Justifying God in Luke and Malachi

I "attended" The Gospel Coalition's 2011 conference via online stream this past week, and I must say, it was worth it. The theme was preaching Christ from the OT. It was basically a bunch of really good sermons from the OT to teach by example of how to connect from the OT to the NT. D. A. Carson closed it out with a (fascinating!) sermon on Melchizedek, and in his conclusion he made a comment that greatly resonates with me: "I want you to see the NT authors are reading the OT carefully."


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Grammatical-Historical Interpretation, Matthew 2:3, and the Rejection of Christ

How are we to interpret narrative texts? This has been a big question on my mind these days, largely raised by Sailhamer's The Meaning of the Pentateuch. What role does history play in the interpretation of the biblical text?

Is the locus of meaning in the historical reconstruction of the event, or in the written text itself? i.e. Is the "meaning" found by reconstructing the event, filling in the details, etc.? Or is the meaning found simply by understanding what the text says? 

One very intriguing thing Sailhamer says is that "Grammatical-Historical" originally meant "grammatical, namely, historical", rather than describing two parts of a process: analyze the grammar and analyze the history, our present "grammatical and historical" approach. That is very interesting indeed.

A good example of this Matthew 2:3, "When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." The "this" that they heard was that the King of the Jews--Jesus--had been born. 

Now, it is very understandable why the ungodly power monger Herod would be troubled by this. Why, however, all of Jerusalem would be troubled with him is a little bit more perplexing. Why would they be troubled by the news of the birth of their promised King? Why be troubled when they at present had such a wicked king (Herod) and lived under the rule of the Roman Empire? Why be troubled, especially during a time in history it appears that messianic expectation was indeed at a high point?

Now, most commentaries will give an explanation something along the lines of this: All of Jerusalem feared as well because they feared what Herod would do as a result of his rage over the birth of this opposing King. Robertson is typical in commenting that "the whole city was upset because the people knew only too well what he could do when in a rage over the disturbance of his plans." (Word Pictures)

Is this what Matthew intended? Where does one see this in the text? This interpretation might be called "historical" since it involves a historical reconstruction of the person of king Herod and about his megalomania and his cruel actions, and the people's dislike of him, etc.

The conclusion of this kind of interpretation seems to be that Jerusalem was not exactly opposed to the birth of the Messiah, they were simply afraid of how Herod might react. In general though, Jerusalem was open and excited about the possible coming of the Messiah. 

But is that how Matthew presents this event? He says the king was troubled and all Jerusalem with him." The preposition "with" is meta. BDAG defines this usage as denoting "the company in which an activity or experience takes place". Jerusalem is in company with Herod in being troubled. It is difficult to see the Jerusalemites distancing themselves from Herod and being disturbed for a different reason or cause than he, in the way Matthew phrased it.

Matthew Henry, I think has a better commentary:

Yet, it seems, all Jerusalem, except the few there that waited for the consolation of Israel, were troubled with Herod, and were apprehensive of I know not what ill consequences of the birth of this new king, that it would involve them in war, or restrain their lusts; they, for their parts, desired no king but Herod; no, not the Messiah himself.

I think he rightly picks out Matthew's meaning here. Jerusalem was not excited about the coming of the Messiah. They did not rejoice at his coming. Fear at Herod's response may be involved, but it is not what Matthew highlights. 

I found this fact particularly significant in studying the introductory chapters of Luke's Gospel. In particular, in Luke 2:21-40, we see the witness of faithful Israelites Simeon and Anna, which demonstrates the continuity between the OT and Jesus. Luke intends to connect Jesus with the faithful remnant. The OT faithful received their Messiah with great joy. Christianity, therefore, is the proper heir of the OT faith and Scriptures, not Judaism. Judaism parted with God before Christ came, and demonstrated it when they rejected Christ.

I believe this truth is what is communicated (albeit in part) in Matthew 2:3. Jerusalem did not rejoice in him, but rather rejected him. The capital and religious center of the Jews was troubled at the birth of their Savior! Is not the solemn and horrible fact of John 1:11 hinted at by this verse? "He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him."




Jesus' Death: Vicarious Atonement and Example

The death of Jesus Christ is simultaneously vicarious atonement and example for us to follow. His life and death was to accomplish something objective: our salvation (he obeyed in our stead, and received our penalty in our stead). For this very reason (it actually saves us), it was love; and thus it serves as the greatest example of sacrificial service. 

Both, not either-or

There is a version of 'Christianity' (which is not really at all) that says God just loves everyone, doesn't care too much about sin and forgiveness, and he definitely does not require blood sacrifice for the sins of humanity! Jesus came to reveal God's love by coming and giving up everything to die for us. That's all Jesus' death is, subjective: a example meant to woo us by showing us what love is. 

Yet...how can that be love? What actually does it show us? Nothing. Except maybe that throwing away a life for no purpose is a good thing?

Of all the places in the Bible where Jesus is presented as an example, one of the strongest ones is probably Philippians 2. Of the places where it mentions the death of Jesus, I think this is the one most believed to refer to Jesus' death as merely an example. (If you're not familiar, read Philippians 2:3-11)

Studying through Philippians these days, I have been encouraged that even here, you cannot separate the meaning of the death of Jesus (i.e. vicarious atonement) from the example that Jesus' set. Yes, the Bible does indeed set up Jesus as an example to follow--but it does not do that apart from what Jesus' did uniquely that we could never do.

Indications that the meaning of Jesus' death is necessarily implied in Philippians 2:

1) The sudden mention of the cross in verse 8

"And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

Paul interjects the words "even death on a cross!" to an otherwise complete sentence. The mention of the cross does indicate the depth of Jesus' self-humbling, but at the same time, it cries out the meaning of the cross!

We must not forget that in many other places this phrase "the cross" can stand indeed for the whole gospel message. Philippians 3:18 speaks of "enemies of the cross of Christ." Obviously, not enemies of the kind of death, or of the actual object--but of the gospel of the Savior crucified for our sin. 1 Corinthians 2:2 also speaks of "Jesus Christ and him crucified" as the core element of his preaching. 

I think that, for Paul, the mention of the cross must include at least in part the meaning of his death.

2) Jesus' death was him looking out for the interests of others

This whole section (verses 5-11) on Christ humbling himself is set forth as an example of how we are ourselves to behave. Paul said this in verses 3-4:

"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."

Following the rest of the passage, we find that Jesus (who was forever God) was born as a slave, lowering himself, and that he humbled himself by obedience unto death. There is a progression here. The ultimate aim is Jesus' obedience unto death.

Thus, it is this unto-death-obedience that Paul is setting forward as "looking out for the interests of others." This means there was a need for Jesus to do this. He was doing this to accomplish something. It was because we were in a dangerous predicament, that Jesus, looking out for our needs because he loved us, came to do all necessary to save us from that predicament!

3) Obedience is rendered to Jesus in verses 9-11

At the one moment (verses 5-8) he is an example to be obeyed, and the next moment (verses 9-11) he is the Lord of all creation to whom all knees will bow eventually! 

This is obviously not an example of what will happen to us when we humble ourselves! Jesus' obedience is not merely an example. He is not just a perfect man to follow! He is the God of all the universe! 

This is the meaning of the death of Jesus, and whatever example we learn from Jesus' death flows out of and is grounded upon what he actually did there--even in Philippians 2!

Jesus did indeed come in love. His life is a perfect example of love, and his death is the climax of his love. Yet it is love precisely because it paid the penalty for our sins, such that we can be forgiven by God and belong to him forever, and praise him forever, and enjoy his glory--his magnificent and radiant perfections--forever.

"Jesus paid it all." This is the greatest love imaginable.




The Prayer of the Faith

This Sunday, I preached on James 5:13-18. It was a challenging and interesting study. The passage is difficult and important due to the practical ramifications, and the commonness of the situation.

It is dealing with people who are sick, and James offers the following word in verse 15: "And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven." This, at first glance, does not seem to match other places in the Bible (where people are sick and not healed), and it does not always match experience.

One solution that some scholars offer is that "the prayer of faith" refers to only specific prayers. (On this, see John Piper, and Warren Wiersbe.) At certain times, they say, God gives someone a special inner conviction that God intends to heal this person. Then, such a person prays "the prayer of faith" and in that situation, God promises to heal the person. 

I think this is not what James is talking about. This is neither the first time James has mentioned faith, nor is it the first time he has mentioned prayer, nor is it the first time he has mentioned the two together. We see an especial clue in verse 15. He does not actually say "the prayer of faith", he really says "the prayer of the faith". The second "the" (definite article) does not get translated into English since it would sound weird and be bad English, but it is good Greek!

Why is the article used here? Robertson says, "The article is never meaningless in Greek, though it often fails to correspond with the English idiom." (Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 756) That doesn't mean we can pour lots of meaning into it, but that it is always used for a purpose. Unfortunately, commentators (that I consulted) do not make any mention of the article. This cautions against making too big a deal about it, but does not prevent us from asking the question of why it is there.

A common use of the article in Greek is technically called "anaphoric", which means it is denoting a previous reference. (Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 217-8) Example: We might be having a discussion about meeting to have lunch together at a particular restaurant. Then I might ask, "When does the restaurant open?" That is an "anaphoric" use of "the" -- "the restaurant" is the same as "the restaurant we have been talking about."

When James says "the prayer of the faith", he means, "the prayer of that kind of faith I was talking about earlier."

At least one previous reference that James is referring to is James 1:5-8. It is in a similar context of prayer during suffering. There, he does not talk about any kind of God-given inner conviction for a given circumstance, but about a conviction about the character of God. One is convinced that God is good and does not rebuke those who ask, and thus prays with confidence and not doubt. 

I think this is "the prayer of faith" in James 5:15 as well. It is prayer with the same kind of faith as mentioned previously. It is an unashamed outspoken boldness concerning God's character: he loves those who trust in him, and he loves to meet the needs of those who cry out to him. He is glorified not in being helped, but in helping. 

And so, pray! Pray unashamedly! God does not ask you to figure out what he wants, he tells you to ask for what you need and trust in his provision. Sometimes his power is revealed in giving you grace to deliver you from your trouble. Sometimes his power is revealed in giving you grace to endure your trouble. 

No matter what, if you trust in Jesus Christ, you have a Father who cares and knows best. Pray unashamedly, stop apologizing to God for asking for something, and trust in him, all the while looking forward to your true and ultimate deliverance on the last day, a new body with no pain, no illness, no suffering no death. Bank on Christ for that and you will never be disappointed.

[A possibly secondary previous reference for the article might be James 2:14, "Can that faith save him?" It is the faith that flows out in works that saves. Connect this thought to James 5:16, "the prayer of the righteous man is powerful." It is the prayer of true faith that is being lived out that "saves" or "heals".]

[As for the solution to the problem of why then do not all prayers in faith heal people, I think the reference is to a future ultimate healing: "salvation" (v. 15) in its true ultimate sense. James says "save" and not "heal" in v. 15, and he says "the Lord will raise him up". As the sick person reaches out in faith to pray to the Lord for help in his sickness, God promises he will receive healing, true healing on the last day--the Lord will raise him up! For argumentation in this direction, listen to my sermon or read Mark Seifrid, "The Waiting Church and its Duty", Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 4 (Fall 2000): 32-38. (pdf)]




An Under-Rower?

I can sympathize with the desire sometimes in explaining the word of God to "go deep" in explaining the meaning of the words. Precise definitions sometimes do not seem to satisfy, and a "word study" should have more to show than a clear, precise definition. 

The funny part is that this is often called the "literal" meaning of the word. Rather than the precise lexicon entry, it is the dug up etymology / ancient usage that is the "literal" meaning. Words should not be defined by their etymology or by previous ancient usage.

(Nor should they be defined by later usage either! The fact that we get "dynamite" from dynamis in Greek doesn't mean that "the gospel is the power (dynamis) of God for salvation" should be explained as "dynamite" power. But these explanations seem to die hard.)

A common example of this is insisting we translate the Greek hyperetes as "under-rower". For example, 1Co 4:1 says, "This is how one should regard us, as servants (hyperetes) of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." Breaking up the word etymologically we get "under" and "rower". But does the etymology of a word define what the word means? 

As just one example, John MacArthur says, "Servants (hyperetes) means literally, 'under rowers,' originally indicating the lowest galley slaves, the ones rowing on the bottom tier of a ship. They were the most menial, unenvied, and despised of slaves." (1 Corinthians, 96)

As much as I love and respect MacArthur and thoroughly enjoy and am blessed by his preaching, if the word "literally" means 'under rowers', why does the standard lexicon (BDAG) mention nothing about it? Why then does the word get translated as "officer" in John 7:46? Here, they were people who reported to the Sanhedron, the official Jewish council. That is not the most menial, unenvied, despised position at all. 

Can we (note: 1st person plural, myself included) be satisfied with clear, precise definitions and then spend our time figuring out how they are used together, and how they contribute to the main idea of the passage?

Here is my point: It might make for a good emphatic point in a sermon, but if our sermons rest on little facts and interesting statements about etymology, rather than bringing out the whole structure and force of the passage in context, we need to re-think our preaching, lest it become too fragmented or lacking true substance. 




James 4:5 -- Yearning Jealously

If you've read the book of James before, you are probably one of many that think, "I wonder what that means" when you come to James 4:5. It was a very exciting study last week working through some of the details of why this is a difficult passage. There was no room in the sermon for these comments, but wanted to make them available nonetheless.

James 4:5 reads as follows:

Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, "He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us"? (ESV)  
Or do you think the scripture means nothing when it says, "The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning"? (NET)

The fundamental decision to make in this verse is over who is the subject of the verb "yearns". 

Background grammar to illustrate the ambiguity

#1: Greek verbs are conjugated so as to indicate whether the subject is 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, singular or plural. (The verb here is 3rd person singular, "he".)  Because of this fact, the subject of a verb can be omitted since it is often implied by the verb itself, and pronouns for the subject are used primarily for the sake of emphasis. 

#2: Nouns in Greek have gender: masculine, feminine and neuter. They also change their form ("decline") based on what function they play in the sentence. That is, the ending of the noun changes depending on whether it is the subject, object, direct object, etc. 

#3: Neuter nouns have the exact same form for the subject and the object. And it just so happens that the word for "spirit" in Greek (pneuma) is neuter. 

Thus: it is ambiguous as to whether it should be understood as "he [God] yearns for the spirit" (e.g. ESV), or "the spirit yearns" (e.g. NET).

So, what else can we us to solve the problem?

Where does the "quote" come from?

Another tricky issue here is where the quote comes from. James introduces it as "the Scripture" (he graphe) speaking, but there is nowhere in the OT that says such a thing in such words. Therefore, most conclude that James is referring to the general teaching of Scripture rather than quoting its exact words. We do this all the time. "The Bible says you should not live with your girlfriend" is a true statement, not intended to quote from direct words.

So, we might want to look to the original context to get help, but that doesn't help us here since it is a general statement. 

The word "jealously" / "envious"

I think that this word is the key to the right interpretation of this verse. The word in the Greek is phthonos. In short: I do not believe it is proper to ascribe this word for jealousy to God.

In Greek there are two words for jealousy: zelos and phthonos. It is indeed true that the OT does indeed speak in not a few places about the "jealousy" (or "zeal") of God. For example, Exodus 20:5. God, like a righteous husband, is infuriated over the unfaithfulness of his people, just like a husband who loves his wife would be over her leaving him for another man. This righteous demand for the devotion and love that only he deserves is always translated by zelos. In fact, the word phthonos doesn't even occur in the OT.

It gets worse. Every other time this word occurs in the NT is negative, often occurring in "sin lists". It gets worse. It occurs always negative in all of classical Greek literature (with the possible exception of one other time). The case seems pretty closed already.

As for the lexicons and dictionaries go, it doesn't look any better: Louw-Nida define it as "a state of ill will toward someone because of some real or presumed advantage experienced by such a person". Trench says that phthonos is "incapable of good, is used always and only in an evil, signification." Spicq says that "often there is an association [of phthonos] with zelos; but unlike this latter term, phthonos is always pejorative. . . . We must translate 'malevolent envy.'"

It would seem to go rather in the face of all linguistic evidence to think that this kind of jealousy can be ascribed to God. 

Many (e.g. Davids, Martin, Carson) refer to the fact that zelos and phthonos occur together not infrequently, which Spicq above mentioned. The conclusion they derive from this, however, is altogether wrong. Just because two terms often occur together does not mean they are interchangeable and have the same range of meaning. All the texts they cite to prove this use zelos in its less nobler sense. I would agree they are virtually interchangable when talking about wicked human jealousy, but to then make the jump to say they have no distinction in meaning seems to me to be without basis.

It seems in most correspondance with the data to say this word cannot properly be ascribed to God without outstanding evidence to the contrary. I find this outstanding evidence, in a word, lacking.

Where does that leave us?

The result would then be that the human spirit must be the subject of the verse that is doing the "envious yearning". James 4:5, then, becomes an appeal to the Scriptural teaching on the sinfulness of mankind in his being filled with envious yearning. James talked about this in James 4:1-3 that conflict exists between people because passions wage war within them, and unfulfilled passions lead to conflict. It is these "warring passions" (verse 1) that are called "envious yearning" in verse 5. 

In context, then, I would render the flow of thought something like this:

"How can you make yourselves friends of the world? Do you minimize your envy and ambition? Is it to no purpose that the Scripture tells us about the evil longings of our spirit and God's overcoming grace? Realize your seriousness of your sin and seek grace!"

That said, supposing it was possible that phthonos can be ascribed to God, then it would be speaking of his righteous anger over the "adultery" (i.e. spiritual infidelity) of his "bride" by loving the world (see James 4:4). This fits also in context, which is what makes it an attractive option as well. If this were true, the thought would be something like this:

"How can you make yourselves friends of the world? Do you minimize your envy and ambition? Is it to no purpose that the Scripture tells us of God's jealous longing for his people (i.e. leading to discipline/wrath), and the even greater grace he will give them? So fear, and seek grace!" 

As you can see, even if we're not sure on the details, I think the end purpose of James here is clear: it is to say, "Do you realize how bad this is?" But, I think the interpretation of the NET above is correct, not the ESV. 

I hope that this helps you as you read James 4 next time, so that you can know what it is saying and why. 




The Underdog Sometimes Wins, Part 2

So...this turned out to be a rather difficult decision to make. In the same place that I found the Thomas Edgar article, I also found an article, I found another article by Zane Hodges, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and the Rapture, which I proceeded to read and enjoy. However, it got me thinking some more.

I firmly believe that the decision that they arrive at on 1 Thess 5:10 is absolutely right. It is surprising that so many people go against this decision, and that is very humbling, but I cannot reconcile the lack of exegetical data for the majority position. We should not allow theology into our hermeneutics.

However...that does put me in a difficult situation in understanding what it then is saying; something I didn't address in my last post. This then ends up saying, "Whether we are alert or asleep, we will live together with the Lord." This seems to go directly against Jesus' parables of Matt 24:42-25:13. This was what I spent most of Friday thinking about.

This issue was not addressed in either of the above papers. I realized later that this makes sense, given that one is written by Zane Hodges, a strong opponent of Lordship Salvation, of which I strongly believe in! Does this verse give "too" strong a view of believer security?

I don't think so. I think it is a part of his effort to instill an "immutable hope" (Zane Hodge's term) into the believers at Thessalonica (cf. their being "destined" to salvation in verse 9) in order to promote alertness and sobriety. I don't think that being "asleep" necessarily mean being "dead" or being the servant who gets drunk and beats his fellow servants that Jesus talked about. I think it is someone who participates in deeds of darkness, of which I see parallels in Ephesians 5:8-12 and Romans 13:11-14.

Faith is what saves, not works. But faith always leads to works. What if we only have faith but it is genuine faith, will we be saved? Yes. (Rom 4:5) Does that mean we can do what we want? No. (Rom 6:1-2; Eph 2:10) If this does not contradict then neither does the "Do not sleep! Be alert!" of 1 Thess 5:6 contradict the "whether alert or asleep" of 1 Thess 5:10.

I welcome you to read the final product of this study.

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!




The Underdog Sometimes Wins

While studying for this week's sermon on 1 Thess 5:1-11, I stumbled upon a very unexpected problem which led to a very enriching study. The difficulty occurs in verse 10, which reads:

[Christ] died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. (NASB)

This at first glance seems like a very straightforward passage. It sounds similar to the preceding paragraph, 1 Thess 4:13-18, on the rapture which stressed that even those who have died in Christ will forever be with the Lord along with those who survive until the Lord's coming. It seems like he is concluding again in the same way here. It also sounds very similar to Rom 14:8:

for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. (NASB)

Done. No interpretation needed.

That is...until I read Robert Thomas's commentary in The Expositor's Bible Commentary who says that this view is untenable! I was surprised. As I flipped through the other commentaries I had (Bruce, Wanamaker, Hiebert, Marshall, Hendriksen, MacArthur, Mayhue, Robertson, Vincent, Wiersbe) and every single one of them rejects Thomas' view. Some of them even do so in emotionally charged words. Hiebert says that it is "inconceivable" and Bruce calls it "ludicrous"!

The interpretation of this verse hangs on the interpretation of the verbs for "awake" and "sleep." It turns out that there are multiple words that mean "sleep" and this one here virtually always means literal sleep (unlike the word used for sleep in 1 Thess 4). There are only two places that it means death and they are in the LXX. The word here for "awake" never means "alive" outside of the possibility of this verse, and is interpreted so only on the weak basis of interpreting "sleep" here as death!

Not only that, but these words have been used throughout the entire context of 1 Thess 5 in a different way. For Paul to suddenly use them in a different way might be acceptable if it were a common usage. But to suddenly switch to a never-heard-before usage is very unlikely.

Despite such little lexical data, all the standard references support such an interpretation: BDAG, TDNT, NIDNTT, Louw-Nida, Thayer. And what's worse, they seem to have no problem with it!

When confronted with such large authorities all in seeming agreement, what is a little guy like me to do? Why did Thomas have to go against everyone?! Why did it have to be him!? Just when I had just about caved in under the big names, I decided to run through Logos and see if I had anything else in there on that passage. Well, I found out that Constable in Bible Knowledge Commentary and Martin in New American Commentary both support Thomas' view. Martin referenced an article that saved the day.

I invite you to read LETHARGIC OR DEAD IN 1 THESSALONIANS 5:10? by Thomas Edgar.

The underdog sometimes wins.

Matt Hauck (郝柏昇)

A once enemy now son, forgiven and freed by Jesus' blood, adopted and called by grace for glory.   (more...)