An Introduction to Parables and their Interpretation.

 Parables make up about one third of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels. In order to properly understand the Synoptic Gospels, therefore, one must be familiar with the definition, function, and forms of parables.

Because parables vary in their form and usage, it is difficult to construct an accurate but usable definition. Blomberg (1997, 257) gives the very basic definition: “A parable is a brief metaphorical narrative.”  This definition covers the broad usage of parables, but it is so general that further description is needed. A parable consists of a fictional picture or story and a corresponding reality that is better understood through that picture or story. For instance, in Matt 13:31-32 Jesus tells the following parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The picture or story element is the man who plants a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree large enough for nesting birds. The reality element, which is better understood through this story, is the kingdom of heaven. Often one has to examine the context of the parable to narrow down what particular meaning the correspondence conveys. In this parable, the smallness of the mustard seed corresponds to the relatively small effect the Kingdom of Heaven seems to have in the present age. However, the kingdom will eventually grow bigger and more influential than anything else in the world (field). Through the picture, Jesus’ hearers gain a deeper understanding of how the Kingdom of Heaven manifests itself.

While parables occur in the broader ancient Hebrew and Greek literature, Jesus seems to have used parables to a greater extent than any of his predecessors. Parables rarely appear in the Old Testament (OT), but Nathan’s rebuke of King David (2 Sam 12:1-10) is the OT parable most similar to Jesus’ parables. Other OT parables are found in: 2 Sam 14:5-20; Isa 5:1-7; Ezek 17:1-10; 19:1-9, 10-14.

Parables prominently feature in the Synoptics, but not in any other New Testament (NT) book (other than two uses of the word “parable” in Heb 9:9; 11:9). Some consider the “Good Shepherd” and “True Vine” passages (John 10:1-18; 15:1-8) as parables, but John seems to employ these as “I am” sayings and not as parables. Regardless, John presents Jesus’ teaching very differently than the Synoptics by not explicitly including parables.

Some parables occur in all three Synoptics, while others appear in only one. The Gospel writers arrange parables in different ways, often grouping them thematically. Sometimes it is difficult to discern if the Gospel writers are reporting the same parable (Matt 25:14-30 & Luke 19:11-27). Perhaps Jesus told variations of a given parable in different places, and the Gospel writers were reflecting those different renditions. Below is a table of parables in the Synoptics, but the reader should understand that such catalogues of parables differ slightly because scholars differ on the exact qualifications of a parable.

Parable TitleMatthewMarkLuke
Parables of the groom, cloth, wineskinsMatt 9:14-17Mark 2:18-22Luke 5:33-39
Blind leading the blind; pupil leading teacher(Matt 15:14) Luke 6:39-40
2 houses built on 2 different types of groundMatt 7:24-27 Luke 6:46-49
A forgiving money lender  Luke 7:40-50
House divided; binding the strong manMatt 12:24-29Mark 3:22-27(Luke 11:15-22) Not binding a strong man, but being stronger.
Parable of the sower/soils receiving seed/word of GodMatt 13:1-23Mark 4:1-20Luke 8:4-15
A lamp is not hiddenMatt 5:15Mark 4:21-23Luke 8:16-18; 11:33
The children and the marketplaceMatt 11:16–19 Luke 7:31–35
Kingdom is like: weeds sown in a fieldMatt 13:24-30, 36-43  
Kingdom is like: seeds’ sudden growth Mark 4:26-29 
A friend at midnight  Luke 11:5-8  
Kingdom is like: mustard seedMatt 13:31-32Mark 4:30-32Luke 13:18-19
Kingdom is like: leavenMatt 13:33-35 Luke 13:20-21
Kingdom is like: hidden treasureMatt 13:44  
Kingdom is like: merchant finding a valuable pearlMatt 13:45-46  
Kingdom is like: a dragnetMatt 13:47-50  
Disciple as head of householdMatt 13:52  
Defiled by what comes out, not what entersMatt 15:10-20Mark 7:14-23 
Kingdom is like: a king forgiving a slave, but that slave not forgivingMatt 18:23-35  
Good Samaritan-loving neighbor  Luke 10:30-37
Folly of building storehouses  Luke 12:13-21
Giving the Fig tree another chance  Luke 13:6-9
Guests taking the more humble seat  Luke 14:7-11
The tower builder and the warring king  Luke 14:28-33
The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.Matt 18:12-14; (just lost sheep) Luke 15
The shrewd manager  Luke 16:1-13
The rich man and Lazarus  Luke 16:19-31
A slave just doing what he is supposed to  Luke 17:7-10
The unrighteous judge and the persistent window.  Luke 18:1-8
The praying Pharisee and humble tax-collector.  Luke 18:9-14
Kingdom is like: a landowner hiring workers for vineyardMatt 20:1-16  
Two sons in a vineyardMatt 21:28-32  
Wicked Vine growersMatt 21:33-45Mark 12:1-12Luke 20:9-19
Kingdom is like: a wedding feastMatt 22:1-14 Luke 14:16-24(same parable?)
Fig Tree predicts summerMatt 24:32-33Mark 13:28-29Luke 21:29-31
Servants alert for their master’s returnMatt 24:45f?Mark 13:33-37Luke 12:35-48??
Kingdom is like: 10 virgins waiting for the groom.Matt 25:1-13  
A master goes away and  tasks servants to use his money until he returnsMatt 25:14-30 Luke 19:11-27 (same parable?)

The two most prevalent themes in the parables are the Kingdom of God (the nature of its coming) and citizenship in that kingdom (discipleship). K. Snodgrass (DJG, 599-600) categorizes parables according to what kingdom reality they describe: 1) The kingdom as present. Some parables answer questions concerning how God’s kingdom is present in Jesus’ work and ministry. The parable of the strong man (Matt 12:25-28) means Jesus is plundering Satan’s current domain on earth, and the parable of the leaven (Luke 13:20-21) explains how the kingdom seems to be small at the present time.

2) Kingdom as future. Other parables focus on aspects of the kingdom that are still future. The parables that picture a reckoning or judgment (Matt 22:1-14; 25:14-30) fall into this category, as they encourage faithfulness in preparation for a final day of judgment.

3) Discipleship. Other parables explain what following the heavenly King entails. Being a citizen of Christ’s kingdom requires counting the cost like a warring king (Luke 14:28-32), being like a shrewd manager in the use of earthy wealth for heavenly purposes (Luke l6:1-13), and praying with a humble, tax-collector-like, spirit (Luke 18:9-14).

Guidelines for Interpreting Parables.

 The interpretation of parables has had a tangled history. Within a couple centuries of being written down by the Gospel writers, parables began to be interpreted allegorically by the church fathers. Saint Augustine famously attached allegorical meaning to every detail of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan represented Christ, the robbers represented the devil, the inn represented the church (which didn’t even exist at the time Jesus spoke the parable), the beaten man represented Adam, and so on. While not all church fathers interpreted the parables allegorically, it was the dominant interpretive method of their day, and it continued to be until after the reformation. In the 1900s the allegorical interpretation was discredited and almost entirely thrown out. It was replaced with an assumption that parables originally contained no allegory and were simple comparisons with only one main point. In contemporary scholarship more balanced literary views have developed that acknowledge that parables may not be allegories, but they can contain allegorical elements. What, then, are some guidelines in interpreting parables?

A. Because parables contain a story/picture part and a reality part, first identify the familiar picture element(s) and the reality or truth being explained. For example in the parable of the forgiving money lender in Luke 7:40-50 the picture/story element is the money lender who forgave one debtor 50 denarii and another debtor 500 denarii. The reality or truth part being explained concerns the relationship between forgiveness and love. While much more needs to be understood about the parable, it is essential to first clarify what part is the story/picture and what is the truth/reality being explained. 

B. Remember the fictional story/picture part of the parable should be interpreted as a fictional composition. As Robert Stein (1994, 137-8) explains, “The picture itself does not describe an actual historical event. It is a fictional creation that came into being out of the mind of its author. . . . We must not confuse a life-like parable, which is a fictional creation, with a biblical narrative referring to a historical event.” The questions we should ask of a parable, therefore, are not about the details of the story, but what spiritual truth the author is trying to highlight with this story. In the example of the forgiving money lender, we should not be asking how the debtors incurred their debt—the creator of the parable did not include that information because it did not help make his point. Usually the details of the story don’t have their own meaning; they simply fill out and support the main picture. The author didn’t intend every detail of the parable to carry its own allegorical meaning totally unknown to the original audience.

C. Search the context for any explanation or interpretation provided by the author. In the above parable of the forgiving money lender, the parable is embedded in a narrative that contains dialogue. Both the narrative and the dialogue point to the spiritual reality that the parable explains. After telling the parable, Jesus compares the Pharisee’s lack of hospitality to the sinful woman’s lavish and loving treatment of Jesus. Jesus then proclaims, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). This material after the parable (the context) repeats and applies the spiritual truth that a person’s reception of Jesus (love) flows from the forgiveness received. It is in the context that the spiritual truth/reality part of the parable becomes clear. Some parables’ contexts are not quite so helpful, but context usually gives important clues to the author’s intention.  

In addition to the above guidelines, the Lexham Bible Dictionary provides the following six basic principles for understanding Jesus’ parables.

1.   Understand the social, historical, and cultural context of the parable. For example, in the parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1–8), it helps to know that in the first-century widows often experienced significant hardship and oppression.

2.   Determine the number of points the parable is intended to teach. This may be linked to the number of main characters in the parable (Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 174).

3.   Consider to whom the parable is directed. Is the audience being addressed the disciples, the Jewish leaders, or the crowds? The identity of the audience will help indicate the message that the parable was intended to communicate.

4.   Realize that repetition in parables is for the purpose of stressing a major point.

5.   Identify stock symbolism being employed. For example, God is commonly pictured throughout the Bible (and in parables) as a father, king, judge, shepherd, etc.

6.   Note the conclusion of the parable. The last person, deed, or saying often conveys the significance of the parable.

 By applying the above guidelines, one should be able to identify the author’s main point(s), which are closely attached to the spiritual reality the parable pictures.

The Parable of the Sower as a Challenge to the Purpose and Interpretation of Parables.

The parable of the sower (Matt 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15) challenges many of the concepts presented above. For one, it suggests that parables were meant to obscure understanding and not increase it. Secondly, Jesus assigns meaning to several of the elements of the parable (like an allegory). It is helpful, therefore, to examine more closely this parable about parables.

With some variation in details, the parable of the soils appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. The main points and context of the parable are mostly consistent in each of the Gospel’s retelling, but for expediency we will examine only Matthew’s version (13:1-23). Jesus tells the parable to a large crowd (13:2). Verses 3-9 describe Jesus’ words to the crowd: “Then he told them many things in parables, saying, ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop– a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.’” Using the guidelines above, we first attempt to identify the story part and the reality part of the parable. Up to this point we seem to have the story part, the sowing of seed on various types of soil to various results, but the reality part is unclear. There is no introduction like “the Kingdom of Heaven is like.” Similar to Jesus’ original audience, we are not certain what spiritual reality this story is supposed to help us understand. From Jesus’ religious background, a few clues can be found; seed for sowing was associated with God’s word (Isa 55:10-11; John 4:36-38; 1 Cor 3:6-8) and bearing fruit was a metaphor for godly prosperity (Psa 92:12-14; Isa 5:2; Ezek 17:5-10; John 15:1-8; Rom 7:4). Even with these connections, the main point of the parable remains unclear. We look to the context hoping to find explanation.

In this case, the context does not disappoint; it contains Jesus’ full explanation and interpretation of the parable. Jesus later explains the meaning of the parable privately to the disciples: “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matt 13:18-23)  Seldom are the parables given such a clear and thorough explanation. The story of the sower helps the listeners understand the spiritual reality of the word of God producing varied results among those who hear it.

Jesus’ detailed interpretation raises questions about interpreting parables. The guidelines above state that details of parable should not be given individual allegorical interpretations, but Jesus seems to do just that in his interpretation. Each place the seed lands is given an allegorical meaning that corresponds to different people’s reception of “the message about the kingdom.” This parable shows that although most parables are not simply allegories, they can have allegorical elements. While allegorical interpretation of parables is to be avoided, one must still acknowledge that parables may contain allegorical elements. The meaning of these elements should come from the author or from common metaphors of the author’s culture—not from the interpreter’s imagination or context (as was often the case in the medieval church).

In between Jesus’ telling and explanation of the parable, the Gospel writers introduce another element to this parable. While this parable helps listeners understand the spiritual reality of the word of God producing varied results among those who hear it, the parable also says something about how parables themselves produce varied results among hearers. After Jesus tells the parable, the disciples ask why Jesus teaches in parables, implying that this parable is unclear.  Jesus’ reply suggests that parables are meant to obscure understanding instead of increase it—a concept that seems counterintuitive. After all, most parables use familiar elements to paint a picture comparison of an unfamiliar spiritual truth. In response to the disciples question about the purpose of parables, Jesus answers, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” (Matt 13:11-16). Jesus explains that the disciples are blessed by having a fuller knowledge of the Kingdom of Heaven than others. This knowledge relates to what they already have—a close relationship with Jesus. By virtue of this relationship, the disciples will receive Jesus’ full interpretation of the parable; they truly see and hear. Truly hearing corresponds to the good soil of the parable, which is why the disciples are blessed; they will produce much fruit.

On the other hand, many will not receive this parable or any message about the Kingdom of Heaven. These people are not only like the soils that aren’t productive, they are like those spoken of by the prophet Isaiah: “ever hearing but never understanding . . . this people’s heart has become calloused.” By quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, Jesus explains that the rejection of his message fulfills prophecy. Matthew often shows how Jesus’ ministry fulfills prophecy, but the other Synoptic writers include a quotation from Isaiah 6 as well. Many in his Jewish audience, especially the religious leaders, are following the pattern of their forefathers in Isaiah’s day. They hear the prophetic message of God, but with hard hearts they refuse to receive it. Those who reject Jesus’ message will continue rejecting and misunderstanding the word of God.

Parables provide a good illustration of Isaiah’s words and the situation among Jesus’ hearers. Because parables contain a picture/story part that explains a spiritual reality, they can obscure understanding for those who refuse to receive the spiritual reality. Many of the Jewish religious leaders physically heard the parables/message of the kingdom, but they did not receive it and failed to understand it. Especially with the parable of the sower, the story part of the parable part was clear enough, but the only ones who received a full explanation of the spiritual reality part were those who sought more understanding from Jesus (“whoever has will be given more”).

Parables, therefore, clarify spiritual realities for those who have good receptive hearts towards Christ (good soil), but they obscure spiritual realities for those who have rejected Jesus and his message. The parable of the sower is a parable about parables and Jesus’ overall kingdom message. This parable not only explains why Jesus’ message was rejected by some of his own people, it also encourages Jesus’ followers to continue to seek Jesus and receive his word with the soil of a good heart. Jesus’ word will bear a great crop through those who receive him and his kingdom message. “He who has ears, let him hear.”

END NOTES

* Barry, John, ed. Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016.

*Blomberg, Craig. Interpreting the Parables. Downers Grover: InterVarsity, 1990.

*______. Jesus and the Gospels. Nashville: B&H, 1997.    

*DJG: Green, Joel and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers

 Grove: InterVarsity, 1992.

*EDT: Elwell, Walter, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids:

Baker, 2001.

* NDBT: Alexander, T. Desmond, et. al.  New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Downers

 Grove: InterVarsity, 2000.

*Stein, Robert. A Basic Guide for Interpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994.

The Holy Spirit Brings Restoration in the End-Times Renewal

Discussions of the End-Times often center on Jesus’ return. But what role does the Spirit play in the End-Times? Beginning in the Hebrew Scriptures and continuing through the Second Temple period, the Spirit is depicted as the means by which God accomplishes his historical and eschatological plan.[1] That eschatological plan includes an expansion of the Spirit’s work upon the earth as well as the Spirit’s inner work that transforms the hearts of the covenant people.[2] The Spirit’s renewing work would prepare God’s people to experience His presence.

In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter cites the pouring out of the Spirit as evidence that the “last days” have begun (Acts 2). The New Testament writers believed that they were in the “last days” (end times) and these previous promises were being fulfilled. The Spirit would indwell and empower the church to expand God’s kingdom to the ends of the earth until Jesus’ return. This post will point out some first-century expectations concerning the Spirit in the End-Times.

Pouring out the Spirit: Eschatological Expansion

The Old Testament (OT) often portrays the Spirit of God as working in leaders and prophets to establish, deliver, judge, guide, and restore the people of God.[3] Not surprisingly then, the Spirit is also depicted as active among God’s people in the eschatological restoration.[4] The eschatological work of the Spirit increases in scope and intensity. This increase is described as a “pouring out” of the Spirit in many OT passages (Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:25–27; 37:14; 39:28–29; Zech 12:9–10) and exemplified by Joel 2:28–31:

It will come about after this that I will pour out my Spirit on all mankind and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of Yahweh comes.

Joel 2:28–31

By twice using the verb שפך (pour out) and the threefold repetition of spiritual gifts in the following lines, Joel expresses a fullness of amount as well as fullness in scope.[5] The Spirit will not only be upon leaders and prophets, but upon all of God’s people. The day of the Lord, with its theophanic imagery, brings a renewal of the covenant presence (Joel 2:27, “Thus you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am Yahweh your God”) and an expansion of Yahweh’s Spirit among his people. The promise of Yahweh’s restored covenant presence “in the midst of Israel” is closely connected to the Spirit in many prophetic texts (Isa 4:4–6; 59:19–21; Ezek 36:24–28; Hag 2:5–9). These Hebrew texts create an eschatological expectation for an outpouring of Yahweh’s Spirit in conjunction with a renewal of Yahweh’s covenant presence. The pouring out of the Spirit will broaden both the scope and intensity of Yahweh’s blessings.

Many scholars note an eschatological trajectory to the canon that depicts Yahweh’s presence/glory expanding to the ends of the earth. The Spirit would usher in the promised presence of God among his people as “all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord” (Num 14:21) in the eschatological age (Isa 6:3; Hab 2:14).[6]

These expectations inform the background to many of the pneumatological promises in the New Testament. Peter quotes the above passage from Joel in his Acts 2 sermon, and claims that this promise is being fulfilled. In the remaining chapters of Acts, the Spirit is poured out into new people groups and expanding throughout the Roman empire. John’s Gospel shows a similar fulfillment in a slightly different way. John the Baptist introduces the promise that Jesus would baptize in the Spirit (John 1:33), and that promise is fulfilled literarily when Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples (John 20:21). This impartation of the Holy Spirit is given in the context of Jesus sending his disciples into the world on a mission of redemption and revelation in continuity with Jesus’ own mission.[7] In addition, the disciples serve a representative function for the later, broader messianic community and the blessings/responsibilities (including the indwelling Spirit) of the first disciples are assumed for later disciples.[8] Jesus gives the Spirit to his disciples when the eschatological “hour” (John 4:21–23; 5:25–28; 13:1; 17:1) arrives, thus expanding God’s glory. The expansion of God’s glory through his disciples and beyond is spoken of in John 17:20–22, which states, “Not for these alone do I ask, but also for those who believe in me through their word; so that they may all be one, even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as we are one.” The sharing of glory that denotes the unified presence of God radiates to future disciples, who will witnesses to the world.

The Spirit’s work of renewing God’s people and expanding God’s glory presence is a crucial part of End-Times fulfillment. While modern Christians often think of the “End-Times” strictly in terms of Jesus’ final return, the New Testament seems to include the entire church age in the “last days”. In these last days, the Spirit’s role is to prepare God’s people, and the whole world, for the Lord’s full and final intervention.


End Notes

[1] Willem VanGemeren and Andrew Abernethy, “The Spirit and the Future: A Canonical Approach,” in Presence, Power and Promise: The Role of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament (ed. David Firth and Paul Wegner; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 333.

[2] Robin Routledge, “The Spirit and the Future in the Old Testament: Restoration and Renewal,” in Presence, Power and Promise: The Role of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament (ed. David Firth and Paul Wegner; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 348–349.

[3] Wilf Hildebrandt, An Old Testament Theology of the Spirit of God (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 67–150.

[4] Peter R. Ackroyd, Exile and Restoration: A Study of Hebrew Thought of the Sixth Century B.C. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), 177, contends that the prophets Zechariah and Haggai (shortsightedly) considered the post-exilic time as this restoration. The work of the eschatological Spirit was therefore crucial in their depiction of the restoration of the temple in Zech 4:6 and Hag 2:4–5. While I disagree with Ackroyd’s assessment of the prophet’s intentions, the larger point of the Spirit’s work in the promised restoration is still relevant. The Spirit of God transcends the temple and is therefore involved in its restoration.

[5] G. A. Mikre-Selassie points out that Joel often uses repetition to emphasize fullness in “Repetition and Synonyms in the Translation of Joel—With Special Reference to the Amharic Language,” BT 36 (1985): 230–237. See also Douglas Stuart, Hosea–Jonah (WBC 31; Waco: Word, 1987), 260.

[6] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission (NSBT 17; Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2004), 25, argues that the temple was designed to foreshadow the eschatological reality of God’s presence spreading throughout the cosmos. See also James Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 343. For a biblical tracking of the “all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord” theme, see ibid., 268–269. 

[7] Andreas Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 539–546.

[8] Ibid., 886–894.

The Holy Spirit Upon the Messiah: The Gospels’ Use of Isaiah

This post examines how the New Testament (NT) Gospel writers explicitly appropriated the Old Testament (OT) book of Isaiah’s pneumatology in their presentation of Jesus as the Messiah. A working assumption of this examination is that explicit quotations are the most prominent and clear markers of OT borrowing. By the time of Jesus, there was a widespread belief that the Messiah would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel writers especially used Isaiah’s prophecies about the Spirit to show that Jesus was the expected Spirit-filled Messiah.

Because the Gospels are concerned with presenting Jesus as the Messiah, it is not surprising that the Gospel writers include OT quotes that predict the Spirit upon the Messiah. Less explicitly but just as significant, all four Gospels give an account of the Spirit descending upon Jesus at the commencement of his ministry. In the Spirit’s descent in the synoptics, most see an allusion to the Isaianic servant of 42:1 (with perhaps a shading of 61:1 in Luke).[1] Each Gospel has its own nuance with the common theme being the Holy Spirit rests on Jesus, fulfilling messianic expectations.

Photo credit to from Pixabay (208356 on Pexels)

In Matthew (3:16-17) and Luke (3:21-22), the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus (and the OT allusions) at the beginning of his ministry is given further treatment using explicit OT quotations. In Matthew, that quotation does not appear for some time and yet Matthew connects and builds on his earlier allusion. Matthew, more than any other Gospel, depicts Jesus’ baptism and receiving the Spirit in the midst of conflict with the Pharisees. When Isa 42:1-4 is explicitly quoted later in Matt 12:18-21 the Pharisees are not only opposing Jesus’ ministry they “conspired against him, as how to destroy him” (12:14). Matthew 12:15-21 reads:

But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. Many followed Him, and He healed them all, and warned them not to tell who He was. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “BEHOLD, MY SERVANT WHOM I HAVE CHOSEN; MY BELOVED IN WHOM MY SOUL is WELL-PLEASED; I WILL PUT MY SPIRIT UPON HIM, AND HE SHALL PROCLAIM JUSTICE TO THE GENTILES. HE WILL NOT QUARREL, NOR CRY OUT; NOR WILL ANYONE HEAR HIS VOICE IN THE STREETS. A BATTERED REED HE WILL NOT BREAK OFF, AND A SMOLDERING WICK HE WILL NOT PUT OUT, UNTIL HE LEADS JUSTICE TO VICTORY AND IN HIS NAME THE GENTILES WILL HOPE.”  

Matthew 12:15-21 (NASB)

This quotation reminds the readers that Jesus is the Spirit-endowed servant Messiah. However, this OT concept is not reintroduced to make a pneumatological point but to explain the events at this juncture of Jesus’ ministry. David Turner posits three purposes for quoting Isa 42:1-4: 1) It explains why Jesus withdraws from conflict, not proclaiming his identity but quietly ministering to the weak. 2) As Jewish opposition increases, Matthew is gradually introducing the divine necessity (and receptivity) of the gentiles. 3) This quote sets up Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ accusation (Matt 12:24) that Jesus performs miracles by the power of Beelzebub.[2]  If Turner is correct then the purposes for using Isa 42 are not primarily about pneumatology. Instead, Matthew shows how the Spirit enables Jesus’ messianic ministry to gently proceed towards the divine end despite loud opposition.

In contrast to the religious leaders’ false judgments about Jesus and his works, the use of Isa 42:1-4 highlights the just dealings of the Messiah. In its original context, Isa 42:1-4 emphasized the just decision that the servant will render on Yahweh’s behalf, more than the identity of the servant.[3] If Matthew is maintaining this emphasis then the public, false judgments of the Pharisees are self-condemning and contrast with the Spirit-filled Messiah quietly advancing God’s restorative plan (the subject of chs 40-55 in Isaiah) to the oppressed.[4]  

The surrounding material of Isa 42:1-4 describes God’s plan for restoration from exile; a restoration that will be greater than the exodus from Egypt.[5] This plan will be accomplished through Yahweh’s servant on behalf of Israel and this restoration will take on a world-wide scope to the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6; 56:6-8; 66:18-23).

With this OT quotation Matthew reinforces the portrait of Jesus and his ministry as empowered by the Spirit and as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s new exodus theme. Such a portrait is based on understanding the servant of Isa 42 as the Messiah who would usher in justice (the other side of salvation) in the new age of restoration. Matthew’s appropriation of Isa 42 demonstrates that his understanding of the Messiah fits in the broad expectations for the Messiah in the second temple period.  

In Luke’s Gospel, the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 3:22) is soon followed by an OT quotation that emphasizes Jesus’ spiritual empowerment.  After Jesus’ baptism, he is “full of the Holy Spirit” and is lead around “by the Spirit” in the wilderness for forty days (Luke 4:1). Jesus returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” and begins his public ministry. Luke chooses to focus on Jesus in Nazareth and particularly on his scripture reading in the synagogue.  Luke 4:17-21 states:

And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.” And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:17-21 (NASB)

With this quotation of Isa 61:1-2 (with Isa 58:6 sandwiched in the middle) Jesus announces that the commencing of his ministry fulfills OT prophecy. The previous context confirms that Luke is very interested in depicting Jesus as being led by the Spirit. Now, Luke brings in the scriptural authority to not only support his depiction, but to demonstrate how Jesus fulfills these scriptures from the very beginning of his ministry. Essential to that fulfillment (in Luke’s reckoning) is that Jesus is anointed with the Spirit of God as he proclaims the good news of God. The “good news” of Isa 61:1-2 in its original context probably picked up renewal themes from Isa 40-55 that looked forward to a new exodus and world-wide salvation. Those predictions of renewal are announced in Isa 61 (and now here by Jesus) as coming to pass. This Spirit endowed individual will take up the task to announce comfort to the downtrodden since that task was neglected by those (Israel in Isa 49:1-4) to whom it was originally given.[6]

 With this quotation, Luke presents Jesus as the one who is taking up Yahweh’s task in the power of Yahweh’s Spirit. Having established Jesus as the Spirit-filled prophet of the good news, references to the Spirit greatly subside (only three more in the whole Gospel of Luke: 10:21; 11:13; 12:10) until Jesus promises “power from on high” in 24:49 and then the Spirit bursts on the scene in Acts.  At that point, Jesus (as the risen Messiah and Lord) gives his followers the Spirit to continue the proclamation of the now-realized good news.

 The two aforementioned OT quotes (and their supporting material/allusions) do not exhaust the NT writers’ associations between the Messiah and the Spirit. They do explicitly show a common pneumatological tenet, drawn from the OT, and applied to Jesus. That tenet is the Spirit of Yahweh will be upon the Messiah. The book of Isaiah, with its eschatological expectations of a messianic figure empowered by God’s Spirit, provided the perfect source texts.[7]  Space does not permit a discussion about this tenet itself being a development within the OT. Suffice it to say here that God’s empowering Spirit would necessarily be upon (in an even greater degree) the Messiah just as that Spirit was upon the kings and prophets of Yahweh’s choosing. By the time of Jesus, the OT idea that the Messiah would be filled with the Spirit had solidified further. When the NT writers appropriated OT scripture with this pneumatological/Christological tenet they drew from an existing interpretive stream within second temple Judaism. 


[1] See Matthew  3:13-17, Mark 1:11, and Luke 3:21-22 in CNTUOT (ed. G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 14, 122-128, 279- 281, respectively.  

[2] David Turner, Matthew (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 316-317.

[3] John Goldingay and David Payne, Isaiah 40-55 (Vol 1; ICC; New York: T & T Clark, 2006), 208-222.

[4] For a strong argument that Matthew maintains Isaiah 42’s emphasis on justice see: Richard Beaton, “Messiah and Justice: A Key to Matthew’s Use of Isaiah 42:1-4?” JSNT 75 (1999): 5-23.

[5] Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 844-845.

[6] John Watts, Isaiah 34-66 (WBC 25; Rev. ed.; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 872-874.

[7] Wonsuk Ma, Until the Spirit Comes: The Spirit of God in the Book of Isaiah (JSOTSup271; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999), 203-213. Although I do not agree with Ma’s assumptions on the various layers of composition, his separate treatment of the canonical layer is helpful.

The Biblical Principle for Breaking Bad Compulsions- a Look into Romans 7-8.

The last few posts from my out of print book, “When God Gives a Time Out”  established that we often have the compulsion to do things. Sometimes this compulsion arises from our need to be esteemed or our need for achievement.  God may give us a time out to remove the distracting activity and grow our relationship with Him. Today’s post moves on to how we begin to break our compulsions (whether it is a habit to do or other sinful pattern) through our trust in God.

Let’s assume you trust God to break your habit to do. You don’t know, however, how that trust should play out in your everyday life.  What is your part in this?  Subsequent posts will suggest how you can give yourself a time out to hear the voice of God.  Incorporating some of these suggestions into your life is a way of breaking the habit to do as you become more intentional about stopping and listening to God.  However, there is an overarching principle to breaking any sin habit or compulsion. All of our attempts at intentionally giving ourselves a time out must flow from this principle.  This principle is articulated in the book of Romans, chapters 7 and 8.  Because these scriptures are the key to understanding how we are to participate in God’s work of freeing us from sin habits, I have devoted this post to going through this passage of scripture.

(Click here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” if you want to start with chapter 1 of When God Gives a Time Out.)

Romans 7 and 8 are the Apostle Paul’s answer for breaking any sin habit, which includes our habit to do.  Let us take a deeper look into these chapters to learn God’s plan for breaking sin patterns in our life. We pick up Paul’s argument at Romans 7:4:  

“4Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. 5For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. 6But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.”

Romans 7:4-6 (NASB)

The “therefore” in Paul’s argument refers back to the fact that believers have died to the law and are no longer bound to the Old Testament law but bound to Christ. Being joined to Christ is the key to breaking free from our sin habit.  The law, however, is an inadequate way of breaking a sin habit.  Remember, this sin habit can be our addiction to do, or a sin habit concerning lustful thoughts, or any other pattern of sin in our life.  Paul is putting forth a principle that can be applied to any situation where we try to overcome sin.  It is clear that the “law” isn’t effective in overcoming sin. Although Paul is referring to the Old Testament law specifically, this principle applies to any law we try to live by.  This even includes laws like; “I need to be more loving.” or “Don’t lust” or “Be more patient.” The law can be thought of as any command or precept that instructs us what to do or not do. Paul argues in verse 5 that the law actually arouses the sinful passions that we are trying to overcome.  I am sure his readers thought, “Hey Paul, God gave the Old Testament law, are you saying the law is bad?” Anticipating the question, Paul continues,

7What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ 8But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. 9I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; 10and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; 11for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”

Romans 7:7-12 (NASB)

Why is the law an inadequate way of breaking a sin habit?  It is inadequate because it merely informs us what is unlawful.  As Paul stated it, if he hadn’t heard the law, “You shall not covet” he wouldn’t have known that coveting was wrong.  Coveting is wrong because it goes against God’s nature and God informs us through the commandments that He doesn’t like coveting.  So the law, or commandment, is good because it is from God.  Other commandments such as love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor, are also good.  Hopefully, as you have read the last few blog posts you also realized that your compulsive doing can interfere with your relationship with God and you need to make changes in order to follow the command, “Let us press on to know the LORD.” (Hosea 6:3)  

The problem with any command (O.T. law or otherwise) or biblical application is that they only inform us what we should do or not do. Before we knew how we were to act – we really didn’t think about it. We may or may not have followed the command, but it was an ignorant kind of sin and not a knowing rebellion against what we know God wants. And that is the rub, isn’t it? Now that we do know, we still break the command. Now our action is no longer a sin alone, it is a sin coupled with open rebellion. That tendency prompted Paul to explain that the commandment, which was supposed to result in life, supposed to result in him being more in touch with God’s will, resulted in his death. So does God give us the law (or any command) to be cruel and kill us?  Paul continues,

13Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. 14For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.”

Romans 7:13-20 (NASB)

The apostle is now really addressing the heart of the problem when we try to break a sin habit through the system of the law.  We hear and accept the command, whatever it is, and then we try to follow it. We want to follow the command, but the harder we try the more we seem to fail.  We want to stop coveting, we want to stop esteem seeking, or we want to _____ (you fill in the blank) but we just can’t.  The fact that we want to follow the command means that we agree that the command is good.  We have a sin habit that we want to kick, the knowledge that the behavior is a sin, the desire to act differently, but we just can’t overcome it.  We seem to have this sin in us that doesn’t subject itself to our mind’s commands.  No matter how hard we try to follow a command or Biblical precept, this sin inside us doesn’t listen.  Paul further explains:

“21I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”

Romans 7:21-25 (NASB)

Paul likens the inner conflict of overcoming sin to a war. There is a battle between our mind, or inner person, and this “law of sin” in our body. Our inner person wants to serve the law of God. We want to break our compulsive doing that interferes with knowing God, or we want to stop being so judgmental, or we want to pray more, or etc. etc. etc.  But whatever we want to do isn’t achieved because our flesh serves the law of sin, which seeks the easiest path, the most self-centered path, the most rebellious path.  In this war our house is divided and we lose almost every time. 

Theologians often debate whether the apostle Paul is referring to his pre-Christian problems in dealing with sin or a problem that he is currently having as a Christian. I believe that he is mostly talking about his pre-Christian problem since he boldly proclaims that Christ has set him free from this cycle of death. However, I think that the pre- vs. post Christian issue doesn’t really matter in understanding Paul’s main point, which is whenever you try to use a system of law to break a sin habit, you will fail.  Christians who are no longer under the law can still act as if they are under the law when trying to break a sin habit. Instead of joining ourselves to Christ, who set us free from the law (7:4) and sin – we just try harder.  We try and use our will to follow God and beat down our will to sin.  What we do with our sin habits can be likened to a steel cage match. If you have ever watched “professional” wrestling (the kind with Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, or the Undertaker) you have probably seen a steel cage match. A big steel cage is put over the ring so that no one can escape. This is a fight to the end. There is no running away from the ring.  Whoever is lying unconscious and bloody in the middle of the ring is the loser.  Whoever is left standing and in control is the winner.  Unfortunately when we go into the steel cage with a sin habit, our obedience to the command is usually left paralyzed but that old sin habit is still standing and in control.  Then we really understand what Paul meant back in verse 10 when he said that trying to follow the command is a good idea, but it kills us every time. 

Whenever we try to use our will power to follow a command or biblical precept, we are living as if we are “under the law.”   Although the law is good, it does not justify us before God because we don’t keep the law even when we become like a slave and use everything in our flesh to follow the law.  The law is good but we fall short in trying to make it a reality in our life.  This is the shortcoming of the law. The writer of Hebrews agrees, saying, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.”  The fault wasn’t in the law, or first covenant, but in the following of the law.  This inability to follow the law made us guiltier, since rebellion against the commandment of God was added to the sin.  This cycle of condemnation is at work whenever we put ourselves under a law whether we are Christians or not.  Paul’s point is that Christians don’t have to subject themselves to this “body of death.”  Christ has set us free from the law.

 In Chapter 8, Paul moves from what not to do in dealing with a sin habit to what one needs to do.  He writes,

1Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Romans 8:1-8

We first must realize that Jesus is the one who justified us.  The law could not justify us “weak as it was through the flesh.”  As was said, the law simply revealed that we were sinners and rebellious.  But what the law couldn’t do, Jesus did.  Jesus, as an “offering for sin” satisfied the debt that we owed as sinners against God.  We are now without sin in God’s eyes and there is no condemnation for us.  We are no longer bound to the law because the law has been met, or fulfilled, already by Jesus on our behalf.  Our gut reaction, our primary assumption must be that Jesus made us right.  No matter how much we follow or don’t follow a biblical precept or command is a secondary consideration.  Christ has set us free.  End of story.  You may be thinking, “Yea, I know this already.” But do you?  If Christ alone has freed us then when we are presented with a biblical command, why is our first reaction to assess our actions?  If we are not keeping the command, we make a plan to be better.  If we are following the command, we are proud.  Our gut reaction isn’t “Oh thank you Jesus – I am right already because of you.”  We must be truly Christ centered.  We are bound to Him now, not to a command, not to a religion, not to a moral code, not to a set of religious acts. Our justification is centered on Christ. Our deep, gut conviction must be that we have already been made right by Christ alone. If this truth is not the lifeblood of our soul then our living righteously is already compromised. 

The same Christ who justified us eternally in the sight of God will enable us to live our life righteously in this life (sanctification). The key is the same. Our sanctification, like our justification, is centered on Christ. Sanctification is the process in which we become more set apart to God and more like Christ.  Sanctification includes breaking sin habits or anything that hinders us from being Christ-like (i.e. compulsive doing or esteem seeking).  If we try to sanctify ourselves by trying harder to follow a command, we are walking according to the flesh. The mind set on anything other than Christ leads to failure and an inability to achieve the very thing we desire (verse 7).  No matter how hard we try, or our motivation for trying, if we are following a command by using our flesh we cannot please God (v.8). We cannot please God because not only do we fail at following the command, we try to complete in our flesh what God initiated through His Spirit. As Paul wrote in Galatians, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Our deliverance and our victory over any sin habit are found in Christ. Our mind must be set on the Spirit – it must be God centered. When we focus on the command, on trying harder, on judging our performance, we lose touch with our solution. We lose touch with Christ.  We go back to walking in the flesh. Paul continues,

9However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. 10If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”

Romans 8:9-11

If Jesus has truly justified us then God in the person of the Holy Spirit dwells in us.  This is the same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.  That power that gave life to Jesus will give life to us. We are no longer subject to this “body of death,” as Paul stated earlier. Instead, the righteousness of Christ is like a wellspring that feeds into our inner person and gives us life. We must stay attached to this life source by setting our minds on Christ and the fact that He makes us right eternally. We also stay attached by setting our minds on the Spirit and His power to live righteously through us now. Our living is more like riding, riding on the Holy Spirit who will cause us to live differently from the inside out. Once we set our minds on the flesh, we are done for. That is what Paul goes on to say in this last section:

12So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.”

Romans 8:12-17

Trying harder didn’t save us, so we are no longer under any obligation to that method. We are only under obligation to God and it is through our focus on Him that we can follow those commands. We are riding on the coattails of His Spirit, as God lives through us. Naturally, the Spirit lives righteously and as long as we are clinging to Him we live wherever He is.  This is not a spirit of slavery or fear that we are not measuring up to some law. This is the Holy Spirit who reassures us that we are God’s beloved children and that we already have all that we need to become like Him. We no longer have only our spirit versus our flesh. We now also have the Holy Spirit of God and all His power, guidance, and gifts. We don’t have an external set of laws to strive for, we now have an internal advocate who seeks to sanctify us from the inside out. He is our answer when we are stuck in a sin habit. When we want to stop being compulsive about doing things because we want to hear God’s voice, our relationship with Jesus, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, is the answer. Our mind must be set on Christ and our dependence must be on Christ for justification and sanctification. 

This section of Romans must be our guide when addressing any sinful behavior in our life. It is clear that the guiding principle is to depend on and focus on Christ alone to set us free. While our natural inclination may be to try harder, our hope lies not in struggling to obtain what we don’t have, but resting in what we have already.  On Christmas we are reminded that we have Immanuel – “God with us”.  Nothing can separate us from God and His love.  We are irrevocably adopted as His children. This relationship holds the keys to our abundant life both here and in heaven. Doers have a difficult time swallowing this pill. We want a method, a checklist, an action plan. These techniques are not God’s solution. God gives us a time out so that we hear HIS voice.  God gives us a time out so that we will build a relationship with Him – not build a plan or method. If we look to some method or action plan to save us from our deeply ingrained sinfulness then we are trying to use the sin of self-sufficiency to defeat our sinful compulsions. 

In subsequent posts I will share some ideas that may help you focus on God. As the above scripture shows, it is our focus on God that will free us from any sin habit, including compulsive doing. Reading this post, the ideas for giving yourself a time out – none of these are the answer. They are all means to an end, suggestions to help you focus on God. After all, God gives you a time out in order to hear HIS voice, not mine. 

If you choose to follow some of the ideas I present in subsequent posts, know that they must flow from your conviction that focusing on Christ is the answer. The second part of the overall principle found in Romans 7 & 8 is that we are dependant on Christ alone to free us.  This conviction must descend from our heads to our hearts. There is no easy way to do this.  This principle must soak into your soul. Ironically, as you mistakenly depend on your will to sanctify yourself and then fail, this principle will sink deeper into your soul. Whole, deep, dependent living is a process. For now you may need to simply acknowledge this fact. Confess to God that you agree that you are helpless to sanctify yourself. Ask Him to let this truth take root in your heart. As you live your life in God’s presence, being dependant (and slipping up and being not so dependant) this truth will take root. Focus and dependence on God is a life long process grounded in Christ’s loving sacrifice on the cross.

When it comes to life on this earth, we are trying to put ourselves in the presence of God enough that His grace transforms us[i].  It is like getting a suntan.  If we want a tan we need to be in the sun.  We don’t really do the tanning, the sun does. Our part is getting out of the house. Our “doing” keeps us in the house. All of our sin habits keep us in the shadows of a darkened house.

The next few posts contain suggestions to help us get out of the house.  Suggestions like Sabbath observance, journaling, and prayer are not the solution to our habit to do – God is. Of course, we can take these suggestions and practice them compulsively.  If, however, our goal is to be in close relationship to God, then these are means that may help achieve that end. But we must keep in mind the overarching principle that the solution is a focus, and dependence, on Christ. All these suggestions can be considered ways of giving yourself a time out so that you can set your mind on God.  Like a Father with a child, God wants us to be able to mature to the point that we self regulate. Maturity means that God may give us time outs (Amen to that) when we are young. But His hope is that one day He no longer needs to give us time outs because when we start to become spiritually deaf to Him, we give ourselves a kind of time out so that we can refocus on His voice. 

Questions to Ponder

What “Law” have you been trying to follow?

Why is the law an inadequate way of breaking a sin habit

Can you think of a recent example in your life when you would echo Paul’s words, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.”?

What is your normal strategy to following a biblical precept?  Can you relate to the “steel cage wrestling match”?

When confronted with a biblical command is your deep, gut conviction that you have already been made right by Christ alone?

Where is your default focus when confronted with your own spiritual shortcomings?  Were you disappointed when the answer to breaking bad compulsions turned out to be, “Focus and dependence on God in a life long process grounded in Christ’s loving sacrifice on the cross” and not  a checklist or method


End Notes

[i] Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1991) p. 19

Sermon Series through 1 Peter

I recently finished a sermon series through 1 Peter entitled A Living Hope in Times of Turmoil. While there are many ways to divide 1 Peter into preachable, cohesive units that respect the main points the author seems to make, I settled on the outline below.  Scott McKnight’s 1 Peter in the NIV Application Commentary series helped me greatly in my preparation. In my opinion, the NIV Application Commentary series is one of the best series for sermon preparation. Certainly there are more in-depth scholarly commentaries for research purposes, but the NAC arranges it’s material in a way that facilitates text to sermon (one could say the NAC has a knack  for helping in sermon prep). The other commentary I heavily consulted was Paul Achtemeier’s Commentary on 1 Peter in the Hermeneia series.

In the table below, I include the passage and the Title/Application of that passage (which contains a link to the sermon audio at Second Baptist Church, where I gave the sermons,). I hope you find this info helpful in your own study of 1 Peter.

First Peter Sermon series: A Living Hope in Times of Turmoil.

1 Peter 1:1-12 Praise God for a Living Hope and Salvation.”
1 Peter 1:13-2:3 Growing in hope and salvation.”
1 Peter 2:4-10 You are Living Stones built together for God.
1 Peter 2:11-3:7  “Living a counter-cultural respect.
1 Peter 3:8-22 ” Follow Christ through the offences.”
1 Peter 4:1-11 Time’s up-Living for God and loving people with our time on this earth.
1 Peter 4:12-19  “Suffering is not strange-but it will be.”  (Suffering as a Christian is normal; Christ suffered – but suffering also calls us to God’s judgment upon (ending of) suffering and sin.)
1 Peter 5:1-5  “Shepherd and serve willingly and humbly
1 Peter 5:6-14 Let God lift you up and complete you.”

Jesus as the Heavenly Temple in the Fourth Gospel.

The most recent edition of Bulletin of Biblical Research (28.3; 2018: pages 425-446) BBRcontains probably my last article that incorporates a large amount of material from my dissertation. Through many revisions, I was able to sharpen one of the main arguments in my thesis into an article length presentation. Below is the abstract/summary of the article. The full article can be read on JSTOR or by those who have a subscription to the Bulletin of Biblical Research. For those who have access to neither, but want the full pdf., leave a comment below and I can email you a copy.

ABSTRACT: The majority of Johannine scholars agree that the Fourth Gospel presents Jesus as fulfilling the temple. This article argues that the Fourth Gospel advances this fulfilment by closely associating Jesus with the heavenly temple more than the earthly. The thesis coheres with many previous studies but furthers the discussion by focusing on how the heavenly temple emphasis interacts with the temple-fulfillment theme. The Johannine Jesus embodied the more transcendent reality of the heavenly temple, and his return to heaven began the eschatological expansion of God’s temple presence through the Spirit. This argument is supported by (1) pointing to the pervasive importance placed on the heavenly temple in the first century, (2) examining specific temple-fulfillment texts and consistent motifs/terminology in the Fourth Gospel, and (3) showing how the correlation of Jesus with the heavenly temple better accounts for the post-resurrection fulfillment assumed in the temple-related texts.

Exegetical Sermon Series on the Book of Acts with a note on “scope”.

A busy summer that included teaching biblical Greek at Tyndale Theological Seminary in the Netherlands meant no time for blog posting. Since some of my most visited posts are sermon outlines, I have posted an outline and audio links of my current sermon series on Acts below (chapters 1-5). In an exegetical sermon series, it is important to determine the proper “scope” of each passage. As described in the “10 Steps to Interpretation,” the interpreter tries to interpret and communicate the text in units that follow the author’s presentation. Using structural and contextual clues, one attempts to divide larger sections into manageable units to preach—but a unit that follows the author’s presentation as closely as possible.

We naturally follow this practice in other disciplines. Teachers usually assign and teach according to the chapters/sections/paragraphs of a textbook’s author. Following the author’s intentioned breaks and transitions makes it easier to teach and understand the content. The biblical writers did not use modern conventions like chapter divisions (the chapter and verse numbering of modern Bibles are a later addition—yet they can help discern sections as long as the interpreter realizes their later origin), but there are clues to where the author intends a shift or new unit. Through a shift in scene, the introduction of a new argument, a change in genre, a keyword, or other technique, the author signals a change. These signals help mark out the smaller units that can be reasonably treated without doing violence to the author’s intention.

*Note – I would normally treat Acts 1:1-11 as a unit, but I wanted to give some background information to Acts and relate it to the Gospel of Luke, while keeping the sermon to 30 minutes. Likewise, Pentecost was meant to be a unified passage, but the theological and literary implications are too great to be covered in one sermon. The exegetical preacher must balance the scope of a passage with laying bare the meaning of the text in a way that the congregation can process (i.e. taking into account cultural attention spans).

Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-3. Main point: The Gospel of Christ is based in history and transforms our history. Audio: Transforming History.
Acts 1:4-11 Main point: Jesus gives his followers a clear mission and the resources to accomplish that mission. Audio: A Clear Mission.
Acts 1:12-26 Main point: Times of transition/waiting are times for prayer in which God can direct us how to take the next step. Audio: Praying Through the Transition Process.
Acts 2:1-21 Main point: As promised, Jesus sends the Spirit to empower his people to do supernatural things. Audio: The Promised Spirit.
Acts 2:22-41 Main point: Jesus fulfills scripture, rose from the dead, and gives the Spirit so repent and be baptized in His name. Audio: Jesus-Lord and Christ.
Acts 2:42-47 Main point: We must devote ourselves to Bible, worship, fellowship, prayer, and evangelism. Audio: 5 Essentials to Building a Healthy Church.
Acts 3 Main point: Give Jesus – exalt Jesus. Audio: What I have I Give to You.
Acts 4:1-31 Main point: Dealing with opposition? You are only responsible for you. Obey God, He will empower you. Audio: Dealing with Opposition and Conflict.
Acts 4:32-5:11 Main point: The presence of the Lord, and internal opposition to His way, should not be taken lightly. Audio: Are You Serious?
Acts 5:12-42 Main point: If we are in God’s will, nothing can stop us. Audio: Stopping a Freight Train.

A table arranging the New Testament books according to the date of composition.

Our modern New Testaments are not arranged chronologically, which sometimes causes misunderstandings. While the Gospels discuss the events of Jesus’ life (the crucifixion took place in 30 or 33 A.D.), the earliest Gospel probably was not written down until the 60s. The Apostle Paul wrote many of his letters before the Gospels. This historical perspective is helpful when assessing arguments over material that some scholars may deem a “later theological development” in the early church. For example the “kenotic hymn” of Philippians 2 exhibits a very high view of Christ, despite Paul most likely writing Philippians before the Gospel writers completed their writings.  Note the exalted status afforded to Christ in Philippians 2:5-8:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8 NAU)

Some scholars believe these verse were a pre-existing hymn that Paul incorporated into his letter. If this theory is correct, then the high view of Christ can be traced to an even earlier time. Arguments, therefore, that assume a high view of Christ (i.e. his divinity) always reflects a later church development contain an invalid presupposition.

The table below arranges the NT books by their likely date of composition. Most NT books are difficult to date with precision, which is why discussions about dating can often be lengthy and still not definitive. The dating of the various writings depends on views of authorship, so I have included two columns of dates. The books are listed chronologically, according to their earlier, more conservative dating, but the right hand column provides dates from a more skeptical view. Of course, these dates are further debated within their respective “conservative” and “skeptical” camps, but I have tried to give the most common views from my own subjective survey of the data. For the most part, I have disregarded the “outliers” of either camp. I hope readers find the following table helpful.

Earlier, more conservative dating

 

NT Book

(Listed Chronologically)

Later, more skeptical dating

 

Early 50s 1 Thessalonians Early 50s
Early 50s 2 Thessalonians Early 50s (later if forged)
Early 50s Galatians Mid 50s
55-57 1 Corinthians Mid 50s
55-57 2 Corinthians Mid 50s
Approximately 57 Romans Approximately 57
Approximately 60 James 70s or later
Early 60s Philemon 60s
Early 60s Philippians 60s
Early 60s Colossians Early 60s (70-90 if forged)
Early 60s Ephesians 70-100
Early 60s 1 Timothy 90-110
60s Gospel of Mark Late 60s
Mid 60s Titus 90-110
Mid 60s 2 Timothy 90-110
Mid 60s 1 Peter 80s
Late 60s Hebrews 60-95
Late 60s 2 Peter 80-110
Approximately 70 Gospel of Matthew 80-95
70s-80s Gospel of Luke 85-95
70s-80s Acts 85-95
Approximately 80 Jude Approximately 80?
Approximately 90 Gospel of John Approximately 100
Early 90s 1 John  100-125
Early 90s 2 John 100-125
Early 90s 3 John 100-125
Approximately 95 Revelation 100-125

Destroying the myth that Jesus is a myth.

While some early twentieth century critics suggested that Jesus never existed, virtually no serious scholar holds that view today. The historical evidence is simply too strong. Nevertheless, one still encounters (usually on the internet) the idea that Jesus is a myth and there is no proof for Jesus’ existence outside the New Testament. This post counters that idea by familiarizing readers with the non-Christian sources that testify of Jesus’ existence as well as the faulty assumptions that accompany the “Jesus is a myth” idea. Jos manuscript latin

The clearest non-Christian evidence for Jesus comes from the first century Jewish historian Josephus. In his work, Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus mentions John the Baptist (Antiq. 18.116-9), Jesus (Antiq. 18.63-4), and Jesus’ brother James (Antiq. 20.200). While Josephus clearly refers to Jesus, there is debate about how much of the reference is authentic. Christians who preserved Josephus’ works (no doubt because of its historical value to the biblical time period) most likely added some accolades to the description of Jesus. Below is the quotation from Josephus, with the questionable portions in italics:

 Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, because the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the sect of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Antiq.18:63-64)

Even without the italicized portions, this passage corroborates many details about Jesus found in the Gospels. An argument also can be made that the “He was the Christ” portion is original, if read with a negative connotation. Josephus could have meant “he was the so-called Christ,” with Josephus expressing what some believed (though Josephus did not believe). This argument is more plausible considering how Josephus refers to Jesus in a later passage about Jesus’ brother James. The relevant section states that, “he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” (Antiq. 20.200). If the earlier passage does not originally contain the phrase about Jesus being the Christ or “so-called” Christ, this passage demonstrates Josephus’ (and perhaps his readers’) awareness of the claim. In total, Josephus corroborates that Jesus was considered a wise man and a miracle worker. He was killed under Pontius Pilate in consultation with the Jewish leaders and that Christ-ians bear his name—the Christ.

While Josephus focused on producing a history of the Jewish people for both a Jewish and Roman readership, Roman historians generally focused elsewhere. Judea was one small territory, far removed from Rome, in a vast empire. For this reason, it is not surprising that few references to Jesus exist in the literature of Rome. A religious figure making bold claims but executed after a couple years would not have been noteworthy to those in Rome. Nevertheless, the Roman historian Tacitus explicitly mentions Christ. In his Annals 15.44, Tacitus describes how Nero blamed Christians for the great Roman fire. Like Josephus, Tacitus explains that the name “Christian” comes from “Christ,” a person executed under Pontius Pilate during the time of Tiberius Caesar. While this execution slowed Christianity down, this “superstition” spread in Judea and eventually made its way to Rome. Tacitus’ view of Christianity is obviously not favorable, which makes his testimony about the life and death of Jesus Christ all the more credible.

Several other non-Christian writers refer to Jesus, but the above are the clearest. Some of the others include: The Roman historian Seutonius (Life of Nero 16.2) provides a vague reference to “Chrestus” that many scholars think refers to Jewish and Christian disagreement about the “Christ.” Similarly, the Syrian Stoic philosopher Mara Bar Sarapion mentions a “wise king” that the Jewish people rejected. To these passages one could add Pliny the Younger (Epistles 10.96-7), later passages in the Mishnah that describe Jesus as a miracle worker who led people astray, and a couple other indirect references.

While the above sources include only short remarks about Jesus and his followers, what they do say corroborates the fuller picture given in the New Testament. Those who claim no evidence outside the New Testament exists for Jesus are misinformed.

Being a stubborn sort, some skeptics still argue that if Jesus really existed, then there should be more non-Christian evidence other than the above few sources. However, this argument makes several false assumptions. 1) It fails to consider that any reference to Jesus in Roman sources is significant. As a point of comparison, Pontius Pilate is much more important than a crucified Jewish prophet from a Roman perspective. However, among the Roman historians, Pilate is only mentioned once—in the quote by Tacitus mentioned above (Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus, 46).  2) It is anachronistic to assume that just because Jesus is well-known today, he should have been well-known throughout the Roman empire. As mentioned above, Jesus was from the fringes of society and the empire. This fact makes Jesus’ presence in the above sources remarkable and argues that Jesus not only existed, but he made an unusual impact. 3) This argument totally ignores all the biblical material as if a collection of writings about Jesus from different authors could spontaneously sprout up without any historical anchor. While the New Testament material was written within a few decades of Jesus’ life, the same objection applies to all the other early Christian writings. It is historically implausible that a diverse body of literature connecting Jesus to a certain time and place was based on a complete fabrication.

The argument that Jesus never even existed is based on poor argumentation and an ignorance of the existing sources. Christians can confidently cite these sources and the New Testament as historical evidence that Jesus Christ lived a real life and died a real death.

New Testament background: Messiah

While some of the cultural and religious developments between the testaments can be connected to a specific time frame within the second temple period, most gradually unfolded over the course of centuries.  In today’s post, we review a concept that went from being rarely mentioned in the Old Testament to appearing on virtually every page of the New Testament. I am referring to the “Messiah.”messiah

Between the testaments, the concept of the “Messiah” grew and developed significantly. The term “Messiah” was based on the Hebrew word for “anointed one.” In the OT, priests, kings, and prophets could be anointed as a testimony that God had set them apart for that role. Beyond this general concept of anointing leaders, some prophets looked forward to a Davidic king (presumably an “anointed one”) who would lead a restoration of Israel (Psalm 2; Isa 9:6-7; 11:1-10; Jer 23:5-6; 33:14-18; Ezek 34:23-26;37:24-28; Zech 12:7-10).

When we turn to the NT, the term “Messiah” (most often in its Greek form “Christ”) has taken on much more prominence and specificity. In fact, only pointing out one or two specific passages that use the term Messiah/Christ might be misleading since the term is used over 500 times! In addition to increased frequency, the concept of the Messiah has developed. The Messiah as described in the NT is assumed to be God’s chosen leader who would usher in the salvation and judgment of God at the eschatological climax of human history (DNTB, 698-705).

Given the historical and religious context, the development of the concept of Messiah was inevitable. The OT seeds of promise concerning a coming time of judgment and restoration under a Davidic king took root and grew in the soil of the second temple period. Despite a return to the Promised Land, the Jewish people still experienced hardship and oppression from foreign rulers. Even when Israel achieved a few decades of independence, the Hasmoneans meddled with the priesthood and eventually fell into infighting and Hellenization. Many Israelites felt like they were still spiritually in exile (Wright, People of God, 268-271). They increasingly desired a truly righteous Davidic king to usher in a time of greater renewal than what they had experienced—a renewal that matched, in depth and scale, what the prophets had predicted (see Isaiah 65-66; Jer 31). For this reason, the hope for a Messiah took on an increasingly eschatological edge. The Jewish people did not just want a newly anointed Jewish king (the Hasmonean kings proved they were not the answer), they wanted THE promised anointed one(s) who would usher in the eschatological renewal.

The centuries of reflection and growth of these OT seeds produce the ideas about the Messiah that we read about in the NT and in other second temple Jewish literature as well. Like the NT, the Dead Sea scrolls and OT Pseudepigrapha demonstrate a widespread hope in a righteous anointed one (usually a Davidic king, but sometimes a prophet/priest) who would lead Israel into the eschatological age (CD 2:10; 12:23-13:1; Psalms of Solomon 17-18; 1 Enoch 46-71). The NT writers everywhere and often assume that this widespread Jewish hope has been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel writers make the case for this assumption in various ways. John states that the purpose of his Gospel is so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:31), and the turning point of both Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospel occurs when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ (Matt 16:16; Mark 8:29). The assumption that Jesus is the Christ runs deep in the epistles. In fact, the name “Jesus” is coupled with the title “Christ” so often that it’s as if “Christ” has become a part of Jesus’ name (BDAG, 1091).

Jesus’ ministry and resurrection undoubtedly convinced the first followers that Jesus was the Messiah and caused them to develop further the concept of Messiah in light of Jesus’ ministry. For example, Jesus’ death connected to the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53, so the first disciples came to understand the Messiah as including this aspect. When readers come across the concept of Messiah in the NT, they are encountering a concept that not only developed in the centuries between the testaments, but a concept that was further developed in light of the person and work of Jesus – the Christ.