Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Matthew 5

Still working on the paraphrase of Matthew. Here's chapter 5, verses 1-16.
Mount of Beatitudes with the Sea of Galilee in the distance.

1-2. When Jesus saw the crowds that had followed him, he climbed a hill and sat down with His followers next to him, and he began to teach them. He said,

3. “Happy [1] are those who know their spiritual poverty, for they are the ones who are true citizens of God’s kingdom.

4. “Happy are those who now are filled with sadness over sin, for God himself will comfort them.

5. “Happy are those who are humble, for they will gain the world God has promised to his people.

6. “Happy are those who long to see the right prevail, for they will see their longings satisfied.

7. “Happy are those who show kindness to the downtrodden, for they will themselves receive mercy.

8. “Happy are those whose hearts are pure, for they are God’s children.

9. “Happy are those who work for peace, for they will be regarded as the children of God.

10. “Happy are those who are mistreated because they do right, for they will enjoy the kingdom of heaven.

11-12. “Happy are you when people hate you and mistreat you and falsely accuse you of all kinds of evil just because you belong to me. Yes, be glad, for this is what people did to the prophets who lived before you.

13. “You of whom these things are true, you are the salt that preserves this world. But take care. If salt loses its taste, it is of no value. It is of no more value than sand. It will be thrown out and walked on like dirt.

14-16. “You are the light that illuminates this dark world. Just as a city on a hill cannot be hidden, your light will provide light for all. Men do not hide a lamp under a basket. No, they put it out where it can give light to the entire house. In the same way, let your good lives shine before all. Let all see your how you live that they may give honor to God, your Father in heaven.


[1] Happy does not adequately capture the sense of the Greek word makarios. But blessed, used in older translations, makes little sense to us today. The idea of the word is one who has received the favor of someone richer. In the Bible it usually means one who has been particularly favored by God.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Matthew Chapter 2

A Tumultuous Beginning

A new paraphrase.

1-2. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the Jewish region of Judea while Herod the Great was King. After his birth, astrologers, who are called Magi, [1] came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star and have come to worship him.”

3-4. Herod was disturbed when he heard this and all the people of Jerusalem with him. When he had gathered all the chief priests and Jewish Bible scholars, he asked them where this “Christ” was supposed to be born.

4-6. They told him that he would be born in Bethlehem of Judea because that is what the prophet wrote: “Bethlehem in the land of Judah, you are in no way the least among the cities of Judah. From you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” [2]

Streets of Bethlehem in 1880. Things have changed since Joseph and Mary walked this way. Yet, in many villages of the Middle East some things never change. This street scene might not be too different from the streets of first century Bethlehem.

7-8. Herod called the Magi to meet with him, but he did this secretly without the knowledge of the priests or scholars. Herod wanted to find out when they had first seen the star. Then he sent them to Bethlehem. He commanded, “Go and find the child, and then come back and tell me, so I too can go and worship him.”

9-12. The Magi listened to Herod and went to Bethlehem. The star they had seen while they had been in the East showed them the way and finally came to rest above the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with his mother Mary, and having found the child they knelt down and worshiped him. They opened the gifts they had brought – gold and frankincense and myrrh. But having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their own country avoiding Jerusalem.

13-15. After the Magi left Mary and the child, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him, “Get up. Take the child and Mary and leave right away for Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” Joseph immediately got up and took the child and Mary that night and left for Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled the prophet’s words: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” [3]

16. When Herod realized he had been tricked by the Magi, he was very angry. He ordered that all the boys who were two years old and younger in Bethlehem and in the whole region around Bethlehem be killed. He decided on that age because of what the Magi had told him about the first appearing of the star.

17-18. That fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice could be heard in Ramah, crying with loud wails of grief, Rachel crying for her children; and she would not be comforted because her children were dead.” [4]

19-23. After several years, however, Herod died, and an angel came again to Joseph in a dream. The angel told Joseph, “Take the child and Mary and return to the land of Israel. Those who tried to kill the child are dead.” So Joseph did what the angel said, returning with the child and Mary to Israel. But when they arrived he heard that Archelaus, Herod’s son, was king in Judea, and Joseph was afraid. However, he was directed in a dream to find a home in the region of Galilee, and he took the child and Mary there to a small village called Nazareth. This fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophets that the Messiah would be a Nazarene. [5]


[1] Magi were professional astrologers or astronomers who were part of a priestly class in Persia. The wise men who advised Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel were probably of this class. Daniel may have been considered among the Magi, and it may have been through Daniel that these Magi in Matthew came to know of the star that was to come out of Judah. See Numbers 24:17.

[2] Micah 5:2, 4

[3] Jeremiah 31:15

[4] Hosea 11:1

[5] There is no direct quote in the Old Testament for this reference. Some think that Matthew is making a play on words, something like what we would call a pun, since Nazarene is close to the word Nazirite. A Nazirite was a person dedicated to God. Samson, for example, was a man dedicated from birth to God. See Judges 13:7.


Matthew the author.

In our hurry to get into the book itself, we often overlook the author. That is a mistake. Knowing the author and his purpose in writing is important to our understanding of any piece of writing and certainly to our understanding of this gospel. In fact, as we better understand the man called Matthew and his passion for the Messiah and for his own Jewish people, what he wrote of Jesus takes on greater significance and deeper meaning.

Who was Matthew? The answer that immediately rolls off our tongue is that he is the Matthew who was the disciple and Apostle of that name, called by Jesus to become one of the twelve disciples. But in recent years that assumption has been challenged. The author does not sign his name to the manuscript. He includes no first person “we” memories of Jesus or first person recollections of what would have been his shared experiences with the other disciples. He even seems to use long passages from a previously existing source rather than personal eyewitness testimony - which the author must have had if he were the disciple Matthew. So, were we mistaken? I do not think so.

Who was Matthew? If you were to ask him he would tell you, as he does in his gospel, that he was just a man, a sinner, who followed Jesus. He would happily leave it at that and change the discussion to what was really his passion, the Messiah.

But of course, Matthew’s brief, humble reply would be only part of the story. History tells us that he was more than a humble follower of Jesus. He was also an Apostle to his people and the author of the book called by his name.

There are two lines of evidence, I believe, for Matthew’s authorship of the gospel that lead us back to what the church has for eighteen centuries accepted as true. The first is the conviction of the early church father Papias. Writing in the early part of the second century, Papias identified the author of the book as the disciple Matthew. Papias also tells us that Matthew wrote for Jewish Christians and perhaps wrote in the Hebrew or Aramaic language. To take the word of someone who lived as little as one generation distant from the author of the book seems reasonable. He certainly knew the events that surrounded the beginning of the church far better than we can know them from a distance of almost two thousand years.

The second line of evidence is a manual for conduct and practice in the early church called the Didache. It is dated to the late first or early second century (100-130 A.D.) and was considered the teachings of the Apostles. The Didache contains the Lord’s Prayer just as it appears in the gospel of Matthew as well as the Trinitarian baptismal formula as it is found in chapter 28 of the gospel. Along with these longer quotes, the Didache also uses many brief clips from Matthew’s gospel, words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount that are not found in the other gospels. The heavy dependence of the Didache on Matthew would indicate both the early and apostolic origin of the gospel of Matthew and the gospel's importance to the early church.

However, it is not the historical evidence for authorship that is most significant for our understanding of his message. It is the portrait of Matthew that emerges from the book itself.

Matthew clearly was a literate and knowledgeable reader of the Hebrew Scriptures. He quotes extensively from those scriptures, more than any of the other three gospel writers. And it was a knowledge that is understandable when we see in the gospels of Mark and Luke that Matthew was also known as Levi. That name identifies Matthew as a man belonging to the clan assigned to serve in temple ministry, a man who would have been well schooled in the scriptures of Israel.

Yet when we are introduced to him in the gospels he was a man who was working at the most despised of professions, a tax collector for the Romans, and consorting with sinners. How had he fallen? Why?

Perhaps Matthew’s personal experience of the “religion” of Israel is the answer.

Matthew would have grown up in a family intimately associated with religion. He would have seen personally the corruption and political compromise and deadness (the very things that Jesus confronted and that Matthew reported at length in the gospel). If he had been a young man serious about God, dead religion up close and personal must have been a terrible, disturbing disappointment. Like many young people today who become disillusioned by the emptiness of the religion they see in their churches, the only option seemed to be to walk away from it all. He didn’t end up serving drinks in a sleazy back street bar, but his job as tax collector and partier with sinners was not much different. It was as far away from the religion of his youth as he could get. Yet there smoldered in Matthew a hope. It was a passion that is evident in his frequent references to the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah, more than any other prophet, weeps in pain at the moral and spiritual decline of Israel. Yet this same Isaiah deeply hopes in the Messiah - whose portrait he so wonderfully draws in the powerful 53rd chapter of his message - the Servant of God who would take away the sin of his people. These were a people whom Isaiah pictures as an “afflicted city” (Isaiah 54:11), a people who were waiting in “darkness” (Isaiah 61:1). And that was Matthew. He was a pile of kindling waiting for a flame. Jesus was that flame.

It is not surprising after hearing Jesus preaching that the kingdom of God was present, after seeing the genuineness of Jesus’ character and seeing the power of his compassion, that Matthew would at Jesus’ word leave the tax booth to follow this incredible man. Jesus, he felt deep down and without question, was the hope of Israel. This man was his hope. This man was Messiah. Matthew could do no less than follow.

Matthew’s passionate surrender to the one he knew to be Messiah left him forever humbled. It is not insignificant that Matthew alone of the three gospel writers who tell of the Lord’s calling uses the name Matthew and not the name Levi. (In fact, he goes further. He calls himself simply “a man.”) The name Levi carried far more status than Matthew wished now to bear.

Nor is it insignificant that in the list of the twelve disciples included in all three gospels, Matthew alone would add to his name, “the publican.” (He might as well have written Matthew the sinner, for that is what he meant.) Yes, Matthew’s encounter with Messiah left him deeply and profoundly humbled, but it also left him with a burden.

Matthew’s passionate surrender to Messiah would turn him to his people with the message of the Servant Savior. He saw his people as the people described by Isaiah: “Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead” (Isaiah 59:10). Upon them the light had now dawned. And with the burden of a prophet, Matthew would spend the rest of his life speaking the message of Messiah Jesus, the Light. He would bear that burden to his people in Judea and then across western Asia. Out of that passion flow the words of the book we know now as the Gospel of Matthew.