Book Review: David L. Turner, Interpreting the Gospels and Acts: An Exegetical Handbook

Turner, David L. Interpreting the Gospels and Acts: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Academic, 2019. 358 pp. Pb; $21.99.   Link to Kregel

This is the final contribution to Kregel’s Handbooks of New Testament Exegesis covers a large section of the New Testament, the Gospels and the book of Acts. As with each volume of the exegetical handbook series, this new volume combines a scholarly introduction to the study of the Gospels and Acts with an exegetical method designed to help pastors and teachers present their interpretations as Gospel-oriented sermons. 

The first part of this book is a general introduction to the study of the gospels and the book of Acts. Each chapter discusses a topic followed by an application of that topic for each of the four Gospels and Acts. Chapter 1 discusses the genre and structure of the Gospels. After surveying a wide range of suggestions, Turner suggests biography is the best way to approach the genre of the gospels. He would include the book of Acts as biography because the disciples continue to teach and do what Jesus commanded. He also briefly explains several embedded genres found in the Gospels. He has a lengthy discussion on parables along with briefer description of intertextuality, apocalyptic, and wisdom sayings. For Acts he briefly describes Psalms quotations, speeches, and letters. Although the chapter discusses the four-fold gospel tradition, Turner does not cover source or redaction criticism at this point. He discusses them later in the book in the chapter on preparing to interpret the Gospels. Concerning form, source, and redaction criticism, Turner says “understanding the historical process of the gospel origins in divine providence is a worthy scholarly endeavor, but edification of the church is a matter of expounding the gospel in its final canonical” (188). 

Chapter 2 provide sufficient background material to read the Gospels in their historical context. Before his brief survey of Second Temple period literature, Turner observes the chief background for the New Testament is in fact the Old Testament. He has a section on archaeology as a resource for background material. What follows is a collection of short descriptions of important groups in the New Testament, he defines the importance of temple and synagogue but then also covers the usual groups within the second temple, including Pharisees, scribes, elders, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, the Essenes, and what he calls the “politically oriented groups,” the zealots. The section also includes a short survey of Jewish feasts as a background for reading the Gospels. In the second part of the chapter Turner offers the setting for each of the four Gospels, including authorship, occasion and purpose, and date. In general, Turner’s conclusions are conservative and traditional. 

Turner’s third chapter begins with an excellent discussion of what biblical theology is. He contrasts biblical theology with systematic theology and offers an assessment of the limits of biblical theology. In constructing an overall theology of the Gospels, Turner settles on “Jesus in the Spirit.” Although he covers kingdom of heaven under his specific discussion on Matthew, remarkably, he does not consider the Kingdom of God as the overall theme of the gospels as is often the case in Gospels introductions. Since he is tracing the overall theology of both the Gospels and Acts, perhaps he is more motivated to include the activity of the Holy Spirit as a key theme. He begins with the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, traces this into the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus, and then the ministry of the apostles in the book of Acts. In a footnote, he considers this approach to be a kind of inaugurated eschatology as creation renewal, citing the work of Greg Beale in his New Testament Biblical Theology (Baker 2011).  

The chapter then outlines the distinctive theological emphases of each gospel. For Mathew, Turner highlights Matthew’s use of the Old Testament, the theme of the kingdom of heaven and Matthew’s interest in Gentile mission. Mark is a passion narrative with an extended introduction. He briefly discusses the so-called messianic secret in Mark and the failure of the disciples to understand the resurrection at the end of the gospel. For Luke-Acts, Turner traces the geographical shift from Jerusalem to Rome and briefly discusses Luke’s interest in evangelizing outcasts. For the gospel of John, he examines the relationship of signs and faith. But Turner also discusses the future in John. As is often observed, the gospel of John has very little eschatology. For example, the Olivet Discourse appears in all three Synoptic Gospels but is missing from the Gospel of John. Scholars have often described this as “inaugurated eschatology.” Since John’s Gospel presents the kingdom of God as present in Jesus’s ministry and in the disciple’s life, Turner asks “what does an eschatologicalized life look like”? 

In the second part of the book, Turner suggests several steps in moving from exegesis to sermon. These three chapters together form exegetical methodology which recognizes the end goal of exegesis as preaching the gospel. He begins with preparing to interpret the Gospels, a task which begins with identifying the text. This takes the form of a lengthy overview of textual criticism. He then discusses translating the text, including an overview of translation method. He briefly surveys critical methods of studying the Gospels such as form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism and narrative criticism. Although he recognizes each of these has their place, only narrative criticism is seen as providing much fodder for the preaching of the text.

Under the heading of interpreting the text, Turner encourages the student to begin by translating the text and doing some sort of segmenting exercise. He gives examples of phrasing and sentence diagramming in English. This practice will help the student to work through the text and better understand the grammatical relationships between the various parts. This will inform how the student preaches the text. Although most students find this tedious, it is helpful for putting together a sermon. 

In his chapter on communicating the text, Turner encourages the interpreter to find the original point of the passage, but also the current point, using such things as speech act theory understanding how the genre affects the meaning of the passage, and then drawing out significance for the modern church. He also discusses his description versus prescription in this section and lectio divina. He uses the phrase “homiletical packaging” to discuss the theory and practice of preaching a sermon. He offers several examples of “bridging the gap” drawn from the gospels as a demonstration of how to apply the text to a modern situation.

The seventh chapter of the book contains two examples drawn from the Gospels of how this method works in practice. Turner works the steps of his exegetical method using Mark 4:1-20 and John 1:1-18. 

The final chapter of the book is a list of suggested resources for doing exegesis. Although he recognizes a few online resources, this list of resources is less interested in using a computer for interpretation than other handbooks in this series. 

Conclusion. Turner there is a wide range of topics for interpreting the gospels and the book of Acts. Although some readers may be overwhelmed by the material in the first three chapters, Turner does an excellent job describing how this material can be used in preparing sermons and Bible lessons. This book will make an excellent textbook for a New Testament exegesis class which focuses on the Gospels, but anyone interested in studying the Gospels on a deeper level will find much value in this handbook. The material on the book of Acts is satisfying, since it seems like it is simply tagged to the material for Luke. If the book was limited to the Gospels and a separate handbook written on exegetical issues in the book of Acts, then this book would have been even stronger.

 

See my reviews of previous volumes in this series:

Gary Smith, Interpreting the Prophets

Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature

Edward M. Curtis, Interpreting the Wisdom Books

Herbert Bateman, Interpreting the General Letters

John D. Harvey, Interpreting the Pauline Letters

C. Marvin Pate, Interpreting Revelation and Other Apocalyptic Literature

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

Book Review: Mary Marshall, The Portrayals of the Pharisees in the Gospels and Acts (FRLANT 254)

Marshall, Mary. The Portrayals of the Pharisees in the Gospels and Acts. FRLANT 254; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015. Hb;  €89.99.  Link to V&R 

In this important monograph, Mary Marshall answers the “comparative neglect of the Gospels and Acts” in recent research on Pharisees. Most scholars studying the “historical Pharisee” observe that the tendency of the Gospels to vilify the Pharisees limits their value as sources. Too frequently it is assumed the Gospels and Acts have a uniform, negative view of Pharisees. On the contrary, Marshall contends the Gospels and Acts are complex and each writer has an individual view of the Pharisees. Her goal is not a “quest for the historical Pharisee,” but rather to fairly and accurately describe how each of the four Gospel author’s presented the Pharisee in the service of their own theological agendas. She points out the Pharisees appear in all four Gospels and Acts without any explanation as to who they are or why they are significant (23). Josephus, on the other hand, does have an excursus explaining what a Pharisee was to his Roman audience.

Marshall, PhariseesIn order to achieve this goal, she begins with Mark as the earliest Gospel and argues Mark’s view of the Pharisees in “univocally negative” (66). The Pharisees oppose Jesus and his ministry at key points in the Gospel by challenging Jesus’ authority, either by questioning his behavior (Mark 2:15-3:6), by demanding a sign (Mark 8:11-15), or by engaging Jesus in a discussion on some particular practice (Mark 10:2-9, divorce; 12:13-17, payment of taxes to Caesar). Marshall thinks the challenge to Jesus’ behavior is not included to legitimate later church practice in Mark’s community (as is commonly assumed), but rather to convey his Christology and the Pharisee’s rejection of that Christology (41). Even the controversies over hand washing and korban in Mark 7 emphasize the “Christological implications of the Pharisees’ challenges” (51).

Assuming Matthew has used Mark in the creation of his own Gospel, Marshall examines Matthew’s redaction of Mark with respect to the Pharisees. Although Matthew includes all of Mark’s material on the Pharisees, it is possible to hear Matthew’s unique nuances by observing the changes he makes in his sources. For example, Matthew changes Mark’s “scribes” in Mark 12:24 in order to include the Pharisees in the request for a sign. She concludes Matthew, like Mark, is consistently negative toward the Pharisees and in no way reduces the negative implications of his sources. In most cases Matthew increases the visibility of the Pharisees in order to highlight their rejection of Jesus and the demands of the kingdom (123). For example, in Matthew 22:15-16 the Pharisees seem to have more authority than the Herodians (79). In 22:34-40, Matthew has omitted the scribe’s praise of Jesus and “portrays only unmitigated hostility” toward the Pharisees who only want to test him (89). After surveying several examples, Marshall argues a “motif of replacement emerges” in which the Pharisees are unworthy of a privileged position and are “easily replaced” (112). This is clear in the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matt 22:1-14). Although she comments briefly on the parable, Marshal refrains from comparing the parable to the Lukan parallel in order to argue for (or against) a Matthean redaction. She also does not suggest who these “replacements” are in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, although in her conclusion to the chapter she suggests Matthew is “defending the legitimacy of ‘Judaism’ ad the inheritance of the law and the prophets by his own community” (125). For Matthew, there is still hope for the Jewish people, but that hope is through Jesus, not the Pharisees. This implies a post 70 CE situation for Matthew’s Gospel.

Although there are differences between Luke and Acts, Marshall examines several themes which run through both works with respect to the Pharisees. First, the Pharisees have forfeited their place in the Kingdom of God by rejecting Jesus as early as his baptism (131). She examines several meals in Luke and argues Luke highlights an eschatological perspective in these meal scenes. For example, the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) is given in response to a guest who assumes he will participate in the coming messianic banquet. Marshall correctly connects the Pharisee of Luke 14:15 with the prodigal’s brother, both of whom represent entitlement and an expectation of eating in the great banquet (135). A second theme appears more clearly in Acts: the reputation of the Pharisees serves Luke’s apologetic function (141). Gamaliel, for example, is a prominent Pharisee who appreciates the apostolic message (although he compares it to other failed messianic movements). In fact, Luke’s apologetic concern is to show that the Christian missionaries did not deviate from Judaism, but are in fact in continuity with it (154). A related third motif in Luke is that the Pharisees were most sympathetic toward early Christianity. Acts 15:5, for example, indicates some early Christians were from the Pharisees and were still concerned with the details of the Mosaic Law (160). Luke has redacted his sources to show the Pharisees some respect, although Marshall rejects the suggestion there is an affinity between Jesus and the Pharisees (179).

Finally, John’s unique presentation of the Pharisees presents several problems because scholars usually dismiss John as a historical source in general. With respect to the Pharisees, it is often assumed John lumps the Pharisees together with chief priests, scribes as “the Jews.” The Jews then represent the unreceptive world (229). Marshall challenges this assumption as an oversimplification. It is the Jews who are the objects of fear and attempt to kill Jesus. Pharisees are part of the crowd and are associated with the arrest of Jesus, but they are not the “real opponents” in John’s Gospel as is often assumed (231). In fact, they are not consistently hostile toward Jesus and some (like Nicodemus) are potential sympathizers. This observation causes her to reevaluate the popular view of J. Louis Martyn that John’s community was formally expelled from the synagogue about the time the birkath-ha-minim were introduced in the synagogues. She concludes the portrayal of opposition to Jesus in the fourth Gospel “may not accurately reflect any real life opposition to his community” (241).

Despite eschewing a “quest for the historical Pharisee,” Marshall concludes her chapters with a comment on the relationship of each Gospel to historical Pharisaism. She points out that Mark did not write a book about the Pharisees, but about Jesus (68), so some of the questions which interest scholars with respect to the Pharisees will not find a solution in Mark. Matthew’s portrayal of the Pharisee cannot be understood apart from his view of Judaism. Although Marshall sees Matthew as representing legitimate Judaism, the Pharisees are out the outside of Matthew’s definition of what Judaism should be in a post-70 CE world (125). For Luke, it is not certain his audience had any contact with Pharisees (183), so the Pharisees in Luke and Acts function to convey Luke’s literary themes. For John’s Gospel she evaluates and rejects popular views of a recent ejection of John’s community from the synagogue because John’s portrayal of the Pharisees is not homogeneous (241).

Conclusion. Marshall’s monograph is an excellent contribution to the study of the Pharisees. The unique contributions of each Gospel are clearly presented. This approach is refreshing since the Gospels are not uniform in their presentation of the Pharisees. Popular studies tend to make the Pharisees the arch-enemy of Jesus, but Marshall demonstrates that in Luke (and perhaps John) this is not the case. This book should be part of any discussion of the Pharisees in the New Testament.

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

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant – Matthew 18:23-35

Jesus illustrates his view of unending mercy with a parable demonstrating how the real disciple has experience unlimited forgiveness and therefore should extend unlimited forgiveness to others.

In the story, a king forgives a great debt owed him by his servant (v. 23-27). The details of the parable are hyperbolic: a servant owes his master far more than he can possibly repay. The context may be the “court of the Gentiles” rather than the Galilean Jewish context of Jesus (suggested by Keener, Matthew, 457). This does not take away from the authenticity since most Jews would have a general knowledge of the way things usually went in a Gentile court.

The person who owes the great debt is a slave. Most modern readers wonder how a slave could incur such a massive debt. Although the word can refer to court officials and people with power, something that can always be turned into wealth. Perhaps Jesus has in mind a corrupt Herodian bureaucrat who has used his position to make himself wealthy, but has instead lost the Herod’s court a massive amount of money. Slaves could be in important roles in the Empires, so that they could accumulate wealth and power, even if they were in a master-slave relationship with the Emperor.

The debt is unimaginably large: ten thousand talents. A “talent” is a standard weight, so this might be a talent of gold, silver, copper, etc. Most scholars assume a talent of silver here, which was worth approximately 6,000 denarii. Since he owed ten thousand talents, the debt is sixty million denarii. If a denarius was the standard wage for a day laborer, then this debt represents nearly 200,000 years of labor, if interest on the debt, then the average laborer could not possibly work enough to pay off the debt.

Even if we assuming the slave was in a position to invest, take bribes, sell favors, etc., he could raise more money, but the debt is intentionally so large even the wealthiest person could not possible pay it back. If Bill Gates owed ten trillion dollars he could not pay off the debt!

In verse 27 Matthew uses a word which usually means a loan. It is possible the man took money from his mater, invested it badly, lost the capital and then accrued massive interest on the loan. John Nolland points out the annual income of Herod’s kingdom when he died in 4 B.C. was about 900 talents, to be divided between his sons (Nolland, Matthew, 756). This servant’s debt is more than ten times the value of Herod’s kingdom. In fact, the word translated as ten-thousand is often translated, “myriad,” an uncountable number. Maybe a modern gloss would be to say he owed “a bazillion dollars.” Bazillion is a made up word that simply means an uncountable, hyperbolic number.

The master responds as any wealthy Roman would, he intends to sell everything the slave owns, including his family into slavery. This is an entirely believable, appropriate, and fair response in the Roman world!  The man’s wife and family were probably already slaves owned by the master, if he were to sell them on the open market, he might generate 500-2000 denarii each (Jeremias, Parables, 211). The slave may not own very much property himself, so the threat to sell everything will not come close to covering the debt.

The servant “fell on his knees,” or better, “did obeisance.” Imploring (προσκυνέω) does not express the depth of this man’s actions before the master. Although it often means worship, it can used “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure” (BDAG). In Matthew, this is the word used in the temptation of Jesus, Satan demands Jesus worship him (Matt 4:10, Luke 4:8), but also the wise men who want to worship Jesus (2:2), but also the disciples who witness Jesus’s control of the storm (14:22, “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” In Matthew 28:9, after the resurrection, the disciples once again fall to the ground in worship of Jesus.

The servant cries out, “Have patience on me” (μακροθυμέω). This is a plea for more time to pay off the debt. Since there is no earthly way to pay off this debt, the man is asking for a “stay of execution” (Nolland, Matthew, 757).

His plea is successful, the master releases the servant from his debt.  In Matthew 18:27 the debt is called a loan (τὸ δάνειον). Since the word is only used in this passage, it might be a variation of vocabulary, or it might be a hint of how the man got into such deep debt in the first place. In either case, this is an audacious act of mercy, one which would have surprised the audience of poor Galileans! People who own debts do not usually forgive them. (Imagine calling up your bank and explaining you have no way to pay your mortgage. He banker may try to help you find a way to pay, but they will probably not forgive what you owe. They will seize your house and resell it to recoup the debt!)

The servant has therefore experienced an audacious act of mercy and has been released from the bondage of his debt.  Does this make any differences in his attitude toward those who owe him a debt?

The servant who received audacious grace went out and found the servant who owned him money. This is not a random encounter, he went out of his way to find the servant and force him to pay the debt. The verb “found” is common, but Jesus used it in 18:13 or the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep and finds him. When he found someone who owed him money, he seized the servant and began to choke him (imperfect used for the beginning of an ongoing action). The image is also hyperbolic, imagine the unmerciful servant grabbing him around the neck to strangle him in order to make him pay. (I imagine Homer Simpson choking Bart!)

The fellow servant asks for forgiveness, using the exact same words as the unmerciful servant. He also asks for more time to raise the cash to pay the debt, the unmerciful servant is not willing to extend him additional time to pay. The debt is large, but not unmanageable. One hundred denarii would represent about three month’s wages for an average day laborer. But debt is relative, for someone making virtually nothing, one hundred denarii is impossible to repay. Since the servant cannot pay his debt, the unmerciful servant has his put in the same prison in which he was going to go if he had not been shown mercy by his master.

When the king hears what this unmerciful servant has done, he demands the servant pay his entire debt (v. 31-34). This is the point of the parable, the other servants see what this man has done and were “greatly distressed.” This word (λυπέω) can refer to emotional or physical pain, but may have the sense of “offended” in this context. It is modified by σφόδρα, an adverb which is much stronger than “very.” Matthew just used this phrase (ἐλυπήθησαν σφόδρα) in 17:23. After Jesus predicts his impending death, the disciples were “greatly distressed.” In 19:25, the disciples are “greatly distressed” when Jesus tells the rich man to sell everything and follow him. When Jesus declares one of his disciples will betray him, they are all “greatly distressed” (26:22). At the crucifixion, those who witnessed the earthquake were “greatly afraid” (ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα, 27:54).

The master hand demonstrated extreme compassion and mercy, but now he is angry (v. 33) and condemns this wicked servant. There are a number of parables with this same language, a servant is judged for failing to do the masters will and is punished (often by being sent out into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, Matthew 25:26). Here the wicked servant is given to the punishment he always deserved, a debtor’s prison. The master became angry, as did the king in Matthew 22:7 (and destroyed the city of those who had refused the invitation to the wedding feast, both passive forms of ὀργίζω).

So it is with God! Matthew 18:35 says “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (ESV). If we have been forgiven such a great debt of sin, why would we dare to withhold mercy and grace to those who offend us! There is a threat here, if we are not forgiving to those who offend us, then the Father will not forgive us!

The context of this parable is dealing with “someone who sins against you” (18:15-20). The point of the parable is not to calculate just how much abuse you will able to take with each and every person, but to forgive everyone even if that forgiveness is socially unacceptable.

What effect will this kind of forgiveness have on a Christian community? It is possible some person will abuse mercy and offend over and over again. But coupled with the previous teaching on confronting those who sin within a congregation, Jesus’s point is not to coddle the unrepentant sinner who refuses to listen to the community (kick that person out!) Jesus wants his followers to be genuinely forgiving, merciful and gracious.

A Question about Forgiveness – Matthew 18:21-22

Matthew 18:21–22 (ESV) Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

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 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. 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 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!

But As Craig Keener observes, “No one can offend our human moral sensibilities as much as everyone offends the moral sensibilities of a perfect God” (Matthew, 458). 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 in Heaven and Earth Mean? – Matthew18:18-20

“Binding and Loosing” in Matthew 18:18-20 is another very 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.

Pointing Out a Someone’s Sin – Matthew 18:15-17

So far in Matthew 18 Jesus dealt with those who cause a little child to stumble (18:6-9) and the person who has wandered away from their faith (the one who has stumbled, 18:10-14). In this paragraph, Jesus addresses another related issue, a brother or sister in Christ who has some fault but has not yet stumbled and wandered away from the faith. As suggested by Craig Keener, this person may very well be a stumbling block to others, therefore they need to be addressed before they cause others to stumble (Matthew, 452).

Jesus is concerned his followers should discreetly confront those who are beginning to wander and bring them back into the flock as gently as possible. The earliest communities were very small house churches in the Jewish diaspora. As more gentiles were attracted to the Gospel, it is likely these house churches had to deal with serious conflicts between disciples of Jesus.

Total MoronThere are several difficult issues in 18:15-20. Jesus appears to lay down a process for church discipline, and Matthew’s use of church seems anachronistic. There was no church prior to the resurrection, although it is possible the word can refer to the community of Jesus followers, something like the yahad at Qumran. If this is the case, is there a direct application of the process to modern Christians as they confront one another over their faults?

The disciple of Jesus should attempt to deal with personal offenses privately. The verb is the typical one expected for sin (ἁμαρτάνω, aorist subjunctive). There is nothing here which implies this is offending someone’s preferences. For example, this is not about confronting someone for wearing a bolo tie and cowboy boots to church, nor is this about coming to church with a face full of piercings and tattoos. These things are matters of (good or bad) taste and not personal sin which is damaging to one’s spiritual life.

The phrase “point out their fault” (ESV) is a single word, ἐλέγχω. This verb can have the connotation of “to scrutinize or examine carefully, bring to light, expose” (BDAG) as in Ephesians 5:13. But is sometimes used for “express strong disapproval of someone’s action” (BDAG), to reprove or to correct someone (as in 2 Tim 4:2, “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching”).

The problem is how this works out in real life. Some people really do enjoy pointing out another person’s fault. The Internet is full of people who have nothing better to do than argue about theological issues and condemn someone’s practice of their Christian faith. Some of those issues may be legitimate, but most of the time there is condemnation without any real engagement.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about how one confronts a fellow disciple because of a sin. The disciple ought to deal with their own sin, the “log in your own eye,” before confronting someone over a minor sin, the “speck in their eye.” If the disciple of Jesus is busy dealing with their own spiritual life, then they will “see clearly” (Τότε διαβλέψεις). In Matthew 7:3-5 Jesus says the one who has dealt with a particular problem is able to gently correct a fellow disciple. To “gently correct” is the guiding principle in Matthew 18:15 as well.

Do Not Despise the Little Ones – Matthew 18:10-14

Jesus commands his followers not to despise, or “look down on” the little ones. Although this seems fairly straight forward, there are several issues with this saying.

First, what happened to Matthew 18:11? In the King James Version the verse reads “For the Son of Man came to save the lost.” At some point a copiest added Luke 19:10 in order to enhance the connection between verse 10 and verses 12-14 (Morris, Matthew, 464). Most modern translations do not include the verse.

Second, the verb καταφρονέω has a wide range of meanings, such as “not to be concerned with.” But Luz points out it is not synonymous with σκανδαλίζω, the verb used in the previous passage (cause to sin). He considers this verb “much weaker” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 440, note 27). There is therefore a shift away from causing a child to sin to simply ignoring children as unimportant.

Third, are the “little ones” in this paragraph the children from verse 5?  Jesus used a word which means child in v. 5 (παιδία) but on verses 5-6 he uses a more generic term (μικροί). It appears Jesus has actual children in mind in this saying rather than his disciples.

Eh….No.

The reason no one should despise a little one is that they have an angel before the father. Does Jesus imply children have guardian angels? One problem with Christian thinking about angels is we are more influence by popular culture than the Bible. In the Bible, angels are in fact concerned for the believer, but they never are portrayed as “Harold the Angel” who is trying to earn his wings.

There is some hint of “angels as guardians” in the Old Testament and the literature of the Second Temple period. In Psalm 91:11-13, for example, angels guard every way of the psalmist. This is the verse Satan himself quotes during Jesus’s temptation. There are several stories in the Old Testament in which people see angels (Jacob in Gen 24:7, 24:40, 48:16). There are a number of Second Temple allusions to something like a guarding angel. In Tobit 5:4-22, Tobit sees the angel Raphael, Raphael then travels with him and protects his on several occasions.

Most modern discussions of angels range from sober recognition of the protection of God to new age psychobabble. For example, Ulrich Luz concludes guardian angels are part of an outdated worldview. “I am of the opinion that a modern interpretation of Matt 18:10 can simply try to take seriously the substance of the concern expressed in the language of an earlier age.”  He therefore abandons “the concrete idea of guardian angels, since it is no longer self-evident to the modern mind.”  But he also observes that even Martin Luther believed “it is proper and necessary to preach about the good guardian angel of children who wears a white robe and sits at the child’s crib” (Matthew 8-20, 440, note 28). This verse is sometime used to defend infant baptism, although that is a particularly theological reading of this difficult verse.

Most modern discussions of angels sounds more like new age psychobabble. In modern new age, mystical Christianity the guardian angel idea has grown into a wild eco-system of demi-gods who allegedly can be contacted, evoked and manipulated into giving you good fortune and wealth. “Guardian angels watch over you throughout your lifetime. Guardian angels provide protection, guidance and encouragement. Your guardian angel is praying for you and delivering the answers to your prayers. Your guardian angel also keeps a record of the choices you have made in your lifetime.

This is not at all what Jesus is saying! He says that the little ones have an advocate before God’s throne. By using a small child as an illustration in Matthew 18, Jesus is making a lesser-to-greater argument. If even a child receives justice before God, how much more the follower of Jesus. If there are “angels in heaven” pleading the case of little children, how much more should the true disciple of Jesus care for the lowest in their society?

This is a particularly important principle for global Christianity. In the west, there is a general sense that children are vulnerable and need to be protected, including proper health care and education. Even where this is woefully inadequate, most western countries understand the need to care for children. But in countries where care for children is not an important cultural value Christianity must take the lead and care for the child, especially those who are orphaned or have special needs.