We discovered we weren’t alone when we got stuck

Last week, we got bogged. At Willie Creek north of Broome, we turned onto a track that degraded into deep sand. I tried to turn around, but our front-wheel drive was never going to make it. It was an embarrassing, rookie mistake. What happened next blew me away.

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Top 10 posts of 2020

In case you missed them.

Here are our top ten posts, based on how many times they’ve been read in 2020:

  1. Abraham’s life: a summary (Gen 12–25)
  2. ‘Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord’ (Ex 14:13-15)
  3. When your life is threatened (Mt 8:23-27)
  4. Jesus the activist
  5. What’s the unforgivable sin? (Mt 12:30-32)
  6. Unconditional forgiveness? (Mt 6:14-15)
  7. Who was the sower? (Mt 13:1-23)
  8. Jesus the healer (Mt 8:14-17)
  9. KINGDOM SUMMARY: Matthew 1–10
  10. Why does context matter? (Mt 12:33)
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Matthew’s main message (repost)

Here’s a refresher: how we started approaching the Gospel of Matthew in 2016.

Six months after launching this blog, we started reading the Gospel of Matthew with fresh eyes — as “the surprising plot twist that resolves the old kingdom struggle in a new way.” Here’s the opening post again, in case you’ve joined recently or struggled to keep up.


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Kingdom summary (Mark Keown)

This Kiwi nails it: big picture of the kingdom, in brief.

How do you wrap your head around a topic as big as the kingdom? Here’s a great summary from New Zealand scholar, Mark Keown.

The first volume of his Discovering the New Testament surveys the Gospels and Acts. The rest of the book (pages 417–548) then pulls the whole story together as the kingdom of God.

I’m taking a break this week. I think you’ll enjoy this sample from Mark Keown:

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Son of man enthroned (Matthew 19:27-30)

What was Jesus seeing when he envisaged thrones for himself and his disciples?

We recognize the kingdom of God by recognizing Jesus as king. That may not be obvious, because Jesus constantly proclaimed God’s kingship without overtly claiming to be king. Only when heaven had revealed his kingship did Jesus begin to reveal his plan to build the community around his kingship (16:16-19).

In fact, he doesn’t mention his throne until his disciples start to question whether Jesus can deliver what he promised. He floored them by declaring that the powerful would kill him (16:20-22; 17:22-23). He devastated them by describing the wealthy as a humanly impossible problem for his kingdom agenda (19:23-26). They start to wonder if pinning their hopes on Jesus to lead them into the regenerated world was worth it.

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The camel that won’t go through (Matthew 19:23-26)

How do you get a camel to go through the eye of a needle?

This is one of Jesus’ most puzzling statements: It is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than to get a wealthy person to go into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 16:24).

When you understand how Jesus saw the kingdom, you see what crucial insight he had. Without that understanding, people contort the camel and the text in ways that would be comic if they weren’t serious.

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When ‘good’ leads you to ‘great’ (Matthew 19:16-22)

Conditions apply.

A millennial entrepreneur comes to you, bank details ready, asking “What good thing could I do so I could have eternal life?” How do you respond?

You’re probably looking for a seeker-friendly way to respond, “Goodness! It doesn’t work like that. You can’t earn God’s favour by doing something good.” You probably don’t say, “Live like God says; he’s good.”

Apart from the obvious problem of suggesting anyone could earn eternal life by obeying commands, a vague answer like “Do what God says” is unsatisfying for a project manager used to SMART goals. Their next question will be, “Like what?”

They will be really frustrated, insulted even, if you go on to explain the basics of being a good person: “Don’t kill anyone. Don’t sleep with someone else’s spouse. Don’t defraud your business. Don’t commit perjury in court. Take care of your parents, and your neighbours.”

Okay, this story probably isn’t working for you. You can’t even imagine having this conversation. You would not give the answers Jesus did:

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Original kingdom, or original sin? (Matthew 19:14)

What do you see when you look at people?

When you look at people, what do you see? Original sin, or original kingdom?

Since at least the fourth century, theologians have described the essential human state as original sin. Adam and Eve lost their pure identity and become corrupt, so the children they produced received their corrupted nature. Their children passed on this corrupted nature, so every human is already corrupted at birth. On this view, the whole of humanity is corrupt: conceived in sin, sinful by nature at birth, forever doomed, unless God does a work of grace to change an individual’s status.

But that doesn’t match what Jesus saw in people. The disciples thought people were pestering Jesus, so they stepped in to triage and divert the less significant ones: the children. Jesus said they were seeing the children the wrong way. Literally translated, Jesus described the children like this: The kingdom of heaven is such (Matthew 19:14).

That’s a very different view of what it means to be human.

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How Jesus saw children (Matthew 19:13-15)

Jesus genuinely enjoyed children with their wide-eyed wonder. Do you see as Jesus saw?

In church, people often worry about how to get our children saved. Some who baptize babies fear the infant will die in original sin if they don’t. Others who think faith means making a personal decision wrestle with how old a child must be to recognize her lostness and ask for salvation so she doesn’t die unsaved.

Jesus didn’t see children like that. He wasn’t anxious about whether they’d go to heaven when they died. He saw heaven coming to earth in them, the kingdom of heaven in the children:

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Handling Scripture as Jesus did (Matthew 19:4-9)

Why did Jesus privilege some parts above others?

Disciples learn by seeing what the Master does. I especially enjoy seeing how Jesus handled Scripture (hermeneutics). Surprisingly, he privileged some parts above others.

When they asked him about applying Deuteronomy 24 (divorce law), Jesus said this isn’t what God always intended. It was a concession God gave them, because of hard hearts. He led them back to the beginning of the story (Genesis 1–2) to discover what God had always intended.

Many things in Scripture are like that — not God’s ideal. He’s managing broken people, and he has the sense to lead us step by step, not demanding everything from us at once. God accommodates flawed heroes and flawed relationships, on the way to restoring what he intended in the beginning.

Can you think of other examples where we could apply this hermeneutic?

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Can I have a divorce? (Matthew 19:1-12)

Have you experienced divorce as an adult, or as a child? In your family, or a friends’ family? It’s heart-rending. Your world is ripped apart. In the time of your deepest need, you find family and friends turning away.

That’s why it’s so confronting when religious people use it to impute guilt and failure. It wasn’t something Jesus raised as part of his kingdom agenda. Judean Pharisees used it to paint Jesus as an idealist out of step with Scripture:

Matthew 19:1–3 (NIV)
1 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

As they said, it was the man who held the power in the ancient world. Jewish legal code gave the woman some rights, insisting she receive a formal divorce document rather then being dumped with no status or opportunity. It also banned temporary divorce, so a man couldn’t try someone else and then return.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 proscribed the how of divorce, but not the when. That left the rabbis arguing over the grounds for divorce. Rabbi Hillel supported divorce for any reason, whereas Rabbi Shammai supported divorce only if the marriage was already ruined by adultery. The Pharisees tried to draw Jesus into this debate. They weren’t asking if divorce was okay, since their law was clear about that. The question was when divorce is okay: only when one party has already wrecked the marriage (Shammai’s view), or for any reason (Hillel’s view)?

Instead of arguing the grounds for divorce in Deuteronomy 24, Jesus redirected them to the grounds for marriage in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24:

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Forgiveness: reciprocated or rescinded (Matthew 18:23-35)

Does God ever back out on forgiving us?

Did you hear the one about the guy who received forgiveness, and then lost it?

Some of Jesus’ stories don’t sit well with how we understand the gospel. I often hear salvation offered as a free gift: admit you’re a sinner, ask for forgiveness, and receive the gift of eternal life. You pray the prayer, and they assure you that you’re saved, because God promised it and wouldn’t lie.

But Jesus told a story where the unforgiving guy had his forgiveness rescinded. Unnerving?

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How far does forgiveness go? (Matthew 18:21-22)

Forgiveness takes us further than you think.

There are outspoken people like Peter, and quieter ones like his brother Andrew. Imagine those two trying to run a fishing business together! When Jesus said, “Confront the brother who wronged you,” (18:15) Peter was already there.

In front of his brother, Peter thought out loud, “Lord, how often does my brother wrong me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (18:21).

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. It won’t happen a third time, because I’m putting distance between us. Seven times, Peter? You’ve got to be kidding!

“No, not seven times,” Jesus said. Peter’s grimacing face relaxed. Then the rest of Jesus’ statement hit him, “Seventy-seven times!” (18:22)

That’s mad! Who would ever react like that?

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The king is in community (Matthew 18:18-20)

How does the world discover her king? In the community that recognizes him.

How does heaven’s reign come to earth? We’re meant to be a kingdom of heaven, so how is heaven’s authority restored to the earth? The kingdom becomes our living reality as people recognize Jesus as heaven’s anointed king, the Son with his Father’s authority.

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How far do you push for reconciliation? (Matthew 18:15-17)

How do you solve injustice? Fight? Flight? Is there a better way?

How much effort do you put into maintaining relationships? When people cause you grief, do you confront them and have it out? Do you apologize even if it wasn’t your fault? Or do you let them go, and move on?

Matthew 18:15-17 (original translation, compare NIV)
15 If one of the family wrongs you, go and confront them, just the two of you on your own. If they hear you, you’ve gained your family member. 16 If they do not hear you, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘any statement can be established by the voice of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If the person disregards them, speak to the assembly. If they disregard the assembly, let them be a gentile or tax collector for you personally.

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“The NT in its world”: free podcasts

Free podcasts related to “The New Testament in its World” by N. T. Wright and Michael Bird and other commentators.

Last year, Tom Wright and Mike Bird released a book and video classes on The New Testament in its World.

Now they’re releasing free podcasts. Scroll down this page:
https://zondervanacademic.com/pages/new-testament-in-its-world#podcast

This series is not a survey of NT content. It’s background information for understanding the NT in its setting, and therefore how to approach it today.

Along with Michael Bird (Australia) and N. T. Wright (UK), these podcasts feature top-quality NT lecturers and commentators.

Direct links for the first five podcasts:

  1. Craig Keener, Beginning NT Study, and a Conversation in Jerusalem
  2. Lynn Cohick, Canonization, and N. T. Wright’s Reading and Research Habits
  3. Jeannie K. Brown, The Jewish Context of Jesus, and ‘Faith in Christ’ vs ‘Faithfulness of Christ’
  4. Nijay Gupta, The Story of Paul’s Life and Ministry, and N. T. Wright’s Favourite NT Book
  5. Esau McCaulley, The Afterlife in Greco-Roman Thought, and Teaching on the NT

Highly recommended.

The shepherd’s heart (Matthew 18:12-14)

The Shepherd is less likely to blame the sheep than we are.

As established in the beginning, the kingdom of God consists of the whole earth under heaven’s management, with humans as God’s agents providing his care to the rest of creation.  How we care for the animals is therefore a great analogy for how God cares for us:

Matthew 18:12-14 (original translation, compare NIV)
12 What do you think? Say someone had a hundred sheep, and one was misled from the others. Wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hills, head off, and search for the misled one? 13 And if it can be found, I tell you truly that his joy over this one is greater than over the ninety-nine that were not misled. 14 None of those who gather around your Father in the heavens want any of these little ones to come to ruin.

This is God’s heart for the whole human family. Neither the Sovereign himself nor any of the angels who gather around his throne and read in his face how he feels when humans mistreat each other (18:10) want any of God’s children to come to harm.

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What does the Bible say about hell?

Hope this helps you understand this controversial topic.

For 14 years, I’ve been seeking to understand what the Bible says about hell, the Jewish background, and the church’s understanding. Here are the results.

You may be surprised how few references there are. The main word (Gehenna) occurs just 12 times. Another word (hadēs) describes the dead, and some versions have mistranslated this word as hell (e.g. Matthew 16:21 ESV; Revelation 1:18 KJV). And there’s a mythical synonym once (tartaroō in 2 Peter 2:4).

All the references to Gehenna are from Jesus, with one from his brother (James 3:6). What Jesus said is therefore the definitive teaching on hell.

Here are the passages where Jesus mentioned the word:

Continue reading “What does the Bible say about hell?”

Are we worse off if we live unselfishly? (Matthew 18:7-10)

Enacting legislation doesn’t stop evil; enacting love does.

If you enjoy renovation projects, you’ll love the big one our king is working on. A complete global make-over, restoring the world to the glory of what it was designed to be: a kingdom of heaven. What will be different when he succeeds?

At its heart, it’s a change in how people use power. People do whatever it takes to eliminate their competition. Jesus experienced it (16:21; 17:22). He calls us to use our strength to support each other as we do for children, instead of taking advantage of each other and trying to trip each other up (18:3-6). But how?

Continue reading “Are we worse off if we live unselfishly? (Matthew 18:7-10)”