All posts by Bill Pratt

What Does “Born of Water and Spirit” Mean in John 3:5?

In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” There has historically been much scholarly debate over the phrase “born of water and the Spirit.” Was Jesus referring to two births or one birth? Was he referring to baptism?

D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, breaks down the different interpretations and then concludes with his preferred interpretation. Interpretation one:

Noting that v. 6 describes two births, one from flesh to flesh and the other from Spirit to Spirit, some interpreters propose that ‘born of water and the Spirit’ similarly refers to two births, one natural and the other supernatural. Natural procreation is not enough; there must be a second birth, a second begetting, this one of the Spirit. To support this view, ‘water’ has been understood to refer to the amniotic fluid that breaks from the womb shortly before childbirth, or to stand metaphorically for semen.

But there are no ancient sources that picture natural birth as ‘from water’, and the few that use ‘drops’ to stand for semen are rare and late. It is true that in sources relevant to the Fourth Gospel water can be associated with fecundity and procreation in a general way (e.g. Song 4:12–13; Pr. 5:15–18), but none is tied quite so clearly to semen or to amniotic fluid as to make the connection here an obvious one. The Greek construction does not favour two births here. Moreover the entire expression ‘of water and the Spirit’ cries out to be read as the equivalent of anōthen, ‘from above’, if there is genuine parallelism between v. 3 and v. 5, and this too argues that the expression should be taken as a reference to but one birth, not two.

Interpretation two:

Many find in ‘water’ a reference to Christian baptism (e.g. Brown, 2. 139–141). For Bultmann (pp. 138–139 n. 3) and others who have followed him, this is so embarrassing that he suggests the words ‘water and’ were not part of the original text, but added by a later ecclesiastical editor much more interested in Christian ritual than the Evangelist himself. There is no textual support for the omission. At the other end of the spectrum, Vellanickal (pp. 170ff.) suggests that when the Evangelist received this account there was no mention of water, but that he added it to provide an explicit reference to the rite of Christian initiation. Added or not, the simple word ‘water’ is understood by the majority of contemporary commentators to refer to Christian baptism, though there is little agreement amongst them on the relation between ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’. After all, reference is made in the near context to Jesus’ own baptismal ministry (3:22; 4:1), and John has connected water and Spirit in a baptismal context before (1:33, 34). Moreover John’s alleged interest in sacraments in ch. 6 encourages the suspicion he is making a sacramental allusion here. Many accordingly suggest the Spirit effects new birth through water (= baptism) (e.g. Ferrarro, Spirito, pp. 59–67).

Those who adopt this position, of course, are forced to admit that John’s words could have had no relevance to the historical Nicodemus. This part of the account, at least, becomes a narrative fiction designed to instruct the church on the importance of baptism. What is not always recognized is that this theory makes the Evangelist an extraordinarily incompetent story-teller, since in v. 10 he pictures Jesus berating Nicodemus for not understanding these things. If water = baptism is so important for entering the kingdom, it is surprising that the rest of the discussion never mentions it again: the entire focus is on the work of the Spirit (v. 8), the work of the Son (vv. 14–15), the work of God himself (vv. 16–17), and the place of faith (vv. 15–16). The analogy between the mysterious wind and the sovereign work of the Spirit (v. 8) becomes very strange if Spirit-birth is tied so firmly to baptism. . . .

The entire view seems to rest on an unarticulated prejudice that every mention of water evoked instant recognition, in the minds of first-century readers, that the real reference was to baptism, but it is very doubtful that this prejudice can be sustained by the sources. Even so, this conclusion does not preclude the possibility of a secondary allusion to baptism (cf. notes, below).

Interpretation three:

A variation on this view is that ‘water’ refers not to Christian baptism but to John’s baptism (Godet, 2. 49–52; Westcott, 1. 108–109, and others). In that case, Jesus is either saying that the baptism of repentance, as important as it is, must not be thought sufficient: there must be Spirit-birth as well; or, if Nicodemus refused to be baptized by the Baptist, Jesus is rebuking him and saying that he must pass through repentance-baptism (‘water’) and new birth (‘Spirit’). ‘To receive the Spirit from the Messiah was no humiliation; on the contrary, it was a glorious privilege. But to go down into Jordan before a wondering crowd and own [his] need of cleansing and new birth was too much. Therefore to this Pharisee our Lord declares that an honest dying to the past is as needful as new life for the future’ (Dods, EGT, 1. 713).

The argument presupposes that John the Baptist was so influential at the time that a mere mention of water would conjure up pictures of his ministry. If so, however, the response of Nicodemus is inappropriate. If the allusion to the Baptist were clear, why should Nicodemus respond with such incredulity, ignorance and unbelief (3:4, 9–10, 12), rather than mere distaste or hardened arrogance? Even if John’s baptism is mentioned in near contexts, the burden of these contexts is to stress the relative unimportance of his rite (1:23, 26; 3:23, 30). If John’s baptism lies behind ‘water’ in 3:5, would not this suggest that Jesus was making the Baptist’s rite a requirement for entrance into the kingdom, even though that rite was shortly to be superseded by Christian baptism? Moreover, as Dods sets out this proposed solution, it is assumed that Jesus is recognized as the Messiah who dispenses the Spirit, but it is far from clear that Nicodemus has progressed so far in his appreciation of Jesus.

Interpretation four:

Several interpreters have argued that Jesus is arguing against the ritual washings of the Essenes (a conservative and frequently monastic Jewish movement), or perhaps against Jewish ceremonies in general. What is necessary is Spirit-birth, not mere water-purification. But ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are not contrasted in v. 5: they are linked, and together become the equivalent of ‘from above’ (v. 3).

Carson mentions other less popular interpretations and then proceeds to offer what he thinks is the most plausible interpretation:

The most plausible interpretation of ‘born of water and the Spirit’ turns on three factors. First, the expression is parallel to ‘from above’ (anōthen, v. 3), and so only one birth is in view. Second, the preposition ‘of’ governs both ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The most natural way of taking this construction is to see the phrase as a conceptual unity: there is a water-spirit source (cf. Murray J. Harris, NIDNTT 3. 1178) that stands as the origin of this regeneration. Third, Jesus berates Nicodemus for not understanding these things in his role as ‘Israel’s teacher’ (v. 10), a senior ‘professor’ of the Scriptures, and this in turn suggests we must turn to what Christians call the Old Testament to begin to discern what Jesus had in mind. . . .

Far more important is the Old Testament background to ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The ‘spirit’ is constantly God’s principle of life, even in creation (e.g. Gn. 2:7; 6:3; Jb. 34:14); but many Old Testament writers look forward to a time when God’s ‘spirit’ will be poured out on humankind (Joel 2:28) with the result that there will be blessing and righteousness (Is. 32:15–20; 44:3; Ezk. 39:29), and inner renewal which cleanses God’s covenant people from their idolatry and disobedience (Ezk. 11:19–20; 36:26–27).

When water is used figuratively in the Old Testament, it habitually refers to renewal or cleansing, especially when it is found in conjunction with ‘spirit’. This conjunction may be explicit, or may hide behind language depicting the ‘pouring out’ of the spirit (cf. Nu. 19:17–19; Ps. 51:9–10; Is. 32:15; 44:3–5; 55:1–3; Je. 2:13; 17:13; Ezk. 47:9; Joel 2:28–29; Zc. 14:8).

Most important of all is Ezekiel 36:25–27, where water and spirit come together so forcefully, the first to signify cleansing from impurity, and the second to depict the transformation of heart that will enable people to follow God wholly. And it is no accident that the account of the valley of dry bones, where Ezekiel preaches and the Spirit brings life to dry bones, follows hard after Ezekiel’s water/spirit passage (cf. Ezk. 37; and notes on 3:8, below). The language is reminiscent of the ‘new heart’ expressions that revolve around the promise of the new covenant (Je. 31:29ff.). Similar themes were sometimes picked up in later Judaism (e.g. Jubilees 1:23–25).

In short, born of water and spirit . . . signals a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets. True, the prophets tended to focus on the corporate results, the restoration of the nation; but they also anticipated a transformation of individual ‘hearts’—no longer hearts of stone but hearts that hunger to do God’s will. It appears that individual regeneration is presupposed. Apparently Nicodemus had not thought of the Old Testament passages this way. If he was like some other Pharisees, he was too confident of the quality of his own obedience to think he needed much repentance (cf. Lk. 7:30), let alone to have his whole life cleansed and his heart transformed, to be born again.

Commentary on John 3 (Nicodemus Meets Jesus)

Jesus travels to Jerusalem for the annual Passover celebration and while he is there, he receives a visitor during the night. The visitor is a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is also a member of the Jewish Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin. Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains that the Sanhedrin is

[h]eadquartered in Jerusalem, [and] it was composed of Pharisees and Sadducees. When Judea became a Roman province in A.D. 6, the Sanhedrin became even more autonomous in handling internal Jewish matters. As John’s Gospel progresses, the Sanhedrin turns out to be the driving force in the plot against Jesus.

Nicodemus introduces himself by acknowledging Jesus as Rabbi (or teacher) and claims that he, and presumably a few other members of the Sanhedrin, recognize that Jesus is sent by God because of the miraculous signs Jesus has been performing in Jerusalem. Although Nicodemus offers restrained respect for Jesus, he clearly does not know who Jesus really is.

Jesus jumps straight to the heart of Nicodemus’s misunderstanding. He does this by telling Nicodemus that anyone who wants to enter heaven (the kingdom of God inaugurated at the end of the age) must be “born again” or “born from above” (either translation is possible). In other words, a person must experience a spiritual rebirth.

Jews at that time had a particular understanding of the future kingdom of God. Kostenberger elaborates:

Jews expected a future kingdom ruled by the Son of David (Isa. 9:1-7; 11:1-5, 10-11; Ezek. 34:23-24; Zech. 9:9-10), the Lord’s Servant (Isa. 42:1 -7; 49:1-7), indeed, the Lord himself (Ezek. 34:11-16; 36:22-32; Zech. 14:9). While not everyone was to be included in this kingdom, Jews in Jesus’ day generally believed that all Israelites would have a share in the world to come, with the exception of those guilty of apostasy or some other blatant sin (m. Sanh. 10:1).

Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying, so Jesus explains again that no human being enters heaven because of biology. Fragile and finite human nature only begets more fragile and finite human nature. The only way for a mortal human to enter heaven is for a spiritual intervention from God Himself. The fact that Nicodemus was born a Jew as a descendant of Abraham and Jacob, and is a devout member of the Pharisees, has no bearing on whether he will enter heaven. The effects of God’s spirit, like the wind, can be seen, but not controlled by human beings.

Nicodemus is shocked at what Jesus is saying, so Jesus asks how it is that a scholar of the Scriptures, a supposed expert on the Hebrew Bible, does not know about the activities of God’s Spirit. Edwin A. Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, writes,

The Old Testament prophets spoke of the new Age with its working of the Spirit (Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:25–27; Joel 2:28–29). The nation’s outstanding teacher ought to understand how God by His sovereign grace can give someone a new heart (1 Sam. 10:6; Jer. 31:33).

Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for not trusting Jesus’s witness about the necessity of spiritual rebirth (earthly things). If Nicodemus does not believe what Jesus tells him about the elementary requirement for entering heaven, then there is no point in Jesus expanding on the grandeur and glory of heaven (heavenly things).

Jesus stresses to Nicodemus that Jesus (the Son of Man) is the only one to ever descend from heaven and then return. He is the only one uniquely qualified to tell Nicodemus about the things of heaven, because that is where Jesus is from. Kostenberger provides further background:

Jesus here contrasts himself, the ‘Son of Man’ (cf. Dan. 7:13), with other human figures who allegedly entered heaven, such as Enoch (Gen. 5:24; cf. Heb. 11:5), Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-12; cf. 2 Chron. 21:12-15), Moses (Ex. 24:9-11; 34:29-30), Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-3), or Ezekiel (Ezek. 1; 10). A whole cottage industry of intertestamental literature revolved around such figures and their heavenly exploits (e.g., 1 En.). While believers can expect to join Christ in heaven one day (cf. John 14:1-3; 17:24), only Jesus came down from heaven as well as ascended back up to heaven (cf. Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9; though note the similar ascent-descent pattern by angels in John 1:51).

Just as Moses lifted up a bronze snake to save the people of Israel from death (Numbers 21:4-9), Jesus will likewise be raised up (a reference to his future crucifixion and resurrection) and so that when people believe in him, they will enter heaven and have eternal life with God.

Verses 16-18 should be read as a unit. John explains, in verse 16, that God the Father loved the sinful world (not just Israel) so much that He sent His one and only Son, Jesus, to the cross, so that everyone who believes in him will go to heaven, and not perish. This verse should remind us of the Old Testament story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac.

Note that John 3:16 delineates both God’s and man’s role in salvation. Gerald Borchert, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary, explains:

The full perspective is that God is the initiator and principal actor in salvation, and we should never think that salvation originated with us (cf. 1 John 4:9–10). God, however, has given humanity a sense of freedom and requires us to make a choice. Accordingly, people are responsible for their believing. It is unproductive theological speculation, therefore, to minimize either the role of God or of humanity in the salvation process. The Bible and John 3:16 recognize the roles of both.

Verse 17-18 make clear that God’s primary purpose in sending Jesus to the earth was to save people, not condemn them. We must remember that the entire world, because of the sin introduced by Adam and Eve, has been under a type of condemnation since the Fall. It’s not as if the world was morally neutral when Jesus arrived on the scene. This is why John stresses that whoever believes in Jesus is saved, but whoever rejects Jesus has already been condemned.

These verses do not settle the debate about what happens to those who never hear of Jesus, however, because John explicitly connects condemnation in this passage with the rejection of Jesus. But a person who has never heard of Jesus cannot reject Jesus. John is not concerned, in this passage, with those who never hear of Jesus; he is concerned about those who hear and turn away.

Why would anyone reject Jesus? In verses 19-21, John concludes that everyone who loves their sin (darkness) will shun Jesus (the light) because Jesus will expose their sins. They prefer to hide their sins in the dark. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, writes:

As the light of the world (8:12), Jesus is the revelation of God and the objectification of divine holiness and purity. But men loved darkness instead of light: they preferred to live without such knowledge of God, without such brilliant purity. The reason was fundamentally moral: their deeds were evil. They were not willing to live by the truth; they valued their pride more than their integrity, their prejudice more than contrite faith. Worse, anyone in this camp hates the light and refuses to come to it for fear that his deeds will be exposed (elengchthē). The verb suggests not only exposure but shame and conviction (cf. notes on 16:8ff.).

Did Jesus Drink Alcoholic Wine?

In John, chapter two, Jesus converts approximately 120 gallons of water into wine during a seven-day wedding feast. By performing this sign, was Jesus condoning the drinking of alcoholic wine? Biblical scholar Andreas Köstenberger tackles the issue of Jesus and alcoholic wine in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible). First, he explains the different kinds of wine that existed in first-century Palestine.

Fermented wine (oinos; e.g., Eph 5: 18; not from the most recent harvest) was usually mixed in the proportion of two or three parts of water to one part of wine (b. Pesahahim 108b). New wine (oinos neos; e.g., Matt 9: 17; Mark 2: 22; Luke 5: 37– 38; cf. Hos 9: 2; Hag 1: 11; Zech 9: 17; 1QS 6: 4– 6; 1QSa 2: 17– 18, 20; 1QH 10: 24) was made from the most recent harvest and was not fermented. Finally, there were wines that were non-alcoholic due to the process of fermentation being stopped by boiling the unfermented grape juice (called ‘must’). Wine was also, though less frequently, made from pomegranates (Song 8: 2) and raisins (b. Baba Batra 97b) along with apples, dates, honey, herbs, and figs.

Did Jesus drink fermented (alcoholic) wine?  Köstenberger argues “yes.”

The Gospels clearly portray Jesus as drinking fermented wine (Matt 11: 19; Mark 14: 25). The latter passage also intimates that wine will be drunk in heaven. In stark contrast to the portrayal of John the Baptist, Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus ‘came eating and drinking’ and was promptly accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ (Matt 11: 19; Luke 7: 34). This shows that Jesus was known to have drunk fermented wine regularly while associating with his contemporaries.

What about the miraculous sign at the wedding in Cana?

The current passage in John recounts Jesus’ turning a large quantity of water into wine (oinos) at a family wedding in Cana of Galilee. This is Jesus’ first of a series of messianic signs selected by John for inclusion in his Gospel. There is no indication in these verses that Jesus would have turned the water into non-alcoholic wine. Instead, the use of oinos combined with Jesus’ use of fermented wines throughout the Gospels leads to the conclusion that Jesus turned the water into wine containing alcohol. That the chief servant made comment about the tendency of hosts to set out the ‘inferior’ wine last, after the guests have ‘drunk freely,’ confirms this conclusion, for if guests have drunk freely from non-alcoholic wine, they would not be duped by the inferior wine that followed (John 2: 10).

Whether a Christian today should drink alcohol depends on many factors that are outside the scope of this essay, but it seems unwise to argue that Jesus mandated abstinence from drinking alcohol. The evidence for this position, according to Köstenberger, is simply not there.

Commentary on John 1-2 (First Disciples, First Miracle)

The traditional view of the Gospel of John is that it was written by John the son of Zebedee and brother of James, the disciple “Jesus loved,” between AD 80-90. Some scholars have suggested that a different disciple named John wrote the Gospel, but thus far that theory has not gained majority acceptance.

John likely wrote the Gospel while he was living in Ephesus, toward the end of his life. The Gospel appears to be the first of five books he wrote, the next ones being the three NT letters that bear his name and the book of Revelation.

Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, explains the purposes of John in writing his Gospel:

To demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, by presenting and commenting on seven selected messianic signs. To show that the Christian faith is universal, applying to Jews and non-Jews alike, and the only way to God. To equip believers for mission. To evangelize unbelievers by equipping believers to share the good news.

After Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, his public ministry begins. In chapter one, verses 35-37, Jesus passes by John and John proclaims to two of his disciples that Jesus is the “Lamb of God.” John is likely referring to the messianic “lamb,” prophesied in Isaiah 53:7, who would take away the sins of the people. John is urging his disciples to follow Jesus and two of them do. The two are Andrew and an unnamed disciple. Most scholars believe that the unnamed disciple is John, the author of the Gospel.

As the two disciples approach Jesus, he asks them what they are seeking, and they, in turn, ask him where he is staying. The disciples follow Jesus to where he is staying and they remain with him the rest of the day. Gerald L. Borchert, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary, explains:

Disciples, learners, or followers in the first century were quite literally people who followed (walked after) a teacher and learned from both the words and actions of their mentor. The fact that they asked Jesus where he was staying or abiding (meneis) confirmed their intention of becoming his disciples. As noted earlier (cf. 1:32), this theme of remaining or abiding is one of the key Johannine themes that in the mashal or parable of the vine and branches becomes a focal term for the evangelist in his enunciation of genuine qualities of discipleship (15:4–7).

Andrew immediately goes to find his brother Simon to tell him that he has found the Messiah (the Christ). When Simon comes to meet Jesus, Jesus gives him the nickname Peter, which means “rock.” Peter would, of course, become one of the most important disciples of Jesus. He would be the primary source for the Gospel of Mark and he would write two letters to the church that would be canonized (First and Second Peter).

The next day Jesus travels north to Galilee and finds Philip. Philip, who is from the same town as Andrew and Peter, becomes his fourth disciple. Philip goes to his friend Nathanael and tells him that he has found the one whom “Moses in the Law and also the prophets” wrote about. The “Law and Prophets” is an expression which means the entire Old Testament. He is referring to the messianic prophecies found throughout the OT being fulfilled in Jesus.

Nathanael is not mentioned in any of the other Gospels, but many scholars believe he is the disciple called Bartholomew in the other Gospels. Andreas Köstenberger, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), writes:

The Synoptics never mention Nathanael, though John refers to him here and again in 21: 2. It is likely that this was the personal name of Bartholomew (Bar-Tholomaios = son of Tholomaios). Not only is Bartholomew absent from John’s Gospel, he is linked with Philip in all three Synoptic apostolic lists (Matt 10: 3; Mark 3: 18; Luke 6: 14; though not in Acts 1: 13), which corresponds to Nathanael’s connection with Philip in John’s Gospel. Since Bartholomew was a patronymic (a personal name based on the name of one’s male ancestor), it is very plausible that this man was also known by another name (Morris 1995, 143; Hill 1997, 47; cf. Carson 1991, 159).

Nathanael, hearing that Jesus is from Nazareth, questions how the Messiah could come from such a lowly village. Nazareth had a population of less than two thousand people and was never mentioned anywhere in the Scriptures as part of messianic prophecies, so Nathanael is rightly perplexed. Philip’s answer to him is to just “come and see.” Notice how simple evangelism is with the disciples. Their method is to simply bring people to meet Jesus.

As Nathanael approaches, Jesus says to him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Jesus is comparing Nathanael to the original Israelite, Jacob. Gerald Borchert writes:

Jesus designated Nathanael as a true or authentic (alēthōs, here used adjectivally) Israelite in whom there was no deceit or guile (dolos, John 1:47). In making this statement, Jesus contrasted Nathanael with his forefather Jacob, the usurper (Gen 25:26), who by duplicity or guile (dolou, Gen 27:35, LXX) deceived his father and cheated his brother out of the blessing, to say nothing of his dealings with his uncle Laban, who also was skilled in guile. At the same time the designation of being an authentic or worthy Israelite placed Nathanael within God’s great intention of transforming Jacob and his offspring.

Nathanael asks Jesus how he knows him, and Jesus tells Nathanael that he (supernaturally) saw him sitting under a fig tree before Philip approached him. Nathanael responds with amazement and declares Jesus to be the Son of God and King of Israel. Both of these are messianic titles based on OT prophecies (2 Sam 7: 14; Ps 2: 7). The title “Son of God” should not be understood in a divine or Trinitarian sense at this point in Jesus’s ministry. It is strictly a reference to Jesus’s messianic credentials. Jesus’s followers had not yet connected the Messiah with divinity at this early date.

Jesus commends Nathanael for recognizing who Jesus is, but he assures Nathanael that he hasn’t seen anything yet! He tells Nathanael, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Whenever Jesus prefaces a statement with “truly, truly” we need to pay close attention. He is preparing his audience for an important truth.

In this case, he refers to heaven opening up and angels descending and ascending on the Son of Man, which is a title Jesus often gives himself. What does he mean by this? Edwin A. Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, explains:

From 1:48, 51 it can be inferred that Nathanael was meditating on Jacob’s life, particularly on the incident recorded in Genesis 28:12. Jacob saw the angels going up and down a ladder. But Nathanael would see … the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Just as Jacob saw angels from heaven communicating with earth, so Nathanael . . .  would see Jesus as the divine Communication from heaven to earth. The Son of Man, replacing the ladder, is God’s link with earth (cf. Dan. 7:13; Matt. 26:64). Perhaps Jesus was also indicating that He is the new ‘Bethel,’ God’s dwelling place (Gen. 28:17; John 1:14).

Why does Jesus use the title “Son of Man”? Gerald Borchert writes,

Within Jewish literature Son of Man terminology was employed in Ezekiel to refer primarily to the humanity of the person addressed (e.g., Ezek 3:1, 4; 4:1; 24:2; 37:3, 11; 38:2, 14). In Dan 7:13, however, the Son of Man takes on greater significance as an eschatological mediator between God (the Ancient of Days) and the world.

Thus Jesus, who is the fully human mediator between God and the world, appropriates this title for himself.

As chapter two begins, Jesus and his disciples are attending a wedding in Cana, a town about 10 miles from Nazareth. His mother, Mary, is also attending, which may indicate that it was the wedding of a relative or friend of the family.

Mary goes to Jesus and tells him that the host has run out of wine. Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains the significance of wine at a Jewish wedding:

In Jewish thought, wine is a symbol of joy and celebration: “There is no rejoicing save with wine” (b. Pesah. 109a). In John, running out of wine at the Cana wedding may be symbolic of the barrenness of Judaism. Prophetic expectation cast the messianic age as a time when wine would flow freely. At a cultural level, running out of wine was considered to be a major social faux pas, since the host was responsible to provide the wedding guests with wine for seven days.

Mary is asking Jesus to intervene in a potentially embarrassing situation for the host. Craig S. Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, provides further background:

The women’s quarters were near the place where the wine was stored; thus Mary learns of the shortage of wine before word reaches Jesus and the other men. Her words probably suggest that he should do something; guests were to help defray the expense of the wedding with their gifts, and it seems that their friend needs some extra gifts now.

Jesus answers his mother, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” How are we to interpret what Jesus is saying here? Keener offers the following insights:

’Woman’ was a respectful address (like ‘Ma’am’) but hardly customary for one’s mother. Jesus’ statement here establishes polite distance (though ‘What have I to do with you’ is usually a harsh, not a polite, expression in biblical language). Because Jesus’ ‘hour’ in John refers especially to the cross, here Jesus is saying, ‘Once I begin doing miracles, I begin the road to the cross.’

Gerald Borchert comments:

It is here quite unlikely that Jesus was expressing hostility to his mother, but the statement does seem to imply that he wanted to set straight the parameters of his public relationship with his mother. Thus family relationships were not to be the determining factors in Jesus’ life. As his brothers later could not force Jesus’ timing of his destiny (John 7:3–9), so his mother here was not to govern his activity (2:4; cf. the temple scene in Luke 2:48–50; also cf. Mark 4:31–35). Although a Jewish mother might normally be able to exercise pressure on her children, it was not to be the case with Jesus.

Jesus came to do the will of his Father in heaven, not the will of his family or friends or disciples. His mother, by asking him to intervene in some miraculous manner, was overstepping her authority. Mary, however, is undaunted and commands the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them. She is confident her son will intervene.

Jesus instructs the servants to fill six stone jars with water. Each jar could hold between twenty and thirty gallons. He then tells them to draw a small amount of the water and take it to the master of the feast. Keener explains that the master of the feast

was a position of honor (Ecclus 32:1–2); one of his primary duties was to regulate the distribution of wine to prevent excess that would (especially in a Jewish context) ruin the party. At least in Greek banquets, guests elected this person to preside over the entertainment and to control the level of dilution for the wine; thus some observers might have held him partly responsible for the host’s running out of wine prematurely.

The master of the feast tastes the water (which has miraculously turned into wine) and remarks to the bridegroom that he has evidently saved the best wine for last. Typically, the better wine is served at the beginning of the week and the more diluted wine is served during the latter days of the week.

Verse 11 records that this was Jesus’s first miraculous sign and that it caused his disciples to believe in him as the Messiah. Borchert explains, “In John a sign is more than just a wonder; it is a powerful act for the one who has eyes to see because it points to the reality of who Jesus is.” Edwin Blum summarizes:

The significance of the miracle was explained by John as a manifestation of Christ’s glory. In contrast with the ministry of Moses who turned water into blood as a sign of God’s judgment (Ex. 7:14–24), Jesus brings joy. His first miracle was a gracious indication of the joy which He provides by the Spirit. The sign points to Jesus as the Word in the flesh, who is the mighty Creator. Each year He turns water to wine in the agricultural and fermentation processes. Here He simply did the process immediately. The 120 gallons of fine wine were His gift to the young couple. The first miracle—a transformation—pointed to the kind of transforming ministry Jesus would have (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17).

Does Matthew 3:16-17 Support Polytheism?

The doctrine of the Trinity simply states that God consists of three persons in one essence. The three persons are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Matthew 3:16-17, all three are present at the same time and in the same place. So, do these verses support the doctrine of the Trinity or do they instead point to tritheism, the idea that there are three distinct and separate gods (the position of Mormons)?

Michael Wilkins, writing in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), argues that tritheism is not supported by the totality of the biblical witness.

At this early date of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew is only hinting at what will later be made clearer in his Gospel and in the rest of the NT— that there is one God, but within that oneness of essence there are three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tritheism is certainly not a biblical option. The OT repeatedly affirms that there is but one God: ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (Deut 6: 4), and both Jesus and the apostles repeat this truth (Mark 12: 29; 1 Cor 8: 4, 6). Likewise, Jesus will emphasize the divine nature of Father, Son, and Spirit, and Matthew will begin pointing to this stupendous truth.

As Morris states, ‘Matthew has certain trinitarian interest’ (Morris 1992, 68). Matthew concludes his Gospel with another trinitarian allusion in Jesus’ instruction that new disciples are to be baptized in the singular name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (28: 19). This is the oneness of God in three personal distinctions.

Matthew lays out a clear picture of Jesus’ deity by drawing upon OT prophecies. Prior to the incarnation, the strong divine language of some of the prophecies could not be adequately understood, leading to diverse views concerning the nature of the Messiah (see Kaiser 1995). But for Matthew, the reality of the incarnation now makes clear God’s revelation through the prophets: Jesus is God the Son, who is in vital relationship with his Father God, in the power of the Spirit of God. That all three members of the godhead share the same essence does not lead to an expectation that they cannot be present and active in the same scene. If they could not simultaneously participate in a scene such as this, they would in fact not be three persons.

Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes add in When Cultists Ask:

Matthew 3:16–17 supports the doctrine of the Trinity, though in itself it does not prove the doctrine. Trinitarians base their understanding of the nature of God on the accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture. Taken by itself, all that the passage proves directly is that there are three different persons in the Godhead. It does not show that these three persons all share one and the same divine essence. . . .

Scripture taken as a whole yields the doctrine of the Trinity that is based on three lines of biblical evidence: (1) evidence that there is only one true God; (2) evidence that there are three Persons who are recognized as God; and (3) evidence for three-in-oneness within the Godhead. Scripture uniformly teaches that there is only one God (Deut. 6:4; 32:39; 2 Sam. 7:22; Ps. 86:10; Isa. 44:6; John 5:44; 17:3; Rom. 3:29–30; 16:27; 1 Cor. 8:4; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:6; 1 Thess. 1:9; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2:5; James 2:19; 1 John 5:20–21; Jude 25). Yet Scripture also calls three persons God—the Father (1 Peter 1:2), the Son (John 20:28; Heb. 1:8), and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3–4). Scripture also indicates three-in-oneness in the Godhead (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14). The accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture indicates that God is a Trinity.

Commentary on Matthew 3 (John Baptizes Jesus)

From the birth of Jesus to the beginning of Matthew 3, we skip about thirty years. John the Baptist’s ministry started between the years AD 26 and 28, so we would expect the events recorded in chapter three of Matthew to take place after John’s ministry had been established for a year or two.

John’s message is simple: turn away from your sins (repent) so that you are prepared for the inauguration of God’s kingdom on earth. Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3 to show that John is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. John is the voice crying out in the wilderness.

Verse 4 connects John to the ministry of Elijah, for John dresses as Elijah did. They are both wilderness prophets who are poor and humble. Michael Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, writes:

Locusts and wild honey were not an unusual diet for people living in the desert. The locust is the migratory phase of the grasshopper and was allowable food for the people of Israel to eat, as opposed to other kinds of crawling and flying insects (Lev. 11:20–23). They are an important food source in many areas of the world, especially as a source of protein, because even in the most desolate areas they are abundant. They are often collected, dried, and ground into flour. Protein and fat were derived from locusts, while sugar came from the honey of wild bees.

Verses 5-6 indicate that John is attracting large crowds to the Jordan River where he is preaching. The crowds would come to confess their sins and be baptized by John. Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary, explains about baptism that

Jews seem regularly to have practiced water baptism by immersion for adult proselytes from pagan backgrounds as an initiation into Judaism. Qumran commanded ritual bathing daily to symbolize repeated cleansing from sin. But John’s call for a one-time-only baptism for those who had been born as Jews was unprecedented. John thus insisted that one’s ancestry was not adequate to ensure one’s relationship with God. As has often been put somewhat colloquially, ‘God has no grandchildren.’ Our parents’ religious affiliations afford no substitute for our own personal commitment (cf. v. 9).

The crowds coming to see John included members of two religio-political organizations, the Sadducees and Pharisees. Together, these two groups composed most of the membership of the Jewish Supreme Court, known as the Sanhedrin. Michael Wilkins provides some historical background on the identities of these two groups.

The name Pharisee is probably derived from the Hebrew/Aramaic perušim, the separated ones, alluding to both their origin and their characteristic practices. They tended to be politically conservative and religiously liberal and held the minority membership on the Sanhedrin.

They held to the supreme place of Torah, with a rigorous scribal interpretation of it. Their most pronounced characteristic was their adherence to the oral tradition, which they obeyed rigorously as an attempt to make the written law relevant to daily life. They had a well-developed belief in angelic beings. They had concrete messianic hopes, as they looked for the coming Davidic messianic kingdom. The Messiah would overthrow the Gentiles and restore the fortunes of Israel with Jerusalem as capital. They believed in the resurrection of the righteous when the messianic kingdom arrived, with the accompanying punishment of the wicked. They viewed Rome as an illegitimate force that was preventing Israel from experiencing its divinely ordained role in the outworking of the covenants. They held strongly to divine providence, yet viewed humans as having freedom of choice, which ensures their responsibility. As a lay fellowship or brotherhood connected with local synagogues, the Pharisees were popular with the common people.

The Sadducees were a small group with aristocratic and priestly influence, who derived their authority from the activities of the temple. They tended to be politically liberal and religiously conservative and held the majority membership on the Sanhedrin.

They held a conservative attitude toward the Scriptures, accepting nothing as authoritative except the written word, literally interpreted. They accepted only Torah (the five books of Moses) as authoritative, rejecting any beliefs not found there. For that reason they denied the resurrection from the dead, the reality of angels, and spirit life. They produced no literature of which we are aware. They had no expressed messianic expectation, which tended to make them satisfied with their wealth and political power. They were open to aspects of Hellenism and often collaborated with the Romans. They tended to be removed from the common people by economic and political status.

When John sees the Pharisees and Sadducees, he accuses them of being the offspring (brood) of poisonous snakes. They are shrewd and dangerous. Why does John accuse them of this? He perceives that they are only pretending to be interested in John’s message. In reality, they do not think they need to repent of anything.

In their way of thinking, they are descendants of Abraham, and therefore God automatically accepts them as His own. John corrects their faulty theology and forcefully asserts that God can make even stones His children if He so desires. The true children of God will repent of their sins and then lead lives of good works and righteousness. The people of Israel (the root of the trees), and especially the Jewish leadership, will be judged by God based on this criteria, not whether they are physical descendants of Abraham.

Starting in verse 11, John then speaks of the One who would do the judging. The One who is coming, the Messiah, is so mighty that John doesn’t even qualify to be His slave (slaves would carry the sandals of their masters). The Messiah, unlike John, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Louis A. Barbieri, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, writes:

Those hearing John’s words would have been reminded of two Old Testament prophecies: Joel 2:28–29 and Malachi 3:2–5. Joel had given the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Israel. An actual outpouring of the Spirit did occur in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, but experientially Israel did not enter into the benefits of that event. She will yet experience the benefits of this accomplished work when she turns in repentance at the Lord’s Second Advent. The baptism ‘with fire’ referred to the judging and cleansing of those who would enter the kingdom, as prophesied in Malachi 3.

In verse 12, Blomberg explains, “John uses the image of a farmer separating valuable wheat from worthless chaff by throwing the grain into the air and allowing the two constituent elements to separate in the wind. The wheat, like believers, is preserved and safeguarded; the chaff, like unbelievers, is destroyed.”

In verses 13-17, Matthew records the official inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth, the baptism of Jesus. Jesus travels south from Galilee to Judea to be baptized by John. John is confused by Jesus’s request because Jesus (the promised Messiah) should have no need of repentance and confession of sins, of which John’s baptism is symbolic.

Jesus insists that He be baptized by John because His baptism, firstly, authenticates John’s ministry as Jesus’s forerunner, and, secondly, officially marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. After Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus (John uses the metaphor of a dove) and God the Father speaks the following words: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Blomberg adds:

The heavenly voice cites excerpts of Ps 2:7 and Isa 42:1. Both texts were taken as messianic by important segments of pre-Christian Judaism (see 4QFlor 10–14 and Tg. Isa 42:1, respectively). Together they point out Jesus’ role as both divine Son and Suffering Servant, a crucial combination for interpreting Jesus’ self-understanding and mission.

Did the Census Reported in Luke 2 Actually Occur?

One of the thorniest historical problems in the Gospel of Luke is the census that Luke reports in chapter two, verses 1-2. Here is the wording in the NIV: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)”

Here is the problem. Extrabiblical sources indicate that Herod the Great died in 4 BC. Biblical texts indicate that Jesus was born before Herod died, between 4-6 BC. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that Quirinius became governor of Syria in AD 6 and ordered a census that year. So how could there be a census decreed in 4-6 BC if Quirinius wasn’t governor for ten more years? Did Luke make a mistake?

The first thing to note is that Luke seems to be aware of the census ordered in AD 6, as evidenced by Acts 5:37. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Luke had his facts mixed up. So how do reconcile the data?

Several suggestions have been made, although none definitively solve the problem. Darrell Bock writes, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible),

One option for solving the problem is to claim that Quirinius was governor twice, with his first governorship occurring prior to the well-known one that was initiated in ad 6 (Ramsay 1898, 174– 96; 1920, 275– 300). Ramsay argued that Quirinius served as governor of Syria from 11/ 10 bc to 8/ 7 bc, as well as in the later and firmly documented period that began in ad 6. Ramsay further argued that prior to the close of his first governorship Quirinius set in motion the census that Luke placed in Palestine in 6 bc.

The basis of Ramsay’s argument for two governorships is his contention that an inscription known as the ‘Lapis Tiburtinus’ refers to Quirinius. There is a noteworthy weakness to this approach: the Lapis Tiburtinus inscription is fragmentary and mentions no names. Thus Ramsay can suggest the inscription pertains to Quirinius only because the portion of the inscription that specifies who is being referenced has been lost. Based as it is on the anonymity of the inscription, Ramsay’s theory is impossible to establish as fact. Possibly he is correct, but there is no way of proving it unless we discover the missing portions of Lapis Tiburtinus.

Bock continues:

In an alternative theory, A. N. Sherwin-White suggested that Quirinius was a legate between Publius Quinctilius Varus and Gaius Caesar from 4 bc to 1 bc (Sherwin-White 1963, 162– 71). He was able to postulate this because this time frame coincides with the only governorship gap we have in the historical records. Thus, though Sherwin-White denied that a census was undertaken in the period of Herod the Great (ended 4 bc), he saw it as possibly legitimate for Luke to make reference to Quirinius in this period.

Bock, however, thinks that Sherwin-White’s hypothesis needs to be modified.

Variants of Sherwin-White’s proposal may offer the best explanation. Given that a Palestinian census under Herod is possible since it fits with Roman census-taking activities known to have occurred in this period, might it be that Varus was the one who began the census, with the full results and taxation emerging only later, under the governorship of Quirinius in the period Sherwin-White proposes (4– 1 bc)? If so, Quirinius’s name was understandably attached to the census since the census’s impact was felt chiefly during his governorship. A variation of this theory is that Quirinius administered the census prior to being governor, later became governor, and thus in a kind of literary collapse of the event was referred to as the governor responsible for the census (Hayles 1974, 29).

Bock offers further hypotheses from lexical-syntactical scholars:

One lexical argument says that prōtē should be translated as ‘earlier’ rather than ‘first.’ This meaning is found in John 1: 15, 30, for instance. If this is a legitimate rendering of prōtē, Luke was saying that the census he has in mind occurred earlier than the Quirinius census known to have taken place in ad 6. This view is possibly correct, but the difficult syntax of Luke 2: 2 leaves the matter unsettled.

A second lexical solution holds that we should translate prōtē as ‘before.’ In this case Luke is saying the census took place before Quirinius’s governorship (Higgins 1969, 200– 201; Nolland 1989, 101– 2). It is questionable whether Luke used prōtē in this unusual sense, but possibly he did (Hoehner 1977, 21– 22).

These alternative renderings of prōtē may not be necessary. If prōtē is best rendered ‘first,’ then Luke was calling this the ‘first’ census that occurred during Quirinius’s governorship. This could indicate that Luke knew of two governorships for Quirinius and two censuses associated with him. The fact that in Acts 5:37 Luke referred to a census best identified as the one that occurred under Quirinius in ad 6 strengthens this possibility. Thus if Luke meant to differentiate between two separate censuses taken by Quirinius, it is best to assume that the census he discussed in chapter 2 of his Gospel is not to be confused with the better-known Quirinius census of ad 6.

Bock concludes:

None of these proposals is guaranteed to be correct. Uncertainty about the succession of governors in Syria prevents us from making anything more than suggestions. The best possibilities are (a) that Varus (during the time of Herod the Great) began the census, but the full effects were not felt until the governorship of Quirinius, (b) that Quirinius served as a high-raking administrator of the census prior to his governorship, and (c) that prōtē is best translated as ‘before.’

Commentary on Luke 1-2 (Birth of Jesus)

The traditional view of the Gospel of Luke is that it was written by Luke, a physician, friend, and missionary companion of the apostle Paul between AD 50-60. The Gospel of Luke is part one of a two-part work, with the second part being the book of Acts. Luke-Acts appear to be the only works in the New Testament written by a Gentile.

Michael J. Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains that

Luke writes as a second-generation Christian, claiming not to have been an eyewitness of the events of Jesus’ ministry, but to have thoroughly investigated the events before composing his Gospel (Luke 1:1–4). He writes as both historian and theologian, seeking to provide an accurate and trustworthy account of the events, while confirming the profound spiritual significance of these events.

Wilkins highlights the following purposes for Luke’s Gospel:

Luke’s prologue identifies his general purpose as the confirmation of the gospel, seeking to confirm for Theophilus ‘the certainty of the things you have been taught’ (1:1–4). More specifically, Luke appears to be writing for a Christian community—probably predominantly Gentile, but with Jewish representation—struggling to legitimize its claim as the authentic people of God, the heirs of the promises made to Israel. In defending the identity of Christ, Luke seeks to show that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament and that his death and resurrection were part of God’s purpose and plan. In defense of the increasingly Gentile church, he confirms that all along it was God’s plan to bring salvation to the Gentiles, and that Israel’s rejection of the gospel was predicted in Scripture and was part of her history as a stubborn and resistant people. The theme that holds these threads together is promise and fulfillment. The church made up of Jews and Gentiles is the true people of God because it is for her and through her God’s promises are being fulfilled.

The first twenty-five verses of chapter one of the Gospel of Luke describe an angelic visit to a priest named Zechariah. The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and his barren, elderly wife, Elizabeth, will conceive a child. The child will be a great prophet of God who will prepare Israel for the coming of the Lord. They are to name the child John.

Starting in verse 26, the narrative describes another visit by Gabriel, but this time to a young virgin named Mary. Mary is a relative of Elizabeth, although we are unsure how they are related. Mary is engaged to be married to Joseph, who is a descendant of King David. They both live in a small town of less than two thousand people named Nazareth. Nazareth is located in the region of Galilee, which is part of the kingdom of Herod the Great (see map below). Herod is ruling greater Palestine under the authority of the Roman emperor Augustus.

maps of palestine

Jewish tradition prescribes two stages of marriage: engagement followed by the marriage itself. Robert H. Stein explains in vol. 24, Luke, The New American Commentary:

Engagement involved a formal agreement initiated by a father seeking a wife for his son. The next most important person involved was the father of the bride. A son’s opinion would be sought more often in the process than a daughter’s. Upon payment of a purchase price to the bride’s father (for he lost a daughter and helper whereas the son’s family gained one) and a written agreement and/or oath by the son, the couple was engaged. Although during this stage the couple in some instances cohabited, this was the exception. An engagement was legally binding, and any sexual contact by the daughter with another person was considered adultery. The engagement could not be broken save through divorce (Matt 1:19), and the parties during this period were considered husband and wife (Matt 1:19–20, 24). At this time Mary likely was no more than fifteen years old, probably closer to thirteen, which was the normal age for betrothal.

Gabriel visits Mary and tells her that God has chosen her for a very special role. She will conceive a son and she will call him Jesus. This son will be like no other child that was ever or will ever be born. Gabriel explains to Mary that Jesus “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Jesus will be the Son of God Himself, the promised Messiah, the promised descendant of David who will reign forever. Jesus will fulfill the prophecies found in 2 Sam 7:12–13, 16; Pss 89:4, 29; 132:12; Isa 9:7; and Dan 7:13–14.

Notice the contrasts between the birth announcement of John the Baptist and of Jesus. Stein writes:

John was ‘great in the sight of the Lord’ (1:15), but Jesus is ‘great’ (1:32), and his greatness is unqualified. Whereas John is later described as ‘a prophet of the Most High’ (1:76), Jesus is the ‘Son of the Most High’ (1:32). Whereas John’s birth was miraculous and had OT parallels, Jesus’ birth was even more miraculous. John’s conception, like that of Isaac, Samson, and Samuel, was miraculous; but Jesus’ conception was absolutely unique. It was not just quantitatively greater; it was qualitatively different. Whereas John’s task was to prepare for the Coming One (1:17, 76–79), Jesus is the Coming One who will reign forever (1:33); and whereas John was filled with the Spirit while still in the womb (1:15), Jesus’ very conception would be due to the Spirit’s miraculous activity in a virgin (1:35–37).

Mary asks Gabriel how she can become pregnant if she is still a virgin. Gabriel answers that the Holy Spirit will “overshadow” her and cause her to conceive. Gabriel does not explain how the Holy Spirit will cause her to conceive a child, but the clear implication is that the child will not have a human biological father. Jesus would be set apart for the service of God, thus he would be the “holy Son of God.”

Gabriel then tells Mary that her elderly relative Elizabeth is already miraculously six months pregnant. For God, nothing is impossible! Recall that this language is similar to what God told Abraham when Sarah laughed about conceiving a child in her old age (Gen 18:14). Mary, unlike Sarah, simply accepted the message from God and said “let it be to me according to your word.”

The remainder of chapter one records the birth of John the Baptist, the great prophet who would one day prepare the way for Jesus.

Chapter two, verses 1-21, present the famous Lukan birth narrative with which every Christian is familiar.

The Roman emperor Augustus Caesar frequently commissioned tax censuses to be taken in the various provinces of the Roman Empire. Evidently there is a census taking place around 4-6 BC. Joseph and Mary travel from their home in Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem, a distance of about ninety miles. Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and we have already learned that Joseph is a descendant of David. It seems quite plausible that the reason Joseph travels to Bethlehem for the tax census is because he owns property there. Mary and Joseph may have been born in Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth later in life. With a tax census underway, they would need to return to their property so that it could be counted in the census.

After they had arrived in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to Jesus. She wraps him in swaddling clothes and lays him in an animal feeding trough (manger) because there is no room in the inn. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth have been distorted over the millennia, so let’s take a closer look at what happened.

It is highly unlikely, given the importance of hospitality in first century Jewish culture, that Mary and Joseph would be unable to find a place to stay while they were in Bethlehem. It is much more probable that they were staying with family or friends. A typical house at this time consisted of a single story with two rooms, one being a guest room. Take a look at the floorplan below, taken from David A. Croteau’s Urban Legends of the New Testament.

floorplan

According to Croteau, the Greek word translated as “inn” in verse 7 is better translated as “guest room.” So verse 7 should read “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guest room.”

The guest room in the house they were staying must have been occupied by other guests. Therefore Mary and Joseph were sleeping in the family room along with the household owners. Now why in the world are there animal troughs in the house?

It was very common at this time for domesticated animals to be kept in the house with the owners. Croteau explains the typical arrangement:

A first-century house in Israel would have a large family room where the family would eat, cook, sleep, and do general living. At the end of the room there would be some steps down to a lower level, going down only a couple of feet. That lower level would be the ‘animal room’ of the house. There was no wall separating the rooms, just one room with two parts: the family room and the animal room. They would construct it so it slanted slightly toward the animal area for easy cleaning because the exterior door would be in the animal area. On the raised surface in the family room would be a feeding trough for the larger animals carved out of the floor. The larger animals in the animal area, like a cow or a donkey, could walk over and eat out of this trough. The smaller animals, like sheep, would have a smaller manger that would be carved out of the floor in the animal room, or the family might have a wooden trough that could be brought inside.

Given these conditions, Croteau argues that the manger Jesus was laid in was most likely the large feeding trough in the family room.

Verses 8-20 record the famous story of the angelic visitation to the shepherds. The shepherds are tending sheep at night, in an area not too far from Bethlehem. Some scholars speculate that these shepherds are caring for the lambs that will be sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem, but we can’t be sure. Since shepherds only tended sheep at night during warmer months, it is likely that this took place between the months of March and November.

The angel announces that he has good news for the nation of Israel (that is what Luke means when he says “all the people” in verse 10). The good news is that the promised Messiah is born in Bethlehem (city of David), just as the prophecies predicted. Recall that the events of the book of Ruth (she is an ancestor of David) took place in Bethlehem, and that David grew up in Bethlehem.  Michael J. Wilkins writes,

The announcement of good news (euangelizomai) is a common verb for Luke and has its roots in Isaiah’s announcement of end-time salvation (Isa. 52:7; 61:1). There is also an interesting parallel in an inscription found at Priene celebrating the birth of Augustus. The inscription calls him a ‘savior’ and says that ‘the birth date of our God has signaled the beginning of good news for the world.’ Both of these backgrounds could have had significance for Luke, who has just referred to Caesar Augustus (2:1) and for whom Isaiah’s portrait of salvation plays a leading role (2:32; 3:4–6; 4:18–19). Though Augustus is acclaimed by many as the world’s god and savior, Jesus is the true deliverer.

The shepherds are to go to nearby Bethlehem and search the houses until they find a newborn baby laying in a feeding trough. Given that Bethlehem is relatively small, the shepherds wouldn’t need long to find the baby. When they find this baby, they will know that the angelic visitor has spoken the truth.

The angel is then joined by a multitude of other angels who praise God for the birth of the child. Once the angelic chorus ends, the shepherds immediately hurry to Bethlehem to find the baby. They do indeed find Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, and they proceed to spread the word about this miraculous child, the promised Messiah.

Why did God choose shepherds to be the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ birth? Many important biblical characters were shepherds, including Abraham, Moses, and David. In addition, God is often compared to a shepherd (e.g., Ps 23:1, Gen 49:24, Ps 80:1). It seems only fitting that shepherds would be the first witnesses to the birth of Jesus. Shepherds were also in a lower economic class, so God was demonstrating that the good news was for the poor and humble, not only for the rich.

Commentary on Matthew 1 (Genealogy of Jesus)

The traditional view of the Gospel of Matthew is that it was written by Matthew-Levi, the tax collector and disciple of Jesus, between AD 50-60. Although some scholars believe the Gospel of Matthew was the first Gospel written, a majority believe that it was written after the Gospel of Mark and borrowed heavily from that Gospel.

Michael J. Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, explains the purposes of Matthew in writing his Gospel:

It is a book that establishes Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the heir to the promises of Israel’s throne through King David and to the promises of blessing to all the nations through the patriarch Abraham. Against the backdrop of a world increasingly hostile to Christianity, Matthew solidifies his church’s identity as God’s true people, who transcend ethnic, economic, and religious barriers to find oneness in their adherence to Jesus Messiah. His gospel becomes a manual on discipleship, as Jew and Gentile become disciples of Jesus who learn to obey all he commanded his original disciples.

The Gospel of Matthew chooses a different approach to introducing Jesus. Matthew’s strategy is to demonstrate that Jesus Christ is the rightful heir to Abraham and David. He accomplishes this by providing a genealogy that traces the legal lineage from Abraham to Joseph, Jesus’s legal (but not biological) father. Matthew divides the genealogy into three sections of fourteen generations: Abraham to David, David to Jechoniah, and finally Jechoniah to Jesus.

Scholars have noted that Matthew leaves out several names in the genealogy, effectively creating gaps. Why would Matthew do this? Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary, explains that the key to the groups of 14 have to do with King David, who is the central figure in the genealogy.

When one adds up the numerical values of the Hebrew consonants in his name (DVD), one arrives at the number fourteen (4+6+4). This gematria, as ancient Hebrew numerical equivalents to words are termed, probably accounts for the centrality of the number fourteen in Matthew’s genealogy. Each of the three sections contains fourteen generations (v. 17), and David’s name itself is the fourteenth entry. The actual number of generations in the three parts to the genealogy are thirteen, fourteen, and thirteen, respectively; but ancient counting often alternated between inclusive and exclusive reckoning. Such variation was thus well within standard literary convention of the day.

How did Matthew construct his genealogy? Blomberg tells us the origins of Matthew’s data:

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah figure prominently in Gen 12–50. The other male names in vv. 2–6a correspond to 1 Chr 2:3–15. Solomon through Josiah (vv. 6b–11) all appear in 1 Chr 3:10–14 (recalling that Azariah is the same individual as Uzziah—cf., e.g., 2 Kgs 15:1–2 with 2 Chr 26:3—and that there are omissions in Matthew’s list). In vv. 12–16 Jeconiah is a variant form of Jehoiachin, who with Shealtiel and Zerubbabel appear in 1 Chr 3:17–19. But there Zerubbabel is a nephew of Shealtiel, which may suggest that the latter died childless and that the line of succession passed to his brother’s family. In Ezra 3:2, Zerubbabel is legally considered a son of Shealtiel. The rest of the names from Abiud to Jacob are unparalleled, but ancient Jews tried scrupulously to preserve their genealogies; so it is not implausible that Matthew had access to sources that have since been lost.

Another interesting aspect of the genealogy is that Matthew mentions five women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary), which is unusual in a Jewish genealogy. Why does he do this? With regard to the first four women, Blomberg writes:

Suggestions have included viewing them as examples of sinners Jesus came to save, representative Gentiles to whom the Christian mission would be extended, or women who had illicit marriages and/or illegitimate children. The only factor that clearly applies to all four is that suspicions of illegitimacy surrounded their sexual activity and childbearing. This suspicion of illegitimacy fits perfectly with that which surrounded Mary, which Matthew immediately takes pains to refute (vv. 18–25).

Matthew later explains that Jesus was born of Mary, but that Joseph was not involved in the conception of Jesus. He is his legal father, but not biological father. Blomberg explains that “in fact, the grammar of v. 16 makes clear that Joseph was not the human father of Jesus because the pronoun ‘whom’ is feminine and therefore can refer only to Mary as a human parent of the Christ child.”

Blomberg further explains why Matthew would have been so concerned with including these women in the genealogy when he wrote his Gospel 20-30 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Within the Gospels, Jewish polemic hinted (John 8:48) and in the early centuries of the Christian era explicitly charged that Jesus was an illegitimate child. Matthew here strenuously denies the charge, but he also points out that key members of the messianic genealogy were haunted by similar suspicions (justified in at least the two cases of Tamar and Bathsheba and probably unjustified in the case of Ruth). Such suspicions, nevertheless, did not impugn the spiritual character of the individuals involved. In fact, Jesus comes to save precisely such people. Already here in the genealogy, Jesus is presented as the one who will ignore human labels of legitimacy and illegitimacy to offer his gospel of salvation to all, including the most despised and outcast of society. A question for the church to ask itself in any age is how well it is visibly representing this commitment to reach out to the oppressed and marginalized of society with the good news of salvation in Christ. At the same time, Matthew inherently honors the five women of his genealogy simply by his inclusion of them. So it is not enough merely to minister to the oppressed; we must find ways of exalting them and affirming their immense value in God’s eyes.

Does John 1:1 Say that Jesus is Merely a God, Not the God?

Jehovah’s Witnesses are famous for mistranslating John 1:1. They argue that the verse identifies Jesus as a god rather than as God Himself. Andreas Kostenberger, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), explains why their translation is incorrect.

Interestingly, around 1950 there was a change in how Jehovah’s Witnesses dealt with this verse. Before 1950, they carried a copy of the American Standard Version of the Bible. However, the problem they faced was that the ASV rendered verse 1 accurately with the phrase ‘the Word was God.’ In an effort to resolve the difficulty this rendering posed for its theology, the Watchtower Society (the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publishing group) issued its own translation of the Bible, which rendered the verse as ‘the Word was a god’ (Reed 1986, 71). However, there are several reasons why this translation is inaccurate.

First, John, as a monotheistic Jew, would not have referred to another person as ‘a god.’ The Jews had no place for demigods in their belief system.

Second, if John had placed a definite article before theos, he would have abandoned the distinction between the two persons he established in the previous clause (‘the Word was with God’).

Third, the view defended by Jehovah’s Witnesses misunderstands Greek syntax. It is common in Greek for a predicate noun to be specific without having an article. For example, later in this chapter reference is made to Nathanael’s confession of Jesus, ‘you are the King of Israel’ (1: 49), with no article being before ‘King’ in the Greek (for other NT examples of this construction, see 8: 39; 17: 17; Rom 14: 17; Gal 4: 25; Rev 1: 20). From these examples, it is clear that the lack of an article in Greek does not necessarily imply indefiniteness (‘a’ god).

Finally, John could have used the word theios if he were simply trying to say that Jesus was ‘divine’ (i.e., that he had God-like qualities) rather than being God himself. The anarthrous (article-less) theos is most likely used to explain that Jesus ‘shared the essence of the Father though they differed in person’ (Wallace 1996, 269). As D. A. Carson explains, ‘In fact, if John had included the article, he would have been saying something quite untrue. He would have been so identifying the Word with God that no divine being could exist apart from the Word. In that case, it would be nonsense to say (in the words of the second clause of this verse) that the Word was with God.’