two disciples knew that, but they hadn’t pieced it all together yet. To them, Jesus was still dead. So they have this road trip now to talk about the death of Jesus, the denial of Peter, the betrayal of Judas, the crowds shouting, “Crucify!”, the weeping of the disciples at the cross, and the shock and shattered dreams of the community of Jesus’ followers.

One of the questions Luke is posing to his listeners and readers is: will we, when Jesus shows up, have eyes to see him?

The Road to Emmaus Was Covered With Tears

Jesus chastises the two, as only a loving and trusted teacher can do, for not understanding, for not knowing who he was.

But, in one sense, we don’t really want to blame these two disciples. To be fair, they were utterly devastated. “[T]hey crucified him,” they said, “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

When our eyes are cloudy with tears, when we’re sinking beneath the weight of death and tragedy and incomprehensible outcomes… do we recognize Jesus?

They must have felt like that speech from Macbeth that I had to memorize in high school:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

Good Friday and the days following were just an idiot’s tale, not a compelling narrative of an entire nation’s redemption. It all meant nothing.

Jesus and the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus, by Gustave Doré (1832–1883)
Jesus and the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus, Gustave Doré (1832–1883)

We don’t know for sure where Emmaus is–people who like to study these things have made two or three suggestions. It was within walking distance from Jerusalem, at least.

But I think we do know what Emmaus was. It was an escape. It was another town, it was not-Jerusalem, which was just too painful a place for these two disciples to be. It was a pre-emptive break from the regular weekday schedule that surely awaited the disciples on Monday morning. Those routines would have been unbearable with Jesus gone. So at least if they could go somewhere where the buildings and mountains and water wouldn’t remind them of him, maybe their sorrows could be numbed a little bit.

They were done. It was over. The road to Emmaus was a road of confusion, frustration, and tears.

Jesus Shows Up

Then Jesus shows up. They don’t know it’s Jesus. It’s another fellow traveler, and it would not have been weird at all for them to walk together, even if they hadn’t met.

“They were kept from recognizing him,” Luke says, a curious phrase. Was it their own sadness that kept them from seeing? Was it lack of faith? Did they think, “Hey this guy does look a little like Jesus, but no way it’s him”? Did God somehow keep them from seeing, so this scene could play out?

When he asks what they’re talking about, they can hardly bring themselves to re-live the tragedy. Cleopas does his best and, surprised that anyone wouldn’t have heard the front-page news, he goes on and tells about the criminal’s death his supposed Savior died.

[W]hat is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.

They knew this was the “third day,” when something was supposed to happen. And they knew the tomb was empty. And they knew the women were excited and had seen angels at Jesus’ tomb. But they hadn’t yet seen Jesus alive, outside of the tomb.

Jesus rebukes them for not knowing how it was supposed to all go down, a gentle (or maybe not-so-gentle) reminder to us to pay attention to what God is doing in the world… to pay attention to who Jesus is. No matter what led these two followers to go to Emmaus, there were some mysterious things afoot in Jerusalem, and they didn’t bother to stick around to see how it would play out. Maybe this is why Jesus calls them “foolish” and “slow of heart.”

Jesus then goes through the Scriptures (“Moses and all the Prophets,” or the whole Old Testament) and shows how it all points to him.

They Recognized Him

They get to Emmaus, so they get ready to stay the night there. Middle Eastern hospitality requires that they ask Jesus to join them, so he’s not out walking by himself. They sit down to eat. If the guided tour of the Hebrew Bible by one of its co-authors wasn’t enough, the two disciples now at last recognize Jesus, as he breaks the bread. Jesus goes quickly from table guest to host at a meal that would forever transform these two:

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

The Disciples Recognize Jesus at Emmaus,  Rembrandt (1606–1669)
The Disciples Recognize Jesus at Emmaus,
Rembrandt (1606–1669)

Now they know Jesus, in the breaking of the bread. Perhaps they recall the feeding of the 5,000, or the Last Supper that they had probably heard about from the other disciples who were there. On both of those occasions, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and distributed it.

So they go back to Jerusalem, where all the commotion is, and make their contribution to the unfolding events of the first Easter:

They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

Jesus appears to them through the reading of Scripture and through fellowship at a table.

Time and time again the early church and the church throughout the ages would gather to hear the Word of God proclaimed and the sacrament of communion celebrated, and in so doing the church would continue to recognize its risen Lord.

Hearts Burning Within Us

During an Easter hymn two weeks ago, I was filled with awe at just how transforming the resurrection is for those who believe in it.

I began to think, “What if we remembered more often, both when we’re together and when we’re apart–what if we remembered more often that we worship a risen Jesus, and Christ’s resurrection completely transforms how we see the world? The victorious life over death of the resurrected Jesus is foundational to our identity.” We worship a Lord who could not be shut up in a tomb. Therefore, we, too, are resurrection people, disciples who have been forever changed by Christ’s victory over death.

Do not our hearts burn within us when we gather to hear God’s word, and when we break bread at Christ’s table? And do not our hearts burn within us, as we see Jesus in each other, at brunch or meals in each other’s homes, at coffee, through small group prayer, and notes of encouragement? Do not our hearts burn within us when we realize we’re not alone on the road, but have each other for traveling companions?

Do not our hearts burn within us when we truly recognize Jesus through an encounter with him?

And this encounter with Jesus is just as likely to take place on our defeated path to Emmaus… in those moments where we walk away from our hopes and dreams and visions of the future that are now traded in for just the hope of making it to lunchtime….

We see Jesus on our roads and sidewalks, because he comes and finds us there. We weren’t even looking for him. We didn’t even recognize him, and he came–the resurrected Lord, giving us his broken body and blood for our new life–he came and enlivened our hearts, rekindled our passion, made us excited about something again. Jesus gave us renewed purpose and vision. Jesus offered us hope when we were grasping at straws.

Do not our hearts burn within us?

And so we, who have seen this risen Lord, say with the two Emmaus-bound disciples and the others:

“It is true! The Lord has risen!”

This becomes a foundational truth about our identity, our make-up as believers in Jesus.

We are a people who have seen the risen Lord.

“It is true! The Lord has risen!”

We may invite him in as a guest to our gatherings, as those two road-walkers in our passage did. But we quickly find Jesus himself to be host, the one who invited us into fellowship with him in the first place. And do not our hearts burn within us as we hear his invitation to come to his table?

“It is true! The Lord has risen!”

Come, see Jesus now. The table of fellowship is set. Recognize him as he opens his table to us who journey along the road. And let your heart beat a little bit faster as you encounter the risen Jesus there.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached on Luke 24:13-35 today. All Scripture quotations come from the NIV (1984) or TNIV. See my other sermons, if you desire, here. The image at the beginning of the post is used and covered under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Review of Luke (Baylor Handbook on the Greek Text)

Luke Baylor

Luke: A Handbook on the Greek Text is part of an expanding series by Baylor University Press that walks a reader through each word, phrase, and verse of the Greek New Testament. Of the series Baylor writes:

What distinguishes this series from other available resources is the detailed and comprehensive attention paid to the Greek text of the New Testament. Each handbook provides a convenient reference tool that explains the syntax of the biblical text, offers guidance for deciding between competing semantic analyses, deals with text-critical questions that have a significant bearing on how the text is understood, and addresses questions relating to the Greek text that are frequently overlooked or ignored by standard commentaries, all in a succinct and accessible manner.

The Luke volume is some 800 pages of lexical, grammatical, and syntactical detail. Language nerds will love it. The Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament series (BHGNT) “is designed to guide new readers and seasoned scholars alike through the intricacies of the Greek text.”

The Approach

Luke begins with a 15-page Introduction, with the following section headings:

  • Luke’s Style: “a mix of styles” and “higher on the literary scale than Matthew, Mark, or John”
  • Verbal Aspect: aorist tense verbs encode perfective aspect, generally used for mainline narrative events; imperfect tense verbs encode imperfective aspect, generally used for background events; present tense (imperfective aspect) is for quoted speech… but these are “tendencies only, not hard and fast linguistic rules”
  • The Use of Conjunctions at the Discourse Level: the authors focus here particularly on καί and δέ, which “serve distinct functions that assist readers in tracking the flow and status of information through large blocks of text”
  • Participles: primarily context (not just syntax) “drives the analysis” throughout the handbook
  • Word Order: the Greek verb defaults to a position at the start of a sentence; anything preceding it is “fronted” (which does not, the authors note, always imply emphasis)

Additionally, the Series Introduction addresses deponency, a label often given to middle/passive verbs with “active” meanings, but considered now by a number of scholars (and by the BHGNT series) to be an unhelpful concept “leading to imprecise readings of the text.” As a result,

users of the BHGNT will discover that verbs that are typically labeled “deponent,” including some with -θη- morphology, tend to be listed as “middle.”

The body of the handbook offers an English translation of each section of biblical text. Next there is the full Greek text of a given verse. Then follows a word-by-word (and/or phrase-by-phrase) analysis of the Greek text. One advantage to this structure is that, without having to have recourse to any other books, the user of this handbook has the full Greek and English texts of Luke in front of them.

There is also useful material at the back of the handbook: a glossary of nearly 50 grammatical terms and concepts, a bibliography, a grammar index (with grammatical concepts listed in English and words listed in Greek), and an author index. If I wanted to trace Luke’s use of the double accusative, for example, I’d see a list of verse references in the grammar index for further study.

An Example Passage: Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10

Luke 19:1-10 tells the well-known story of Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus. This handbook volume does comment on what a Greek phrase might “literally” mean, yet not (thankfully) to the point of making its English translation overly wooden, at least not on a regular basis. The translation is generally smooth, with additional comments on meaning throughout the notes.

Luke 19:1, for example, reads, “After entering Jericho, Jesus was passing through the city.” The handbook entry on that verse is as follows:

19:1 Καὶ εἰσελθὼν διήρχετο τὴν Ἰεριχώ.

Καὶ. The conjunction closely links this pericope with the preceding one, while the rest of the verse marks a shift in scene.
εἰσελθὼν. Aor act ptc masc nom sg εἰσέρχομαι (temporal).
διήρχετο. Impf mid ind 3rd sg διέρχομαι. The first three verses supply background information for the narrative that follows using imperfect verbs and equative clauses (διήρχετο; ἦν, v. 2; ἐζήτει, ἠδύνατο, v. 3).
τὴν Ἰεριχώ. Accusative complement of διήρχετο. Lit. “entering, he was passing through Jericho.”

Sometimes the entries are not much more than parsing, with a brief description of function (as in εἰσελθὼν, above). Other times there is more detail, as in διήρχετο. This reflects a concern throughout the handbook with discourse analysis: the authors are regularly asking (and answering) the question, “Why did Luke choose these words here? Why this verb tense? Why this position? What does it do for the narrative and the reader-hearer’s experience of it?”

Though Luke is not meant to be a full-on commentary, the authors nonetheless interact with other literature (commentaries and grammars, especially). For example, on 19:3’s “he was short in stature” (Greek: τῇ ἡλικίᾳ μικρὸς ἦν), they have this note:

The meaning of the phrase is debated. It could refer to Zacchaeus’ age (Green, 669–70) or his physical stature (Fitzmyer, 2:1223). The phrase probably not only refers to Zacchaeus’ height, but also serves to characterize him in a negative fashion (see Parsons 2001, 50–57; 2006, 97–108).

Whether or not one agrees with the conclusion (that Luke is talking about height), Culy, Parsons, and Stigall present the options, give bibliographical information, and–most important–say what the function of this phrase is in Luke’s story. Similarly, the authors consider textual variants where they would impact the meaning of the text.

What Luke: A Handbook on the Greek Text Is Not

This is a specialized work and does not aim to situate each passage in its literary or historical context. For example, when I was preaching on the Parable of the “Good Samaritan”, I turned to that passage. There is no introductory comment that sets it up, neither there nor at the beginning of chapter 10. There is a note that ἰδοὺ “is sometimes used to introduce a major character in a narrative, as here,” but that’s it.

Since the commentary does not set out to provide literary context or structural outlines, it would be unfair to criticize it for not doing that. The reader should be aware that this book is really true to its series title: it’s a handbook (that at times feels like a collection of notes) on the Greek text. Given that even technical, Greek-oriented commentaries pass over some words and concepts in the Greek text, there is definitely a place for a book like this. Those who want to go in-depth with the Greek (word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase) will find many riches to appreciate here, as I have.

Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by some places (i.e., the difficult Luke 18:7) where Culy, Parsons, and Stigall did offer insight into how to understand a passage as a whole.

The handbook will not replace a good lexicon. Some words simply have parsing information given, with little to no elaboration on the word’s meaning. To be truly comprehensive in this regard would double the size of the book, so it’s an understandable decision. Just keep BDAG close by as you read. That said, in this handbook you will get detail even down to the level of Greek accents!

Concluding Evaluation

The series preface says:

Readers of traditional commentaries are sometimes dismayed by the fact that even those that are labeled “exegetical” or “critical” frequently have little to say about the mechanics of the Greek text, and all too often completely ignore the more perplexing grammatical issues.

I have definitely felt this way as a commentary reader and user (and wanna-be Greek nerd). To have a handbook (albeit one that requires large hands to hold!) devoted to the Greek and its grammar is a great aid to anyone wanting to maintain or deepen their use of biblical languages. The lexical analysis (with sensitivity to larger New Testament context), grammatical insights, and linguistic nuances make for a smart and challenging companion to the Greek text. I’m excited to see more coming from this series.

N.B.: I have also reviewed Malachi in the similar Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Text series, in two parts: here and here.

Thanks to Baylor University Press for the review copy. You can find the book’s product page here. It is on Amazon (affiliate link) here, where you can also “look inside” the book.

Teach the Text: Luke by R.T. France

R.T. France
R.T. France

I’ve always had a hard time answering who my “favorite author” was (how could I pick just one?), but when it comes to people who have written about the Bible, R.T. France is definitely in the top three. I found myself moved to tears several times when reading through his highly technical (read: supposed to be dry) commentary on Mark.

So I was thrilled when I learned that Baker’s Teach the Text Commentary Series (TTT) had R.T. France as the author of its Luke volume. France died in February 2012, so to have this posthumous work of his is a real treat–especially since he already has a major commentary on Matthew and one on Mark. This rounds out France’s writing on the Synoptic Gospels.

So far the TTT series is a strong entry into the already highly populated world of commentaries. I reviewed the Romans volume here. Baker has a fantastic series Website here with plenty of information, videos, and samples from the series.

How France Teaches Luke

France divides the 24 chapters of Luke into 65 text units (or passages), each of which receives six pages of commentary. It breaks down in this way: 

“Big Idea” at the beginning of each commentary passage.This is a short Tweet-length summary of the passage. For example, the Big Idea for Luke 1:57-80 (“The Birth of John”) is: “Both the extraordinary circumstances of his birth and his father’s inspired utterance testify to John’s pivotal role in the plan of salvation.”

A “Key Themes” sidebar. This is a set of bullet points that gives the highlights of each passage.

“Understanding the Text.” Here France offers:

  • The Text in Context (one of his real gifts is a sense of always knowing the larger literary context, and reminding the reader of it)
  • Outline/Structure
  • Historical and Cultural Background
  • Verse-by-verse Interpretive Insights
  • Theological Insights

France is especially adept in the Theological Insights section. He is reliable, creative, and faithful to the text. His experience as both scholar and pastor seems to have helped here.

“Teaching the Text.” France offers specific suggestions for how the preacher might approach the sermon on each text.

“Illustrating the Text.” Whether it’s a personal story, someone else’s anecdote, history, literature, film, or art, France gives ideas for how the preacher or teacher can illustrate the message.

France’s introduction to Luke is a mere seven pages (which includes commentary on Luke 1:1-4), but his awareness of literary and biblical context throughout the book offers what one might otherwise miss by way of introductory matters.

How France Treats a Passage (Luke 17:1-19)

Luke by FranceTo explore a sample passage more in depth, France combines Luke 17:1-19 into one passage, on which he spends the requisite six pages. The decision to treat Luke 17:1-19 as a single passage limits how much he can offer, and occasionally the reader will experience the results of such space limitations in TTT. (This is part of the purpose of the series, though, and is perhaps just indicative of my desire for more France.) Luke 17:1-10 (itself consisting of “four separate units of teaching”) and 17:11-19 probably ought to be treated as two separate passages–the Revised Common Lectionary, among other places, does.

His “Big Idea” in this section (“True discipleship cannot be undertaken causally; the service of God demands all that we can bring to it”) is more relevant to vv. 1-10 than it is to vv. 11-19.  (By contrast, this similarly-targeted Luke commentary has, “Faith recognizes Jesus as the source of healing and expresses itself in gratitude and praise to him,” for vv. 11-19.)

Even so, France has this good insight to offer on verse 19:

This formula [‘your faith has made you well’] is often a ‘performative utterance,’ but not here, since the cure of the ten has already taken place, all of them presumably through similar ‘faith.’ But this man’s overt praise of God is evidence of a spiritual health that Jews would not expect to find in a Samaritan.

And his “Teaching the Text” portion does suggest ways to preach from vv. 1-10 and vv. 11-19 as separate passages. On the latter he writes:

France on Luke 17_1France on Luke 17_2

In “Illustrating the Text” France moves between a 1962 film (Days of Wine and Roses, about leading another into alcoholism), a personal anecdote on forgiveness by Cardinal Bernardin, and a quotation by author Lewis B. Smedes on gratitude and happiness.

As with the Romans Teach the Text volume, the illustrations throughout help the reader better envision what’s going on in the biblical text. Here’s a portion from the passage that describes Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus:

Zacchaeus's Sycamore Tree
Zacchaeus’s Sycamore Tree

An added bonus is the high quality of the book materials. The hardcover looks pretty indestructible, the binding is sewn, and the pages are thick and glossy (but not too glossy to accept notes from a writing utensil). The full-color pages throughout are a nice touch, too. Translation: this commentary will make it through multiple series and preaching cycles on Luke. I’ve even been able to use it recently as I preach through Matthew, consulting the parallel passages here.

There are already five TTT volumes available, with more on the way. If the quality of this series continue to match that of France and Pate (Romans), I’ll want to keep consulting this series, and other preachers and teachers will want to, as well.

Thanks to Baker Publishing for the review copy of Luke. Its Baker product page is here, and it is for sale at Amazon here.

Flannery O’Connor and Richard Vinson Read Luke

“Have you ever been Baptized?” the preacher asked.
   “What’s that?” he murmured.
   “If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?”
   “Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.
   “You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said. “You’ll count.

–Flannery O’Connor, “The River,” quoted in Richard Vinson’s Luke

Luke by VinsonWhen I preached through parts of Luke this past fall, one of my favorite commentaries to consult–and the one that always felt the freshest–was Richard Vinson’s Luke in the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series. Here is how the series preface describes the series:

The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary is a visually stimulating and user-friendly series that is as close to multimedia in print as possible. Written by accomplished scholars with all students of Scripture in mind, the primary goal of the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary is to make available serious, credible biblical scholarship in an accessible and less intimidating format.

What stands out to me most about Luke is that it’s not only accessible but creative in its literary read of Scripture. Vinson knows Luke and its background well; he also knows modern history, culture, literature, and art in a way that allows him to explain the biblical text in a really fresh and engaging way. His primary audience is “pastors and other Bible teachers.”

The introduction is a concise 20-some pages, covering essentials like authorship, dating, sources, structure, and themes found in Luke. (This for me was the highlight of his introduction, as he discussed gospel sources, yet with his target audience in view–“So I will content myself with the occasional ‘if Q really exists’ and worry about more important issues.”)

There are times when reading the commentary is like reading a sermon–a good sermon. To take an example, the passage on Luke 18:1-8 (about prayer, the apathetic judge, and the persistent widow) begins like this:

The title of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education caught my attention: “Study of Prayer’s Healing Power on Surgery Patients Finds No Effect.” The article described an experiment in having people pray, by name, for persons recovering from heart bypass surgery. [Does Prayer Work? sidebar] None of the pray-ers knew the pray-ees; some of the pray- ees knew they were being prayed for, while others were told only that it might be true for them. Would the prayers have a statistically measurable effect—would the persons prayed for suffer fewer complications than those who were not prayed for? In this test, under these conditions, not so much…. I find I have mixed reactions to the finding that prayer does not always bring the desired results: (a) surely that’s not news to anyone who prays regularly; (b) at least now I know that I’m not the only one, and that God isn’t singling out my prayers to ignore; (c) maybe the experiment proves that there is no God who can be controlled by specific human behaviors, even if the desired outcome is unobjectionable.

The study itself (detailed in a sidebar) is a little silly. But it’s a nice entry into the question that such texts raise: Will God answer my prayers? And if the outcomes I’m praying for don’t obtain, what is going on?

Art from the commentary
Art from the commentary

From there it moves into exposition of the passage. Exegesis in the commentary is passage-by-passage, rather than verse-by-verse. There’s not always a lot of technical detail, but I still felt like Vinson did justice to whatever passage was under consideration. He gives the Old Testament “job description” of the judge in the passage mentioned above, as well as the larger biblical context for the importance of widows. Comparisons to other Gospel accounts, as well as the occasional word studies for important words (with reference to Greek), make this as good a starting point as any.

And yet what commentary will also reference Flannery O’Connor, Hank Williams, and Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front? Vinson’s creativity and honesty as he seeks to make sense of a text are refreshing, and often set me at ease when facing the prospect of preaching on a challenging passage.

The commentary comes with a CD-ROM that has a pdf of the entire book, with Table of Contents and easy navigation (as pdfs go). You can keyword search it and make annotations. This is a step in the direction of my dream that one could own both print and digital with one purchase. And the print edition is quite nicely constructed, too–sewn binding and all (so it lays flat), which seems to be increasingly rare these days.

I had not heard of this series until recently, but for any book I preach out of (there are both OT and NT volumes), I’m going to try to get a hold of the corresponding Smyth & Helwys volume from here on out.

I am grateful to Smyth & Helwys for the gratis review copy of this commentary, which was sent to me for this review. You can find the book on Amazon here. The publisher’s product page is here. All the published volumes in the series are here.