Mother Teresa: Some Difficult Words

Mother TeresaThese are good but difficult words from Mother Teresa. They were noted today on Plough, the Website where I mentioned finding the free Oscar Romero book. I’ve just subscribed to Plough Quarterly and am already enjoying the content of the site greatly.

Today I came across this arresting, powerful, and difficult quote from Mother Teresa:

God cannot fill what is full. He can fill only emptiness – deep poverty – and your “yes” [to Jesus] is the beginning of being or becoming empty. It is not how much we really “have” to give – but how empty we are – so that we can receive fully in our life and let him live his life in us. In you today, he wants to relive his complete submission to his father – allow him to do so. Take away your eyes from yourself and rejoice that you have nothing. 

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.

Ukraine: Love Your Russian Occupiers? What Would Bonhoeffer Do?

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

I find myself thoroughly challenged by Jesus’ words (Matthew 5:38-48). I hear in “love your enemies” a call to individuals. I am sure that at least that much is there. I know that “pray for those who persecute you” needs to shape our lives. When we pray for and seek the good of our adversaries–any with whom we have conflict–we inhabit a new and better Kingdom reality.

But is this portion of the Sermon on the Mount merely a private text, as Martin Luther and other interpreters have said? Is this call of Jesus just for the interpersonal domain?

Or–as a long line of Anabaptist thinkers and others are convinced–is it true that there really is no private vs. public distinction with Jesus? Jesus certainly doesn’t say in the Sermon on the Mount that loving enemies works differently at a corporate or national level. Many faithful Christians have inferred a difference, on various grounds, but it’s not explicitly stated, at least not in this text.

So Russia moves into Ukraine and today we hear Jesus say, “Don’t retaliate. Love your enemies.”

Turn the other cheek. Do not resist an evildoer. Pray for those who persecute you.


How does a Ukrainian read this text today? There were presumably churches in Ukraine who heard Matthew 5:38-48 last week, when it was the Revised Common Lectionary reading. These words from the Sermon on the Mount are still ringing in their ears, even as the sound of Putin’s tanks and soldiers try to drown it out.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Cost of Discipleship, adamantly defended this Gospel text in its fullness: he said it did not apply on a merely private level, but that it also applied at the level of those who hold office (i.e., corporately), because people are people, in whatever capacity they are acting…. If it’s wrong to retaliate with force in an interpersonal reaction, it’s wrong at a state level, too, Bonhoeffer argued. In an era in which Hitler had already come to power, Bonhoeffer would write in 1937:

The overcoming of others now occurs by allowing their evil to run its course. The evil does not find what it is seeking, namely, resistance and, therewith, new evil which will inflame it even more. Evil will become powerless when it finds no opposing object, no resistance, but, instead, is willingly borne and suffered….

And that sounds so good. I cling to that hope.

But Hitler, finding no opposing object, and no resistance, not even from much of the church in Germany, continued his rise to power. Evil became not “powerless,” but more powerful.

Bonhoeffer goes on:

There is no thinkable deed in which evil is so large and strong that it would require a different response from a Christian. The more terrible the evil, the more willing the disciple should be to suffer. Evil persons must be delivered to the hands of Jesus. Not I but Jesus must deal with them.

Which Bonhoeffer?

Critics were quick to call Bonhoeffer overly idealistic and impractical for this understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. But he was firm in his read of Jesus.

And then, something happened. Something happened in Bonhoeffer that led him to align himself with a group of folks who tried to overthrow Hitler, planning to use force if necessary. Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned and implicated in a plot to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was hanged in 1945.

If we grant that “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” have to do with both individual and corporate domains, which Bonhoeffer was right? The one who wrote, “The more terrible the evil, the more willing the disciple should be to suffer. …. Not I but Jesus must deal with them”?

Or was it the Bonhoeffer who tried to make a plan to “deal with” Hitler in perhaps more physical ways?

Perhaps Bonhoeffer saw a distinction between evil done to him and evil done to another. You can turn your own cheek, but when it’s the cheek of another, and you see them being struck, it’s all you can do to run over and move (maybe even push?) the oppressor out of the way.

So I leave this text with questions and tensions. 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?

But even with the questions, there are two places I find myself landing. First, the one purpose statement in this passage is this: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

That you may win them over? Hopefully, but not necessarily. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” so that they might be converted and join the Kingdom of Heaven, turning from their ways of oppression? Yeah, that would be awesome, but it’s not always going to happen. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” for by so doing, you are called children of your Father in heaven. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” They are children who do the things they see their God doing.

Which brings me to my second landing point, amid the questions I still have of this passage. Jesus, Philippians says,

made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

In the end, Jesus submitted himself to death. He humbled himself in the ultimate manifestation of turning the other cheek: “by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross!”

And yet in that defeat was the very stuff of victory.

In that death was the very stuff of life.

In that humbling was the very stuff of exaltation.

Philippians goes on:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

He knew full well what he was doing–he was going to that cross to die. He was accepting the unjust death penalty–even the torture–that had been set upon him. But he was also going to that cross to win. He was going to the cross to defeat death and evil. In the end he would rise again.

The Son of God endured suffering, and yet scorned its shame, unmasking the evil powers that put him on the cross, and razing them to the ground. Through death, through the cross, he made an offer of peace to even his enemies (including us!) so that we could love our enemies, too.

Jesus’ resistance to death was not violent, but neither was it passive. It was sure, deliberate, subversive, generous to all, and full of love, even to enemies.

There is power in Jesus’ going to the cross. It is the ultimate act of cheek-turning, self-giving love. The cross of Christ is an act of defiance that says:

No, suffering!
You cannot warp me into a person I don’t want to be.

No, violence!
You cannot seduce me to kill.

No, evil!
You do not have the last word.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached on Matthew 5:38-48 yesterday. Scripture quotations come from the NIV (1984 or 2011) or TNIV.

Free Bonhoeffer Book in Logos Bible Software

Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians

This month Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians is free in Logos Bible Software. You can find it here.

Here is part of the product description from Logos:

This volume in the ever-popular W. J. K. Armchair series turns its sights on contemporary theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945). Born in Breslau, Germany, Bonhoeffer led quite an intriguing life. This book, with dozens of illustrations by artist Ron Hill, highlights Bonhoeffer’s background and theological education; his time at Union Seminary in New York City; his involvement in the resistance movement against Adolf Hitler; and his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

John Nolland’s Matthew (NIGTC) reviewed

NIGTC MatthewThe series preface to The New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC) states:

At a time when the study of Greek is being curtailed in many schools of theology, we hope that the NIGTC will demonstrate the continuing value of studying the Greek New Testament and will be an impetus in the revival of such study.

This is a welcome series to those who want assistance in making good sense of the Greek text.

R.T. France’s volume in NIGTC (Mark) is not only one of my favorite commentaries of all time; it’s one of my favorite books. (I note it briefly here.) And Paul Ellingworth’s Hebrews volume greatly helped me through an exegesis course covering that epistle.

NIGTC: Matthew

Here I review John Nolland’s Matthew volume. I’ve been preaching through Matthew this year, and have used Nolland in my preparation almost every week.

This is how Nolland describes his commentary:

My central concern in this commentary is with the story Matthew has to tell and how he tells it. Though the reader will recognise that I have been influenced by some scholarly methods more than by others, my work is committedly eclectic.

In other words, Nolland looks at Matthew via redaction criticism, language, rhetorical criticism, and more. Though the series does not seek to be devotional, per se, and though NIGTC Matthew is not an application commentary, Nolland is consistently sensitive to the broader context of Matthew and his aims. (Nolland says he cares about “a close reading of the inner logic of the unfolding text.”)

Nolland’s Introduction to Matthew

The introduction includes the following sections (the bullet points below are all the author’s words):

  • authorship of the Gospel
  • the sources for the Gospel
  • the prehistory of the sources
  • the date and provenance of the Gospel
  • the kind of document the Gospel intends to be
  • the state of the Greek text of the Gospel
  • aspects of the author’s narrative technique
  • the Gospel’s use of the OT and of other Jewish tradition
  • and the theology of the Gospel of Matthew.

Like R.T. France, Nolland would rather elaborate on certain points in the body of the commentary itself, which makes the introduction accordingly shorter. I experienced this as a relief, because (a) I could get into the commentary itself sooner and (b) when primarily coming to the commentary with a specific passage in mind, I found quite a bit of substance in the commentary proper, without having to go back to the introduction.

That Matthew was actually the author of this Gospel seems to Nolland to be “most unlikely,” though I would have liked to see more support for Nolland’s conclusion. He doesn’t offer much. The “majority” (though not all) of sourcing for Matthew is attributed to “Mark and Q materials.” Refreshingly, Nolland has this to say about the idea of a historical Jesus:

These considerations do, however, suggest that we may have considerable confidence that the Jesus with whom the Gospels connect us is, and is in detail, the Jesus who actually operated in Palestine in the first century and not some mythical construct. The Gospel writers and those who supplied them their raw materials wanted people to get in touch with Jesus because of his potential significance for them, but they would feel no need to apologise for failing to meet all the needs of our historical curiosity.

Though aware of Gentiles, too, “Matthew writes for Jewish Christians who are very conscious of their Jewish identity.” Nolland writes, “Matthew seems to have understood himself to be creating a foundational text to which people would feel the need to return again and again.”

Nolland on Matthew’s Use of the OT

There is more of note in the introduction, but “Matthew’s Use of the OT” is probably the most exceptional section. It details both (a) what text forms Matthew might have had and (b) how he used them. Nolland lists 14 (!) “different approaches to the generation of the wording of the quotations.” And yet, amid the detail, he can conclude:

Though some of Matthew’s text forms come to him straight from the Gospel tradition, the overall impression is of a man who freshly scrutinises, at least on many occasions, the OT texts to which he appeals, and is able to do so in Greek, Hebrew (not always the Hebrew of the preserved MT), and occasionally in Aramaic. When it suits him to do so, he produces translations that reflect influence along more than one track of tradition.

Nolland then identifies eight different ways in which Matthew uses the OT. This section of the commentary alone is worth half the price of the commentary. A nearly 20-page “Annotated Structural Outline of Matthew” at the end of the introduction is quite impressive (and maybe even worth the other half of the price of the commentary).

The Author’s Translation of Matthew

Nolland admits that his translation of Matthew (located at the beginning of each section) “may at times be wooden,” and this woodenness is noticeable in a number passages. For example, the genealogy reads: “Abraham produced Isaac; Isaac produced Jacob….” Nolland acknowledges the “unfortunately impersonal and nonbiological” implications of that translation. Indeed, a better word is needed.

And for the Beatitudes (where the Greek μακάριος is admittedly difficult to translate), he has, “Good fortune now to….” I liked  the “now” part of this (it carries an “implied sense of immediacy”), but the more traditional “blessed” still seems to leave room in English for the divine blesser, who should be kept in view here. “Good fortune now” seems to miss that.

Finally, the regular use of brackets in the translation made it read even less fluidly than it already did in places. As in: “It is no more fitting that people should light a lamp and put it under the peck measure; rather, [they put it] on the lampstand, and it shines out for all in the house.”

The above is all to say: a more readable translation would not have compromised Nolland’s aims in producing a fairly literal rendering of the Greek. It wasn’t an enormous distraction from a well-written commentary, but it stood out, nonetheless.

The Commentary Proper

It would be impossible for Nolland to be comprehensive at every turn. There were some Greek words or passages of Matthew where I had hoped for more detail, but on the whole, Nolland is thorough.

For instance, in the narrative of the devil’s temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4, Nolland writes of verse 1:

The opening ‘then’, the role of the Spirit, and the Son of God language to come in vv. 2 and 6 create a strong link between 4:1–11 and 3:13–17.


Because of the agency of the devil (and the specific temptations to come) πειρασθῆναι has been translated ‘to be tempted’, but there is in fact a play on the two senses of the πειραζ- root: ‘test’ or ‘tempt’.

This commentary matches literary sensitivity and Greek analysis with conclusions that can easily lead the reader to application. In the same passage: “[T]he devil suggests that sonship is a privilege to be exploited, that Jesus should use his opportunities to see to his own needs.”

Nolland often presents multiple scholarly interpretations of a given passage before offering his own–and even then, he does it humbly (though not unconvincingly). In the Beatitudes, for instance, he notes 11 different understandings of “poor” and four different understandings of “in spirit” for Matthew 5:3. One gets the sense that the author is just as interested in historical interpretation of given passages as he is with his own. This is a good thing.

Concluding Evaluation

Despite the technical nature of the commentary (which I appreciated), the writing style is engaging and accessible, even inspiring in places. I loved this:

Jesus proclaims the imminent arrival of the kingdom of heaven. God now intends to establish afresh his rule among his people. If people are to be ready for this development, then repentance is urgent. Only a fundamental change of life direction will match the needs of the moment.

The bibliographies are a gold mine. One wonders if there’s any journal article or monograph on Matthew that Nolland hasn’t examined. Even so, he says in his preface that he had to trim his listing to accommodate the requirements of the editors!

My critique of the author’s translation notwithstanding, Nolland’s Matthew is a magnificent work, probably even one of the very first places one should go when doing in-depth study of Matthew’s text. Nolland does not disappoint in his technical analysis of words and passages, and yet he somehow is able to keep the Gospel as a whole before him and the reader as he expounds on its component parts. The reader cannot help but be impressed throughout the commentary, both with Nolland, and with Matthew’s Gospel which he describes.

Thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy. Nolland’s Gospel of Matthew is on Amazon here. Its product page is at Eerdmans’s site here.

Matthew and Jesus: Fulfill, fulfill, fulfill, fulfill

Baptism of Christ, Francesco Albani
Baptism of Christ, Francesco Albani

One of the most important things anyone has ever said about Scripture is:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

–Jesus in Matthew 5:17

The careful reader of Matthew will hear “fulfill” in 5:17 and recall at least some of its previous uses already in the book.

Fulfillment is one of Matthew’s major themes. Calling the other uses of “fulfill” to mind gives Jesus’ claim even more impact.

Having established that Jesus’ birth was “to fulfill what was written…,” Matthew shows John baptizing an adult Jesus “to fulfill all righteousness.” Early in Jesus’ ministry, Matthew shows Jesus as the fulfilling light that the people walking in darkness have been waiting for.

Here is a one-page pdf listing the instances of fulfillment in the birth and early ministry of Jesus in Matthew 1-4.

With so much of his life a fulfillment of the Scriptures already, Matthew’s reader is now prepared to see how Jesus fulfills all of Scripture–down to the last letter–through his read and interpretation of it. In the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus will unpack just what he means by “fulfill [the Scriptures],” using six specific biblical examples, culminating at last in a call to the disciples to “be perfect.”

What is the Good Life? Jesus’ Take

Shane Claiborne is an author and activist who helped found The Simple Way, an intentional Christian community in Philadelphia. He loves Jesus and loves the poor, and has given his life on their behalf.

Shane Claiborne
Shane Claiborne

Shane was lined up to speak at a youth worker’s national conference once, and to the surprise of the crowd and the organizers, when his keynote came, he stood up, read the Sermon on the Mount, and then sat down. His “talk” was done–a reading of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5-7.

When interviewed about it later, Claiborne said that as much as he loves that particular conference, the amount of noise and clutter and “Christian stuff” of that conference led him to the simplicity of the words of Jesus. He wanted to read them and let them stand on their own.  Continue reading “What is the Good Life? Jesus’ Take”