May, 2018

The Bible – Book by Book – Matthew

Nowhere in the New Testament do you see the word “gospel” used to refer to the four accounts of the life of Jesus which were penned by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The term “gospel” and the verbal form “preach the gospel” are used throughout the New Testament. This term in the Greek, euangelion, literally means the “good news” (eu- good and –angelion news). It is used to denote the message of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Likely, it was Mark’s use of the term “gospel” in Mark 1:1 that led Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century to refer to the work of Mark as, “The Gospel according to Mark.” It is important to note that the Gospels were never seen as a gospel written by Matthew, rather they always referred to one Gospel according to a particular author (e.g. Matthew). In fact, in Greek texts of the New Testament today, the Gospels are titled simply as “Kata Matthaion,” which means “According to Matthew.” The emphasis has always been on the singleness of the Gospel even though there are four different authors. As such, there is a recognition that there is one Gospel, and yet the four accounts recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can collectively be referred to as the Gospels (plural).

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually developed a new form of literature. There were literary biographies of figures written at and before that time. But what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did was unique. Most biographies were anonymous. These were not. The Gospels combined preaching and teaching into their description of the life of Jesus. They are neither strictly a collection of teachings from Jesus, nor are they just a chronological sketch of his life and activities. Among other reasons, this is why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John stand out from other apocryphal gospel writings like, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Peter, The Gospel of Truth, and the hypothetical document Q. On style alone, these accounts should be rejected as Gospels.[1]

It may be surprising to you that the Gospel of Matthew nowhere claims to have actually been written by Matthew. But the historical attribution to Matthew is strong. The earliest manuscripts include the title, “According to Matthew.” And there is little reason to question this. Matthew was one of the apostles (Matt. 10:2-4). He was a tax collector on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In the parallel accounts of Mark and Luke, he is known as Levi.

The date of the writing of Matthew has been a source of great debate in modern scholarship. Traditionally, the Gospel of Matthew as seen as the earliest of the Gospels. This was likely due to the fact that it was always listed first in the collections of the Gospels. But recent scholarship has questioned this assumption. The broad and generally accepted scholarly consensus is that Mark was the first Gospel written and Matthew was written sometime afterwards, but using Mark’s material. It should be noted that some Christians struggle with the idea that the human author Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as part of his source material. Rest assured, this is no reason for concern regarding the inspiration, inerrancy, or authority of the Scriptures. That Matthew used Mark’s writing as a source for his own in no way diminishes the role of the Holy Spirit in the writing of Scripture. In fact, Luke tells us from the beginning that he compiled a variety of sources to write his Gospel account. For a variety of reasons, I take Mark as being written sometime in the early 60’s. If Matthew used Mark, then I would view Matthew as having been written sometime just before 70AD.

The Gospel of Matthew has a different feel from the other Gospels. It is decidedly more Jewish. Matthew more frequently references the Old Testament. Ten times Matthew will use a variation of the phrase, “this was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9). Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching also focuses on in five major discourses: ethics, discipleship and mission, the kingdom of heaven, the church, and the end time. Some scholars view these categories as mirroring the themes of the Pentateuch.[2] If this is the case, then Matthew is presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises given through Moses. Matthew is presenting Jesus as the Messiah and as the inauguration of the Kingdom of heaven. But in this Jewish character, Matthew does not present a Messiah who is only for Jews. In fact, Matthew is the Gospel where the Great Commission is found (Matt. 28:19, 20). “The Jesus of the First Gospel is not only the Jewish Messiah, but also the Savior of the world, and the Jesus, not of fiction, but of history.”[3]


[1] For a good introduction to the nature of Gospels in general and the Gospel of Matthew in particular, see D. A Carson and Douglas J Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009) pp.77-168.

[2]  R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2005), 1360.

[3] J. Gresham Machen and W. John Cook, The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History (Edinburgh [Scot.], Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 194.

Slaves of Righteousness, Part II

“But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” — Romans 6:17-18

Last week we took an initial look at why Paul describes Christians as “slaves to righteousness” in Romans 6:17-18. We saw that one reason why Paul uses this description is to teach us about our limitedness as human beings. As Christians, we are not radical free agents, we are constrained and directed by another: our Lord Jesus Christ. God rules and reigns over the entire world, including us – we are fundamentally servants of God, not masters of our own destiny. God has made us limited, both in creation and redemption. In neither the natural nor the spiritual realms can we say “I have made myself,” but rather we must say “God is creator, and His creation is very good.”

This week we want to look at a second reason why Paul would call us slaves of righteousness: to emphasize that our salvation involves a radical transformation of life.

Last year we celebrated the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. One of the great truths that the reformation brought back into light is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, that we are made right with God through His grace, through our union with Him by faith. Luther realized the transformative power of that underserved grace – that our spiritual restoration to God, through a free act of divine mercy, is the way we are brought back into God’s family. Our status as children of God does not depend on how good we are at doing stuff, and does not depend on how much we do for God. It is a gift. It is free. It is undeserved.

But, the reformation also recovered another truth and called for another renewal — A Reformation of Life. All of life must be reformed, transformed, and subjected to God. We must walk in a manner that pleases God. We must walk in righteousness. We must present our very persons to God to walk in His ways. This is not in order to earn our salvation, but because we are transformed. We have been conformed to the likeness of his death, and we are being renewed in the likeness of his resurrection. Our body of sin has been done away with. We are freed from sin. We are new creations. To be a believer is to walk in a transformed manner. We present ourselves now as slaves to righteousness.

Note how this newfound slavery to righteousness is described as “obedience from the heart.” Obedience is an active thing – it’s something we must do. To be enslaved to something is to actively serve it as a master. As Paul puts it in Romans 6:16, we are all “presenting ourselves” to someone – either sin or obedience. Having been transformed by God’ grace, we now actively offer ourselves up not to evil, but to God Himself. To be a Christian is to have an active, transformed life.

If “obedience” is the activity of Christians, and if “from the heart” is the way we should do it, then “the pattern of teaching to which you were committed” is the matter or substance of it. Unlike our old conformity to sin, we now conform to a different “teaching.” Through our obedience we become more and more like God Himself – we are conformed to His image, which is holiness!

The Westminster Larger Catechism in question 97 asks “What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?” Its answer is rich. Part of it reads the way we would expect, that the moral law is there so that Christians take “greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.” God’s will for our lives, the pattern of sound teaching which we are to obey, directs us toward holiness and righteousness.

But, before it says that, it says that the moral law is of “special use” to Christians because it “shows them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness.” We so often attempt to make law and gospel into enemies that passages like this can be jarring. The moral law doesn’t alienate us from God, but draws us closer to him. It makes us thankful for Christ and helps us see how our ultimate good depends upon Him. It makes us thankful. And, it inspires us to take greater care to conform ourselves to God’s image, to holiness, to Christ. Why have we given ourselves as slaves to righteousness? Because we have given ourselves as slaves to God (Rom 6:22).

In this day and age we must ask ourselves some hard questions about our allegiances. What “teaching” are we following in our lives today? Brothers and sisters, I ask you, have you given your allegiance to God? Not a political party, not a country, not your family, not your job, not your idea of yourself, not your dreams, not some fantasy of your own devising, not the practical needs of today, but have you given your allegiance to God, your loving Father and Lord? If you have, then this is what it means: we are now slaves to righteousness and we cannot, we cannot present ourselves as slaves to another.

Being saved, becoming a Christian, knowing the Gospel, means a radical reformation of life.

Slaves of Righteousness, Part I

“But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” — Romans 6:17-18

How would you describe your life as a Christian? There are many ways to do it, some emphasizing joy and hope, others emphasizing suffering in the midst of difficulty. In Romans 6 the Apostle Paul describes Christians as “slaves to righteousness.”

He is employing surprising rhetoric here, to say the least. He’s turning something bad into something good. Slavery is not a good thing, either in the ancient world or today. Indeed, Paul himself tells Corinthian slaves to get their freedom if they can (I Cor. 7:21). And, yet, Paul describes us as slaves.

Over the next two weeks I’d like to consider two reasons why he would do this. First, one reason he does this is to emphasize that humanity is limited. As humans we have a tendency to think we ourselves are ultimate and absolute. Our own concerns loom large in our own minds. Our own judgments seem right, and fixed. When we want something, we want something. Adam and Eve did this in the garden, choosing what seemed right in their own eyes.

But, we are not our own ultimate authorities. We are limited. None of us gets to be the boss of the universe, or even the boss of our lives. We all have to take direction from others, and above all from God Himself. We belong to God; we are His creatures. Everyone has a master in heaven, regardless of his position here on earth.

So, don’t think that the Christian life is one of absolute self-directedness. It’s not. The idea of Christian living is not to be totally unhindered in every possible way. Christians acknowledge God’s supremacy.

Of course, in the truest sense, we do have freedom. We have the best kinds of freedom, beginning with the freedom from the guilt and shame of sin.  Paul says “You were slaves of sin. You were bound to obey sin. You used to present yourself in service to sin.” Before we were justified by faith in Jesus, before we were united to Him and His death (6:5), we presented ourselves to sin.

Some of us can remember what it was like before we became slaves of righteousness, back when we were slaves to sin. It was horrific. We went down and down while we lived like that. God describes that descent in Romans 1 – giving ourselves over to idols and thereby perverting the goodness of what God made. Think of what happened before the flood: all the thoughts of men were evil continually. Life in the free pursuit of sin leads not to happiness, but to misery.

David, in Psalm 1, shows us the alternative: we are happy if we delight in the law of the Lord. When we reject God’s law, we are hindered: when we delight in setting traps for others, when we delight in evil — we are ruined. Our foot slips. But when we walk in the pathways of righteousness, we flourish.

When we were slaves of sin we were not free. Our own “degrading passions” directed our lives. Recently I taught a unit on Augustine in my ethics class at The King’s College. One of the things he says in Book 19 of City of God is that slavery to our own passions is the worst kind of slavery. Other philosophers agree – to not be directed by your passions, your emotions, your desires – that is the kind of freedom we really value.

In other words, the best kind of freedom is the freedom to do what is good, the freedom to acquire what is truly best. That is the kind of freedom really worth having.

But, that kind of freedom does not come through making ourselves absolute – we are not lords of the universe. No, God is in His holy temple. God is ruling and reigning – and we are under His kingship – his mastery.

Brothers and sisters, let’s contemplate the reality that we are not the Lord of our lives. We don’t live for ourselves, but instead in service to God and to one another.

And this is a wonderful thing. Where else would we rather be? Where could possibly be better than under the love, care, and direction, from an all-powerful, all-loving Father who has given His only Son for our salvation? Where else would be better than in His loving arms, walking according to the wise paths he has given us. Who would leave such a place? Remember the first question and answer in the Heidelberg Catechism? “What is your only hope in life and in death? The answer: That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

It’s a glorious thing to belong to another, when the one whom you belong to is your creator and redeemer.

So, by calling us slaves to righteousness, Paul teaches us about our limits as humans – God is our Lord. Brothers and sisters, let us solemnly consider that God is our Lord. Our service to Him, what Paul calls being “slaves of righteousness,” is actually the surest pathway to true freedom and happiness.


Elder David Talcott

Reading the Old Testament on This Side of the Cross, Part II

Last week, we saw that the Old Testament stories can be read as “examples” for those of us on this side of the cross. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that these “examples” or “patterns” from the Old Testament are shadows cast by the New Testament reality. Since all of the Old Testament speaks about Christ (Luke 24:44), these shadows are actually cast by Jesus Christ himself. What this means is that the vague details of the Old Testament stories find clarity and vivid detail in the person and work of Jesus. However, because they are shadows of Christ, they still retain the broad outline of God’s redemptive plan. That is to say, when we read the Old Testament on this side of the cross, we do so expecting to see consistent patterns that find their end point in either Jesus himself or the work that he performs.

As we return to those words of Paul that seem difficult to understand, we are better equipped to see what Paul sees in the Old Testament stories. As a reminder, those difficult words were: “For [our fathers in the wilderness] drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:4). The primary difficulty is seeing how Paul can relate a rock in the desert to Christ. Using what has been said about reading the Old Testament on this side of the cross, we can make more sense of Paul’s words. What we will discover is that Paul has in mind a distinct pattern found in Scripture: divine self-sacrifice. But to see this, we need to begin with the Old Testament story that is the background to Paul’s words, Exod 17:1-7.

In Exod 17:1-7, we read that Israel “thirsted [at Rephidim] for water” (v3). There, the people quarreled with Moses and accused him of bringing them into the wilderness only to die (v3). They were so angry that Moses was afraid they would stone him (v4). As Moses cries out to God for help, God says, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink” (vv5-6). God thereby proves that he is among Israel (v7) and is also able to deliver them.

So, Exodus 17 is a picture of divine self-sacrifice. God is present on the rock when he “delivers” Israel from thirst. Moses is to “strike” the rock/God. The end result is a flow of water that quenches Israel’s thirst. In summary, God is personally present as he miraculously provides for his people through a violent (note that the verb “strike” is the same verb used to describe what Israel does to its enemies) act of deliverance. Said another way, this is a story about deliverance through divine self-sacrifice. Now, we know Paul has this pattern in mind because he speaks about spiritual food and drink in 1 Cor 10:3-4. The context of his equation of the rock with Christ is the Lord’s Supper, which itself is a picture of divine self-sacrifice.

Does this pattern repeat elsewhere? It certainly does. Tucked away in the Minor Prophets is another example of this pattern. In Zech 12:10-13:1, the good news of future salvation for Israel takes an unexpected turn toward divine self-sacrifice. God says that he will pour out “a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. But then, God says, “so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him” (v10). That is to say, God will be personally present in the salvation or the deliverance of Israel, but it will also include piercing him. This piercing will result in deliverance, for “on that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (13:1). This passage in Zechariah is a picture of deliverance through divine self-sacrifice.

But there is one more passage worth noting in this pattern. In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abraham. As a part of the covenant ceremony, animals are cut in half (15:9-10), which would be customary, but then only God passes between the pieces (v17), which would have been unusual. By passing through the pieces on his own, God pledges that he will be faithful to his promises and only he will bear the curse of death for a breach in the covenant.

What does it look like for God to honor such a pledge? It looks like God being pierced for our transgressions (Isa 53:5; Zech 12:10). It looks like a fountain of cleansing (Zech 13:1). It looks like deliverance from thirst in the desert through the striking of God/the rock (Exod 17:1-7). It looks a soldier piercing the side of Jesus Christ, out of which flowed blood and water (John 19:34-37).

Paul can confidently say that “The Rock was Christ” because the rock in the wilderness was one instance of the pattern of divine self-sacrifice that found its fulfillment at the cross.