Jesus Was Born, Infanticide Followed. Did That Inspire How He Loved Children?


Christ Blessing the Children

TW/CW: murder / infant death / child abuse

There is a Bible verse that always stops me in my tracks:

Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance.

—Matthew 2:16 (New Living Translation)

This is some of the most heinous evil the Bible reports. Can you imagine?

Herod couldn’t find Jesus, but he knew Jesus was in Bethlehem or nearby, and he knew Jesus was two years old or under. So Herod just took that whole group of people and had them killed. It’s an egregious abuse of power.

The Gospels record attempts on Jesus’s life once he is active in ministry, but it’s a miracle that Jesus even made it to adulthood. He emerged from an entire generation of babies that Herod ordered murdered.

The story of those babies and their families doesn’t stop with their murder. The parents had to live with the death of their children for the rest of their lives. All the birthdays, yearly feasts, and celebrations: gone. Two high school graduations—class of ’13 and class of ’14—cancelled, because no one was there to graduate. A murderous, abusive, vindictive tyrant stole those kids from their parents.

Jesus’s birth was surrounded by child abuse.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie”? Nope. At least not for long. Herod was making that little town a cesspool of death and trauma. There’s no stillness in what Matthew goes on to describe, quoting the prophet Jeremiah:

“A cry was heard in Ramah—
weeping and great mourning.
Rachel weeps for her children,
refusing to be comforted,
for they are dead.”

Did Mary and Joseph and Jesus have survivor’s guilt? How awful must Mary and Joseph have felt about all this? And what was Jesus’s reaction when he realized the circumstances surrounding his birth? Surely this did not look like the salvation the angel had promised Jesus would bring—maybe even its opposite.

I’ve started wondering: all this killing of little babies… did this shape Jesus’s passion for ministering to children? Was it a deeply formative experience for how Jesus would live in the world?

More specifically, did the abuse and trauma Jesus learned about inspire him to especially love the abused and traumatized? Did the erasure of children and complete destruction of their rights lead him to become a champion of children?

Reading against such a backdrop, these words of Jesus strike me as even more poignant—and powerful:

“Let the little children come, and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

And this powerful moment:

And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

I have to think Jesus carried all the death and grief and trauma that others experienced, not just at the cross, but from the very time he was born. When he looked at the children coming to him, did he remember all the children that would never have a chance to approach him? When he blessed the children, was it a deliberate undoing of the curse Herod had pronounced?

Miraculously, Jesus survived citywide infanticide. He lived through that systemic abuse. Now he would prioritize the well-being of children. He would make sure they could truly live.

The Winner Is…



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.

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.

Scot McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount Commentary, Reviewed



My mild obsession with the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be traced back to a question I asked myself and the congregation with whom I worship in early March: How can Ukraine love its Russian occupiers? And what would Bonhoeffer suggest?

The questions came from my wrestling through Matthew 5:38-48, which I find the be the most difficult passage in the Sermon on the Mount. I concluded, in part,

What seems a fairly straightforward statement, “Love your enemy,” is difficult. What does it mean to love enemies? In what spheres must that take place, and how should it happen, especially in the presence of an inordinately powerful evil? How categorical is Jesus in his forbidding of force? Was he speaking to disciples, or to disciples and states?

You can see how I landed (at least in a sense) at the end of this post.


Enter Scot McKnight


Scot McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary, Zondervan, 2013) helped me wrestle through the difficult question of just what it means to “turn the other cheek.” While some interpreters (such as Luther) have sought to distinguish between private (interpersonal) and public (political) applications of this text, McKnight responds: “Utter nonsense.” Instead:

One of the main thrusts of the ethic of Jesus is the radicalization of an ethic so that we live consistently, from the so-called “private” to the “public” spheres. There is for Jesus no distinction between a secular life and spiritual life: we are always to follow him. His ethic is an Ethic from Beyond. But others, in words not so wrongheaded as Luther’s, have continued Luther’s personal vs. public or spiritual vs. secular distinction when it comes to ethics.

Jesus, McKnight persuasively argues, was not distinguishing between how the disciples should live in their private lives (whatever that would have meant) as opposed to in public. “The question every reader of the Sermon must ask,” McKnight goes on, is:

Does that world begin now, or does it begin now in private but not in public, or does it begin now for his followers in both private and to the degree possible in the public realm as well?


A New Commentary Series: SGBC


The Story of God Bible Commentary is a new series, with McKnight’s volume and Lynn Cohick’s Philippians volume being the first two published. As the name implies, the series is concerned to interpret and apply Scripture with an eye to how each passage relates to the larger biblical story:

We want to explain each passage of the Bible in light of the Bible’s grand Story. The Bible’s grand Story, of course, connects this series to the classic expression regula fidei, the “rule of faith,” which was the Bible’s story coming to fulfillment in Jesus as the Messiah, Lord, and Savior of all.

There are three primary sections in each passage:

1. Listen to the Story. With the assumption that “the most important posture of the Christian before the Bible is to listen,” the SGBC series begins with the full text of the passage under consideration (using the 2011 New International Version). The section also includes an introduction to the passage.

2. Explain the Story. From historical background to cultural context, from theological explanation to individual word studies, here is where SGBC unpacks “a sound and living reading of the text in light of the Story of God in the Bible.”

3. Live the Story. This is the “digging deeper” into “our world” section. The commentary series is not geared for an academic audience, which allows authors to spend more time imagining 21st century applications of a passage to life. This is especially helpful for preachers and anyone wanting to know how to live out a passage they are studying.


“Better People” or “Better Liars”?


McKnight wastes no time in convicting the reader, much as the Sermon on the Mount itself does. Just before the introduction he quotes Bonhoeffer, who says of the Sermon:

Its validity depends on its being obeyed.

And here’s Dean Smith, via McKnight:

The Sermon on the Mount has a strange way of making us better people or better liars.

(Ouch! But so true.)

McKnight agrees that the incongruence “between Jesus’ vision and our life bothers many of us.” Various interpretive attempts, he suggest, have made Jesus say what he did not really say. By contrast:

There is something vital—and this is a central theme in this commentary—in letting the demand of Jesus, expressed over and over in the Sermon as imperatives or commands, stand in its rhetorical ruggedness.

Jesus intended the Sermon on the Mount as “the claim of Jesus upon our whole being.”

So you can’t just read this commentary in a detached way or use it for dry or “objective” research (as if there were such a thing!). Throughout the commentary McKnight helps the reader hear Jesus’ demanding (yet life-giving) message in resounding terms.


McKnight on Jesus and Ethics


The commentary’s introduction has a substantive (and surprisingly helpful) section called, “The Sermon and Moral Theory,” where McKnight compares “Jesus’ moral vision” to other moral theories, whether Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative (deontology), or Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism.

McKnight presents Jesus’ ethics through the conjoining lenses of:

  • “Ethics from Above”—Jesus speaks as God
  • “Ethics from Beyond”—”kingdom ethics” that seek to bring “God’s future to bear on the present”
  • “Ethics from Below”—based on human “inductive observation”
  • An ethical theory that is “messianic, ecclesial, pneumatic”—in Jesus’ “messianic vocation,” he believes that “an ethic can only be lived out in community (the kingdom manifestation in the church) and through the power of the Spirit now at work.”

The introduction offers no structural outline of the Sermon on the Mount. There is just a paragraph about its structure, saying that the matter is “incapable of any kind of firm resolution.” So the omission of an outline seems deliberate, but at least something preliminary would have helped–even a Table of Contents that shows the pericope divisions/commentary chapters at a glance, which this volume lacks.


The Commentary Proper


McKnight breaks the Sermon into 23 chapters in his commentary proper (chapter 1 treats both the very first and very last verses of the Sermon on the Mount together). Each chapter prints the full biblical text (it’s nice to have everything in one place), then proceeds with the sections noted above: Listen to the Story, Explain the Story, Live the Story. His experience in teaching and ministry is obvious throughout the book, which is a refreshing balance of deep exegesis, lucid prose, and convicting application.

To look briefly at just one passage, Matthew 7:12 says:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

McKnight writes:

Of the many ways to describe or articulate the Torah, two are pertinent in our text: one can either multiply laws so as to cover all possible situations, or one can reduce the law to its essence.

The verse, which he sets in biblical and rabbinical context, “summarizes the essence of the Sermon” (emphasis in original). And it has much to say to how we ought to live now:

But the Golden Rule is of direct value in relationships in churches. It takes but a moment’s thought to think it through: How do I want to treat others? How would I want to be treated?


This is a fantastic commentary. It’s smart, well-researched, deep, engaging, challenging, and–perhaps best of all–like the Sermon it addresses, issues a clear call to righteous living according to God’s will.


Thanks to Zondervan Academic for the review copy, offered for the purposes of an unbiased review. Find it at Zondervan here or Amazon here.

Because I Said So

We fathers and mothers learn early on, in our roles as parents, that “Because I said so” isn’t usually enough to get a determined child to change course and listen.

It’s the same thing your parents said to you, that you swore you’d never say as a parent. At the same time, you do want your own children to know that you have authority over them, as a parent.

Whether this ends up being an effective parenting move or not, it’s difficult, especially in moments of desperation, to not just point to our own authority as parents. “I’m the dad, you’re the son, you listen.”

Jesus’ Authority–“Because I Said So”?

rublev trinityIt’s fitting that on this Father’s Day, today in the liturgical church calendar is Trinity Sunday.

The so-called Great Commission in Matthew 28 includes an appeal to baptize disciples in the three-fold name of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To be a disciple of Jesus is to enter into communion with a God who is one God, three persons. To be a disciple also means to learn Jesus’ teachings, and then pass them on to others to follow.

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

As many times as I’ve heard this passage, growing up in the church, I was especially struck this time around by the single word, “Therefore.” “Therefore” is a word that points ahead to what’s next in the sentence, but it also points back to something. X is true. Therefore, Y and Z.

Therefore, Jesus says, “go and make disciples.” On what basis is Jesus calling his disciples to go make more disciples, to essentially replicate themselves?

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19 Therefore go….

It would be easy to read this as the sort of move that fathers and mothers make when we want to try to ensure that we’re going to be obeyed.

“Because I said so….” “Because I am Jesus.…” “Because I have authority, you need to listen to me and make disciples….”

Matthew does tell us, after all, in verse 17

17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

What’s especially disheartening about this is the fact that the sum total of disciples who are with Jesus for this important commissioning is… 11. Judas has committed suicide at this point, so they’re down a guy… they’re short-handed. And then, how many doubted? 2? 3? 5?

Maybe, since Jesus knew of their doubt, maybe he had to say, “Look–all authority has been given to me. So you need to listen to what’s next.”

Some of you grew up in an era in which our country was experiencing an allergic reaction to authority. Some of you, no matter when you were born, may recoil a bit at the very use of the word “authority,” especially when it shows up in a relational context.

I wonder, too, especially about those doubting disciples–usually for those who are doubting, second-guessing, wondering, calling into question… usually for somebody like that, an appeal to authority goes nowhere fast.

Jesus’ Authority–He Goes Before Us Through the Holy Spirit

I’m not convinced that’s what Jesus is doing here. His disciples were spiritually dim-witted at times, like we can be, but I’m not so sure he’s appealing to his authority just so that they will listen to him.

See–Jesus knows he’s about to give the disciples a tall order. He knows before he commissions the disciples, that even two thousand years later, some Christians will have a hard time with the “d”-word: discipleship. Or the “e”-word: evangelism.

Jesus has doubters in his midst, among the 11. And he’s supposed to start a worldwide missionary movement out of them!

The Mission to the World by JESUS MAFA (1973)
The Mission to the World by JESUS MAFA (1973)

Preacher and writer Tom Long puts it like this:

Telling this little band of confused and disoriented disciples that they were to herd all the peoples of the earth toward Mount Zion in the name of Jesus would be like standing in front of most congregations today—many of them small and all of them of mixed motives and uncertain convictions—and telling them, ‘Go into all the world and cure cancer, clean up the environment, evangelize the unbelieving, and, while you are at it, establish world peace.’

Long goes on:

That is the point, or close to it. The very fact that the task is utterly impossible throws the disciples completely onto the mercy and strength of God. The work of the church cannot be taken up unless it is true that “all authority” does not belong to the church or its resources but comes from God’s wild investment of God in Jesus the Son and the willingness of the Son to be present always to the church in the Spirit.

Jesus’ mention of his authority isn’t a power play–it’s an encouragement, a life-giving reminder, a move that enables his disciples to go.

Jesus’ authority has just been established by his resurrection from the dead. Alfred, Lord Tennyson once wrote, “Authority forgets a dying king.”

But Jesus was no dying king. Or, at least, he was a dying king who didn’t stay dead. He is the Risen King!

If Jesus has power over death, he has power over all of life. And if he has power over all of life, he has power and influence over all who are living. And if he has power and influence over all who are living, there is nowhere his disciples can go that he has not already been.

There is no heart that God cannot soften. There is no human being that is beyond the reach of God’s saving love in Jesus.

Jesus has authority over all people everywhere. As Ephesians would later put it, God the Father “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”

Because of Jesus’ authority, his power, his rule… disciples who are commissioned to draw others into the life of faith do not have to be scared to do it.

Jesus empowers his followers, by his authority, to fulfill the Great Commission.

Furthermore, after the Great Commission there is the promise of Christ’s presence:

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

This is an upgrade. Jesus was not actually “with” the disciples “always” before he said this. He often went off by himself to pray. He didn’t engage everyone who wanted his attention. He wasn’t with the disciples always.

But now, there is this new promise, a promise we saw fulfilled in our Acts passage last week, when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present with us always, and will be present always with his disciples until the end of time.

All authority is his, and he is always with us. Therefore, we can preach.

Jesus empowers us, by his authority and his presence, to fulfill the Great Commission.

Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus goes ahead of us. God works on hearts before it even occurs to us to reach out to another. If we want to use the language of “witnessing” to others about our faith, that’s fine, but only if we remember that we are really the second witness.

The Holy Spirit is the first witness, preceding us everywhere, making it possible for us to witness to the goodness of God in our own lives.

We can call to mind again the idea of evangelism and disciple-making as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” We ourselves are not the bread, but we know where the bread is found.

And so, undergirded, strengthened, and equipped by Jesus, we can say, “Come, taste and see. Come and see what I have found.”

Don’t Be Great, Just Have a Great Message

Jesus empowers us, by his authority and his presence, to fulfill the Great Commission. He equips us to do what he calls us to.

And we don’t have to be “great” to go out in faith to try to build a kingdom of disciples for Jesus.

It’s reported that Graeme Keith, a lifelong friend of evangelist Billy Graham and treasurer of the Billy Graham Association, was once riding in an elevator with Billy Graham. Another passenger got in and recognized Graham: “You’re Billy Graham, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” said Billy Graham.

“You’re a truly great man,” the guy said.

“No, I’m not a great man,” Graham replied, “I just have a great message.”

Great or not, courageous or not, fully comfortable with what this passage calls us to or not–we have a great message. And Jesus empowers us, by his authority and his presence, to deliver it, near and far. Because he said so–because he ultimately has authority over every living person, because he goes before us, we can go and witness to our God.

It would be daunting to share the good news of God’s love with others if we had no backup, if we were cutting a new trail. But Jesus promises to go ahead of us and walk beside us, always.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached on Matthew 28:16-20 today. Scripture quotations above are 1984 NIV. The second image in this post is used and covered under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Death Has Been Swallowed Up in Victory

The resurrection

You don’t go to a tomb to rejoice. You don’t go to a graveyard, shortly after someone has been buried there, to celebrate.

And so, Matthew writes, “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.”

They have come to pay their respects and to remember their now deceased teacher. They have come to mourn–expecting to find comfort, perhaps, in being together, but not expecting much more than that.

Then an angel pushes away the stone covering the tomb–we can think of the tomb as a sort of underground walk-in closet. And the guards are so scared, they shake and are petrified.

“Do not be afraid!” the angel has to say to the unsuspecting women. “Jesus is not here–he is risen!” Come, look, the angel says, “see the place where he lay.” “Go quickly and tell his disciples–He has risen from the dead!”

As they hurry off, their fast-beating hearts a jumble of joy and fear, they see Jesus. “Greetings,” he says, nonchalantly. (“Hey, what’s up?”)

They kneel down, grasp his feet, and worship him.

They had gone to his tomb to weep.
Instead, they went away laughing and rejoicing.

They had come early that morning to encounter the stark reality of death.
Instead, they found the glorious miracle of new life.

They had come to process an immense and unthinkable loss.
Instead, they met a living Jesus, the triumphant victor over death.

These women, and then, in turn, all of Jesus’ disciples from that day forward, would never see death the same way again.

Death Swallowed Up in Victory: Paul’s Reminder

Some years later Paul would remind his church of the “gospel,” the good news of Jesus.

The good news, he says, is “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures….”

By this “gospel,” the good news of Jesus’ death and coming back from life to show himself again to his followers–by this “gospel,” Paul says, you are saved. You are delivered.

Where your life had been a prison,
you are freed.

Where you had once seen darkness,
now you see light.

Though you had come to a tomb, ready to mourn because of the end of things,
now you rejoice at a new beginning and fresh possibilities.

Where it had once been a long, hard, cold, relentless winter,
the spring of new life is finally here.

Because Jesus was raised on the third day, we will never see death the same way again.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Paul speaks of a day when that will come true, when death itself is finally and forever dead.

But the way Paul is talking–it’s so certain a fate for death, for it to be completely vanquished and drowned in new life… it’s so certain that he’s saying it’s true, in a sense, right now.

Through the resurrection of Jesus, death and evil have already been defeated.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

Christ’s resurrection proved that, when God is at work, “dead” isn’t really “dead.”

Feeling Defeated by Death

And yet, such an idea was the farthest thing from the minds of the disciples that weekend.

How long Good Friday to Easter Sunday must have felt that year!

When you lose a friend, a brother, a spouse, a parent, a child, someone you love… the day of your dear one’s death is painful. Agonizing. Unthinkable. Whether unexpected or expected, there’s always a quality of “this is not how it should be” when a loved one dies. So much still could have been… should have been.

Then there’s something about the second day that hurts even more. Maybe the initial shock is gone (though probably not really), and reality sets in a bit more. This death wasn’t a bad dream you woke up from. You’re still here, and your good friend, your valued family member is really gone.

I bet that second day–Saturday–was even more difficult for the disciples than the Friday when they watched Jesus die a criminal’s death.

Jesus was not just any loved one…he was, to his followers, a teacher and friend and humble servant, but he was also supposed to be their deliverer, their shepherd, their light, their life… NOT someone who just goes dying on them.

Was he not who they thought he was?

Was their promised deliverance, their offer of hope and a new life, just a farce?

Was Jesus just one among many other teachers claiming to be divine, but in reality, mortal like everyone else?

Jimmy Chitwood HoosiersOne of my favorite movies, and arguably the greatest sports movie of all time, is the movie Hoosiers. It’s based on the true story of a high school basketball team in rural Indiana who in 1954 won the state championship, beating much bigger and more established schools along the way.

And even though I know how it ends, I still watch it, probably at least once a year. “Did they win again?” I’ve often been asked after watching it for the umpteenth time.

It’s a little easier to watch through the suspense and nail-biting overtime games when I know the outcome. But for the characters in the movie, of course, the players and fans that the actors played, there was no guarantee of a good ending.

It’s hard for us to get at just what those women, characters in the story, must have been feeling as they went to the tomb. We know how this story ends. We know what (or, rather, who) is waiting for them at the tomb.

But they felt firmly wrapped in the grip of death, of disappointment, of shattered dreams, of hopes delayed or even demolished. Perhaps their trust had been severely misplaced, after all.

They’re blindsided when they see the angel, the empty tomb, and then… Jesus. That’s why Matthew says they are both filled with joy and scared out of their minds.

It’s not that they had weak faith, but Jesus was dead! Not just mostly dead, but dead dead.

Jesus had cheated death before by slipping through hostile crowds and, for all we know, dodging stones thrown his way, but this was not supposed to happen, or so his mourning disciples thought.

The Last Scene Was a Victory

Resurrection 2But a tomb was not the last scene in this story.

The apostle Peter would later preach to a crowd in Acts, “But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip.”

Death did not have dominion, mastery, or the power of intimidation over Jesus. Once Jesus got a hold of death, it would never be the same.

Through his miraculous coming-back-to-life, Jesus showed that even death cannot stop him. Through Jesus’ resurrection, Paul says, “Death [was] swallowed up in victory.” As one preacher wryly (but accurately) said, “Jesus beat the hell out of sin and death.”

And so “dead” for Jesus didn’t really mean “dead.” It wasn’t the end. There was life on the other side of it.

We who follow the risen Jesus, then, do not need to be afraid. Though death is maybe one of the scariest, or most painful things that many of us can think of, the Christian’s death does not actually end in death. We, too, have been raised with Christ.

As one Christian martyr put it:

The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment. Our salvation is ‘from outside ourselves.’ I find salvation not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ. Only those who allow themselves to be found in Jesus Christ — in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection — are with God and God with them.

“Death has been swallowed up in” the victory of the life of Christ, a life in which we are invited to participate, a life which we can receive by believing in the risen Lord. As we see the living Jesus and hear his invitation to life, how else can we respond but to do what the two Marys did, and throw ourselves at him and praise him?

Death is cause for lament and mourning–you don’t go to a tomb to rejoice–yet just as death no longer has dominion over Jesus, it no longer shall have dominion over us.

Jesus’ resurrection means that death is no longer our intimidator, master, or schoolyard bully.

Evil loses, and death is dead.

Paul taunts death in the Corinthians passage, “Whatcha got, death? I’m alive with the resurrected Christ–how you like me now?”

Paul had to remind his church of the powerlessness of death, just like we need to remind ourselves, because it so often looks like death and sin and evil and inhumanity reign supreme in the world around us. Death and evil are still talking a big game.

But that’s all it is–it’s just talk.

Sin is no longer the undefeatable foe it might have once seemed to be. Evil is not inevitable. Death is not really the end.

We do not have to be afraid.

Through the victory of the resurrected Christ, the lifeless are made alive. Darkness becomes light.

Mourning turns to rejoicing.

Winter turns to spring.

The impossible becomes possible.

Dormant dreams can spring back to life again.

Good outcomes can result from bad things happening.

Because of Jesus’ decisive victory over the powers of evil and death,
even what looks like a cold and empty tomb
contains within it a glimmer of hope,
and the promise of new life.

The above is the sermon I preached on Easter Day 2014.

Scot McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount Commentary


Scot McKnight just released a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. I’ll post a review in due time, but as I prepare my sermon for our church’s last Sunday in the Sermon on the Mount, I wanted to give props here to what is a really good commentary! McKnight blends careful exegesis with relevant application, and isn’t afraid to really wrestle with some of the challenges Jesus issues in the S.Mount. Highly recommended.


The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

Craig S. Keener’s Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary utilizes two particular approaches to Matthew:

[A]nalysis of the social-historical contexts of Matthew and his traditions on one hand, and pericope-by-pericope suggestions concerning the nature of Matthew’s exhortations to his Christian audience on the other.

Keener is behind the ever-useful IVP Bible Background Commentary, now in a revised edition. And his exegetical commentary on the first two chapters of Acts is more than 1,000 pages, not counting the bibliography and indeces. Quantity does not always mean quality–it’s harder to write less than more, most of the time–but one can rightly expect Keener to be both thorough and insightful.

Let me jump right in with why I like (and trust) his Matthew commentary.

Layout Matters

The Gospel of Matthew is one of the best laid out commentaries I’ve used. The section on the Lord’s Prayer (“The Kingdom Prayer,” as Keener has it) is a good example. There’s a bold heading with an introduction to the prayer. Here Keener compares the prayer in Matthew to the version in Luke, while offering explanations as to why the two forms differ slightly. Then Keener goes through the passage phrase-by-phrase in eight parts, with the summary statement for each of the parts in bold.

Keener on Matthew

For example, he writes, “Second, the prayer seeks first God’s glory, not the petitioner’s own needs….” Then he uses italics for key questions or insights in each of the eight parts of the prayer. As here: “What did it mean in a first-century Jewish context for God’s name to be hallowed in the future?

The result is a commentary that is highly scannable and readable. Just the simple use of bold and italics, throughout the book, helps orient the reader to what Keener is doing–not to mention offers some really good ideas for how to preach or teach on the text. The layout also makes it easy to get a quick, cursory overview of how Keener understands a given passage.

Matthew, According to Keener

Keener’s humility is refreshing, as he writes that, “in contrast to [his] earlier opinion,” he is:

therefore presently inclined to accept the possibility of Matthean authorship on some level, although with admitted uncertainty. Perhaps the most probable scenario that incorporates the best of all the currently available evidence is the presence of at least a significant deposit of Matthean tradition in this Gospel, edited by the sort of Matthean school scholars have often suggested (though I believe the final product is the work of a single author, not a “committee”).

His judicious weighing of the consideration for and against actual Matthean authorship will allow the reader to have an informed opinion. Does it matter?

Yet what we do conclude about the author does affect our understanding of the Gospel. Matthew is clearly Jewish, in dialogue with contemporary Jewish thought, and skilled in traditional Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament…. Matthew also knows the context of his citations much better than many modern readers have supposed…, and he demonstrates familiarity with a variety of text-types….

On author and intended audience, Keener concludes:

Concurring with the perspectives of what is still probably the minority view, I find in the Gospel an author and audience intensely committed to their heritage in Judaism while struggling with those they believe to be its illegitimate spokespersons. On this reading, Matthew writes to Jewish Christians who, in addition to being part of their assemblies as believers in Jesus, are fighting to remain part of their local synagogue communities.

The introductory material covers the rest of the expected territory: dating, rhetoric, social settings, Gospel sources, the use of narratives in the early church, structure, and more. I found the introductory sections on Jesus (as teacher, as prophet-healer, as Messiah/King, as Son of God) especially illuminating for understanding Matthew as a whole. Keener also has a couple pages upfront about Matthew’s important “Kingdom of Heaven” theme, including this gem:

In short, the present significance of the future kingdom in early Christian teaching was thus that God’s people in the present age were citizens of the coming age, people whose identity was determined by what Jesus had done and what they would be, not by what they had been or by their status in the world.

Though the commentary is academic in nature, it also “will preach” pretty well, as Keener’s lines above make clear.

A Few More Highlights

As soon as picking up the commentary, one will want to read the Excursus on Pharisees (p. 538) and Excursus: Was Jesus Executed on Passover? (p. 622).

One should not expect to find lexical or grammatical comments on each keyword or phrase in Matthew. The comments on Matthew 6:25-34, for example, do not address the meaning of the oft-repeated “worry.” Keener points out that Jesus utilizes the Jewish qal wahomer (“How much more?”) argument to show God’s care for “people in his image and for his own beloved children.” That insight itself is in most commentaries already, but Keener goes further and covers yet more rhetorical territory:

Greek philosophers sometimes disdained such bodily needs altogether, complaining that their bodies were prisons because they were dependent on food and drink (Epict. Disc. 1.9.12) and advising that one turn one’s mind to higher pursuits (Marc. Aur. 7.16). …Jesus never condemns people for recognizing these basic needs…. Yet he calls them to depend on God for their daily sustenance, a provision that Jewish people considered one of God’s greatest miracles….

Keener consistently breaks passages down into main points, which helped me see both the flow of Matthew’s narrative and think about how I could apply each passage. For example, in Matthew 20:29-34 (“Persistent Prayer”) two blind men receive their sight when Jesus’ compassion leads him to heal them. Keener’s four sentences in bold (with a paragraph explanation after each) are:

First, these suppliants recognized the identity and authority of the one whose help they entreated (20:30).

Second, they refused to let others’ priorities deter them (20:31).

Third, Jesus’ compassion was the ultimate motivation for his acting (20:34).

Finally, recipients of Jesus’ gifts should follow him (20:34).

This 2009 edition is not essentially different from Keener’s 1999 Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (I.e., the Socio-Rhetorical Commentary is not a revised edition, per se.) There is, however, an addendum at the front of the commentary called, “Matthew and Greco-Roman Rhetoric.” Here Keener goes chapter-by-chapter through the book of Matthew and adds his recent insights into how Jesus and Matthew make use of known rhetorical practices in their teaching and writing, respectively. In the end, though, Keener finds that Jewish rhetoric offers “much closer analogies…than Greek or Roman rhetorical handbooks do.”

Finally, if you’ll permit me one more quotation of Prof. Keener, here is an example of the inspiring nature of his commentary:

But above all the teaching towers the figure of Jesus himself: King, Messiah, Son of Man, the rightful Lord of Israel whom their people would one day acknowledge (1:21; 23:39). The final judge, the true revelation of the Father (11:27), was the meek and lowly One who had walked among the first disciples and died for his people (11:29; 20:28; 21:5), the One who would also empower Matthew’s readers to fulfill the task he had given them (10:19-20; 11:28-30).

Bonus: The Bibliography

It may be strange to praise a book for its bibliography, but Keener offers 150 pages of bibliography on Matthew. Keener seems to not leave any stone unturned, whether it’s another commentary, monographs, or journal articles. He writes, “The purpose of this commentary does not allow me to summarize and interact in detail with all secondary sources on Matthean research.” And yet one would be hard-pressed to find a more thorough list of secondary sources for Matthew elsewhere. In this regard, Keener is successful in offering a commentary that “will contribute to further research.”

The reader should realize that, as noted above, though this commentary was published in 2009, it was not really a revision of the 1999 volume, so the bibliography has not been brought into the 21st century with any updates. (So Nolland and France, for example, are not listed.)

The commentary’s Index of Ancient Sources is 142 pages, taken “from a variety of narrative genres to illustrate Matthew’s narrative techniques, with special attention to ancient biography and historiography.” Copious references throughout the commentary give the researcher multiple good leads.

For all of Keener’s thoroughness, the use of bold and italics for main points keeps the commentary well-organized, so that the research does not become overwhelming. Keener’s heart seems to be pastoral, and his reverence toward the Jesus of Matthew is clear and an inspiration throughout the commentary.

You don’t need any Greek to use this commentary, but a good cup of coffee and a full night’s rest might help, as it can be dense and detailed (but not impenetrable) in places. The reader of Matthew who is willing to work at Keener’s commentary will be rewarded. This volume has already vaulted its way into my top four Matthew commentaries.

Thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy. You can find the book’s product page here. It is on Amazon here. Amazon links above are affiliate links, described further here.

Matthew (Zondervan ECNT), reviewed

Matthew ZECNT

Now that I’ve been preaching through the early sections of Matthew for 10 weeks, I’ve had a chance to make regular use of a number of commentaries. I continue to value Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Its Matthew volume is very much on par with the rest of the series (which I’ve reviewed here, here, and here). Author Grant R. Osborne primarily intends it for preachers, but I’ve seen it assigned as a seminary textbook, as well.

ZECNT Layout

Matthew, like the rest of the ZECNT series, includes:

  • The full Greek text of Matthew, verse by verse, or often split up phrase by phrase
  • The author’s English translation
    • First, appearing in the graphical layout for the entire passage
    • Second, verse by verse or phrase by phrase, next to the Greek
  • Matthew’s broader Literary Context for each passage
  • An outline of the passage in its immediately surrounding context
  • The Main Idea (probably the first place preachers would want to look)
  • Structure and Literary Form (with focus on source criticism)
  • A more detailed Exegetical Outline of the passage under consideration
  • Explanation of the Text, which includes the Greek and English mentioned above, as well as the commentary proper
  • A concluding Theology in Application section

This sounds like a lot, but the result is not a cluttered commentary. Rather, as one gets accustomed to the series format, it becomes easy to quickly find specific information about a passage. The section headings are in large, bold font.

The Greek font is aesthetically pleasing and readable. Here’s a picture:

ZECNT font

Osborne’s Introduction to Matthew

For a commentary of more than 1,000 pages, the introduction is surprisingly short (27 pages). Seven of those pages are a section called, “How to Study and Preach the Gospel of Matthew.” Osborne acknowledges,

[T]he details I chose to include in this commentary, both exegetical and theological, were chosen on the basis of one major question: What would I want to know as a pastor preparing a sermon on this passage?

So it’s fitting that he speaks directly to preachers at the very beginning of his introduction. He suggests understanding the Gospels as “history seen through theological eyes” and encourages the preacher to try to grasp the distinct “theological purposes of each [Gospel] author.”

Though the introduction is short, and someone doing extended work on Matthew will need to also look elsewhere for introductory concerns, Osborne is able to give an informative enough overview of dating, authorship, genre, purpose, audience (the thinnest subject in the introduction), sources, history, Matthew’s use of the Old Testament, and structure.

There are also more than 20 pages at the end of the commentary that cover the theology of Matthew. Although that section is tucked away, it’s not to be missed, especially Osborne’s coverage of Christology and of discipleship.

The Commentary Proper: Highlights and Observations

There is just enough Greek (grammar and word studies) to keep one’s Greek sharp. There’s not the level of detail found in the Baylor Handbook on the Greek Text series, which does not yet have a Matthew volume.

Matthew 13:54 begins, “He came into his hometown and began teaching (ἐδίδασκεν) them in their synagogue.” In the commentary you’ll find comments like this one:

The imperfect ἐδίδασκεν could refer to an ongoing practice but is probably ingressive, “began teaching” on this occasion (as in v. 8).

Osborne is sensitive to larger biblical context and theology–even in explaining individual words–so that one gets, for example, a fairly robust explanation of the “righteousness” Jesus talks about fulfilling in Matthew 3:15. And here is Osborne’s take on the “peacemakers” that Jesus calls blessed in 5:9:

The term “peacemaker” only appears elsewhere in verb form in Col 1:20, where Jesus made peace by his blood on the cross, but the concept is found often (Ps 34:14; Isa 52:7; Rom 12:18; 14:19; Jas 3:18; Heb 12:14; cf. 1 En. 52:11). This connotes both peace with God and peace between people—the latter flows out of the former. Jesus is the supreme peacemaker, who reconciles human beings with God through the cross (Col 1:20), so the supreme peacemaking is the proclamation of the gospel.

The graphical layout remains one of my favorite parts of the series. Look at Matthew 13:54-58 (from which the comment above is taken):

ZECNT passage flow

It’s readily apparent how Osborne sees the parts of a passage working together and relating to one another.

By way of critique, even with the commentary’s length there were times when I wanted more coverage. The “Explanation of the Text” section for Matthew 5:38-42, for example, barely covered two pages. The single paragraph on “turn the other cheek” addressed the main points that most other commentaries do, but given how many Christians have wrestled through this important passage (both on paper and in action), more could have been said.


Osborne succeeds in keeping the preacher in view throughout the commentary. I’ll give one last example, since this typifies Osborne’s blend of research and presentation in a way that will both assist and inspire preachers and teachers. In Matthew (and Luke) the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus gives his disciples to pray does not have the ending it does when prayed in liturgical settings (“for thine is the kingdom…”). Whether this should make it into a sermon or not is another question, but Osborne anticipates that readers and preachers will at least be wondering about it. He writes:

The traditional doxology (“for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen”) appears in only a few late manuscripts (L W Θ 0233 et al.), and several of the best manuscripts end here (א B D Z et al.), with a variety of endings in others. This makes it almost certain that it is not original. It is possible that churches added their own doxology when praying this prayer, and this one emerged as the best summary of the contents of the prayer. However, it (and the other endings) is based on 1 Chr 29:11 – 13 and is meaningful, so it is not wrong to utter the ending as a personal prayer.

Where does the Matthew ZECNT volume rate among Matthew commentaries for preachers? Definitely toward the top. I still go to R.T. France’s NICNT volume first. And for Greek and history of interpretation, John Nolland (NIGTC) covers more territory. But Osborne’s constant eye on the larger literary context, the detailed structural outlines, the inclusion of Greek and English texts, the Theology in Application sections, and the graphical layout make his commentary a welcome guide for preaching and teaching through the First Gospel.

Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy. You can find the book’s product page here. It is on Amazon here. Amazon links above are affiliate links that help further the work of this blog, described here.

Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer: Forgiveness

Bonhoeffer Collected SermonsOn November 17, 1935, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached at the gymnasium-turned-chapel of the Finkenwalde Preachers’ Seminary. His text was Matthew 18:21-35. In this “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant,” Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive the person who sins against him. I imagine Peter is already mustering all he can, and maybe even now proud of himself, when he asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Seven times to forgive the same person! Peter thinks that’s a lot and we probably do, too. (Haven’t they figured out by now how to stop hurting me?) But if God has forgiven us our “debts,” as Jesus’ parable shows, we are to forgive others their debts. Though this is 12 chapters removed from the Lord’s Prayer of Matthew 6, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t some sort of extended riffing on “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Both this parable and the Lord’s Prayer conclude with fairly stern words. Here’s Matthew 18:

34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

Here’s the conclusion Matthew has Jesus making from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

I don’t know whether Bonhoeffer did this deliberately or not, but I’m struck that in his sermon on Matthew 18, he adopts a similarly direct tone. He begins invitingly enough:

Right here at the beginning of this sermon, let us quietly and honestly ask whether we know anyone from our own circle of friends and family whom we have not forgiven for some wrong that person might have done us; a person from whom we once separated ourselves in anger—perhaps not even in open anger, but in quiet bitterness, thinking: I cannot stand it any longer; I can no longer have anything to do with this person.

I wish I could have been there. Because I really want to know how long he paused before he preached next:

Or are we really so inattentive that we say we do not know anyone like this? Are we so indifferent to other people that we do not even know whether we are living in peace or at odds with them? Whether one after another may not someday stand up and accuse us, saying: You separated yourself from me in discord—you could not tolerate me—you broke off fellowship with me—you found me unsympathetic and turned away from me—I once did you wrong, and you left me alone—I once wounded your honor, and you broke with me—and I could not find you again—I often looked for you, but you avoided me—and we never spoke frankly with each other again, but I wanted nothing more from you than your forgiveness, and yet you were never able to forgive me. Here I am now, and I am accusing you—do you still even know me?—Whether or not in that particular hour names will come back to us that we hardly recognize anymore— many, many wounded, rejected, poor souls whose sin we did not forgive. And among these people perhaps even a good friend, a brother or a sister, one of our parents?

Ahem. It’s getting awfully dusty in here! you can hear Bonhoeffer’s seminarians say.

From here Bonhoeffer unpacks the rest of the passage. We are to identify with the “roguish slave” of Jesus’ parable, he says. We can see other people’s sins, but we are blind to our own.

What hope do we have, then?

Here is a single sentence (at least in its English translation) in the sermon’s final paragraph. Its length would probably lead my erstwhile preaching professor to several uses of the proverbial red pen, but do read it slowly:

My dear friends, those who have experienced what it means for God to lift us up out of a great sin and to forgive us, those to whom God has in such an hour sent another brother or sister to whom we might then confess our sin, whoever knows how a sinner resists such help because the sinner simply does not want to be helped, and whoever nonetheless has experienced how a brother or sister genuinely can release us from our sin in God’s name and in prayer—that person will surely lose all inclination to judge or to hold grudges and will instead want but one thing: to help bear the distress of others, to serve, to help, to forgive—without measure, without qualification, without end—such a one can no longer hate sinful brothers and sisters, but will instead want only to love him all the more and to forgive them for everything, everything.

May God lead us, who have been forgiven so much, to be merciful toward others.