Woe to the One Who Tempts! Matthew 18:7

The disciples of Jesus are going to face temptations. In fact, in Matthew 18:7 he says that it is necessary for temptations to come. The word translated “temptation” in the ESV (σκάνδαλον) is the same as “cause to sin” in 18:6. The NIV 2011 renders the phrase “the things that cause people to stumble” and the NRSV has “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks.”

Temptation apple

In Matthew 18:1-9 the noun σκάνδαλον refers to putting something in the way of another person to cause them to stumble. Leviticus 19:14 is a command not to place a stumbling block (מִכְשׁוֹל, LXX σκάνδαλον) in front of the blind causing them to trip. By way of illustration, a football player to throws himself at the feet of another player to cause him to trip. Causing someone to sin may not be as intentional as this, but the result is the same, a person is led into some sin by some circumstance in this world.

In Matthew 13 the same word is used in the Parable of the Sower. The seed falling on the rocky ground has no roots so it withers up when persecution comes. This is the person who hears the gospel and seems to accept it, but something happens which causes them to fall away before they have produced fruit. Their faith is “tripped up” by trouble and temptation in this world. Does this imply the person who “trips up” another is in danger of damnation? The true disciple of Jesus is careful how they live their lives so that they do not cause another to sin. As Craig Blomberg said, “a life-style characterized by causing others to sin is incompatible with true discipleship” (Matthew, 274).  

Jesus says the origin of this kind of temptation is “the world” not the disciple of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus will encounter all sorts of things in the world which may cause them to stumble. The neuter plural σκάνδαλα can be translated “things that cause stumbling.” What are “these things” Jesus has in mind? Certainly these could include the typical sins on offer in any culture, but the phrase as Jesus uses it may allude to a particular passage in the Old Testament.

In Ezekiel 14 the elders of Jerusalem have put “stumbling blocks in front of the people” by worshiping idols. The possible intertext is mentioned by Keener (Matthew, 449). I have developed it beyond what Keener does in his commentary, even if the LXX does not use σκάνδαλον. The Hebrew word translated as “stumbling block” (מִכְשׁוֹל) is a noun built from the verb כשׁל, to reel, stagger or stumble, but it is often used to describe the result of bad leaders. In Malachi 2:8, for example, the prophet rebukes bad priests who have “have caused many to stumble by your instruction.”

Similarly, in the context of Ezekiel 14, it is the religious aristocracy in charge of the Temple who are accused of consulting idols rather than God. As a result the Lord will “set his face against them” and no longer guide them at all. He will cut off the one who is leading the people astray “from the midst of my people.” If Jesus has a text like Ezekiel 14 in mind, then he may have in mind leaders who cause people under their leadership to sin. Just as the priests in Ezekiel 14 were leading God’s people into the extreme offense of idolatry, so too it is possible some leaders in Matthew’s community were leading their congregations into behaviors or beliefs which prevent them from actually hearing the Gospel.

Like a Hebrew prophet, Jesus pronounces “woe” on those who cause a little one to stumble. “Woe” expresses anguish or distress, like the old English use of the word “Alas!” It appears in Hebrew as הוֹי or  אוֹי and is used in the prophets frequently in the context of judgment. The one who causes others to sin face serious judgment (looking ahead to the hand or foot which causes one to sin).

It is easy enough to draw the analogy to later theological aberrations which understood Jesus in a way which could prevent someone from a full understanding of the Gospel, or a later behavioral aberration which is offensive to God. In a modern context. It is very easy point out examples of pastors and teachers who have been so utterly hypocritical that their congregations may never hear the simple Gospel of Jesus. All of these can be a temptation which causes the little ones to sin.

In the passage, therefore, Jesus warns his disciples they are responsible for the flocks assigned to them and they will be held responsible for their well-being.

Come as a Child – Matthew 18:1-4

As an introduction to Matthew discipleship discourse, Jesus’s disciples ask about rank or honor in the kingdom of God: Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? It is possible the disciples ask this question after Peter’s confession. If he was elevated to the leader of the disciples and then James and John went with him to witness the transfiguration, then the other might wonder how they rank.

Christ blessing Little Children

In the context of the ancient world, honor and shame were extremely important social values. A poor Galilean fisherman would be extremely low on the social ladder in the Roman Empire, so low that they may as well not exist. It is only natural for the disciples to ask about who the greatest in the Kingdom might be.

Jesus does not answer the question directly but invites a child to stand in the middle of the group. The answer is not about rank in the kingdom, if the true disciple does not become like a child, they will not even get into the Kingdom of Heaven!

He tells the disciples the must change the way they are thinking and become like a child. The verb Matthew uses (στρέφω) has the sense of changing direction or turning around. This is not a repentance word; the disciples do not need to repent of their sins and accept Jesus as savior. They are already insiders and followers of Jesus. But at this moment they are acting like the rest of the word. That must change, Jesus says, if they expect to enter the kingdom.

The disciples must change their direction and become “like the child.” There is something about a child which is a model of proper discipleship. Jesus has something about a child in mind, but not everything about children (ie. this does not mean “become short” or “become uneducated” to enter the Kingdom). Cultural and social context will help us understand what Jesus has in mind. Imagine taking a snotty little kid with a Kool-Aid mustache, who believes a monster lives in his bedroom closet and likes playing in mud puddles-take that kid and use him as a model of the ideal disciple. The audience would have been shocked, not even noticing a child was present in the first place.

This is a remarkable way to illustrate a virtue in the ancient world! A Greco-Roman ethical writer typically used the model of a great political leader or famous philosopher as a model of virtue (Keener, Matthew, 447). Jesus instead turns to a child as the ideal disciple who enters the Kingdom of Heaven. It is simply inappropriate to worry about rank and status in the kingdom of God. A quick survey of books published by evangelicals will show we too point to ideal adults who have somehow modeled spiritual discipline. No one is going to publish How to be Like Jesus if it is written by a 6-year-old kid.

Children were far less important in most ancient cultures than in the modern world As Luz observes, that “the words παῖς and παιδίον can also mean ‘slave’ says a great deal about the legal standing of children, who were subject to the unlimited authority of their fathers” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 428). Even in Jewish culture children where certainly loved, a child had a low status socially. One did not stop and talk to a child or consider the opinions of a child particularly valuable. This is perhaps why Jesus talking with the rabbis when he was twelve is an important story, he was worthy of respect even as a child.

It is likely Jesus is already interacting with children in a socially shameful way. Jesus can call to a child to stand among the disciples indicates the child was nearby, perhaps even listening to Jesus teach. Like his association with tax-collectors and other sinners, Jesus was crossing over a social boundary which a typical rabbi might avoid (or simply never consider as important).

Jesus says the true disciple will become humble (ταπεινόω) like a child (v. 4). This view of children is found elsewhere in the Gospels. Jesus takes the time to bless children in (Matt 19:14) and in John 3:3 he says one cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless they are “born again,” which may be a similar idea to this “become like a child.”

It is critically important to understand humility in the context of the Greco-Roman world. The word does not mean “low self-esteem” or self-abasement. Jesus himself is the model of humility (Matthew 20:28, Philippians 2:5-11), yet he can claim to be the Son of Man, Messiah, Son of God, the one who will return to the Father, etc.

Is the child humble because they are vulnerable? (Wilkins, Matthew, 612) If that aspect of a child in the ancient world is the focus of the metaphor, then it may point to the vulnerability of the early church. Like children in the Roman world, they are constant mortal danger with few real protectors. The early church was defenseless and powerless in the Greco-Roman world.

How does one “become like a child?”

Who is the Greatest in the Kingdom of God? Matthew 18:1

At the beginning of this discourse, the disciples ask Jesus a question about rank or honor, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of God?” In Mark, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest, Matthew they simply ask Jesus about who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. In Matthew 16:18-19 Jesus told Peter he has the “keys to the kingdom” and in Matthew 19:28 Jesus promises the disciples they will sit on twelve thrones and judge the nations with the Kingdom finally comes. The twelve disciples have higher rank than those who are disciples and are not sitting on a throne, James and John want a higher rank than the others (Matthew 20:20-28).

Can someone be “the greatest” in the Kingdom of Heaven? In another context James and John request to sit next to Jesus in the kingdom, indicating their desire to be the greatest. In Matthew 8:11 “many will come from the east and west” and will sit at places of honor “at the feast,” implying there may be places of honor in the Kingdom. Jesus himself said John the Baptist was “least in the kingdom,” which could imply for the disciples a form of honor and prestige similar to a literal kingdom.

In the context of the ancient world, honor and shame were extremely important social values. A poor Galilean fisherman would be extremely low on the social ladder in the Roman Empire, so low that they may as well not exist. It is only natural for the disciples to ask about who the greatest in the Kingdom might be.

Jesus does not answer the question directly, but invites a child so stand in the middle of the group. He says the true disciple will become like a child. He tells the disciples the must change and be like a child.

The verb Matthew uses (στρέφω) has the sense of changing direction or turning around. This is not a repentance word, the disciples do not need to repent of their sins and accept Jesus as savior. They are already insiders and followers of Jesus. But at this particular moment they are acting like the rest of the word. That must change, Jesus says, if they expect to enter into the kingdom.

The disciples are to change their direction and become “like the child.” There is something about a child which is a model of proper discipleship

Jesus has something about a child in mind, but not everything about children. For example, Jesus does not mean “become short” or “become uneducated” in order to enter the Kingdom of God. Cultural and social context will help us understand what Jesus has in mind.

This is a remarkable way to illustrate a virtue. A Greco-Roman ethical writer typically use the model of a great political leader or famous philosopher as a model of virtue (Keener, Matthew, 447). Jesus instead turns to a child as the ideal disciple who enters into the Kingdom of Heaven. A quick survey of books published by evangelicals will show we too point to ideal adults who have somehow modeled spiritual discipline. No one is going to publish How to be Like Jesus if it is written by a 6 year old kid.

Yet this is exactly how Jesus described the ideal disciple: be like a child. Unfortunately, pastors and teachers (and writers of worship music) often focus on innocence or wild-eyed wonder as the focus of this metaphor. The fact that children are open to new ideas or accept the gospel easily is often preached as Jesus’s point here. But children believe many foolish things which are not real at all (Santa Claus or the tooth fairy).

But Jesus is not saying, “Be a naïve child who can be manipulated into believing anything.” What part of “be like a child” is Jesus highlighting in this metaphor?  I would suggest Jesus is using a child as a metaphor for the true disciple because the child was the lowest possible member of an ancient society. Jesus does not demand his disciples accept what their teachers tell them without question like a little child, but rather they must be as humble as a child and become the servant of all.

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.