Category Archives: Bible Interpretation

Is Jesus Claiming to Be Eternally Preexistent in John 8:58?

Not according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that Jesus is not God, but the archangel Michael. Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes frame the issue well in their book When Cultists Ask: A Popular Handbook on Cultic Misinterpretations.

In John 8:58 (nasb) we read, ‘Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.”’ By contrast, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation reads, ‘Jesus said to them: “Most truly I say to you, Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.”’ This indicates that Jesus was preexistent but not eternally preexistent (certainly not as the great I Am of the Old Testament).

Has the Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) correctly translated verse 58? Have Christians been misunderstanding this verse for two thousand years? Geisler and Rhodes explain:

Greek scholars agree that the Watchtower Society has no justification for translating ego eimi in John 8:58 as ‘“I have been’ (a translation that masks its connection to Exodus 3:14 where God reveals his name to be I Am). The Watchtower Society once attempted to classify the Greek word eimi as a perfect indefinite tense to justify this translation—but Greek scholars have responded by pointing out that there is no such thing as a perfect indefinite tense in the Greek.

The words ego eimi occur many times in John’s Gospel. Interestingly, the New World Translation elsewhere translates ego eimi correctly (as in John 4:26; 6:35, 48, 51; 8:12, 24, 28; 10:7, 11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5; and 18:5, 6, 8). Only in John 8:58 does the mistranslation occur. The Watchtower Society is motivated to translate this verse differently in order to avoid it appearing that Jesus is the great I Am of the Old Testament. Consistency and scholarly integrity calls for John 8:58 to be translated the same way as all the other occurrences of ego eimi—that is, as ‘I am.’

Finally, as noted above, I Am is the name God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14–15. The name conveys the idea of eternal self-existence. Yahweh never came into being at a point in time, for he has always existed. To know Yahweh is to know the eternal one. It is therefore understandable that when Jesus made the claim to be I Am, the Jews immediately picked up stones with the intention of killing Jesus, for they recognized he was implicitly identifying himself as Yahweh.

Commentary on John 8 (Jesus Declares Himself Equal to God)

Jesus has returned to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths). While he is there, he is teaching in the temple complex. A large group of Pharisees are questioning him about his identity. Some appear to even accept what he has to say about himself.

Starting in verse 31, however, he speaks directly to the Pharisees who have believed what Jesus has said about himself so far. A true disciple of Jesus will obey his every word and follow him for the long-term. In fact, it is only through following Jesus that a person can be set free from spiritual slavery.

The Pharisees answer that they don’t need to be freed from slavery because they are descendants of Abraham, and thus already children of God. Gerald Borchert explains, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary,

In contrast to the Zealots, the Pharisees did not regard political liberty as the test of freedom. Being sons of God, a holy people, God’s possession, according to Deut 14:1–2, was for them the test of being free. So being circumcised, according to the rabbinic view, was the guarantee of escaping the bonds of Gehenna just as the people of Israel earlier escaped the bondage of Egypt (Exod. Rab. 19:81; 15:11). Or as the famed Rabbi Akiba reportedly stated concerning the Israelites, even the poor could be proud that they were ‘sons of kings’ because they were sons of the patriarchs (b. Šabb. 128).

Jesus corrects their understanding by pointing out that they are not children of God, but instead slaves to sin. In order for anyone to become a true child of God, they must be first freed from their slavery to sin. Only God’s Son, Jesus, has the power and authority to free them. Gerald Borchert adds:

He judged that they were slaves because they were sinners. Their confidence in their sense of internal liberty had been misplaced because being Jews and not Gentiles was no guarantee that they could avoid condemnation by God for their sinfulness. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which had just passed, should have reminded them that they too were sinners. In the presence of God both Jews and Gentiles stood condemned for sin (cf. Rom 3:23). Being sinful slaves before God, therefore, they were in need of a redeemer—one who could set them free. The Son who was personally sent by the Father was indeed capable of supplying them with such genuine freedom (John 8:36) because he was the Lamb who removed the sin of the world (1:29).

Knowing that some of the Pharisees are seeking to kill him, Jesus observes that his words to them are obviously not sinking in. In fact, the Pharisees are simply following the lead of their true spiritual father.

In verse 39 the Pharisees continue to argue with Jesus. They repeat that their true father is Abraham. Jesus responds that Abraham listened to God’s word and obeyed Him. The Pharisees are, instead, trying to kill a man whom God has sent, which again proves that their true father is not Abraham at all.

The Pharisees become incensed at Jesus’ accusation that they are not children of Abraham, and thus not children of God. Jesus explains that he knows this because God sent Jesus to the Jews, and they should therefore love Jesus because God sent him. Since the Pharisees don’t love Jesus, they cannot be children of God. Instead their true spiritual father is the devil!

Referring back to Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden, Jesus reminds his audience that Satan is a liar and a murderer. There is no truth in Satan. The reason the Pharisees are not accepting Jesus’ claims is because Jesus is speaking God’s truth. Those who have Satan as their spiritual father are incapable of hearing God’s truth and accepting it.

Jesus challenges their stubborn rejection of his words by asking a rhetorical question: “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, explains Jesus’ purpose in asking this question:

If the best theological minds, however much they may dislike Jesus’ claims and dispute his teachings, find it impossible to marshall convincing reasons that would convict him of sin in (the heavenly) court, should they not begin to question themselves? Perhaps he is telling the truth, truth that is identified both with what Jesus says (v. 43) and with what God says (v. 47; cf. de la Potterie, 1. 61–64).

At this point in the dialogue, the Pharisees begin personal attacks. They accuse Jesus of belonging to the hated Samaritans and of being demon-possessed! Jesus denies being demon-possessed and reminds them that they dishonor God by dishonoring him.

In verse 51, Jesus proclaims, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” The Pharisees, thinking Jesus is referring to physical death, mock him by reminding him that Abraham died, not to mention all the other great prophets. Just who does he think he is? Does he think he’s greater than Abraham?

Jesus answers, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” The Pharisees again ridicule Jesus by pointing out the obvious fact that Jesus could not have seen Abraham, who had lived roughly two thousand years before, given that Jesus was not even fifty years old.

Jesus responds with a shocking statement: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” Upon hearing him, the crowd picks up stones to kill him, but Jesus slips away before they could stone him to death.

Why did the Jews want to kill him? Quite simply, Jesus was claiming to be equal to God. Gerald Borchert writes that Jesus’ pronouncement

was a reminder of the claims for God in the Old Testament over against creation (cf. Ps 90:2; Isa 42:3–9) and of the self-designation for the comforting God of Isaiah (41:4; 43:3, 13). The claim of Jesus, therefore, was clearly recognized from the Jews’ perspective to be a blasphemous statement they could not tolerate. Accordingly, they again made their judgment call, and their verdict implied death by stoning (John 8:59; cf. Lev 24:11–16; 1 Kgs 21:10–13).

Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, also notes:

’I am’ was a title for God (Ex 3:14), which suggests that Jesus is claiming more than that he merely existed before Abraham. This title of God may have been fresh on the minds of Jesus’ hearers at the feast: during the Feast of Tabernacles, the priests were said to utter God’s words in Isaiah: ‘I am the Lord, I am he’ (Is 43:10, 13).

Commentary on Matthew 16-17 (The Transfiguration)

At this point in Jesus’ ministry, he has demonstrated to his disciples repeatedly who he is. Most recently, he fed a crowd of 5,000 men with 5 loaves of bread and then walked on the Sea of Galilee. In chapter sixteen, Jesus asks his disciples if they understand who he is. Peter correctly answers that Jesus is the Messiah who fulfills all the OT prophecies.

Starting in verse 21, however, Jesus reveals to his disciples, for the first time, where his ministry is ultimately leading. He will go to Jerusalem, be tortured and killed, and then be raised from the dead three days later. Verse 21 effectively introduces the rest of Matthew’s Gospel, because all of the following text will focus on the road to the cross.

Peter, the very disciple who just correctly identified Jesus, then takes Jesus aside and rebukes him! Peter tells Jesus that Jesus must be wrong about his suffering and dying at the instigation of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. In Peter’s mind, the Messiah should not suffer at all, but immediately start his glorious reign. Jesus responds to Peter by telling him that Peter is playing the role of the devil, for the devil does not want Jesus to accomplish his mission. Satan had already tempted Jesus in chapter four by offering him power over the entire earth. He could skip the suffering and death of the cross; all Jesus would have to do would be to worship Satan.

In a similar way, Peter is trying to convince Jesus to inaugurate his messianic kingdom, but without going to the cross. Peter’s desire for Jesus is directly counter to God’s plan. Peter has become a stumbling block to God’s plan.

In verses 24-26, Jesus teaches the disciples that following him (doing the will of God) will entail suffering and perhaps even death (this is the meaning of “taking up your cross”). And, in fact, according to church tradition, all of Jesus’ closest disciples would die as martyrs, except for John. The reward for suffering and possibly dying for Jesus is eternal life. Without gaining eternal life, this earthly life is pointless. The wealthiest person has gained nothing if she hasn’t dedicated her life to Jesus.

But why should followers of Jesus accept suffering in this life? Because Jesus is going to return to earth and judge everyone for the choices they made during their lives. Those who chose to faithfully follow Jesus will be rewarded according to their deeds. Those who chose to reject Jesus will be judged according to their deeds. Therefore, the person who suffers greatly for Jesus on earth will be more than compensated when the Messiah begins his future reign.

Many Christians are surprised that all people will judged for their deeds at the inauguration of the messianic kingdom, but this idea is clearly taught throughout Scripture (see Ps 62:12; Prov 24:12; Rom 2:6; 2 Cor 11:15; Rev 22:12). When Jesus speaks of himself as being the judge of all mankind, he is likely alluding to Daniel 7:13-14 and applying all of the OT passages on divine judgment to himself.

Jesus then reassures his disciples that some of them will receive amazing confirmation of his Messiahship before they die. That confirmation would come one week later for Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ inner circle. Jesus takes them up to the top of a mountain and before their very eyes he is transformed. “[H]is face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Recall how Moses’ face shone with glory after his encounter with God in Exodus 34. Not only that, but Moses and Elijah are standing there speaking to him!

What does the presence of Moses and Elijah signify? Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary writes:

they were key representatives of the law and prophets [or, the entire Old Testament], they lived through the two major periods of Old Testament miracles, they were key messianic forerunners whose return was often expected with the advent of the Messiah, and they were often believed never to have died but to have gone directly to God’s presence (2 Kgs 2:1–12 makes this clear with reference to Elijah; in the case of Moses the belief is based more on intertestamental literature like the Assumption of Moses).

Michael Wilkins, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), further elaborates on the presence of Moses and Elijah:

They represent the Law and the Prophets witnessing to Jesus as the Messiah who fulfills the OT (cf. 5: 17) and who has the eschatological role of initiating the kingdom of God (4: 17). Moses was considered the model prophet (Deut 18: 18) and Elijah the forerunner of Messiah (Mal 4: 5– 6; cf. Matt 3: 1– 3; 11: 7– 10). Both had visions of the glory of God on a mountain— Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 24: 15) and Elijah on Mount Horeb (1 Kgs 19: 8).

Peter’s first reaction is to figure out a way to get Moses and Elijah to stay, so he offers to build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But Peter is cut off when a bright cloud overshadows them and a voice booms out, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” God the Father repeats the same words He spoke when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, but He adds “Listen to him” to emphasize to Peter, James, and John that they are not to question his road to the cross. It is the road Jesus must take.

Blomberg reminds us how the cloud is connected to the God of the Old Testament:

The cloud reminds us of the one that overshadowed Moses on Sinai, leading to his dazzling splendor when he descended from the mountain (Exod 34:29–35, on which cf. also Paul’s remarks in 2 Cor 3:7–18), the cloud that enveloped the tabernacle when God’s glory filled it (Exod 40:34), and the cloud that followed the Israelites by day throughout their wilderness wanderings (Exod 40:36–38).

After the disciples fall on their faces in terror from hearing the voice of God, Jesus tells them to rise and not be afraid. When they arise, Elijah and Moses are gone. Jesus is standing there alone. Blomberg adds, “The disciples must focus on Christ alone. He will prove sufficient for their needs.”

#2 Post of 2016 – Is the Story of Jonah Fictional?

Some Bible scholars believe that the Book of Jonah is a fictional tale written purely for teaching purposes by its original author. They argue that the original author never meant for the story to be taken as real history. While it may be impossible to know just based on the contents of the book itself, there is one important person who seems to have considered the events in Jonah to be historical: Jesus Christ.

Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page write, in Amos, Obadiah, Jonah: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary):

Finally, there is the witness of Jesus Christ, which apparently was the basis for the early church’s linking the historicity of Jonah’s experience with that of Jesus, especially his resurrection. Although it would be conceivable that Jesus might have been merely illustrating in Matt 12:40 when he associated his prophesied resurrection with Jonah’s experience in the fish, it is much more difficult to deny that Jesus was assuming the historicity of the conversion of the Ninevites when he continued in v. 41 (cf. Luke 11:32).

‘The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.’

This is confirmed in the following verse (cf. Luke 11:33) when Jesus parallels the ‘men of Nineveh’ with the ‘Queen of the South,’ whose visit to Jerusalem is recounted in 1 Kings.

‘The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.’

Clearly Jesus did not see Jonah as a parable or an allegory. As J. W. McGarvey stated long ago, ‘It is really a question as to whether Jesus is to be received as a competent witness respecting historical and literary matters of the ages which preceded His own.’

Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, in When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, add:

[T]he most devastating argument against the denial of the historical accuracy of Jonah is found in Matthew 12:40. In this passage Jesus predicts His own burial and resurrection, and provides the doubting scribes and Pharisees the sign that they demanded. The sign is the experience of Jonah. Jesus says, ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ If the tale of Jonah’s experience in the belly of the great fish was only fiction, then this provided no prophetic support for Jesus’ claim. The point of making reference to Jonah is that if they did not believe the story of Jonah being in the belly of the fish, then they would not believe the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. As far as Jesus was concerned, the historical fact of His own death, burial, and resurrection was on the same historical ground as Jonah in the belly of the fish. To reject one was to cast doubt on the other (cf. John 3:12). Likewise, if they believed one, they should believe the other. . . .

Jesus went on to mention the significant historical detail. His own death, burial, and resurrection was the supreme sign that verified His claims. When Jonah preached to the unbelieving Gentiles, they repented. But, here was Jesus in the presence of His own people, the very people of God, and yet they refused to believe. Therefore, the men of Nineveh would stand up in judgment against them, ‘because they [the men of Nineveh] repented at the preaching of Jonah’ (Matt. 12:41). If the events of the Book of Jonah were merely parable or fiction, and not literal history, then the men of Nineveh did not really repent, and any judgment upon the unrepentant Pharisees would be unjust and unfair. Because of the testimony of Jesus, we can be sure that Jonah records literal history.

#3 Post of 2016 – Does Ecclesiastes Teach That There Is No Afterlife?

Several passages in the book of Ecclesiastes seem to indicate that the inspired author does not believe that there is an afterlife. The Jehovah’s Witnesses regularly quote from Ecclesiastes to prove that there is no afterlife immediately following death. They teach that a person’s soul ceases to exist upon death, and that God will recreate that person later on when all the dead are resurrected. But does Ecclesiastes really teach that there is no immediate afterlife?

Although there are several passages that mention death and the afterlife in the book, the key passages normally cited are verses 19-21 in chapter 3.

Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?

If we look at the first 3 sentences, it seems clear that Solomon, the traditional author of Ecclesiastes, is speaking about the physical body of a human being. It is true that human bodies die and decompose, just like other animals.

The final sentence, though, does not explicitly state that the human spirit also dies, but it asks the question of where the spirit goes after death. In effect, Solomon is saying, “Some people believe that a person’s spirit goes to heaven, but nobody really knows for sure.” Solomon, in effect, is saying that he just doesn’t know much about what happens after a person dies, so he is advising his readers to live their lives on earth in light of that fact. He is teaching that death is a real enemy to human beings.

The question then arises: Why doesn’t Solomon know about the afterlife? To answer this question, we need to introduce the concept of progressive revelation. Progressive revelation refers to the fact that God, in the Scriptures, progressively reveals more and more of Himself over time. God’s ultimate revelation of Himself was in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus’s disciples completed the revelation of God when they wrote the books of the New Testament (NT).

Solomon lived more than 900 years before Jesus, so he wasn’t alive for the writing of the NT, nor the writing of much of the Old Testament (OT). The concept of an afterlife was taught more fully after Solomon lived.

There are glimpses of the afterlife in OT passages such as Ps 16:9-11; 49:15; 73:23-26; Is 26:19; Dan 12:2, and so forth. But the doctrine was not really brought to full light until the NT, where there are numerous passages (e.g., Rev 6:9-10; Phil 1:23; 2 Cor 5:6-8).

Another point to consider is that Solomon may have been specifically refuting the afterlife teachings of surrounding nations, such as Egypt. Duane Garrett, in the Apologetics Study Bible, explains:

What the author was questioning, however, may have been the materialistic notions of afterlife that predominated in ancient Egypt, where people thought that after death a powerful man could continue to enjoy his possessions, his women, and the services of his slaves. In short, this theology did not take seriously the finality of physical death (the great pyramids of the pharaohs were expressions of this view).

If we look at the Bible in its totality, what is its teaching on death and the afterlife? Duane Garrett answers in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (New American Commentary):

In biblical Christianity, however, death is consistently described as a curse and an enemy (1 Cor 15:26, 54–55; Rev 20:14). The resurrection of Christ, moreover, has conquered death and has opened the way for the resurrection. The whole person, body and soul, enters immortality. This immortality, however, is dependent on the power of God and the resurrection.

Ecclesiastes does not deny afterlife but does force the reader to take death seriously. In this the book echoes the psalmist’s prayer that he be taught to number his days (Ps 90:10–12). It is not the biblical believer who denies the power of death but the unbeliever.

Since humans are truly mortal, two conclusions follow. First, neither possessions nor accomplishments are eternal, and we should properly use and enjoy them while we still see the light of day. Second, because we are by nature dependent and contingent, our hope of eternal life must be founded in God and not ourselves (Eccl 12:7, 13–14). For the Christian this means that immortality is in the risen Christ (1 Cor 15:12–19).

The bottom line is that Ecclesiastes is not meant to be the final biblical word on the afterlife. Solomon simply did not know what would happen after a person died because God had not revealed that information to him. Given his ignorance on the topic, he nevertheless taught us how live to our lives on earth: Fear God and keep His commandments.

#6 Post of 2016 – Commentary on 1 Kings 11 (Death of Solomon)

Under Solomon, Israel reached its historical pinnacle with regards to geography, peace with her neighbors, and material wealth for the king and his administration. Solomon also established a large military, trade with nearby nations, and an impressive bureaucracy to administer the kingdom of Israel.

For many years, Solomon more or less obeyed the Torah, as his father David did. But as time passed, Solomon accumulated hundreds of wives who would become his downfall. This is where chapter 11 of 1 Kings picks up the narrative.

In verses 1-3, we learn that Solomon has married hundreds of foreign women, most of them for the purpose of making treaties with other nations. It was common practice for kings of this era to marry princesses from other nations to stabilize political relations. However, Solomon was not the king of a typical nation. Paul R. House, in 1, 2 Kings: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary), describes Solomon’s errors:

First, he has disobeyed Moses’ law for marriage, which constitutes a breach of the agreement Solomon makes with God in 1 Kgs 3:1–14; 6:11–13; and 9:1–9. Moses says in Deut 7:3–4 and Exod 34:15–16 that Israelites must not intermarry with noncovenant nations. Why? Because God says ‘they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods’ (Deut 7:4). Judgment will then result. Second, Solomon has broken Moses’ commands for kings (cf. Deut 17:14–20). Moses explicitly says, ‘He must not take many wives or his heart will be led astray’ (Deut 17:17).

In verses 4-8, the author of Kings reports that Moses’s dire predictions all come true with Solomon. Solomon not only tolerates his wives’ gods, he builds worship centers for them. Thus the Lord punishes Solomon in verses 9-13.

Because of Solomon’s sins against God, Solomon’s son would lose part of the kingdom. God tells Solomon,

I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates. Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son. Yet I will not tear the whole kingdom from him, but will give him one tribe for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen.

Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, would rule over the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, but another king would rule over the other 10 tribes of Israel. Who would this other ruler be? The answer lies in verses 26-40.

One of Solomon’s own administrators, Jeroboam, is met on the road out of Jerusalem by the prophet Ahijah. Ahijah tells Jeroboam that God is going to make him king over the 10 tribes of Israel, excluding Judah and Benjamin. The reason he is taking this part of the kingdom away from Solomon’s son (and David’s grandson), Rehoboam, is because Solomon has worshipped other gods and has not followed the Law (or Torah) as his father David did. God promises Jeroboam that if he obeys the Torah, as David did, God will bless him with a dynasty. Solomon learns of this promise to Jeroboam and he tries to kill him, but Jeroboam escapes to Egypt until Solomon dies.

Chapter 11 ends with the death of King Solomon. He ruled 40 years and his son, Rehoboam, succeeded him. What can we learn from chapter 11 about God? Paul R. House writes,

Theologically, the passage reemphasizes God’s faithfulness. This time the author depicts the Lord as the God who keeps promises even when the person who is the object of the promise fails to be righteous. For David’s sake, and for the sake of Solomon, the Lord refuses to obliterate the nation. Despite this mercy, however, Israel must still face the consequences of idolatry. God does judge.

House also emphasizes what the chapter says about leaders who sin:

Further, the text stresses how a leader’s sin can impact others. Although it is doubtful that Solomon can be held responsible for introducing idolatry into Israel (cf. the Book of Judges), his religious open-door policy serves to legitimize the practice in a way that no commoner’s similar actions could. Just as one holy person, such as Abraham or Moses, can bless a whole people, so one significant idolater can create spiritual cancer in a people. Had Solomon continued to seek God’s favor rather than wealth and power, he could have helped Israel continue to enjoy prosperity. Instead, he illustrates the principle that sin always affects others.

A final point to be made is that God still expects obedience even in a multicultural, pluralistic society. Solomon could not use the excuse that he needed to bend the rules of the Torah to survive in the ancient near east. Likewise, we can’t expect God to bend the rules for us today when His principles become unpopular. He simply will not do that.

#9 Post of 2016 – Commentary on 2 Kings 18-19 (Hezekiah and Sennacherib)

Chapter 18 introduces King Hezekiah of Judah, one of the godliest rulers of Judah since Solomon. As is the case with many kings of the time, he reigned with both his father and son in addition to reigning by himself. He reigned as coregent with his father Ahaz for 14 years (729–715 BC). He reigned alone for 18 years (715–697) and then as coregent with his son Manasseh for 11 years (697–686).

What is remarkable about Hezekiah is that, in direct contrast to King Hoshea of Israel, “he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done.” Only three other kings of Judah are given the same commendation: Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Josiah. We know that Hezekiah destroyed pagan worship centers, removed idols, and even broke into pieces the bronze snake that Moses had fashioned back during the exodus, for it had become an object of worship.

From the book of 2 Chronicles, we also learn that Hezekiah cleansed and re-consecrated the temple, and then reintroduced the sacred feasts and festivals that Judah had failed to observe. Hezekiah was so confident in the Lord that he rebelled against the Assyrians and successfully mounted attacks against the Philistines. As the idolatrous nation of Israel was being ransacked by the Assyrians, Judah was experiencing a revival under Hezekiah’s leadership.

Peace with Assyria would only last 14 years for Hezekiah, however. In 701 BC, the Assyrian King Sennacherib sweeps into Judah and overruns all of the fortified cities of Judah except for Jerusalem itself. (Note that the following section of 2 Kings 18:13-19:37 is also recorded in the Book of Isaiah [chaps. 36–37] with only minor changes.) What caused Sennacherib to launch this invasion?

Thomas L. Constable writes, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Old Testament), that

Sennacherib was a less capable ruler than his father. During Sennacherib’s first four years on the throne he was occupied with controlling Babylon. During this time an alliance had formed in which cities of Phoenicia and Philistia as well as Egypt (under Shaboka) and Judah (under Hezekiah) joined together to resist Assyria. Certain that Sennacherib would try to put down this uprising, as Sargon had done, Hezekiah prepared for an Assyrian invasion by fortifying Jerusalem (cf. 2 Chron. 32:1–8).

Sure enough, once Sennacherib had dealt with the Babylonians, he turned his attention to the rebellion in the south. After rolling through most of Judah’s territory, he sets up a temporary headquarters in the Judean city of Lachish.

Hezekiah panics and pays off Sennacherib by emptying his royal treasury and even removing the gold plating on the doors of the temple. However, this ransom does not succeed. Sennacherib sends an army along with three of his highest ranking officers to send a message to Hezekiah. The message to Hezekiah is received by three of his ministers and is summarized as:

  1. Hezekiah was foolish to align with Egypt against Assyria, since Egypt is weak.
  2. The God of Judah was obviously upset with Hezekiah because Hezekiah had removed the high places in Judah against God’s wishes. God had thus commanded Assyria to conquer Judah. Paul R. House, in 8, 1, 2 Kings, The New American Commentary, adds, “This sort of propaganda about other countries’ deities abandoning their adherents was a standard Assyrian ploy when they invaded and conquered another nation. Cogan notes that the Assyrians routinely told their enemies that their gods were angry with them, that the gods had abandoned them, and that these gods counseled them to surrender to the Assyrians. It is not unusual, then, for the spokesman to try such tactics on Judahites. What the speaker has not grasped, however, is that he addresses monotheists committed to separatist Yahwism, not the typical polytheists he is used to manipulating.”
  3. The people of Jerusalem will suffer greatly from the siege and Hezekiah cannot protect them.
  4. If they will surrender, they will be moved peacefully to a distant land where they will be able to live their lives and prosper. (This is an interesting way to sell deportation.)
  5. None of the other gods of the nations Assyria has conquered have been able to withstand the king of Assyria (who serves the Assyrian god Assur). Why would they think Judah will be the first?

In chapter 19, verses 1-7, Hezekiah sends his ministers to the prophet Isaiah to get his counsel. Isaiah assures the ministers that God will send Sennacherib away and that he will eventually be killed by the sword in his own land.

In verses 8-13, Sennacherib sends a letter to Hezekiah warning him not to be deceived by his god into believing that Jerusalem will be protected from the Assyrian army. He then lists 9 other nations that have fallen to the Assyrians and repeats that none of those gods protected those nations.

Hezekiah receives the letter, goes to the temple, and prays to God. Hezekiah appeals to God’s honor and the fact that Sennacherib has mocked Him. Hezekiah understands that Yahweh is the only real God in existence, but Hezekiah asks God to prove this fact to the rest of world by saving Jerusalem.

The prophet Isaiah announces to Hezekiah that God has heard his prayer and that He will indeed save Jerusalem. In verses 21-28, God speaks to Sennacherib and the nation of Assyria directly. God reprimands Sennacherib for thinking that he can conquer Jerusalem and for dishonoring the Holy One of Israel. Even though Sennacherib believes that all of his military successes are due to his own power and prowess, God corrects him and states that He is the One who has orchestrated everything that has occurred from the beginning. Because of Sennacherib’s arrogance, God will ensure that Assyria is treated just like she has treated her enemies.

God then speaks to the people of Jerusalem and tells them that they will survive the devastation brought by Assyria. Thomas Constable explains the meaning of verses 29-31:

For two years the people of Jerusalem would be able to eat the produce of their land. It would not be stolen by the Assyrians who would have lived off the land if they had returned to besiege the capital. The Judeans had not been able to plant crops outside the city walls because of the Assyrians’ presence. But God promised that He would feed them for two years by causing the seed that had been sown naturally to grow up into an adequate crop. The third year people could return to their normal cycle of sowing and reaping.

This provision of multiplied food was further designed to illustrate God’s plan to multiply miraculously the people of Judah who had been reduced to small numbers. Sennacherib claimed to have taken 200,150 prisoners from Judah. However, though Judah seemingly might cease to be a nation through attrition, God promised to revive it. Like the crops, a remnant of people would take root … and bear fruit, that is, be established and prosperous. God’s zeal on behalf of His people would perform this (cf. Isa. 9:7).

Finally, in verses 32-34, God reveals the immediate fate of Jerusalem:

Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.

That night, the angel of the Lord strikes down the entire Assyrian army camped outside Jerusalem. Sennacherib returns to his capital, Nineveh, without defeating Hezekiah and Jerusalem. Some 20 years later, Sennacherib is murdered by his two oldest sons in the temple of the Assyrian god, Nisroch. They were attempting a coup because Sennacherib had chosen their younger brother to succeed him as king of Assyria. Everything God said would occur did occur.

#10 Post of 2016 – Are Christians Not to Judge?

Numerous people have read Matthew 7:1 out of context and come to the conclusion that Christians aren’t supposed to judge anybody’s behavior. David Croteau, in Urban Legends of the New Testament, writes an entire chapter to explain why this conclusion is incorrect. First, Croteau fleshes out the faulty position:

All forms of judging are commanded to cease. Don’t judge other people, believers or unbelievers, based on what you see them doing, on their lifestyle, on how they dress, or on what music they listen to. Jesus is calling us to a higher standard, to put aside our differences and live in unity with one another. Judging others disrupts unity; it divides the church. The world is looking at us wondering if we’ll ever be united, if we’ll ever demonstrate love for one another. The more we judge one another, the weaker our witness will be.

Croteau then explains, in detail, what Matthew 7:1 does not mean.

The Greek word translated ‘judge’ by virtually every Bible translation has a range of meanings. It can refer to making a selection (‘prefer’), passing judgment based on the correctness of something (‘discern’), or judging someone to be guilty (‘condemn’).  The prohibition in Matthew 7: 1 is against condemning other people. Jesus is commanding them not to be severely critical and judgmental. The Sermon on the Mount calls on Christians to judge others in the sense of being discerning.

Jesus’ illustration immediately following this prohibition is primarily intended to communicate the hypocritical penchant humans have for criticizing others while tolerating the same (or worse) behavior in themselves (Matt 7: 3– 5). Jesus concludes that illustration by saying that after the log is removed from your own eye, then you will be able to see clearly enough to help your friend by removing the speck from his eye. This means that you will have to see the speck, the ‘minor shortcoming,’ in order to remove it. This involves judging (in the sense of discernment) on some level.

In Matthew 7: 6, Jesus prohibits his followers from giving ‘what is holy to dogs’ or from tossing ‘your pearls before pigs.’ Obedience to Jesus’ words requires discerning the identity of the ‘dogs’ and of the ‘pigs.’

Finally, how are Jesus’ followers expected to watch out for ‘false prophets’ (Matt 7: 15) if they are prohibited from discerning who is false? From the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel, one passage in particular sticks out as relevant: Matthew 18: 15– 20. Jesus commands his followers to rebuke fellow followers when they sin. The process outlined in these verses involves much judging, again, in the sense of discernment. John Stott aptly concludes that ‘the command to judge not is not a requirement to be blind.’

In the context of the entire New Testament, a prohibition against discernment appears to fail as well. Jesus’ own teaching in John 7: 24 appears to contradict Matthew 7: 1 on the surface: ‘Stop judging according to outward appearances; rather judge according to righteous judgment.’ Here is an explicit command from Jesus to ‘judge,’ using the same word as in Matthew 7: 1. In the context Jesus is discussing how the Jews (or possibly the Jewish leaders) were passing judgment on Jesus (referring to discernment) regarding his actions on the Sabbath (see John 7: 23). So he commands them to cease discerning based on ‘mere appearances’ (NIV), a phrase that refers to a ‘superficial’ discernment. Instead of discerning superficially, they are commanded to discern based on a ‘righteous judgment.’ Jesus is explaining that a right or correct judgment of himself will lead them to conclude that he is actually fulfilling the laws of circumcision and Sabbath (cf. John 7: 22– 23).

Croteau goes on to provide other examples in the New Testament where Christians are commanded to judge. He concludes:

A strong case can be made that the overall teaching in the New Testament is for Christians to be discerning in areas including others’ sin and false teaching. Christians should diligently discern in at least both of these areas.

If Christians are to judge, then what is Jesus teaching in Matthew 7?

In contrast to interpreting Matthew 7: 1 as a prohibition against discernment, it is a prohibition against an overly judgmental attitude. Jesus’ disciples are to be committed to a righteous life, but he does not authorize them to have a judgmental attitude. The reason Jesus prohibits this is spelled out in the second half of 7: 1: ‘so that you won’t be judged.’ While this phrase could mean that by being censorious you invite others to be overly critical of yourself, it most likely means that when you are overly critical of others, God will judge you with those same standards. Being quick to condemn others is inviting the condemnation of God on your life.

People are incapable of knowing with any certainty another person’s heart, nor can we know their motives. Stott concludes: ‘To be censorious is to presume arrogantly to anticipate the day of judgment, to usurp the prerogative of the divine Judge, in fact to try to play God.’  Rather than requiring blindness, Matthew 7: 1 is ‘a plea to be generous.’  Augustine summarizes Jesus’ teaching this way: ‘We are taught nothing else, but that in the case of those actions respecting which it is doubtful with what intention they are done, we are to put the better construction on them.’ This is what some call giving ‘the charitable assumption.’

For further thoughts on Matthew 7, see the post entitled “Should Christians Judge?”

Commentary on Mark 6 (Jesus Feeds 5,000 and Walks on Water)

After Jesus has sent out his disciples to preach to the towns of Galilee (probably around the second year of his public ministry), they return to him and give him reports of what they accomplished. Jesus, seeing they need rest, takes them to a desolate place so that they can be alone.

Mark notes that this is a busy time, for “many were coming and going.” In the parallel account in the Gospel of John, we read that the Passover Festival was near, so this would explain why there were huge crowds of people “coming and going” during this time.

As Jesus and the disciples travel by boat on the Sea of Galilee to a remote place, a crowd of people spot them and follow along on land. Evidently, their boat was close to land and could easily be seen from the shore of the lake.

In verse 34, when their boat goes ashore, Jesus sees the great crowd that has followed them and he has compassion on them, first by teaching them and then by feeding them. James A. Brooks writes, in vol. 23, Mark, The New American Commentary,

’Sheep without a shepherd’ is an Old Testament picture of Israel without spiritual leadership (Num 27:17; 1 Kgs 22:17; Ezek 34:5). Jesus is pictured as the Good Shepherd who feeds the new Israel (cf. Ezek 34:23; Jer 23:4). First he ‘fed’ the crowd with his teaching. Mark frequently emphasized that Jesus taught.

The miracle that follows is recounted in all four Gospels, so the early church obviously considered the feeding of the five thousand to be an extremely important event in Jesus’ ministry. The only other miracle attested by all four Gospels is the resurrection of Jesus.

Because it was late in the evening and they are in a desolate region, the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowds away to buy food for themselves. Jesus responds by telling the disciples to feed the crowd. They complain that it would take 200 denarii to feed a crowd this size (between 15-25,000 people total).

One denarius was equivalent to an average worker’s daily wage. The average daily wage of an American today is about $210, so that would equate to about $42,000! Most of us don’t have $42,000 sitting around to feed a crowd of people who have come to hear us speak for free, so the disciples are understandably panicked.

Unperturbed, Jesus asks them to see how many loaves of bread they can find among the crowd, and they return with five loaves and two fish. Jesus instructs the crowd to divide themselves into groups of fifties and hundreds and sit down on the “green grass.” Note that the grass would have only been green in the spring around the time of Passover, so this little detail nicely harmonizes with the Gospel of John’s timing of this miracle.

Jesus then says a blessing over the food and sends the disciples into the crowd with bread and fish. When they return, everyone in the crowd has been fed and there are twelve baskets left over with bread and fish.

This miracle account refers in several ways to the Old Testament, as noted by James Brooks:

As already observed in the comments on 1:4, in the Old Testament the desert was the place where God met, tested, and blessed his people. Specially important was the experience of Israel in the wilderness following the Exodus. After the testing involved in that experience, ‘rest’ was promised. Note how Mark introduced that idea (v. 31). Also the ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (v. 34) recalls Moses’ description of Israel in Num 27:17; and the ‘hundreds and fifties’ of v. 40, the organization of Israel in Exod 18:21, not to mention the resemblance between the loaves and the manna. The literal rest in the desert and later in the promised land following the Exodus did not satisfy, and the prophets and psalmists began to look forward to a better rest in the messianic age. . . . Mark saw in Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand an eschatological Moses giving perfect rest to and supplying all the needs of his people. The feeding anticipates the messianic banquet at the end of the age. The kingdom is at hand. The miracle as such is not as important for Mark as what it reveals about Jesus. . . .

The prophet Elisha performed a similar miracle according to 2 Kgs 4:42–44. In fact, Mark’s wording owes something to this account and possibly 1 Kgs 17:9–16. Mark may also have seen in the event Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.

Immediately following the miracle of the feeding of five thousand, Jesus sends the disciples back into their boat to travel across the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee to meet him in a town called Bethsaida. Jesus goes by himself up on a mountain to pray alone.

Between 3 and 6 am, Jesus sees the disciples rowing their boat against the wind (they have gone way off course and are stuck out in the middle of the lake.) Jesus decides to go to them by walking on the lake. As he approaches the boat, they see him and think he is a ghost.

Jesus tells them, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” John D. Grassmick, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, remarks:

The words It is I (lit., ‘I am,’ egō eimi) may simply convey self-identification (‘It is I, Jesus’), but they are probably intended here to echo the Old Testament formula of God’s self-revelation: ‘I am who I am’ (cf. Ex. 3:14; Isa. 41:4; 43:10; 51:12; 52:6).

Jesus climbs into the boat and the winds calm down. Mark records that the disciples are amazed because they did not understand who Jesus really was, even after seeing Jesus feed five thousand people.

The miracle of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and John. Only Luke does not record it.

 

Commentary on Mark 6 (Death of John the Baptist)

The traditional view of the Gospel of Mark is that it was written by John Mark, a follower of the apostle Peter, during his missionary travels, between AD 50-70. Most biblical scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel written, and that Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from it when writing their accounts. Early church fathers wrote that Mark collected his stories about Jesus’ life from Peter.

Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), explains the purposes of Mark in writing his Gospel:

Mark’s opening verse makes the Gospel’s purpose clear: ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Mark 1: 1). Mark very carefully chose his language, deliberately echoing the language of the imperial ruler cult, as seen in an inscription in honor of Caesar Augustus: ‘the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning for the world of the good news.’ Mark challenges this imperial myth, asserting that the good news for the world began with Jesus Christ, the true Son of God (see Mark 15: 39, where the Roman centurion admits upon seeing the impressive death of Jesus: ‘This man really was God’s Son!’).

From this extraordinary claim at the beginning of his narrative, to the sudden and dramatic discovery of the empty tomb, Mark takes pains to show that Jesus is truly God’s Son, despite rejection by the religious authorities of his time and his execution at the hands of the Roman governor. The Julian emperors, whose latest and most unfortunate manifestation at the time of the publication of Mark is the demented Nero, can provide no compelling candidates for recognition as the Son of God, whose life and death are truly of benefit to humankind. To the Roman world Mark proffers Jesus and his message of the kingdom of God and by doing so encourages the faithful to remain steadfast, and enjoins the critics and opponents of the Christian faith to reconsider.

As Jesus’ ministry continues, his forerunner, the man who baptized him in the Jordan River, is executed. Mark tells the story of John the Baptist’s execution in chapter six, starting in verse 14.

In verses 14-16, Mark tells his readers that King Herod hears about Jesus and becomes concerned that he is John the Baptist raised from the dead. Herod assumes that a raised John the Baptist would have supernatural powers and be able to perform the kinds of miracles being attributed to Jesus.

There are other rumors about Jesus, however. Some say he is the second coming of Elijah (as prophesied in Malachi 4:5) and others say he is a new prophet sent by God to the Israelite nation. Herod, though, is convinced Jesus is the John the Baptist, back from the dead.

Before we continue, who exactly is Herod? The Herod of Mark 6 is more precisely named Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great (the Herod whom the magi visited when Jesus was born) and tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (4 BC – AD 39). When Antipas’ father, Herod the Great, died in 4 BC, his kingdom was split into three parts by the Roman emperor. Antipas was given the portion of the kingdom that encompassed the regions of Galilee and Perea (see map below from Nelson’s 3-D Bible Mapbook).

map

Antipas married Aretas, the daughter of king of the Nabateans (region in yellow above). But while visiting Rome, Antipas became infatuated with the wife of his half-brother; her name was Herodias. He promptly divorced Aretas and married Herodias (who divorced her husband as well).

Stealing his half-brother’s wife was truly scandalous and the Jews in his kingdom were horrified. John the Baptist loudly criticized the marriage as an offense against God, citing passages such as Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21.

Antipas arrests John the Baptist and places him in prison at the fortress of Machaerus (in the southern portion of Perea). According to Mark, Antipas does this because of pressure from his wife, Herodias. She despises John and wants him executed, but Antipas is hesitant to do so because he sees John as a holy man.

That would change when Antipas throws a birthday party for himself at one of his fortresses, possibly Machaerus. During the festivities, Antipas invites his teenage step-daughter to dance for a room full of drunken men. The young girl is named Salome, and she is the daughter of Herodias and her former husband.

Antipas is so pleased with her performance that he rashly offers her whatever she wants, up to half his kingdom. Only the Romans could divide his kingdom, so he is making a drunken promise that he can’t even keep.

Salome goes to ask her mother what she should request, and Herodias tells her to ask for John the Baptist’s head. At this point, Antipas will be publicly embarrassed in front of the Galilean nobility and military commanders if he refuses her request, so he gives the order and John the Baptist is executed.

David Garland comments, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary):

The account reeks of gross impiety. Birthdays were pagan celebrations. Drunken revelry, a princess dancing at a stag party (she must leave to consult her mother), and execution without a trial all smack of rank paganism. The grisly detail of John’s head brought to them on a platter caps off a banquet already polluted by excess.

The Jewish historian, Josephus, confirms that John the Baptist was executed by Antipas at Machaerus. Josephus, however, stresses that John was killed for political reasons. Antipas saw John as a growing threat to his rule. Craig Evans writes:

Josephus confirms that Herod imprisoned and executed John the Baptist, but his details differ as to why exactly John was killed (Antiquities 18.116– 119). At most points the two accounts can be reconciled, and where they cannot be reconciled there is no good reason to give Josephus preference. Although Josephus chooses to emphasize the political dangers that John posed to Herod, and Mark chose to emphasize the moral dimension, the two accounts are in essential agreement. Herod’s disgraceful dismissal of his wife, the daughter of the king of the Nabateans, and his unlawful marriage to Herodias his sister-in-law prompted John’s condemnation. John’s condemnation focused on the immoral and unlawful aspects (which Mark mentions), while Herod’s fears focused on the political dangers (which Josephus narrates). Later, Josephus himself mentions the inappropriateness of Herod’s divorce and remarriage (Antiquities 18.136).

After John is executed, his disciples retrieve his body and give him a proper burial, a preview of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Jesus. John the Baptist is the forerunner of Jesus both in life and death.