Tag Archives: Reading Scripture

Matthew 24: 29-31 Learning to Read Scripture and the Times

By Les Chatfield from Brighton, England – Total eclipse of the sun 1999 1, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69457874

Matthew 24: 29-31 Learning to Read Scriptures and the Times

Parallel Mark 13: 24-27; Luke 21: 25-28

29 “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. 30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

Through suffering comes a new hope, and through the time of affliction a way of understanding scripture emerges. This brief passage brings together imagery from the prophets to help sustain the community in the midst of the troubling events for the community and the troubling signs in the cosmos. Throughout the gospel of Matthew, the community has been warned that following Christ will not lead to a life free of suffering, rather it is a community that learns to find God’s blessing in the midst of persecution. Suffering and glory are bound together. This may run against the cultural version of Christianity in the United States which in H. Richard Niebuhr’s famously described as:

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross. (Niebuhr 1937, 150)

These initial disciples of Jesus believed in a God who would judge the world of sinful men and women, and that the only Christ they would know would be the crucified and resurrected one. In a culture where there are numerous churches which claim to be Christian who proclaim a gospel of prosperity based on faith and belonging, these passages seem out of place and may be ignored in some and recast in terms of glory by others. But Matthew wants us to learn how to read scriptures in a way that can hold suffering and salvation together. Christine McSpadden reflections on the actions of Herod in Matthew 2 are helpful here:

We may be disappointed that the gospel does not at this point remove the scandal of innocent suffering, on which so many would-be believers have stumbled. No, what the gospel does instead point to how inextricably the mystery of salvation is bound up with the mystery of human evil. (McSpadden 2003, 139)

Human evil and the devilish resistance to the kingdom of God’s coming bring about suffering for the disciples. Yet, the events that the community of Christ followers are participating in is a cosmic struggle reflected not only in the suffering of these disciples but in the very movements of the sun, moon, and stars. Yet, for the hearer familiar with the language of scripture, Matthew weaves in three images from the prophets. From Joel:

The sun and moon are darkened and the stars withdraw their shining (Joel 2:10, 3: 15)

From Daniel:

I saw one like a human being (Son of Man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. (Daniel 7: 13-14)

And from Isaiah:

And on that day, a great trumpet will be blown, and those lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out of the lang of Egypt will come and worship the LORD on the holy mountain of Jerusalem. (Isaiah 27: 13)

Each of these allusions point to the regathering of God’s people and the revealing of God’s action and the ending of the time of judgment for the faithful ones. The ‘oppression’[1] of those days and the signs in the heavens which affect the heavenly bodies can be read by these faithful ones as signs to continue to endure. As the parables immediately following this will highlight, all these things are signs to be ready but they do not give a time or day to look for. Yet, they live in trust that when the Son of Man is finally revealed to the nations then the tribes of the earth will mourn that they could not see where God approached them. But for the faithful it will be a time when they are gathered from their dispersion among the nations to worship their God.


[1] This again is Greek word thlipsis which occurs frequently in this chapter

Review of Reading With The Grain of Scripture by Richard B. Hays

READING WITH THE GRAIN OF SCRIPTURE, by Richard B. Hays. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020. 467pp. $55.00

Richard B. Hays is a phenomenal interpreter of scriptures and a provocative thinker whose writing and teaching over the past thirty-five years demonstrate a deep passion for a close and careful reading of scripture. Professor Hays’ writing has broken new ground and unearthed often overlooked treasures for decades and his persistent and careful work has helped reshape the discipline of biblical studies. This collection of essays which span a wide range of topics from the past twenty-five years of his writing and speaking, collected after his retirement from Duke Divinity School, reflect the efforts of the author who in his own words has:

“For the past forty years I have been seeking to learn how to read closely and faithfully the testimonies of the early authors who wrote about these world-shaking events. The essays gathered here are the fruit of my effort to listen carefully to their testimony-bearing texts.” (2)

The collection covers topics including: interpretation of scripture, dialogues between Hays’ canonical approach to Jesus and the quest for the historical Jesus, the writings of the apostle Paul and their theological importance to our faith, and how the New Testament might shape the theology of its hearers. Hays lists six unifying themes among the diverse articles which make up the collection:

  1. The importance of narrative as the “glue” that holds the Bible together.
  2. The retrospectively discerned figural coherence between the Old Testament and the New.
  3. The centrality of the resurrection of Jesus.
  4. The hope for new creation and God’s eschatological transformation of the world.
  5. The importance of standing in trust and humility before the text.
  6. The importance of reading Scripture within and for the community of faith: the ἐκκλησίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ. (3)

Richard B. Hays’ career began looking at the apostle Paul’s writing through both a narrative and as an interpreter of Israel’s scriptures. His classic works The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 and Echoes of Scriptures in the Letters of Paul began his career of illuminating the importance of narrative and refining his retrospectively discerned figural coherence between the Old and New Testament. For those who have followed Hay’s writing through the years, many familiar themes will emerge in these essays on interpretation including the narrative and figural coherence mentioned above as well as the importance of reading from the perspective of faith using what Hays’ has coined a “hermeneutic of trust” and the centrality of the resurrection for understanding the scriptures.

Hays’ essays in the historical Jesus engage a diverse set of dialogue partners, from the Jesus Seminar to Joseph Ratzinger and N.T. Wright and concludes with his own modest sketch of what can be known about Jesus of Nazareth. Hays evaluation of the Jesus presented by the Jesus Seminar is summarized when he states:

Does the passive, politically correct, laconic sage who speaks in the red type of The Five Gospels have the capacity to remake our imaginative world and provde a new fiction within which millions might find meaning for their lives? Surely not. (102)

While Hays’ views their method of this entrepreneurial scholarship which provides easy sound bites is decidedly negative and their arrival at a non-Jewish Jesus is “one particularly pernicious side effect of the Jesus Seminar’s methodology.” (99) His response to N. T. Wright is far more favorable as they have been dialogue partners in New Testament scholarship for decades, but even in a paper where he appreciatively but critically engages the work of N. T. Wright he can bring his critical insights to refine and improve the work of his colleague and friend. His engagement with Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth can demonstrate both respect for the author and his perspective while pointing out that most of Ratzinger’s dialogue partners are scholars of a previous generation and that much of New Testament scholarship has revised its methods and opinions as well as highlighting Ratzinger’s “pervasive tendency to treat the texts as transparent to the historical facts about Jesus.” (128) Hays’ conclusion of this section with his own modest proposal on what can be known about Jesus illustrates his careful approach which seeks coherence with first century Judaism, some relation of continuity with the church that would come after Jesus, a narrative that can explain both the emergence of the church as well as the crucifixion and which aims to include within its description of the canonical gospels including, as much as possible, John’s gospel.

Continuing his long career engaging with Paul’s writings continues with essays delivered at various times dealing with major topics of Christology, Soteriology, Pneumatology, Israel as well as his engagement with Stanley Stower’s A Rereading of Romans and engaging the relationship between the Pauline letters and Acts. Hays’ essay on Paul’s Christology is constructed around narrative identity of Jesus presented in the letters of Paul from Christ’s preexisting glory to his cruciform abasement, transformative exaltation and finally will conclude with Christ’s eschatological consummation. Hays’ brief examination of Paul’s narrative soteriology focuses on two texts: 1 Corinthians 15:1-28 and Romans 5:6-11 in response to Francis Watson claim the Paul’s is essentially a non-narratable vertical incursion of God’s grace. (178) The essay on the apocalyptic reviews themes in Galatians which highlight Paul’s insistence on divine initiative to bring about the conclusion of the present evil age and the genesis of the new creation. Hays returns to Romans to examine how Paul envisions the Spirit of God which gives life, leads God’s adopted children and groans and intercedes for us. His dialogue with Stanley Stowers Rereading of Romans and N.T. Wright’s reading of Romans 11: 25-27 in Paul and the Faithfulness of God to argue that Paul’s gospel is for both the Jewish people and the Gentiles. The final article in this section demonstrates some overlaps between Luke and Paul in explicit citations of the Old Testament to begin seeking an intertextual common ground of theological themes and convictions shared by Paul and Luke’s portrayal of Paul’s gospel in Acts.

The final section on New Testament theology brings together a diverse set of articles dealing with the portrayal of Jesus in the book of Revelation, examination on the idea of covenant in the book of Hebrews, and engagement with the Rudolf Bultmann’s reduction of Pauline theology to anthropology in his classic Theology of the New Testament, a lecture on what Christian theology could offer the world of law, an essay examining the Holy Spirit in light of Paul’s letter to the Romans and the Nicene Creed, and an essay which examines various perspectives on eschatology to discern how Christians may continue to engage the in light of the eschatological witness of the New Testament. The conclusion lifts up Hays’ recommended hermeneutic of trust, rather than the dominant hermeneutic of suspicion that is prevalent in biblical studies.

This collection of essays is a gift to the broader church after years of labor. I have read everything I could find of Professor Hays for the past sixteen years of my ministry and every piece is tightly written and brings new insights into whatever text or topic he presents. If you have followed Richard B. Hays work this work will bring forward both familiar themes and engagement with topics that may not have figured as strongly in his other works. For those unfamiliar with Hays’ work these essays could form an entryway into the major themes of his thought and writing. Like all of his previous works it will force you to think critically and enrich your appreciation of the treasures, new and old, that can be brought out by a faithful student of the scriptures.

Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew

Barent Fabritius, Saint Matthew and the Angel (1656)

The Gospel of Matthew is a book that has generated countless books and studies and continues to be one of the most read and preached upon books in the bible. Writing about this gospel is, to use the words of Stanley Hauerwas, “an honor, a burden, and a daunting task.” (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 18) On the one hand, as a pastor who deals with the gospels on an almost weekly basis there is a greater familiarity with these texts and with the various scholarly perspectives on them. On the other hand, to take up a project like this is a burden and daunting task because it attempts to capture years of learning, study, and remain open to new discoveries. There are scholars who dedicate their entire life work to Matthew’s gospel or even to a small portion of it like the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, to the casual reader many of the commentaries and works of interpretation on the bible may be unapproachable because they are written for those who have an insider’s knowledge of the world of Biblical studies.

The Gospel of Matthew gives us a window into Jesus’ life, ministry, teaching and by extension the world he did his living, ministry and teaching within. Both the time of Jesus life and the time when Matthew’s gospel was written were times:

when there was conflict and division in the community of faith;
when some were insiders and others were outsiders;
when political and religious leaders were coopted, mistrusted, and discredited;
when the great majority of the common people were without power;
when cultures clashed. (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 1)

In 2015 I wrote a guide based on a class I taught on Mark’s gospel and Mark’s portrait of Jesus and the world he lived in and many of the things addressed in that series apply to reading Matthew. If you want to read more as an introduction about the Kingdom of God (or in Matthew frequently kingdom of heaven) in contrast to the Kingdom of Satan, the Roman Empire as a setting for the gospel, Second Temple Judaism as a setting for the gospel, the gospel writers as interpreters of scripture, structure and some other topics I would invite you to these brief introductions below:

Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 1
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 2
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 3
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 4
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 5

There are a few additional topics I want to introduce prior to beginning my journey through Matthew’s gospel.

Gospel Parallels

Matthew, Mark and Luke share a lot of material in common while John occasionally will have a common story but in general will narrate Jesus life and teaching in an independent manner. Where there are stories or teaching that are shared between Matthew and other gospels, I will list the parallels as a subtitle for the section. For those who have not studied the gospels they may not be aware of the similarities and difference among Matthew, Mark and Luke. Matthew, Mark and Luke are often called the synoptic gospels (syn-with, together; optic-relating to eye or sight: they are the gospels that share similar patterns, stories and often word for word correspondence). Mark is the shortest of the gospels and is believed by most modern scholars to be the oldest. The authors of Matthew and Luke probably had access to Mark’s gospel and added material to that to compose their own gospels. There is also material that Matthew and Luke share that are not a part of Mark’s gospel and scholars have often labeled this material shared in common as ‘Q’ from the German ‘Quelle’ or source.  Whether there is an independent source behind these shared sayings in Matthew, Luke and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas or whether Matthew is the second gospel written and the source of the common material is something that can interest scholars but for most readers of the gospel it is helpful to understand that there are parallels are shared between Matthew and Luke in addition to the material that is present in Mark and in addition to the material that is unique to each gospel. Each gospel writer does bring specific accents to their portrayal of Jesus, but I do think it is helpful to see what they share and how the similarities and the accents give us a richer picture of Jesus and his teaching.

Matthew as an Interpreter of Scripture

Matthew invites us into his world viewed through the lenses of a scripture formed imagination. Even though Matthew will use explicit quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) far more than any other gospel writer the entire gospel is permeated with allusions and imagery from the law, prophets, psalms, wisdom literature and story of the Jewish people. Matthew’s reading of scripture is shaped by the merciful and inclusive reading that comes out of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea which expands the promises of God’s covenant beyond the boundaries of the Hebrew people. As Richard B. Hays can state:

Thus, for Matthew, the story of Israel is carried forward through a particular, prophetically shaped, interpretation of Torah within a community called to embody the mercy of God. Emphasis authors (Hays, 2016, pp. 127-128)

Matthew’s scripture formed imagination hears within the story of Jesus both a continuity with and an expansion of the story of the people of Israel and their relationship with the Lord, the God of Israel. Throughout this journey I will attempt to highlight the way Matthew uses both the explicit quotations and the implicit allusions to scripture to show how these all give Matthew’s gospel a fuller exposition of who Jesus is, what he teaches and what it means for those who are now invited to become a part of this story.

Matthew, Discipleship and a Meaningful Life

The name Matthew means disciple and from beginning to end the gospel is for the formation of a community of disciples who will follow Jesus in the world. Most readers of Matthew may reflect upon the Great Commission at the end of the gospel with its command to ‘make disciples of all nations’ but the entire book in both its narrative and teaching is forming the follower to first become a disciple themselves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work the Cost of Discipleship, originally published in 1937, attempted to capture this for the church of his day by returning to the Sermon on the Mount as the center of this journey behind Christ. Unfortunately, discipleship has become a term that churches may use frequently but I think many people may wonder why they would follow Jesus, especially when it means picking up one’s cross to follow him, when they have been taught they can simply believe in him. For Matthew, and for us as readers of Matthew, the key comes in understanding what it means to live a meaningful life. In Matthew’s scripture formed view of the world a meaningful life is a life lived in harmony with God’s will for the creation. For the Jewish mind the will of God for the creation is expressed in God’s law, or Torah, and God’s Torah is a gift that enables one to live the life God intends. Matthew points the hearer to Jesus interpreting God’s law to show how one can live the wise and righteous life that God intends. Following Jesus becomes a school where the student slowly learns the blessing of a life of shalom (peace, harmony) in contrast to the cares of the world.

Reading the Gospel as a Story

Matthew’s gospel has multiple genres: genealogy, narrative, teaching, and parables for example, but fundamentally Matthew tells us a story. Matthew’s story is theological in nature, it talks about God and God’s kingdom and how Jesus is God us. If you’ve read any of my other writing on scripture, you’ll find I stay close to the text as I write, I’ll bring in historical elements as the illuminate the story but primarily I want to enhance rather than distract from the story Matthew wants us to hear. Sometimes the story may differ dramatically from how we would tell a story, no modern writer would probably begin a narrative with a long genealogy but for Matthew this makes a critical connection to what comes before. Matthew will use clues, some visible in English translations and some not, that help us frame and give structure to the gospel of Jesus Christ he tells.

Conversation Partners on this Journey

I learn as I walk along the journey. I have several works on Matthew that I have read over the years, but the following are ones I will either be reading for the first time or who I intentionally want to re-engage as we move systematically through the Gospel of Matthew:

Allen, O. Wesley, Jr. Matthew (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013)

Relatively recent work on Matthew and one of two commentaries I will be reading through as I do these reflections.  First of the Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries series I have looked at.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001 (1937)) Cited as DBWE 4 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English volume 4)

Bonhoeffer’s classic work that I read for the first time at the beginning of my seminary education in 2000. I’ve read it multiple times but particularly with the Sermon on the Mount I’m interested to reread it considering where I think this project is going.

Case-Winters, Anna, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Publishing, 2015)

I’ve used several of the Belief Theological Commentaries in other places and they’ve proven to be a good conversation partner. The authors in this series are not biblical scholars but instead theologians so they bring slightly different gifts and perspectives to the process, but I’ve been impressed with the series volumes I’ve used.

Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016)

Richard B. Hays is one of the most insightful readers of scripture I have found. This book and the earlier Reading Backwards examine the four gospel writers as interpreters of scripture.

Luther, Martin, The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, (St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1956) Cited as LW 21

When possible I’ve gone back to read Luther’s perspective on scripture to help me understand my own tradition. Luther was a phenomenal reader of scripture for his age. His work on the Sermon on the Mount wrestles with it theologically within Luther’s idea of the Kingdom of God and the Secular Kingdom (often called Luther’s two kingdom theology). There are some useful insights even if I know that there will be several places I take a very different perspective than Luther.

Review of Reading Backwards by Richard B. Hays

download

READING BACKWARDS: FIGURAL CHRISTOLOGY AND THE FOURFOLD GOSPEL WITNESS, by Richard B. Hays. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014. 155pp $34.95

Richard B. Hays began his work of examining how the earliest followers of Jesus were interpreters of scriptures in 1989 with his work The Echoes of Scriptures in the Letters of Paul. Twenty five years later, after changing the dynamic of the way many people view Paul’s engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures Professor Hays now gives us a short introduction into what he states he hopes will be a much larger projects examining each of the evangelist’s engagement with the scriptures, but this short and provocative work should help continue the conversion of the imagination he challenged his readers to see in Paul now in the voice and words of the authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. The book is the adaptation of the Hulsean Lectures presented at Cambridge University in the fall of 2013 and the spring of 2014 and is a work that will encourage its readers to understand the manner in which these early evangelists use the Hebrew Scriptures prefigure their experience of Christ.

The relationship of the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Testament is an important question for the church, but one that has often been overlooked. Richard B. Hays invites us into an exercise in learning to place ourselves in the evangelists’ places and see these scriptural texts that they used through their own eyes. Dr. Hays is convinced that “the Gospels teach us how to the OT, and –at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels.”(4, emphasis author’s) Rather than seeing the evangelists as proof-texting pieces of the Hebrew Scriptures to make a certain points but rather invoke a set of rich and intertextual relations between the experience of the words of Jesus and the experience of his followers with the vision and world presented by the portions of scripture that the evangelists cite or allude to. The readings of each of the four gospels that are presented in Reading Backwards provide a rich and concise with the way in which each gospel distinctively uses scripture to paint its picture of Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark tells a story that is more suggestive and allusive in its narrative style and likewise many of Mark’s uses of the scriptures are allusive as well. Mark rarely quotes scripture but frequently uses language that alludes to how Jesus’ work and God’s work are mysteriously linked. Mark intimates that Jesus is, “in some way that defies comprehension the embodiment of God’s presence. Mark never quite dares to articulate this claim explicitly; it is too scandalous for direct speech. For Mark the character of God’s presence in Jesus is a mystery that can only be approached by riddle-like allusions to the OT.” (19f.) By looking at the way Mark creatively cites and alludes to scripture from the beginning of the story in Mark 1: 2-3 and running through the crucifixion narrative examining the way the larger context of the scriptural allusions to open the readers to the mystery of Jesus’ relationship with the God of Israel. Mark’s characteristic tension holds this identity in suspension as well, never overtly coming out and claiming Jesus’ identity but rather in a poetic way hides this answer in order that it might be revealed to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Mark attempts to lead his readers into an exploration of the mysterious way in which Jesus is recognized as the embodiment of the God of Israel.

The Gospel of Matthew is much more explicit in its claims and the ways in which it uses scriptures. Matthew quotes scripture explicitly more than any of the other evangelists and from his first citation of Isaiah 7.14 in the birth narrative where Jesus is titled God is with us until the end of the gospel where all authority has been given to Jesus who will be with them forever Matthew presents, in a much more direct way, that Jesus is the presence of God among the people and the appropriate response is to worship the living presence of God who is present with them. Matthew uses a combination of scripture quotations as well as allusions to the Old Testament stories, like Herod in the slaughter of the innocents certainly would be heard as echoing Pharaoh’s decree in the Exodus narrative, to show how Jesus comes to embody not only God’s presence but also comes to be the fulfillment of the hopes of the law and the prophets. Where Mark encourages us to explore the mystery of the way divine presence of the God of Israel is present in Jesus, Matthew wants us to see this presence in order that we may worship God where God has now been found.

Luke reads the scriptures in a way that points to Jesus being the one who is the hope of Israel. From the prophecy of Zechariah, where God is praised for having “looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”(Luke 1.68) to the journey with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus where these disciples, in their sadness, say, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24. 21) Hays invites us to read again how Jesus might be seen in Moses and the prophets and how Luke might use the scriptures to help us see who Jesus is. Luke uses language and events that reflect the type of things that happened in the stories of the scriptures while never simply the same. The effect is to create a powerful but indistinct relation between the saving acts of God in the story of Israel and the liberating acts of fulfillment in the story of Jesus. (59)

For John’s gospel the fundamental hermeneutical claim is that the scriptures are the ones that bear witness to Jesus, but to understand those same scriptures one must first come to Jesus to receive life. This retrospective reading of Israel’s scriptures allows John to use a more visual set of images and figures from the narrative of the people where Jesus through verbal echoes and direct quotations link Jesus with both the wisdom of God as well as the images of the temple and sacrifice. Through these images John wants to illustrate that Jesus is not only the temple—but also the place where God’s presences comes to meet us and deliver us into union with the divine presence. (82) Since John understands Jesus as the Logos of God the entire narrative, the temple, sacrifice and the festivals of Judaism are a rich set of signs and symbols of God’s activity in the life and presence of Jesus.

In this short work with numerous illuminating explorations of the way the evangelists read their scriptures and the scriptures provide a fuller meaning to the telling of the story of Jesus, Richard B. Hays invites the reader to discover a gospel shaped hermeneutic. This, he argues, involves a complex poetic sensibility that pays attention to the narrative arc of the scriptures. Hays argues that the more we explore the way the evangelists explore the scriptures the more clearly it is apparent that each of the evangelists in their own unique portrayal point to Jesus being the embodiment of the God of Israel.  This short work, which continues Richard B. Hays long work with intertextuality and the art of reading scripture, is a very generative and helpful introduction to the deep question of how the evangelists became interpreters of the scriptures and how the experience of Jesus reframed their reading of scripture while scripture gave them the language and symbols to express the mystery of who Jesus is to their communities.