Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel I. Block (Pt. 1)

A Review of Daniel I. Block, Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021, 704 pages, hdbk.

Daniel Block has been a major evangelical OT scholar for many years, contributing commentaries on Ezekiel, Deuteronomy, and Judges/Ruth, and many articles. He is known for his incisive and creative scholarship. Therefore, this contribution to the study of covenants in the Bible is most welcome.

As someone with familiarity with Block’s work I fully expected Covenant to be marked by independent thinking and fresh insight. Both qualities are to be seen in this large work. As someone who has a decided interest in the subject I think it best if I begin my review with some general comments.

  1. Block decided not to interact with the scholarship on covenants in this book. for the most part this was a good choice, although occasionally one feels this reduces the interpretative options of certain passages and concepts.
  2. Block is not satisfied with some of the traditional nomenclature of the biblical covenants. This leads him to rename the Noahic covenant the “Cosmic covenant,” with an additional “Adamic covenant” which he also thinks he sees in Genesis 9. The Abrahamic and Mosaic (or Sinaitic) covenants together are the “Israelite covenant,” with the New covenant being dubbed “the New Israelite covenant.”
  3. Block sees the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and even the New covenant as one continuous covenant.
  4. He doesn’t like the term “Old Testament” either, preferring “First Testament” (the New Testament retains its name).
  5. The book contains a lot of helpful exegesis, much background information placed inside the narrative, and ample word studies. Sometimes the examination of texts can mean heavy-sledding for readers. The text is read carefully, even pedantically in places. Because of this it is easy to loose sight of the covenant being discussed.
  6. Although he sticks to a chronological approach Block’s method has a tendency to view God from a distance rather than personally. Yahweh is referred to in a way similar to how false gods are treated. It is the same for biblical personages; Noah, Abraham (slightly less so), David, etc. are studied dispassionately as if they were simply people who lived a long time ago. E.g., Moses is studied with the same kind of aloofness as Gudea of Lagash. This impression may be somewhat subjective, but I believe it ought to be mentioned.
  7. The definition of “covenant” is disappointingly “loose.”
  8. The “Priestly” covenant (e.g., Num. 25) is called the “Levitical covenant” and is dealt with only in a lengthy but unsatisfying Excursus. Block avoids its connotations in Ezekiel 40 – 48, Jeremiah 33, etc.
  9. Block rejects the “conditional/unconditional” concept, choosing to keep the former while calling God’s unilateral oaths “irrevocable.”
  10. Speaking of oaths, the author spends very little time on the importance of the oaths within God’s covenants.
  11. Block believes that the instructions (torah) from Exodus to Deuteronomy were doable. His arguments for this are important, if a little optimistic. If Israel could perform the requirements of the Mosaic code, so can we. If that is so why do Israel (or we) need a spiritual rebirth?
  12. He includes a lot of comparisons from the ANE. Sometimes these are helpful, while at other times they seem to dictate his interpretations.
  13. Although he does hold to and expound messianic passages, it is not always done compellingly (e.g. Psalm 110). He tries to fit these texts within the historical context (sometimes speculated) of the passage. The predictive element is occasionally obscured.
  14. Block has no room for pre-Noahic covenants including the theological covenants of covenant theology.
  15. He is to be commended for providing a rare study of covenant in the New Testament.

In the coming weeks I shall attempt to discuss this important book, noting what I think are it’s strengths and weaknesses. I envisage four installments in all, but may need to add a summary post.

Update: The Book Will Be Available Soon

One of my least favorite things in the whole world is self-publicity. I don’t like it and I’m sure it’s unscriptural. The sin of calling attention to oneself is often exacerbated when one is promoting a ministry or a book. I have a book out soon. It’s not the work the world has been breathlessly waiting for, but it’s the best I can do. I hope I have written a sound, edifying, educational book which repays its purchase price. I think it does but my judgment is not to be wholly trusted on this matter.

According to the publisher, The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology, Vol. 1 – Old Testament Expectation will be ready by the end of the month. I for one am greatly looking forward to holding a copy in my hands. But that is to be expected since I have slaved away at it for about five years plus change.

The Words of the Covenant is just shy of 500 pages long and has over 1,300 footnotes (I tried to keep them down). I do not quote a lot of Dispensationalists because an affirmation from someone who is not oriented that way is weightier than from someone who would agree with one’s overall trajectory. Within its pages I present my ‘Biblical Covenantalism,’ at least of the Old Testament.

It can be bought for $42.49 in hardback and $32.49 paperback from Xulon Press:


Expect another shameless plug when it’s finally released!

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (3)

Part Two

This is from the first draft of my book ‘The Words of the Covenant: New Testament Continuity’.

Interpreting Matthew 10

            Jesus dispenses power to vanquish demons and sicknesses to His disciples in Matthew 10:1 in preparation for them going throughout Israel heralding the impending Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 10:1-10).  The wonders they are to perform in the sight of their countrymen demonstrate the unsuitability of putting new wine in old wineskins.  The Kingdom they are preaching as “at hand” will introduce a new aeon; one that will outdo this aeon as a combine-harvester outdoes a scythe.  The miracles should not be seen as only sins that attract attention, but as portents of the kind of realm the Kingdom of God will be. 

            But it is a striking fact that Matthew tells us that this powerful witness was to be confined.

These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans.  But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” – Matthew 10:5-8.

            No other Gospel writer includes this saying, but Matthew felt that it was important to put it in, in all probability for contextual reasons.  The road to the Gentiles could mean the actual roads to Trye and Sidon or to the Decapolis but is better interpreted as meaning any route that takes you to where Gentiles are.  Carson offers a balanced explanation of the prohibition; that it would not add to the opposition they were experiencing, but that does not go far enough in my opinion.  There is a focus on Israel that is legitimate, harkening all the way back to Genesis 12 and Exodus 19.  It respects the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the fact that Jesus is first the Jewish Messiah.[1]  His ministry was, in Paul’s later language, “to the Jew first.” (Rom. 1:16; 2:10). 

            Then there is a section about persecution (Matt. 10:16-23).  The first part of it is straightforward enough, although even there the sayings crop up in Luke and Mark in eschatological settings (Mk. 13:9–13; Lk. 21:12–17).  The real difficulty enters in with Matthew 10:21-23.  Verse 21 is found in Mark and Luke in proximity to “tribulation” passages (which more of later).  Verse 22 includes the well-known “But he who endures to the end will be saved.”  Mark 13:13 is placed right next to and looks to be consonant with the end times discourse of Jesus (which is where Matthew will also place it in unmistakable terms in Matthew 24:13-14).  If one is not dead set on finding immediate first century correspondences to these sayings it begins to look as if Matthew 10:21-23 leap the centuries and land us in the days just prior to the Lord’s return in power. 

            This impression is only cemented by verse 23:

When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. – Matthew 10:23.

            Many attempts have been made to make sense of this difficult verse in a first century setting, but in my opinion they all fail.  Let us pick apart the ingredients:

  1. The Son of Man was the one speaking to the disciples.  They were not waiting for Him to come He was already there. 
  2. Although Israel was and is a small territory, there is no evidence that Christ’s disciples covered the whole land in their evangelistic efforts.
  3. Soon after the death of Jesus the scattered disciples were given a wider field of evangelism and most of them, either to avoid persecution or for ministry’s sake, began to work further afield.
  4. If the disciples had completed their task of going through every town in Israel, they would have falsified Jesus’ words.  Jesus predicted that they would not complete the task before He came.

The first and the fourth points are the most difficult to get around.  To my mind the only plausible view is that the words are proleptical.  The setting has shifted to the time of the end; the period running up to and including the second coming (i.e., “before the Son of Man comes”).[2]  This portion of the chapter might be thought about as telescoping out from post-ascension persecution (Matt. 10:16-17) to wider persecution throughout Christian history (Matt. 10:18-20), reaching into the times and events surrounding the second advent (Matt. 10:21-23).  This position means the “you” in Matthew 10:23 refers to those who will be ministering for Christ prior to His return.  There is nothing particularly strange about this; one finds the same thing in John 14:1-3.  Whether or not one agrees with this interpretation, what cannot be escaped is that the coverage of Israel and the coming of Christ belong together.[3]  

If Matthew 10:23b causes headaches for scholars, Matthew 11:12 comes a close second:

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.

            Since we are studying Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God/Heaven we must tackle this verse.  Once more, various attempts have been made to make sense of the passage.  The attention is grabbed by the word “the violent” (biastes) who take the Kingdom by force.  What kind of force can take the Kingdom of Heaven?  The answer aside from the text itself is that nothing can take it, for no human violence disturbs the entrance of those whom God permits to enter, nor perturbs the Kingdom upon entering it.  Bunyan famously had one of his characters in Pilgrim’s Progress cut through the swathe of guards before the king’s gate, but the exegetical basis for the image is dubious.[4]  One approach which I think has a lot of merit is that which looks at the verse and in particular the verbs biazetai and biastai negatively as teaching that  religionists want to press into the Kingdom, and they react violently against those who are righteous.  Hence, they attack the Kingdom instead of surrendering to its preconditions.[5]  This understanding of the verse fits well the oppositional content in Jesus’ discourse, especially Matthew 11:15-26.   

            As Matthew 12 begins we find Jesus answering the Pharisees regarding the matter of His disciples plucking the heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-8).  Luke and Mark also record this encounter, but I take notice of Matthew’s report because in it he includes a statement by Jesus about Him being “greater than the temple” (Matt. 12:6).  This is in addition to His claim that “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Matt. 12:8). 

These two statements constitute direct challenges to the Pharisees’ religion.  There were scarcely any more important institutions of Pharisaic Judaism than the temple and the Sabbath (even though, much to their chagrin the temple was overseen by the Sadducees).  Who was this Galilean to exalt himself above these pillars of Judaism? 

Certainly, what Christ is doing here is bold, but it is not arrogant.  How else is the true Son of Man of Daniel 7, the Messiah, nay, the co-Creator, going to get across to these “doctors of the Scriptures” that He transcends all those things which, in one way or another, epitomize Him?  What is the Law without the covenant?  What is the Sabbath without the Creator’s cessation of the first creation week?  If the Christ will inaugurate the New covenant and Jesus has been announced (by John the Baptist) as He, and Jesus’ mighty miracles and impeccable character more than corroborate John’s announcement, should not the eyes and ears of all those near to God be open to His message?  The question is of course rhetorical, for in God’s purposes these men and their religious neighbors (the scribes and Sadducees) would lead the opposition against Jesus.  But the signs were there, and word and deed pointed the Pharisees in the right direction.

As if these already present clues were not there, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 to them:

But if you had known what this means, `I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. – Matthew 12:7.

            On the basis of the aforementioned clues, the Pharisees should have cottoned on to who Jesus was (i.e. “God with us” – Matt. 1:23).  This in turn ought to have informed their understanding of what the disciples were doing.  Mercy is better than sacrificial duty, according to Yahweh, who, in His Son, is greater than the temple or the Sabbath.[6]  This is underlined in the very next section, where the Pharisees’ gross neglect of mercy meant they cannot stand to see a man’s withered hand restored on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:9-14). 

[1] See Ed Glasscock, Matthew, 222-223.

[2] It is also plausible to view Matthew 10:40-42 as eschatological.

[3] Some interpreters try to get round this problem by theorizing that Matthew 10:23 is based upon a non-extant source that has found its way into the text. See e.g., John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 428.  Carson calls the verse “the most difficult in the NT canon.” – D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” 250.  He runs through seven interpretations and chooses the last, where the coming of the Son of Man refers to the coming judgment against the Jews. (Ibid, 252).  But this leaves points 1 and 4 above untouched and therefore is unsatisfactory.  For more analysis see Ryan E. Meyer, “The Interpretation of Matthew 10:23b.” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, 24.0 (NA 2019).  Also, Richard L. Mayhue, “Jesus: A Preterist Or A Futurist?” Masters Seminary Journal, 14:1 (Spring 2003), 75-77.       

[4] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress. See also Thomas Watson, Heaven Taken By Storm.

[5] This negative take on verse 12 is favored by Craig Blomberg, Matthew, 187-188.  A commentator who thinks Jesus intended a kind of double entendre is Daniel M. Doriani, Matthew, Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2008, Vol. 1. 470-471.   

[6] This way of putting the matter owes much to the excellent comments of Robert H. Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament, Peabody, MA: Hendricksen, 2010, 49-50.  Hosea 6:6 is followed by recrimination “Like men, they have transgressed the covenant…” (Hos. 6:7).  Though admittedly a difficult verse, the transgression of the covenant (in all probability the Mosaic covenant) was because mercy, which reflects “the knowledge of God,” was forgotten, just as in the case of the Pharisees.    

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (2)

Part One

The Kingdom to Come in the Lord’s Prayer

            We are accustomed to treat the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” within our own “Church” context.  And no wonder, for the guidance and hope it supplies are a great boon to the spiritual life.  But if we situate it in its setting in the Sermon on the Mount we have to allow that it signified something a little different for the disciples; especially Matthew 6:10:

            Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

            In circa A. D. 30 Jesus’ references to God’s “kingdom” would, when combined with His messianic claims and miracles, summon up only one idea; the covenanted Davidic Kingdom predicted in, for example, Isaiah 11:1-10 or Jeremiah 23:5-6.  No one could envision the Church at such an early date, and passages like Acts 1:6 persuasively combat any argument from silence.[1]  No, the Father’s Kingdom which is to be prayed for is the New covenant Davidic Kingdom of the OT Prophets.  We also notice that this coming Kingdom is to be “on earth” not in heaven.[2]  This too accords with the Prophets.  The fact that Jesus instructs His disciples to pray for the Kingdom, and they would be praying for the Kingdom of Messiah, surely tells us that Yahweh will stick to the words of the covenant He made with David, and also those covenants He made with Abraham and Phinehas!

            There is a further consideration we need to make with reference to Christ’s words; for their anticipatory nature suggests that the Kingdom for which we pray will be synonymous with its portrayal in the prayer.  Which is to say, in praying “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” we are saying (sometimes without thinking) that the Kingdom will not be present until this happens!  Similar to the teaching in Luke 19:11 that staves off any hopes of an imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ instruction here essentially does the same thing, at least in the sense that we now ought to realize that the Kingdom which was then preached as being “at hand” at the start of Jesus’ ministry was put off until the second advent.  Matthew 6:10 precludes any notion of the Kingdom of God being established in a world yet under the thrall of Satan and the governance of the wicked.  To put it in the words of John the Apostle, only when “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ” (Rev. 11:15) could it be said that the Kingdom of Heaven/God is present upon the earth.

The Context of the Proclamation

            Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus issues a warning about false professors:

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. – Matthew 7:21.

            We must remind ourselves that at the time when this was taught Jesus (Matt. 4:1) and the disciples (Matt. 10:7) were proclaiming “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  There was a sense of urgency about the coming of the New covenant Kingdom that later no longer obtained as Jesus neared Jerusalem.[3]  When the Lord said this, the Kingdom of Heaven was proclaimed as being just around the corner.  Therefore, the admonishment about doing the will of the Father resonates with John the Baptist’s heralding of bearing “fruits worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8/Lk. 3:8). 

            Here again the Kingdom is in the future.  It is to be entered only by the righteous, therefore it cannot come in a world ruled by sin and unrighteousness.  If there is to be a different notion of the Kingdom later in the NT it will be discussed when and where it arises.[4]  It is not found in the Sermon on the Mount. 

The Centurion and the Sons of the Kingdom

            The next passage I wish to consider is the healing of the centurion’s servant and what Jesus says in relation to it.  Luke also records the incident (Lk. 7:1-10), but without the observations given in Matthew 8:5-13.  After the centurion expressed faith in Jesus’ power and authority to just “speak a word, and my servant will be healed” (Matt. 8:8), the Lord spoke both about the faith of the Gentile soldier and the fate of those whom He referred to as “the sons of the kingdom.” 

When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!  And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” – Matthew 8:10-12.

            Let us consider the faith of the centurion; of what did it consist?  He is a Gentile who is aware of what Jesus is doing and saying.  Jesus has made a deep impression on him.  He calls Him “Lord” (kyrios).  As a centurion he knows men, and he knows Jesus is no ordinary man.  In the culture of the time many believed that words could carry power, especially if associated with a deity.  It is safe to assume the centurion had witnessed Christ’s mighty works, and he came to believe, not that Jesus might have the power to heal his servant, but that He did have it.  Moreover, he was convinced that the power of Jesus’ words was sufficient to affect the world dynamically and authoritatively.  In sum, the centurion was sure that Jesus was who He claimed to be.  His trust in Jesus was grounded in the words of Jesus, supported by the works. 

            Now consider Jesus’ application of the centurion’s faith: “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 8:11).  The various points of the compass serve to indicate the far-reaching impact of the work of God of which Jesus is central.  As the Abrahamic covenant includes a provision for the nations (Gen. 12:3), Jesus would not be saying anything controversial about the Gentiles.  But putting it the way He does; that Gentiles will come into the Kingdom with some Jews (very religious Jews no less) excluded would be guaranteed to raise the ire of some listeners.  “Sons of the kingdom” refers to Israelites who are party to the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, and who therefore would expect to enter the Kingdom.  Jesus’ highlighting of the centurion’s faith in Him showed what would be the deciding factor.[5]  Mere ancestry was not a sufficient qualification.  Yet there will be believing Jews in the Kingdom.  Israel will not be replaced, nor does the passage say that Israel will be expanded to become mainly Gentile in complexion.  Faith in Jesus is the road to covenantal blessing.  Israel’s covenants do not bypass Jesus, they pass through Him.[6] 

            Matthew 9 mostly concerns reports of Jesus’ amazing healings and exorcisms.  All these reports are grouped together to show how Christ overcame the effects of the curse and the deleterious consequences of sin upon the body.  These include the healing of the Paralytic (Matt. 9:1-8/Lk. 5:17–26), the restoration of the young girl and the healing of the woman with the issue of blood (Matt. 9:18-26/Lk. 8:40-56), the healing of two blind men (Matt. 9:27-31), and the expulsion of a demon which had rendered a man mute (Matt. 9:32-34).  These mighty reversals of the different effects of the Fall, of which nothing equal had been seen in Israel (Matt. 9:33), are linked to the proclamation of the Kingdom (Matt. 9:35). 

[1] As I have already indicated, a way around this is simply to claim that the Gospel writers (particularly Luke) were writing in the 60’s to 80’s A. D. and wrote their Gospels from an ecclesiological perspective.  I find such claims untenable.  More will be said about this in a later chapter. 

[2]  A little further on Jesus says to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:20).  By this we are not to think that heaven is the permanent home of the saints.  Treasures and rewards for the next life cannot be stored on earth in this life.  According to Hebrews 12:27 the earth (and the heaven) will be shaken so that any place one might think to store treasures will be “removed.” 

[3] Hence, the Lord’s resigned words in Luke 19:42: “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” 

[4] I shall give some consideration to the matter in my treatment of the Parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 13. 

[5] Again, it should be noted how entrance into a future Kingdom is at issue.  

[6] As I have tried to show and will show, the coming Kingdom is the New covenant Kingdom.                 

Aspects of Biblical Interpretation – Telos on YouTube (repost)

I have been recording short video presentations on various themes.  The aim is to cover subjects in Biblical and Systematic Theology, Apologetics and Worldview, and other matters briefly and clearly, yet without being too simplistic or too technical.  The first mini-series we have done is on Themes in Biblical Interpretation.  The series, as well as other materials, can be viewed at the TELOS YouTube channel.

Here are the first three:

A Short Review of ‘The Jesus of the Gospels’ by Andreas Kostenberger

A Review of Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Jesus of the Gospels: An Introduction, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2020, hdbk, 462 pages.

This book is designed as a mid-level introduction to Jesus as He is depicted in each of the Four Gospels. The author is a well-respected New Testament scholar at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His books cover a range of topics and usually make important contributions.

It is easy to see that Kostenberger knows his subject. Although this book is not intended to chart any new territory, what it succeeds in doing is furnishing the reader with an informative up-to-date companion to evangelical thought on the Gospel portraits of Jesus, replete with the insertion of many facts about the differences in the presentation of material (especially synoptic material) in the Evangelists. Kostenberger writes in what I might call a conversational tone, adding personal reflections and anecdotes here and there to root many of his applications.

Each Gospel is given between approximately 100 to 120 pages, although the Gospel of John, which Kostenberger knows best, has less space allotted to it, no doubt because the author is able to condense his thoughts more readily. There is a really good 13 page beginning chapter (after a brief Introduction) entitled “Situating This Book in the History of Jesus Research,” in which he deftly covers the scholarship on the Gospels from Schweitzer to the present. This kind of material can get a tad boring (let’s face it) and Kostenberger is to be commended for the way he covers the bases with such finesse. In only one place would I demur, and that is where the author claims that the titles of the Gospels were not original, but were rather added very early. Although impossible to prove, to me it is unconceivable that these four books could have started their lives without the identification of the inspired author affixed to them; for among other things, how then can one explain the universal acceptance of their derivation?

I will not expound the way Kostenberger surveys each Gospel. He avoids a dry recitation of the details be his adopted style and his eye for application. While it is true that applications may “age” a book, or imperil the objectivity needed of a textbook, Kostenberger is master of these twin potentialities and skillfully weaves the more personalized sentences into the main arguments. A good example of this is where he notices that after they had rightly cited the appropriate passage to Herod about where Messiah would be born, the chief priests and scribes never actually ventured there themselves!

There were places where I had to disagree with the author. These were mainly in the area of eschatology, where I questioned several times his view of the kingdom and elements associated with it. Kostenberger is too quick to dismiss a this-worldly Israelite kingdom as envisaged in the Old Testament and anticipated by the Jewish people. I did not like his interpretation of Jesus’ transfiguration as incorporating “apocalyptic language” as per the Book of Revelation. The disciples saw what they saw. Additionally, I should have liked more discussion of the Lawsuit motif in John’s Gospel, where John’s skillful narrative presents to his reader an indictment against those who judged Jesus so unlawfully.

The Jesus of the Gospels is a very useful book, and would be eminently suitable for introductory courses on the four portraits of Jesus, although for me it would need to be supplemented by a better treatment of eschatology.

I cannot end this brief review without congratulating Kregel on their inclusion of Scripture, Subject, and Name indexes at the back of the book. Some of my readers may know that I have had a bone to pick with the publisher about this issue in the past.

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (1)

The Kingdom of Heaven?

Matthew 3 begins with John the Baptist proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:1-2).  It has him calling Pharisees and Sadducees “a brood of vipers.” (Matt. 3:7), which hardly matched the exalted spiritual status they gave themselves.  Later in this Gospel we see Jesus calling Pharisees (and scribes) hypocrites and “fools and blind” (Matt. 23:13-19).  In Matthew the religious leaders get called all kinds of names.  Modern scholarship has tried to correct these Matthean malapropisms, and we do know of Pharisees who became followers of Jesus (Acts 15:5).  All in all though, the portrait the Holy Spirit has left us in the first Gospel does them no credit at all.

After the temptation of Jesus, which I shall look at from Matthew’s perspective soon, we find Jesus immediately preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 4:17).  This is of interest because it means there is a direct continuity between John’s preaching and Jesus’ preaching.[1]  There was therefore a large swell of expectation of the “kingdom of heaven” in the early days of Christ’s ministry wrought by the attention-grabbing efforts of the two men. 

Since Matthew is the only writer to use this designation “kingdom of heaven,” and that often in the same situations as the other Evangelists have “kingdom of God” it is obvious that the two expressions are very similar, if not one and the same.[2]  Confusingly, Matthew does employ “kingdom of God” in Matthew 6:33; 12:28; 19:24, and 21:31 and 43.  So what is happening here?  Why does Matthew use what appears to be a circumlocution for “God” most of the time, but not all the time? 

In Mathew 5:33 we read,

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.

Quite clearly, if Matthew had inserted “heaven” for “God” in this place he would have done away with the subject of the pronoun “His.”  The next instance is somewhat similar:

But Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.

            If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?

And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore, they shall be your judges.  But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. – Matthew 12:25-28.

            Jesus is speaking about the invasion of the kingdom of Satan (Beelzebub).  He explains that He expels demons “by the Spirit of God.” (Matt. 12:28).  It would sound a bit lame if instead of speaking plainly about “the kingdom of God” he instead had Jesus say “kingdom of heaven.”  Heaven is not the antonym of Satan, God is! 

            In Matthew 19 the context involves the Rich Young Ruler, who is asked “Why do you call me good?   No one is good but One, that is, God.” (Mat 19:17).  The conversation is about moral qualifications, and God is the standard.  It would be rather odd if after mentioning God as the standard of goodness to inherit eternal life, Matthew then omitted His name when responding to His shocked disciples.  This is how He replied:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  “And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:23-24.

            In verse 23 Jesus may be speaking about going to heaven (i.e. inheriting “eternal life”), or about the coming Kingdom itself.  In verse 24 He is referring to whose Kingdom it is; ergo, whose righteousness is the benchmark for entrance.  In which case, the subject had to be “God.” 

            Finally, in Matthew 21 we have two mentions of “kingdom of God.” 

“Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.” – Matthew 21:31.

            Notice that the Lord has introduced the character of a father.  The first son in the story, who was recalcitrant at the beginning, repented and did his father’s will.  He was not the son who looked and sounded good but who was disobedient.  The first son was like the “tax collectors and harlots” who turned from their sin after considering the will of God through Jesus’ preaching.  Hence, the Person of God is the subject of the sentence.      

The last time “kingdom of God” is used by Matthew is in 21:43.  Here it is with the verse before it:

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: `The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’S doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?  Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.” – Matthew 21:42-43.

            Here Psalm 118 is quoted and Yahweh (“the LORD”) is the main Actor.  It is God who has disposed history in such a way that “the builders” refused the true cornerstone.  Very pointedly, Jesus stated that those kingdom-builders who professed to be in God’s employ were building their own little kingdom.  As God would take the rejection of His Son personally, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” would be too impersonal to suit the occasion here. 

            Those are my brief explanations as to why Matthew uses “kingdom of God” five times rather than his more usual designation of it as the “the kingdom of heaven.”  Readers are free to disagree with these reasons, but there must be reasons.   To recap then “the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew is a circumlocution, where possible, of the name of God for His abode. 

[1] This kind of similarity is what has encouraged some of the more liberal leaning scholars to hazard that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist. 

[2] Some traditional Dispensationalists like Lewis Sperry Chafer and John Walvoord adamantly held that there was a difference in meaning between the two terms.  See the explanation in Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980, 65-68.    

The ‘Rules of Affinity’ Simplified (RePost)

Expanded Rules of Affinity

Premise: If all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for doctrine, it is imperative that our doctrines line up with Scripture.  Theology may be defined as correct alignment with the pronouncements of the Bible.

The ‘Rules’ demonstrate that some doctrines line up much more closely to Scripture than others.  Those with a very strong, direct “affinity” are ranked in the first category (C1).  Those with the weakest claim to any affinity with the text of the Bible are ranked category five (C5).

C1 = a direct statement

 Examples include:

  • ·         Creation out of nothing – “The Triune God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing.” – Gen. 1:1f; Isa. 40:28; 45:12; Jer. 10:12; Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:15-16; Heb. 1:2; Heb. 11:3; Rom. 11:36
  • ·         Christ died for all sinners (whosoever believes) – “Christ died for all men (sinners).” – Isa. 53:6; Jn. 1:29; 3:16-17; Rom. 5:6; 1 Tim. 2:4-6; 4:10; 1 Jn. 2:2; Heb. 2:9, 10:29

Most fundamental doctrines are a C1.  A C1 doctrine is taught via a direct quotation of Scripture.

C2 = a strong inference

Examples include:

  • ·         Inerrancy – “The inspired Scriptures are the Word of God before they are the words of men.”

2 Tim. 3:16; Psa. 12:6; Jn. 17:17; 2 Pet. 1:19-21

  • ·         The Trinity – “God exists as one substance yet in three divine, co-equal, distinct, yet eternally inseparable ‘Persons’.  God is one yet three, though in different modes of being.” – Deut. 6:4; Matt. 28:19; Jn. 1:1-3, 18; 14:15-17; 20:28; Acts 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 13:14; Heb. 9:14, 10:28-29

A C2 is established on the witness of several clear C1 passages.

Premise: Every major doctrine is a C1 or C2.

C3 = an inference to the best explanation

Examples include:

  • The Pre-Trib Rapture – “Christ will come for His Church prior to the 7 year Tribulation.” – 1 Thess. 4:13f; 1 Cor. 15:50f,; Rom. 11:24f; Dan. 9:24-27

N.B. the G-H method is required for the formulations of Categories 1 through 3, but is usually abandoned for Category 4 & 5 formulations.

A C3 is established on the witness of C1 and C2 texts, which overlap to point to a plausible inference.

C4 = a weak inference

Examples include:

  • ·         The Covenant of Grace – based on ideas like “the one people of God” and “the church as the new Israel”

A C4 is founded on no clear or plain statement of Scripture.

C5 = an inference based on another inference

Examples include:

  • The Christian Sabbath – Sunday replacing the Jewish Sabbath

A C5 is an even weaker inference based on other theological inferences, without reference to plain statements of Scripture.

Conclusion: We should only formulate our beliefs from C1’s and C2’s with some reference to C3’s.  On the other hand, doctrines supported only by C4’s and C5’s should be suspected of relying too much on human reasoning without Scripture.

The Kingdom of God in Luke (Pt. 8)

Part Seven

The Institution of the Lord’s Supper/New Covenant

            I firmly believe that the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Lk. 22:14-20) are some of the most important words in the NT.  The occasion for this world-changing event was the annual celebration of the Passover Seder, although Jesus had to celebrate it prematurely because by the time the real Passover was eaten, He would be dead.[1] 

The link between the Passover meal and the Lord’s Supper are clear and underlined by Paul’s reference to Jesus as “Christ our Passover” in 1 Corinthians 5:7.  The Passover is connected to the (old) Mosaic covenant, which is to be replaced by the New covenant; and Jesus’ role in this is critical.  If I may make an observation here about the importance of the Pauline designation with reference to the Gospel accounts (particularly in Luke 22:19 where the words “do this in remembrance of me” are present); the fact that Paul has used the term “Christ our Passover” points to the replacement of the traditional Passover lamb of the Mosaic covenant with the “Lamb of God” of the New covenant.  If this surmise is accurate then we have a strong indicator of the fact that Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice not only superseded the OT Passover ritual, but that in doing so a continuity of the Passover in Jesus was created.  Since the old Mosaic covenant does not have a provision for a change in the Passover sacrifice, we are left to conclude that the only way that Jesus, the Lamb of God can be linked to the Passover (i.e. by Paul[2]) in a more than incidental way is if another covenant has taken over the Passover,[3] amplifying its significance in the Person of the Messiah.  As Bock puts it, “[Christ] has become the lamb who launches a new age.”[4]   

Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” – Luke 22:15-16.

            Jesus’ anticipation of this Passover is explained when He uses it to institute the “New covenant in my blood” in verse 20.  It is clearly prophetic, as the words “until it is fulfilled” clearly show.  This gap between His partaking of the Passover and the appointed time (Lk. 22:15-18)) when He again eats it forms a further link between the Passover and the New covenant, re-situating of it in the Kingdom of God, which once more is a future reality to be manifested upon Christ’s return. 

And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” – Luke 22:19.

            As pointed out above, the words “do this in remembrance of Me” are unique to Luke’s account.  He was doubtless told about this wish of the Lord by one who was present (Paul also includes the words – 1 Cor. 11:24-25).  The command to remember relates to both parts of the institution, as Paul shows.  The remembrance is not a mawkish sentiment wrought by a realization of approaching doom; understandable though that would have been.  None of the Evangelists say that Jesus was sad or distressed as He reclined in the Upper Room (That trial was to come in Gethsemane).  The reason for remembering Jesus is plainly centered around His death for us, although we should also consider His humble earthly ministry among sinners: the whole incarnation (Phil. 2:5-8).  Our chance of life as God the Creator intended it is all predicated on what Jesus achieved. Hence we remember.  

Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.” – Luke 22:20.

            Matthew and Mark have “this is My blood of the new covenant” (Matt. 26:28/Mk. 14:24).  I see no reason at all why Jesus could not have said both Luke’s version and Matthew and Mark’s version.  What is very significant is that this is the first recorded instance of the term “New covenant” since its solitary appearance in Jeremiah 31:31.

Although it is given sparse utterance, the notion of the coming New covenant reverberates throughout the OT and was the source of hope for Israel and the Gentiles.  Jeremiah was simply giving a name to a concept that occurs throughout the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Deut. 30:1-6; Isa. 32:9-20; 42:1-7; 49:1-13; 52:10-53:12; 55:3; 59:15b-21; 61:8; Jer. 32:36:44; Ezek. 16:53-63; 36:22-38; 37:21-28; Hos. 2:18-20; Joel 2:28–3:8; Mic. 7:18-20; Zech. 9:10; 12:6-14.; 59:15-21).  Now the Lord reintroduces the term at this decisive moment.  The solemn mood surely deepened as He spoke the phrase and brought it into the closest relation to Himself and His impending death.     

The words “New covenant” would stir powerful thoughts of Israel’s restoration and glory, exactly as the prophet Jeremiah had foretold.  It is little wonder that forty days later they asked the resurrected Jesus, “Lord will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  Such a question would have been encouraged by these words:

“But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials.  And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” – Luke 22:28-30.

            Was this proffered kingdom something new and unexpected?  Nothing indicates that it was.  What may well have been surprising was the promise of the disciples’ exalted position in the Kingdom. 

There were twelve tribes in Israel and twelve main disciples (although Judas Iscariot was to be replaced).  But is it tenable to believe that the disciples hailed from all of those tribes?  Actually, the question is moot, because the special duty of the twelve will be that of judging the tribes, not leading them.  Jesus will be upon David’s throne, just as Gabriel had said (Lk. 1:32).  It would be naturally assumed the twelve tribes would mean exactly that; the twelve tribes of Israel.[5]  The name “Israel” would mean nothing else in this setting but those Jews directly descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Whatever is or is not to become of the meaning of that name later in the NT is not my concern right now.  My duty is to read what is in Luke, not freight supposed Pauline or Petrine reconstructions into the time before the Cross.  There is no room in the context for swapping the expected messianic New covenant, Israel plus the Nations Kingdom for a multinational spiritual body.[6]

The Kingdom and the New Covenant

            Before moving on I must insist a little more that we carefully consider the association of the Kingdom of God and the New covenant.  The Kingdom of God is the New covenant Kingdom.  The New covenant Kingdom is the covenanted Kingdom spoken of so often by the OT Prophets.  It arrives, to use the metaphor in Daniel 2, once the “stone cut out without hands” strikes down the kingdoms of man and the messianic Kingdom of righteousness replaces it. This, of course, did not occur in the first century A. D.

            But how can this be so, when the Lord instituted the New covenant in Luke 22 in anticipation of its coming into effect after His Passion?  This important question will have to wait until we examine 1 Corinthians 11, but I can say two things by way of preparation for later:

  1. The fusion of the first and second comings of Christ in the OT is not always apparent.  But here at the Lord’s Supper, and in consideration of Luke 19:11 etc., we can clearly see a two-phase work.  The first phase is centered on the cross and resurrection of Christ and the New covenant benefits which were unleashed from them (presently enjoyed by the Church within the bounds of the third major promise of the Abrahamic covenant – 1 Cor. 11:25-26 cf. Gal. 3:8).  Thus, the salvific benefits of being in the New covenant (and hence not under the Law) are present in “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:14), while the storied Kingdom of God still waits in the wings for the return of the King.
  2. Any attempt to introduce the Kingdom of God right after the cross and resurrection, however noble, constitutes a misunderstanding of the term and a direct contradiction of our Lord’s declaration immediately prior to Calvary and Mt. Olivet.  That the book of Acts in particular uses the term will have to be explored, but it is my contention that although one may validly speak of aspects of the Kingdom of God in the preaching ministry of the Apostles, the focus is not on the “already” but rather on the “not yet.”[7]                 

[1] See Robert H. Stein, “Last Supper,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Editors: Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 446. 

[2] In 1 Corinthians 10:16 the Apostle asks, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?”  Stein says the term “cup of blessing” is taken from the third cup of the Passover (Ibid, 447), but there is no biblical warrant for the assertion.   

[3] “It signifies, not a temporal repetition but a new, eschatological beginning.” – I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, 806. 

[4] Darrell Bock, Luke 9:51 – 24:53, 1727.

[5] I shall discuss the complexion of the twelve tribes further on.

[6] Any theological interpretation which converts this expectation into an ecclesial one has gone the wrong way.  E.g., “The Institution Narrative…is a key transitional text for linking the royal Davidic identity and mission of Christ with the early apostolic church as the restored Davidic kingdom.” – Scott W. Hahn, “Kingdom and Church in Luke-Acts,” in, Reading Luke, edited by Craig G. Bartholomew et al, 306, cf. 318, 320.  The expectation of a restored and beatified New covenant Kingdom where all God’s covenants are fulfilled cannot be diverted or altered even by God; in fact, especially by God, since He has placed Himself under oath to fulfill those covenants.     

[7] I realize, of course, that this position must be argued for, not merely asserted. 

Personal Thoughts About Commentaries (11): Hebrews

For my money the top three works in the list are indispensable. The next two are important to have. I do not think the warning passages in Hebrews have yet been tackled adequately (and who is up to the task?). I personally hold that Hebrews should be read alongside the Olivet Discourse.

  1. Peter T. O’Brien – Yes, I know the author has gotten it in the neck for plagiarizing (but it is odd plagiarism, like repeating phrases, not exegesis). Because of this you’ll have to search for it at a decent price. But this is really very good.

2. William L. Lane – Could easily be first. Fetches help from many sources (e.g. Thompson’s Beginnings of Philosophy, which he cites constantly). I tend to agree more with O’Brien and Bruce, but you can’t afford to be without this work.

3. F. F. Bruce – Great prose. Has read everything up to publication date. Always solid.

4. Paul Ellingworth – A must-have for close exegesis. Take a deep breath and plunge in.

5. Phillip Edgcumbe Hughes – I really like Hughes’s blend of pious scholarship and solid theology. Needs to be supplemented by one of the above.

6. David A. DaSilva – A socio-rhetorical work called Perseverance in Gratitude.

7. R. T. France – Lovely style joined to extensive learning.

8. George H. Guthrie – Guthrie is an acknowledged expert on Hebrews. This is in the NIVAC series. A more exegetical treatment by him would rank highly. (His contribution to the Carson/Beale Commentary on the NT Use of the OT is terrific).

9. William Gouge – Massive Puritan work with surprisingly good exegesis. Easier to navigate than Owen.

10. Donald A. Hagner – Compact, terse, and nearly always helpful at a pinch.

There are many good commentaries on Hebrews at all levels. On the scholarly level Harold Attridge is highly skilled and liberal. It’s a toss up between him and Ellingworth. Ellingworth wins because he offers a bit more. I don’t think one needs both. Gareth Cockerill is good and could easily swap with France. B. F. Westcott’s classic might also have made the list, as might David Allen (whose thesis about Lukan authorship is interesting, if not completely convincing). Then there are Messrs Schreiner and Witherington. Old John Brown (BoT) is excellent if supplemented by newer scholarship. Finally there is John Owen’s masterful 7-volume work, which in many ways stands by itself. A lot of great stuff in Owen, but lots to get lost in too.