A Question about Forgiveness – Matthew 18:21-22

After hearing Jesus’s teaching on how to handle someone who has committed an offense against us, Peter raises a question which reflects Jewish thinking about forgiveness in the first century. The “process” Jesus outlined in 18:15-20 sounds like a person might receive two warnings before being excommunicated from the assembly of believers. In Matthew 5:39, Jesus describes “turning the other cheek.” Did he want to imply “two chances” in that teaching?

Peter had discussed the temple tax with Jesus in Matthew 17:24-27, a pericope which follows “the disciples were filled with grief,” the same phrase appears in 18:31 (fellow servants are “filled with outrage”). Perhaps this is a frame? Perhaps Peter is being generous, not simply turning the other cheek, or forgive twice then bring it to the assembly and excommunicate the sinner. Seven times forgiveness would be remarkable!

Judaism did emphasize forgiveness for those who have offended. Leviticus 19:17 was at the heart of the previous teaching, so too here in 18:21-22 and the parable Jesus uses to illustrate this teaching, the very next verse forbids holding a grudge and says, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Leviticus 19:17–18 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

We might think we have been grievously wronged by someone and they do not deserve forgiveness and reconciliation. But are we any less offensive and in need of forgiveness and reconciliation with God? Craig Keener said, “No one can offend our human moral sensibilities as much as everyone offends the moral sensibilities of a perfect God” (Keener, Matthew, 458).

In the Testament of Gad, for example, the writer says “Love one another from the heart, therefore, and if anyone sins against you, speak to him in peace. Expel the venom of hatred, and do not harbor deceit in your heart. If anyone confesses and repents, forgive him” (T.Gad 6:3). This example is sufficient to demonstrate Jews in the first century were not proto-Puritans condemning everyone’s sin, nor were they standing on the street corners with signs damning everyone else to Hell. For the most part, the Judaism of Jesus’s day understood they had received great mercy and grace from God and that the “venom of hatred” does no one any good.

Jesus extends forgiveness to “seven times seventy.” By this he means the kind of unending forgiveness God has already given to the disciples, and by extension to all those who are in Christ in the present age. The person who needs to be forgiven seven times is a serial offender! There is a close parallel to this teaching in Luke 17:4, “if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

The translation of the number of times to forgive is difficult, it could be seventy-seven times (as in the ESV, NIV and most modern translations) or “seventy times seven” (as in the KJV), which would be 490 times in all.  Although both are possible, most scholars today think the phrase is modeled on the LXX of Genesis 4:24, Lamech will be avenged “seventy-fold seven” (Nolland, Matthew, 754). In Genesis 4:24 Lamech wanted to be avenged seventy fold, Jesus is reversing that sort of outrageous, unlimited vengeance with equally outrageous, unlimited mercy.

In either case, Jesus is using hyperbole to express the idea that his disciples will not keep an accounting of wrong, but rather will reflect the unending mercy of the heavenly Father who has already forgiven them of all of their sins.

The problem is too many Christians are thin-skinned when it comes to taking offense. Five minutes on Facebook is enough to prove Christians are easily offended and do not offer forgiveness to those who need it. In fact, Christians are quick to use the “venom of hatred” when they are comfortably anonymous!  Rather than be offended at the sins of others, Christians ought to be amazed at the grace they have received and offer that some grace and mercy to other who desperately need it.

What does Binding and Loosing Mean in Matthew 18:18-20?

“Binding and Loosing” in Matthew 18:18-20 is another difficult sayings in Matthew. It is also one of the most misused sayings in of Jesus. It is applied to personal and corporate prayer to encourage Christians to agree together in prayer, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is not really what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 18. Worse, some Christians take this verse to claim the power to “bind Satan,” as if they have some supernatural power over satanic forces if there are two or three of them praying together. Although the binding of Satan does appear in Revelation 20, that has nothing to do with the modern practice of attempting to bind Satan by the prayers of two or three gathered believers.

The phrase appears here and in Matthew 16:19. The difference is in Matthew 16, Peter is addressed, here the pronouns are all plural, it is the church which binds and loosens. These two passages are the also only two places where Matthew uses the word church, so it was natural for the Roman Catholic Church to apply them directly to the authority of the Pope as one who, like Peter, is permitted to bond and loose sin. However, Even Luther thought binding and loosing referred to forgiving sin.

As always, the most important thing to consider for good interpretation of Scripture is the context. Up to this point, Matthew 18 has discussed dealing with followers of Jesus who are causing others to sin or are caught in some kind of sin themselves. I have suggested this may be a problem in Christian communities originally served by Matthew’s Gospel. If that is the case, then “binding and loosing” refers to the Christian community deciding for or against theological or ethical challenges as they arise in the later first century.

Rather than forgiving sin or binding Satan, a better interpretation of the phrase is to read it in the context of Second Temple Judaism and the rabbinic practice of applying scripture to specific situations. If the command was applicable, then it was “bound,” if they determined it was a commandment not applicable in a specific circumstance, then it was “loosed.”

In an important article on this issue, Mark Allan Powell observed the rabbis (and Matthew) did not consider “loosing the Law” as “dismissing scripture or countering its authority.” God’s Law is perfect, but the problem was the Law’s intention and how that intention can be brought forward into a new situation. This is something akin to dispensationalism’s horizontal and vertical truth or drawing principals from the Old Testament Law.

m.Aboth 3:2 R. Hananiah b. Teradion says, “[If] two sit together and between them do not pass teachings of Torah, lo, this is a seat of the scornful, “as it is said, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful (Ps. 1:1). “But two who are sitting, and words of Torah do pass between them—the Presence is with them, “as it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord and gave thought to His name (Mal. 3:16).” I know that this applies to two. How do I know that even if a single person sits and works on Torah, the Holy One, blessed be he, sets aside a reward for him? As it is said, Let him sit alone and keep silent, because he has laid it upon him (Lam. 3:28).

m.Aboth 3:2 R. Halafta of Kefar Hananiah says, “Among ten who sit and work hard on Torah the Presence comes to rest, as it is said, God stands in the congregation of God (Ps. 82:1). And how do we know that the same is so even of five?  For it is said, And he has founded his group upon the earth (Am. 9:6). “And how do we know that this is so even of three?  Since it is said, And he judges among the judges (Ps. 82:1). And how do we know that this is so even of two?  Because it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard (Mal. 3:16). “And how do we know that this is so even of one?  Since it is said, In every place where I record my name I will come to you and I will bless you (Ex. 20:24).

In his ETS plenary address in San Diego a few years ago, Joe Hellerman described an example of this method of applying Scripture from later church history. As the church grew, people who were actors began to accept Jesus as savior. This raised the question: is acting an appropriate occupation for a Christian? Because of the pagan nature of a Greco-Roman play, the church concluded a Christian should not earn their living as an actor. Jesus never said “though shalt not become an actor,” but separation from the world would certainly make it difficult for a Christian to be an actor. This would be an example of the church “binding” something one earth, it is a sin to be an actor.

Most Christians today would not see the job of acting as inappropriate for a Christian, although there might be some limits on roles accepted, etc. This might be a case of the church “loosening” on earth, it is no longer a sin to be an actor (within these parameters). Each generation will have new issues which arise and faith communities will have to decide whether the Christian can or cannot participate in some new behavior or belief. Can a Christian be a politician? Run a store which sells alcohol? Be a bartender? Be a model? Believe in gay marriage? Believe in evolution?

The role of the church, then, is to know the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 28:18) and to draw principles from his teaching to apply to new situations. This is essentially what Paul does, and what he instructs Timothy to do and for Timothy to instruct new elders to continue the process of applying Scripture to new situations.

 

Bibliography: Mark Allan Powell, “Binding and Loosing: A Paradigm for Ethical Discernment from the Gospel of Matthew,” Currents in Theology and Mission 30 (2003): 438-445; 438.

Jennifer Woodruff Tait, Christian History in Seven Sentences

Tait, Jennifer Woodruff. Christian History in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic. Introductions in Seven Sentences. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2021. 168 pp. Pb. $18.00   Link to IVP Academic   

This small introduction to Christian history is the fourth volume in IVP Academic’s Introductions in Seven Sentences series. Tait covers two thousand years of history in seven brief chapters using seven historically significant sentences drawn from important documents of the period.

Tait Christian HistoryAs she observes in the introduction, church history is a conversation with brothers and sisters who lived in the past. She describes the book as “like a map” which gives the broadest perspective possible. Readers should add points to the map readers or zoom in to examine the details between the seven major turning points in history covered in the book.

Four of the major shifts in church history are familiar. Tait selects two sentences from the early church: The Edict of Milan (313) and the Nicene Creed (325). Edict of Milan moved the church in the mainstream of Roan society and the Nicene Creed stabilized orthodox theology. Her discussion of the Nicene Creed includes its expansion at the Council of Chalcedon and a brief discussion of Athanasius. A book on Church History would be incomplete without a chapter on the Reformation. She introduces this chapter with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (1517), but also includes short sections on Müntzer, Zwingli, and Calvin, the English Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The most recent of her seven sentences is the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Tait selects sentences from three less known but pivotal events. First, the Rule of Saint Benedict (530) is used to introduce a discussion of monasticism. Beginning with the earliest ascetics, she describes the motivation for monasticism and how Benedict developed his Rule to deal with theological and practical aspects of monasticism. This chapter concisely describes other rules and a short note on modern monasticism. Second, the excommunication of Patriarch Kerularios by Leo IX (1054) introduces the Great Schism and the differences between the eastern and western churches. The chapter reaches back to the roots of the schism in 600 and beyond to the Crusades. Third, she draws a sentence from the Edinburgh Conference (1910). Tait uses this to introduce the beginnings of the modern missions movement in the eighteenth century and the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century.

Conclusion. Some readers will be frustrated that their favorite event or person from Church history is missing from this book. There is nothing on Augustine or Aquinas, nor anything on major twentieth-century theologians like Karl Barth. But the series limits Tait only seven sentences and about 138 pages of text. The seven sentences she selected tell the overarching story of the church from Constantine to the present. For readers with a basic familiarity with church history, this book will be an excellent introduction to the major events necessary to understand the historical flow of the Christian Church for the last 2000 years.

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

W. Creighton Marlowe and Charles H. Savelle, Jr. Psalms, Volume 1: Wisdom Psalms

Marlowe, W. Creighton and Charles H. Savelle, Jr. Psalms, Volume 1: The Wisdom Psalms. A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching. Kerux Commentaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Ministry, 2021. 389 pp. Hb. $36.99   Link to Kregel Ministry  

This new commentary is part of Kregel Academic’s new Kerux commentary series. Projected to be a 46-volume series, seven are currently available. W. Creighton Marlowe (PhD, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary) prepared the exegetical portion of the Commentary and Charles H. Savelle Jr. (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) wrote the preaching and teaching notes. Marlow is associate professor of Old Testament at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, Belgium. Savelle serves as an adjunct professor for Dallas Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Psalms Volume 1 KeruxThis commentary on the Psalter is unusual because it covers a genre of the Psalms rather than each Psalm in canonical order. This commentary only treats fifteen wisdom psalms, although there are as many as thirty-nine potential examples of the genre. Kregel Academic plans two more volumes, a second on Lament Psalms and a third on Praise Psalms. Presumably, the introductory material in this volume will not be repeated, allowing for more Psalms in each subsequent volume.

The commentary has a general introduction to the Psalter (29-69) and a second introduction to Wisdom Psalms in particular (71-77). The general introduction covers typical matters of introduction (authorship, pace and date of writing and occasion). This must be general since the background for each psalm is different. The authors have a firm commitment to inspiration of Scripture (31), so the introduction favors traditional answers to questions of authorship. Regarding superscriptions, Marlowe suggests inspiration may not extend to editorial activity. “The superscriptions, however accurate in terms of maintaining a tradition, were the result of human imagination and ingenuity” (31). This seems to allow for some flexibility for the seventy-three psalms with “of David” in the superscription. Psalms with occasions associated with David are consistent with David’s career, but the “of David” psalms may be written about David, or in David’s style. Superscriptions are therefore highly valued, but not authoritative (30).

The introduction compares the Psalter with psalms found in the ancient Near East, especially Ugarit. Like wisdom literature from Egypt and Assyria, similarities exist on technical levels of linguistics and stylistics. But this does not diminish the “revelatory and remarkable and revolutionary message of the Israelite Psalter” (34). The introduction also compares the Psalter to extracanonical psalms from Qumran and the Septuagint. Marlowe concludes “the individual psalms in our current Old Testament psalter were a unique means of understanding biblical revelation via poetic personal and public praise, prayers, protestations, and pleas for mercy and judgment” (37).

Much of the introduction is a chart summarizing the type, features, and associations of each psalm.

With respect to outlining the Psalter, scholars often simply follow the five sections indicated by the presence of doxologies (see Psalm 41:13, for example). There are many suggests for the overall structure of the Psalms, see for example Gerald H. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (Scholars, 1985) or John H. Walton, “Psalms: A Cantata About the Davidic Covenant” (JETS 34; 1991). Marlowe recognizes the five-part structure but suggests a different outline for the book. Psalms 1-2 are an introduction to the Psalter and Psalms 3-9 are an introductory section (all psalms of David). Psalms 10-139 are the main body of the Psalter, with psalms 140-145 forming a concluding section (all psalms of David). Psalms 146-150 for the conclusion to the whole Psalter.

The general introduction concludes with a summary of theological themes in the Psalms (54-66). As expected, the theology of the Psalter focuses on God (his names, descriptions, and character). Other themes include creation, salvation, evil, the afterlife, and the Messiah (including a three-page chart summarizing the messianic psalms). Under the heading of Anthropological Themes, Marlowe deals with the problem of hating one’s enemies. In many psalms, the opponent is the object of the psalmist’s hatred as he cries out to God for vengeance. This is followed by a second, related section on imprecations (curses) found in the psalms (specifically Psalm 137). Many Christians have a problem with hatred and curses on one’s enemies in worship literature, since this material seems to run counter to Leviticus 19:18 and the general teaching in the New Testament. More disturbing, it is often God who hates his enemies in the psalms. Marlowe draws a contrast between national Israel, which was used for military purposes to judge nations in the Old Testament, and the transnational church, which is never commissioned to wage war (65). This is a brief answer to a tough problem and may not satisfy everyone. What is more, is there is nothing here on how to preach and imprecatory Psalm (maybe the answers is “don’t preach those psalms”).

The introduction concludes the introduction with about two pages of Practical Theology drawn from the Psalms. First, a common question for readers of the psalms concerns God vindicating the blameless. Does this mean the Psalms demand us to be perfect? In the Psalter, “blameless” does not mean “sinless.” The one who is blameless trusts God and obeys his Law. Second, since the phrase “give thanks” appears frequently in the Psalter, connects giving thanks to an action of public witness, to make a public confession of faith in God.

The commentary for each psalm begins with a summary of the exegetical idea, theological focus, and preaching idea for the song. These are single sentences summarizing the big idea of the song. This preaching summary concludes with two paragraphs of preaching pointers.

The body of the commentary begins with a summary of the literary structure and themes followed by the exposition proper. Although there are a few brief notes on the potential historical context for some of these psalms, Marlowe is not interested in the Sitz im Leben for these psalms (which is less important for Wisdom Psalms than other forms).

The commentary proceeds verse by verse, although for longer psalms, groups of verses are treated together. Almost every verse of Psalm 119 has a brief comment! Transliterated Hebrew appears throughout the commentary. Marlowe only occasionally refers to secondary literature. Sometimes he compares major English translations, but there is little comment on Hebrew syntax in the commentary. Marlowe occasionally mentions variants from the MT. Following the exegesis of the Psalm is a short theological focus summarizing the Psalm, often with a larger canonical interest.

For the preaching and teaching strategies, Savelle begins an exegetical and theological synthesis (a summary of the exegesis provided above). He then provides a preaching idea, a one sentence big idea (following Haddon Robinson). Under the heading of contemporary connections, he briefly answers questions like “what does it mean?” “Is it true?” And “Now what? Under this heading, there are usually several action points which exhort the reader to apply the material from the Psalm to their lives. Under the heading of “Creativity in Presentation,” Savelle makes several suggestions on how to illustrate preaching points from contemporary culture. These sections may include references to history or recent events, but often to pop culture (Stephen Colbert and Jay Leno) and often popular music (from Ed Sheeran to Shane & Shane; even Leonard Cohen makes an appearance).

Each chapter ends with a few discussion questions.

As with other Kerux commentaries, the book contains frequent sidebars on issues found in the Psalm. For example, the Ruler of Tyre (Psalm 37:18), Holiness (Psalm 111), and Meditation (both Psalms 1 and 119). A feature of this commentary summarizes the preaching passages (13-22). This is the same material found at the beginning of each chapter, but it is helpful to see all the exegetical ideas and preaching ideas in one place. This will assist a pastor preparing a short sermon series on the Wisdom Psalms. The ratio of exegesis to preaching is about 2-1.

Conclusion. The goal of the Kerux series is to provide solid exegesis from leading scholars and teaching ideas for pastors. This volume achieves the goal of solid exposition of the text, and it offers help for pastors preparing sermons on these Psalms. I am curious if the next two volumes will cover the rest of the Psalter since there are quite a few Wisdom Psalms not included in this volume. Perhaps a volume of Messianic Psalms would be a popular addition to this series.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Other volumes reviewed in this series:

 

 

John L. McLaughlin, An Introduction to Israel’s Wisdom Traditions

McLaughlin, John L. An Introduction to Israel’s Wisdom Traditions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 217 pp. Pb; $25.   Link to Eerdmans

James Crenshaw once suggested wisdom literature is sometimes considered “an orphan in the biblical household” (173). This new book by John McLaughlin attempts to connect the wisdom books to the rest of the First Testament (following John Goldingay’s nomenclature for the Old Testament).

McLaughlin Wisdom TraditionHe begins by describing the international context of wisdom literature (chapter 1). For example, Proverbs 17:1 has close parallels in the literature of Sumer, Egypt, and Ugarit. The bulk of this chapter summarizes and gives brief examples from the wisdom literature of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Canaan. He points out that wisdom who’s quite at home in Canaan. It is unnecessary to appeal to Egypt or Mesopotamia to explain similar elements in Israel. To a large extent, the wisdom literature of Israel reflects the same sort of traditions found in Canaanite cultures as represented by Ebla and Ugarit.

Chapter 2 McLaughlin briefly introduces the readers to Hebrew poetry, especially the various forms of parallelism found in wisdom literature. He discusses other features of Hebrew poetry, such as acrostic, inclusio, keywords, and mirror patterns (chiasm). McLaughlin defines a biblical proverb as “a sentence, plus command or prohibition” (35). But there are other forms, such as instruction, numerical lists, disputations or dialogues, allegory, fable, and riddle.

McLaughlin devotes a chapter to each of the biblical wisdom book, Proverbs, Job, and Qohelet and to two Second Temple  books, Ben Sira (Sirach) and the Wisdom of Solomon. Each chapter begins with an overview of the structure, date, and major themes of the book. Proverbs is obviously a compilation of sayings drawn from several periods. McLaughlin suggests shorter sayings in the book may be pre-exilic, while the more developed speeches in Proverbs 1- 9, what does the word in the post-exilic period. Regarding Job, the lack of historical references makes the book notoriously difficult to date. He favors a sixth-century BC or later date based on the use of the definite article with the word satan, consistent with the post-exilic use in Zechariah 3:1-2 and 1 Chronicles 21:1.

Although the author of Qohelet claims to be a “son of David,” McLaughlin argues the book was composed well past the time of Solomon, or any other kings of Jerusalem. He detects allusions to the Persian Empire, suggesting a date in the third century B.C. The author was a teacher or a writer (12:9-10) and his observations are consistent with a Judean setting. The writer may have been the head of a school like Ben Sira (Sir 51:23). Ben Sira it’s a rare example of a book where the author and date are known. Ben Sira 50:27 states the author was Jesus ben Eleazar ben Sira in the book can be dated between 190-180 BC. Ben Sira’s grandson translated the book into Greek about 132 B.C. Finally, The Wisdom of Solomon does not identify an author, but it is certainly not Solomon. Since the book has some similarity to Philo of Alexandria, McLaughlin suggests the book could have been written under the reign of Caligula.

Chapter 8 traces the influence of this literature on other books in the First Testament. In the penalty, he focuses on Genesis (the Joseph Story), Exodus (Moses’s Birth), and Deuteronomy. He briefly examines the Succession Narrative and Solomon’s reign in the Deuteronomic History. He observes that there are as many as thirty-nine psalms identified as wisdom psalms, but in this short chapter, he can only focus on three (Pss. 1; 37; 49. With respect to the prophets, he spends most of the section discussing wisdom in the book of Amos, although there are scattered proverbs in several prophetic books. Most scholars associate Esther and Daniel with wisdom “court tales” because of their similarities to the Joseph story. Finally, following Brevard Childs, he briefly discusses the Song of Solomon as wisdom literature.

Chapter 9 summarizes the theology of wisdom literature. Most biblical theologies relate wisdom to a theology of creation based on Proverbs 3:19, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.” McLaughlin offers several other examples of proverbial literature focusing on God as the creator (Proverbs 16:4; 17:5 22:2). Proverbs 8:22- 31 and Ben Sira 1:4-10 describe the role of lady wisdom in the Lord’s creative activities. Since the created world is an orderly creation, wisdom literature implies that living one’s life within the harmonious social order of creation will lead to success. However, an interest in creation is a late development. The earliest stages of Israelite religion saw the Lord as a Warrior God and a Savior God. To see the Lord as a creator only became prominent during the Babylonian exile period.

The final chapter of the book discusses is the continuation of this literature in the Second Temple period and New Testament. First, building on Gerhard von Rad, it is possible wisdom was the basis for biblical apocalyptic rather than prophecy (182). McLaughlin offers several examples from 1 Enoch in which the author considers the book to be wisdom (1 Enoch 5:6, for example). Second, theodicy is an important element of apocalyptic literature. Third, he briefly surveys wisdom texts in the Qumran literature. Like apocalyptic literature, some of these examples combine traditional experiential wisdom with eschatological expectations. Fourth, he examines wisdom literature as it appears in appears in Paul, James, Q, the Synoptic Gospels, and finally the Gospel of John. For example, Paul refers to Jesus as the “wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1: 24) and he observes that John’s prologue is the “fullest expression of wisdom Christology in the New Testament” (191). This chapter concludes with a short two-paragraph section on wisdom in Rabbinic literature.

Conclusion. McLaughlin’s Introduction is an excellent introduction to the biblical wisdom books with a few added features to distinguish itself from other introductions. Including Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon extend the introduction into the Second Temple period and his chapter on the continuation of these traditions beyond the First Testament is helpful, even if too brief. This book will serve well in an undergraduate or graduate level introduction course.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.